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Finding the Way Home

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“I know you’ve heard the stories,
But they all sound too good to be true.
You’ve heard about a place called home,
But there doesn’t seem to be one for you,
So one more night you cry yourself to sleep
And drift off to a distant dream. . .

Where love takes you in
And everything changes,
A miracle starts with a beat of a heart.
When loves takes you home
And says you belong here,
The loneliness ends and a new life begins
When love takes you in. . .” 
From “When Love Takes You In” by Steven Curtis Chapman.

* * *

After she and her friends reached Los Angeles and celebrated with Angel and his group, she found that she didn’t feel quite right.
 
She wasn’t sure when she realized that she felt that way.

Maybe it was when Angel embraced her with joy upon her arrival and gave her a personal tour of Wolfram and Hart. 

Or it could have been when Giles stood up, insistent that as one of two remaining Watchers if they counted Wesley, he needed to recount the story of what happened.
 
Maybe it was when, after a day of their scheduled, enthusiastic shopping spree, Xander burst into tears over his triple chocolate mocha and wept like a baby over the loss of his beloved Anya.
 
Perhaps it was when Willow came to her for a quiet chat about the events of the battle... what happened when she went beyond the darkness and revealed the joy and ecstasy of her consequent release from the murky swamp of insecurity.
 
And maybe the feeling came when she was standing in the bathroom, brushing her curling, wet hair with the cheap plastic brush she bought in the hotel gift shop. Through the fog of shower steam, she had had one of those elusive moments of self-awareness. Despite her revelations about who she was, where she was on the journey, and her plans for the future, she found that she still couldn’t bring herself to tell her friends exactly what happened to the one who sacrificed himself for them all. She had set aside the brush and smiled at the irony that even now, she remained who she was.
 
No matter when the feeling came to life, she was certain of a discomfort in the depths of her being, and when she woke in the middle of the night in the hotel room she was sharing with Dawn, Giles, and Xander, she went to the balcony, stared up into the moonless sky, and just *knew*.
 
With fresh surety, she sat at the cramped desk and scribbled out a brief note on the pad of hotel stationery that said she was going somewhere, that she needed to do something, and that she would be back in a few days at the most. She wanted to reassure them that she wasn’t running away from them.
 
She also took Giles’s credit card and left an “I.O.U.” in his wallet.
 
* * *
 
The rental car only drove so far to the edge of what once was Sunnydale. She persisted though and was able to go a little further by driving off the highway before she grew wary of reaching the edge and falling over. Jerking on the parking brake, she exited the vehicle with the urgency of one who had somewhere to go. . . someplace to be.
 
Despite her show of confidence, the hollow in the pit of her stomach told her that she really didn’t have anywhere to *be*.
 
The sky was still dark and cloudless, and only the stars lit her path. As she picked her way across the rubble mosaic that formed the border of the giant crater that she would inevitably face, she wondered about what lay in the pit beyond.
 
She wasn’t sure if she was ready to face the scraps of people’s lives that were utterly destroyed in an instant. . .ripped to ribbons.
 
She didn’t know if she wanted to attempt comprehension of the thousands of memories scattered like broken souls in the wind.
 
Eventually, the city would be long forgotten. . . valued only as a would-be phenomenon to stop, stare, and marvel at. People would ask their loved ones, “What could have happened here to form such a huge hole in the Earth’s surface?”
 
But she. . . she would never forget what happened. . . even if she had to tape the shreds together.
 
The memory still thrummed with vibrant intensity, creating a long, deep wound in her mind that would turn to scar tissue but never completely disappear. She’d borne such injuries in the past. . . injuries that damaged her very essence. However, this time, she didn’t want the memory to wound her soul.
 
Beyond a shadow of doubt, she knew he wouldn’t want that to happen.
 
She walked. . . pushing aside the random but familiar surprise of her muscles contracting and releasing that comes with surviving something so dramatic.
 
A wind blew.
 
Tugging her jacket around her mid-section, she peered through the invisible push and found the edge of the pit.
 
The drop-off was steep. . . more abrupt than anything she could ever climb down without ropes and anchors. . . even if she was a Slayer.
 
“Where’s Riley when you need him?” she grumbled to herself, thinking that perhaps her ex-boyfriend would have some sort of tools or even technology to get her places.
 
But then, Riley would never be out here. . . not based on a feeling of unease. He would have needed a goal to pursue, and he would have had to assemble a team. . . or at the very least, brought his wife, which was *so* not something she needed to deal with right now.
 
She kept traveling.
 
Every perfect shape had a flaw if a person looked hard enough, and she wasn’t taken aback when she found a tiny, less sheer path she could descend without falling several hundred feet.
 
Trusting her instincts, she avoided the pitfalls of loose dirt, sharp glass and metal that dotted the sediments. She almost lost her balance once when she stumbled over a chunk of broken roofing that she didn’t see, but she caught herself by bracing against the wall of the crater beside her. A cascade of dirt and other bits and pieces flew past her, coating her in a light cloak of dust. . . Sunnydale’s flesh.
 
She kept traveling.
 
A few wispy clouds formed in the sky above, partially covering her only light source. When stray raindrops began to fall, officially staining her light-colored clothing, she paused.
 
Eyes wide at the sky above, she shivered.
 
What was she doing here when she could be safely tucked away in a warm bed next to Dawn?
 
Rain droplets expanded in size as she watched, drenching her in individual water balloons. As a strong gust of wind and water washed over her, her eyes widened further.
 
Something whispered on the edge of her mind. . . in a voice that she would have recognized no matter how garbled by outside forces.
 
Was it. . .?
 
It was a memory. . . nothing more. . .
 
She bit her lip and remembered what he’d said to her the last night. She’d curled up against him and felt his arm strong around her waist. His voice had been soft as a song in her ear before she drifted to dreams, “I believe that we’ll be all right.”
 
And she had believed.
 
The precipitation let up, and frowning slightly, she shook off the hopeful chill that had momentarily filled her soul.
 
Even though she doubted her senses, she felt the urge to keep going. . . to continue her climb downward.
 
She took fifteen steps more and lost her equilibrium again.
 
And this time, she didn’t regain it.
 
As if on cue, the rain gushed in buckets.
 
Heart leaping in her throat, she seamlessly pulled herself into a roll to reduce any injuries she might incur. Simultaneously, she reached out for anything to stop her motion. She felt lost in the force of gravity, in the pounding rain, without the chance to analyze what was happening. . . like she’d been lost in the chaos of the final battle, in which she’d only relied on her instincts.
 
When she was starting to believe that the falling would never end and that she would certainly drown, her body contacted something hard. . . large. . . and warm. . . something very real and very alive.
 
Rain cascading over her, she remained unmoving until the dizziness that enshrouded her began to evaporate.
 
As the lightheadedness dissipated, she began to match the rain with her own inner storm. Sobs wracked her small frame so hard that she almost couldn’t take in further oxygen. All she felt was a primitive emotion she could only tentatively name loss. Her mind could not wrap itself around the feeling enough to overcome or make full sense of it, and she rode the waves as she had never done until she was gasping for breath and her ribs ached so much she thought they might burst.
 
Hiccups took over briefly.
 
Then, she quieted.
 
She focused on her heart beating and her chest rising and falling.
 
Her mind returned to itself and drew attention to the body before her.
 
The first coherent thought she had was that someone had not evacuated Sunnydale and that he or she had somehow survived and ended up on this. . . apparent ledge. Was this what she was to return for. . . to search for survivors?
 
Harnessing her inner strength, she raised herself slightly and opened her eyes, blinking away the steady raindrops.
 
She ignored the mud that caked her clothes, hair, and body, and she disregarded the loss of one of her shoes.
 
Between the darkness and the water, the body before her was indistinguishable to her vision. So, she reached forth with shaking hands and blindly *felt*.
 
The body’s muscles were compact and firm.
 
*Male.*
 
With the discovery that she’d found a member of the opposite sex, her thoughts tripped unwittingly over a montage of memories of *him*. Nothing was specific. . . remembrance of his touch, the way he smelled, the way he sometimes talked. . . or cried out. . . in his sleep.
 
Further exploration led her to discover that the male was completely naked. . . except for something around his neck. She fingered the heavy chain, and her fingers fumbled rapidly over each link until she found what lay heavily at the end.
 
Her heart nearly stopped in her chest, and a small cry escaped her lips.
 
At that moment, she noticed that the rain had ceased, and she brushed the remaining precipitation and mud from her eyes. In the low starlight that persisted in peeking through the clouds, she was greeted by something she wasn’t sure was real.
 
Impulsively, she rolled the man onto his back, knelt beside him, and ran adroit fingertips over his forehead and cheeks, astonished at the heat radiating from his skin into her hands. She found his chest and pressed her hands lightly down, so they could rise and fall each time he inhaled deeply. Behind the movement of his lungs and ribcage, a faint beat thrust itself forth, telling her that he was alive. . . very much alive!
 
Tears rose anew in her eyes, but they were happy tears. She had to make sure her senses were telling her the truth.
 
Impulsively she closed her eyes and brought her face parallel to his, hovering over his mouth and nose. For the first time, they shared air heated by both their bodies. She was enthralled by the simplicity and significance of this.
 
Slowly, she lowered her head until her lips were on his. Her skin tingled with his presence.
 
But she didn’t kiss him.
 
She merely mouthed the words he’d said to her when they woke up for the last time together, “Looks like we made it another day.”
 
His body jerked beneath her, and their eyes flew open concurrently as he woke.
 
His initial expression was one of confusion and disbelief. He opened his mouth once to speak, but no sound emitted. She just watched him. Then, sadness rooted itself in his eyes.
 
His hand reached up and cupped her face. His next words were barely audible, but she heard them anyway, and she perceived the defeat. “You didn’t make it out in time.”
 
She couldn’t find a response, so she just shook her head with glittering eyes and a smile that said she was holding back.
 
“You did?” He was uncertain.
 
Mutely, she nodded.
 
“Then. . . you didn’t make it afterwards,” he stated without emotional intonation. “And you ended up here with me in this. . .” He paused to glance around at the desolate surroundings. . . or what he could see of them. “. . . hell.”
 
She shook her head again.
 
“And somehow, they took out your tongue when they put us in this godforsaken place,” he added with a trace of his old spunk. “Well, hey. . . at least we have each other. . . . Or in your case, maybe that’s not so good.”
 
When she didn’t respond but continued to stare, he asked, “What happened? Do you know? I mean. . . I think I remember some of the end but. . . .”
 
She’d been a little afraid to speak aloud in case she might wake from a dream, but now she summoned the courage. “You don’t know what you are?”
 
“What I am?” He was attempting to process too many things at once, and nothing was very clear.
 
Taking his hand in hers, she placed his palm flat over his heart. His face registered the heartbeat and breathing immediately, and he sat up abruptly, forcing her backwards. She held onto his knees to keep from falling.
 
Now, it was his turn to be speechless, and he stared down at himself as if expecting somehow that he would have a completely different appearance.
 
Her smile broadened into a grin. “Yep. You’re *alive*.” Her eyes widened. “And you’re *naked*.” She scrambled to peel off her saturated jacket.
 
Wrapping the tiny coat around his waist, he wondered aloud, “I’m *alive*? But why?”
 
She threw her arms around his middle, embracing him tightly, and his arms held her with equal strength. “I honestly don’t know, but I’m sure Giles will figure it out. . . o-or one of everyone else who does prophesy research.”
 
“Then, . . .” His fingers ran through her wet, dirty hair, and she felt like she was the most beautiful woman in the world.
 
“All the core Scoobie group made it. . . all but Anya.” She swallowed back tears of regret.
 
His tone matched hers. “Anya?”
 
“She died saving Andrew.”
 
He said nothing. Then, “And Faith? And Wood?”
 
She smiled. “All fine. Alive and kicking in L.A. They should make a T-shirt with that on it.”
 
He chuckled, and she relished the sound rumbling against her ear. “Or ‘I survived apocalypse number fifty-two.’” His good humor faded. “And Dawn?” He was ashamed that he hadn’t asked about her first.
 
“She’s fine! She bought a new wardrobe this weekend. . . or at least, the beginning of one.”
 
“Because you lost everything.” He laid his cheek on the crown of her head.
 
“Yeah.”
 
He took her by the shoulders and held her back. “So, we’re not in a hell dimension? We’re not dead?” he asked as if the truth was slow to register.
 
“Nope.” She pointed over the edge into the giant crater that still extended several hundred feet below them. “*That* is Sunnydale. The hellmouth: officially *closed* for business.”
 
“Wow.” He panned the pit. “I did all of this?”
 
She picked up the medallion that was resting on his moving chest. “Yeah. You and this thing.”
 
Their foreheads were almost touching.
 
He smiled almost shyly. “I’m a champion?”
 
“Yes.” She studied his face as he gazed at the jewel in her hand. He didn’t seem to believe what he had done, so she repeated her confirmation, “Yes, you are.”
 
The sky was becoming a faint navy blue. Dawn was approaching. Clouds were struggling to re-configure themselves into a more organized formation before the sun’s arrival.
 
She unexpectedly felt extremely uncomfortable in the dirt and realized that she didn’t want to get caught in the mud again. Disentangling herself from him, she stood self-consciously, aware that she didn’t exactly look her best. In the past, his face would have been a mirror of hurt at her departure from his arms, but now, his eyes were merely filled with an uncertainty.
 
“We should get out of here before it starts raining too hard again. It could make the ascent even more slippery.” She glanced at his half-naked form. “And we aren’t exactly dressed for hiking.”
 
He surveyed the path from which she had come and nodded. “I agree.”
 
She helped him up, and they began climbing with an amicable silence between them.
 
Sprinkles of liquid were starting to hit them when he asked from behind her, “How did you know where to find me?”
 
She didn’t look back. “I don’t know.”
 
Not letting the topic go, he asked, “I mean, you went to L.A., right?”
 
“Right.”
 
“And. . . you came back,” he continued.
 
She sighed because she wasn’t really sure of what to tell him. “I just had a *feeling*.”
 
“A feeling?”
 
She reminded herself that just because he was alive didn’t mean that he wasn’t the same annoyingly persistent person. She elected to like that about him. . . for the moment. She reached back for his hand and squeezed gently when he laced his fingers with hers. She cast him a fleeting glance and said, “I didn’t feel right inside. And something told me to come back here.”
 
“Oh.”

The rain began to come harder as they climbed. Dry mud and grime slipped off of them as if they were shedding a second skin. With each step, she felt a little cleaner.
 
At last, they reached the top, and when they did, the precipitation lightened to a drizzle.
 
“Where’d you park? You did drive, right?” he asked a bit breathlessly from the exertion of climbing. He touched the area above his heart. “And. . . and my heart is pounding.”
 
She smiled at his wonder.
 
“I forgot what that felt like.” Then, his eyes caught the image of the giant crater behind him. “Whoa,” he breathed as if he hadn’t just seen it down below

She rubbed his arm with her free hand. “Yeah. Pretty big, huh?”
 
Astonished at the vastness of the view, he said the first thing that came to his mind, “Goodbye, Sunnydale.” Part of him was filled with sorrow at the loss of the tiny city that had been his home for so long, and the other half of him was oddly relieved to be moving on.
 
“Understatement of the year,” she remarked wryly.
 
She broke his thrall when she tugged on his arm. “Come on.”
 
Following her lead, he kept his eyes on the gigantic hole in the ground. “Where’d you park?”
 
She squinted but couldn’t see the rental car despite the continually lightening sky. She hadn’t thought she’d walked such a long distance. “Far, far away.”
 
He didn’t have a response to that, and they journeyed with a comfortable quiet between them.
 
Approximately twenty feet from the vehicle, the sun chose to peek above the horizon.
 
Being used to seeing the sun start its daily march across the sky, she remained unmoved, but he dropped her hand and knelt to the ground.
 
Alarmed, she turned to face him and was relieved to read the wonder painted across his face.
 
She went down beside him with aching legs, trying to put herself in his shoes.
 
“I never thought I’d see this,” he whispered, gaze unwavering.
 
The rays deliberately grew and expanded like golden streamers, granting red-blooded life to the edges of the remaining clouds and warming their skin.
 
He sat back on the dirt, knees jutting up to hold his wrists. Distracted by his change of position, she smiled at him. Slipping her arm through his, she rested her head on his shoulder.
 
“Well, Spike, it looks like we made it another day,” she said in a low voice, repeating her earlier words. Her expression was full of peace and contentment.
 
Smiling, he scooted her closer to him so that she was flush against him as they continued to watch the sunrise. “And, Buffy,” he said her name purposefully, “I think we’ll be all right.”
 
Without a doubt, she knew that she felt right again and that they would find the way home. . . together.
 
The end.

Chapter Text

Chapter One

 

“It was so embarrassin’. I think my face must have turned so red, and h-he didn’t even shut the door before he ran away. I couldn’t find him when I came back out.”

 

Doc Martens propped atop his desk at Wolfram and Hart, Spike laughed, a laugh that wasn’t tinged with sarcasm or sadness. After three years, he still got a kick out of the scientist’s witty stories and keen observations. She reminded him a bit of himself. . . if he were a young girl from Texas who’d spent a good chunk of years in a hell dimension.

 

Her cheeks pink even now, Fred leaned back in the chair across from Spike. “So now, whenever I go to that bar, I have to think about how Wesley opened the door on me while I was peein’. And he’s been avoidin’ me all week.”

 

“What I wouldn’t give to see the look on his face.”

 

“Now, you can’t go usin’ that as an excuse to poke fun at him.” Their romance hadn’t exactly worked out, but that didn’t stop Fred from being protective of the ex-Watcher; they’d only recently started to develop a tentative friendship again. Well, until the bathroom incident.

 

Staring up at the ceiling, Spike tried his best to look like he was legitimately considering the young scientist’s plan. “Maybe I should hold onto it until the next staff meeting. You know, to get the full effect when everyone’s there.” He could already picture Angel’s annoyed face.

 

Fred, who had started braiding her long dark hair, leaned forward. “You better not or I-I’ll. . .”

 

“Or you’ll what, pet?” He arched an eyebrow at her.

 

Fred narrowed her eyes at him. “Or I’ll. . . you know what? That could liven the meeting up a bit. If we have to listen to the history of the Torkagon clan one more time. . .”

 

Spike rolled his eyes in solidarity. “We should stage a walk out. They can’t make us listen to that drivel.”

 

“Really. They need to fire whoever’s in charge of the weekly trainings.”

 

“Agreed. Let’s start a petition.” Not that petitions went anywhere in the corporate quagmire that was Wolfram and Hart. Spike watched Fred pull her boots on over her skinny blue jeans.

 

“What’re we starting a petition about?” Gunn poked his head into Spike’s office.

 

“Abolishin’ the weekly trainings,” Fred explained, hopping to her feet.

 

“Oh god. Yes, please.” Gunn tossed Spike a sheathed sword and handed Fred a crossbow. “Ready for patrol?”

 

Spike was more than ready for Thursday night patrol with Fred and Gunn. Over a year ago, Spike had asked them to join him, and patrol night had become a weekly routine. He enjoyed patrolling the streets of L.A. with Fred and Gunn who also didn’t have extra supernatural physical strength. It gave him a chance to really stretch himself, keep himself physically sharp without having to worry about Angel and Wesley stepping in and saving everyone with vampire strength or magic respectively. On other nights, he preferred the company of Angel for very different reasons, one being that they knew each other’s strategies so well that they could hunt without communicating very much. It was like slipping on an old coat, familiar and somehow comforting - like something that molded to his body and moved with him as he fought.

 

“You know, you don’t have to go to those meetings, Spike. Only people who have to attend are the employees that signed contracts,” Gunn was saying.

 

Spike shook his head. Apparently, he’d been stuck in his head and missed bits of the conversation as they headed down the hallway. “Right. Well, I attend out of solidarity.”

 

“You just like to gripe about it,” Gunn noted, glancing back over his shoulder at the shorter man.

 

Fred hefted her crossbow to test its weight as she walked. “And find reasons to bug Angel.”

 

Spike made a face like he was going to deny their words, but then he admitted, “You’re probably right. Plus, I like to be in the know about what’s going on around here. Gotta stay sharp and up on my game.”

 

Fred dropped back a bit to bump her slender shoulder into his. “You just want to make sure all of us aren’t falling into something we shouldn’t be falling into with this place.” She looked all around them like the empty lobby had its own unseen eyes and/or ears.

 

“I reckon that’s true,” Spike said with friendly affection in his voice.

 

Gunn turned and pushed the exit door open. He patted his pointed wooden bat in one palm. “Let’s go.”

 

Spike was halfway out the door when he heard Angel’s voice calling his name. He turned to view the serious expression on the vampire’s face and knew something important was brewing. The emotion in his eyes told Spike that whatever it was had something to do with Buffy.

 

The heat rose in Spike’s face as his own battened down emotions came surging forward. He glanced back to Fred who gave him a little nod of understanding and let the door swing shut as she and Gunn headed into the night.

 

Spike approached Angel with an uncertainty he hadn’t felt around his grandsire in a long time. The first two years after Sunnydale weren’t easy for Spike, and there had been much grandstanding and sorting out of decades worth of unresolved feelings between the two. They’d gotten into more than one physical tussle with Spike ending up on the short end of the stick due to being human and all again. Angel wasn’t completely to blame; Spike had purposely fired Angel up enough and thrown himself into the fray without a thought to how it might go. There was once or twice in there that Spike had had his own death wish, but he’d quickly rebounded, and - if he was completely honest with himself - Angel had had a lot to do with him finding his way to a certain comfort with being human again.

 

Even though he knew Angel could hear his heart racing, Spike tried to sound calm and casual, “So, what’s going on that she’s coming here?”

 

“You know, the usual thing that we can help with: death, destruction, and imminent danger,” Angel joked, leading Spike to his office.

 

Propping the sword on his shoulder, Spike plunked down in a chair across from Angel as the vampire rounded the end of his desk. “You don’t know, do you?”

 

“Actually no, but Wesley talked with her. He left me some notes somewhere.” Angel’s desk was piled with stacks of unorganized papers.

 

Spike dragged his chair closer, so he could prop his feet up. “You might want to check your email. Ole Wes usually sends an email copy of the notes, too.”

 

“Right.” Angel stopped searching through the stacks with a helpless look on his face. “You’re right.” He pulled his laptop out from under a couple of piles and shoved Spike’s feet off the furniture. Opening the machine, he clicked a few buttons and began reading.

 

Spike ignored Angel’s push and sat forward, reminding himself to breathe and to not sound too eager, “What’s it say?”

 

“Not a whole heck of a lot. Something about vampires and. . .” Angel’s eyes seemed to skim over a bunch of details, “Buffy’s going to be here tomorrow morning.”

 

Spike’s brain couldn’t process this news or his feelings surrounding said news, so he fell back on old habits. “Coming to slum it with her old boyfriends.”

 

Angel sighed. “She’s not coming to ‘slum it,’ Spike. It’s something serious, or she wouldn’t be coming.”

 

“Something serious, huh? You aren’t the least bit annoyed that she’s showing up now. . . when she needs help with something ‘vampire’ related?” Spike stood and waved one very sarcastic jazz hand.

 

Angel of the past would have snapped back at Spike, but instead, he said, “I’m used to it by now. I thought you’d be, too.”

 

Spike wasn’t “used to” anything regarding Buffy, not with so much left unresolved. Sadness washed over him about what they’d had. . . what she’d said before he burned up in the hellmouth. His shoulders slumped and even the sword slid off his shoulder. “Right.”

 

Angel joined Spike and put his arm around his very human shoulders. “Let’s go find Fred and Gunn. We’ll kill some stuff. Make you feel better.”

 

Spike sighed. “Okay.”

 

* * *

 

Killing stuff in good company allayed Spike’s inner turmoil for a little while, but his feelings had come back full force when he was finally alone in his apartment. He’d spent the whole night mulling them over, and while they’d been an incoherent blur, they were now much clearer. With the clarity came sharp pain that he had forgotten he could feel.

 

Three years had passed.

 

Three bloody years had passed without a word from Buffy outside of the occasional postcard, Christmas card, or phone call about Dawn's life landmarks.

 

Why hadn't she been in touch?

 

Soon after they’d returned to L.A. from Sunnydale, she'd fed him some line about baking cookies, and he'd given her his trademark eyebrow lift, which shut her up real fast. She knew that he saw through her and that there was more to her running away than half-cooked dough. Something more than a simple analogy could explain.

 

Hell, he was scared, too. He'd even told her as much.

 

She left him even though she knew he was struggling. . . that he was trying to adjust to being human again.

 

Where had she gone?

 

Buffy had followed Giles around the world, gathering up the new Slayers and setting up training facilities and programs for them. She'd settled in one spot after about a year and tried to provide a stable home life for Dawn.

 

Spike understood all that. But why did she have to stay so separated from him after what they’d shared in Sunnydale?

 

And just when Spike was learning to live without her presence, just when he had created a new makeshift family with Angel and his crew, she returned.

 

She returned as if she'd never left.

 

He'd glimpsed her in Angel's waiting area (since Angel's waiting room was right across from the coffee station where he got coffee every morning).

 

She embraced Angel with an energy he’d seen before in their greetings. Thankfully, this time, she didn't kiss the poof. Spike didn't know if his heart could take it.

 

Wait. His heart could take it because he was long over her. . . with her thick blonde hair and glowing green eyes. He shivered but donned a mask of indifference, straightened his suit jacket, and marched into the waiting room, unflinchingly confronting Angel and Buffy's sign of affection.

 

Buffy's face lit up when she saw him. Angel frowned, and Spike felt his heart leap in his chest, but he pushed his feelings aside, keeping his face neutral.

 

"Spike," she whispered in his ear as she hugged him tightly. When she drew back, she ran her tiny hands over his chest with joy and surprise. "I don't think I've ever seen you wear a suit before." Her voice was a little hoarse as if she'd been laughing a lot. He vaguely wondered with whom she'd been having such a good time.

 

He dropped his eyes from hers. "Yeah, well, you haven't seen me in a while. And I only wear it to work on Friday. . . part of the dress code here. Actually, I don't wear it unless I have someone I have to impress." He paused to keep himself from babbling further and studied her again. "You look. . . happy."

 

Buffy beamed. "I am. I am."

 

"That's wonderful. How's Dawn?" He could still show concern for the Bit without seeming too obvious.

 

"She's good. She started college this year." Buffy seemed proud of her little sister.

 

"So she finally decided that she needed an education?"

 

"Yeah. Your little speech about schools producing mindless automatons didn't help motivate her, by the way. She used that as an excuse for quite a while." She was more amused than annoyed.

 

Buffy was bringing up things Spike had said years ago - things he hardly recalled saying. Did that mean she still thought of him sometimes? He mentally shook himself. "Well, she always did look up to me."

 

"True."

 

A familiar throat clearing filled the air. Buffy turned from Spike, whom she had continued touching, and smiled at the source of the noise.

 

Angel was expertly scowling with crossed arms. So much for being “used to” Buffy’s unplanned returns. "Shall we?" He waved her toward his open office door, implying they should leave Spike behind.

 

Even though Angel and Spike had developed a trusting relationship in many ways, when it came to Buffy, old rivalries died hard.

 

Intent on following Angel, Buffy broke away from Spike, allowing the air conditioner to sweep cold air between them.

 

Swept up in thoughts of Dru and Angelus from days of Sunnydale past, Spike shook off the feeling of déjà vu, swallowed the lump in his throat, and straightened his shoulders. She wanted to be with Angel. She always had. If that's what she wanted, that's what she'd get.

 

But Buffy turned back and grabbed him by the elbow. "Come on, Mr. Stoic. You're involved in this, too."

 

"I am?" He half-smirked at Angel without a lot of enthusiasm. "Good. I think."

 

* * *

 

"Vampire Villa, I've heard of that before, I believe." Wesley placed his fingers to his lips with a contemplative expression on his face.

 

Angel, Buffy, and Spike had been interrupted by the ex-Watcher before they settled down enough to discuss Buffy's reason for being in L.A. As the only remaining person on Angel's team who knew Buffy from the beginning or near the beginning, Wesley gave her a warm hug. Now, he was deep in the discussion. All Spike could think about was the story that Fred told him the previous night, and since it provided a nice distraction from Buffy, he was grateful.

 

"I have," Angel noted. "And so has Spike, but neither of us has ever been there."

 

"It's a vampire city wedged between this dimension and the next," Wesley said thoughtfully. "The Council never was able to uncover it. In fact, they believed it to be a myth, if I remember right."

 

Studiously not glancing at Buffy or Wesley, Spike sat forward on the leather seat, touching the tips of his fingers together. "The city has no sunlight. Blood and death twenty-four seven. A vampire paradise."

 

"Yeah," Buffy acceded, "that's what Giles said, too. But recently, something's come up as a new inter-dimensional hotspot, and he believes that it has to do with this city."

 

"And what does he want us to do about it?" Angel asked.

 

"Well, with all the Slayers in the world, the vampire populace has been thinned quite a bit. Additionally, we think. . . Giles thinks that the city has grown a lot and that there may be some sort of mystical push for it to spill over into our dimension. It needs to be investigated. Willow senses these changes in our dimension, in the Earth, and she said it's pretty urgent."

 

"Hmmm. We could check with the evil bunch here. See if they have anything on the place," Spike suggested.

 

"Good idea." Wesley stood. "That's my area." He didn't appear proud about saying that. "I'll check into it." He nodded to Buffy. "Good to see you."

 

"Very good." Buffy smiled and reached for another brief hug.

 

Wesley exited, shutting the door with a soft click.

 

"Thanks," Angel said belatedly after Wesley, who probably didn't hear. "So, Buffy, what exactly does Giles want us to do about it?"

 

Buffy wandered to the open window. Sunlight poured over the furniture, spilling onto Angel. "I still can't get over this. . . seeing you in the sunlight."

 

Angel returned her affectionate look, and Spike wanted to roll his eyes but somehow managed to refrain. He could stand in the sunshine anywhere, anytime he wanted. And hell, she’d been there at his first sunrise in over a hundred years. This thought made him feel vulnerable all over again, so he deliberately tried to conjure an image of Wesley walking in on Fred in the bathroom.

 

"Yeah. Even Fred hasn't been able to duplicate it," Angel mentioned.

 

"Too bad," Buffy sounded a bit sad, and Spike thought that perhaps she was pondering what might have been with Angel.

 

"So," Spike interjected, disrupting the reverie, "why do you need us?"

 

"We're going into Vampire Villa. The three of us to stop them from overtaking the world," Buffy replied simply. “At least, I think that’s the idea. We really don’t know what their motives are.”

 

"What?!" Angel exclaimed.

 

Spike used Angel's flurry to remain calm. "Now how would that work, love?"

 

Angel glared at his use of endearments with Buffy, but Buffy merely smiled. Damn her.

 

"Well, there's a prophecy," Buffy explained. "And it sa. . ."

 

"There's always a prophecy, and prophecies aren't always right," Angel interrupted, thinking of multiple instances where they'd proved greatly inaccurate.

 

Spike snorted in agreement.

 

Buffy kept speaking as if the two hadn't made a sound. "And the prophecy says that the Slayer who is a vampire and her two companions will stop the vampires from overtaking the world."

 

"I hate to say it, but there're two problems with that," Spike said. "One, you’re not a vampire and never have been. Two, don't we already stop the vampires? And aren't there tons of Slayers now, helping to do just that?"

 

"Well, technically, . . ." Buffy started.

 

“The time when that boy's nightmare made other nightmares come to life doesn’t count,” Angel finished.

 

Buffy gave him a pouty look. "Think about it. We three are probably the strongest warriors in this dimension. Who would be better to stop the city from crossing over?"

 

Spike didn’t feel like the strongest warrior anymore, despite being fairly adept at fighting the bad guys as a human. Hiding his insecurity, he leaned back in his chair and propped his feet up on the desk as he had last night. "But you're not thinking of having me re-vamped or getting vamped yourself, so how's it going to work for us to go into a city of thousands, if not millions, of vampires?"

 

"It's awfully risky, Buffy," Angel agreed. “You and Spike wouldn’t fare. . .”

 

Spike interjected, “We’d be dead in short order.”

 

Buffy held her hands up, so she could regain the floor. "Well, that's the thing. . ."

 

The door banged open, and Fred burst into the room with Wesley on her heels. "Buffy, hi!" she said breathlessly and with a little too much exuberance. Buffy gave her a wave in return.

 

Fred edged closer to Spike and widened her eyes a bit at him. He smirked a little at her, and she blushed, swallowing her nervous giggle.

 

Wesley held a book in his hand and read aloud, "There's a prophecy. In the time of the. . ."

 

"We know," Buffy, Angel, and Spike said at the same time.

 

“You got the part about the Slayer and the two vampires will prevent the vampires from crossing dimensions. . . ?”

 

“Wait,” Spike cut the ex-Watcher off, “that’s completely different.”

 

Angel uncrossed one of his arms and waved a hand in Spike’s direction, “Prophecies.”

 

“Highly inaccurate,” Spike noted, feeling some of the easy camaraderie with Angel creeping back into their interaction.

 

"Oh." Wesley wilted a little.

 

“But still worth investigating. Disturbances in the force, remember?” Buffy chimed in.

 

“Right,” Angel agreed.

 

Wesley’s posture reinvigorated. "Fred here has a solution to getting you three to blend into the vampire society."

 

Spike was bemused to notice that Fred was discretely trying to avoid looking at him and at Wesley. Instead, she focused on Buffy and Angel as she tucked her hands into her white lab coat. "Yes. Buffy, if you haven't heard, our lab has found a way to blend magic and technology. We can create a spell slash miniature computer chip to insert into your brain to give you and Spike the appearance, strength, and feel of a vampire form without actually turning you into demons. You'd blend seamlessly." She hesitated briefly. "That is, if you trust our lab. . . and the staff here. . . in this inherently evil establishment. We wouldn't want you to do anything you felt uncomfortable with."

 

"I trust you guys.” Buffy sounded more confident than Spike felt. Then again, he’d been “working” here longer.

 

"And what did our token evil representatives say?" Angel directed at Wesley.

 

Wesley clapped the book shut. "They said that what Giles and Willow suggested or found is quite true. In fact, they gave us the coordinates to an entrance from this dimension into theirs."

 

"Really," Spike said without removing the irony from his tone. "How convenient."

 

"Willow gave us some, too.” Buffy crossed her arms. "We'll use those, and be sure to check out the others. . . for clues or something."

 

"Sounds good." Angel rose and picked up the phone, knocking Spike’s feet away as he did. "Let me make some calls, and we'll be all set."

 

* * *

 

The doorbell rang just as everything in the skillet was sizzling out of control. Cursing to himself, Spike slung the towel on his shoulder to the cabinet top, placed the skillet on a cool burner, and hurried to the door just as the bell rang again.

 

He jerked open the door in a huff and was surprised to view Buffy standing in front of him. Her hands were clasped behind her back, and her hair was pulled up on the sides, giving her an aura of youth. She blinked up at him with a small smile.

 

"Buffy."

 

She sniffed the air. "Somethin's burnin'," she teased.

 

"Yeah. My dinner." Unsure if he wanted her to invade his personal space, he calmly blocked the entrance with his arm propped up on the wooden frame. Truth be told, his heart was hammering.

 

"And you look much better in jeans and a T-shirt. That suit didn't suit ya." She giggled at her own humor. "I wanted to see your place," she said brightly, trying to peer around his body into his home. "Angel said you moved into your own apartment."

 

"Yeah, and you've seen it. Now go away. I'm cooking dinner." His words came out harsher than he meant them to, but he didn’t care.

 

Hurt drifted across her face. "Really? I can't come in?"

 

He felt like she was requesting entrance into his heart. "Um, no. Not right now."

 

"Why not?" Stubborn Buffy was emerging.

 

He was quite familiar with stubborn Buffy. Was he willing to fight her? He reminded himself that he should pick his battles, and he sighed. "Okay. You can come in." Backing away, he held the door for her as she entered, taking everything in with wide eyes. "Not that I really understand why you want to come in," he included under his breath.

 

Buffy stopped in her tracks and rounded on him, sending tingles of desire he'd thought long dead rippling over his skin. "What did you say?"

 

"Nothing."

 

She advanced on him with her finger pointed. "No, mister. You said something. Something about not understanding why I wanted to come in."

 

"Yeah. So?"

 

"Explain yourself."

 

Bloody women always wanted explanations for everything. Still, the truth came flowing out of him like he'd been a huge water balloon, and she was a needle who pricked his skin. "What happened? I mean, between us. I know you don't like to talk about. . . *us*, but I need to. If I'm going to work with you, I need to. You came and found me in Sunnydale on a *feeling*, and you never bothered to explain that to me. You just brought me back to L.A., stayed a few weeks, and left with your Watcher. Nothing was explained, and I-I was trying to be human again, you know?"

 

He couldn't look at her anymore, so he stared off to the left. "You can't just come in here after three years and act like you never left. . . touching me, coming inside. It's not fair, especially after you told me. . . what you said in Sunnydale." He inhaled deeply and tried to distract her from what he’d almost just admitted by being harsher, "So are your cookies bloody cooked yet? Oh yeah, Angel told me that you told him the same thing you told me. Only you told him first."

 

Buffy stared at him.

 

He waved a hand at her. "Don't worry, Angel didn't tell me that sober. He was right drunk when he told me that one. So there, his precious reputation stays intact."

 

Looking deflated, Buffy plunked down on the edge of his leather sofa, folding her hands on her lap. "I'm sorry. I-I thought I was doing what you wanted."

 

Now she was turning on her tears, and Spike was falling for it. He wanted to fall for it. He sat beside her and spoke softly, fighting the desire to take her into his arms. Not for the first time, he wondered how human Buffy would feel in his human arms. One time was hardly enough to go on. "I don't understand. What the hell did you think I wanted?"

 

"You wanted me to go. . . to be myself. . . to be strong. . . to be 'the One.'"

 

Even though what she was saying didn’t make a whit of sense in any sane person’s mind, he found himself trying to catch her eye. "But Buffy, you don't have to be 'the One' anymore. There's more than enough 'the One's' available." He chuckled. "That didn't make a whole lot of sense."

 

She sniffed. "Yeah, it did." Wiping her eyes, she said softly, "I didn't mean to cry."

 

"You're allowed. You got to hear my outburst. It didn't come out exactly right, but it's there nonetheless." He was almost relieved that she didn’t pick up on his allusion to her profession of love before he died. He wasn’t sure he really wanted to pick the scab on that wound in his heart right now. Still, her fingers brushed his as he handed her a tissue, and he didn’t pull away.

 

"Yeah. I needed to go. I was twenty-two-years-old, and I had no clue who I was if I wasn't special. . . if I wasn't the Slayer, aside from Faith, and I-I felt overwhelmed. There were too many pressures from my friends, from the new Slayers, from you. Something had to give."

 

"And that was me." He kept his tone even and low.

 

"I couldn't exactly give up my identity completely. It would be too scary to go from. . ."

 

"From being a Slayer who was responsible for so many lives to being one person helping just one other person?"

 

She nodded. "Uh huh." She took his hand in hers, and he allowed the touch. "Your hand is so warm." She smiled through fresh tears. "I almost forgot that it would be."

 

"Did you figure it out? Did you figure out who you want to be?"

 

"Almost, yeah, I think so." Her lips lifted a bit as she peered up at him. "What about you?"

 

Squeezing her hand and then letting it go, Spike sighed and moved back against the sofa. "I'm still figuring. Took me a bit to get my human legs, get used to not having extra physical strength.” He wasn’t ready to admit to her how much being around Angel and his crew really helped. “But it's coming. I'm a work-in-progress."

 

Buffy imitated his movement. "Me, too. You think we ever stop being works-in-progress?"

 

"Only if we're dead, pet, only if we're dead."

 

"That's good. 'Cause I think I may need all the time I can get. A-and I'm sorry I wasn't here for you." Spike saw the tears brimming in her eyes again. “Truly. I don’t know how to tell you how sorry.”

 

"I'm still here, aren't I? Think we can work together?" Spike asked, playing with the tips of her long hair that were grazing his bicep.

 

She smiled. "We'll muddle through. Now. . . what's for dinner? All that emotional release made me hungry."

Chapter Text

Chapter Two

 

How did she get involved in such a mess?

Why had she ever thought getting Angel and Spike together for a mission would be a *good* idea?

After her emotional discussion with Spike the previous night, they had had a nice dinner and a lively discussion about the merits of reality television shows. What had Spike said? Oh yeah, "The wankers from Trading Spaces better never come renovate my home with their cheap bits and pieces." Buffy almost laughed at the memory of his expression, but she held back because she was back at Wolfram and Hart.

She was about to be put under for the vampire chip surgery, Spike hadn't arrived yet, and Angel was fussing at her about Spike's humanity. Like she had anything to do with what happened to him.

"I just don't understand how he got to be human, and I didn't!" Angel was rambling as he paced in the small cubicle where they waited for Fred to prepare her for anesthesia.

"I don't know, Angel.” She was trying to placate him, having heard the same complaints on repeat in the past. Shifting uncomfortably in her hospital-type gown, she dreaded the likely possibility of having to play referee between Angel and Spike during the whole mission.

"Me either!" He threw up his hands. "I mean, the prophecies all pointed to me becoming human. And what do I get for all my hard work. . . for all my years of having a soul and suffering? Nothing. Absolutely nothing."

"Wesley never figured out about whether Spike was shamp-whatever-ed?" Buffy asked, thinking that surely in three years they had an explanation for Spike turning human.

"That's the shanshu prophecy, and no, he didn't," Angel snapped, "but I think he might have been the one the prophecy referred to instead of me."

"Well, maybe there's a separate explanation for Spike's humanization. Is that even a word? And maybe yours will come later. Until then, you have your health, your friends, and skin that will never ever wrinkle," Buffy refuted playfully.

"But what I wouldn't do to get a wrinkle here and there! Wrinkles give you distinction, show where you've been, show your life. And Spike. . . he goes and gets a soul and a year later, bam he's human!" Angel lightly socked his hand with his fist. "Do you know how long I've had my soul?"

She already knew the answer. "Years and years?"

Angel adamantly agreed, "Damn right, years and years! And it's so frustrating to see him happily figuring out his human body. . . learning how to, to eat real food again to sustain himself. . . how to shave. . . how to get a tan. . . how to grow a garden. . ."

"Spike doesn't look like he has much of a tan, and I *so* cannot picture Spike growing a garden," Buffy pointed out. "And there are things about being a vampire that have benefits. . . like the whole extra-human strength deal."

"Yeah, but still! It's the idea that he has the option to do human things!" Angel plopped down heavily next to her. "It really sucks."

"Angel, what's the real reason Spike bothers you so much?"

He was silent for several seconds as he studied his hands. Then, "I guess that things just fall into his lap so easily. . . things it takes me forever to figure out. You know what I mean?"

Buffy leaned her head against his shoulder. "I think so."

Taking that as a cue to keep going, Angel extended his argument further, "I mean, Dru vamps him, and immediately, he uses us, his stable vamp family, to start breaking the rules. And Dru, she loved him for it."

"Stable vamp family?" Buffy raised her eyebrows. "Don't think I've ever heard that one before."

"Well, he had three master vampires to guide him and Dru's love to sustain him for over a hundred years. And then, then, he came to Sunnydale, saved the world, ran off with Dru. . ."

"I'm well aware of Spike's history," Buffy cut Angel off.

"I know. And then, he decides he wants a soul, goes out and gets it, and just becomes this champion." Angel was starting to repeat himself, which he tended to do when he was upset. He slumped forward in defeat.

Buffy hugged his arm close to her body. The touch was easy and familiar, and she was grateful that no matter how much time had passed, things would never be awkward between them. "So you're upset that Spike seems to get things too easily? Trust me, he hasn't had it easy. You weren't there to see him struggle with his soul. I saw it all. And you've seen him struggle with being human. And you should be proud of him. He's a member of her family like you said, and he's done quite well for himself. Shouldn't you feel good that he's learned from his predecessors?"

Taking more time to respond, Angel's expression slowly went from one of self-pity to determination. "You're right. You're right." His voice grew steadier on the repeat. "I am proud of Spike."

The door opened at that moment, and Spike stood before them dressed in a hospital gown that mirrored Buffy's. Buffy couldn't read his body language.

"Never thought I'd hear you say that," Spike said quietly, and Buffy became very aware that she was touching Angel with affection. “Knew you respected me but not that you were proud of me.”

Angel had a quick comeback. "Don't believe everything you hear, Spike."

Slowly, gently, Buffy pulled away from Angel. Addressing Spike, she asked, "You ready to be chipped?"

Spike shrugged. "Not looking forward to my brain becoming a science experiment again, but yeah. Gotta get my strength back, so I can help on this mission. Feels almost like I'm regressing. And I never thought I'd say that."

Long dark hair in bouncing curls, Fred poked her head around the corner, "Now that you're both here. Let's get you ready to go under. Now remember, you're going to wake up feeling very different. And it's really a very safe procedure. I've never done it before, but I've read the books."

At the young scientist's words, Buffy's eyes grew round, and Fred's brow wrinkled in worry.

Angel intervened, "Fred is the most brilliant scientist here. . . probably in L.A. She's taught herself medicine in the last three years, and I would trust her with my life."

Fred flashed him a grateful smile. "W-well, I don't know about that."

"I do. We all do," Angel reassured her.

“It’s true, pet,” Spike agreed.

Buffy made a mental note of Spike’s use of the nickname he often used with her and felt jealous in a way that she hadn’t felt in a long time. She mused that maybe this was just desserts for him finding her hanging onto her ex. She also wasn’t entirely convinced that Fred knew what she was doing, and she found herself walking behind the group as they followed the scientist through the empty halls of her science lab.

They entered a small, extremely sterile room furnished with two hospital surgery tables. Spike and Buffy climbed onto them, and as they shared a nervous grin, she thought she saw something of his old feeling for her in his eyes. They were going under the knife together.

* * *

The world came seeping back into Buffy’s mind like a rushing river. She'd dreamed of something, but she couldn't remember what it was. Keeping her eyes tightly shut, she explored her other senses.

Her arms and legs moved of their own accord beneath the sheets, and she was struck by how different her muscles felt, almost as if they were humming with energy. She was used to her Slayer strength; it felt like home to her. But this. . .this was completely different. The desire to leap up and find something to pummel was stronger than she ever expected.

A low growl escaped from the back of her throat.

Her hearing sprang to life at the sound. Everything immediately sounded louder than normal. She heard the steady beep of the heart monitor hooked up to her chest and the whoosh of the air conditioner. She could even hear the drip of the IV that fed into her arm.

Was this how vampire hearing worked?

Her hand flew to the place where her heart should be, and she felt nothing. No steady thrum touched her fingertips.

But there was a sound from the heart monitor.

She was confused, and another growl involuntarily sprang forth.

Then, she heard a snicker.

Her eyelids popped open, and her world was awash with brilliant color and heightened awareness of motion. Her eyes darted from the machines to her left to the clock on the wall to the unlit lamp beside her bed to the man, er, pseudo-vampire, sitting up across from her.

Abruptly, Buffy righted herself, aware that her muscles were still tingling. "Spike!"

"Yeah, pet?" Spike, who was still wearing his hospital gown, watched her with an amused expression.

"You giggled at me." She pouted and crossed her arms.

"I did not. . . I do not giggle," he insisted, jutting his chin out.

"Some kind of laughing noise came from your side of the room."

"Never heard you growl before," he returned. "It was cute."

"I didn't growl! Did I?" She paused. "Why is everything so bright? And, and my body feels like. . ."

"Like you might burst unless you go out and get into a nasty scuffle?" He balanced his hands on his thighs and leaned forward, smiling at her.

Buffy’s heart tightened at the sight of his casual ease with her, and for a moment, she realized just how much she missed him. "Yeah. That's it exactly. It's like I'm. . ." She trailed off as she glanced down at her bare arms. "Oh my god."

Spike was concerned. "What's wrong now?"

"Where did my tan go?" she lamented, holding her thin, pale arms up as if they weren't part of her.

"The appearance is pretty perfect, isn't it? Science girl did an amazing job on our disguises. I haven't felt this physically good in. . ." He cocked his head to one side. "Well, I guess it's been three years." He knew exactly how long it'd been but wouldn't admit that to her.

Buffy comprehended what Spike was saying, but out of fear, she did what she normally did and diverted away. "It sucks," she sulked. "I worked hard on that tan. Hours and hours in the sun. Actually, it was a spray tan, but still."

"Your disguise wouldn't go over too well in Vampville if you looked as if you'd been sunbathing, pet."

"Makes sense.” She sighed.

Spike mused, "I remember the moment I first discovered all these little things. Dru was with me, and she kept spinning in circles and singing to me about how wonderful it was that she had made me."

Buffy studiously ignored him. Then, her mind switched gears. "I just thought of something!" Mindful of the IV line in her arm, she climbed out of the bed and scanned the room. "If I were a mirror, where oh where would I be?"

"I don't think there's one in here." Spike spied the tall reflective glass doors of the cabinet above the small sink and nodded to them. "Check over there."

Dragging her IV stand with her, she hurried over to peer at herself and found that she didn't have a reflection. "Damn it. I wanted to see if I could make bumpies."

"No mirror image, love. Part of the vampire package."

"Oh, yeah. I knew that."

He patted the bed beside him. "Come here. I'll show you."

Buffy faltered for a moment but couldn’t resist Spike’s offer to sit close to him again and perched on the edge of the bed. "Tell me how to make my bumpies."

When he was certain that he had Buffy's full attention, he began, "Okay. Close your eyes."

"I have to close my eyes every time I want to get ridged?"

Spike laughed lightly. "No. Just trust me. Do you trust me?"

With her eyes squeezed tightly shut, reminding Spike of a little kid trying too hard, Buffy nodded.

"Okay. Now think of something that really pisses you off and focus on that urge you have to fight."

She frowned. "Something that pisses me off?"

Spike thought a moment. Then, "You know, pet, this is actually one of my oldest fantasies."

"What is?"

Spike licked his lips in anticipation as he bent toward her ear, turned on his gravelly, evil tone, and whispered an assortment of fragmented, suggestive statements, ". . . having you by my side. . . turned to the forces of darkness. . . having you vamped so that I can have you any way I want you. . ."

With a roar, Buffy's eyes flew open, and rage shot through her system as Spike's tone triggered some dark memories from long ago that she had thought were long forgotten. She leapt at the man sitting next to her, tackling him to the ground and yanking out her IV line and his as well.

Before she could pin him down, he used her awkwardness and inertia to send her over his head to the ground behind him. As soon as she contacted the hard surface, she sprang to her feet, breathing hard at the shock to her body.

Blood flowed from the jagged cuts on each of their arms, filling the air with a coppery smell of which she had never been aware in the past. The smell was intoxicating, and she held up her arm, fascinated by the scarlet streak swimming down her fair skin.

Ignoring the brief fracas that had served its purpose, Spike smiled and distracted Buffy from her trance. "Buffy, love. Your forehead."

She stared at him with something feral and wild in her eyes before she realized what he was saying. Touching her now bumpy forehead tentatively, she broke into a toothy grin, flashing long, pointed canines at him. "Wow!" She ran her tongue over her teeth, drawing blood when they pierced her flesh. "And wow! Fred did an amazing job."

"She did at that. You'll just have to practice, and then, you'll be able to do it anytime you want. Just draw on your anger," he instructed.

"I'm pretty sure I can do that." Buffy was still feeling her forehead. Then, she seemed to regain her uncertainty, and she asked, "How come I can't feel my heartbeat, but it still shows up on the monitor? And how come I am attracted to the blood on my arm, but I have absolutely no desire to drink it?"

Buffy could tell Spike enjoyed being the expert in all matters of vampire experience, and she found herself feeling grateful that Angel wasn’t in the room to steal the spotlight from him.

However, before Spike could answer her questions, a happy Fred lit into the room, still wearing her white coat and a pair of wire-rimmed glasses. Propping her clipboard on her hip, she said cheerily, "You're still human, so you have a heartbeat; it's just disguised from others' senses, but the technology like heart monitors can still detect it. And you're attracted to the blood because you'll need to be to survive in the vampire society. But, you can't get nutrients from the blood. You'll have to eat human food. Human flesh can't survive solely on the blood."

"Oh." Buffy slid back into her human visage without realizing it. She wished she could borrow some of Fred’s easy positive energy. She knew Fred had had her fair share of hardships, but Buffy somehow couldn’t be as carefree as the young woman before her. She simply wasn’t wired that way.

"And I gave you guys heightened senses, so you'll respond like a normal vampire, and if you happen to get into a fight, you," here she nodded to Spike, "will have the strength to survive."

"Sounds like you covered all the bases," Angel said as he appeared in the doorway, surveying Buffy and Spike's rumpled hospital gowns and broken IV's with a funny expression.

"I think I did," Fred said, adding, "I hope I did."

"You did quite well, pet," Spike complimented her again. "I haven't been a vampire in a while, but I remember, and it feels exactly right. . . except for the not craving blood part."

Fred colored slightly. "Thanks."

"Spike," Angel intoned a bit grimly, "we need to finish getting ready for the mission."

"Right. Give a fellow a few to put some proper clothes on." Spike wondered why Angel seemed so serious.

Angel turned to Buffy as if he was dreading revealing what he had to say next. "And Buffy?"

"Yeah?"

He held up a cordless phone, and Buffy's heart sank as what he was about to say dawned on her. "You have a phone call from Cleveland." His brown eyes bore into hers. "From your boyfriend."

Buffy ducked her head and accepted the phone as if it were a snake that might bite her. "Thanks," she mumbled.

She expected the neutral, quiet disappointment on Angel's face. He was used to her having new significant others. She cast a quick glance at Spike, the one she was most concerned about. Apparently, none of Fred's technology and magic could change how openly Spike displayed his feelings. The hurt was raw and pure in his eyes and was etched into his features as if permanently imprinted.

She hadn't meant to hurt him, and his hurting meant she hurt, too. Even though she half-expected it, she was surprised just how much his feelings still had the ability to affect her. With a heavy heart, she watched him follow Angel and Fred out of the room to give her some privacy.

She fervently wished that she could reach out to him and tell him that she wasn't serious about the guy on the other end of the phone, that they'd only been dating two weeks, that the guy was completely ignorant of who she really was.

But she didn't.

She was afraid he would turn away.

With a mix of reluctance and resignation, she clicked on the phone. "Hello?" she whispered hoarsely into the receiver.

Chapter Text

Chapter Three

Shifting the small pack he'd slung over his shoulder, Spike tramped in silence behind Buffy and inhaled the sharp pine scent that thickly permeated the air. Crickets and katydids chirped and hummed in the humid night air. They'd been traveling on foot for hours because no man-made roads pointed to their destination. Angel's car was long forgotten on the side of the highway.

Angel was leading the way ahead of Buffy, and Spike was content to let him play tour guide through the dense forests somewhere along the border of East Texas and West Louisiana.

First, they were going to check out the coordinates given to them by the Wolfram and Hart crew, and then, they planned to head a bit further south to the spot Willow pinpointed as a probable entrance to Vampire Villa.

Spike tried not to let Buffy's closeness disturb his determined stoicism. He wasn't sure when he'd be able to forgive her betrayal.

It wasn't the fact that she was dating some other bloke that bothered him. . . well, actually it did bother him. It felt like she'd twisted a bloody knife in his gut, and that was a feeling with which he was well acquainted.

However, what got his gander even more was the fact that she'd left out that tiny detail when she'd arrived in L.A. He'd thought that was something she wouldn't forget to mention like Dawn started school, she and Giles were training the Slayers, Xander was married. . . and oh yeah, she had a sodding boyfriend.

For three days after the surgery, he'd hidden from her within the walls of the massive law firm. He figured she’d just show up again at his apartment and not go away, and she would be more considerate in the harsh light of day at Angel’s place of work. The first day, after the painkillers had worn off, he'd had a massive headache despite what Fred had done to speed his healing with magic. He'd slept on the sofa in his office most of the day after discovering, interestingly enough, that despite his outward appearance as a vampire, he could still enter the sunlight without harm.

Buffy must have been recuperating as well because the next day - just as he had been feeling a little less like someone had pounded his head in with a sledgehammer - he had heard her uncertain knock on his office door. He had marveled at how vastly different her hesitancy was from the past when she would have kicked down the barrier between them and entered in a huff.

She knew better now.

She had given up after ten minutes or so of waiting for a response but had returned every couple of hours like clockwork to try again. A couple of times she'd left him covered plates of food just outside the door, as if she was trying to make up for her mistake by attempting to fill the hollow pit in his stomach for him.

After a whole afternoon of Buffy's persistence, Spike had headed into the extensive hidden and dank passageways of the evil law firm, searching for an empty room to train and get re-acquainted with his magically-induced vampire senses and muscle flow. Gunn had found him, and they’d spent some time sparring. Gunn must have told Fred where to find him because she came ostensibly to see how he was faring in a physical sense. However, she spent most of the time sharing her own experiences of working with exes and gently nudging him to talk about his feelings. The support had been nice. Spike hadn’t been surprised that Angel didn’t tried to find him; he hadn’t really wanted to see Angel either. Something about adding Buffy to the mix always threw them both for a loop.

Lilah had approached him in the unlit halls, bragging to him about how easy he was to find because she'd used Gunn's overhauled security system to pinpoint all the demons in the building, even the artificial ones. She’d said that she guessed where he was on the first try and that she had some important message from her evil superiors about Angel.

On their quest, Angel would apparently be finding out something very important about a prophecy that he had been meant to fulfill but hadn't. Spike was supposedly in charge of making sure Angel stayed on track when and if he learned whatever it was he was supposed to learn.

Spike had no clue what Lilah had been prattling on about, but he'd found over the years that even though they had evil ulterior motives, Lilah's bosses could be dead-on accurate about a lot of things.

Before his mind could go further down that line of thinking, Spike was shaken out of his memories by running smack into Buffy on the trail. Her unique essence filled his nose, and he silently cursed his body as it reacted positively without his permission.

Outwardly, he groused, "Some warning would have been nice." He was distinctly aware of the double meaning behind his words.

So was Buffy. She shot back a clipped shush but didn't look back at him. She hadn't really made much eye contact with him since they'd started the trip.

Spike stepped away from her, directing his senses into the trees and beyond their small group. The sound and sight of movement caught his attention. Leaves rustled loudly, and branches snapped.

With the instinctual trust that they had built the last few years and in their prior years of hunting together as vampires, Spike and Angel fell into a well-used pattern.

Spike circled left and back the way he'd come while Angel took the path right and around. Buffy followed their lead and stayed alert and unmoving in the same spot.

Their quarry predictably walked right into their trap, and they hurriedly closed in on a male who was running and stumbling like he was exhausted. Detritus from the trees crunched under his feet, and he was crying and panicking. He didn't seem to be paying attention to where he was going. Spike stepped around a tree and caught him, pinning his arms at his sides.

Fake vampire senses clicking into place, Spike identified his captor as a vampire - a very young but surprisingly clean vampire.

The vampire rolled his eyes wildly and thrashed about, cursing. "Let go of me! They're after me, and I can't let them get me! I need out of here now!"

Angel loomed behind him and aided Spike in slamming their prisoner against a nearby tree. Buffy hovered at Spike's elbow, and he resisted the urge to pull away from her.

The vampire blinked away the shock of their force and stared into Angel's glowing yellow eyes.

"Listen," Angel growled loudly to get him to stop fighting them. "Who's chasing you? Maybe we can help."

"You can't help me against them. *No one* can help me," the youth insisted. "I just have to get away. . . get back to my home. It's safe there." He lunged against them again to no avail. "Let go of me!"

Spike and Angel exchanged knowing glances. They'd caught themselves a young vampire who was afraid of something. That wasn't good. Youthful vamps were supposed to be fearless and reckless. . . not afraid.

The vampire continued, "Listen. Can't you hear them coming? You'd do best to hide until they pass."

Something was thundering in the distance - a lot of something.

And that something was rapidly getting nearer.

"Hide? Hide where?" Buffy asked, pushing forward to stand next to Angel.

The vampire lurched forward again, and this time, Spike and Angel let him go. "The city."

"What city?" There was no place that could be considered a city for miles, except for a small rice-farming town.

The vampire gave them an incredulous glare. "You don't know the city?" He gave their attire the once over. "I guess you don't *look* like you know the city."

Spike elbowed Angel, and Angel took Spike’s cue. "Oh, that city. That's actually where we were headed. Mind if we tag along?"

The source of the noise was within a hundred feet, and it almost sounded like slithering. And branches weren't just snapping; trees were emitting sharp cracking sounds and crashing to the earth. Every muscle tensed, Spike tried to catch a glimpse of what was coming through the trees but saw nothing even with his newly enhanced vision.

The young vampire nodded assent and began jogging slowly until Spike, Buffy, and Angel matched his tempo. Then, he ran more rapidly as whatever was chasing him also increased in speed.

Spike brought up the rear of the group, he dodging trees and fallen limbs with alacrity, relishing the power of his new body.

Abruptly, the vamp leading them halted, and their pursuers instantaneously seemed louder. The young vamp whipped out a small, handheld device and traced a line in the air.

A portal swept open, glowing yellow-green with invitation.

Once it was wide enough, the vampire ducked through the crackling doorway.

Spike paused to glance back into the darkness as Angel hurtled through behind the youth. Squinting his eyes again against the pitch black, he couldn't make out anything distinct, but he thought he almost saw. . .

Before he could let his mind comprehend what his eyes were detecting, Buffy grabbed his arm and pulled him into the hazy cloud of the gateway to Vampire Villa.

* * *

Spike landed neatly on his feet at Buffy's side. Disorientation from the dimensional shift overcame him for a few seconds, but Buffy's hand, steady on his arm, brought him back to reality. The sky above was completely free of heavenly bodies. However, the ground was like the one they'd just left, and they were standing on a small cliff with a few random pine trees surrounding them.

"It's like this is the overlapping edge between dimensions," Spike mumbled to himself.

The young vampire, who had pocketed whatever device had opened the portal, heard him. "That's right. And down there, that's the city."

Spike, Buffy, and Angel peered over the edge of the cliff to view a massive array of dense lights shimmering in the valley. Buildings of various heights jutted up like a thick field of corn stalks, and the sea of the metropolis appeared endless in all directions.

"Oh my god," Buffy whispered, bringing her hand to her mouth in horror at the thought of all the vampires that must live there.

Their vampire companion eyes lit, seeming to take Buffy’s shock as amazement, and he moved to stand in her personal space, breathing in her ear, "Yeah. Isn't it wonderful? I bet you've never seen anything like it!"

Buffy moved back from the violating vampire and into Spike's chest. Spike's protectiveness won out over his anger and hurt, and he allowed her to remain against him. They were entering a turf that was most definitely not their own, and they would have to support one another. Personal issues could be dealt with later.

Angel caught Spike's eye, and they telegraphed an entire conversation in the space of a second. Spike understood that they needed to get away from this vampire to discuss strategy. On the other hand, the young vampire might prove to be an invaluable resource.

Angel cleared his throat. "We haven't properly been introduced. My name is Liam, and they are William and Elizabeth."

The vampire raised an eyebrow. "What century are you guys from?"

The three didn't respond.

The youth let out an awkward laugh. "Right, right. You guys must be old." He held out a hand to them and announced, "I'm Michael. I'm two. . . er, two in vamp years. Nice to make your acquaintance."

Angel grasped the proffered hand, and then, Michael turned on his heels and started jauntily away from them as if they had never met.

Spike almost grunted at Michael’s typical vampire behavior, but he held back.

"Wait," Angel called after him.

Michael glanced back over his shoulder but didn't turn fully around. "Yeah?"

"Could you at least let us know a good place to stay in the city?"

"Oh, yeah. Sure." Michael thought for a moment. "Stay at Kooch's. It's right at the edge of the city in neutral territory. Got free blood in every room, and the owner is discreet with newbies to the city like yourselves. Welcome to Vamp Villa. You got a free ticket in." Then, he flipped Angel and Spike each an oddly-shaped coin, which was different from the monies the Wolfram and Hart crew had given them for use in the vampire city. "Those are for the hotel. Enjoy your stay."

Without another word, he resumed his trek away from them.

When Michael was out of earshot, Spike was the first to speak. "What the hell was that out there?"

Buffy scooted back from Spike, and he silently mourned the loss of her presence at his side. . . no matter what she had done. She gave him an almost timid glance and said, "I don't know, but it seemed like it might have been reptilian." She held up her hands in confusion. "It? They? I think there was more than one."

"A whole lot more than one," Angel acknowledged. "What matters right now is that we're still intact and that we made it into the city."

"On W and H terms," Spike added in a tone that said he felt a little uncomfortable with that. He reached for his pocket without realizing what he was doing. Patting the empty jeans, he sighed. He hadn't smoked a cigarette since becoming human because well, he didn’t want to get lung cancer, but he was sorely tempted right about now.

"Wonder where Willow's coordinates would have taken us?" Buffy wondered aloud, crossing her arms and changing the position of her feet. "It looks so innocent from up here. . . warm and safe with all the lights in the darkness."

"It's hardly going to be that," Spike admonished. He watched Buffy shift her feet again and gaze longingly at the city, and he could tell she was tired after their long walk. At least some things were familiar about her even if he didn’t know what was going through her brain about more intimate things.

Buffy turned to Angel for confirmation.

Angel inclined his head toward his grandchilde. "Spike's right. We'll have to be on our toes from here on out. But at least we made it. Willow's coordinates or no." He paused. "We'll make a plan in the morning."

Buffy made a list of goals, "Find out about scary reptilian things and what they're doing in our dimension. Check. Uncover and thwart evil vampires from taking over the world or crossing into our dimension or something like that. Check. Got the plan ready."

"Great. All in a day’s work. . . that we'll accomplish tomorrow," Spike said wearily. "We need to get ourselves acquainted with the city first and get some shut eye before that."

“Some respite should come first," Angel agreed.

With that, they headed single file down the narrow path that Michael had paved for them. Spike was too tired to make even polite conversation and so apparently were his companions.

* * *

Kooch's turned out to be an extremely small human-style motel on the very edge of the city. It was so far on the edge that nothing but a few trees and brush surrounded it. A flickering neon sign with several unlit letters, reading "Kh's," greeted Angel, Spike and Buffy, and an almost imperceptible glow lit the vacancy sign below. No cars filled the lot, but would the vampires really drive here?

They circled the place a few times before determining that there was no office and no staff. Instead, they found a squat, vending-like machine under a pole with a rusty metal shelter/roof. Spike mentally noted that no wonder the place was newcomer friendly; it seemed virtually deserted.

Angel and Spike examined the machine while Buffy played lookout for loitering vamps.

"Looks like there're two rooms available," Angel concluded.

"Yep. And only one has a bathroom for showering," Spike added with a touch of amusement.

Attempting to peer around Angel's tall form, Buffy perked up at the notion of a shower. "I could definitely use one of those. I call the room with the shower."

"Guess we're stinking roomies, mate." Spike grinned at Angel as the only real vampire among their party shoved the coins Michael had given them into the machine.

Angel carefully pushed the proper buttons to obtain the two remaining rooms. As he gathered both sets of keys into his palm, he said quietly to Spike, "I don't like the idea of Buffy staying by herself surrounded by who knows what kind of vampires."

Frowning and planting her hands on her hips, Buffy inserted herself in between the two males as if to remind Angel that she was standing right there. "I can take care of myself. Come on. I thought you knew that by now."

Pushing aside the events of the last few days, Spike allowed himself to be entertained by Buffy's stubbornness. He crossed his arms and smirked at Angel. "Looks like you have a dissenter."

Angel ignored Spike. "You haven't been around vampires that much."

Buffy visibly tensed. "Um, beg to differ. Vampire slayer here."

"I meant. . . never mind." Angel leaned toward her and nervously glanced around. "Be careful how loud you say things, Buffy."

Buffy's eyes flashed yellow. Angel was irritating her, mainly because she was exhausted and just wanted the comfort of a private room. "Elizabeth. If you're going to be that sensitive about everything I say, call me Elizabeth here. Liam.”

"Fine, Elizabeth. I don't want. . . ," Angel changed his words mid-stream, "I won’t have you staying alone."

"Okay, then." Buffy snatched the key to the room with a bathroom from Angel's hand and spun on her heel. She tugged loose one of Spike's hands from his crossed arms and dragged the startled man with her. "Spike will stay with me."

"Pet." Spike’s joy at watching the verbal scrapping between Buffy and Angel gave way to fear and hurt that ripped through his gut. He did not want to be trapped alone with her in a small room. He'd rather go out and face the reptile buggers again than face her and the absent boyfriend that hung between them like the proverbial elephant.

"Buf. . . Elizabeth," Angel called. "If you're doing this to spite me. . ."

Buffy stopped in her tracks and faced Angel. "I'm not. I'm just tired and rapidly getting beyond grouchy, and I just want to go to sleep without someone fussing over me."

Angel's face was an unreadable mask as they left him behind. Spike wasn't fooled by the vampire's surface placidity. He knew what kind of pain lay underneath it.

He knew what lay underneath it because he felt the same sense of betrayal.

And would either of them really benefit from staying in a room with her, recognizing that neither of them ever stood a chance in the arms of Buffy Summers?

In that moment, Spike believed that he had somehow gotten the short end of the stick.

Chapter Text

Chapter Four

Without speaking to one another, Buffy and Spike entered their dark, windowless room. A strange smell met Spike's nose, but he couldn't quite identify it, so he decided it was a quality of the decrepit building. As Buffy shut and latched the door with a soft click, Spike flipped on the only switch he could locate along the wall. Low light flooded the room to reveal that a single bed was the only piece of furniture in the room besides the overhead light. Clean sheets that looked as if they'd been washed some time ago were folded atop the small mattress.

One bed. Just bloody great.

Buffy caught sight of his expression and tentatively touched his arm. "Spike." His name was a whisper on her lips, almost undetectable.

Even though doing so went against what every fiber of his being was screaming, he shrugged her touch away, only deciding to hide his disdain at the last second and covering his hurt with minimal effectiveness. Striding to the bed and ignoring her eyes watching him, he tossed his bag to the ground and started roughly choosing some sheets out of the pile.

"About what happened with my. . . the phone call. . . ," she began, her voice wavering.

Spike pretended like he hadn't heard her attempt to smooth things over between them. He didn't want to play makeup; he'd had enough of her games to last lifetimes. "I'll make a pallet on the floor."

"It didn't mean what you. . . ," she bravely continued, standing still in the center of the room with her hands folded behind her back.

Spike jerked one of the sheets out beside him so that the fabric fanned out a little over the mattress. He shot her a piercing glare. "Look. I don't want to deal with your personal life while we're on this mission. We have enough to think about and do without the soap opera of your indecisiveness."

"Angel wasn't this petulant about what happened," she sniped back.

Beginning to arrange the sheets on the dirty floor well away from the bed, Spike lowered his voice, "I'm not Angel, pet." Did he really have to explain that to her again?

At his non-responsiveness, Buffy's temper seemed to get the best of her as she tensed and closed in on him. "Well, at least, he let me talk with him about it. At least, he didn't hide in his office for three days like a big nancy boy, not eating, avoiding everyone. Boo hoo. Buffy got a boyfriend. Geez! It's been three years! What was I supposed to do? Hide under a rock? Not be around other people? Not live?"

As Buffy gave her brief, overly emotional speech, Spike sat back on his heels with his arms on his thighs, not centering his attention on anything other than her words. When she finished her diatribe, Spike rose from where he had been kneeling and fastened an intent look on her, filled with a melting pot of emotions: deep, unrequited love, raw hurt, and sharp anger.

Hadn't he always encouraged her to live, to grow, to be happy - even in his soulless vampire days when he made mistakes? He never wanted her to pine away her life, and she knew it. And slowly, as she watched with shock and growing regret, a wall began going up, covering him, hiding away all the things he always so openly shared with her in the past.

With a deadpan voice, he simply said, "You obviously don't know who I am."

Buffy hesitated and almost reached for him, but in the end, she didn't. Slinging her pack off her shoulder, she stomped toward one of the doors. "I'm going to take a shower," she declared.

One hundred retaliatory comments rushed through Spike's head, including the immature compulsion to shout Dawn's patented "Get out, get out, get out!" at her. However, he chose to say nothing and busily ignored her.

Buffy tugged on the gritty doorknob, but the door was somehow jammed. Spike tried to ignore her efforts as she ineffectively took out her emotions on the metal object.

Finally, Spike could stand her small grunts of exasperation no more. "Need help?"

"No, no.” She sounded determined and exhausted at the same time. "I got it."

With one last tug, the door sprang open, and Buffy flew back a bit with the motion.

She took one look at the contents of the tiny room, which was definitely not a bathroom, and screamed.

Concerned about Buffy and alarmed about what the vampire neighbors might think, Spike hopped up from where he was feigning nonchalance. "What's wrong?"

Buffy merely pointed with a covered mouth. Spike directly saw what she was so upset about.

Inside the tiny closet was what seemed to be a ten- or eleven-year-old boy with shaggy hair. He was the source of their room's odd smell. Tattered, filthy rags hung off the boy's emaciated frame, and his bare arms, legs, neck, and even his cheeks were littered with vampire bite marks. His brown eyes were huge and sunken in his skull, and he didn't appear to have the energy to go anywhere or to fight back any sort of attack, much less one of a demonic nature. Spike observed that, although the boy was not bound in any fashion, no doorknob graced the inside half of the door.

Buffy seemed to recover and cautiously moved toward the boy. She reached out a hand to touch him, but he shrank against the back wall of the closet.

"Careful, Buffy. We don't know what he's been through," Spike warned.

"We can see what he's been through," Buffy corrected. She presented the boy with a small smile. "It's okay. We're not going to hurt you. We want to help you."

As Spike viewed the scene between Buffy and the boy, bitterness rose in his throat. For some reason, seeing her help someone else made him wonder why she hadn't stayed to help him, someone she'd given every indication of caring deeply about.

Pushing those feelings aside, he made excuses for her. He reminded himself that after countless years of being immersed in death and despair, she'd had little time to figure out who she was and deal with the aftermath of her own emotional destruction at the hands of the darkness, much less deal with his vulnerability upon becoming human.

He understood, but he couldn't quite forgive her.

After several minutes of coaxing and gentle words, Buffy helped the child to the pallet Spike had made. She tried to get him to lie down on the bed, but he refused to go near it. Spike had a feeling he knew what the boy might have suffered on the bed, but he didn't want to frighten Buffy with too many gruesome details.

Buffy found a nutrient bar in her pack and handed it to the boy, who snatched it eagerly from her grasp and began gulping the food down. His eyes remained steadfast on her as if he was afraid she might take away the food or slap him down.

As Buffy watched the boy, tears filled her eyes from the stress of the evening, and Spike patted her arm. He wouldn't let himself do more than that, even though his instincts told him to take her in his arms or rub the tension from her shoulders.

"What's he doing here, and what will we do with him?" Buffy asked a while later as the boy finally allowed his hyper-alertness to fall, and the need for sleep overcame him.

"Didn't Michael say there was fresh blood in every room?" Spike half-asked, half-reminded her. "There's probably a human in every room."

"That's beyond horrible. I wonder if Angel has found his yet?" Something in her green eyes begged him to let her know somehow that things were temporarily okay between them.

Giving in, Spike sighed. "Should we. . . I mean, we should go check."

They went together.

Angel had indeed found a young woman in his closet. She too was resting peacefully but in Angel's bed. As soon as Buffy saw that the woman was safe, she and Spike returned to their room.

"What'll we do about the rest of them?" Buffy asked Spike as they made up the bed together.

"The rest of the humans trapped in this motel?" Spike fastened a sheet around the edge of the mattress.

Buffy imitated Spike's action on the other side of the bed. "Yeah. Are we going to rescue them all? Like a jailbreak? Dust all the vamp guests and free the slaves?"

"Don't know if we can do that. It would probably cause too much of a ruckus and blow our cover," Spike said thoughtfully.

"I don't like it," she declared, as if that changed the situation.

"We don't have much of a choice." Spike read Buffy's discontent and appended, "If you want, after we finish the mission, we'll come back here and free everyone. How's that?"

Accepting Spike’s placation of her dismay, Buffy peeked back at the sleeping boy with sadness and doubt on her face. "We will."

"We will," he echoed.

The bed was made.

"I'm too tired to shower. Do you mind if we share?" She waved at the bed, using body language to explain further.

Spike reluctantly acquiesced. He really had no choice. "Yeah. Let's."

Slipping under the covers after Buffy because he turned out the light, Spike was very careful to not touch her and keep his back toward her. Unhappily, he was on the edge of the bed, but then, so was Buffy. Stomach in knots, he finally gave in and settled toward her. Soon, they lay on their sides, facing away from each other, backs pressed firmly together.

He thought ironically that they'd always had each other's back.

And he relished her touch more than he was willing to admit. Damn it. If only his heart would listen to his brain.

Just as he was about to drift off to sleep, he made an abrupt decision and rolled onto his back, jarring Buffy from the edge of her dreams.

"What's his name?" he whispered, poking her a little with his elbow to ensure that she was well on her way to waking.

"W-what?" Her voice was muffled, slightly disoriented.

"His name," he repeated.

"Whose name?" She sounded a bit more coherent.

"The git you're dating. What's his name?"

"Why do you want to know?" Her voice carried a mix of slight levity and frustration.

He reached down beneath the sheets and swallowed her cool hand in his. She allowed the touch. "I just do."

"His name is Pearson," she stated neutrally. "He's a psychologist."

"Oh." He dropped her hand. Her boyfriend had such a pretentious name.

She picked his hand back up and inched closer to him while he tried in vain to keep his muscles tense in each spot her body contacted his. "Spike. I broke up with him." She sounded tired.

"Oh," he said again with a lighter tone. Despite this revelation, he still felt like he didn't really know her anymore - not after they'd spent three years living separate lives. He knew they'd both been struggling, but he was more intimately aware of his own inner turmoil than hers. Would the gulf ever be crossed? He didn't know, and his thoughts and feelings were a jumbled mess. With ease, he gave up trying to figure it all out, at least for the remainder of the night.

As he was contemplating these things, Buffy rolled onto her side again. This time, he allowed her to snuggle closer in reassurance that things were a little better between them. . . at least until tomorrow.

* * *

Some people had an inner clock that told them to wake up after exactly so many hours of sleep no matter how exhausted they were the previous evening. Spike was one of those people. Being a covert poet at heart, he was also a person who was profoundly affected by his dreams.

And what had he dreamed?

As he woke, the essence of his dreams overpowered his thoughts and feelings, enshrouding him with a warm, gentle afterglow. His dreams had been filled with a hope he didn't ever remember feeling, except before he was vamped by Dru. The hope was of a purity that comes only with innocence or youth, the kind that leaves the vaguest hint of a smile on the lips all day long for no particular reason except that one's soul is happy.

The bubble of peaceful oblivion was shattered as he realized the source of his hope and dreams was a young woman whose arms and legs were wrapped tightly around him, tangled with his limbs as if they fit together like pieces of the same puzzle.

In seconds though, the events of the last three years, the last few days, flew back into his awareness, and he was filled with the urge to push her away and storm out of the room into the perpetually dark Vampire Villa. He had every right to do just that.

However, before he could, something stopped him.

Buffy stirred in his arms and let out a noise so faint that he almost couldn't identify it. Then his brain identified it.

She had said his name.

At first, he was inclined to dismiss the quiet sound as a figment of his imagination, but then she repeated the single syllable, this time with more urgency and matching tension in the muscles throughout her body.

A bit alarmed, Spike halfway sat up, peered down at her, and was shocked that her fair cheeks were damp with cascading tears. His heart went out to her because despite her outward reactivity, her mind was still far from consciousness.

Tenderness filled him. . . something that he hadn't felt toward her since he'd learned about her boyfriend. (Granted her revelation wasn't that long ago, but after the events of the last few days, it felt like months in his mind.) Spike stroked her tears away with gentle fingertips and delicately kissed her eyelids until she quieted and slowly began to awaken from her nightmare.

When she opened her eyes and smiled up at him with an expression he could only describe as relief, his heart swelled with compassion.

"You're here," she murmured with evident joy, burying her face in his chest.

Greatly relieved that she was okay, he returned her delight, "Yeah. Where else would I be?"

As soon as the words left his lips, her face fell, and sorrow touched her eyes, threatening to fill them with tears once more.

With sincerity, he asked, "What were you dreaming, pet?"

Shying away from him, she ducked her head. "Nothing."

"No, no. Not nothing. You were having a nightmare and sobbing." He caressed her hair briefly. "A-and you said my name."

"I did?" she asked as if she hadn't realized it, meeting his eyes with an indecisive glance.

He didn't believe her. "You did. So tell me, what's going on?"

"Y-you'll think it's stupid." Emotion tinged her tone.

"Pet, I won't think it's stupid. Granted, some of the choices you make are bloody stupid in my opinion, but your feelings aren't stupid."

She was silent for several seconds as if she was trying to decide how best to tell him the truth. Taking a deep breath, she admitted in a rush, "Okay. I've had nightmares about you for three years. Actually, I keep having the same nightmare. Sometimes I have it more frequently than other times." Then, she tacked on, "I've had it a lot lately."

Spike was stunned. "For three years?"

She nodded with a childish expression that occasionally accompanies frightening dreams. "Uh huh. Since I found you in the crater."

"What kind of nightmares?" He slipped his hand in hers and held it loosely. He wasn't sure if his gesture was meant to reassure her or himself. Relaxing against the mattress, he laid his head against the mattress parallel to hers. "Slayer dreams?" Slayer dreams might mean he would face some yet undetermined doom. Buffy had been known to have prophetic dreams that were uncannily accurate, more accurate than stupid prophecies.

Shaking her head, she whispered, "N-no. Not Slayer dreams."

"About me?"

"Yeah."

She didn't seem to want to tell him more, but he had to know. "Tell me about them."

She took some time to gather her thoughts, and he vaguely wondered if she was attempting to choose which parts to tell him. "Okay." She rubbed her thumb against his palm. "I dream that I have that feeling I told you about. It's so strong in my dreams that I’m often overwhelmed by it."

"What feeling?" He needed her to be explicit.

"The one I had in L.A. before I went back to Sunnydale to find you." She released his hand momentarily to straighten the arc of her golden hair fanning back behind her.

"Ah." Her hand readjusted itself until it was enfolded into his.

"Only this time, sometimes I go back to Sunnydale and sometimes I don't."

"So, you don't go back for me?"

She studied his eyes, and he felt like she was trying to read him. "No. Sometimes I do. And if I do, I spend what feels like hours in the crater, trapped and searching for you. I find all kinds of things that remind me of home. . . photo albums I lost, Mom's jewelry, my sticker collection. . ."

He snickered. "Your sticker collection? Little decals of butterflies and hearts and puppies?"

"Yeah! And fairies!" She mock-glared at him, pushing against his chest teasingly. "I used to collect them."

"In what, third grade?"

"Did I say it made sense? Point is, as I'm searching, I find bits of my old life, but I can't find you. And I get scared." The confession of her reaction to her dream came out almost inaudibly. Before Spike could ask about her fear, she changed directions, "And other times, I dream about that feeling, and I'm stuck in Cleveland or L.A., and I somehow know that you're there. So, I end up walking all over the city, searching. Usually, I think that I almost catch a glimpse of you, but you always evade me. Or if I do catch up to the person I think is you, it's not you, you know?" Tears filled her eyes, and she tried to blink them away.

Spike didn't quite know how to respond, so he merely stroked her hair. Then, "But you did find me, and I'm alive."

Her eyes soft with unshed tears, she smiled and traced a short path on his forehead with her fingertips. "I know. When I wake up, I know."

They lay facing one another for a while with an amicable peace between them. For some reason, Buffy's profession about her recurring dream had whittled away part of the wall Spike had built between them, and he allowed himself to explore her emerald eyes for greater acceptance. With a new boldness, she met him halfway, not focusing on anything but the blue depths before her.

When Buffy's eyelids started to droop with a heavy need to close, Spike could stand it no longer. "Pet, can I ask you a question?"

Her lids made an attempt to rise higher. "Sure."

"Can you tell me more about that feeling you had?"

She was evasive, "What feeling?"

He swallowed the lump in his throat. Was she going to deny him the truth yet again? "You know, the one that led you to look for me."

Squirming a bit on her area of the bed, Buffy sighed. "I wish I could tell you. I've tried to reason it out, but nothing seems to work. Pearson says that sometimes. . ."

Spike stiffened. "Pearson says what?" he interrupted without thinking. His voice contained a mixture of hurt and defensiveness that he'd temporarily stowed away in the back of his mind.

Buffy seemed to retreat a bit at his abrasive reaction, but she trudged ahead, albeit a bit more meekly, "He says that sometimes people have feelings that can't be explained by reason, by logic. But he also says that people have a choice about how to respond to those feelings."

Spike was beyond contending with her words, and he said the first thing that came to his mind, "Buffy, is he your therapist?"

The callousness of his disruption would have normally caused Buffy's temper to flare, but she'd had three years of life changes under her belt, and she forced herself to remain calm and not give in to the temptation to fight back. "No, he's not. I did see someone for counseling for about a year, and she worked in the same office he did. That's how I met him."

Before Spike could respond, he heard Angel clear his throat from the doorway.

Chapter Text

Chapter Five

 

Buffy Summers rarely felt naked. . . except for when she was literally naked for regular bathing or occasional skinny-dipping, but she rarely felt emotionally naked.

And now was one of those infrequent moments.

Thankfully, she wasn't the only one who was facing down her ex-lover's glare. She swore that if she could bottle that expression, she could make millions.

She already knew what the label would read, "Bottled glare. For use on unreasonable parents, people who talk on cell phones during the crucial scenes at the movies, dentists who clean your teeth too roughly, and ex-boyfriends who catch you in bed with their relative. Use only as directed. May want to consult a physician before use due to adverse side effect of marring face permanently and rendering smiles useless."

In a totally inappropriate laugh for the situation, a giggle bubbled forth before she could stop it.

Angel frowned harder. "What's so funny, Buffy?"

Buffy eyes fluttered to Spike's for a moment, and she saw that his visage was a blank slate. She wondered for what felt like the thousandth time what he was thinking. Her own thoughts flashed to the time Riley caught them together. His reaction was quite the opposite from when he'd thrown their "relationship" in Riley's face.

She also pondered what kind of relationship Spike had developed with Angel after working with him for three years. Was it a good one built on mutual respect and understanding, or was their relationship tainted by past resentments and jealousy? Based on what she had seen so far, she decided on a mix of the two.

She removed her hand from where it had settled on Spike's chest upon Angel's intrusion. "Nothing," she replied softly.

Angel blazed onward, "Well, while you two were busy snuggling, the boy, whom you rescued, unlatched the door and left."

"What?" Buffy sat up from where she'd frozen. The pallet was indeed empty. "Damn it!"

Rumpled clothing or no, she tugged on her shoes and charged out the door with Spike hot on her heels. The three searched the hotel grounds, using their enhanced senses to do a thorough scan. Mary, the woman Angel found in his closet, followed them like a zombie, probably still in shock from the abuse she'd endured.

After several minutes of finding no trace of the young boy, Buffy gave up and sagged against the side of the building in defeat.

"Buffy," Angel began, pointedly using her real name yet again, "there's nothing we can do. He's gone. If he's self-sufficient enough to get out of the room and get this far away without being killed, he's probably capable of surviving out there."

Buffy looked up with tears in her eyes. "But for how long? I mean, he's a little boy."

"I don't know." Angel gently touched her shoulder. "But we can't linger here too long, or vamps will start asking questions." He inclined his head to the left.

Buffy spied three vampires lounging in the shadows, staring at them oddly. Her eyebrows lifted. "Right." Wiping away the water, Buffy fixed her eyes on Spike's blue ones. "I guess we better get ready to go into the city."

Angel went to Mary, who was hanging a bit apart from them, staring off into the darkness with her arms around her ribcage like she was lost and cold. She gazed up at Angel with big eyes as he bent to whisper something to her in a voice so low that vampire hearing couldn't pick it up. Then, Angel began roughly dragging her toward Buffy and Spike's room. Buffy could tell he wasn't really trying to hurt her, but he had to put on a nice show for their onlookers.

Buffy turned to Spike. Tears consumed her vision for a third time that day. "It's all my fault."

Spike assumed a position next to her as she walked slowly back toward their room. "If it's anybody's fault, it's mine as much as yours, pet." Buffy waited for him to continue. "And anyway, I tend to agree with Angel. We're stuck in these roles in this environment. Looks like to some extent, we'll have to play by the rules here even if it means doing - or not doing - some things that make us feel uncomfortable."

"I guess." Buffy was not used to having to play by anyone else's rules, and to some extent, neither were Angel and Spike.

Spike echoed her thoughts in a half-growl, "Hopefully, not for very long."

Buffy glimpsed yellow eyes surrounding them. "Hopefully not."

* * *

The city was less remarkable than Buffy imagined it would be. For the most part, the streets were well lit by streetlamps and were designed like most large American cities. On the other hand, she had sort of expected that the streets might be a chaotic mess, rather like a city with multiple riots going on at the same time.

The only unusual aspects of the city were the continual darkness, the faint scent of blood that clung like static electricity to the air, the lack of motor vehicles in the streets, and the plethora of vampires that lined the sidewalks. Some were well dressed; others were not. Some wore their game faces; others did not. The well-dressed vamps generally wore their human masks. But even with the apparent differences in class, their expressions were surprisingly similar. The determination in their eyes was almost palpable. Their odd semblance of purpose disconcerted Buffy.

When they passed the first small cluster of vampires, she held her breath and prayed silently that they wouldn't see her humanity, shining out like a beacon. Fred had reassured them that only the oldest and more experienced vampires would be able to view or sense their true nature beneath their disguises.

What else had she said?

Oh, yes. Fred had informed her that to throw the older vampires off, she and Spike would merely have to avoid eye contact with them as much as possible and that they might be able to sense when they were in the presence of someone who might be dangerous to them.

Buffy didn't sense anything out of the group passing them, but she averted her eyes anyway and almost imperceptibly shivered. She and Spike were in front of Angel and Mary, and she noted that Spike protectively moved to the opposite side of her after they passed the vampires.

Annoyance stirred within her, and before she could contain herself, she shot him a look. She would have put up with such old-fashioned shielding behavior from Riley but not Spike. She was especially bothered after his casual behavior toward her earlier,as if they hadn't had an intimate talk in the motel room. Her thoughts and feelings weren't resolved, and while she was usually good at pushing aside her feelings where a mission was concerned, she was having trouble now.

Spike returned her glare but maintained his position as the next group approached.

Buffy bit her lip as they continued to meander through the crowd. She was highly tempted to lash back at him, and the feeling frightened her for a reason she couldn't quite put into words. Her irritation with him increased, and she involuntarily crossed her arms.

He bent to her ear when they reached a spot with few vampires nearby. In a low tone, he whispered, "It's the way of things with certain vamps. With you walking on the outside, they had every right to pull you away from us and claim you."

Buffy felt a pout coming on. "God, how chauvinistic! And you thought I couldn't take care of myself?" She knew her volume was a bit loud, but she didn't care.

Angel chose that moment to add his two cents. "Spike did the right thing. We can't afford to draw too much attention to ourselves."

"Right. Like we already aren't drawing too much attention with some human we picked up out of a closet in a motel room and. . ." She waved a hand at their bodies. "Our clothes. Geez."

"What's wrong with our clothes?" Angel glanced down at his leather pants, black shirt and leather duster.

Frowning, Spike glanced at his similarly dressed form and then at the coming group of vamps. "I think she's right, mate. The trend seems to involve more color." He forcibly snagged the deep burgundy-colored sleeve of one of the passing vampires who hardly looked surprised and ducked his head toward his chest to avoid Spike's eyes. "Tell me where to get new clothes."

Buffy restrained a laugh. She would never have thought to hear Spike demanding to know where he could find a clothing store. And he was right. The vampires did seem to be shying away from black. . . even if the colors were muted.

The other vampires in their captive's group kept walking, leaving him behind. Wordlessly, he raised his arm and pointed toward a door across the street. Nothing marked the door to indicate it sold clothing, but then again, nothing seemed to be well marked around the city.

Spike nodded and released the vampire. "Thanks," he muttered gruffly, and the vampire kept moving as if nothing had happened.

"So let's get some new clothes," Buffy said brightly, avoiding awareness of how creeped out she was by the whole city. "Mary definitely needs something new." The prospect of new clothes never failed to bring a bounce to her step. She started to lead the way across the street but remembered what Spike said and hung back close to him.

Angel trailed behind them, tugging a reluctant Mary by the elbow. For some reason, she did not want to follow Buffy.

Moving past Spike as soon as she felt like she could, Buffy shoved the door open with authority. She noted that it was made of metal, not wood, as it thudded heavily against the wall. Surveying the room with her well-used Slayer instincts, she saw racks and racks of clothing arranged by color. The shop was small with mirrors on the side walls to make it look larger. She thought it was ironic that there would be mirrors on the walls given that vampires cast no reflection, but she guessed that what was important was the shop's display of unexpectedly inoffensive product. A small table in the back seemed to be the hub of purchasing. Buffy glimpsed a small row of dressing rooms through the open doorway adjacent to the table.

No vampires were in sight.

"Huh." Buffy planted her hands on her hips. "No one's around. Strange."

"No rhyme or reason to a shop run by a vampire, pet," Spike informed at her side.

"Well, some vampires," Angel added. "Some don't have a clue when it comes to retail. I wonder why that is?" His last sentence was sarcastic and not meant to be a question.

Buffy hadn't heard Angel because she had busily moved on to rummaging through the racks of dark green clothing. She held up a purposefully torn tank top and green denim jeans embroidered with tiny metal rings up and down each leg. "Think these would bring out my eyes?" She playfully batted her emerald eyes.

Neither Spike nor Angel smiled.

"Let's just get something and get out of here," Spike said as Buffy brought an outfit to Mary, holding it up to the bewildered woman's body to see if it might fit.

"Should we get something of quality?" Buffy asked, hurrying to a rack of female clothing that resembled the type worn by the "upper class" vampires they'd seen. "We might have more authority that way."

"Good idea," Angel assented, plunging into the dark blue clothes in search of something that would fit his large stature.

Shrugging, Spike joined them, choosing to look at the colors closest to red. After they’d been browsing for several seconds, he noted, “I think we’d better choose black.”

Buffy glanced at Spike, remembering what she had noticed when he’d grabbed the vampire in the street. She tucked the outfit in her hand back into the rack. “I think you’re right.”

Angel nodded. “Makes as much sense as anything.”

The trio moved to the rack of black clothing and searching for correct sizes. More serious now, Buffy focused on choosing something functional and comfortable looking.

Poor Mary hung back with her head bowed. Suddenly, she lifted it with a sharp intake of air. Her companions' heads shot up simultaneously.

There was a new vampire in their midst.

Buffy's eyes widened.

Angel scowled, and Spike smirked.

"Well, well, well. Lookie who wandered into my little shop," Harmony quipped with false honey lacing her tone. She was dressed in black from head to toe, and she flicked her long blonde ponytail over one shoulder. "A whole crew of wannabe elites."

Spike immediately launched into an explanation, smoothly donning a confidence that reminded Buffy of the days when he had no soul and no chip. "Harm. Haven't seen you lately. You running this little establishment? Very quaint."

Harmony jabbed a finger at him, poking him in the chest. Buffy was surprised at her show of self-assurance. “You don't fool me, mister. I know all about your little soul. . . and Angel's obviously." She narrowed her eyes at Buffy. "And you're still hanging out with her? Honestly, Spike, I would have thought you'd have better taste."

Moving from in front of Spike, Harmony began circling Buffy, and Buffy felt her muscles tense with the desire to lash out. Her eyes glowed yellow, and her fangs started to extend.

"You vamped her?" Harmony frowned with faint confusion typical of her high school days. "That doesn't sound like something you guys would do.” Her eyes lit on the cowering form of the only human in the room. "And why have you stolen one of Kooch's humans?"

"How do you know. . .?" Angel began.

Harmony pouted and traced a line over Mary's cheek so that she shuddered. "It's obvious. Any moron could read that she's Kooch's. Just look at the arrangement of the bite marks on her cheek." Then, she whirled on Spike. "You guys are on some kind of covert mission, aren't you?" She nodded at Buffy while keeping her eyes on her ex-lover. "And I bet that you haven't vamped her. I bet it's some kind of elaborate disguise!"

Harmony lunged at Buffy as if doing so would prove her point. Spike's reaction was swift as he flung her back against a fixture of clothing. "Look. You really want to take all three of us on?"

Rubbing her arm where Spike's fingers had been, Harmony glowered up at him from where she was leaning against the clothing. "I knew it," she accused, tears welling in her eyes. "You're undercover. I'm not stupid, you know. And I'm sure you know that you won't get away with whatever you're doing. Let me guess, you're here to stop the city from shifting into your dimension. You definitely won't have any say in that."

Spike played into her desire to show off her knowledge of the vampire city of which they knew little. "And why not?"

"Because you're dressed like the leading factions and you're obviously not part of them. You can’t wear black if you're not a member of the inner core. And you can't just cart around a stolen human like it's yours. And everyone who knows you would obviously know you have a soul. And, duh, everyone knows who Buffy is."

Buffy, Angel, and Spike exchanged knowing looks, and Buffy wondered if perhaps they could all work together on this mission. Maybe they just needed a common enemy.

Spike took the reins again, "And you're wearing black because. . .?"

Harmony lifted her chin slightly. "Because I'm someone important here, unlike you."

With a predatory grin, Spike advanced on her. "And you're going to help us."

Taken aback, Harmony panicked. "What? No, I'm not."

"Yes. You are." He gripped her arm again.

She jerked away, her bottom lip quivering. "And why should I? I have it good here. Better than I ever had it with you. I'm dating someone who cares about me. I have my own shop. I have access to the best hunting grounds and an unlimited account at the drive through blood bank. . . ."

"You'll help us if you want to live," Spike said quietly. "You'll tell us what we need to know."

Tears flowed over Harmony's heavily made-up cheeks. "If you ruin this for me. . . ."

"I could tell everyone about a certain poker game. . . ." Spike remained unsympathetic, and Buffy quelled the empathy she was beginning to feel for Harmony, who was quite obviously still the lost little girl she'd known in high school.

Harmony's eyes grew to give her a naïve appearance. "You wouldn't!"

Spike had her. "I *would*."

Buffy gave Angel a confused look, and he shrugged. Neither of them had heard that story, but it likely wasn't something very positive for Harmony.

Before Harmony could respond with anything more than a glare, the door to the shop slammed ajar. Two-dozen vampires dressed in black streamed into the store, sending metal fixtures and clothes flying across the room. Undistracted, the attackers used long knives to slice through cloth and hammers to smash and bend metal.

Harmony attempted to spring forward, but Spike kept a steady hand on her arm. All they could do was watch as the vagrant vampires set fires in the dressing rooms, and within a handful of seconds, the shop was completely destroyed. As flames and smoke threatened to advance, the vampires turned to Harmony and her unwitting companions.

The vampire closest to Harmony stepped toward her, brandishing a stake. Eyes glowing golden, he growled, "Consider this a warning from Her Eminence to the one you follow. Stay out of our business, or next time, you'll wind up at the end of something wooden."

The vampires flowed out of the shop as quickly as they entered. Without the destruction around them, it would have almost been like they had never been present. Although the fire and smoke continued to grow, they were partially stopped by a wall of mounded clothing. Whoever they were, they didn't want Harmony dead.

With a soft sob, Harmony collapsed to the ground and buried her face in her hands, shoulders shaking with her cries.

Spike knelt beside her and touched her back gently, and Buffy felt a seed of jealousy spring to life at the gentleness he was showing his ex-lover. "Who are they?"

Harmony raised her head with a grim visage. "They're members of the other faction. They want to move the city into the light."

"And what can you tell us about your faction? Who’s your leader?"

"Someone who doesn't want that to happen." Harmony wiped her tears away and gazed around her ruined store. "My shop!" she wailed. "It was all mine to do with as I pleased. . .t-the first time I ever owned anything successful. And now it's ruined!"

Footsteps of multiple vampires resounded on the pavement outside. Five vampires ran through the door. They were all dressed in black, too.

Buffy’s jaw almost hit the floor; one of the vampires was Michael.

Concern was etched on Michael’s face. "Harmony, are you all right?"

She smiled up at him through her tears, and at their exchange, Spike moved to rejoin Buffy and Angel. "Y-yeah. It was her men again. Why do they keep destroying everything I love?"

Michael strode across the room and drew her close, smoothing her hair with one hand like something out of a romance novel. Buffy filed that interesting exchange in her mind for later pondering and glanced to see Spike's decidedly neutral face, watching them intently. The jealousy in her heart sprouted an extra vine, and part of her longed to be back in his arms again, to revisit the intimacy from this morning. "They're trying to get to us - to Stephan."

Harmony's sobs came louder. "B-but I worked hard to keep them from doing it this time. I didn't even put a sign up. How did they know where I was?"

"I don't know, baby." Michael noticed Angel, Buffy, Spike, and Mary as if for the first time. He consciously drew back from Harmony. "Well, look who we have here." He smiled, revealing pointed teeth. "Let's see if I remember your names. . . ."

"Liz, Will, and Andy," Buffy interjected quickly.

Harmony stared at her with her mouth open and seemed to be trying to decide whether or not to correct her. Spike shot her a reminder frown, and she clapped her mouth shut.

Michael laughed. "Changed your names, I see. They definitely suit you better." Putting his arm around Harmony's shoulders, he hugged her close. "Thank you for making sure my girl stayed safe."

"But they. . . ," Harmony began.

Spike interrupted, "Michael, what do you know about poker. . .”

Harmony rushed to finish her sentence a different way, "Yes, they did. They saved me."

Michael glanced with uncertainty between Spike and Harmony. Buffy could tell he knew something was up, and she felt certain that although he was not an old vampire, he had been sired by someone who was. Power that she hadn’t detected before in the heat of the earlier chase rolled off his body. They would have to maintain close watch over him.

As she surveyed Michael, Buffy sensed Spike's eyes on her. She smiled over her shoulder at him, but his emotions remained invisible to her.

"They deserve a reward," Harmony babbled on, sliding her arm around Michael's waist.

"Right," Michael agreed. "I should get you out of here. How about we all go somewhere a bit safer? Maybe get a bite to eat." He nodded at Mary who was half hiding behind Angel's tall form. "I see you snagged one of Kooch's."

Angel took the cue to drag Mary up to him. "Meal on the go. Kooch shouldn't leave food lying around like that."

Michael chuckled. "Agreed." He swept his hand toward the open door. "Shall we?"

Clearing her throat, Harmony spoke up, "Shouldn't they change clothes first?"

For the first time, Michael was patronizing with her, "Harm. Think about it. The clothes here are ruined. They'll be fine until we get somewhere safe."

Harmony ducked her head at the reprimand.

Buffy was attuned to Spike's muscles tightening next to her. He didn't like that any other male would treat Harmony with any semblance of disrespect, and Buffy wasn't sure what to make of that.

Chapter Text

Chapter Six

 

Spike's first impression of the vampire leaning over the rail was that he was old. He wasn’t as old as Angel or Spike, but he'd been a member of the undead for a long while.

The vampire was likely turned when he was slightly younger than Michael, but despite his youthful appearance, he was likely experienced and knew the rules of survival.

Experience alone did not make a good leader.

His skin had probably been fair even when he was alive, his build and height were average, and his dark hair was a tousled mop as if he'd tumbled out of bed and forgotten to comb it. He wore black; however, it wasn't leather or tailored. Instead, he wore black jeans and a cotton shirt that was un-tucked and slightly askew.

From a distance, Spike would not have pegged him as someone who took charge. However, judging from the silent entourage in the shadows, the vampire commanded respect.

The vampire kept his attention on the monitors before him as Spike and the others clustered behind him. Although he appeared nonchalant, his voice was deep and energized, "Michael, you've brought visitors."

Michael removed Harmony's hand from his arm and joined the vampire at the rail. "I have. They are new to the city."

"New? They've never been here?" The vampire afforded them a glimpse of dark brown eyes. Spike averted his gaze and hoped the vampire took it as a sign of deference.

"No, they haven't. They're the ones from last night. . . the ones who were with me when the kranooks were after me," Michael explained. "And today, they saved Harmony's life."

Buffy's arm brushed Spike's, and he was forced to work hard to hold back any display of emotion. He very carefully leaned the other direction, pretending to be entranced by something on one of the monitors. Truth be told, he couldn't make out a thing on them. He wasn’t sure why he needed more distance from Buffy again after their earlier talk. All he knew was that he did.

"Ah. I'd heard about them." The vampire leader half-turned, and force radiated from him. His eyes locked on Buffy, who Spike could see was bowing her head out of false modesty. "You. What's your name?"

In an excellent imitation of Tara's shyness, Buffy peeked up briefly as if hiding behind her hair. "Liz," she replied with a bit too much confidence. So much for her pretense of timidity.

"Liz. Come here." He gestured for her to come forward. Buffy obediently joined him, moving awkwardly in the too tight green leather pants that Harmony had given her.

Although the vampire didn't touch her, he was attracted to her. Spike could smell his desire, and he didn't like it. Angel apparently didn't either because he emitted a quiet sound that only Spike recognized as a sign of displeasure. At least, they were united on that point.

Spike reminded himself that they had been united on more than one point before Buffy returned. After Spike had physically recovered enough from his sacrifice in Sunnydale and his subsequent transformation, they’d had a few scuffles, one of which Spike was resourceful enough to win despite no longer having the speed or strength of a vampire. He couldn’t even recall what they fought about now. Mostly likely, it had been about Buffy.

It was always about Buffy.

Before Buffy, it was about Dru. He mused that maybe they’d always be in competition with one another over something. . . like family members often were. Along with that healthy - and sometimes unhealthy, competition - he found that part of him carried a deep affection for the Angel of now, too. Over the past three years, they’d worked together against the underhandedness of the senior partners and developed a trust he’d never thought they’d have. It had helped that a woman wasn’t around to come between them.

Spike returned his attention to the conversation between the vampire leader and Buffy. He thought he might have caught the vampire introducing himself as Stephan.

"And see here," Stephan pointed at one of the monitors. When he touched one screen, the rest went dark. "This is one of our most popular hunts. It's a series or tournament, you see, kind of like baseball or golf. We send our best hunters into a vampire-constructed forest and let loose one human, preferably one with brains, skill, and strength. Whoever captures the human first wins the round and advances to the next one. With each round, the quality of the vampire hunters and the human prey improves until we reach the final round, which is our championship. The winner walks away with a lifetime supply of blood and a penthouse apartment in a safe part of the city."

Spike squinted at the monitor Stephan had pointed to. From Spike's vantage point, nothing was visible except trees, and inanely, he wondered how trees grew in a place with no sunlight.

For a moment, Spike let his jealousy regarding Buffy shine through, interrupting Stephan, "So, it's more like a fox hunt, then?"

Unruffled, Stephan turned briefly and winked at Spike. "Right."

He motioned the others forward. Only Spike boldly advanced. Angel hung back with Mary, and Michael and Harmony seemed to have disappeared.

Stephan continued, "Except the vamps in this tournament are a little bit more ruthless than hunters of old. Although. . . I really have no idea about the past. Perhaps the humans in a fox hunt played more tricks on one another than I know. Anyway, the vamps will often set traps for one another. They've gotten into some pretty bloody scrapes, and often, there're quite a few dustings along the way."

"Wow," Buffy breathed, but the Buffy Spike knew was likely holding back her sarcasm.

"Wow is right, and that is only one of the marvels of this 'world' we vampires have made for ourselves. You'll learn more about this tomorrow when Michael and I have time to show you what we have to offer. My plan, Liz, Will, and Andy, is to convince you that our city should not be moved into the other dimension."

"Right. Well, we sort of already agree," Buffy said before she could stop herself.

Moving back from the rail, Stephan was bemused. "Still. I want to make sure of that."

Buffy fidgeted, and Spike could tell that she was antsy for information. "What are the kranooks besides something reptilian and very scary?"

A grin spread across Stephan's face. "Getting straight to your questions. I like that."

Returning his grin, Buffy stated, "I have a lot of them."

"Good. Let's walk, shall we?" He started toward a door opposite from where they'd come into the room.

In silent agreement to let Buffy ask the questions, Spike and Angel followed them. Spike was distinctly aware of the presence of at least eight vampires bringing up the rear. The building, which was magically hidden behind a vampire brothel, was definitely secure.

"So, you want to know about the kranooks?" Stephan asked, politely keeping a safe distance from Buffy as he led them through a maze of dimly lit but clean smelling hallways that were lined with a multitude of closed doors. Spike could hear noises coming from behind some of them.

"Right," Buffy said with a bit too much spunk for Spike's taste. Stephan didn’t seem to mind.

"Well, in order to explain about that properly, I'll need to explain something else first." Stephan pushed open one of the doors to reveal a small library with walls full of books. Stuffed chairs were situated around a small table, which was stacked high with leather-bound volumes that had been obviously been perusing earlier.

Going to a dispenser on the left, Stephan poured himself a mug of steaming blood. Spike was amused that he could smell it the way a vampire could but didn’t crave it; it was an odd juxtaposition to him.

Stephan raised the cup at Angel, Spike and Buffy. "Blood?" When they all declined, he took a small sip and made a face when he burned his tongue. "I like mine really hot. Sometimes it gets me in trouble."

Once he had them settled around the small table, including Mary, he launched into his tale, "So, you've probably heard about there being two factions: one for the emergence of the city into the world of humans and one against it. One is obviously headed by me. The other is headed by my twin sister, Stephanie."

"The Gemela Prophecy!" Angel burst out, sitting forward with interest. Spike and Buffy stared at him as if he had three heads, and Spike decided that the information must have been in the thick mission packet he hadn't bothered to read because he'd been too upset.

Stephan nodded. "You're up on your prophecies."

Emboldened, Angel launched onward, "Well, what can I say? I work with an evil l. . ." Buffy and Spike gave him a dirty look, and he switched his words, "library. I'm a. . . librarian at a, uh, . . . demon library."

Stephan didn't even flinch. "You'd be surprised, but some demons are interested in education."

"Right," Spike acknowledged. He'd read more than a book or two in his time despite his attempts to feign disinterest.

"And the prophecy of the twins coming to power in the vampire world has now, for the record, come to pass. My twin sister, Stephanie, is one leader in Vampire Villa."

Buffy sounded thoughtful, "And as you said, she's the leader of the other faction."

"She is." Stephan paused to take a sip of blood.

Inwardly, Spike found that he was slightly annoyed at the vampire leader's need to play the dramatic storyteller. On the other hand, Stephan might still have residual feelings for his sister; Spike had had them for his own relatives when he'd been a soulless vampire.

A little too eagerly, Buffy asked, "So, did you have a falling out with her over the whole issue of bringing the city into the human world?"

Spike fought the urge to nudge her foot with his under the table. She better watch herself, or she would end up giving them away.

Stephan grinned over the edge of his mug. "Yes. I did. It's an old sibling rivalry, if you will. Even as children, we fought over the minutest things, and on almost any subject, our opinions were opposite. Our temperaments were and are very different. I'm fairly laid back, and Stephanie. . . well, let's just say, she's not."

Angel was seemingly as impatient as Spike although he didn't show it outwardly. "So, how did you rise to power in Vampire Villa?"

Chuckling, Stephan admitted, "It seems that your simplest questions have such complicated answers. You see, despite what may seem apparent to you since you've come to Vampire Villa, most vampires aren't aware of the pervasiveness of the factions in their world. Some may even think the factions don't exist or dismiss their existence as the product of rumors.

"Stephanie and I were among the initial founders of Vampire Villa when the Slayers began to proliferate and eradicate thousands of vampires in the human dimension. Through an ancient text found at the remains of the Watchers Council, we managed to find a way to cut holes in dimensional walls, and after much experimentation, we found a pocket of darkness between dimensions. . . a place between this dimension and a sister one where we could build a safe haven for our kind.

"From the city's inception, Stephanie and I realized that vampires would not take kindly to being 'ruled' by vampires with our strength and power. There would be too much fighting for that power. So, we decided to put in place a set of vampires who believed they were in charge. . . vampires who would be respected and followed by other vampires.”

Spike found himself fidgeting. Didn’t this guy ever stop prattling?

Stephan either couldn’t read his audience or didn’t care because he continued, "Each time Stephanie or I discovered a cluster of vampires living in the human dimension, we handpicked the vampire leaders to take a position of authority within the growing city we were forming. With magic and a bit of behind-the-scenes finagling, we led those vampires to believe that they were coming to power through their natural, innate talents. We chose leaders that were experts across multiple areas of art and science. They were and are acquainted with us, but they don't recognize us as having any power over them."

Stephan paused to drink deeply from his cup, allowing Buffy time to ask a question. "So, how did you have any influence over what they did? It seems like it might have led to chaos, having all those different leaders with differing ideas about what was best for the city."

"Excellent point, my dear. That's why Stephanie and I led from behind the scenes. We wanted to make sure that things ran smoothly and to our liking. We accomplished it mob style. We made sure that we sired enough vamps to fill key positions and to support our endeavors with force if need be. . . all very discretely, of course. They are our eyes and ears on the ground. The local leaders we handpicked were soon and continue to be merely figureheads. They lead the teams that helped build the structures around the city and make some decisions, but Stephanie's or my influence touches most everything you see within the city limits. Most vampires in the city had, and still have, no awareness of the breadth of our authority. If they are even aware of us at all.

"For example, today's attack on Harmony's shop was no coincidence. Stephanie takes every chance she can to try and get to me. I think it's because she's aware that something big is about to go down. In any case, today's attack will hardly be a blip on the radar. The city news won't report it, or if they do report it, it will be cited as an accident with the wiring or some such nonsense."

"Where do the kranooks come into play?" Angel injected, shifting his legs.

"Ah. The kranooks. I think a better question to answer first would be how Stephanie and I parted ways. Then, I think your other question will be answered." Stephan sniffed the empty mug and set it aside with a bit of disgruntlement on his face. "About a year after the inception of the city, Stephanie got the idea in her head that she wanted to eventually move the city back to the human dimension. I didn't quite understand it because we had the perfect set up. The sun never shone, the system of leading through figureheads was running smoothly, and we had all the blood we needed. It was like a miniature hell without the fire, brimstone, and endless torture." With that comment, a faraway expression of peace lit Stephan's face.

"She missed human civilization? The 'happy meals on legs' or something to that effect?" Buffy suggested.

Spike shot her a pointed glance and then looked at Angel. Angel didn’t react, so Spike decided that his grandsire didn’t even know that he hadn’t like the idea of losing not just his food source but many other human things that he was right fond of. Working with Buffy to stop Angelus from bringing hell to earth via Acathla had been the start of everything between them, something Spike hadn’t given much thought to in a long time. He still recalled how fearless and utterly vulnerable she was in the face of her lover turned evil. That combination was what drew him to her time and time again. It’s what drew him to her even now.

Stephan looked startled by Buffy’s questions. "Perhaps. . . perhaps she was homesick. She missed the challenge of being in your dimension. She didn’t like being reined in by the society here. Despite our inability to come to a compromise, she began researching a way to magically transfer the entire city to the United States. When I reminded her that the city would be susceptible to attack by the Slayers, she became obsessed with trying to find a way to protect the city. One avenue she explored was genetics mixed with magic."

"Hence, the kranooks.” Buffy’s face couldn’t hide her disgust.

"Right. They're not a naturally occurring demon race. They were genetically and magically created."

"As were most of the demon types on earth," Spike interrupted. This really wasn’t anything new, and though he couldn’t show it, he felt irritated that Stephan was trying to pass it off as particularly unique and special.

Buffy kicked Spike under the table, and Stephan just looked annoyed. Spike suppressed the urge to grin.

Stephan turned his attention back to Buffy. "I warned her that the violent temperament she gave the half-human, half-snake creatures would be uncontrollable. She didn't listen, and although the creatures listened to her, they didn't listen to anyone else, including me."

Spike caught himself before he could mutter something rude about listening to Stephan under his breath.

"So, being smart, they managed to escape into other dimensions because whatever magic she used allowed them to cross the dimensional barriers. In our efforts to regain control over them and herd them back for destruction, we discovered a couple of things. One is that the kranooks couldn't survive too far from a source of magic; they need it to survive. So, they tended to gravitate toward pockets of magic in other dimensions. In your dimension, they couldn't travel too far from the edges of the entrances of the vampire city."

"Even with the magic of the hellmouth and other similar locations?" Buffy asked. Spike noticed she was making an effort not to look too intently at Stephan.

"Even with. None of the mystical areas were close enough to the vampire city with the exception of New Orleans," Stephan clarified.

Buffy frowned slightly as if pondering something. Spike wondered if the kranooks had something to do with the recent mysterious disappearance of the Slayer stationed in New Orleans.

Stephan was still talking, "We managed to recover most of the kranooks, but Stephanie insisted we leave them at the edges of the vampire city to protect it. She felt like their need for magic to survive gave her power over them. I didn't agree. I wanted to terminate the bizarre experiment before it got more out of hand. Our arguments about Stephanie's plans intensified over several weeks until we stopped talking to one another. Then, one day, a minor incident with some of the underground vampires pushed her over, and she broke from me, taking several of our elite crew with her. Since then, she has continually tried to undermine me. For the most part, no one is aware of the feud, with the exception of those I trust the most."

Buffy chewed on her lower lip. "Why hasn't she sent the kranooks after you?"

"She’s using them and those loyal to her to guard something I need. . . something I used to have. She believes it is the key to making her plan come to pass."

"The plan to bring the vampire city among the world of the living," Spike added.

"Yes." Stephan nodded.

"There's always a something. What is it?" Spike could tell Buffy was thinking hard, and he wondered if her thoughts were similar to his. Stephan was waiting for them to sort through the facts, and Spike didn't like it.

"It's half a dimensional trigger. She only has half. With half, one can open temporary portals between the two neighboring dimensions and the vampire city. However, the portals aren't stable enough to move whole cities across dimensions. Stephanie needs. . .wants both pieces. As do I."

"And Michael has one piece," Buffy stated as she remembered that Michael had opened the portal between dimensions.

Stephan nodded. "Stephanie and I each have a piece. We use them to cross dimensions to meet our needs. Michael was running an errand for me, and Stephanie found out about it. She sent the kranooks for him, and he barely escaped."

"And you're telling us all this because. . . ?" Spike asked, not able to hide his impatience anymore.

"Because," Stephan looked hard at each one of them with an air of nonchalance, "I need your help, and. . . I know who all of you are." He paused as he waited for his statement to have an impact.

Spike, Angel, and Buffy rose as one as if they'd fought together for ages. Spike felt the energy rolling through the three of them. It hummed through his veins, and he made a mental note of it. He was ready for a fight despite the overwhelming odds against them.

Stephan evenly regarded the trio and smiled as several vampires dressed in black emerged from the shadows. One of the vampires plucked a terrified Mary from her seat.

"Hey," Angel snarled, shifting into vampire face.

"Don't worry. Your human isn't going anywhere. But then again, neither are you," Stephan said calmly. "You're well within the midst of our city. Even if you got out of the building, the city works for me. Well, half of it does anyway. You'd be stopped before you made it past the first block, and no one would be the wiser."

"How did you know it was us?" Buffy demanded, holding up a stake that she'd managed to conceal quite invisibly on her person.

"Did Harmony tell you?" Spike growled, not for the first time thinking very vile thoughts about his ex and shifting his eyes to search the room for a weapon. He settled on the coffee. . . blood pot.

"Harmony didn't tell me anything. I read the prophecies. I knew long before you got here. . . that a Slayer and two vampires with souls - "

"Make that one. . . one vampire with a soul," Angel insisted.

Stephan rolled his eyes, and Spike felt a modicum of respect for the vampire. “One vampire with a soul. I knew who you were as soon as you set foot in the city. No other vampire knows - except perhaps Stephanie. Not even Michael has a clue. Harmony is a simpleton. . . sweet but not too bright. She's around because she knows you and because Michael seems to have taken a shine to her. You might ask how I know about you. . . "

"You read the prophecy," Buffy said, and Spike swore he could see her true nature shining out from her eyes. "Big whoop, you can read."

"And you probably think I want to get rid of you before the prophecy can come to pass. Before you can decimate the city." Stephan motioned for the vampires behind him. "And you would be wrong. I don't want to kill you. . . or even to stop the prophecy. At least, not yet. You, Buffy, have a history of thwarting prophecy. I'm banking on it. I want to stop my sister. If she brings the city to fruition in the human world, vampires will cease to experience the prosperity they've enjoyed."

"And we couldn't have that." Buffy's words were biting now that they didn’t have to fake being civil anymore. "There's a hidden agenda in there for you, mister."

"Of course. I would lose power if the city was brought into the light. But I'm also about bringing the spark of humanity back into the vampire community."

Spike snorted; Stephan sounded like a very bad campaign ad. "That'll be the day."

Stephan ignored him. "You haven't seen what I've done with the city. Before you decide. . . well, you really have no choice. I want you to see the plans I have. I've made great steps in improving the way our kind lives."

"And what are you planning on having us do?" Buffy asked.

Walking to the door, Stephan swung it open and grinned. "I'll explain after the remainder of the tour."

* * *

Stephan took them for a walk as Spike noticed that all vampires were wont to do in Vampire Villa. Dressed in black and surrounded by an entourage of other vampires in black afforded all of them respect and deference in the streets. They soon reached their destination, which was yet another nondescript structure, albeit with several floors. A small white sign that bore a red cross hung over a pair of metal sliding doors. A handful of Stephan’s bodyguards peeled off to guard the doors, and the rest accompanied Spike, Buffy, Angel, Mary, and Stephan into the building.

Spike found himself in a small, stark white waiting area. Metallic silver chairs were attached along one wall, and across from the entrance, a reception desk curved around in a u-shape, blocking glass doors to a long white hallway beyond. The overhead lights were out of view but cast a florescent glow over the space so that everyone looked even more pale and washed out. His muscles clenched. The place reminded him of the Initiative, and his gut instinct said to not go further.

Buffy stood at his elbow, and Spike felt her forearm brush and then stay lightly against his. He offered her a thin-lipped smile of thanks, which she returned.

A tall, slender vampire with white blonde hair stood at the reception desk, her ebony clothing making her hair almost glow. “Welcome to our hospital. I’m Michelle, but everyone calls me Roxy.”

Stephan joined her side, looking even more rumpled next to her polished appearance. “Roxy is my liaison. She handles the marketing for our little ventures. She’s creative, hardworking, and stronger than she looks. Don’t let her catch you calling her Michelle.” He winked.

Since when did vampires have marketing departments? Spike studied Roxy. There was something in her light-colored eyes that was sadder than her demeanor readily indicated. She was not arrogant like Stephan. He couldn’t pinpoint what it was about her that gave him pause.

Roxy nodded to them. “You are here to tour our facilities. I think you will find that our patients receive the most humane treatment in all of Vampire Villa.”

Spike shifted uncomfortably. Her wording was odd.

“Come this way.” The heels of Roxy’s thigh high boots clicked sharply on the tiles as she led Angel, Spike, Buffy, Mary, and Stephan into the bowels of the hospital. The guards stayed behind to, well, stand guard.

“What types of illnesses do you treat here?” Angel asked, moving ahead of Buffy and Spike to Roxy’s side. “Vampires don’t typically get sick.”

What Angel said was true. Dru had been an anomaly, but then, everything about Dru was an anomaly - from her scarily accurate visions to her insanity.

Roxy used her hands when she talked. “Yes, this is true. You’ll see.” She gestured to the unmarked doors on either side of her. “These rooms are identical. Each room houses a patient in a comfortable space tailored just for them to make them comfortable as they wait to die.”

The hallway was full of unmarked doors, and unlike a typical hospital, there was no visible break in the passage for a nurse’s station or anything of the sort.

Buffy spoke up, “Make them comfortable as they wait to die? Why are vampires waiting to die?”

Roxy flicked her long strands over her shoulder and glanced back at Buffy. “Who said we treat vampires here?”

They had reached the end of the hallway, and with a snap of Roxy’s fingers, the air shimmered on the wall next to her and white elevator doors appeared.

Stephan leered at them and with a little bow, gestured for them to step onto the elevator.

Buffy took the plunge first and entered the spacious elevator. Spike quickly joined her, not willing to let her go it alone. Angel herded Mary forward despite her obvious trepidation. She clung to Angel’s arm and stared with wide eyes as the doors slipped shut behind Roxy and Stephan.

There were no buttons to push inside the small mirrored space, and Spike found it disconcerting to only see Mary’s reflection, so he focused on the backs of Buffy and Angel’s head. He guessed that perhaps he’d gotten used to seeing himself reflected back in the past three years.

“Who was in the rooms on the first floor?” Buffy asked as the doors reopened with a hiss.

“The same as on the second. You’ll see. Henry has agreed to talk with you,” Roxy said, leading the way again.

Her entourage followed with rather grim expressions on their faces except for Mary who looked like she might flee at any second and Stephan who was laissez-faire about the whole tour. Spike noted this was rapidly turning out to be a front because there was a reason that Stephan was going to so much trouble to convince them of his side of things.

Roxy stopped in front of the fifth door on the left and knocked.

An elderly voice called out, “Come in!”

Pushing the large heavy metal door inward, Roxy and her little tour group entered the Henry’s room. The deep browns and soft greens of the room were illuminated by gentle yellow lamplight, a stark contrast to the world outside, and Spike was reminded of Rupert’s Sunnydale apartment with the stacks of books and wood furniture. Spike also thought it was odd that the vampires would allow the wood. Out of years of habit, he scanned his surroundings for objects he could use as weapons, and he knew that Buffy and Angel were probably doing the same.

On the four-poster bed, a very human gentleman was propped up by several soft looking pillows. Blankets were tucked around his thin, frail frame. The only sign of any health-related equipment was a small panel behind his head that occasionally beeped. A tube of some sort snaked out of a device in the wall and was tucked into a vein at the crook of his elbow. Spike also noted the heavy bandage on his neck.

Though Henry looked weak, his blue eyes sparkled amongst the wrinkles on his face. “Hello!”

Roxy smiled with genuine affection at the older man, and Spike took note of that as well, filing it in the back of his mind. “Good morning, Henry. How are you feeling today?”

Henry bobbed his head, his voice weakening past his initial exuberance, “Well, well. I’m doing well.”

“Remember that we were bringing visitors to see the hospital?”

Henry squinted at them. “Yes.”

Buffy gave him a little wave.

Henry’s fingers lifted off the blanket, but his hand didn’t make it up. “Hello, young lady.” He paused, and his next words sounded more than a bit rehearsed, “I want you to know that they are treating me very well in this hospital. . . much better than at that M.D. Anderson place.”

“Henry has stage IV cancer,” Roxy explained.

“And how exactly are you treating his cancer here?” Spike couldn’t stop himself.

No doubt eager to show off, Stephan stepped in before Roxy could reply, “We don’t cure people. We take terminally ill humans with no family, make them comfortable - as you can see by Henry’s choice of room décor - and allow them to live out their last days in luxury. We even arrange for their bodies to be returned home to their dimension for a fully paid funeral.”

“And you say all this in front of him?!” Buffy gestured at Henry who was placidly smiling. “How is that very caring?”

“Right. Henry has Alzheimer’s on top of cancer. He will forget all of this conversation shortly after we leave the room if not before.”

As if on cue, Henry said with bright, aware eyes, “Who are these people again?”

Spike felt Buffy’s upset feelings coming off her in waves as she crossed her arms and frowned. Then, she softened and spoke to Henry, “I’m Buffy. We’re here to visit you.”

“Oh. Hello.” Henry smiled at her.

Angel narrowed his eyes. “What’s in it for you?”

Stephan grinned. “Well, that’s the beauty of it. Our scientists have figured out a way to remove the effects of disease from the human blood. We periodically cleanse their blood, and then, we have fresh blood.”

Spike wasn’t surprised. Vampires had been feeding off people in hospitals for centuries. “Vampires don’t need blood to be ‘cleansed’ to eat sick people.”

Stephan poked a finger in the air at Spike, and Spike found himself having to hold back yet again. Even with the wood in the room, the odds were against him. “Correct. However, blood tastes better when it’s free of disease.”

Buffy shook her head. Spike knew she probably wanted to scream at Stephan, but she kept her voice even and low for Henry’s sake, which was probably the point of having them in Henry’s room in the first place. “This is sick. You’re sick. The whole set up is disgusting. You’re trying to convince us why we should help you, and all you’re doing is convincing me otherwise.”

For some reason, Spike winced as her words hit a little too close to home. She hadn’t spoken to him that way in years, but the memory still hurt. She glanced at him then, and he could tell she knew the impact of her words.

Stephan didn’t notice any of this and resumed, “And yet, despite what we get out of the equation, people like Henry here live out the remainder of their days in comfort, surrounded by the things that bring them peace. They don’t have any other family, so in this way, we provide them care and a family of sorts as they continue to inevitably decline. I’m not trying to convince you of anything other than that we do some good in this city the way it is and that the city should not be moved into the light.”

Buffy nudged her arm against Spike’s again, and he found himself allowing the touch, accepting her unspoken apology.

“You have a long way to go to convince us,” Buffy said.

“That’s perfect. I like a challenge.” Stephan didn’t sound remotely daunted.

Chapter Text

Chapter Seven

 

“Welcome to the Central Blood Supply or as we like to call it: the C.B.S.,” Stephan announced with pride in his voice.

Buffy, Spike, Angel, and Mary stood before a large darkened glass that spanned the entire side of a very small, office-sized room. Unlike the hospital, the walls, floors, and ceiling are painted a deep shade of black, and the yellow light is dim which makes the space seem cavernous.

They’d left the hospital, made a longer journey with their vampire-in-black entourage, and ended up at a tall black building with no windows on the outside. The only entrance was a single door, above which hung another glowing white sign with a red droplet, obviously a drop of blood.

Buffy’s memory kicked into gear. What had Spike said in a very different conversation what felt like eons ago? Oh yeah. It was always about the blood.

She fidgeted and nervously glanced at Spike and Angel. None of them had said much on the eerily quiet journey to the new building. Buffy thought it was as if Stephan didn’t want to say anything because Stephanie’s people might be watching, and Buffy didn’t want to reveal too much to Stephan by chatting with Spike and Angel, though she wished more than anything she could read her ex-boyfriends’ minds right about now.

Roxy was pushing a series of numbers into the computer panel beside the glass, and within seconds, the glass went from very dark to completely clear.

The room before them was deep and high and dark, clearly encompassing the entire height and width of the building. What appeared to be silver metallic pods hung in semi-circular rows from the walls like rungs on a ladder, and in each pod lay a prone body clothed in a grey gown, tubes coming out from under fabric and lights blinking in red and green from attached monitors.

Buffy and the rest were standing on what appeared to be a third floor, like a small gallery overlooking an operating room. Because both areas were dark, Buffy felt like she was on the edge of a cliff that she could step over and fall from. In the light below, she viewed two small beds and two or three white-coated vampires who were slowly meandering between machines and equipment like swans on a lake at night. The bodies on the bottom row. . . male and female, old and young, had longer, bright scarlet tubes running from their bodies to a large steel tank in the center of the room.

Buffy stared at the scene before her, and in that space where her mind took in what she was viewing and tried to comprehend - really comprehend - what it meant, she didn’t feel a thing.

“What the bloody hell is this?!” Spike spoke first.

Buffy’s eyes flicked to Roxy’s, and the tall blonde shifted her gaze to Stephan, who almost gleefully spoke, “This, my friends, is how we enhance our blood supply.”

“W-what?” Buffy stammered.

Stephan scoffed. “You didn’t think that we relied solely on sick people’s blood to feed everyone in Vampire Villa, did you? The hospital is just our charity project. . . our way of giving back.”

“Huh,” Spike said, and Buffy can tell he’s trying to keep his tone light. “Doesn’t seem like much of a charity to me.”

Stephan snapped, “For vampires, it is. And you should know that, William the Bloody.”

Spike opened his mouth, but Angel spoke, his voice calm but firm, and Buffy clung to his placidity like it was a life preserver. “Explain how it works.”

Stephan turned his back on them all, a mark of his confidence that none of his audience had any power. He identified the bodies as what they were, “The humans here - they all came to us by some means or another. Some were depressed, some had been through horrific traumas, some suffered humiliation and shame, some lost everyone in their life. No matter what path they journeyed to get here, they all wanted one thing. . .” He gave Buffy a knowing glance like he could see through her and knew that she had been that hopeless, that full of shame and self-loathing at one point in her life. Before she could stop herself, she backed into Angel, who steadied her with a hand to her waist. Stephan smiled. “They all wanted to go to sleep and never wake up.”

“And the Matrix set up? How does it work?” Spike asked, his tone curious now, as if Angel lent him strength, too.

Stephan had the speech prepared. “All the people who willingly sign their lives over to us are drained to the brink of death and placed in a medically induced coma. They’re kept alive via feeding tubes and medically stable via machines. Their physical muscles weaken, but their hearts beat strong. Their blood supply replenishes, and they are drained again but not every day. On a pre-arranged schedule, the rows you see rotate, and they are carefully drained of just enough blood so that their life continues, but they remain at peace, lost in their dreams.”

“You make it sound so relaxing,” Spike said sarcastically. “How do you know they aren’t trapped in their nightmares? And more importantly, there’s no way that this little room has enough blood to feed an entire city full of vampires.”

Stephan ignored Spike’s tone. “That is an excellent point. Our monitoring system measures their brain activity so that we can tell when a person is dreaming and based on the patterns, determine if they are having nightmares. Roxy and her team of vampires who also practice magic have found a way to shift their nightmares to more pleasant dreams.”

“That’s impossible,” Angel said.

“Not impossible,” Roxy assured. “Necessary.”

“And you’re right,” Stephan acknowledged, pressing his open hand and forearm against the glass and leaning against it. “This one facility cannot possibly feed our entire population. This is why we have several such facilities all over the city. Some are run and controlled by me and some by Stephanie. It’s how we have hot and cold running blood; it’s how we have our blood banks where vampires can withdraw and make deposits.”

A small noise came from behind Angel, and Stephan turned his attention to the source of the sound. “Yes, young woman?”

With wide, round eyes, Mary stepped into view. With surprising swiftness and poise, she strode to Stephan’s side and put a tentative hand on his arm.

Stephan smiled at her with a tenderness that made Buffy’s skin crawl. “Looks like we have a volunteer.”

“Mary, no!” Angel called, but Stephan nodded at Roxy, who guided Mary away from the group, disappearing through a door that Buffy hadn’t seen because it blended so perfectly in the shadows even with her enhanced vampire vision.

As if glued to a bad horror film, the trio watched as Roxy appeared with Mary in the floor below. Mary pulled off her clothes and accepted the grey gown without hesitation before sliding onto one of the two empty beds. As soon as the tubes were inserted, Buffy’s feelings came rushing to full consciousness, and she bolted out the door from which they entered.

The vampire guards were startled but acted after only a second or two, and the closest one charged at Buffy. Blinded by emotion, she fumbled, her eyes flashing yellow as she shifted into game face and flung the large sentry away. He crashed into two of his friends, and a third prepared to take hold of the gasping Slayer, but Spike appeared in the doorway.

Clutching her rolling stomach and leaning against the rough wall of the building, Buffy closed her eyes and vaguely heard him growl, “Leave the lady alone. She just needs a moment.”

Then, a gentle arm briefly circled her waist and let go. Spike’s voice whispered, “Let it out, love.”

With his permission, Buffy bent forward and threw up all over the sidewalk, her fangs pulling away as her human face became visible again. There wasn’t much in her stomach, so the initial wave quickly gave way to dry heaving. Squatting beside her now crouched form, Spike massaged small, light circles into her lower back as he held back her hair. When she was done and her body was spent, he helped her up and softly kissed her temple. His gaze found hers, and she used the unwavering blueness to center herself. She thanked him with her heart in her eyes, and he nodded.

Stephan’s sentinels stared at them but didn’t intervene as Buffy and Spike rejoined Angel to offer their support.

* * *

"So, when are you going to tell us about Harmony and a certain poker game?" Buffy casually asked Spike while swinging her legs over the edge of her bed. They were her first words since being in the room Stephan provided for their housing. At first, the trio had sat in shocked silence, and now Buffy was breaking the ice with an attempt at Xander-esque lightness in the face of emotional overload.

Seated on the floor, Spike thankfully followed her lead and raised an eyebrow at her with a smirk. "All we've seen, and you want to discuss something that happened eons ago?"

"Yeah, well, I don't want to talk about all that. . . while I'm eating dinner." Buffy's food remained untouched on her lap. Truth be told, she wasn't the least bit hungry, but she felt the need to change the subject from the horrors they'd all witnessed.

Seated next to her on the bed, Angel regarded her. "I think we should save storytelling for later. We really need to discuss what's going to happen next. What we're going to do."

"Fine. I just thought we'd have a nice meal." The look of disgust on her face didn’t match her tone, and she knew it.

"You're not eating anything," Spike pointed out as he bit into his snack of crackers and cheese.

Buffy shrugged. "So?"

"Eat, Buffy," Angel commanded.

Buffy felt irritated by his attempt to be authoritative. "You're not the boss of me. Besides nothing seems appetizing now. Not after. . ."

Angel sighed and looked down at his untouched blood bag. "I know."

Buffy started meaningfully at Spike.

Spike stopped mid-chew. "What? I can eat anytime. No matter what. Like you said, gotta keep up my strength. Eat, sleep. . . it'll all seem better in the morning."

Buffy shivered. "I don't know if it will."

To the casual observer, Spike might seem callous and cold, but Buffy knew better. She'd seen his initial horrified reaction to what they'd been shown, and she'd also seen him tuck it away behind sarcasm and anger so that his thoughts and feelings were impenetrable.

Spike was doing that a lot lately, and she didn’t like it, but she understood. He was protecting himself and with good reason. She knew she hurt Spike when she left and facing the consequences of that wasn’t easy because it made her face herself. . . what she’d done yet again to him. The fight between them in his apartment felt like the tip of the iceberg of his pain. At the same time, being curled up with him in the hotel room and having all the little moments between them since felt right to her. She wished she had time to further sort through her feelings and continue their talk. Alas, with the mission before them, it didn’t seem like that would be happening anytime soon.

"So, what did we see?" Buffy set aside her meal and dug in her pack for the tiny palm computer that Fred had supplied them to communicate their findings. Although they couldn't directly contact the team at Wolfram and Hart due to the shift in dimensions, they were expected to record things on the device for perusal later.

"Right. Let's catalog it." Spike popped the last of his meal in his mouth and moved next to Buffy on the bed.

Buffy's nose picked up his now familiar scent and was disconcerted that it mingled with Angel's. Was this how Oz felt with his wolf-y senses? She shook her head. Because she had become used to her enhanced senses, she hardly noticed them, except in moments like these. And how surreal was it to be sitting between two ex-boyfriends? Even though they'd been together for a few days now, she was still blown away with the thoughts and feelings that accompanied their presence. Somehow, she honestly thought she’d be used to it by now.

"Buffy? You going to type that in or not?" Spike asked.

"Oh, what?" Angel and Spike were staring at her - brown and blue eyes filled with. . . very different emotions that were too much for her make sense out of. She glanced down at the computer screen at a loss. "Right. What should I put? What did Michelle call it?" Buffy asked, chewing on the end of the stylus.

"Roxy," Spike corrected.

Buffy frowned and tapped her lips with the tiny stick. "What?"

"Michelle prefers Roxy."

Angel crossed his arms. "I hardly think that matters, Spike. And Stephan didn’t seem to call it anything but charity to help the poor, sick, hopeless humans. Hey, that sounds familiar, only we did it better.”

"It matters to Roxy."

Buffy chose to ignore Angel and Spike's mutterings, her now seemingly endless twinges of jealousy regarding Spike, and the tension between him and Angel now that they had a chance to rest. "Charity and helping humans. That's a laugh. Don't think you can count euthanasia and putting people in comas as 'charity.'"

“Yeah, and the hot and cold running blood wouldn’t work either,” Spike commented, pulling another cracker out of the package.

“That’s what I was thinking!” Buffy agreed, grateful that Spike was joining her casual levity.

Fred and the others were going to be floored by the truth about Stephan's portion of the city.

"It seems to me that Stephan is going to great lengths to make sure that we approve of him and his little projects," Buffy observed. "There's something we're missing."

"I agree," Angel said, nodding. "He has presented us two vastly different stances. One, he doesn't want vampires - or his city - to be part of our dimension as Stephanie does because it would interfere with the vampire way of unlife they have here. On the other hand, he seems very concerned about what humans think of the city and 'his' vampire projects."

"He knows exactly what he's doing. He knew we would be horrified, but he also knew that of the two alternatives: city stay here or shift dimensions into the light, he would rather have the city stay put. Like he said, he'd lose power if Stephanie got her way. As far as what his other possible motives are, your guess is as good as mine, but vampires gathering this much power is not a good sign," Spike concluded, putting his usual dead-on spin on the issues.

"Right." Buffy sighed. "We just have to figure out a way to figure out what Stephan is really playing at, find the other piece of that dimensional key that he wants us to keep away from Stephanie, destroy the city, and save the humans trapped here. And save or help the kranooks. . . jury’s still out on that one." She inhaled. "Damn. That's a lot of stuff to accomplish with just the three of us surrounded by the enemy."

Buffy and her male companions discussed Stephan's plan to garner the other dimensional piece, alternative strategies, the prophecies, and the things they'd seen. Somehow during the discussion, she and Angel managed to eat something, and they all took turns showering. Apparently, Stephan believed in vampire hygiene. Freshly washed and curled up on the bed, Buffy's eyes began to drift shut, but she fought the urge until Angel suggested they all needed to get some sleep.

* * *

"Buffy, wake up!" the voice urgently whispered urgently in her ear. Strong hands gripped her shoulders and gave her a small shake.

Her green eyes flew open. "W-wha. . .?" she blearily mumbled. She was filled with an easy sense of safety when she saw the familiar soul peeking out from behind chocolate brown eyes in the dim room. Large fingers brushed the tousled strands of her hair out of her face. Blinking deliberately, she struggled to separate dream from reality.

"You were talking in your sleep," Angel murmured, pressing his forehead to hers.

"I-I was?" Buffy tried to grasp the rapidly fading tendrils of her dream - a dream that brought her a great sense of peace in the moment but now. . . now, she wasn't so sure. "About what?" she asked even though she knew. She seemed to be dreaming a lot lately. This time the dream was one Angel knew about because they’d discussed it when she came back from the dead the second time around. It was the dream about them. The dream in which they were together and happy. The dream that she now knew was impossible for many reasons, including that she wasn’t sure she could go back there, to the love they had before. Not when. . .

"You were happy," he stated with a knowing tone, interrupting her thoughts.

Buffy offered him a smile and gently pushed his chest, so she could have some space. "Then, why'd you wake me, silly?"

"Your volume was the problem." His eyes sparkled. "Don't want the wrong people to hear."

Buffy knew Angel meant the vampires standing guard outside their room, but her first thought was of someone else hearing. Turning her head quickly, Buffy drew in a little breath of relief. Spike was still asleep on the bed across the room. The emotion that rippled through her in that moment was different from what she had felt in her dream for Angel.

Angel's deep eyes captured hers again. How was it possible that she was always able to meet his eyes directly with no trepidation? And how many times had she asked herself this question with the inevitable companion question?

If she was able to be herself with this person before her. . . if she so unabashedly loved him, why wasn't she with him? Why hadn't she moved heaven and earth to be with him even if she had to sacrifice sharing his bed? What was holding her back? She wasn't the type to give up when she wanted something; she and Faith had had that much in common.

She knew the answer all these questions, but she wasn't able to admit it to herself. Not yet.

So she spoke the only words she knew she could speak without consequences she wasn't quite ready to deal with yet, "Thank you."

Angel soft lips found her forehead. "You're welcome."

"You weren't sleeping?" she asked, purposefully changing the subject.

"No. You know me. I rarely sleep, especially when something is imminent."

"I remember," Buffy whispered. She also remembered how Spike always seemed to sleep with the trust of a young boy when she was in his arms. She shifted away from Angel, and a flicker of hurt crossed his face for an instant. Catching the nuance that lingered in his eyes, she reassured, "I'm sleepy though. Think you could try to get some sleep with me?" She tilted her head just a bit to indicate that he should go back to his bed.

With great reluctance, Angel removed his arms from her middle, pausing to caress her cheek without shame. "You're beautiful."

"I am?" Buffy would have blushed if she could have in her vampire guise. "Even as a member of the undead?"

"Yes, even as a member of the undead," he echoed, winking at her.

Her reluctance to be with him rushed forth once again. She was no closer to understanding the feeling, so for now, she accepted and relished the warmth of his love.

Buffy remained awake long after Angel had fallen asleep. Somehow, he had transferred his sleeplessness to her, and she wasn't sure what to do with it, so she tossed and turned. Nothing was coherent in her mind, and she couldn't bring herself to view Spike, so she lay with her back to him. Angel's solid back filled her vision, and she was safe.

Then, without reason, she sprang from the bed, and before she knew what she was doing, she was kneeling next to Spike, fingers millimeters from touching his skin. With the frank openness with which she examined Angel, she allowed Spike to fill her senses. Tingles she couldn't control or name poured over her own epidermis, raising an army of goose bumps.

Part of her wished he would open his eyes, but the other part of her was terrified of what she might find out about herself if he did so. If he was unaware of her, she was safe. (Safety was apparently most important at the moment.) As she studied the innocence of his features, a truth overcame all other thoughts.

Since her arrival from Cleveland, she hadn't been able to look at him. . . not truly. Her mind worked as she studied the dark concave of his cheek and the way his lashes splayed across his pale skin. She tried to imagine the blue depths of his eyes penetrating her green ones but failed. She couldn't recall when she'd last stared into his eyes without holding herself back.

Even when they had been together before he obtained a soul, she hadn't allowed herself to really look at him. She'd been too ashamed of herself. And even after he had a soul, she'd only found herself seeing him a handful of times. . . most of which she had been so wrapped up in her own overwhelming feelings that she couldn't focus on him clearly. One of those times had been the evening before, when she had slept in the same bed with him. . . when she'd shared her recurring dream about him. She decided that was the closest she'd come to letting him inside.

And she absolutely couldn't...couldn't allow that to happen again.

But she wasn't sure why.

It wasn’t because of Spike’s self-protective walls. At least, she didn’t think so.

Was she too afraid to let anyone in? Pearson would probably chide her on this matter, asking her why she was choosing to close herself off when doing so wasn't what she truly wanted.

Sharing herself with Angel was easy when she allowed it. What was the difference between Spike and Angel? She used to be able to open herself fully to Spike the vampire. Maybe the better question was why wouldn't she allow herself to open up to him now? Did his humanity have anything to do with it?

Liquid splashed over her lower lashes, and she blinked and shook her head. She didn't understand everything yet, but she knew that when she was close to Spike, there was something there. . . something alive. . . something that she knew couldn't be contained if she opened herself to it completely.

With a low sigh, he stirred then, rolling onto his back so that her fingers brushed over his bare arm. She shivered and resisted the urge to voluntarily touch him.

Reality came crashing back, and she found herself longing for the safety of her bed. With the expert finesse of someone who knew the ins and outs of denial, she packed away her thoughts and feelings, pulling and tugging back the dream she'd just had about Angel and their life together.

The dream was familiar. It was something she'd clung to for a long time. It was simple and not at all confusing - a remnant from times when things were easier, more black and white.

As such, she felt safe with the dream of a life with Angel. . . like it was a security blanket, and she retreated to her bed to wrap herself in sleep once again. The only problem was that she knew deep down that somehow Angel didn’t fit into her heart the way he used to, that she had moved past the point where she could go back.

Maybe tomorrow she would try to figure out the confusing web of today.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eight

 

Spike woke up to the bright coppery smell of blood.

He abruptly sat up on one elbow, adrenaline coursing through him. Fully awake in alarm, he saw that Angel was fiddling with the blood dispenser in the room, something they’d completely avoided the previous night. His eyes flew to Buffy, whose still form was curled up under the covers in the neighboring bed.

“Hungry?” he asked, keeping his voice low.

Angel didn’t look his way. “Sadly, yes. The one blood bag I had left wasn’t enough, and this,” he gestured at the machine, “this just makes me sick.”

Spike ran a hand through his un-styled curls. “You gotta eat. Don’t worry about me judging. We’ve done far worse.”

Angel gave Spike a knowing look. “I suppose we have.”

Spike pushed himself up further, angling his legs and holding his hands around his knees. “Eat. We have a long road ahead, and we can’t have you all sickly and weak.” He paused. “Buffy would say the same thing.”

“Is it better than eating the humans in the closets at Kooch’s?”

Spike shrugged. “It’s all relative.”

Angel’s shoulders slumped a little. “What a crappy thing to be relative about.”

“It is, but you’ll live, and we won’t live if you’re not at full strength. Wasn’t it you that was ordering Buffy to eat last night?”

Angel gave him a look that said this was very different. “I’ll have to wean off the human blood again.”

“One drink isn’t going to tip you over.” Spike swung his legs out of the bed and crossed the room to his pack. All this talk of food was making his stomach growl.

“Says one alcoholic to the next.”

“If you completely fall off the wagon, you have a lot of people to help you back on.” As Spike rummaged around for a Slim Jim and some cheese, he thought back to what Lilah had said about Angel finding out something on their journey that could turn him down a not so great path. He still had no clue what she was talking about.

“Right.” Angel grabbed a mug from the shelf near the blood source and started pouring himself some necessary nutrition.

Snack in hand, Spike slid into the chair at the small table in the room and began opening packages. Angel joined him, the blood steaming; making a face, he took a sip.

“So,” Spike said, “how are you feeling now that we’ve come this far with Buffy?” He wasn’t exactly sure what he was asking, but he found that he missed the ease that had grown between them over the past years. What better way to address the situation and find some even ground again than by having a common enemy and a discussion about the very person who threw them for a loop in the first place?

Angel met Spike’s gaze. “I love her.”

Spike felt his heart sink in his chest; he knew this, of course, but hearing Angel say it was another thing altogether. In the past, he would have reacted with anger and a rousing fistfight, but not wanting to wake Buffy and the fact that he wanted to hear what else Angel had to say stayed his hand. “Tell me something I don’t already know.”

“And I know you love her, too.” Spike was startled by his honesty, and Angel explained, “I had to take you out to kill things to snap you out of it when you found out she was coming. And you hid from her for three days when you found out she had a boyfriend.”

Spike almost said that he was just trying out his renewed strength and vampire senses, but instead, he said, “True.”

They were silent for several seconds as they each ate their respective meals.

Then, Angel started again, “I would do anything for her. I want her to be happy. . . even happy in love with someone else.” He paused and then, “There’s something about Buffy that will always get to me; her showing up unexpectedly always throws me for a loop. I think I have it handled, but her appearance takes me back to that desire to fight for her, to be her everything. It takes me a day or - several - while I grasp at that dream of the two of us. And then I remember that I can’t be her everything.”

Spike continued to be stunned by Angel’s candor regarding his feelings about Buffy, and this allowed him to be real, too. “That makes two of us.” He was reminded of the speech he gave her in Sunnydale about how he didn’t expect anything from her. . . about how he loved her and believed in her even after seeing all of her, and he realized he still meant every word. He just didn’t know if he could be that vulnerable with her again or if too much time had passed.

“I also know that I care a lot about you,” Angel admitted, meeting Spike’s eyes once again. “And if, for some reason at some point, Buffy wanted to be with you, I wouldn’t stand in the way of her happiness. . . or yours.”

An unwelcome lump grew in Spike’s throat. Damn it. His last bits of enmity toward Angel were gone.

* * *

Something was different about Buffy.

Spike wasn’t sure at first after his discussion with Angel, but after filtering through his thoughts and feelings about that conversation, he decided he wasn’t imagining things. Had she heard everything he and Angel said? Buffy would surely have said something about that when she woke, but she hadn’t.

He couldn't quite put his finger on what was different, but he sensed something in the way she peeked at him when she thought he wasn't paying attention.

Catching her once, he opened his mouth to ask her about it, but she abruptly ducked her head to the contents of the open pack on her bed.

He ended up dismissing the change as somehow related to Stephan's revelations. After all, he felt oddly reserved and pensive as he dressed for their upcoming conference with Stephan.

Once the three were ready, their possessions on their backs, Spike forced himself to finish the meal he’d started earlier with Angel. Buffy didn't eat anything again until Spike and Angel each bombarded her with a look.

Then, with the dread of going to their potential doom, the trio headed toward the room Stephan had chosen for strategizing. In the quiet, Spike tried to think back to the plans he had made with Angel and Buffy before they slept.

Just as he was about to ask Buffy about the transmission she made to Fred, a tremendous boom shattered the silence. Grey clouds from a smoke bomb began to fill the empty hallway from the direction of the conference room.

Shouldering both straps of his pack, Spike joined his companions as they raced forth to see what was happening. Something jumped inside him, a long-lost reminder of how much he relished a good fight.

A terrified Roxy burst forth from the billows, long shiny blonde hair streaming behind her. Her cheek was smudged with soot, and Spike immediately realized that someone had been dusted.

With panic in her voice, she stopped before them, gesturing emphatically and gasping. "The. . . oh my god. . . they. . ."

"They who?" Buffy demanded, used to the panic that came with such crises.

Jolted by the strength of her emotions, Roxy gulped in unneeded air like a fish out of water. "Stephanie's. . . " Nothing else coherent was coming from her mouth, so she pointed back the way she'd come, pressing past them as the urge to run fueled her.

"Bloody hell," Spike cursed as he saw what Roxy was pointing at.

After pressing wooden stakes into their hands, Roxy raced away as Buffy, Angel, and Spike were distracted by the throng of vampires sweeping forth from the swirling puffs of grey.

The vampires wore ebony from head to toe and were huge like a vampire S.W.A.T. team. . . like the vampires who torched Harmony’s shop. Weapons of a variety of shapes and sizes filled their hands.

Stephanie’s elite were attacking.

"How?" Buffy asked what they were all thinking, but Roxy was fleeing. "Roxy! Wait! Where's Stephan?"

As jumpy as a jackrabbit, Roxy paused. "Stephan's. . . dust." She choked the word out as if it was stuck in her throat. Something flickered over her face. She shoved her hand in her pocket.

A key glinted in the light.

She tossed the metal to Spike, who caught it against one palm. "What's this?"

"The key to a safe in the conference room. You'll need the contents."

Before Spike could ask his next question, Stephanie's minions were upon them, and the fight began in earnest.

In three years as a human and navigating human frailties, Spike forgot how it felt to attack an enemy with extra strength. He’d relied on his years of experience, instincts, and some fresh skills to fight the good fight Angel and his crew.

But now, he wasn't a bit surprised that he slipped effortlessly back into the routine of knowing just how far he could push things without getting himself killed. He punched, kicked, and dodged with renewed ease, and he threw his whole body into knocking aside dozens of vamps, laughing as he did so.

At his first chuckle, Spike saw Buffy cast him a glance full of wonderment as if she had never seen him. His skin tingled at her attention, and he offered her a wide grin as she moved her part of the fray closer to him.

"Hey, love. Having fun yet?" he asked as he blocked a blow to the head and twisted the vamp’s arm counter-clockwise.

"Much as you are!" she replied.

Spike acknowledged that her words were true. She was practically glowing with energy as she whirled and spun, weaving barely detectable patterns with her movements. She’d slipped into her vampire mask, and Spike caught flashes of her eyes glowing yellow.

Dust was flying everywhere, blurring even his heightened vision and burning his nostrils with the scent of decay

"We getting any closer to our goal, pet?"

Blonde hair bouncing around her pale face, Buffy shook her head as she dropped between the legs of a startled vamp, turned, and staked him, adding more dirt to the atmosphere. "Not that I can tell."

"And where's the grand poof?" The earlier conversation with Angel and the flow of the dance was making him feel cocky. . . confident.

A nearby growl met Spike's sensitive ears. "I'm right over here, Spike. I told you that I don't like you to call me that."

"Right, right. I forgot about our little heart to heart a few years ago." Spike parried and dodged, and two vamps butted heads with a satisfying crunch, leaving them open for dusting.

"You better not! Didn't we discuss this? How communication is the most important part of any relationship and that name-calling isn't part of that?" Angel was half-joking as he jabbed his stake into a female vamp who was trying to bite his arm.

"Oh, yeah, soulboy, I remember." Spike flipped a vamp over his shoulder with a grunt.

"Look who's talking," Angel retorted, pulling a vampire out of Spike's path.

"You boys need to get a room?" Buffy sang out over the sounds of the fight, her voice changed by the fangs in her mouth. "Cause, well, I'm feeling a little left out over here."

"Well, now, I think we should remedy that." Angel's knuckles rapped on something hard and metal. "Found our door."

"Oh, goodie," Buffy responded, hopping over a vamp who'd fallen after she stepped away from his attempt to ram her midsection. "Hey, have you ever noticed that the other vamps don't ever talk when we're killing them?"

"They're too busy concentrating on our brilliant conversation, pet," Spike said, pulling a vamp from Angel's back as he maneuvered through the oncoming vampires. "They're enthralled by our excellent skill with crafting sentences while chewing gum and fighting."

"And blowing bubbles?" she asked with a giggle.

"Who blows bubbles with all the dust blowing by?" Spike returned as ash flew about his head.

"Good point."

"Um, looks like we got trouble," Angel interrupted as the sounds of the door opening echoed over the fracas.

"Don't we always?" Buffy was near Spike's elbow now and kicked backwards to thwart an attack from behind.

"We found a room." Angel slammed the door shut again.

"That's a relief." Buffy kicked one vamp into another. The opposition's ranks outside the conference room were thin now.

"But there are more vamps in here. . . too many for us to take and get what we need," Angel explained.

Spike shook his head and started to push past the taller male. "Let's go. We won't try to dust them all. . . just enough to get whatever's in that safe and get out."

"Wait!" a familiar voice shouted from behind them. Buffy, Spike, and Angel saw Roxy racing toward them through the dancing particles. "You can't go in yet. Stephan left one last order."

Spike was sick to death of Stephan's orders; the git was dead. "What's that, pet?"

Roxy raised her hands, and her light brown eyes turned to black as foreign words flew out of her mouth. A wind blew, sending her blonde hair floating about her head like a cloud. Her fingertips crackled with an energy Spike had only witnessed with Red.

As Spike was closest to her, he lunged out to grab her. . . to stop the spell, but a searing pain ripped through his skull, sending a roaring echo through his ears. The pain wrapped around his skull and squeezed, and the intensity was stronger than any he'd ever felt even when he was chipped by the Initiative.

He sank to his knees, holding his head in his hands, and an unbidden groan escaped his lips. In the distance, he heard Buffy emit a similar sound as her body hit the ground.

In the next second, the tangible pain lifted without fanfare, and Spike opened his eyes. Roxy was intently watching him.

"What did you do, witch?" he demanded, reaching up to grab her throat.

As Spike was still weak, she evaded him. "I was told to return you to your natural state."

"Natural state?" He glanced at Buffy. Angel was bent over her, but Spike could still see that her skin was golden brown. Inhaling, Spike realized that he no longer smelled her familiar scent.

Wait a second! Her chest was rising and falling.

Spike put his hand to his chest. His heart thrummed beneath his fingertips.

"What the hell!"

Roxy was halfway down the hall, scampering away from the fight again, but she turned to face them, walking backwards. Despite her distance, her words were haunting:

"The prophecy speaks of a vampire with a soul, a man with a soul, and a Slayer who loves them both. To be most powerful, you have to be what you are. Stephan recognized that after he spoke with you. He said if the worst happened, I was to work the magic to restore you."

Spike felt weaker already. "How am I. . .?"

But Roxy was gone. . . engulfed by the ashes of dozens of vampires like a ship sailing into a fog.

Buffy's hand landed on his back. Already, her aura was one of greater buoyancy. She hadn't been comfortable in the vampire guise.

And that left him the weak link yet again.

"Can you stand?" Buffy's words sent a shiver through him.

A bit numb, he clamored to his feet. Buffy handed him the stake he'd dropped in his fall. How come she didn't look any worse for the wear? Ah, right because she hadn't changed as much as he had. "I'm good."

Her green eyes melted into his blue ones for longer than he could recall since they were in Sunnydale.

Spike recalled Roxy's words and searched her eyes for remnants of love, but she averted her gaze before he could latch onto anything he could label. He knew this was something to follow up on. If he survived.

Spike cleared his throat. "We should go. . . fight. . . I mean, get that piece of dimensional whatnot."

"You okay being human again?" Angel asked, implying that Spike might have a hard time in the fight.

Straightening his shoulders, Spike was determined. "I am."

* * *

Fighting as a human against an uncountable number of vampires was not what he signed up for.

Spike was exhausted. His arms and legs were sore, and his head was throbbing from whatever that Roxy vamp had done to it. To top it off, he was bleeding from numerous wounds he'd accrued in the conference room. Like sharks to a single drop of blood, the vampires were drawn to the metallic scent of his life force.

And yet, he stubbornly refused to back down once or complain about his predicament.

Buffy noticed, catching his struggle in the corner of her eye. "What do you guys think you're doing?" she announced. "Picking on a lone human when you could have a chance at the Slayer!" With that, she drew the end of her stake across her palm so that fresh blood coursed to the surface.

Like drones, the vamps turned to Buffy, no doubt taking in the heady scent of her blood like hounds on the hunt. Buffy winked at him as the vamps charged her, and Spike inwardly cringed at her overprotection.

Finding himself alone, Spike tugged the key out of his pocket and snuck past Angel and Buffy, maneuvering closer to the safe. The large metallic box had been pulled from the wall as if one of the vamps had attempted to open it to obtain the dimensional instrument for Stephanie. Too heavy to carry, it was propped up against the wall with a lone vampire guarding it. . . a heavily muscled vampire with a menacing-looking ax.

Better just to address the obstacle and get it over with. "Say, that's an awfully big ax you got there." Spike strode toward the vampire with an air of self-assurance he definitely didn’t feel without his previous strength.

Ax-vamp growled at him but didn't move.

"Hey, you gonna swing that at me or just stand there and look pretty?" he taunted, plunging deeper into the tricky situation.

The vampire shifted the ax from one hand to the other and took a step forward. "I won't let you take Stephanie's prize."

"Oh yeah?" Spike dove in before the vampire could accommodate the change.

The vampire cried out in shock and pain as Spike hit him square on the nose, then kneed him the groin and ground his stake into his forearm. Still unused to the abrupt change in his strength mid-battle, Spike miscalculated his foe's ability to recover and was knocked to the ground with the back end of the ax. Sharp pain lanced across his back.

"Hate axes," he grumbled as the memory of Joyce's face flashed through his mind.

Trying to convince himself that lying on the ground was a tactical plan and not a desperate need to rest, Spike remained motionless, waiting for the vamp to hover over him to take a drink.

As predicted, the vampire came for him, and Spike took full advantage.

He rammed his head back as he felt teeth graze his neck.

The vampire yelped and stumbled back, and Spike saw stars. . . and then blackness.

* * *

"Spike!"

Spike’s consciousness came back online as he heard a vampire being dusted close by. The ax clattered to the floor. Adrenaline surging through his system again, he forced himself upright, nodding to Buffy past the wave of dizziness that overcame him.

"You got the key?" Buffy asked, beating back the vampires who'd followed her when she rescued Spike from further physical abuse.

He opened his mouth and found himself gulping in air. Buffy gripped his shoulder to steady him, worry etching her features.

"The key, Spike!" Buffy shrugged a vampire off her back.

Something was in his hand. He looked down at the metal object. . . the key against his palm. "I've got it!"

He was swaying, and the world was spinning.

"Can you use it?" Buffy was busy dusting their enemy.

"I-I think so."

Metal clattered against metal as he tried several times before the key slid home. With effort, he twisted, and the safe sprang open.

A single object was at the base of the box, and Spike grasped the narrow rod with uncertain fingers. He prayed that he wouldn't pass out as he rose to his feet again.

"Got it," he called to Buffy, not sure if his voice even carried.

Apparently, it did. "Great! Now open a portal!" Buffy rolled over the back of a vampire, spun, and dusted.

"Right," Spike mumbled with something akin to sarcasm. "Make it work. How the hell?" He forced his blurring eyes to focus as he scanned the object that lay across his palm. No features marked the surface. . . no obvious buttons or switches.

When all else failed. . . imitate.

Spike held up the device and brought it across the air as he'd seen Michael do when they'd been chased by the kranooks. The machine started vibrating, shaking his whole arm, and a thin knifelike attachment jutted forth. To Spike, it felt like he was slicing through a loaf of bread.

A line glistened green and bright against the dim lighting of the conference room. A small, wavering portal formed and grew, spreading open with buzzing energy and the scent of wintergreen.

"Buffy!" he called.

Caught up with attackers, Buffy didn't even afford him a glance. "Great! Now, get through it! More of Stephanie's vamps are coming, and Angel and I can't handle all of them."

"Where's Angel?"

In a last ditch effort, Buffy jabbed her stake rapidly into two nearby vamps and threw the wooden weapon across the room to dust the vamp behind her. Her face was covered with blood, and her ponytail was falling loose. "He’s okay. Go through! It's starting to close."

Spike squinted through the delirium that threatened to overcome him and spied Angel across the darkened room, surrounded by Stephanie's minions. No way Angel would make it to the portal in time.

Summoning air into his reluctant lungs, he shouted, "Angel! Catch!"

Tucking a vampire's head up under his armpit, Angel's head shot up from the scuffle. He held up his free hand, and Spike hurled the dimensional device in a miraculously straight line. Angel caught the device with ease. "Thanks! Go! I'll catch up to you later!"

At Angel's words, Buffy was tugging at Spike's shirt. And before he could react, Spike was pulled into the other dimension.

Chapter Text

Chapter Nine

 

Buffy held tight to Spike's hand as she stumbled through the dimensional portal and felt the rush of energy cascading over her skin. Although she was desperate to get away from the fight that had sapped her, she was worried about leaving Angel behind.

She was even more concerned about Spike's abrupt transformation back to the frailties of humanity in the midst of the battle. He'd sustained some form of head injury and seemed more than a little out of it. The transition to another dimension was hard enough on one with supernatural strength. . . let alone a human who was hanging onto consciousness by a thread.

The step into the new world made her dizzy, and she allowed herself to squat to the soft, wet ground to regain steadiness. Spike's hand was firmly tucked in the crook of her elbow.

As the stars that marred her vision faded, she rose with caution, senses on alert.

Spike's arm snaked around her waist, and she allowed him to lean his weight against her. His breath over her cheek was warm and heavy from exertion. At least he was still alive. Her muscles tingled at his nearness, and deep within, she found herself yearning for him to never let her go.

The world around them was dark and wooded. Sounds of the night echoed around her, and the air was dense with moisture from the humidity. She guessed they were in the Louisiana of a different dimension because her eye caught a glimpse of the moon and stars through the tree branches, but she just didn't know which dimension.

And she didn't know the way out of the forest.

As her eyes adjusted to the dim light from above, she attempted to view Spike's face. His eyes were drooping, and he looked dazed as if someone had beaten him. Shoving aside the guilty feeling that sprang up inside her, she cupped his cheek to steady his head and shock him into sensibility.

"Spike!" she said with more harshness than she intended. "Stay awake for me. I can't have you blacking out now."

Spike didn’t seem to be able to focus.

"Say something. Who am I?" she demanded.

He took longer to respond that she would have liked, but he managed, "B-buffy."

"Good, and who are you?"

"Spike," he said with greater clarity.

"Can you walk?"

Shifting feet resounded over the insects chirruping. "Uh huh."

She placed a hand against his rising and falling chest because he was swaying. "Okay, because we have to get out of here. I'm not sure where we are, but we can't exactly stay here."

Spike mumbled something incoherent.

"What?" She leaned closer, and as she did, Spike's knees gave out.

They collapsed to the dirt together, their foreheads momentarily touching.

"Angel?" he queried.

Buffy shook her head even though Spike couldn't see her. "Not sure where he'll end up." She bit her lip and then continued without certainty, "We'll find him though."

Spike sighed.

Before Buffy could make sense of his impatience, she heard a twig snap from the nearby brush.

Disentangling herself from Spike's limbs, Buffy stared in the direction of the noise, ready for a fight despite her exhaustion. She would do anything to guard the helpless man at her feet. "Who's there?"

The voice that rang out was tentative, "Buffy?"

"Angel?"

A familiar form emerged before Spike and Buffy. "It is you," Angel said as if Buffy and Spike hadn't just left him. . . as if he hadn't seen her in years.

Buffy smiled in relief, and Angel caressed her cheek with tenderness. Buffy jerked back in surprise. "Y-you're human!"

* * *

The steady beep of the machine kept time with the motion of Spike's chest beneath the white sheet. Though unconscious since she and human Angel had brought him to the nearest hospital, Spike was still breathing, and for that, Buffy was grateful.

She was so focused on Spike’s wellbeing that she hadn’t had time to process that she wasn’t in her dimension. What had Wesley said? Vampire Villa was wedged between one dimension and the neighboring one. He just hadn’t said they’d be almost exactly alike. Except in this dimension, Angel was human. She knew there was a lot more to discover, but answers to her hundreds of questions could come later.

She hadn't left Spike’s side for hours, despite her brain's desperate attempt to shut down. Hospitals were not a place of peace for her, and Spike was her only tie to the other dimension. . . her world. She refused to let go of his hand.

All she knew for certain was that she was in an actual human hospital with human doctors who took an oath to genuinely help people, and the Angel of this world was keeping watch over their little corner of the hospital. These two things brought her some small comfort.

Buffy clasped Spike's warm hand between her small palms as she thought of how surreal the notion of Angel being human was to her. How could that have happened here and not in her dimension? And where was the Spike of this world? Where was. . .

A quiet moan distracted her from her thoughts, and Spike shifted in what the doctor had assured her was his sleep. Buffy felt something tug at her heart. He looked so helpless lying there, and she just wished he would open his eyes and tell her to sod off because he wasn't vulnerable. . . least of all to her.

She'd seen a spark in his eyes when he'd fought earlier. It was a glint that she hadn't seen in his eyes since he obtained a soul, and she wanted it back.

"Buffy?"

Buffy started and turned abruptly to see a tan and very human Angel standing in the doorway, dark eyes dancing with something that she couldn't quite identify. "Angel," she breathed in relief.

Angel moved his hands behind his back as if he was hiding something. "I didn't mean to startle you."

Buffy glanced at Spike who remained asleep. "It's okay," she whispered, stroking her thumb across his fingers as she faced Angel. For reasons she didn't understand, she felt defensive and protective of the man on the bed.

"Is Spike going to be okay?"

"I think so," she said. "The doctor said he has a concussion and probably just needs to sleep for a while. They bandaged his head and are monitoring his vitals because well, concussion. But otherwise, he should be fine. They just want to make sure all systems are go when he wakes up."

A smile played about Angel's lips. "Just like Spike. He's always been a hardhead."

Without realizing what she was doing, Buffy squeezed Spike's hand and grinned. "Yes."

"And your injuries?"

"All healed up. . . well, mostly." Buffy closed her mouth and stared at the floor. She felt uncomfortable around this Angel. He hadn’t done anything particularly unusual, but she just felt something in her gut. She dismissed it, telling herself that it was just because he was human and not Spike.

"So," Angel began, running a hand through his dark hair, "I'm going to catch a nap in the waiting room." Buffy must have looked alarmed because he added, "But don't worry, I'll be close by."

Relaxing into the bed's mattress, Buffy nodded, dismissing the niggling feeling she had about him. "Good. I'll be here until. . ."

"Until he wakes up." Angel's eyes carried a hint of sadness, and Buffy filed it away to be explored later.

"Yeah." Her eyes drifted toward Spike, who had rolled onto his side away from her and subsequently released her hand. Her attention remained on him. "And then, we'll. . ."

"I'll answer more questions than you might want answers for," Angel finished for her.

Buffy didn't respond, but she wasn't sure if it was out of weariness or lack of necessary words.

She heard Angel leave the room.

After only a moment of hesitation, she did what she had longed to do the previous night. She climbed onto the bed behind Spike, kicking off her shoes with a clunk. Following her instincts, she wrapped her arms around his midsection, buried her face in his familiar scent, and allowed herself to fall into dreams.

* * *

Warm lips slid over her mouth, nudging her lips apart.

Following her body's gentle urgings, Buffy sighed and moved closer to the cause of the burst of shivers that shot through her limbs and torso. She groaned as the kiss intensified, and a tongue requested entrance. Her mouth granted the visitor its requested audience, and she matched the urgency with her own energy.

The rest of her body soon joined in the waltz of desire, and her hands ran over the bulge of muscles and the curve of bones that were beginning to move in time with her own.

She tugged at cotton, leather, and synthetic tubing, wanting freedom from society's restraints, and she worked with a surety of experience to grant them emancipation. At first, she had aid, but then. . .

"Buffy," came the low rumble, half-filled with love and half with a hint of fear.

The single utterance destroyed her bubble of dreams. The sun was just beginning to bathe their room in the tender light of morning, and she was suddenly drowning in the blue seas of Spike's eyes.

In a rush of confusion, she ducked her head to his chest to find his heart thundering in her ears. His heartbeat wasn't the only sign of his arousal, and she blushed, although no one could see her.

He stroked her back and long, tangled hair with initial hesitation, so she slipped her arms around his waist to pull him closer and reassure him that she wasn't going anywhere.

She found her voice first. "Thank god, you're okay."

"Worried you, eh, pet?" His voice was hoarse with surprise and uncertainty. This was new for them - at least of late.

Her response was clear as a bell, "Yes."

He pushed her back a little. "Don't worry. I'm stubborn. I'll survive."

"If we could survive on stubbornness alone. . ."

"Then, we'd be immortal," Spike said with a grin that faded almost as it formed. His arms released her, and he scooted away.

Buffy was taken aback. "What's wrong?"

"I'm sorry." Tears were in his eyes. "I didn't mean to take advantage."

Buffy realized that despite the renewed forgiveness between them in that last year in Sunnydale, the intervening three years had complicated things - had brought back old fears and hesitancies in them both and for good reason. She rushed to close the gap between them, placing two fingers on his lips. "No. You didn't take advantage. It was me. . ."

A small cry interrupted them, filling Buffy's ears with something that she never thought she'd hear.

"Mommy!"

Buffy scrambled to sit up just in time to see a tiny, three- or four-year-old girl burst into the room. . . a little girl with light brown waves framing her fair face and piercing dark brown eyes.

The child jumped onto the narrow hospital bed and flung herself at Buffy with vigor, wrapping her arms around Buffy as if she might never let go. Not quite sure what to do, Buffy held the girl with a bit of awkwardness. An extremely angry-looking Angel emerged, ignoring the compromising position of Spike and Buffy. With a tenderness that belied the fury on his face, he pulled the girl back.

"Celeste. No, that's not Mommy. Come here." The girl, Celeste, let go of Buffy in favor of Angel's neck.

"But it is Mommy," she insisted, pointing at Buffy with a pout.

Angel avoided everyone's eyes and glanced over his shoulder. "Fred!"

Fred poked her head around the corner with a sheepish expression. "Sorry."

Angel let his anger seep through. "I told you not to let her come near this room!"

The Fred of this dimension had short brown hair and was just as tan as Angel. She also seemed to have gained a healthy amount of weight. "We went to get a snack, and she took off when I put her down to get some change."

Buffy raised her hand. "Excuse me. What's going on?"

Fred and Angel seemed annoyed by the intrusion, and Celeste reached for Buffy again, kicking her legs against Angel's abdomen.

"Mommy!" Celeste glared at Angel. "Put me down, Daddy, so I can give Mommy a hug."

Propped up on his elbows, Spike snorted. "Figures."

Angel rolled his eyes and passed the squirming girl to Fred. "Take her to get some breakfast."

Fred nodded, seeming eager to correct her mistake. Buffy also detected a bit more nervousness in her demeanor than the Fred at home. "Right."

Celeste let out a shriek, likely at the realization that she wasn't going to get her way. "No! I want Mommy!"

Fred's soothed the girl and headed down the hall.

Silence dominated the room as Angel, Spike, and Buffy were left alone.

"What is going on here? The truth," Buffy demanded. "Now."

Chapter Text

Chapter Ten

 

In the late afternoon sun, Spike concentrated on the hum of Angel's SUV and studiously overlooked Angel and Buffy talking in the front seat. He couldn't stand their level of intimacy, no matter that Angel wasn't really the Angel from his dimension.

Instead, he returned Fred's sympathetic smile and then examined the sleeping Celeste.

The child was beautiful with full cheeks and fair skin that radiated health and glowing happiness. Spike could tell that she had a strong hold on the innocence of youth, and she was loved.

Spike wondered if Buffy had looked like her when she was little.

He gently stroked her cheek, and she shoved her thumb in her mouth. His heart constricted, and for a second, he let himself wonder. . . what if?

Would a different little girl have his expressive blue eyes, a tendency to be sarcastic, and a penchant for poetry?

He shook his head. No use thinking such things because they would never happen. Not between him and Buffy. . . no matter what might have happened this morning when he'd woken with an armful of Slayer.

"Spike?" Buffy was watching him from the vehicle door. Caught up in his emotions, he mused that she had the most beautiful soul he'd ever seen.

"Hmm?"

"We're here. You okay?" Her eyes were filled with concern, but he didn't know what to make of it. Did she pity him?

Annoyed at himself for trying to understand her yet again, he slammed out of the mini-van, hoping she would be just as uncertain as he was.

Buffy's expression changed to one of annoyance, and she closed the door to the SUV so hard, the vehicle shook. Spike was glad.

He turned to the startled Angel. Spike knew he was being unreasonable, but he didn't care. "Look. I don't really want to interfere with happy family reunions and all, so I'm just gonna. . ." He glanced around. They were at yet another hotel somewhere in sodding Louisiana of this world. "Go hang out at the bar. . . if you need me. . . not that you will."

Spike brushed past Fred and Celeste who were staring at him with wide eyes. Screw them all. He needed a drink.

* * *

Spike had chosen the darkest corner of the bar, and he nursed his beer without enthusiasm. His stomach was a virtual melting post of anger, hurt, and guilt, a mixture he was becoming too acquainted with.

To distract himself, he studied his surroundings. The bar was small and cramped but smelled of some sort of air freshener, as if the owner was trying to disguise the torn, ratty carpet, the scarred tables and chairs, and the cracked, well-used glasses. The ceilings were low, and the owner kept the lights dim. Very few patrons haunted the facility, and most were so shrouded in darkness that Spike's human eyes couldn't make out their features. Even the bartender was non-descript.

Buffy consumed his thoughts despite his attempts to deny her. Try not to think about a pink elephant, and one inevitably was consumed by images of pink elephants.

She'd kissed him this morning. . . held him like he might disappear. But then, as soon as she found out that she and Angel had a child in this dimension, she forgot him.

The events of the last week or so had his mind and heart in a tumult, and he honestly didn't know how much more he could take.

He took a swig of warm beer and frowned at the bottle.

"So, you feeling sorry for yourself?"

Spike blinked. His thoughts were so loud that for a second, he thought they were outside his head.

"You're not daft." A familiar figure slid into the seat next to Spike.

Spike decided to ignore what had to be a hallucination, some leftover torment from when he attained a soul. Perhaps becoming fully human again triggered a momentary bit of insanity. He set aside the alcohol. He didn't need to further cloud his mind.

"So, the Buffy of your world is chatting it up with Peaches, eh?"

"Go away," Spike said.

People at a nearby table stared at him.

His twin leaned forward, smelling of cigarettes and old leather. "I'm not a figment of your imagination, Spike."

Spike dragged out a smirk and sat back, crossing his arms, so he could get a better glimpse of whom he was dealing with. "So, you're me, and I'm you."

"Sort of." The Spike of this world was still a vampire. . . still a vampire with a soul. "That's better."

Hey, at least vampire Spike would be a distraction. "This could be entertaining."

"Could be? It is.” Vamp Spike snatched the beer from Spike's hand. He grinned as he took a long drink. Then, he surveyed Spike. "So, this is what I look like human. Hmm. Good strong heart, still in shape, still got the same hair. Damn. I look good. . .well, except for the bandages." He leaned in closer. "But you know what?"

Spike squirmed a little. "What?"

Vamp Spike sniffed. "I'm not making good use of my humanity."

"What do you mean?"

"You still got a Slayer by the name of Buffy Summers in your world, and you're human while the big poof isn't. And you're not even going for her." Vampire Spike drained the rest of Spike's beer and set the bottle down with a thump. "You're like I was when I first got the soul, all sour and brooding."

Spike's temper flared. "I think you don't know what you're talking about. Things are complicated between Buffy and me."

Vampire Spike waved a dismissive hand at Spike. "Complicated? Every relationship is complicated."

"You don't have a clue. This dimension is different from mine. And by the way, where is your Buffy?"

For the first time, vampire Spike seemed sad. "That's a good question."

"And is there an answer?" Spike was feeling petulant.

"First, I need another beer." Vamp Spike stood and dug a tangled wad of bills and a crumpled cigarette package from his pocket. Pulling out a cigarette with his lips, he asked, "Want one?"

Spike melted a little at the offer. "Sure."

A few minutes later, Spike was stubbing out his first cigarette in years and was nursing his second beer of the afternoon. "She's dead, isn't she?" No use skirting around it. Besides, he drank so infrequently now that he could blame the alcohol for loosening his tongue. Vampire constitution didn’t come with the being human part.

Vampire Spike closed his eyes. "She is."

Something familiar and sharp stabbed into Spike's chest. He swallowed past the lump in his throat and kept his words simple lest he choke on them. "How?"

"I blame Angel." Demon Spike paused. "But I also blame myself."

"Okay, that's clear as the Gulf of Mexico."

Spike's counterpart grinned. "Remember that thing with Dru in the Gulf?"

"Those were the days." Spike sighed. Things had been so uncomplicated when he didn't have a soul. When he didn’t have a care in the world other than his next fight, meal, and whether Dru would be lucid or not. When he was still a vampire. "But this is now."

Vamp Spike continued without further prompt. "There was a turning point. . . a point in both our dimensions that led to Buffy's demise in this dimension but not in yours."

The words slipped past Spike’s lips before he thought through them, "The battle at the hellmouth with the First."

"Yes. Do you remember that little scene where Buffy greeted our dear granddad with a kiss?"

Spike rolled his eyes. "Of course. Better than I want to."

"That's it. . . that's the turning point."

"The kiss is the turning point?"

"No, you idiot. That's when Angel presented her with the lovely medallion. He gave her a choice."

"She sent him away." The truth was seeping into the fibers of Spike's being, and he felt pieces of a puzzle falling into place.

Vampire Spike took a gulp of beer. "Yep. In your dimension, she sent him away. In mine, I'm afraid the lovely Peaches stuck around to aid in the final battle at the ole Sunnydale hellmouth."

Spike's soul felt like it was humming. "She sent him away in mine. . ."

"She chose you in your world."

The truth was stunning, and Spike's mouth hung open. Vampire Spike stuck a cigarette in it for him.

Lighting the fag for Spike, demon Spike continued, "Funny thing is, the Powers that Be have the power to set things a certain way over and beyond the authority of the Senior Partners, but humans still have free will. The P.T.B. granted humanity to whomever Buffy chose as the champion."

"So the reason I'm human is. . ."

"Buffy chose you to be the recipient of the gift. She didn’t know that you becoming human would be the consequence of you being a hero. Still, she chose you."

"Oh."

"Yeah, oh. That's why I hate to see you wasting your time when you still have a chance with her."

Spike was silent. Then, "What happened to your Buffy?"

Vampire Spike shifted his eyes to the main area of the bar. "She passed away," he repeated, staring down at his lap, and Spike could tell he was trying not to cry. When he spoke again, bitterness laced his tone. "And she didn't even die a Slayer's death."

Spike averted his gaze as well; it was hard to see his other self under normal circumstances, much less tearful. He didn't know what to say.

"Spike!" a familiar voice filled his ears. She sounded glad to see him, and her tone contained more than a little concern.

Immense relief filled him as he witnessed Buffy across from him with a puzzled expression. "Buffy!"

Buffy narrowed her eyes at vampire Spike. "And other Spike."

Spike's counterpart seemed disconcerted by her presence, but he quickly tucked his feelings away behind a sneer. "Slayer," he acknowledged, hooking his thumb in the waistline of his jeans.

Shaking her head as if to clear her senses, Buffy regarded Spike. "It's like you of old. Cranky Spike with. . .bite."

Spike wasn't quite sure what to make of that, but before he could respond, vamp Spike said, "Still got the soul though."

"Angel's back. Our Angel. Wesley and Lorne - er, the Wesley and Lorne of this dimension -waited in the woods. They used some sort of dimensional-disturbance detector to locate him."

"And we're off to join him, then?" demon Spike asked.

"Yeah," Buffy said, "we are. We need him for this prophecy to work, so we can destroy Vamp Villa."

"Prophecies mean nothing. Still, I can't wait to see the old bloodsucker," he returned. "There will be four of us, then, won't there? And one Buffy. It'll be interesting to see how this plays out."

Buffy ignored him and centered on Spike. "And the Angel here filled me in on some info about Stephan and our situation that you might find interesting."

Vampire Spike wasn't muzzled by Buffy's disregard. "Did he talk about Celeste? Or about the Buffy in this world?"

Chapter Text

Chapter Eleven

 

In the darkened bar, Buffy gave vampire Spike a hard, cold stare that could have cut through the murkiest fog. Her voice came out in a brittle staccato, "Not that it’s any of your business, but the Angel from your dimension said that Celeste is their child. . . his and Buffy's. They were married, and she died. He couldn't even talk about her death because it hurts him too much." She realized she'd just stated what they all knew anyway. "A-and you're just jealous of all that because you didn't get what you wanted. . . what you thought you deserved."

"Jealous of who? The grand poof? Bloody unlikely," Spike's twin scoffed.

Buffy felt a familiar twinge of sharp anger at the vampire duplicate of the human Spike of her world.

Her fist automatically clenched and raised, ready to crash down on his face.

But something stopped her.

Her Spike's hand closed around her fist, and with one glimpse of his dark blue eyes, she allowed him to lower her arm.

"Let's just go find Angel. Our Angel," he said, his voice a little hoarse. With what, Buffy wasn't sure. "We can deal with the rest later."

The green blaze in her eyes cooled to a low flame, and she nodded. She hadn't quite realized it before - or maybe she had, but it was just becoming clear - there was something amazing and wonderful about human Spike that rose above and beyond demon Spike, demon Angel, and perhaps even human Angel. She averted her gaze to avoid having to deal with the emotions stirring within her. She didn't have time for them now. "Right. You're right."

"And you know where we're going?" Spike asked.

Demon Spike huffed and lit a cigarette. "It's a trap. You know it is."

Buffy pretended that vampire Spike wasn't there but wrinkled her nose as she fanned the smoke out of her face. "Uh huh. Other Angel's waiting with the SUV."

Spike and Buffy hurried through the quiet lobby and out the front door to the waiting vehicle. Trudging with obvious reluctance behind them, Spike's undead twin continued to smoke a cigarette, despite the glares from the hotel staff.

Spike opened the vehicle door for Buffy, but before she could climb into the front seat, vampire Spike scooted around her and hopped up next to the Angel of this world.

Angel frowned as he saw the vampire Spike. "What do you think you're doing?"

Demon Spike grinned. "Going along for the ride. Nice night for a drive."

"I don't think so."

"I do."

Angel's brooding mask threatened to slip over his calm visage. "Well, you're at least going to put out your cigarette. You know the rules about this SUV."

Vampire Spike cast a sidelong look at the empty car seat behind Angel, his eyes softening. "Right, the munchkin. Even if she's not here." He rolled down the window and put out the cigarette on the side of the SUV. "Done. And it hasn't been that long since I took a drive with you."

"Four years," growled human Angel as Buffy and Spike clamored into the back seat.

In between buckling her seat belt and accidentally brushing Spike's leg, Buffy filed that little fact next to the one that remembered that Celeste was probably four.

"I hadn't counted," demon Spike murmured as the SUV lurched into drive.

* * *

"Back into the lion's den," Buffy whispered to herself as she stepped from the safety of the SUV into the heavy dampness of the Louisiana night.

"What did you say?" Angel asked, nearing her side and peering into the dark backdrop of trees.

He was human Angel, not her Angel. She had to put labels on them, or she got confused. In response to human Angel, Buffy shook her head and shivered despite the heat. "Nothing."

She turned to look for Spike, who appeared behind her. She felt better knowing he was there and whole even if she'd seen him dry swallow a painkiller on the trip. With gentle fingertips, she'd touched his head then, and he'd offered her a smile to let her know he was okay.

In the moonlight from above, he bore a similar smile now, and she leaned back a bit to feel the reassuring warmth of his skin beneath his sleeve. She found that if she focused on him, she seemed to have a greater handle on what was real.

Human Angel eyed them, but in the shadows, Buffy couldn't read him. Her heart ached a little for how much it probably hurt to see her. He and the Buffy of this world shared a child. In this world, she. . . no, the Buffy of this world had chosen Angel to stand as champion; Angel from here had filled her in on that much. The Spike of this world had remained a vampire, and she could cut his bitterness with a knife. What did that mean for her? Had she possessed the power to make or break two lives in this dimension as well as her own? What if she had chosen Angel instead of Spike? Would she be married with a child, perhaps two? What would have become of her Spike? She felt a longing to pull Spike close, to feel him in her arms.

Without a sound, the small party began making its way through the forest with human Angel guiding them. The woods were silent except for the slight breeze rustling the pine needles and the sounds of three people trying not to breathe too loudly. Buffy couldn't even hear their footsteps. Her companions had all been vampires at some point (one still was), and she was a Slayer, able to blend with her surroundings as Giles had taught her years ago.

Buffy closed her eyes and inhaled the pine scent that intoxicated her senses. She had to keep a clear head about things. She didn't belong in this world, and they - she, human Spike, and vampire Angel - had a mission.

Spike broke her train of thought with a question directed at human Angel, "So, what's this info about Stephan that Buffy was telling us about?"

Human Angel shoved his hands in his coat pockets much the same way vampire Angel had a habit of doing. Buffy could tell he was trying not to sound too eager in his response. "Stephan sent a messenger here a few days ago. He had some important information to tell us about Vamp Villa, which we didn't even know truly existed. We learned about the vampire city and about Stephanie's plans to unleash the city in your dimension."

"Michael," Spike said.

"That git?" vampire Spike broke in from the back of the group. "The one dating Harmony? Poor wanker."

"Shut up, Spike," Buffy reacted without thinking. Quickly, she reached back for her Spike and squeezed his wrist. "Not you." Good night, this was getting confusing.

"Anyway," Angel continued, "Michael told us that Stephanie had the second half of a dimensional key that would all the emergence of Vampire Villa into your dimension. He added that Stephanie had managed to set up a semi-permanent dimensional portal between our dimension and the vampire city. She was said to have hidden the second half of the key here."

"Interesting." Buffy could tell that Spike was turning that bit of information over in his head.

"So, as soon as we find your Angel, we'll be searching for that piece."

"Got any leads?" Spike asked.

Demon Spike snorted, his cigarette lighter forming a tiny beacon against the darkness. "He's got plenty of leads."

"What does that mean?" Buffy was growing tired of Spike's twin being so insistent that human Angel had ulterior motives when he was so obviously jaded.

Human Angel stopped short, and Buffy's heart jumped at the sudden change. She held her breath as he hissed back, "Spike, put out that cigarette!"

This time, demon Spike didn't protest and did as he was told.

Buffy held her breath.

That's when she heard a familiar slithering sound that made her sick to her stomach.

"Kranooks," Spike whispered nearby.

"Bloody hell," his twin said. "They're coming straight for us."

"Meaning they found your Angel," human Angel added. "And Lorne and Wesley."

"What do we do?" Buffy asked.

"We fight."

"Great. With what?"

Human Angel unsheathed a sword from his pack. "Got one of these for each of you."

* * *

Buffy half-expected the kranooks to be slimy.

She'd never been more wrong.

The human-snake hybrids were covered in layers of armor-like scales that flaked off when the swords hit them. It took several dead-on swings to penetrate their thick hides. To further complicate the situation, they had arms that were more distended than human arms and therefore had more length with which to grab at her and the others. She was grateful that the swords they bore were long.

And their numbers were too many for her to count in the dark depths of the forest. She lamented that she couldn't even see them until they were right in front of her. And more than once, she'd hit a tree and had to pry the metal from solid wood before the next kranook could grab her.

Unlike during the battle with the vampires earlier, the kranook battle was eerily quiet as she and the others were too focused on their prey to banter. Her arms ached, and she could see no end to the onslaught. She hadn't even caught sight of her and Spike's Angel yet, much less Wesley or Lorne. Hell, she couldn't see her own hand in front of her face because of tree limbs blocking her view. Where was a witch with a Tinkerbell light spell when she needed one? She missed Willow.

She was getting worried about the wounded human among them. "Spike?" she called over the sounds of the kranooks' strident hissing. She whirled and struck at a kranook behind her.

"Here, Slayer," demon Spike grunted.

"No, other Spike," she clarified, a bit annoyed, kicking a second kranook into a tree trunk that she'd hit with her sword multiple times because the vegetation was so close together.

"He's somewhere here. I just ran across him," human Angel threw at her, driving his blade into a kranook’s midsection.

"Is he. . .?"

"He's fine. Holding his own despite being concussed," he assured, ducking a kranook tail. "I sent him after Angel and the others."

"Where are they?" Buffy strained to catch a glimpse of her companions between attacks.

Human Angel touched her arm, sending cold chills up and down her spine. "Hold on."

He raised a small instrument to his mouth and blew into it. The device emitted a sharp keening noise that made Buffy want to drop her sword and cover her ears.

At the sound, the kranooks began slithering backward, over their fallen companions and becoming undetectable against the black of night.

Human Angel lowered the instrument just as the Lorne and Wesley of this dimension emerged from the brush with an unconscious, very pale Angel. . . her Angel.

"What happened?" Buffy cried as she rushed forward to inspect him.

Lorne and Wesley exchanged uncomfortable glances and dropped their burden to the ground. Buffy knelt beside him and demanded, "Where's Spike?"

Wesley stepped over Buffy as if she weren't present and addressed human Angel, "It's done."

"What's done?" Buffy's heart was tripping into overdrive.

"You got the piece?" Human Angel was eager. . . far too eager for Buffy.

Lorne withdrew something from his jacket pocket. "Here."

"Great. Then, we have all we need." Human Angel sheathed his sword and took the object Lorne presented him.

Vampire Angel was stirring in Buffy's arms, and something sticky and warm trailed over her forearm. As carefully as she could, she laid him to the ground and rose, senses scanning the background for signs of either Spike. "What's going on here?"

"Now what?" Wesley asked.

"Now, we pay a visit to Stephanie."

Before Buffy could react, she felt an electric current lance through her body, paralyzing her from further action. She strained to push past the pain, but her brain was determined to protect her from going into shock and stole her consciousness even as words of protest formed on her lips. Her last perception was of her body falling against the cool grass.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twelve

 

Ice-cold liquid poured over Spike's face, and he gagged and choked, struggling to get a breath around the fluid that deluged his nose and mouth. His hand slipped in loose dirt, and his left shoulder hit something with a painful jolt.

"Finally!" Spike heard himself say.

No, wait.

Not himself.

The Spike from the other dimension. . . vampire Spike.

Spike shook his head and blinked. The night's cloak still surrounded them, and vampire Spike resumed talking, "I tried shouting at you, shaking you, shouting at you and shaking you. . ."

"Where'd you get the water?" Spike managed around a less violent cough.

Demon Spike held up a large empty Styrofoam cup that he'd found half-buried in the grass. "The creek a few hundred feet that way." He tilted his head to indicate the direction.

"Ah." Spike struggled to his feet, noting the sodden state of his clothing and rubbing his sore shoulder. "Could've tried a less wet way to wake me up. How much water was in that cup anyway?" Vampire Spike's face blurred, and Spike clung to a nearby tree trunk, the bark rough beneath his palms. Damned concussion.

Spike could almost envision demon Spike rolling his eyes. "Not important. What is important is that Angel took Buffy away, and they have both pieces of the dimensional key."

The aftereffects of shock and the fading dizzy spell slowed Spike's processing. "Angel? Which one? And where'd they go?" He slowly let his support go and stood swaying on his own. "And what happened to the kranooks?" Not that he stood a chance in hell of surviving anymore attacks at the moment.

"Gone. The Angel. . . from here. . . got rid of them with some sort of mind conditioning device he borrowed from some demon clients at Wolfram and Hart. He, Lorne, and Wesley took off with Buffy and your Angel. They opened a portal, and they're returning Stephan's half of the dimensional key to Stephanie. At least, that's what I picked up on."

"Bloody hell," Spike breathed out.

"That's the understatement of the year."

"Why didn't you try to stop them?" The ground seemed to be hurtling toward his head.

Vampire Spike grabbed Spike by the arm before he fell. "By myself? With Angel having the powers of the kranooks to call down on me? I may be rash, but I'm not suicidal. . . and I had to lay low anyway. Angel here doesn't see me as much of a threat. Didn't need him seeing me differently."

"I have to find Buffy." Spike shook off his counterpart's assistance and staggered a few paces before realizing he had no idea which direction to go.

Demon Spike chuckled at Spike's attempts. "Follow me."

Spike was skeptical and took a step back. "Why should I trust you?"

The other Spike huffed in response, "Should I leave you stranded in the woods? I highly doubt you could make it out alive in your condition, what with kranooks lurking about."

Spike's stomach was starting to churn, and he began to shakily pace. "Look. I don't know how this world works. I can't differentiate the good guys from the bad. I know it's not black and white, but. . ." He trailed off and threw his arms out in disgust. "I just want to find Buffy and get back to the right dimension. At least, there I know what's real and what's not."

"You feel grossly inadequate here," vampire Spike surmised.

The statement was true for both of them.

Spike's head dropped. "Yeah. I don't feel that way; I am. Being human isn't all it's cracked up to be in the fight against supernatural forces."

Demon Spike was silent for several seconds. Then, "Do you know why I've stuck around for so long. . . why I stayed around Angel and his cohort after Buffy passed away?"

Spike said nothing and merely waited, noting that for the first time, his twin didn't sound jaded. He just sounded tired, as if he'd been at war with himself for a long while.

"I stayed because I know something weird is going on with Angel and the rest of them, and although I don't have a clue what it is, I want to make sure Celeste is safe. That she remains untouched by the darkness that surrounds them. Buffy. . . her mother. . . wouldn't want her to be tainted by evil."

Questions whirled in Spike's head, and he had trouble deciding which to ask first. "Why haven't you looked more into this hunch you had about Angel?"

Vampire Spike hesitated but finally answered, "For a long time, I've been the same way you are - never letting myself get too involved. Didn't feel worthy. Buffy didn't choose me, and she asked me to stay out of their business. So I stuck to the edges, avoided direct confrontation, listened. Got involved only enough to know what was happening when needed. I have contacts in the firm. I knew when you and your Buffy arrived, and I knew you weren't together. . .not really. Angel here likes to keep me up-to-date about certain things. . . things he knows might affect me. I've lain low too long. Probably why I was so hard on you in the bar. Saw too much of myself in you."

In the minimal light, the two Spikes exchanged understanding looks, and Spike found that he was beginning to trust his alter ego.

The pounding in his head thrumming anew, he leaned sideways against the closest tree again. "I get that. And now's your chance to do something different."

"And yours."

There was a heartbeat of mutual quiet.

"Got any ideas how we can get back to Vampire Villa without a dimensional key?"

Spike's twin grinned. "As a matter of fact. . ." He trailed off and bent to scoop something into the Styrofoam cup. "I do." He held up and jingled the keys to the SUV. “Requires a little road trip.”

* * *

"The S.I.T. Academy." Trying not to let his exhaustion show, Spike lifted an eyebrow at vampire Spike after he read the sign. "In Louisiana?"

Spike's counterpart shrugged. "There's a lot of supernatural activity in New Orleans."

"Creative name." Spike stared at the small professional sign with his arms crossed.

"It does the trick. And most people think it's just one of those small private schools that cost a lot of money and not many kids go to. Come on in." Demon Spike held the door open for Spike, and they entered the tiny building together.

"It's small." But at least the air conditioning was on max, and the carpet provided a cushion for his aching feet.

They were standing in a tiny one-room facility. Soft yellow light bulbs gave the space an inviting aura. Two desks were situated in a zigzag fashion so that the room was divided into two work areas. Hundreds of papers with photos of demons and scribbles of what looked like magic spells and Slayer moves were taped up on every available wall. A door in the back led to a set of narrow stairs.

Vampire Spike tugged the door closed behind them. "This is just the office. There're training gyms and field operations in several areas throughout the city." He scooted past Spike and went to the foot of the staircase. Peering up, he called, "Jenn! You up there?" Pointing up, he explained in a quieter voice, "Supplies."

Spike nodded and heard a female voice with a strong Southern accent, "Spike, is that you?"

"Yeah, pet, it's me."

The voice got louder as Jenn descended the stairs. "Long time, no visit. You don't write; you don't call. What gives, Mister?" With the last syllable, a hand appeared, poking demon Spike in the chest with an index finger.

"Hey, now. I only get so much travel money. You know that."

"Whatever." A teenaged girl with short dark curls bounced into the office with a mischievous smile playing about her lips. Her eyes widened when she took stock of Spike. "What the hell?" She glared at demon Spike with accusing daggers in her eyes. "You didn't tell me that you had yourself cloned and turned all human!"

Vampire Spike held up his hands with his palms out. "I didn't want you to be disappointed in case it didn't work out. Where is everyone?"

Absently, Jenn replied, "Oh, out training. The usual." She proceeded to stalk around Spike, looking him up and down as if he were a prize racehorse. "Hmmm. Hair out of place, clothes wrinkled, nasty gash on the head, circles under the eyes," she ticked off. Then, she spun on her heel. "You didn't do a very good job." With that, she gave the startled Spike a little hug and then hopped onto the nearby desk. Addressing Spike, she asked, "So, who are you, hun?"

Spike wasn't sure how to react, and then he smirked. This little girl calling him "hun" reminded him of Dawn. Jenn was playful, but he was betting that she'd borne a lot of hardship. Most Slayers did, and he remembered that the main Slayer in the New Orleans of his dimension had disappeared. He hoped it wasn’t the Jenn of his dimension. "Spike."

"Uh huh. And I'm Cindy Crawford." She cocked her head back to demon Spike. "This isn't a glamour?"

Demon Spike shook his head in amusement. "Nope."

"Okay, then." She tapped her cherry-colored lips with her forefinger, and to Spike's surprise, she was frighteningly accurate with her next observations, "Let's see. You're not a clone or a glamour. . . sooo you must be the Spike of another dimension. Aaand you're human, so you must have gotten Angel's shanshu. Man, I bet he was royally pissed."

Demon Spike came around the side of Jenn and put his arm around her in a brotherly fashion. Jenn swung her legs back and forth in response. "She's good, isn't she? I told you I had an 'in' in Angel's world."

Jenn winked at Spike. "I provide services to them occasionally. Anything I run across that's fishy; I tell Spike here. And of course, usually Willow."

"Uh huh," Spike commented. He wasn't sure what was more unreal: seeing someone who looked exactly like him interacting with a total stranger or witnessing his counterpart being overtly loving toward someone. "And how can she - you help us?"

"Well, in addition to being a second-year slayer trainee, Miss Jenn here is also a certified witch."

Jenn bobbed her head in agreement. "Trained by Willow Rosenberg herself. She discovered me when I was twelve; I was in an orphanage run by vampires. Got the scars. Willow and Spike rescued me. Now, what do y'all need help with?"

* * *

With the level of confidence that reminded Spike of teenaged Buffy, Jenn breezed into the packed demon bar, a hole-in-the-wall pub nestled in the darker part of New Orleans. Twin bleached blonde heads tailed her. She'd changed from cutoff shorts and a tiny t-shirt into black leather pants, boots, and a white tank top.

She'd explained her outfit to the two Spikes who had threatened to send her to put on a muumuu. "Now, we're going to see someone who can help you two. He likes leather. I tend to placate him when I need something from him."

And that had ended the conversation.

Spike was grateful that her careful preparations had given him time to shower and clean up, eat something, and take a brief nap. He'd been energized and was ready to knock down whole armies to rescue Buffy and Angel - his world's Angel. (If human Angel had harmed Buffy or his grandsire, he’d bloody well better watch his back.) And vampire Spike had raided the S.I.T. Academy's storage for weapons and leather of their own, which meant Spike now had three beautifully carved stakes concealed on his personage. The crisp smell of leather gave him an edge that he'd thought he lost somewhere during the current mission.

Now that he was in the demon bar with his other self and a young witch, he was feeling his confidence return. Demons of all types gave him the once over, but he didn't even blink. Just let them try to kill him. He was ready.

Jenn slapped both hands on the bar. "Okay, Charles. I need to speak to L'Gant."

Spike immediately recognized the name, and his blood sang. This was just getting better and better. He didn’t know L’Gant had moved to New Orleans.

Charles slung the white towel in his hand to one side. "You sure about that, Jennie?"

She jutted her chin up. "I am."

"Even after last time?"

"Even after."

Charles looked doubtful. "Okay, if that's what you want."

"Yep, it's what I want.” She pulled herself onto the barstool in front of her. "Don't mind if I help myself to an olive or two." She reached back and snagged a handful of green olives, popping one in her mouth.

Demon Spike leaned over her shoulder, "L'Gant, you said?" He apparently didn’t know that L’Gant resided here either.

Jenn smiled, her jaw working over an olive. "Uh huh."

Vampire Spike grew his own smile and glanced at Spike who couldn't resist, "Poker game L'Gant?"

"The one and only," a voice boomed from behind them.

Spike surveyed L'Gant's massive form with a little bit too much disdain. This demon could kill him with a flick of his wrist. . . now. Of course, first, L'Gant had to catch him. "Well, well, well, looks like the infamous L'Gant's put on a few extra pounds."

"All muscle," L'Gant growled. He glared at Spike with his two pairs of violet eyes. "Looks like you got yourself a soul and a bit of humanity. Makes you weak." He noted demon Spike. "Hmm. Two Spikes. And another with a soul but still demon. You either got yourself split in half. . .or. . ." He frowned at Jenn with a thin, twisted grey mouth, eyes narrowing. "Is this your doing, witch?"

"Nope." Jenn sounded too perky as she leaned back on her elbows.

He looked down his nose at her. "You know, I haven't forgotten what you did to me last time you entered this bar."

"Oh, yeah? Remind me."

The giant demon snarled, "Gladly." And with that, he lunged at the trio, looking like he was ready to rip them apart.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirteen

 

"There's no place like home; there's no place like home; there's no place like home."

Buffy opened her eyes. Damn. It didn't work.

She was still in the same dark world. In the same dark prison cell with a dirt floor, damp walls, a very leaky ceiling, no windows, and no toilet.

No toilet!

That was probably because the cells weren't made to incarcerate humans.

Stephanie’s world sucked. At least, Stephan had had a toilet in his guest quarters.

And Angel. . . her Angel slept in blissful unconsciousness, unaware of the horrors going on around his resting body. She wished that she could wake him. Maybe he would have a better idea about how to get them out of this. To top it off, she had no clue what had happened to Spike.

Some trio of strength they were.

"You know, pumpkin, no matter how many times you might decide to try and do that, it's not gonna work."

Buffy turned to face Lorne, who sat a few feet away from her barred cell with the keys dangling from the tips of his fingers. She could swear that she saw something akin to empathy in his eyes. Following her intuition, she reached her hand toward him. "It would if you would just hand me the keys. We'd be out of your hair in no time. Well, as fast as possible, considering I'd have to carry Angel."

Lorne wagged a finger back and forth. His voice was soft and gentle. "No way, kiddo. No can do."

Buffy sighed. "You know something?"

"What's that?" Lorne leaned his large frame forward in the chair, resting his forearms on his thighs. His red-tinged horns were a striking contrast against the strident green of his skin, and he seemed intrigued by her. She could work with that.

"I don't know Lorne very well in my world, but I don't think he's evil. In fact, I'm pretty sure he isn't."

Lorne appeared genuinely surprised, leaning back a little and swinging the keys into his palm. "How do you know that I'm evil?"

"Hmmm. Let me think of what might have led me to that conclusion. Where am I again? Oh, yeah! In a prison cell with you standing guard over me with the keys! And what is it you're doing? Let's see. Conspiring with Stephanie, who's only the evil vampire who wants to bring a whole city of vampires into my home dimension."

"Look, little one. We're just doing what's best for our dimension. That's always been our primary concern." Lorne's expression suggested that he had more to say, but the door to the prison area of Stephanie's headquarters hissed open.

The sound of high heels clumped dully against the unpaved floor. A tall, slight female vampire with long dark hair and delicate features approached the cell. She was dressed in black leather pants and a matching jacket with sleeves that tapered to accentuate her narrow wrists. Buffy compared her to Drusilla and concluded that Drusilla had a softness that this creature would probably never possess.

"Lorne." She held out her hand, and the green Pylean slapped the keys in her outstretched hand.

"Hey!" popped out of Buffy's mouth before she could stop herself.

Lorne gave her a sympathetic shrug, as if they were on the playground and he was saying, "Sorry, but I don't play with you."

As the vampire worked with the keys, Buffy ran over strategies in her head. How could she attack the vampire, knock her and Lorne out, and escape with Angel?

Her brain betrayed her, and she came up empty. How many years had she fought demons and the forces of evil, and now she was blanking? No fair.

So, Buffy did the next best thing she knew. She tackled the vampire with all the energy she could muster, using the momentum from her efforts to roll away before her target could get a firm grasp on her. She bounced to her feet, whirled, and kicked her enemy to the ground.

The vampire responded by bringing a long leg up to catch Buffy in the abdomen, flinging her across the room to slam into the closest wall. Buffy pulled herself up just in time to block the fist coming at her face, and she ducked under the vampire’s arm as it contacted the wall.

The female swore, hugging her fist to her chest and turned to face Buffy. "Wait!" she shouted when Buffy almost sprang at her again.

Fists raised and legs in her comfortable fighting stance, Buffy's eyes glinted in anger. "Why should I?"

"Because I'm here to help Angel."

"Whatever." Buffy glanced back at Lorne who was hovering in the background with a grim expression on his face. She could take the both of them if she had to.

"You want to know why he's unconscious, don't you?" The vampire was holding a hand up as if trying to talk down a rabid dog. And still, not even one of her hairs was out of place.

Buffy hesitated, her heart hammering. Angel had been unconscious an awfully long time. . . too long. He needed some sort of assistance; something she couldn't give. She couldn't count how many times in the last hours she'd gone over every inch of his body and been unable to detect any injuries.

Not relaxing her guard, she acquiesced, "Okay."

The female vampire didn't waste another second, striding past Buffy as if she wasn't present. She knelt beside Angel's prone form and put her hand on his chest for several seconds. "Hmmm. Nothing."

"I could have told you that," Buffy grumbled.

The vampire ignored her and rose, facing Lorne. "Send her in."

Lorne nodded and headed for the doors, leaving Buffy alone with the vampire who turned to regard Buffy.

"I'm Stephanie. You’ve met my brother."

"I figured," Buffy said, even though she hadn't been sure. "I don't like you."

Stephanie’s brown eyes were steady on Buffy's green ones. "I know."

“Where’s Spike?” Buffy was worried that Spike was tucked away in another holding cell or injured more than he already was or worst of all, dead.

Stephanie smirked. “Which one?”

Buffy huffed. “My Spike.”

“Not here. He’s lost out there in the other dimension with his counterpart. He won’t be disturbing us. Odds are the kranooks finished him off.”

Buffy felt her stomach seize, and for a second, she thought she might throw up again. She couldn’t lose him now. . . not when she was just discovering that the walls closing off her feelings for him were less stable than she thought even after three years.

The door hissed open again, and Lorne re-entered with another female figure in tow. Buffy wasn't shocked by the new presence. In fact, she didn't know if anything could surprise her anymore.

"Roxy," she said, not bothering to keep the irony out of her tone.

"Hello, Buffy." The tall blonde smiled almost shyly, tucking a stray strand behind her ear. "Heard you have a patient."

Buffy lowered her guard enough to cross her arms. "You heard that, huh? How long have you been working both sides of the fence?"

Roxy didn't reply and merely lifted one corner of her mouth before turning to Angel. With grace, she lowered herself next to his unconscious body, her hair a swath of gold dangling over his face. Buffy felt a twinge of jealousy at the way Roxy was touching Angel's body.

After a few seconds, she announced, "I found it."

Stephanie hovered at Roxy's side. "What?"

Roxy kept her gaze on Angel's thigh and at the tiny tear in his pants. "Looks like the kranooks are biting again."

"Damn it."

"What's going on?" Buffy demanded despite her precarious position.

Stephanie regarded Buffy. "One of the kranooks bit him in that little encounter you had. They bite, inflicting their poison. The kranooks' saliva seals the wound. The only indication that there is anything wrong is an extended period of unconsciousness."

"Science can't detect the poison. Only magic can," Roxy added, running her open hand over Angel's leg in what Buffy could swear was a seductive manner.

Buffy glared at Roxy even though the vampire witch wasn't making eye contact. "So, what's the cure?"

"Cure?" Stephanie laughed. The sound was melodious. On any other day and in other circumstances, Buffy would have called her beautiful, but today, the sound she made was creepy. "Why should we cure him?"

Buffy said pointblank, "Because you're dead if you don't."

Stephanie laughed harder. "I highly doubt that." She brushed Roxy's hair off her shoulders, making Buffy wonder about their relationship. "But we have plans for him. So, he will be cured."

That wasn't what Buffy expected to hear. "Okay. Well, that's good," she said uncertainly.

Roxy nodded, making brief eye contact with Buffy. "It is."

Buffy thought she detected another meaning behind Roxy's words the way she had on Stephan’s tours, but she couldn't fathom what it was. Buffy didn't know when she'd encountered a group of people who had more secrets.

But Buffy didn't have a chance to ask. Not in front of Lorne and certainly not in front of Stephanie. She wouldn't make the mistake of underestimating Stephanie. "So, what will you do?"

Stephanie snapped her fingers. "Lorne."

Lorne poked his head into the cell, pretending as if he hadn't witnessed the entire exchange. "Hmm?"

"Carry Angel to my infirmary."

Lorne didn't argue, and Buffy kept her eyes on Angel as Lorne hefted his unmoving body.

Buffy suddenly felt terrified that she'd never see Angel again. "Can I come?"

Pausing in the doorway to the cell, Stephanie regarded her with amusement. "I suppose you want out of the cell."

"Well, duh," Buffy replied with a little too much sarcasm. She mentally chided herself for her impulsivity.

Stephanie narrowed her eyes but implied permission with her next words, "You should know that if you make a move to escape, there will be hundreds of vampires upon you before you have a chance to make it to the threshold."

Buffy knew the statement was true. "Yes."

But she also knew she'd faced worse odds.

* * *

The possibly evil Lorne positioned Angel's body on the silver bed jutting up from the center of the tiled floor.

With a trained eye, Buffy took in her surroundings.

The stark white room was empty except for a blank countertop, a tiny cabinet, and a silver bed with no padding. A white door was almost indistinguishable against the far wall, and a two-way mirror next to the door reflected the fluorescent lights from above. Vampires dressed in black lined the walls, pointed wooden stakes with long metal handles cradled in their arms. Although their faces were impassive, Buffy thought she recognized some of them from the battle in Stephan's domain, but she couldn't be sure.

Human facial features tended to be distorted beneath the vampire mask, and when fighting, everything was a blur to Buffy. Slaying was kind of like driving, which she’d had to learn to be more proficient at in her world travels. At first, one paid attention to every detail on the road, but as one became more proficient at driving, the brain tended to neglect the nonessential details - like the color of the car in the right lane. The same occurred with vampires. Buffy didn't tend to pay attention to anything but the fact that a vampire died with a stake in the heart. That worked fine in the Sunnydale and Cleveland cemeteries.

But she should really learn to pay better attention, especially if she was going to get captured by a huge faction of evil vampires in an inter-dimensional city run by vampires.

Eyeing the smallest of the guards, she decided that she could overtake him easily and wrestle his stake away. Then, escape was just a matter of fighting off hundreds of demons and carrying a very ill Angel out of Stephanie's facility. . . something she was completely clueless about. What had she seen on the way from her cell to this room? Not much but closed doors and dark hallways branching out in every direction.

Oh, and she'd have to fight her way through most of the city. Her only ally (if she could call Stephan an ally) was now the resident of a dustpan. Stephanie could call on any vampire to do her bidding; all she had to do was snap her slender fingers. Plus, there was the little problem of the kranooks and the fact that Stephanie now possessed the entire dimensional key.

Buffy was in big trouble, and she and Stephanie both knew it.

But that didn't mean Buffy would go down without a fight.

Buffy squared her shoulders and donned her best Willow resolve face.

A chuckle rose from the doorway. Buffy turned toward the source of the noise. Stephanie gave her a condescending smile.

"Don't even think it. I have plans for you, too. And you'd never make it out of here alive."

Buffy's fists clenched. "Don't bet on it. I've survived worse."

"Ah, well, there will be no witch tinkering with dark magic to bring you back from the dead this time. I'd make sure it was a natural death and not a supernatural one. But hopefully, I won't have to. I'd really like to have you working for me."

Before Buffy could ask how the hell Stephanie knew so much about her or retort that she'd never consent to such a union, Roxy appeared at Stephanie’s elbow. "Is the room ready?"

Stephanie made way for Roxy, who gave Buffy a pointed glance that she couldn't read, but it made her think. Could Roxy still be on her side? She had, after all, taken away Spike's demon disguise for some reason, and she'd been the head of Stephan's little vampire projects, no matter how horrific they’d been. Buffy wasn't sure, but she would darn well take advantage of the possibility.

As Roxy busied herself with some sort of herbs and a large book at the countertop, a vampire dressed in black hurried up to Stephanie, panting as if he had been running a long way even though he didn't need to breathe. He bent over at the waist, gripping the tops of his thighs.

Stephanie was annoyed. "What is it, Ryan?" Buffy noted that she knew the vampire's name, the mark of a good leader.

"We tried to stop them," he managed as if that would explain everything.

"What do you mean?" Stephanie asked. "I'm busy here. Can't this wait until later?"

"T-the kranooks."

Stephanie was instantly alert, and Buffy caught the crack in her confident demeanor. Yep, there was weakness, and Buffy's hope soared. Maybe she had a fighting chance after all.

"What happened?" Stephanie's voice was lower.

"T-they're attacking the city."

"Damn it!" Stephanie cursed for the second time regarding her demonic creations. "I thought I told you to set up the magic pools to distract them until we figured out how to contain them."

"We did. We really did. I swear. But they aren't. . . ." The vampire paused, as if trying to find a word that wouldn't offend his mistress. "They weren't fooled this time. A-and they attacked the city. We sent out three divisions, and they were all slaughtered. They're burning the east side of the city as we speak. The streets are a mass of confusion, and riots are starting to break out. They sense the source, and they're coming for it."

Buffy was confused and asked without thinking, "Source?"

The minion, apparently ignorant of Buffy's position as prisoner, explained, "The complete dimensional key. They want it."

"So say all of us," Buffy muttered under her breath.

Stephanie cleared her throat to declare that she was still in charge. "Okay, Ryan, let's go. We'll handle this. We've dealt with similar situations."

The minion's face was tight with fear and exhaustion. "But not on this sc – “

"We'll handle it." Stephanie turned to Buffy with a saccharine-filled smile. "I wanted to witness this, but I have other business to attend to. I'll just enjoy the results."

Buffy was rattled by this but tried valiantly to stay calm and not stammer. "What results?"

Almost gleefully, Stephanie replied, "You haven't figured it out yet? Roxy is going to cure Angel, and then she's going to take his soul. Human Angel is useful, but he's not as powerful as Angelus, and well, I'm growing a bit tired of human Angel's whining. And what would be better than a Slayer-turned-demon at his side?"

"You're an idiot. You can't control Angelus. . . just like you can't control your kranooks. Your little kingdom is falling apart around you."

Stephanie arched an eyebrow. "Don't be so sure about that."

And with that, she swept out of the white room, heels clicking confidently against the tiles. Her vampire messenger followed.

Buffy's stomach sank. For the first time, she let herself think that maybe Stephanie was right. Her thoughts flashed to Spike again, and all she could think about was how he might be badly hurt or dead. She didn’t know if her heart could take losing him, not that way. There was so much more she needed to say to him.

Chapter Text

Chapter Fourteen

 

L'Gant was on top of Jenn before either Spike could react.

For such a large demon, he moved pretty quickly, and Spike reassessed his opinion of him. Apparently, L'Gant had been working on his sluggish tendencies since Spike had last seen him. As the two Spikes leaped at L'Gant, Spike's ears detected a familiar and surprising sound from Jenn.

And it was far from the screams that he expected.

Both Spikes stopped short, stumbling from their own momentum as they did so.

Jenn was hunched over and laughing wildly as the demon's fingers danced over her ribcage. "S-stop!" she managed.

Spike exchanged an astonished look with demon Spike and then with a smiling Charlie who was calmly mixing more drinks. He glanced at the other bar patrons. Most were ignoring the spectacle, although a few afforded the situation a fleeting look before returning to their drinks and small talk.

"No!" L'Gant continued tickling the helpless Jenn until she was gasping.

"P-please!" she begged, sinking to her knees on the dirty bar floor and attempting to push his arms away. The effort proved futile.

"Magic words," L'Gant demanded with affection in his voice.

"N-no! No m-magic!"

L'Gant moved to tickle her legs and neck. "Yes."

Spike tensed further. Was L'Gant attempting to hurt Jenn? He couldn't tell. He could hardly see Jenn underneath the demon's massive body.

"F-fine!" she replied, sounding almost like she was in pain.

L'Gant immediately ceased his tickling and stood back, crossing his arms. "Okay. I give in. Now. . . magic words!"

Jenn peered up at the demon with her lower lip sticking out. "Fine. I'll bring you the kittens I owe you next time we play."

L'Gant looked doubtful. "That's what you said last time."

"I know. . ."

Spike couldn't stand in silence any longer. "What? You play poker with him?"

L’Gant was notorious in Spike’s dimension for being a ruthless poker player, meaning he tended to kill whoever won if it wasn’t him (unless you did him a favor in return), and if someone cheated him, well, that was another thing all together. The night Spike and Harmony had joined L’Gant’s poker table had led to her doing a drunken strip tease on the bar in front of all the demon crowd to get out of her “debt” for winning. Spike of old didn’t exactly step in to save his girlfriend from said humiliation because he didn’t care much for Harmony and also because he was just glad L’Gant didn’t want to kill them.

"Apparently," demon Spike answered. He was less surprised than Spike, but then, he knew Jenn better than Spike did.

"Of course!" L'Gant sounded annoyed.

"Why?" Spike asked Jenn, who was struggling to stand, still reeling a bit from the tickle session.

"B-because it's fun!" she replied.

"And she actually plays fair and settles her debts. Most of the time," L'Gant added, looking pointedly at Jenn.

"Well. . . most of the time I play fair," Jenn corrected, accepting vampire Spike's assistance in steadying herself. "I find it fun to play with demon rules. Helps me understand them. Kitten poker is a fascinating part of demon culture. Plus, L’Gant here is nice to me. He doesn’t make me do anything foolish, mostly ‘cause I take care of misbehaving customers for him." She caught Spike's incredulity. "I study demon culture. I guess you could say I want to eventually be a demon anthropologist of sorts."

Demon Spike shook his head, as if he knew Jenn all too well. "I never know what you're going to get into next, pet."

She grinned at him. "I know! Like to keep you on your toes."

"And that you do. You're worse than Dawn." He smiled at her, his eyes softening. Spike's thoughts flashed to the Dawn of his dimension. All he knew of her was that she was studying archaeology at university. Regret seized him. He wished he had kept up with her better. His counterpart had done a better job of maintaining his ties to Buffy’s younger sister.

"Well, you know her studies inspired me."

"Looks like it." Vampire Spike inclined his head at the large grey demon. “Why are we meeting with L’Gant?”

Jenn waves her hand at said demon. “L’Gant has a huge library of old books, which he’s usually willing to loan me. Some of the books have resources about interdimensional travel.”

“As long as you return them,” L’Gant said, giving her flat stare, as if to remind them that he’s in the room.

“Now that you know I do. . . I turn them on time, no overdue books for me.”

Vampire Spike glanced at his counterpart. “See? Jenn’s resourceful.”

“It seems so,” Spike agreed.

Raising his large hand, L'Gant interrupted their exchange by closing his meaty fingers around demon Spike's throat and slamming him against the top of the bar. Again, the bar regulars didn't even flinch. They were probably used to L'Gant's shenanigans.

Licking his lips, as if relishing the sign of aggression, Vampire Spike laughed in L'Gant's face. "Was wondering when you were going to do that."

Guessing that vampire Spike had somehow not settled his debts, Spike took the aggression as a cue to move, and he leapt at L'Gant, jerking him back and attempting to throw him to the ground. However, the demon's mass was too great, and Spike only succeeded in tugging him back from his twin. L'Gant's hands remained twisted in the other's clothes.

Demon Spike grabbed L'Gant's hand, snatching one of Charlie's drinks and throwing it in the demon's face. L'Gant hissed as the alcohol began burning his eyes, and he loosened his hold on vampire Spike to bring his hands to his face. The two Spikes then wrestled the demon into a chair at a nearby, vacant table. One of them punched L'Gant in the nose to keep him from struggling too hard.

L'Gant raised both legs before either Spike had a chance to dodge, and he sent his assailants flying in opposite directions. Spike crashed into a table occupied by a couple of vampires who slid into vamp mask as he broke their table.

Spike groaned at the wood digging into his flesh. For once, he was glad he wasn't a vampire any longer. "Sorry to interrupt your cocktails," he apologized without feeling much sympathy for them. Ignoring the pain shooting through his muscles, he bounced to his feet and sprang back toward L'Gant who was headed his way, not caring that his foe was three to four times his weight and three times as strong.

The vampires he disrupted looked as if they wanted to snap his neck, but their eyes lingered on L'Gant. They obviously didn't want to interfere with L'Gant's business, and they hurried to join the now retreating customers. Maybe they weren't used to L'Gant's fights causing this much of a ruckus.

L'Gant was headed back toward Demon Spike who was lying in a heap near the wall. The vampire was slow in getting to his feet, tentatively touching his wounded head. Blood welled between his fingers, and a curse slipped from his lips.

Using his body as a miniature torpedo, Spike tackled L'Gant at the center of his back, causing the demon to stagger forward.

Growling, L'Gant whirled on Spike, grabbing him by the shoulders.

Spike thought the wall might crumble behind him with the amount of force L'Gant used to smash him against the plaster with his calcium-filled breastplate. L'Gant's breath smelled of the raw flesh that he regularly ingested.

"Hey!" Jenn waved a finger and used magic to throw a tray of half-empty glasses to the ground. The shattering glass disrupted the flow of the fight, and the two Spikes and L'Gant stared at her. Jenn frowned at them, hands on her hips. "You done with the macho crap now?"

Spike's twin smirked from his position on the floor. He braced himself against the wall as he stood. "We're barely getting started, love."

"Well, stop now. We are actually here to get L'Gant's help, not beat him to a pulp. I don't know what happened between the two – er, three – of you, but I don't appreciate being dragged in the middle of it when all I'm trying to do is help."

L'Gant didn't release Spike, but he seemed curious. "What could these vermin want bad enough to come to me for help?"

Neither Spike said a word.

Demon Spike didn't because he was stubborn, but Spike didn't because he couldn't get enough air to make an audible sound.

Jenn changed tactics and appealed to L'Gant, "Let Spike go. Let him go, or I'll start breaking things, and you don't want that."

"A little late for that, pet," demon Spike observed, nodding to the glass shards and alcohol-drenched ground.

Jenn glared.

Spike gathered the small amount of air he had left and whispered, "B-buffy."

Startled at the sound, L'Gant stepped back.

Clutching at his throat, Spike gasped, "We need your help to find Buffy."

Confusion crossed L'Gant's face. "The Slayer? She's dead."

The emotional pain that Spike felt at L'Gant's words was sharper than any physical pain than his rival could inflict. Spike sought vampire Spike, whose eyes were cloudy with his own hurt.

His twin's voice was hoarse and low. "He means the Buffy here."

Jenn was calmer with her next words, trying to move the conversation away from the obvious source of the two Spikes' pain, "What happened between you two. . . er, three?"

Before anyone could respond, the door to the now vacated bar slammed open. All eyes flew to the blonde in the doorway. "I did."

L'Gant growled and said with an angry hiss, "Harmony."

Demon Spike snorted and muttered, "Things just keep getting more interesting."

Her hair up in a tight bun instead of loose over her shoulders and a grim expression on her face, Harmony trotted into the bar, and an entourage of vampires dressed in solid black filed in behind her, arms filled with crossbows and sulphur-tipped arrows. . . the only element that could kill demons of L'Gant's variety.

"Hello, Gantie." With her hands behind her back, she circled the demon with a confidence Spike had seen her possess only once. . . when she kicked him out of their bed with a stake. "Long time, no see."

"No skin off my breast plate. I'm guessing you aren't with this idiot anymore."

Harmony rolled her eyes. "Please! I wouldn't be with him if someone paid me."

"Why the change of heart, Harmony?" L'Gant asked, remaining calm despite the imminence of his situation. "You certainly didn't mind it before."

Looking down her nose at the two Spikes, Harmony narrowed her eyes, "It's different now." Her chin lifted. “I’m different. He. . . they. . . you. . .” She huffed in frustration, and Spike vaguely mused which dimension this Harmony was actually from. “Whatever! Neither of you appreciated me like Michael. He believes in me. . . believes I have something to offer the world other than twisted sex games."

"You need to sing a new tune, love," Demon Spike commented from Jenn's side.

Harmony clenched her jaw at his words. "And I have a mission now."

L'Gant, whose violet eyes had been flicking between Harmony and the two bleached blondes, sounded completely amused. "So you're here to exact your revenge on me?"

She regarded L'Gant as if he were stupid. "Um, no. I'm here for the, er. . . Spikes."

"Then what's with all the weapons in my bar? You can have them." L'Gant took the opportunity to shove the still recovering Spike forward.

"Hey!" Spike managed.

"I'm not here to kill them," Harmony clarified. "I'm just here to get them to help."

"Help you what, Harm?" Spike asked, rubbing his throat and giving her his most helpless expression.

Harmony threw her arms up as if she couldn't believe how inane his question was. "Well, duh! Help me get the Slayer out of Stephanie's fortress! We have to stop Stephanie. She's destroying everything Stephan and Michael worked for!"

His heart nearly stopped. Buffy was with Stephanie. . . a prisoner in Stephanie's fortress. Finally, he had some bit of information to grasp onto. Spike found himself offering Harmony a genuine smile. Maybe he hadn't given her enough credit in the past.

Spike's sudden warmth toward her took Harmony aback, and she returned his smile.

"Wait a minute." Demon Spike stepped forward. "How did you say you got here? And how do you know where his Buffy is?"

"Stephan has spies in Stephanie's lair. He wasn't stupid. She had them spying on him, too."

"How did you cross dimensions?" Vampire Spike repeated.

Spike saw them standing in the shadowed doorway behind Harmony's vampires before anyone else did. "Kranooks. Stephan said they escaped across the dimensions."

"That's right." Michael emerged from the crowd and joined Harmony, his arm circling around her waist and drawing her close. A jagged cut sliced down his cheek, and his clothes were torn and dirty, but he was smiling. "Just because Stephanie treats the kranooks like slaves doesn't mean they're stupid. Forming an alliance really wasn't that hard."

As Michael touched the wound on his face, Spike heard a faint slithering in the background reminiscent of the battle in the forest. Spike shivered in remembrance of the fray. Even with Buffy and Angel at his side, he'd felt inadequate to fight off the hordes. After killing one or two, he had been so tired that he could scarcely stand. If he had been alone, he would have been killed. A fight with the kranooks wasn't something he wanted to repeat.

When Spike re-focused, Michael was still talking, "It took some. . . negotiation, but I wish we'd have done it sooner."

"Right." Harmony beamed, not taking her eyes off Michael. "I'm so proud of you, honey." She deposited a kiss on his lips.

The youthful vampire gave L'Gant the once over. "This him?"

Chapter Text

Chapter Fifteen

 

"Stephanie doesn't know what she's talking about."

Buffy absorbed Roxy's words as her mind worked over her precarious situation, searching for any cracks in the bad guys' plans. Alone with Roxy, Buffy stood apart from her, keeping an eye on the vampires lining the walls while watching the vampire-witch prepare her supplies - supplies that would cure Angel but also take his soul from him.

When he awoke from his poison-induced slumber, a vicious monster would be in the place of her Angel. And Angelus would be another weapon in Stephanie's arsenal. Buffy felt a little numb at the thought. She wasn't sure she was ready to deal with something she hadn't had to face since she was a teenager.

The memories of Angelus's twisted mind games and brutal murder of Jenny frightened her. . . made her experience a physical and emotional vulnerability she had not dealt with in a long time. She hated the feeling and had taken great pains to avoid it since then. She knew that Angel had voluntarily lost his soul a second time about four years ago, and she was grateful Willow had restored him before she had to witness it. Even now, she couldn't bring herself to view Angel lying on the pallet alone.

"Explain," she demanded, channeling her helplessness, loneliness, and irritability into the single word. Buffy moved closer to Roxy as she ran a slender finger over the words in what looked like one of Giles's ancient spell books.

Unfazed by Buffy’s manner, Roxy nibbled on her lower lip as she concentrated on the text, and after a heartbeat, she explained, "Well, for one thing, the spell to cure the kranooks' poison only works on individuals without souls. And to cure Angel, his soul has to be removed."

"Oh."

Roxy began mashing herbs together using a marble mortar and pestle. "And Stephanie doesn't know what she's getting herself into. Even though she should since she read many of the Watchers' accounts of Angelus."

Buffy eyed Stephanie's vampires who remained unmoving behind them. "You should be careful what you say."

Roxy was strangely calm, and Buffy still couldn't fathom her motives. Was she a wild card in this whole mess? "I'm not worried," she replied.

Buffy couldn't help herself. "Little vampires have big ears. . . and big mouths."

"But little brains." The corners of Roxy's lips quirked, and Buffy could tell she was holding back a grin. "Be patient. I have to take Angel's soul to cure him. Afterwards, you'll see."

"See what?" Buffy was past tired of Roxy's hide-and-seek games.

Roxy didn't answer but reached to the left of the counter, opening the door to a small room. "Go ahead. It'll be just a few minutes. The room will keep your soul safe from the spell I'm casting.”

Buffy studied Roxy's eyes and saw something there that she couldn't describe. It was enough to make her invest temporary trust in the vampire witch and step into the tiny room. As she stood behind the two-way mirror, the door clicked shut behind her.

The room only had space for a small chair, but Buffy couldn't bring herself to sit. Instead, she stared at the scene unfolding before her with a sudden curious sense of detachment. This couldn't be happening. . . could it?

Facing the two-way mirror, Roxy raised her arms over the prone form of Angel and began reciting the words of a spell. Her voice started low and deep in her throat and gradually rose until it sounded inhuman. Some unseen force took over her arms, and her limbs jerked spasmodically as sparks crackled over her and lit the dark, flat blackness that had overtaken the whites of her eyes.

Buffy felt something tug hard in the inner depths of her being, as if her essence was being scooped out of her. Was this what it was like to have her soul removed? Dizziness overtook her, and she felt her spirit fighting to maintain control of her body. In desperation, she clutched the frame of the mirror to keep from collapsing.

With one last, high-pitched syllable that Buffy thought would split her skull, Roxy brought her hands to Angel's chest, and Buffy felt the pull instantly evaporate.

Primitive, unearthly power rushed into Angel's body, swirling over his mid-section and spreading over his arms and legs as if they were digging something out of him. . . something that didn't want to give. Then, Angel's body jolted up from the table, and a rush of glowing energy ripped up from his abdomen and vanished within the space of an instant.

Roxy fell backward, landing unceremoniously on her behind in a wave of blonde hair and long limbs, her face a mask of pain and exhaustion.

Her equilibrium returning, Buffy stared, still feeling as if she was watching something on a movie screen. She blinked once, and the scene shifted.

Angel stirred on the table, and as he moved, his face contorted into his vampire mask. He sat up lazily and shook his head, like a panther that was stretching after a long nap. When his eyes opened, they were golden and. . . empty. With a roar, he leapt from the table, aiming the demon’s previously caged might at Stephanie's vampires.

They swept into action, and Roxy had the presence of mind to back away from the scene and remain low to the ground. She inched closer to the tiny room where Buffy hid.

Buffy couldn't remove her eyes from Angelus. He tore into the vampires like they were stuffed animals filled with organs and muscle. Even when she'd fought Angelus in the past, Buffy had never seen such violence. Blood from ripped throats and limbs bathed the white room in a sea of red.

Buffy almost didn't hear the scratching sound at the door, but it persisted and got louder. Feeling like she was moving through a sea of mud, Buffy strained to focus on the sound and tugged open the door.

Roxy spilled into the room, but Buffy barely noticed. The colors and sounds of the scene before her were now more vibrant and strident, and she couldn't remove her gaze from the violence.

Angelus swung a clawed hand at the closest of the remaining vampires. The youthful red-haired demon had dropped his weapon and shifted out of his crinkled face in a desperate attempt at gaining mercy from his out-of-control attacker. Angelus's fingers dug into the flesh of the vampire's neck, and licking his lips, he laughed as he ripped the throat from its thin casing. Blood swam down his wrist, and he licked it up with flourish. Angelus kicked the now limp body out of the way and grinned at the feeble attempt his next attacker made at staking him.

With his free hand, Angelus twisted the long stake in the vampire's hands, making him stumble forward. Angelus snatched up the opportunity and landed a forceful kick to the vampire's abdomen, sending him sprawling to the ground. Angelus straddled his prey and reached down, snapping his neck with a laugh.

Then, his eyes landed on Buffy who stood paralyzed in the doorway with a weak Roxy at her feet.

Picking his way over the bodies blocking his path, he slid on his human front and strode toward Buffy, leering at her. "Buffy. What a lovely gift."

Buffy simply stared. . . too much in shock to form one of her typical witty comments in response. She vaguely heard Roxy pulling herself off the ground to stand beside her.

"Cat got your tongue?" he asked, wiping his bloodstained hand across his mouth, letting his mouth hang open like an animal. "Maybe I can help you with that. Loosen you up a bit."

Buffy's eyes were wide in horror, and she let her gaze slip from Angelus's visage to the moving vampire near his calf. Angelus's grin grew, and he stomped on the upturned face, squashing the feeble attempt to drag him down in a loud crunch of twisted tissue and shattered bone.

"Pesky little critters, aren't they? They don't wanna die." He paused and looked up at the red-dotted ceiling with a thoughtful expression. "Although it was kinda fun."

"Stephanie won't be pleased," Roxy said coolly from Buffy's right.

"Stephanie? Is that where we are?" Angelus spun around, noting the exit. "So, where is she? I want to give her a proper greeting."

"She thinks she can control you. Wants you as a weapon," Roxy said, taking hold of Buffy's shaking arm at the elbow.

Buffy could only watch as the scene unfolded.

Angelus whirled to face them again, letting his arms hang loose at his sides. "Really? Now that's interesting. We'll have to see about that."

"I know she can't control you, but like I said, she thinks she can," Roxy reiterated, inching over the blood-sodden floor to the counter where she'd mixed the herbs for the spell. Buffy travelled with her.

Angelus narrowed his eyes, regarding Roxy with suspicion. "And who are you exactly?"

"You know who I am." Although Angelus was close, Roxy kept her tone even and calm like she was trying to talk down a rabid dog.

"You're the witch who works for Stephan," he concluded with satisfaction, taking a step toward them.

"Yes, you know me from Stephan's," Roxy admitted, indicating that he also knew her from another situation.

"And from somewhere else," Angelus said, letting himself follow Roxy’s lead.

"From where?" Her words coming out a bit hoarsely, Buffy spoke before she thought, and she felt Roxy's cool nails push into the flesh around her elbow.

Angelus's attention re-focused on Buffy. "Buffy. So, what's with you and Spike?"

Roxy had her back to the countertop, and with her free arm behind her back, she was attempting to snag something. Buffy recognized the move and bore her eyes into Angelus's yellow ones to distract him from Roxy. "Jealous?"

His eyes flashed, and he glared. "Please. You and Angel happened a long time ago. I'm far from jealous. I'm simply. . . curious."

"Yeah, right."

Angelus's gaze shot to Roxy, and he jolted forward. "Hey!"

"Too late," Roxy said, throwing a handful of crumbled herbs from a small pouch into Angelus's startled face. She rattled off a quick string of incomprehensible syllables.

With a howl, Angelus crumpled to his knees, clutching at the shooting pain in his eyes. "Damn witch!" he shouted, burying his face in his palms.

Roxy didn't hesitate; she dodged the soulless vampire in an attempt to make it to the door. She stopped when she noticed that Buffy wasn't following. "Buffy! Come on. It'll only last a few seconds. We have to get out of here."

Buffy was staring at the agony on Angelus's uncovered face as if she were under his thrall. Her head sprang up at Roxy's urgency, and she came back to herself. Careful not to look at Angelus, she sidestepped the bodies and puddles of blood, rushing to Roxy's side.

They made it to the door before Angelus spoke again. "Buffy." Angelus's composure had returned. Like a child getting sucked into a horror movie, Buffy couldn't resist glancing over her shoulder to witness an erect Angelus facing them. Although she knew he couldn't see her, she felt as if he were peering directly into her soul.

Time seemed to stand still as he spoke. "Remember this, Buffy. People don't change. They are who they are. And Spike. . . Spike isn't innocent. He has just as much blood on his hands as I do. You may think that you've changed and that he's changed. But he's not any different than he was. The demon can never be completely eradicated, even if he is human now. And you. . . you're still the same little girl who will always be left behind."

Rattled, Buffy closed her eyes for an instant as she absorbed the words of her ex-lover. In the back of her mind, she heard running footsteps in the distance, and her nose was full of the stench of gore. Buffy's heart thumped so loud in her chest that she was certain every vampire in the fortress could hear it, and nausea threatened to overtake her. Roxy chose that moment to break into a run away from the sound of the guards, tugging Buffy with her.

* * *

The inner paths of Stephanie's world were foreign to Buffy as Roxy raced them through narrow passageways, wide corridors, and various sized rooms in an effort to escape their pursuers. A few times, they crouched and hid from passing vampires. Thankfully, they were in too much of a rush to notice Buffy's scent and heartbeat. She guessed Angelus was giving them a run for their money. . . although there was the kranook problem as well.

The spaces and places became a blur in Buffy's mind, and her thoughts kept going over and over the bloodbath she just witnessed. No matter how hard her brain worked, she couldn't separate Angelus's actions from Angel's face. She shivered even as she ran.

If Angel was re-ensouled, could she ever look at him the same way?

She kept asking herself and not coming up an answer.

Roxy halted and held up a hand for Buffy to do the same.

First things first. They had to survive.

Buffy re-focused her senses on their surroundings to ground herself. Nothing reminded her of the room with Angelus and the blood.

A thought hit her like a ton of bricks, and her horror intensified.

Angelus had killed none of the vampires; their broken bodies were still undead despite severe damage to their limbs and organs. Her stomach protested yet again, but she willed herself not to dry heave.

"There's an escape route in here," Roxy whispered, leading a wary Buffy by the sleeve.

Taking in deep breaths of cool air to calm her dissident stomach, Buffy studied the large room they'd just entered. The ceilings were low and the lights dim, illuminating the walnut-colored walls and giving the room an aura of warmth and safety. Brown leather sofas and delicately carved wooden end tables were arranged in a circle. The tops of the tables were littered with ancient texts and stacks of weathered papers. Buffy was reminded of Stephan's library, and she wondered if the room was Stephanie's sanctuary.

No one was present.

Grasping onto the tendrils of the confidence she felt a few days ago, she summoned all her fear and anger. Moving quickly, she flipped one of the tables, snapping off a wooden leg. Seizing Roxy's shoulder, she smashed the vampire into the wall, pinning Roxy to the surface with a vice-like grip around her neck. Buffy leaned heavily into Roxy's body to prevent her from moving her arms and legs and pushed the wood against her ribcage.

Buffy glared. "First, you're going to tell me what the hell is going on. And don't make any sudden moves because I'll dust you."

Roxy was flustered for the first time. Being in danger of dying does that to a person. Or vampire. "Look, Buffy, I know as much as you do. I'm just a spy for Stephan. I don't work for Stephanie. . . not technically."

"You're lying." Buffy kneed the vampire in the gut, and Roxy flinched but didn't make a sound. Secretly, Buffy was impressed. "And that's a damn big technicality. You unleashed Angelus!"

"It had to be done. He would have died."

"You're a powerful witch. . . in the same league as one of my friends. You could have given him his soul back as soon as you cured him."

Roxy said, "I don't know that spell. It's a gypsy curse."

"Well, you could've kept him unconscious until we found someone who could."

"Buffy. . . look. . . we needed a distrac –”

Buffy shoved harder against the vampire. "You said you *knew* Angelus from somewhere. Where?"

Roxy closed her eyes and sighed. Buffy waited.

When Roxy re-opened her eyes, she whispered, "Angel. I know Angel. . . not Angelus." She attempted to wave an arm as she said the next words, but the limb was too squashed by Buffy's strong muscles. "I don't really know him know him. But I used to work at Wolfram and Hart. . . a long time ago. I'd see him at the office, but I don't believe we ever spoke." She hesitated at Buffy's continued glower, but then added, "I promise you that I'm on your side."

"Vampires don't keep their promises." Buffy recognized the quality in Roxy's eyes that she'd seen earlier. "A-and I don't believe you."

"You do. I may not have the same motives as you, but I'm definitely on your side in our current situation. We're both tired from the spell with Angelus, and we need our strength to get us out of here alive. Once we do get out, I swear. . . no, I will tell you the truth. How's that?"

Before Buffy could respond, a half-dozen vampires with stakes-on-sticks rushed into the room. Despite looking a bit worse for the wear, Stephanie’s minions were big and fierce.

As they rushed the pair, Buffy released Roxy. At last, here was something Buffy knew. She didn't have to think or feel. . . just act. "Sounds like a plan to me."

With a grunt, Buffy blocked the flying kick of one vampire and twisted his leg at the knee, shattering his kneecap. She snatched the weapon from his hands and jabbed him in the heart with the wooden end.

As he burst into dust, she held up the weapon and grinned. "Cool. I wish it had wood on both ends though. Then I could be Darth Maul Slayer!" She jammed the weapon back, staking the vampire sneaking up behind her, twirled the stick, and rammed it into the vampire approaching from the front.

Roxy was holding her own with two other vampires, and riding the energy of the fight, she noted, "Thought you were tired."

Doing a somersault to avoid two more attackers, Buffy said, "Already there. I'm a good faker. Where's this exit of yours?"

Muttering a few words, Roxy ignited a small ball of flames above her open palm. With another syllable, the flame shot forth, consuming the vampire rushing her. "Just a sec."

Roxy danced out of the path of the burning vampire as he turned to ashes and floated over the ground. She caught the stake that Buffy tossed her and whirling, she swung it out long, dusting another vampire from a distance. "Totally getting the whole Jedi thing."

Feet planted firmly apart and hair slightly askew from her ponytail, Buffy stared down the remaining vampire, giving him a little half-smile as if to say, "Bring it on."

The vampire panicked and started to run the opposite direction, but Roxy whipped her stake up and pegged him before he could make a single step. "Bulls eye." She bent her wrist up and blew on the end of the wood as if it were a smoking gun.

As Buffy felt the energy from the fight dying away, her suspicion returned, though it was softened. "How do we get out before more show up?"

Roxy's playful expression faded. "Right. See the carpet in the center of the circle? Help me pull it up. Stephanie has her private escape hatch under there. It's a little icky, but it leads through the sewers and out of the fortress."

"How do you know all this stuff?"

Roxy shrugged. "Stephanie trusts me."

"Like I'm trusting you now. How do I know that Stephanie won't be waiting for me down there?"

"Because the kranooks will be. Stephanie won't go where they are. If she senses their presence, she won't use this means to escape. She's lost control of them."

Buffy felt every hair on her body rise at the thought of the horrible battle with the snake-human hybrids. . . the battle in which they'd almost died. "I can't fight them. Not in the shape I'm in. And neither can you."

"That's why we won't be fighting them."

"What do you mean?"

Roxy started shredding the carpet in small strips. "The kranooks are our allies. Didn't you know that? They may not want what either of us want, but they have a common enemy: Stephanie." She glanced up at the gaping Buffy. "Need some help here."

"Right." Buffy began assisting in the destruction of what looked like a very expensive carpet from some Asian country.

Several minutes later, they uncovered a small trap door. Buffy pried up the metal from the concrete frame. A foul odor accompanied by a damp mist swept up from a dark pit. She wrinkled her nose and raised an eyebrow at Roxy.

Roxy nodded and took the opportunity to slip into the inky underworld with a single graceful leap.

Inhaling what might be her last clean breath of air, Buffy followed. Part of her hoped that they would run into a few more vampires on the way out, so she wouldn't have to think about Angelus or Angel. . . or about what Angelus had said about her and Spike.

Chapter Text

Chapter Sixteen

 

"You're going to apologize to Harmony before we all end up dying here." Jenn appeared between the two Spikes, hooking her arms at their elbows.

Both Spikes groaned at the same time.

"Look, Jenn," demon Spike said. "We're in the middle of strategizing here."

"And why should we apologize?" Spike added. "All that stuff between us happened eons ago."

"Hmph," Jenn huffed. "I still say you guys and L'Gant owe her something."

"After we're done strategizing," vampire Spike persisted.

Imitating the Spikes, Jenn surveyed the kranooks' underground headquarters. The air contained more moisture than the humid forests of Louisiana, and Spike almost felt as if he were inhaling water. It was close enough to Stephanie's fortress that they had easy access to the enclosures she'd set up for them but hidden well enough that she hadn't found their personal space.

The Spikes and Jenn were standing at the edge of a cavernous room with high ceilings and lime-encased rock walls. Small private sleeping rooms were arranged in two stories across the room, but reportedly, they were rarely used except in emergencies. The kranooks tended to put up the façade that they were minding Stephanie's rules. As guests, L'Gant, the two Spikes, and Jenn each had their own private space. To Spike's right, Michael and Harmony were in the small food area, sipping blood from crudely fashioned mugs. Kranooks surrounded them, feasting from their own plates, their dinner a mess of something Spike couldn't quite make out. He wasn't sure he wanted to know what they were eating.

Spike eyed the kranook leader standing slightly apart from them. He was amazed by how different the kranooks appeared when he wasn't blindly fighting for his life in the middle of a dark throng of trees. Although they were covered in scales of varying shades of green, the structure of their faces was human and seemed to emerge from their reptilian skin as if they were wearing a costume. The kranooks' feet and hands were webbed, and their eyes were vampire yellow. When they moved, they emitted a distinctive slithering sound. Every time Spike heard the signature noise, he shivered. He decided his reaction was instinctive, and he gave brief consideration to the notion that his feeling was the product of years of human evolution.

"We're not strategizing; we're waiting," the kranook leader suggested in a hoarse, guttural tone that was difficult to understand.

Jenn didn’t disguise her impatience in her tone. "Waiting for what, Jon?"

Spike still couldn't get over how the kranook leader's name was so. . . well, common. But he also understood. Spike had undergone a pretty radical change himself when he became a vampire, and although he'd changed his name, he'd kept it simple.

"We're waiting for reports on the riots and on the status of the dimensional key before we make our next move. Stephanie will be bringing the fight to us soon, and we must make certain she does not find this place for as long as possible."

"But what about Buffy and Angel. . . the good guys?" Jenn asked.

When they were still in Bizarro world and negotiating with the kranooks, Spike had asked the same question. Jenn had been at the Slayer headquarters gathering bags full of stakes and holy water and hadn't been exposed to the kranooks’ violent temper. Spike’s whole body still hurt from the kranook’s. . . literal arm bending.

And okay, so Jon was much gentler with the young woman. This time, Jon’s head merely shot around, and he hissed. His eyes flamed with anger, and his face became more reptilian than human. Spike half-expected a forked tongue to slither out from between Jon’s parted lips.

Jenn was startled but finished strong, "W-well. Um, we really should consider what they want with Buffy and Angel. And we should be trying to get them back. And soon, before things start getting too out of control. Doesn't anyone remember the prophecy about the need for Spike, Buffy and Angel to defeat the vampires?"

Before Jon could put on a repeat violent performance for Jenn, Spike nudged his way between the kranook and the Slayer-in-training, facing Jenn. "Let's not fight. We gotta save our energy for elsewhere."

Demon Spike took Jenn's arm and pulled her back from the imminent situation. "He's right, pet. We can't afford to fight amongst ourselves. We have a big enough battle ahead."

Jenn shook off her friend's touch. "Right. You're right." She straightened her shoulders in her leather coat. "I'm going to go check on L'Gant." To show that she wasn't really angry, she slung back over her retreating shoulder, "And I'm going to talk with him about apologizing, too."

"Stubborn," demon Spike returned.

"Look who's talking," she responded as she descended into the level where Harmony and Michael were chatting.

Spike faced Jon. "If we play this your way, nothing better happen to Buffy. . . or to Angel."

Jon glared. "You threatening me?"

"Let's just call it a warning."

Jon stared Spike in the eyes for a long moment, and Spike stared back, resolve unchanging. Finally, Jon broke away and slithered/walked away.

As Spike unclenched the fists he hadn’t realized he’d been making, vampire Spike spoke, “If only you would do that with Buffy.”

The flame of Spike’s anger reignited. “What the hell are you going on about?”

“What do you think? Anything is better than what you’re doing, which is a whole lot of nothing.” Vampire Spike lit a cigarette, but this time he didn’t offer one to his counterpart.

“What Buffy and I have is complicated, and none of your business.”

“Doesn’t look so complicated from where I sit.”

“How the bloody hell would you know?”

Demon Spike frowned at him and blew some smoke toward him. “I know because I have eyes. Just seeing how she reacts to you, how she cares about how her words impact you, how she’s worried about your health. That tells me everything; things haven’t changed for her since Sunnydale. And you. . . you’re acting like William around Cecily. You’re all hovering around her like a wide-eyed abused puppy who just wants a table scrap.”

“Buffy is not Cecily.”

“No, she’s not. She’s more than throwing out scraps to you, and you’re not taking advantage of any of them because you’re too skittish to take the risk.” He took a drag from his cigarette.

“I want more than scraps,” Spike was surprised to hear these words push past his lips because he honestly wouldn’t let himself admit that before now - even to himself.

Vampire Spike shifted with impatience. “Bloody well right, you want more than scraps! You deserve more, but unless you take the risk, you won’t get them.”

“She left for three years.”

“And you’re doing what? Punishing her for being young and not knowing who she was or what she wanted?”

“No, I. . .” Was he punishing her? If he was honest with himself, there was more than a little anger there, lingering underneath the hurt.

“If you aren’t, what are you doing?”

“She said she loved me.” Spike wasn’t sure why those words slipped out of his mouth. Maybe he was trying to help his twin understand the reasons why he was reluctant to leap into something with Buffy.

“She did?” This time, vampire Spike was the one who seemed surprised.

“Yeah, in the cavern under Sunnydale right before. . . she held my hand and our hands. . . .” Trailing off, Spike ran his thumb over the scar on his palm. He wondered if Buffy still had a similar mark lingering on her skin. He inhaled. “Our hands burst into mystical flames of some sort, and then, I knew. . . knew how she really felt. She loved me, and if the ground wouldn’t have shifted, she’d have gone down in flames with me.” Tears filled his eyes, and through the haze, he saw that vampire Spike’s eyes were soft with emotion, too.

“She never told me,” demon Spike whispered after a heartbeat or two. He threw the cigarette on the ground and crushed out the tiny flame with the heel of his boot.

They were silent for several more seconds, and Spike took in the magnitude of his twin’s confession. Spike sometimes thought he hadn’t really needed Buffy’s profession of love to know that she loved him. In the year after he came back to Sunnydale with a soul, she’d shown how much she cared about him through her actions, actions that he didn’t necessarily understand or believe at the time. He’d gone over them and over them since he became human, perhaps trying to convince himself that she had meant that she loved him just before he died. Her leaving just added to the mass of confusion. On a gut level, he knew her words were true, but in his mind and heart, he didn’t know, and maybe that’s what his vampire self meant when he said that his own fears and insecurity were holding him back from accepting the truth of her words.

When vampire Spike looked back up, his tears were gone. The set of his jaw was clear. “Even more reason to not be a nancy boy and do something about it. Life is short. Carpe diem and all that jazz. Which brings me back to my original point.” He paused for effect. “If you have unresolved feelings toward Buffy. . . anger or resentment or hurt, you need to tell her. That’s the only way you’ll know for sure if you can make a go of it.” Spike opened his mouth, but vampire Spike held up a finger. “And don’t say that she needs to make the first move because someone has to take a risk first, and it doesn’t have to be Buffy. You could have gone after her, too, you know. You played a role in your separation.”

Spike could own that. “You’re right. I did.”

“Damn right, I’m right.”

* * *

Hands behind his head, Spike stared at the dirt ceiling as he lay on a pallet in his small private quarters. A large melting ice block on one side of the cave-like space provided temporary escape from the heat and humidity.

Spike had closed his eyes he didn't know how many times, but he’d been unable to sleep. He'd tried pacing to relieve some of the tension built up in his muscles, but the room was small and the motion had done nothing but increase his irritability. He didn’t want to join the crowd because he needed a break from his twin self, especially considering the talk they’d had about Buffy.

So he was bloody well stuck.

He impatiently sat up, pressing his hands to the top of his head as if he could push the helpless feelings out of his head.

God, he was worried about Buffy. Hell, he was even worried about Angel. And not just because Buffy and Angel were likely alone together. He hadn't realized how much he cared about his grandsire until he was gone. Over the years, he'd grown to trust the vampire almost as much as he trusted Buffy. And he wasn't sure how he'd feel if something happened to Angel.

And if something happened to Buffy before he had a chance to . . .

That was it.

Spike had had enough. Clenching his jaw, he jumped up from the pallet, intent on going to Jon and insisting they do something. . . anything.

A small knock echoed from the other side of the door. Spike's eyes narrowed. Whoever was on the other side of the barrier better have news that he wanted to hear.

As soon as he swung the door open, his whole body relaxed, his shoulders rounding a little.

Buffy stood on the other side of the threshold, her hand raised to rap on the crooked wooden planks again.

Her hair was a tousled mess, her face was streaked with dirt and blood, and her clothes were torn in half a dozen places. Still, a smile spread over her face when she saw him.

Spike had never seen anyone more beautiful.

Before he knew what was happening, she launched herself into his arms, holding him tight against her slender form. She didn't say a word – just held on as if she would never let go.

Spike buried his face in her neck and inhaled her familiar scent, another confirmation that she was alive. "God, Buffy, how'd you get here? What happened?" Spike literally had to pry her arms from around his waist so he could survey her appearance. "You're bleeding."

Buffy glanced at the gaping wound in her left arm and shrugged, remaining silent and staring up at him with big green eyes that threatened to swallow him whole.

Spike picked up her hand and drew her into his tiny space. He led her to the pallet, where she perched while he rummaged in his pack for a first aid kit. Withdrawing tape, cream, astringent, and scissors, he set them on the tiny stand next to the cot. As he turned to face her, he saw her shirt flutter to the floor in a dark stream.

She smiled and snagged the loose cloth at the center of his shirt, pulling him forward.

Laying a finger over his gaping mouth, she swept it down over his bottom lip until her fingertip was under his chin. Gently, she closed his mouth and leaned forward, bringing her lips to his. He was so startled that he found himself melting into her embrace, allowing herself to tumble into the relief and happiness he felt at her safety. The kiss was simple and chaste, but Spike’s whole body was aflame.

When his eyelids opened, he found her emerald eyes were lit with the same flame. "Buffy," he started.

"Shhhh," she murmured, focusing on his cheek and tracing her fingers over his face. "I need you to show me."

"Show you?" he managed, trying not to gasp as she trailed his fingers down his chest, tugging his shirt upward.

"Show me that things are different now. That we’re different."

Spike let Buffy sweep his shirt over his head, and her hand trailed over his abdomen, dipping lower to his tightening pants. Spike couldn't remove his eyes from her hands that began circling his ribcage as she drew her naked mid-section toward his. He started to groan as her flesh pressed into his, but he was cut-off by Buffy's supple lips slamming into his with such force that he stumbled back a bit.

As her hand fumbled for his zipper, something clicked in the back of Spike's mind, making him think of a time years ago before he had a soul. . . a time when Buffy had used him. Taking a deep breath, he summoned all the willpower he had left and took her by the shoulders, being careful not to damage her arm.

Buffy eyes widened at his reaction, and Spike waited for the cloud of desire to sweep away from her eyes. She took in his expression, and tears immediately filled her eyes.

"What's going on, Buffy?" he asked, his words edged with a sharpness that faded as the tears trailed over her face.

Buffy's shoulders slumped, and she followed Spike’s lead as he sat down. She sank onto the thin mattress next to him with her head bowed; Spike ran his hand over the back of her long hair.

"Tell me what happened." To give her time to gather her thoughts, he returned to his original task of assembling supplies to care for her arm.

"What do you mean?" she asked even though she obviously knew what he was talking about.

"In Stephanie's fortress. What happened?" He met her eyes from beneath raised eyebrows. "Where's Angel?"

Tears flowed anew down Buffy's cheeks, and several seconds passed before she responded, "H-he's gone."

Not surprised by her revelation, Spike began dabbing astringent on Buffy's injury to cleanse the laceration. She squirmed and grimaced at the sting, and he mindfully blew on the cut, waiting for her to continue.

She finally said, "He's Angelus again."

Of all the things he expected her to say. . . well, he wasn't sure what he expected her to say. "How?"

Her eyes fluttered up briefly to meet his, but despite his reassuring touch, her next words came out in a disjointed manner, "Roxy. . . and Stephanie. Angel was bitten by a kranook. It was the only cure. A-and it was horrible how they did it. It felt like part of me w-was being sucked out."

A concerned line appeared between Spike’s eyes. "Okay. Let's start at the beginning."

Buffy nodded and hiccupped a little.

"What happened first after you and Angel were taken from the battle with the kranooks?" Spike returned to doctoring her arm.

"Well, Angel was unconscious because he was bitten by one of the kranooks. And I was knocked unconscious. Angel and Lorne and Wesley. . ."

“Aren’t on our side.”

She nodded and handed Spike a moist cloth to wipe the excess medicine off his fingers. "A-and when I woke up, I was in a cell in Stephanie's palace. And man, did that suck. She didn't even have a toilet in her prison! What kind of person doesn't have a toilet in their prison?"

"A vampire?" Spike asked, and he was rewarded with the beginnings of a smile at the corners of Buffy's lips.

"Uh huh." Her face grew serious again, and she explained the rest of the events that had transpired until she reached his door.

Spike listened silently, feeling a plethora of emotions from anger to disappointment to tenderness to finally understanding why Buffy had done what she had when she knocked on his door. Without realizing what he was doing, his hand had gone from holding hers to nestling around her waist.

When she ceased talking, Spike gathered his thoughts before he burst out with what was in his heart.

Buffy wasn't used to such restraint from Spike, and she looked up at him from his chest, with expectation written on her features. "So?"

"So, what?" he asked, averting his eyes.

"So, why aren't you saying anything? You know, how you're disappointed in me that I tried to use you again or something."

Spike bit the inside of his cheek and inhaled deeply. "Buffy, I'm not going to change. If you let yourself lo– have feelings for me, I'm not going to disappear. I'm not going to change and become someone else who will abuse you. What you see is what you get with me. Haven't you learned that by now?"

Tears filled Buffy's eyes, and she hid them by burying her face against his arm. "I know that."

Spike felt tired. "I'm not Angelus; I'm not Angel. I never will be. You just have to decide what you want. . . and sort through your fears." He halted for a moment before continuing, "I can't do it. I can be here while you do, but I can't fix it for you."

Buffy moved her hand to the top of his, pressing the tips of her fingers in the crevices at the base of his fingers. Her words came out a little hoarse, "I know."

"So, it's really up to you. You have to decide what you want. I know you, Buffy. When you make up your mind about something, you go for it, and you get it. That's something I admire; it's how I strive to be.” Spike knew this wasn’t everything. What was happening between them wasn’t all on Buffy. “I say all this knowing that I’m a pot calling the sodding kettle black.”

“What do you mean?”

He gently set her hand on her lap because he needed the space to get through the next part. “I know this isn’t the best timing, but I have to say it.” She nodded her permission, so he continued, “I’ve been thinking a lot on this mission. . . about myself, about us. And I am afraid I haven’t been completely fair to you.”

She made a face at him.

“It’s true. I’ve been hiding from you. . . literally, figuratively. I’ve been protecting myself and maybe even. . . punishing you by keeping my distance. I was hurt and more than a little angry that you came all that way to find me and then you left. I get it. Logically, I do. But my heart. . .” He couldn’t look at her, so he stared at his hands. “You told me that you loved me. I felt it. . . felt that it was true. And then, you were gone.”

“And you walled off your heart?” Buffy’s voice was small.

“I suppose I did. But life goes on. And each day was a step toward healing, patching up the painful bits. I found out that Angel’s pals weren’t half bad, especially Fred and Charlie. And Angel, well, he and I. . . I’ve never felt more accepted for where I was. We had our fights, yeah, but that’s always been par for the course.” A smile played a bit with the corners of his lips this time. “Being accepted that way, it helped me feel like maybe I was really worth something. Helped me open myself up again.”

“You are worth more than just something, you know.”

He peeked at her then. “You started it.”

Confusion crossed her face, but she searched his blue eyes. “What?”

“Making me feel like I was worthy when I didn’t believe it myself.”

“I never stopped believing in you. . . even after I left. A-and you’re allowed to be angry with me. I’d be angry with me.” He could hear the conviction, kindness, and sadness in her voice.

Spike almost said that he wasn’t angry and hurt, but that wasn’t true, so he said, “Thank you.” He hesitated but patted her leg, readjusting to the situation at hand. They could talk more later when things were more settled – if he could get the nerve up. "Let's get you cleaned up, love. Can't have you running around covered in blood. Then you'll definitely attract the vamps."

"Right." Buffy moved to one side, allowing Spike access to the medical supplies. Pulling her hair around her neck to allow better exposure to the still bleeding wound in her arm, she added, "And after you finish, I need to talk with Roxy."

"Want company?"

She smiled. "Company is welcome."

"Good. I'd like to get some answers about her motivations." He drenched another bit of cotton in astringent and pressed the material to Buffy's wound.

Buffy sucked on her bottom lip at the sting. She needed distraction and fast – before he got to the stitches part. "So, tell me what you've been up to. How'd you get here?"

Spike lifted an eyebrow at her. "It’s a long story, pet.”

Despite the exhaustion in her eyes, she stubbornly said, “You listened to mine. I want to hear yours.”

* * *

"What're you doing lurking about out here?"

When Spike heard the all too familiar voice, he wished he could go back inside and join Buffy. He'd patched up her arm and told her about his adventures without her, and then, when he was packing up the supplies, he saw her eyes drifting shut. He encouraged her to get some rest. She was asleep almost as soon as her head hit the canvas of the cot.

Demon Spike smirked at him and flicked the cigarette he was sucking on to the ground. He shrugged. "Saw Buffy go in there with you. Smelled the blood on her from across the way. Was curious is all.”

"Go somewhere else. There's nothing to see. . . or hear," Spike retorted, moving away from the space where Buffy was sleeping. He didn't like being on the receiving end of his own peeping-Tom act.

Of course, vampire Spike tailed him. “I want things to go differently between the two of you.”

“They already have gone differently. Apparently in a lot of ways.” Spike held his ground.

“Fine. Just remember what I said.”

Spike’s temper flared, and he rounded on his tailgating doppelganger. “Stop trying to help me. I'm not the same as you. She's not the same as your Buffy. And she didn't choose you in your dimension.”

Multiple emotions played across demon Spike's face, but Spike didn't stop to try to figure them out.

"Let's just focus on the mission," the vampire conceded, calling out to him.

"Good," he slung back.

Demon Spike sighed, jogging to catch up to Spike. "What are we doing again?"

"Preparing for battle."

"I know that. I meant right now."

"Roxy knows something. We need to find out what that is."

"Any news about Angel. . . your Angel?"

"He's no longer Angel," Spike grumbled.

Vampire Spike halted dead in his tracks. "Angelus? Angelus is back? How?"

Chapter Text

Chapter Seventeen

 

Buffy woke up alone in the cool cave room. As she blinked away the heavy cloud of sleep and her vision adjusted to the dim light, she realized that she felt oddly rested, considering the overwhelming odds she and Spike faced.

With rest came some clarity, too, and she knew that her conversation with Spike was far from over. She owed him that much even if he chose differently than she did. First, she had to figure out what she truly wanted, and in her heart she knew the answer, but exploring it and talking about it with Spike. . . that would have to come after this next part.

First, they had to find out what Roxy was hiding. There was something about the witch that led Buffy to trust her, but she couldn’t be completely sure, and she knew that the others would be far less amenable unless there was a discussion.

Buffy hurried off the cot, pausing only to stretch her injured arm and test for weakness. Finding the muscles and tissue nicely healed, she pushed the door and re-entered the world of the kranooks. Firelight from torches lit her way, and she scanned the crowd of reptilian creatures, searching for Spike. She spied his white blonde hair across the room near the other Spike.

Michael and demon Spike each held onto one of Roxy's arms, and something was crammed in her mouth to keep her from casting spells. Harmony stood at Michael's elbow, and a young girl with curly hair whom Buffy hadn’t met yet stood next them. A demon loomed behind her.

Her Spike caught her eye and nodded as she hurried down the path to the central gathering space. She gave him a small smile in return and joined his side, careful to not touch him. She needed to focus.

Buffy crossed her arms and tried to listen to what Spike was discussing with the kranook leader, Jon.

"We really need to confront her now. Before things get so chaotic that we don't have a chance," Spike insisted, thumbs and forefingers hooked in the belt-less loops of his jeans. Buffy mused that he must have gotten the jeans from his alternate dimension self. They fit him well.

Jon’s snake-like pupils were narrow slits, his tail swished wildly, and his response to Spike had a hiss-like quality to it that made Buffy shiver, "We don't have time. Stephanie's forces are putting up a good fight in the city above, and if she succeeds, she’ll be coming here next. Once she invades every corner of this place, she'll bring the Villa to fruition in your dimension and spread chaos across the land."

"And Roxy may have the key to stopping Stephanie," Spike retorted. "We can't just ignore what Buffy discovered in Stephanie's stronghold."
Deciding that his last comment left her free to jump into the verbal fray, Buffy stepped slightly in front of Spike. "I know I'm coming in kinda late here, but I wanted to point out that – while I think we all have different motivations – we all have the same agenda."

 

Caught off guard, Jon was visibly calmed by the calm firmness of her voice, and he regarded her with a serious expression. "Most of us do. We don’t know about her." He reached over and pulled a rag out of Roxy’s mouth. “Speak your piece.”

Roxy worked her jaw to loosen the stiffened muscles. "We all want to defeat Stephanie. The only way to do so is to work together like Buffy said."

Everyone stared at her, some with more malice than others.

“That is the ultimate goal, right?”

"She's right," Spike acknowledged.

"But first, we need to know each other’s motivations," Jon insisted. "Trust will be of utmost importance to all of us in the upcoming battle."

"Agreed,” Buffy said, “And if we’re all equals in this and trying to demonstrate trust, shouldn’t we untie Roxy?”

“No,” Jon stated flatly.

Roxy sighed. “I’m not going to cast any spells. You could kill me in a second if I tried. I’m not stupid.”

“Fine.” Jon nodded to Spike who deftly removed all the ropes but kept them in one hand. Buffy decided this was a smart move. "You have no right to know anything about us," Jon hissed. "Until we know about you."

"Okay," Spike said with just a hint of annoyance, placing an arm between the kranook leader and the vampire. "We are not going to argue about who goes first with their cards. There's no time."

Everyone focused on Roxy again.

"Spill," a young woman with dark curls demanded, hand on one hip. Buffy decided this was the young Slayer named Jenn that Spike told her about, and that must mean that the demon behind her was L’Gant – poker game L’Gant who’d humiliated the Harmony of both dimensions.

Roxy blinked and within the span of a few seconds, she seemed more resigned. "The truth."

"All of it," Harmony piped up, and Buffy vaguely wondered which dimension this particular Harmony came from. "Who do you work for?"

Buffy could answer this one, so she did. “She works for Wolfram and Hart."

Demon Spike snorted in disgust. "Figures.”

"It's not like I'm happy about it," Roxy said with more than a touch of weariness that Buffy could relate to.

Spike glared at his counterpart and focused on Roxy with a gentler tone, "What do you mean?"

"Would you want to work for Wolfram and Hart?" Harmony asked her ex in a voice dripping with sarcasm.

No one listened to Harmony, and she huffed and rolled her eyes when Roxy continued, "It's not something I wanted to do. It's a long story. The short version is that I'm a witch. . . I'm not really a vampire. Wolfram and Hart wanted me to work for them. I refused. They sent demons after my family. In exchange for sparing my family, they forced me to work for them."

Michael emitted a low whistle and looked her up and down. "Damn. I knew there was something off about you."

Roxy nodded. "Same technology that made Buffy, Spike, and Angel appear to be vampires."

"You got a chip in your noggin'?" Spike asked.

"Yes."

"What were you sent here to do?" Buffy met Roxy’s eyes, and she saw the witch’s hesitation begin to dissipate.

Holding Buffy’s gaze, Roxy said, "Guess I don't have much of a choice."

"About what?" Harmony asked, clearly mystified by the witch's indecision.

"About telling us, you half-wit," vampire Spike muttered.

Michael lunged at him across Roxy, but Harmony held up a hand in demon Spike's face. "He's not worth it," she sniffed.

"And?" Jon prodded Roxy, tail swishing again.

“And I was sent here by the senior partners to infiltrate Stephan and Stephanie's operation and prevent them from attempting to bring the vampire city into the dimension you belong to."

"Whose dimension?" Jenn asked in confusion.

"Ours," Buffy inclined her head toward Spike, remembering what Stephan told them. Spike’s eyes flicked to hers for a brief second. "It's ours."

"Right," Roxy confirmed.

"That doesn't make any sense, pet," Spike said. "Why would they want to prevent it? Seems to me the senior partners would want more vampires around and in both dimensions, what with all the Slayers running around the planet."

"It involves us, doesn't it?" Jenn added to Spike's question. "Our dimension."

"Right," Roxy repeated.

"This story is going on longer than she said it would," Harmony whined, studying her fingernails.

"She's right," Jon growled. "Get on with the point."

Buffy crossed her arms, trying to think of how this made sense with everything she knew already.

Roxy didn’t show signs of losing her temper. "Bottom line? Wolfram and Hart screwed up in your dimension, Jenn. That's your name, right?"

Jenn dipped her head once.

"With the First Evil’s defeat in Sunnydale and Willow’s spell using Buffy’s scythe, all the girls who would be Slayers became Slayers. The Powers that Be chose a vampire champion to become human in each dimension as well, and when the vampires fled the Earthly plane for the space between dimensions, the balance of good and evil shifted toward good, creating a tension – an imbalance across dimensional lines. Although the imbalance toward good was not so helpful for the senior partners in the short term, it was ideal in the long term. The longer the force of evil – the force of vampires clustered in the space between. . ."

"The more the tension built," Buffy interrupted. "And continues to build." Her heart sank at the realization. Here was yet another ramification of magic. Magic she’d helped invoke.

"Which is why they didn't want the vampire city to cross dimensional lines," Spike finished for Buffy. They exchanged a comfortable smile, and she was again glad that he’d opened up to her.

Jenn frowned. "But I still don't understand how they screwed up in my dimension."

"Good thinking," Roxy said. "They messed up because they put a human in charge of the law firm. Angel was chosen as champion. . . not Spike. Angel was in charge of Wolfram and Hart in your dimension as well. Human Angel was more corruptible than vampire Angel."

“Because he’s human with a soul. That’s interesting,” Demon Spike said thoughtfully. "And because the Slayer. . . Buffy. . . passed in my dimension. . ."

"The tension the senior partners could siphon was disrupted, and the vampire city had little potential power to destroy if brought into your portion of the plane," Roxy explained.

"And power is everything," vampire Spike said bitterly.

"Power is everything to the senior partners," she amended.

"So what does this power differential mean now that Angel's lost his soul?" Buffy asked.

"Nothing yet, but if Angel permanently loses his soul, it means that the senior partners lose ground. It means that they will want more than ever to prevent Stephanie from moving Vamp Villa until tension is restored. They want to be able to harness the power that comes with that tension, so the only option is to keep the tension present with the plane where Buffy lives. If the vampire city moves into that dimension, there would be a greater balance of good and evil. The senior partners wouldn’t have a source of energy they could draw upon to do whatever it is they do with that kind of power.”

"They want us to destroy Stephanie," Spike said, starting to put the pieces in place. "That's why Lilah said I needed to watch out for Angel. She didn't want him to lose his soul. She said he'd find something out. . . something that would make him not care if he lost his soul."

Roxy shrugged. "I don't know what that could be."

"I do," demon Spike spoke after having been silent. All eyes swiveled to his grim face. "He would find out that Buffy chose him in my dimension." He inclined his head at his twin. "The senior partners thought that would make him not care anymore. That it would make him vulnerable to evil."

Buffy raised her hand. "Excuse me, but I don't think my choice could cause him that much distress. . . not now. Years have passed; he'd deal. Plus, Angel’s not an idiot. He’d understand that the people in your dimension were different than him and me and Spike." As she said the words out loud, she realized that maybe this wasn’t completely true because she hadn’t dealt very well with knowing the differences.

"He didn't deal real well in my dimension," the vampire muttered in return.

"He's right," Jenn agreed. "Angel – human Angel didn't deal real well with Buffy's decisions in our timeline."

Buffy frowned. “Well, obviously, he’s not made the best choices, but what do you mean?"

"I don't see how this has any relevance for our upcoming fight with Stephanie," the kranook leader interjected, forked tongue sliding over his lips as he spoke.

"It has a lot to do with it," vampire Spike countered.

"It has to do with how Buffy. . . your Buffy died," Roxy guessed.

Now Buffy was intrigued, and she narrowed her eyes at demon Spike. "Explain."

"The bint's right. Suffice it to say that. . ." Tears filled his eyes, and for the first time, Buffy felt compassion for Spike's alter.

"Tell us," she urged gently.

Vampire Spike looked to Jenn for help and then bowed his head.

Jenn touched his shoulder in understanding. "Our Buffy died. She died because she chose to sacrifice herself so that he might remain."

"Who might remain?" Michael breathed, and Buffy realized they were all caught up in wanting to know the answer.

"Me," Spike's counterpart admitted, lifting his head. His cheeks were damp with tears. "She died saving me."

Buffy couldn't help herself. She mentally and physically took a step back, trying to fathom what demon Spike had just revealed. In the end, she. . . or rather the other Buffy had chosen Spike's life over her own. Instead of Spike dying for the world, the alter-Buffy had died for Spike.

Her heart beating in her throat, she met vampire Spike's clear blue eyes as if seeing him for the first time. "Why?"

"She. . ." Demon Spike couldn’t keep eye contact.

Jenn spoke for him, filling in the blanks, "She believed in him. . . believed that he would stay behind and fight for Angel. . . fight to help him rally back from the evil that was starting to consume him through Wolfram and Hart."

Buffy glanced at her Spike, who was staring at his twin, and for some reason, she longed to reach out and touch him. Just to reassure herself that they were in a different place than the Spike who remained a vampire. Without a word spoken between them, he caught her looking at him and read her thoughts. He moved closer to her so that she felt the warmth of his comfort, and she relaxed so that her back touched his arm.

"I still don't see what this has to do with anything," Jon snarled with more volume than his other interruptions.

"He's definitely repeat-o boy, but he's right," Harmony said, fluffing her hair and staring off into space, as if bored by the entire conversation.

Vampire Spike ignored her, "Only, I failed to bring him round. He sank further and further into the clutches of the evil and corruption that came with working for the law firm, and there was nothing I could do but watch. And I only stayed around to watch because of. . ."

"Celeste," Buffy supplied, memory forever imprinted with the image of the little blonde-headed girl who’d called her "Mommy."

Demon Spike nodded. "Right. Had to make sure she was safe from the evil. And because Angel slipped further, that must mean that the tension across dimension lines was lessened."

"I don't understand how this tension could be affected so much by one being," Jenn looked thoughtful. "You think there'd be enough Slayers to keep the tension going."

Roxy shrugged. "Not all the Slayers are major players in the battle between good and evil. . . no matter what we or they might like to think."

"It comes down to you three for some reason," vampire Spike suggested, nodding at Buffy and Spike in turn. "You two and your Angel."

"Again, I ask how this relates to my people," Jon spoke. He was starting to sound like a broken record. . . a deadly broken record that hissed and packed quite a wallop in his attack.

"It relates because you want to stop Stephanie, too," Roxy replied. "The senior partners want to temporarily stop Stephanie so the power differential can continue to build."

"We want to kill Stephanie," Jon corrected. "Doesn't matter how many of us die in the process. We want her dead for what she has done to us. . . making us slaves to the magic through the chips in our head."

"Never said the senior partners didn't want her dead," Roxy added quietly. “I don’t think Stephanie’s high on anyone’s save-the-vampires list.”

Harmony nodded. "Michael and I want her dead for what she did to Stephan. She ruined everything for us; we were set in the city." She sniffed delicately. "She burned down my shop!"

"Wait a minute. There're chips in brains involved?" demon Spike scoffed a bit belatedly. "Well that just makes everything all grand."

Everyone stared at him. Apparently, he was over his tears of a moment ago. Buffy surveyed him and decided that wasn't accurate. He was just putting up his bravado again.

"What? Just glad they're not in my noggin."

"But it's okay for them to be in ours?" Jon leered at the vampire, but the kranook leader seemed more placated now that the subject was on something he cared about.

"I’m not saying that," vampire Spike said with his hands up.

 

“Oddly enough, I think they could be the key to everything,” Roxy whispered, but Buffy didn’t have time to ask about this because badness was about to go down between the kranook and vampire. Roxy concluded, “So the best plan is to help Stephanie bring the city out of the space between and to then kill her.”

“Thus satisfying everyone here except the Senior Partners,” Harmony summarized with astounding clarity.

Roxy sighed, clearly giving up having any semblance of control in the conversation.

“And the prophecy about us defeating the vampires?" After everything they’d been through, Buffy had her suspicions about the so-called prophecy. Half the time they were open to interpretation, and she admitted to herself that half the reason she jumped on it was probably a subconscious excuse to see Spike again.

“We will defeat them,” Jon hissed. “Stephanie will die.”

“We need Angel back on our side. Otherwise he could cause trouble,” Spike commented.

Harmony looked confused. “And why did we take his soul from him?”

"To save his life from kranook poison!" Roxy gritted her teeth.

"Well, now he's batting for the other team." Buffy's eyes rounded, and someone snickered. She thought it was demon Spike. "That came out so wrong."

"And now, we can use that to our advantage," the witch assured them.

"How?" Spike asked. "He's kind of. . . well, evil now. Doesn’t seem like much of an advantage to me."

Roxy nodded. "Which is why we give him his soul back from afar, and then, we have an ally close to Stephanie."

"Hey! You said you couldn't do a gypsy curse," Buffy reminded her. “And won’t Stephanie notice that Angel’s re-ensouled?”

"I can't. But Willow can." Buffy opened her mouth again, but Roxy spoke before she could utter a sound. "And I have a way that you can contact her. Meanwhile, the rest of us will give Stephanie and her vamps the fight of her life and hope she’s too distracted to notice that Angel has a soul again."

Chapter Text

Chapter Eighteen

 

In the semi-dark depths of the underground, Spike inhaled the stale scent of unused air and clutched a torch in one hand, lighting their path. He was having a hard time fathoming the truth. Even though it was plain as day in his mind, his emotions weren't quite up to speed. Buffy had chosen him in the end even in the other dimension, even when she hadn’t chosen him to stop the ubervamps and close the hellmouth.

Now in the quiet space, in the calm before the storm, Spike found himself wondering what would have happened if he had ignored her attempt to run away from him and gone after her instead.

Shifting the pack on his shoulder, he glanced at the Slayer. . . his Slayer out of the corner of his eye. Buffy walked along beside him as she’d always done, blonde hair trussed up in a bouncy ponytail that swung with an innocence that he knew she no longer possessed. She seemed oblivious to him, oblivious to what Roxy had just revealed. Instead, she appeared focused on their mission to get to the highest possible spot within the kranook caverns, closest to the mystical energy source humming through Stephanie's headquarters.

Spike clenched his jaw.

Roxy better not have been lying about where they needed to go, or he'd personally tear every limb from her body even if he had to get re-vamped to do it.

"So how're we gonna call Willow again?" Buffy asked him out of the blue, a spark of green glinting in her eye as she peered up at him.

"We're going to try to harness the energy the witch told us about, using this contraption." Spike tilted his head toward the bag on his back. The magic amplifying device Roxy had given them felt heavy on his shoulder.

"And we got the spell. Say the right words, do a little dance, and viola, Willow contact?" Spike could picture her frowning as she went over the plan in her mind. "I wonder how we'll know it's working?"

Spike chuckled. "I suppose when Red starts talking in our heads, pet."

"Inter-dimensionally? You have no idea, do you?" she asked, and Spike could see her incredulous expression in the dim lighting.

Levity between them sure was better than the alternative awkwardness that could have easily slid into place after what he had revealed to her and after what Roxy had shared. What would happen after they accomplished their task of dashing Stephanie's dreams? Would they actually continue their conversation or would Buffy run away again?

"Actually, no. Somehow we're supposed to help Angel retrieve his soul, so we have more of a chance in hell of defeating Stephanie."

She laughed then. "This is crazy, isn't it?"

"What is?" Spike asked innocently, wanting to hear her version of the craziness.

"All these different agendas, different dimensions, different decisions, Roxy's plan, the vagueness of the stupid prophecy that probably isn’t even a real prophecy. God, who would have known that one little decision on my part would be so important? Makes me wonder what would happen if I –"

She stumbled over something in the dark, but Spike caught her by the elbow, holding onto her so she wouldn't fall.

"You all right, love?"

"Like this, for example," she continued, clapping her hands together to knock off excess dirt from the cavern wall that she'd touched in an effort to balance herself.

"What?"

"You know. If I walk the wrong way or fall over, is it going to cause some catastrophic event in the near or distant future?"

"I think that you're giving yourself far too much credit," he said in a lower voice. He bit the inside of his cheek in annoyance at himself for breaking the amicable flow of their conversation.

She shook her head. "You're right. You're right. I suppose all the power I wielded in terms of huge alterations in the timeline was just around that last apocalypse at the Sunnydale hellmouth."

"I suppose." Spike wasn't going to fill in the blanks for her.

She kept going on her own. "I’ve been thinking about what you said, about how you said you could have come after me. What do you think would have happened if I had stayed with you or you’d have come to find me?”

 

Spike wasn't completely surprised to hear that question come flying out of her mouth, and he was somehow glad to hear she was thinking the same thing he was thinking.

 

Afraid to be too vulnerable lest she not give something back, he chose to be logical in answer to her question. "I think we'd have mucked it up royally." He paused, but she had no response again, so he took her silence as agreement and admitted, "You weren't ready, but neither was I. I was a vampire for over one hundred years; think I adjusted to the whole human thing right off the bat? No puns intended."

The light on Buffy's face hinted at a corner of her mouth going in the upward direction. “We both make the same bad puns.”

"Have we had this discussion before?" he asked abruptly, staying with her mood.

She sounded more amused, "Hmmm. I think so. The first time, there was considerably more yelling and emotion on both our parts. And then, there was the whole boyfriend thing." She didn’t bring up the conversation in the kranooks’ lair, which coupled with mentioning her ex-boyfriend, made him feel insecure.

"Don't bring him back up," Spike mock-growled.

She glanced up at him. "What were you saying?"

"What part? That we'd have mucked the whole thing up?"

"Yeah, that. You're probably right. We weren't ready. I know I wasn’t ready. It takes a lot to go from being the only Slayer besides Faith to being one of many. And to top it off, being in charge of the many. Do you know how much work it’s been to fly all over the world, identifying the Slayers that didn’t know they were Slayers and helping them deal with the consequences of being stronger than they ever were? They all have different personalities, too. Not all of them were like me or Kendra. A lot were like Faith.”

“Brassed off and ready to take out their anger on the world?”

“Yeah. And a lot of them were too young to know what to do with their powers. There were little kids with sudden physical strength and vampires and demons coming after them.” Her eyes filled with tears.

Spike stared at her and tried to imagine what she had seen, what she had had to do to manage so much. He pictured something a little like the S.I.T.’s in Sunnydale but on steroids (literally and figuratively). “You felt an obligation to clean up the aftermath.”

She blinked away the sadness in her eyes and nodded solemnly. “Of course. Magic always has consequences.”

Didn’t they both know that just too bloody well? “Right.”

“And to do the job efficiently and well, we had to split up. I didn’t see Willow or Giles or Xander for months. Dawn stayed with Dad for a while to go to school and to be in one place. We set up programs and schools for the Slayers and their families and worked on ways of communicating and dividing up sectors to protect.”

“I imagine that didn’t leave you much time for yourself,” Spike reflected.

She bit her lip and shook her head. “By the time I settled in one spot with Dawn in Cleveland, I realized that I hadn’t really dealt with myself. You gave me that speech about being a ‘hell of a woman,’ and I heard it. It gave me the strength to get through the fight against the First, but I-I didn’t really internalize it. I didn’t really believe it for myself. Couple that with the aftermath of the spell, and well, let’s just say I had a lot of not-so-great days.”

He related to the part about not internalizing messages. Hadn’t he just admitted the same to her earlier? “And that’s when you went to therapy?”

“Yeah, and I discovered a whole mess of things, personal feelings and thoughts, that I hadn’t dealt with. That’s when I really faced myself and all the things I’d done and talked about how all that impacted my relationships with my friends and family and. . . with you.”

She talked about him with her therapist? Spike marveled at the thought.

Buffy was still talking though, so he didn’t ponder it for long. “Therapy’s when I saw how scared I’ve been to let someone in. To let you in because you can really hurt me. . . because I. . . ”

She halted dead in her tracks and placed her hand against his forearm.

He felt like he was holding his breath as he tried to decipher what she was saying, so he focused on the concrete, "And now?"

"And now? Angelus said we aren’t different, and I think he’s right. In a lot of ways we aren’t, but in a lot of ways we are. We are different now." She slid her hand along his arm and pressed her palm against his.

Scar molded against scar.

Spike blinked. Was she daft? Was she just repeating what happened earlier and ignoring what he’d said? He wanted to have hope, but he didn’t want to either. Instead, he just felt irritated with her and himself.

 

"I know what you're thinking. I don't have to decide now. I have to make up my mind about whether or not I trust myself enough to trust you, and you have to decide the same thing. Well, you have to decide if you can forgive me." She shook her head as if to clear her thoughts. "That’s confusing. I think the bottom line is that we both have to decide to let each other in. And we’re starting to do that, right?”

"Where are you going with this, pet? We have a mission here." He removed his hand from hers and hooked his thumb under the strap of the backpack, pulling it away from his shoulder.

She stared at him as he tried to push past her. “You can’t just drop this.”

Even though he heard the fear and vulnerability in her voice, he said, "Well, I am."

"No, you're not. . . not until I say you are," she insisted, finding an untapped source of energy and dancing around until she was in front of him, blocking his way. “Besides, you started this.”

“How, pray tell, did I start this?”

“Because you let me in. . . Finally, you let me in for the first time in well. . . a really long time.”

His heart was starting to pound, and he followed his first impulse. “I didn’t.”

"Stop it. You did, and y-your denial prevents us from communicating."

"Don't see that you're the expert at communication."

"No. No, I'm not. I haven’t been. But I'm trying here. I’m scared, but I'm trying, Spike."

"Why bother?" Her trying was frightening the hell out of him. "It's not like we can take this conversation anywhere right now. We have a mission."

"Screw the mission!" Buffy shouted, throwing both arms in the air. "All we talk about is the damn mission!” She studied the ground for a second with a little frown on her face. "God, no wonder everyone got sick of me before," she said almost to herself. Her gaze slammed into his again. “My life doesn’t have to be about the mission anymore! I’m not going to let it and neither should you!”

Of all the things she could have said. . . "What did you say, pet?"

Her eyes were ablaze even in the diffuse light. "I'm sick to death of the mission ruling my life. I'm a person here w-with thoughts and f-feelings and rights and needs. Damn it! I have needs. And I deserve to take every rare chance that's offered me to try and meet those needs! And so do you!" She said the last four words slowly and with emphasis.

Spike stared at her.

"Even if my everyday decisions don't carry that much weight in the mystical battle between good and evil, they carry a lot of weight to me, and hell, they can make a big difference in my life! And so, I'm making a choice no matter how terrified I am! Right here. Right now. This moment." She paused half a second to breathe, and she began pacing back and forth under Spike's nose. He couldn't help but be amused by the motion of her ponytail punctuating her statements. "So I'm insecure; so I'm not perfect. Everyone is, and I never will be! So I've had a few bad experiences, so I need a little reassurance every now and then when someone from my past tries to hurt me. That does not mean that I'm not ready to make a decision! That does not mean I'm an emotional cripple! And that does not mean I don't know what I want!"

Spike wasn't sure what exactly she was hinting at. "Buffy. . ."

"What?" She looked up at him with wide geen eyes and half-parted lips, all innocence as if she'd completely lost track of what she was saying with his utterance of her name.

"Bottom line, pet."

"Oh."

The scar above Spike's eye jumped half an inch.

She searched what she could see of his face before closing her eyes and turning her cheek. Then, she mumbled something so softly that he almost couldn't make it out. After all, he didn't have vampire hearing anymore.

"What?" he asked, uncertain whether he believed what she'd just admitted.

Something akin to hurt and utter vulnerability flashed over her features, and she spun on her heel and dismissed him with a defensive flick of her hand. "But if you can't handle it. . . or don’t want me. . . I can respect and understand that. . . "

And she was off up the next incline and closer to the heart of Stephanie's headquarters.

He took three large strides after her and spun her around with his free hand. The pack slid from his shoulder to the ground.

"Hope you didn't break it," she whispered, and Spike could tell she wasn't sure what she meant.

 

His fingers dug into her upper arm, but not enough to hurt her. He couldn't really hurt her anyway. . . not physically. "Don't say those kinds of things unless you mean them."

She glared at him, extricated her arm and stepped back. "You didn't even hear me."

"Say it louder then," he said, his voice indignant and deep with a multitude of emotions despite his attempt to sound neutral. "Say it like you mean it. You can't, can you?"

Tears glazed her corneas, sheathing green in crystalline liquid. She focused on his chest, pointing an index finger toward his sternum. "Don't. . . don't you. . .you even start with that crap again. Don't you build another wall when I'm trying to tear this one down."

Spike's own vision blurred before he was cognizant of the pain of the memories racing through his mind.

Buffy reached up and rested an open palm on his chest. . . over his heart. "You're trembling, and your heart is going so fast.” Awe was in her voice.

"God, Buffy."

Deliberately moving her hand from his chest to his hand that was wrapped around the torch, she covered his fist, splaying fingers over knuckles. In gentle motion, she pulled the blaze down so that the fire echoed against the depths of her eyes. . . so he couldn't deny the genuineness of her words. . . .

"I love you, Spike."

Chapter Text

Chapter Nineteen

 

Buffy watched as Spike took in the declaration of her feelings. She couldn’t stand the shock in his eyes and reassured him, “I mean it.”

Spike bowed his head as he did when she first told him that the night they spent together meant something to her. That time, she was sure he felt the same way. . . knew it because he spent the night watching her and holding her like he would never let her go. But now, she was not so sure he felt the same way. Not after everything they’d gone through the last few days and not after so many years had passed. Maybe he just wanted her to say it out loud to humiliate her. . . the way she had humiliated him so many times before.

“Don’t leave me hanging. Please.” Buffy’s voice was more desperate than she wanted it to be, but she also knew he had a right to be angry with her – a right to reject her.

Spike suddenly met her gaze, and she barely caught the tenderness and passion in his eyes before he buried the torch in the dirt ground and brought his mouth to hers with such force that her breath was taken away. After only a second’s hesitation, she matched his ardor, and before she realized what was happening, he had her up against the cavern wall, crushing his body to hers as her legs went around his hips.

Her body responded to his almost instinctively as she felt his need against her thigh, and she longed to have him inside of her after so much time apart. She felt him come on so strong but then somehow hesitate and slow down even as he pressed his lips over hers. . . over her neck to tickle and lick the hollow of her throat.

Buffy clung to him, mindful of her Slayer strength, but also wanting to make sure he knew she was sure – so sure of him that she was all in. If love were a round of Texas Hold ‘Em, she was all in: her whole heart, body, mind, and spirit. Feelings of relief, joy, love, and the most primal need – something that she only ever felt with him – seemed to fill her whole being, and she hoped he knew that with each stroke of her hand and kiss of her lips that she loved him, truly loved him, in a way that she never loved anyone else.

When she realized that they were obligated to breathe, he pulled back.

She blinked at him, still a little frightened that he would shove her away and deny what she felt between them.

“Buffy?”

She couldn’t bring herself to say another word and turned her gaze to the right, her arms dropping away from their position around his neck. Her stomach sank into her abdomen and a rush of pain shot through her chest.

He stroked her shoulder blade with reassuring fingertips. “You know that I love you, too. Always have. Always will.”

Buffy sagged against him, trembling a little in his arms. “Thank god.” Her words were an echo of a time long past in a basement on Revello Drive, but this time was somehow different.

Spike held her close, and she thought that all of a sudden all the miscommunications, mixed signals, and push-pull between them seemed so silly in the scheme of things. “I’m not going anywhere, pet.”

Her arms tightened around his neck again. “Me either. Not anymore. I promise. Done baking. . . for the most part.” She hesitated and repeated how she felt. “I love you.” She paused, smiling. “That feels so good to say out loud.”

Spike laughed, and Buffy was glad to hear his happiness, had hated that they were both hurting so much.

“I think I can handle a gooey center to my cookies.”

She grinned at him. “Good.” She paused and then said, “I loved you before, you know?”

“I know. Felt it, remember?” He kissed her forehead.

She laid her head on his shoulder. “I felt it, too.”

He gently unhooked her legs from around his waist. She hopped to her feet as he scooped up the pack he had dropped in the dirt. He softly kissed her again before she unearthed the torch, and they continued their journey as the path wound upward, but this time, Buffy’s hand was firmly ensconced in Spike’s, his fingers surrounding hers. She squeezed his hand to hold onto the earlier feelings of desire and hope, and he readily returned the gesture.

Buffy heard him clear his throat before commenting, “I don’t understand something.”

“What’s that?” She glanced up at him, but Spike didn’t return the look. At least he hadn’t let go of her hand.

“I’ve been thinking about the other Buffy. . . why she chose Angel.”

Buffy was confused. “Yeah?”

“And I can come up with a thousand reasons why she chose Angel.”

“A thousand?” She had no idea where he was going with this line of thinking.

“I won’t list them all, but it got me thinking. Why did you choose me? When Angel showed up in Sunnydale with that shiny bauble, why did you send him away and let me bring down the house? It doesn’t make sense in my head.” Spike’s voice got so quiet at the end that Buffy barely heard him.

She was silent for several seconds, and then she said, “I don’t know what the other Buffy was thinking because, in all honesty, Spike, I didn’t think of anyone but you when Angel gave me that medallion. We’d been through too much together. . . more than Angel and me by that point. And did you hear what the other you said? The other me sacrificed herself to save you because she believed in you. Not sure exactly what she did because we didn’t hear that part, but in the end, she made the same decision as me, maybe for different reasons.” She briefly leaned over and hugged his arm. “And I wouldn’t trade the decision I made for all the chocolate in North America.”

Spike smirked. “All the chocolate in North America?”

She shrugged. “Well, all the tea in China didn’t really fit. I’m not a big tea drinker, and America has Hershey’s!”

His next words were serious again. “Did you choose me because I’m human now?”

Her response was swift, firm, and not at all defensive. “No. I chose you because of who you are. . . because I believed in you. I still do.”

She hoped the way she denied his query left him surer of her, and she was gratified by his reply, “Good.” He paused for a few seconds and then said, “I’m glad.”

“Glad of what?” Buffy hefted the torch in her hand.

“Glad that things played out the way they have between us.”

“You don’t think we wasted too much time?”

He gently pressed a kiss to the back of her hand. “No, I don’t. We needed that time.”

“And now we have a lot of time.” Buffy tried to sound more confident than she felt inside. Truth be told, she was terrified she might lose him before this operation ended.

“Let’s hope so, pet.”

Time passed in amicable silence, and Buffy tried valiantly to stay in the moment, to focus on being with Spike in a way that she hadn’t been in the past. Their eyes met every now and again, and she kissed his fingers and upper arm more than once. He allowed the touch and dipped to brush his lips over hers, and in that brief window when they were walking together, she felt a rare moment of simple happiness.

Soon, a faint violet light appeared as a glowing pinprick ahead of them. The light grew and expanded as they approached, and the path widened until Buffy and Spike found themselves standing in a small cavern filled with deep purple radiance. . . the magical energy that fed the kranooks. The air was crisper and smelled like what Buffy could only label as a cross between apple pie and crumbling fall leaves.

She stuck the torch back in the ground as Spike unzipped the pack on his back, his bleached hair lavender white in the luminance. He held up the amplifying device, which was the size of a toaster and hummed with a vibrating motion against his palms.

“Guess it’s working,” he commented. “Got the spell ready?”

Buffy pulled a slip of paper out of her pocket and a pouch of herbs. “Ready.”

Together, they approached the center of the space where the light was concentrated and brighter. The energy skipped and danced over their skin as they approached, and the apparatus in Spike’s hand began to crackle with tiny lightning bolts of magic.

Spike shook his head, and he gritted his teeth. “Right. Starting to get painful. Better set it down.”

As soon as the small machine rested in the dirt, and Spike took two steps back to stand beside her, Buffy began chanting the spell, which was written in some ancient language. She only hoped she wasn’t butchering the pronunciation too badly.

About mid-way through the spell reading, the violet light began flowing almost in a stream toward the small device, consuming it so that they could no longer even detect the ridges of wires that covered the smooth surface. Wind began swirling around them, and the torch’s flame was snuffed out. Spike spread his legs to brace himself, and Buffy followed suit, her voice rising in volume but never wavering as she opened her palm and let loose the herbs, which were caught in the gale, mixed with the loose earth, and consumed by the magic. She squinted her eyes against the flying dust and held fast to the page with the spell, continuing until the end.

With a small popping and sucking sound, the gale ceased, the mystical energy resumed its concentrated form in the center of the room, and the machine jumped, teetered back and forth against the ground, and came to a standstill. Buffy stumbled a bit at the change in air pressure, and Spike caught her arm, steadying her.

“Well, that was a complete waste. . .”

Spike trailed off as the tiniest of fissures appeared in the air above the device. As they watched, the split in the air grew and morphed until what appeared to be a life-sized hologram of Willow manifested before them. The edges of her form were shimmering with electric blue power.

She was dressed in a light green peasant top, and her red hair was long and flowing around her shoulders. She blinked in surprise, and when she made them out, she smiled. “Buffy! Spike! Long time, no see. How’d you. . . how are you contacting me?”

“Will! You don’t know how glad I am to see you.” Buffy’s smile was wide, and she wished that her friend were here to hug. “And that is a long long long story, which I’ll tell you at another time.”

“Got it. That better be a promise. It’s wonderful to see you, too.” Willow’s eyes fell on Spike who was still holding Buffy’s arm. “So, still human, huh?”

The corner of Spike’s mouth quirked up. “Yeah, Red. That I am.”

“Still a witch here.”

“Thank goodness,” Buffy noted. She held up the now ragged slip of paper with the spell on it. “I know I was helped out by the magic in this room and that device and possibly some magic weed, but I am so glad that I don’t have to do the spells.”

Giving a little mock salute, Willow said, “Well, despite being impressed and all, I’m happy to be of service.” Then, her expression became more somber. “I heard you have an Angel problem. . . as in he’s all soulless again.”

Buffy glanced at Spike who shrugged a shoulder. She turned back to her friend. “How’d you know?”

“I felt it. You know how I’m connected to the earth?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I’m also connected more strongly to all of you, maybe because you belong over here and not there. Plus, I care about you.” Spike raised an eyebrow at Willow, which she acknowledged by adding, “That and I’m here at the site where the city would manifest if it slips over into our dimension. And can I just say that I can definitely feel something happening? I can’t tell exactly what’s going on, but there’s something incredibly powerful going on.”

“Can you restore his soul across dimensional lines?” Spike asked.

Willow reached for something hidden out of view. “Well, I just so happen to have an Orb of Thesulah here.” She tossed a familiar round crystal up and caught the ball neatly against her palm. “And I think this dimensional crack is thin enough to allow me to cast the spell. But first, can you fill me in on what you think is going on?”

Buffy gave Willow the short version of what Roxy had just told them about dimensions, the tension between good and evil, the Senior Partners’ scheming for power, and the vampire society. She also told her about the kranooks. “Honestly, Will, this whole thing makes my head hurt with the trying to understand it. There are so many agendas going on, and there’s this prophecy that says Angel, Spike, and I are supposed to stop the vampires from taking over the world, but whose agenda is that? And the prophecy? While I think it got us here, I’m starting to think it’s a pretty lame red herring.”

“I agree with that,” Spike said. Buffy noticed he’d been quiet during her rendition of the events.

Buffy continued, “I think it’s pretty clear that everyone wants Stephanie dead, but the Senior Partners want the city to stay put. I imagine most of the vampires, including Harmony, want that, too. They have a pretty sweet gig here. The kranooks don’t care what happens to the city as long as they can kill Stephanie, and if we move the city or allow Stephanie to do so, it steals power from the Senior Partners but adds a whole lot of vampires to our dimension, which might not be bad because it gives us more balance in the whole good-evil realm.”

Willow bit her lip as she processed the information. “That is complicated. What do you think?”

Buffy crossed her arms, her mind working over everything. “Honestly? I think we should focus on what seems right and not on what we think the Senior Partners and others could have as a hidden agenda.”

“What’re you thinking, love?” Spike asked, matching her stance.

Buffy glanced between Willow and Spike. “I think we should concentrate on bringing the city into our dimension, killing Stephanie, and getting a hold of the dimensional key. Everything we talked about with everyone else except for the key part.”

Willow nodded, looking thoughtful. “I had a feeling you might say something like that, and it makes sense to me. The balance needs to be restored, and with the tension alleviated, we prevent a whole repeat of the First Evil taking advantage of the imbalance and rearing his its ugly head again.”

“Wolfram and Hart may prefer the tension because it gives them power, but it leaves the world more vulnerable to other not-so-nice forces. And I don’t know if they all came from our dimension, but we can handle it.”

“Seems we need the vampires in the world.” Spike shuddered.

“The fight is needed.” Buffy wasn’t sure the reason for Spike’s reaction, but she brushed her hand over Spike’s lower back to reassure him.

Willow added, “And I have a whole bunch of Slayers and witches on the ready to help out on this end when you do bring the city over. We’ll slay the vampires we can. . . a whole city full will be hard to contain, but then, that’s not the point, is it? We’ll minimize the damage. There’ll be plenty of Slayers all over the world to help out with the ones that get away. We’ll wrangle them back to the places they need to be.”

“You’re good!” Buffy grinned at her friend.

Willow returned the smile and gave a humble little shrug. “I’ve heard people say so.”

“And the kranooks? What’ll we do about them?”

The three became quiet as they considered Spike’s question.

Then, Spike brightened and spoke up with a tone of buoyancy that Buffy hadn’t heard in a while. “Fred!”

Buffy’s eyes grew wide. “Yes, yes! That’s brilliant! Willow, can you call Fred?”

Buffy couldn’t tell, but she thought she saw Willow blush. She guessed old crushes died hard. “Y-yeah. I can call her. Why?”

Spike waved his hand at his head. “She’s a right expert at the whole magic-chip-in-the-brain routine. Fixed us up to come here, and I’d trust her more than Roxy to sort it out.”

Buffy looked at him with affection. “Sounds like we have a plan. We just have to figure out how to execute it and save all those humans. . . somehow. They’re going to need rehabilitation or something.”

“Well, they’ll have lots of help on this end once we bring them over. I think I can help out with the dimensional shift thing on my end if you get a hold of the key,” Willow offered. “If you activate the key, I can expand on the opening and make it grow, so to speak.”

Buffy frowned. “How are we supposed to control the key? Last time, Spike used it, well, half of it, we ended up in some alternate dimension.”

“Don’t want to go back there,” Spike noted. “The kranooks will help us. We can ask Jon.”

Buffy nodded. “We’ll get it done. . . somehow.”

“I have faith in you.” Willow flashed her a glimpse of her old resolve face. “Let’s get Angel his soul back.”

“First things first,” Buffy agreed.

“By the way, I’m happy for you.”

Confusion crossed Buffy’s face. “Huh?”

Looking younger than her years, Willow smiled as she explained, “For the two of you. It’s about time. And Spike?”

“Yeah, Red?”

“I never got to thank you in person. . . well, as in person as I can get right now. . . for the apocalypse in Sunnydale. . . for saving the world.”

“Think you had something to do with it, too.”

“Nah, not really. Well, maybe a little bit. . . helped long enough to give you the shot you needed.” She paused and made a face of frustration. “Spike, just take the damned compliment.”

He grinned.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty

 

The kranooks hidden home base was utterly ransacked. Tables were turned over, chairs were smashed, and what looked like the kranooks’ food was strewn about on floors and walls. The doors to the living quarters hung half off their hinges, and the bodies of several kranooks were piled in various spaces and corners of the cavernous space. Dust coated various objects, indicating that the kranooks had put up a good fight.

The scent of death hung in the sticky air, but Spike was used to this and to seeing places utterly destroyed. He noticed that Buffy wasn’t faring so well; though this surprised him, he wondered if her reaction had anything to do with the recent slaughter by Angelus. He saw her shiver and close her eyes for a few seconds and then open them again as if she was determined to stay in the moment.

Spike squeezed her hand. She smiled at him, and he knew that she was okay.

She then let go of his hand, hooked the torch into a handle on the wall, and pulled an ax out of a chair where someone or something had embedded the blade.

Spike heard a low whimper from behind one of the tables, and he picked his way through the mess to find a kranook curled around a deep gaping wound in his belly. The creature stared at him with pleading golden eyes, and Spike squatted next to the prone form.

“What can I do, mate?” he asked. Buffy joined him at his back.

“N-nothing. . . for me. Help them.” The hybrid raised his arm and pointed toward the tunnel that led to the surface. . . to Stephanie’s lair and the city.

“We got this,” Buffy assured him. “Willow restored Angel’s soul.”

The kranook closed his eyes in relief and sank into the ground, breathing becoming more ragged.

Spike bowed his head as the creature died, and then, he rose, scanning the room, searching for a weapon. He thought he spied something glinting in the torchlight, and Buffy must have seen it, too, because she marched over, pulling out a partially hidden sword. She tossed the weapon to Spike who caught the hilt with ease. He studied the adorned hilt; the jewels encrusted in the metal glinted and glittered in the torchlight.

“Fancy,” Buffy commented as she hurried to his side, and he slipped her a couple of stakes that he found abandoned nearby, keeping a third for himself.

“Thanks,” she said, sounding more serious than she’d been since they started this journey.

They’ve been at this crossroad before, and to Spike, it never felt different. . . the sense of dread infused with the excitement that this might again be the end of his life and hers.

“You feel it, pet?”

She nodded. “I do.”

He considered sweeping her up into a passionate kiss for luck, but he hesitated because that’s what Angel would do. . . had done, and that felt a bit like it might jinx them somehow. . . that one of them might die, and he didn’t want that, not when they’d just figured things out and broken through the damned, seemingly impenetrable brick wall between them.

Buffy stroked his cheek then, the fire from the torches bright in her eyes, and she kissed him with deliberately slow, gentle reverence. He leaned into the kiss, relishing how warm her skin was, how on fire he felt at her touch.

Before he could get completely lost in her, she pulled back and smiled, and he was transported back to their night in her Sunnydale basement before he put on the shiny bauble and burned up in the hellmouth. The tenderness between them was the same, but this time, the depth of feeling was stronger, and he marvelled at how he never thought he’d be here, in this place, with her.

Buffy spoke first, “This time, we’re both getting out of this alive.”

He set his jaw. “Right, love. Neither of us is dying today.”

“Good.”

With that, he recaptured her free hand in his, and they headed up the path toward the fight ahead.

* * *

The world was on fire.

The flames rose up all around Spike and Buffy on the streets of Vampire Villa. Buildings were burning, vampires were on fire and exploding into billows of dust, and kranooks were screaming in agony amidst the tangle of bodies fighting and clawing and biting to survive.

The air was permeated by the smell of ash and blood, and the fire lit the city so brightly that it almost seemed like daylight was upon them, lending the atmosphere an aura of eeriness and fear. The heat was intense, and Spike’s lungs burned with the smoke rolling between buildings that were aflame.

“See anyone we know?” Buffy asked as a female vampire flew past them, hurled by a hissing kranook.

The vampire staggered to her feet, and Spike deftly buried his stake in the vampire’s chest.

Spike coughed as leftover dust swirled in his face. “No. You, love?”

Another vampire dressed in dark green hurled himself at the pair, hissing, “Slayer!”

Without batting an eye, Buffy swung her ax, decapitating the vampire. “Nope, and I can’t tell who is on whose side.” She gestured at the dust flying around her, “Like that guy.”

“Don’t think the vamps matter so much. Remember what Stephan said? Half the vampires here don’t even know about him and Stephanie.” He ducked as a long blade of some form or fashion flew at his head.

Buffy caught the weapon that almost hit Spike. He watched her look over the weapon and then reject it, tossing the long bit at a vampire across the way who was shoving a kranook against a light pole. The vampire staggered as the metal sank into his calf, and the kranook gained the upper hand. “Right. Kill the vampires.”

“And find Angel,” Spike added, sidestepping a flaming vampire that subsequently exploded in a poof of dirt. “Sorta glad I can’t burst into flames with a stray spark.”

“Didn’t think you’d worry about that kind of thing.”

He shrugged. “I may act like I don’t care and enjoy taking risks with the best of them, but I’m not a complete idiot.”

“Which way should we go? I have no idea where we are except that we’re supposed to be close to Stephanie’s headquarters.”

They glanced up and down the street, trying to see past the writhing mass of fighting creatures. Serendipitously, a flash of bright light and a loud crack of what sounded like lightning burst forth from their left.

“Looks like that way.” Spike nodded his head toward the obvious display of magic.

“Looks like.”

With a destination in mind, the pair battled their way down the street, fighting back to back. Buffy picked up the slack when Spike struggled against his stronger foes. Kranooks took aim at them as well, not really recognizing them in the heightened energy of flow of combat. Not taking the time to make small talk to remind the creatures that they were allies, Buffy and Spike simply struck back and moved on, trying not to kill them if they could. Spike was extra careful not to get hit in the head, mindful of his concussion, and he could tell Buffy was favoring her injured arm. He found that they were automatically making up for each other’s blind spots as if they’d never stopped fighting together.

A small cluster of what look like humans unexpectedly staggered out from one of the side streets, their hair mussed, grey clothes torn, and feet bare. Their expressions conveyed how confused, lost, and afraid they must have felt. A few of them clung to one another, wincing at the fray, and some were whimpering.

Between blows, Buffy commented, “Reminds me of when I came back. Sunnydale was on fire and so bright. They look like how I felt. . . like they woke up in hell.”

Spike gave her a quick glance as he dodged an ill-fated attempt to punch his head. “I remember.”

He watched Buffy rush to a young woman’s side, gently tugging at her arm in hopes of leading the group away from danger. The woman blinked at Buffy and tried to pull away, keeping one arm wrapped around her ribcage as if to protect herself.

Spike shouted at Buffy as he finished off his current foe, “This way! Bring them this way!”

The woman backed away from the Spike’s loud tone of voice, as she was every loud sound, and Buffy reassured her, “It’s okay. Come this way.”

The woman studied Buffy for what seemed like an eternity to Spike, who was hanging back and watching so as not to frighten them further. Then, the lady willingly followed Buffy’s gentle urgent encouragement. The rest of the group trailed behind them.

Spike opened a squeaky metal door to a structure that was astonishingly not ablaze, stairs leading down to a small, cool room away from the fray and noise. Once the humans were safely ensconced in the shelter and were sinking to the ground to rest, Buffy tugged on Spike’s arm until they were standing on the edge of the fight.

“They’re from one of Stephan’s C.B.S.’s.”

Their meeting with Stephan felt like it happened years ago. Spike nodded, and his tone showed his concern. “I recognized the outfits.”

“We have to help them. There’s a lot more of them out there somewhere, and they could all die. We could split up. . . you find the humans and I’ll find Angel.”

Spike knew Buffy was probably thinking about Mary and the little boy from Kooch’s. “We could, love, but this is a huge place, and I’m worried if we spread ourselves too thin, we won’t fulfill our main objective, especially given that we’re both not operating at a hundred percent.”

“You’re right.” She frowned. “This sucks beyond sucking.”

“And remember, once we get the city into our dimension, Willow and Fred and the others will be at the ready to rescue and rehabilitate.”

“Right. How will we know where to find these guys after everything?”

Spike glanced around and found nothing to identify the entrance, nothing that wouldn’t draw more attention to the hiding place.

Buffy’s eyes lit up, “I got it.” She tugged open the heavy metal door and straining, she bent the corner of the door down so that it was obvious sign. She surveyed her work with a small smile. “Like bending down the corner of a book.”

Spike almost didn’t say anything because he didn’t want to disillusion her, but he couldn’t lie to her, couldn’t hide things from her anymore. “Not sure how much that will help, love.”

Buffy’s eyes softened with tears. “I know, but on the off chance, well, at least there’s a chance.”

He briefly squeezed her unhurt arm, and they left the humans behind. As they got closer to their destination, the energy and charge of magic was undeniable, and they moved through the minor skirmishes with more efficiency and strength of purpose.

After one vampire landed a blow to his temple, Spike hunched forward, hands on his knees to catch his breath and stop the world spinning. Blood streaked down his cheek.

Buffy instinctively backed up to him, and her presence lent him a measure of strength. “You okay?” she called as she kicked a vampire’s legs out from under him.

Spike closed his eyes for a moment and barely managed, “Starting to feel a bit like Rupert with the head injuries.”

Buffy was knocked to the ground before she could reply, landing with a grunt on her right, previously injured shoulder. She pushed herself up and dusted her attacker, but they were swarmed by a wave of new assailants before she could get to her feet.

A teenaged girl’s voice bellowed, “Hey!” Spike opened his eyes and squinted up from where he was leaning to see the vampires pause mid-attack and swing to see the source of the cry. “Yeah, I’m looking at you! Leave my friends alone!”

Not able to see who was helping, Buffy took advantage of the distraction and dusted a couple of the vamps. Their rescuer jumped in to assist them. Spike was recovered enough to further scan the battlefield. A leather-clad form barreled at him from the right, and Spike scrambled to dodge the impending crush. The figure crashed into a vampire just behind Spike, and dust flew through the air.

Spike immediately recognized his vamp-faced rescuer. Spike and his demon counterpart grinned at one another before spinning to continue fighting other aggressors.

“Thanks, mate,” Spike shouted as they fought. He felt renewed despite the persistent pounding in his skull.

“Thank Jenn. She’s the one who saw you lot before I did.”

Jenn heard her name. “Hello, Buffy and other Spike.”

Within minutes all the vampires are dusted, and the four grinned at one another in the short respite.

“Thank you both,” Buffy acknowledged, wiping a bit of blood off her chin with her fingers.

“You’re going the right direction.” Jenn inclined her head toward the large arena-looking building behind her. “It’s all going down in there.”

“What do you know?” Spike asked.

“They’re all in there. . . Roxy, Jon, Stephanie. . . a whole bunch of kranooks and vampires.”

“Angel?” Buffy edged close to her Spike and touched her shoulder to his arm. Spike leaned into the gesture to let her know that he was okay.

Vampire Spike licked his lips, fangs glinting in the firelight. “He’s there.”

“Did Willow get the soul spell off?” Jenn bent to pick up a stray stake.

“Yep, but we don’t know if it worked,” Spike said.

Buffy’s eagerness shone out in her words. “Could you guys tell?”

Shifting his fangs and ridges away, the other Spike found and lit a cigarette, letting sarcasm creep into his words. “Well, he’s fighting kranooks and defending Stephanie, so my guess is the answer is no. Don’t think Red’s spell worked between dimensions.”

Buffy looked deflated. “Damn.” She clenched her jaw, and Spike thought she was probably thinking about sending Angelus to hell. He wanted to comfort her but hesitated in front of Jenn and vampire Spike.

“Where are you two headed?” Buffy asked.

“We were going to look for you two,” Jenn explained, adjusting the bun of raven curls on the top of her head. “We were getting concerned with so much time passing.”

“Do us a favor?”

“Yeah, pet?” Vampire Spike blew smoke into the air, adding to the pollution around them. Spike heard the affection in his tone, but instead of reacting, he put himself in his counterpart’s shoes. To see Buffy, see her in all her glory on the battlefield, that changed a man. It probably reminded vampire Spike about what he was fighting for. He knew it did him.

Buffy quickly filled Jenn and demon Spike in on the humans throughout the city, including the ones she and her Spike had helped hide away.

Vampire Spike sounded doubtful. “How are we going to find them all?”

Jenn punched him in the arm. “Don’t worry about that.” She lifted up her hand and electricity crackled between her fingers. “I got magic.”

He rolled his eyes at her. “How’s a little static electricity gonna help us?” He tossed the cigarette butt into a nearby fire, and Spike was amused by his earlier comments with Buffy about flammability.

She put both her hands on her hips. “I’m Willow-trained, remember? And I got mad skills.”

He slung a brotherly arm around her shoulders, and Spike thought back to how she handled L’Gant. “That you do, pet.” He grinned at Buffy and Spike. “We got it covered. Get in there.” He inclined his head behind him.

“Speaking of skills.” Jenn reached for Buffy’s injured arm, whispering a few words of Latin under her breath.

Spike watched as Jenn’s hand hovered over Buffy’s skin and a gentle glow lit the space between the two. The awe on Buffy’s face spoke volumes. When Jenn’s magic ceased, Buffy rubbed her arm, bending the limb and flexing her fingers. “Wow. Thanks. That was way better than Slayer healing, and Willow – not dark magicky Willow – she never did this.”

“You don’t know my Willow,” Jenn said.

“Very true.” Buffy inclined her head toward Spike. “Him, too?”

Spike was skeptical as he always was of magic, especially magic used on him and the people he cared about, but he saw the urgency in Buffy’s face and the certainty in vampire Spike’s. He inclined his head, a measure of trust earned.

“Of course!” Jenn tucked the stake she was holding up the sleeve of her dark blouse and placed both hands on Spike’s skull. She whispered a string of Latin again, and within moments, Spike’s head felt clearer than it had in days.

“Thanks, pet.” He thought a moment and noticed something different in his whole body. His heart was still beating, but something akin to power was humming through his arms, legs, and torso. His eyes widened. “What did you. . . ?”

She slid the stake back into her palm and shrugged. “Wish I’d have thought of it sooner.” She gestured to her Spike. “C’mon! We have humans waiting!” She started a light jog and continued to move as she pivoted back, obviously waiting for him.

Vampire Spike studied Buffy and Spike for a moment, and then he smirked at Spike. “Finally.” With that, he followed his companion, his leather coat fanning out behind him. “See you lot soon.”

Buffy stared at Spike. “What did she do to you?”

“I-I think she fixed the chip because I feel. . . strong again.” He couldn’t keep the wonder out of his voice.

Buffy placed her fingertips on left side of his chest, and the wonder infiltrated her tone despite the levity of her words, “Hmm. Heart still beat-y and still with the warmth.”

“Yeah, but. . . ” Not so coltish and confused as in the past, he glanced around to try to find a vagrant vampire, but not finding one, he grabbed Buffy by the arm and swung her around to prove to himself, to demonstrate to her that he was physically stronger than before. She gave a little shriek and then giggled when he nuzzled her neck. “I can fight again.”

Buffy twisted around in his arms, landed both palms on his chest, and pressed her lips to his. At her touch, he suddenly found himself taken back to that moment when she found him in the Sunnydale cavern, and he realized that he’d do everything all over again if she would end up here with him, both of them brave enough to admit and accept their feelings.

Her green eyes sparkled at him. “Good. I think we’re gonna need to both be in tip top shape.”

“No thinking needed there. Ready, love?”

The expression in her eyes was certain. “As I’ll ever be.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-One

 

“Right. We got this,” Buffy murmured as she and Spike stood at the top of the massive, well-lit arena on the edge of Vampire Villa and stared down at the mass chaos of the battlefield below and around them. Because a dome covered the large open area surrounded by seats, the sounds were loud but also muffled and far away, so Buffy could hear Spike with ease.

The reptilian kranooks slithered up and down the stands as if they were smooth. They lashed out with talon-tipped fingers and whipping tails at the leaping and dodging vampires, who were hacking and swiping at them with their blades and weapons. Tendrils of magic sparked and crackled and zigzagged through the air in rainbow-tinged electrical charges. No one seemed to be gaining an upper hand, and the grunts and calls of agonizing death and pain rose and fell in rapid succession like the sounds of a strident symphony.

“S’not as bad as the hellmouth or Glory,” Spike observed.

Not taking her eyes off the scene, Buffy balanced her ax against the metal of the seats, tracing the edge of the blade with a finger. “But worse than Adam and the Master and Angelus. And the Mayor. . . who could forget the Mayor as a giant demon snake that he worked decades to become?”

The thought crossed Buffy’s mind that they were comparing apocalypses like most couples compared vacation spots, and then, the musing drifted away before she grasped onto it enough to comment.

Taking a step forward to balance on the bleacher seats next to Buffy, Spike imitated her stance, his sword blade resting on his shoulder, and shrugged. “Dunno. Wasn’t there for a few of those.”

“I know,” she glanced at him with gentle affection. “You were there for the really bad ones.”

He slipped a casual arm around her waist, and she leaned a little into him. She felt him holding his breath and thought how hard it was to believe that the easy affection between them was true. When he inhaled again, he said, “Well, that’s comforting at least.”

“How so?”

He lifted his eyebrow at her. “That was sarcasm, pet.”

“Oh.” She grinned at him and turned her attention back to the tableau before them.

“What’s our plan now?”

Pushing all conscious thoughts out of her mind, Buffy slid into the familiar mental state that Giles had been so persistent in teaching her, his reluctant teenaged pupil. Her eyes and mind took in the whole scene while simultaneously searching for signs of Stephanie or Angel or Roxy or even Harmony. Jon would be too difficult to distinguish among the hundreds of kranooks, who all appeared alike to her. After several seconds, her brain deciphered a pattern to the magical lights that were darting all around the arena.

“There.” She pointed at a spot in the distance to the far right on the ground level.

She saw Spike follow along and nod in her peripheral vision. “I see it.”

“I think Roxy is down there. . . see how the lines of magic kinda seem like they fan out from that point?”

“Yep. Making preparations, no doubt.”

“Ready to join her?” Buffy gripped her ax.

Spike brandished his sword. “Always ready for a fight.”

She stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek. She wanted to tell him the gesture was for luck, but in reality, it was so much more than a wish for good fortune, so she didn’t speak.

He smiled, his feelings for her lighting his eyes, and together, they loped down the bleachers and slipped into the fray.

To go from the safety of the silence on high to the clamorous roughness of shouting and fists pounding against flesh and copper-scented blood flying in fanning arcs was jarring and bright and vivid. Bodies flew and fell and tumbled around them in an echo of Buffy’s long ago descent into the Sunnydale crater, and with the first slip of the ax blade through a vampire’s neck, her body took over, her Slayer strength singing through the muscles in her legs and arms and torso as she whirled and kicked and ducked. . . and danced. Somewhere close behind her, she heard Spike laugh with unfettered joy as he slid into a renewed easy rhythm, the sound of his sword slicing through the air as he dusted their foes and rescued their startled reptilian allies.

The pair was so lost in the heat of the battle as they cut through the vampire mass that they almost didn’t notice that the energy of the air was intensifying and that the glimmers of magic around them were brighter and stronger.

A vampire landed a well-placed kick hard on Buffy’s lower back as she leapt to avoid a charge from the opposite direction, and she pulled herself into a roll as she hit the ground, pain radiating up her spine. Spike roared and spun, grabbing the vampire by the back of his shirt and jerking him back away from her. While Spike sliced the head off a second vampire and turned back to slay the original foe, Buffy pushed herself off the ground.

Enemies dispatched, Spike bent and offered her a hand, which she took, goosebumps flying over her flesh at his touch. She bounced up next to him.

“You okay, love?”

“Yeah. Thanks.” A wave of mystical force rolled by them, too big to ignore.

Spike lifted his chin, and she glanced the direction he was indicating. “The witch.”

With her long legs spread wide, Roxy stood a few yards away before a huge opening in the side of the arena, facing the battle. Her eyes were solid black in stark contrast to her pale skin and blonde hair which flew out behind her as the wind whipped around her. Her arms were raised and her mouth moved with a constant stream of unintelligible words as the energy from the spell she was casting swirled and built. She seemed completely oblivious to the fray all around her. Buffy was reminded of Willow and felt a hint of trepidation about Roxy’s intentions.

“Not sure what she’s doing,” Buffy said.

“Let’s hope it’s according to plan.” Spike inclined his head in another direction. “Take a look at that.”

Buffy squinted into the shadows around the archway that led under the arena and saw a familiar horned figure slinging the unconscious or dead body of a kranook to the ground. “Lorne.”

“The question is which Lorne?”

“The only one here. The possibly evil one. Actually, he disappeared in the middle of all the stuff with Angel and his soul, and I don’t know where he went.”

“Well, obviously, he’s still here,” Spike stated. “The others can’t be far behind. Looks like that’s the way to go.”

Buffy’s heart skipped a beat with the anxiety that came from the unknown. “Looks like.”

Spike and Buffy flew at the green-skinned demon, and Lorne barely had time to recover his bearings. Buffy lightly bonked him over the head with the hilt of her ax, and he slipped into dreamland with his lips parted as if he were about to say something.

Buffy gave the avocado green form a small smile as the demon crumpled to the ground. Then, she saw Spike staring at her with an amused expression. “That was very satisfying.”

Before Spike could respond, the lights in the arena abruptly went dark, and there was a sudden hush in the battle behind them as all the creatures hesitated. Roxy’s voice rose behind them, and the force of the wind exponentially increased. The witch staggered under the power, almost falling with the weight of her burden, and then, the rush of air died down again. The light from the magic brightened and illuminated the vast room, chasing away the shadows in repetitive, flowing streaks.

“Well well well.” A familiar voice sounded behind Spike and Buffy, and before Buffy could recover from the shock, two cool arms slung over their shoulders.

“Angel,” Buffy stammered, paralyzed by fear as her brain adjusted to the appearance of the dark-haired vampire who wore his ridges and fangs.

“Not quite. Guess again there.” He patted her on the head like she was a little school girl who got the wrong answer to a math problem.

Buffy froze as memories of Angelus’s rampage through the vampire guards flooded her mind. She could still smell the scent of blood and hear the crunch of bones, and most of all, his words about her and Spike echoed in her mind.

“Angelus,” Spike spat out, shrugging the vampire’s arm off him.

“Oh ho, look who got his strength back. And still a real boy, too.” Angelus leered at him.

Buffy bobbed away from his unwanted embrace and landed next to Spike. Just being near him helped her reconstitute, helped her feel strong again.

Angelus continued, “Guess that’s why Buffy’s letting you get all cozy with her. She couldn’t wait to get away from you when you were human, and now. . . well now she can have the best of both worlds.”

“Shut up. You don’t know what you’re prattling on about.” Buffy heard the edge in Spike’s voice and knew he was likely reacting the way she was in response to some past memory in which Angelus hadn’t been so kind to him.

“He doesn’t,” Buffy chose the light approach, something that was easier with Spike at her side and her soul not recently almost sucked away. “It’s sort of laughable that he thinks he can go there and have it make a difference. Guess the spell didn’t work.”

Spike smiled down at her, borrowing her levity. “Red did her best. It’s too bad. He’s so annoying when he’s evil.”

“Guess you two have had a little talk then. Ah well. And Willow? You think that little Jewish girl who didn’t want to hang a cross on her wall and cried over her dead goldfish could restore my soul inter-dimensionally? Even she’s not that good.”

“She did it from her hospital bed,” Buffy reminded him, “when she was recovering from a head injury and not nearly as powerful as she is now.”

“As I recall, she did it in LA, too,” Spike added.

“Whatever. The past doesn’t matter. What matters is the present, and you, my friends, are outnumbered and very outmatched.”

As Roxy’s Latin continued to hum around them, Angelus’s twin melted out of the shadows, one hand in the front pocket of his dark pants and the other hand twirling a small thin pen-shaped object that looked vaguely familiar. Buffy considered for a moment that maybe she was dreaming about the worst Doublemint gum commercial ever made and maybe if she pinched herself, she’d wake up to the smell of her mother and Dawn cooking bacon and pancakes downstairs.

“Well, hun,” she said, deciding the dream option wasn’t likely and slipping an arm around Spike’s waist, “looks like you’re not the only one with a twin around here. Gotta say, it’s majorly weird to see the two of you together.”

“You and Spikey boy always joke around when you’re really shitting your pants,” human Angel said. “At least, I’m assuming they do the same thing in your world.”

Angelus laughed. “I think you nailed it.”

“Will you please shut up and dispatch these two? We have a job to do, and then, we have a home to get back to.” Wesley appeared, holding a large heavy-looking book. A posse of vampires in black materialized with him.

Human Angel frowned at the ex-Watcher from his dimension. “We talked about this. I’m taking Buffy with us. Celeste needs her mom. I need –”

“That is inadvisable.” Wesley interrupted him through gritted teeth. They’d obviously had this discussion. “She doesn’t want to go, and it would probably disrupt some forces we don’t even understand long term.”

“I’m with the head boy on this one,” Spike said protectively. Everyone except Buffy glared at him, and he held one hand up and let things play out.

Holding up the small item, human Angel started, “We can discuss this later. First things –”

Buffy used the moment to launch herself at Angelus, ax raised.

She heard Spike fighting behind her, the metal of his sword swooping through the air followed by the familiar sucking and whooshing sound that came with dusted vampires.

Angelus was completely taken off guard, and Buffy swept him off his feet so that he landed flat on his back. She hadn’t fought him in so long; she forgot how big he was, and she fell on top of him with a grunt, the ax smashed between them. Angelus’s hands were on the handle, and he reacted by flinging her over his head so that she landed behind him and lost hold of the weapon as the breath was knocked out of her. He was on his feet in a moment as she barely recovered and sprang up, and he stalked toward her so quickly that she backed up into the cold concrete wall of the arena. He pressed the wooden handle hard into her upper chest, avoiding her neck and he leaned over, his fangs close to her carotid. Buffy struggled and started to bring her legs up to hurtle him away when she barely heard him whisper over Roxy’s chanting.

“Buffy, slow down. It’s okay. It’s me. It’s Angel.” There was tenderness in his voice.

Angelus had pretended to be Angel before to mess with her mind and break her heart; she was very clear about that, and she wouldn’t be fooled. . . never again. This time, she was not a vulnerable teenage girl, and she was not wearing her heart on her sleeve. This time, she was listening with her Slayer ear, and she heard something different in his tone. To continue the facade, she continued trying to get away albeit with less enthusiasm and not to the best of her ability.

“H-how?”

His breath cool and gentle over her neck, he murmured, “Willow’s spell worked.” She waited for more. “I’m sorry about. . . everything. I’m looking for the right moment. Work with me.”

She nodded her consent so that only he could see – only they would know. Then, shifting the ax to one hand, he grabbed her by the throat with the other and jerked her around and back toward the group. Buffy watched Spike as he scrambled, scrapping and fighting and dusting several vampires as was his way when faced with insurmountable odds. She hoped he wouldn’t do anything stupid.

A wave of kranooks slithered up and joined Spike as he was tripped up by a couple of foes. One kranook hesitated next to Spike and then scooped him up with his tail. Buffy thought she recognized Jon now that they were closer.

Propping the ax against his hip, Angel brought his fingers to his lips and blew a loud shrill whistle that carried over the sounds of Roxy’s spell and over the scuffle before them. Everyone ceased moving and stared at the vampire and the Slayer.

Angel then re-gripped the weapon and strode forward, and Buffy held fast to his arm with both hands, so she could get some oxygen. Angel knew she was not very good at pretending, so he kept his arm tight around her neck.

He stared Spike down. “I don’t think I need to say more.”

Sword at the ready, Spike kept his gaze on Angel, really studying his eyes. Buffy willed him to not see the truth just yet. Spike wasn’t very good at faking, which she usually appreciated.

“Drop it,” Angel commanded.

Metal clattered against concrete. A nearby vampire scooped up the lost weapon and backed away.

A hiss filled the air, sliding around the syllables of Roxy’s Latin. “We do not hold to such orders.” Jon’s eyes glowed.

“You will now,” human Angel said and blew on the instrument in his hand. A piercing noise rang out over almost everything. It was the same noise from their fight in the forest when Buffy and Spike were separated, and the kranooks began their conditioned retreat, sliding back the way they came. This time, however, they didn’t flow out of the arena and away from everything. They reached just past Roxy’s spell-casting form and stopped.

“What the hell?” human Angel huffed.

Angel snorted in keeping with his façade. “Well, that’s a brilliant trick there.”

The kranooks paced and slithered, bucking up against an invisible barrier.

“Obviously, the magic from the witch is interfering with your little toy there,” Spike noted.

Clearly irritated, Human Angel glared at Spike and retorted, “And you’re still hopelessly outnumbered, and your girl’s in more than just a bit of trouble.”

“Enough of this nonsense! It’s time to stop playing around.” Boot heels clacking loudly, Stephanie stormed out from the underground place, her long hair woven into two tight braids, her pale skin luminous in the dim light. She had a black bag slung over her shoulder and a glowing purple globe in her hand. More vampires flowed up in her wake. “We have a city to move.”

The lizard creatures were temporarily collared, Spike wasn’t in the know about Angel, and they were surrounded by enemies. Buffy felt the panic in her chest and decided that they were totally screwed.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Two

 

“Wesley!” Stephanie snapped.

Spike saw the ex-Watcher push through the crowd. He still lugged the large tome, the pages now splayed open to reveal ancient text. Bright red blood ran down a jagged wound on his scruffy cheek, and scarlet covered one hand as well. He seemed nervous with all the vampires around him. The hall boy wasn’t stupid.

Stephanie still sounded annoyed. “The key.”

Without hesitation, Wesley passed her the other half of the key. Spike marveled that Stephanie had let him keep half of the key and then reasoned this was probably smart. If someone attacked her, she would at least know there was another half with someone she trusted. . . or intimidated.

Stephanie snatched the key from him and noticed the blood on the device. Breaking her all-business demeanor for a moment, she licked the key clean and closed her eyes for a brief second. “Hmm. I always wanted to taste Watcher blood.” She paused and pronounced, “Banal.”

Spike’s eyes found Buffy. She looked oddly okay, which was the only reason he dropped the blade in the first place. He also couldn’t help but remember the taste of Slayer blood and how non-banal a Slayer’s life force was.

Seeming to read Spike’s mind, Stephanie slit her eyes and gazed at Angelus with an unfettered lust written on her face. “You haven’t killed her yet?”

“Of course not,” Angelus said as if she were insipid. Clearly, he wasn’t attracted to her, which was also odd considering Angelus would have jumped at the chance to use her and lose her. It was another reason Spike was holding his cards. “Wanted her to see the show. . . watch her friends die.”

She laughed. “Ah yes. You would want that. Since I’m feeling magnanimous, I will allow it.”

Spike was tempted to roll his eyes and snark back at her, but being surrounded like they were, he continued to hold back, which was no small feat in and of itself.

Human Angel spoke next, “What about the kranooks? It seems like we could just get rid of them while they’re trapped there.”

Spike glanced at the kranooks, who were slithering back and forth, bucking up against the invisible barrier of Roxy’s unrelenting magic. Spike wondered how the hell Roxy was sustaining the spell for so long.

Stephanie laughed, the sound almost girlish. “You think I want to get rid of them?”

Wesley’s British accent rose above the witch’s chanting, “Well, they pretty much ransacked your city, and they are a pain around the dimensional rifts.”

“Of course they have, but it doesn’t mean I still can’t use them. They think they have power; they have none. I control them. They will join us.”

Spike heard the kranooks hissing in dismay and protest at her loud declaration.

Stephanie then dragged Wesley by the scruff of his neck like he was a dog. She positioned herself just out of reach of her creations and near Roxy, whose body was encased in swirling yellow lights that dipped and danced and darted around her. Her hands were held high as Latin poured forth from her ever-moving lips, and her eyes remained black as midnight while her blonde hair whipped around her face. Spike noticed then that her feet were actually hovering a few inches off the ground and decided that she was giving Red a run for her money.

Stephanie stood on tiptoe and reached high to set the glowing globe in Roxy’s turned up palm, bending her fingers around the sphere’s surface. The violet light pulsed once and then brightened.

In that moment, a piece of knowledge clicked into place for Spike. The light in the orb was the source of magic from the cavern where he and Buffy contacted Willow. . . the magic source that fueled the kranooks. Well, that was a new twist. He didn’t know what it meant except that they might be screwed in a new way he hadn’t thought of yet.

Stephanie positioned the book in Wesley’s outstretched arms and then rummaged in her bag, pulling out the other half of the dimensional key. Snapping the two pieces together with an imperceptible, very anti-climactic click, she reached up again to press the fully assembled key into Roxy’s other hand.

All the pieces in place, she then began to read Latin from the book in Wesley’s arms. The words swelled and joined Roxy’s, the syllables sliding against one another like notes in a symphony.

Spike glanced at Angelus and Buffy and saw that his grandsire had donned his human face and further loosened his grip on Buffy, whose feet were now planted on the ground. He pushed his chin up just a fraction, and Spike’s suspicions were confirmed. Willow’s spell had worked; Angel had his soul back.

Spike bloody well knew it! Angel never really was very good at faking being soulless – at least not to his blood family. The real Angelus would never have let Stephanie get this far; he just didn’t deal with authority very well.

Spike then focused on Buffy, who simply stared at him with a tiny sparkle in her green eyes and winked. Relief and hope soared through his body, and he turned his attention back to the spell unfolding before them.

The winds kicked up again as the power of the spell intensified, and Roxy’s disembodied cry rose hollow and echoing above the Latin that Stephanie was chanting. The violet light pulsed and eddied and grew larger and larger until it consumed the witch, and rainbow colors flew out of the swell darting faster and brighter than ever before, creating a haphazard, ever-changing pattern all around the arena. The wind matched the lights’ intensity, forcing almost everyone to their knees. The vampires and kranooks were hushed and wide-eyed as the whole structure around them shimmered and wavered.

Squinting against the brightness, Spike spread his legs wide, bending his knees and bracing himself upright with his fingers on the earth. He could barely make out a hint of tree tops and starry skies through the magical forces.

A vast doorway to the space between dimensions was opening, becoming clearer and more stable with the continuation of Roxy’s unending scream.

Without warning, the light rapidly shrunk in on itself, Roxy’s voice faded to silence, the winds ceased, and a scent like a candle’s flame that had been snuffed out filled the space.

Spike blinked, trying to adjust to the abrupt change, and looked up through the deep darkness to view thousands of stars shining their welcoming rays to earth. The scent of pine trees came to his attention next followed by the humidity and the sound of thousands of insects pervading the East Texas night.

Roxy didn’t just transport them, she disappeared the whole arena. The only question was. . . had she brought them home? Or had she betrayed them?

A tiny green pinprick of light shot up like a miniature firework in the distance, and Spike felt a warm hand press into his. He glanced over to make out Buffy standing next to him. She softly kissed him, and he knew then that no matter where they were and what happened next, they would be okay. They’d vowed not to die earlier, but part of him – a nagging whisper in the back of his mind – had told him they might not make it.

The green light expanded and grew like its purple predecessor, but this one bathed the night in gentle luminescence.

“Willow. She’s always liked green.” A small smile played at the corners of Buffy’s mouth.

Though he had no idea what she was talking about regarding Red and color choices, Spike smiled at her, his doubts further assuaged.

He glanced behind them and saw the towering structures of the vampire built structures and hints of city streets. They remained engulfed in flames and smoke, and he could vaguely make out more vampires approaching them. In the distance before them, he saw a whole line of Willow’s assembled troops running toward them, battle cries ringing out through the night, and he could see more than one source of magic in their numbers.

The vampires around them were almost paralyzed, and Buffy rushed forward before they could recover, tugging him along. With the spell dissipated and the shift in dimensions complete, somehow the kranooks were free of their trap, and instead of taking up their mantle against the vampires, they turned as one to face their new attackers.

Spike and Buffy dodged around vampires who were still recovering from the changes, and before Spike realized what was happening, they were by the fallen Roxy’s side. Angel reached them next, and he and Spike watched as Buffy touched Roxy’s unmoving back. A small groan issued forth, and the witch moved. Angel bent to help her up, and they all moved to the side as vampires and kranooks rushed around them in a chaotic stream.

“Are you okay?” Buffy asked as the witch blinked and tried to focus her eyes.

Roxy rubbed at her head in an uncoordinated fashion. “Y-yeah.”

“You did it.”

The blonde gave them a small smile. “G-good.”

Spike watched her like a hawk, searching for signs that gave him some indication about whose side she was on.

Buffy continued, “And the kranooks. Stephanie has them on her side somehow. . . she did some sort of spell with the kranooks’ magic source while you were opening the rift.”

Roxy smiled weakly. “I know.”

Angel jerked her arm. “You *know*?”

“D-don’t worry. I have. . . back-up plan.”

“A back-up plan?” Buffy retrieved a stake from her boot and staked a vampire who came too close to them. “You can’t even stand up or talk.”

Roxy frowned at her and held up a barely glowing purple ball. “One more trick. . . up sleeve. Go. Fight. I got this.”

Angel gave Buffy a look. “I got her covered. Go find Stephanie. Make sure she dies.”

Buffy gave him an even look. “On it. Spike, you ready?”

Tight lipped, he nodded, retrieving the stake he’d picked up earlier in the kranooks’ headquarters.

The tide of the battle swept them up, and they joined the rush, fighting vampires and dodging kranooks, trying to find the front of the charge. They slipped into what was becoming their familiar pattern of fighting: improvising and protecting each other's blind spots as they staked hearts and shoved aside the lizard creatures without getting poisoned. Soon, they were surrounded by vampires, kranooks, and Slayers that Spike didn’t recognize.

Spike caught sight of something glittering. . . something familiar. On instinct, he took off toward the vision, keeping his eyes peeled for. . . yep, there it was again. He vaguely heard Buffy behind him, staying up with him and trusting his route.

He grinned at what he saw. There was human Angel, wielding Spike’s sword and fighting back to back with Stephanie. It figured that Angel’s human counterpart would have somehow gotten the sword; he vowed not to rag the other Angel about that later. . . if there was a later.

“Hey!” Spike shouted with a tone a little like a petulant teenager. “That’s mine!”

Human Angel rounded on him as he knocked out a young witch who’d flung a tiny fireball and dusted a vampire behind him. “And you have something that belongs to me.” He licked his lips at Buffy who pulled up to Spike’s side.

She gave him a look like he was crazy. “Um, no, I don’t belong to anyone. Thank you very much.”

Spike smirked at her. “That’s my girl. All independent. The way I like her.”

Buffy marked him as hers by flashing him a grin. “Awww. Thanks! Love you, too.”

Stephanie reeled on them, a broad smile on her face. “I was hoping it’d be you,” she said to Buffy.

Buffy rolled her eyes. “Boy, you sure. . .”

Her words were cut off as a sonic boom resounded and a wave of brilliant purple light rushed through everyone for miles around. Spike felt like some invisible force was pressing into his skull, and he distantly heard Buffy and himself scream along with several other voices in a strident cacophony.

The pain relented, and another boom filled the air.

Everyone froze again like someone in Heaven pushed pause on everything in the world. Not even crickets and other insects made a sound. Spike thought he could hear his heart beating in his ears, and then, the hissing started. . . softly at first and then the sound grew louder and louder, and the familiar slithering sound built and rushed toward them from all directions.

Within seconds, they were surrounded by kranooks, and Jon materialized seemingly out of thin air. He swooped like a snake around Stephanie, his long, thick tail coiling lithely around her body before she could lift a finger.

His face shoved against hers. He paused for only a second, opening his mouth to reveal jagged teeth. His jaw hyperextended, and he bit her face off.

The world came rushing back for everyone as Stephanie’s lifeless, heavily poisoned body was unceremoniously dumped to the ground.

Jon bobbed his head at Buffy and Spike, acknowledging their presence, and then, the kranooks joined the Slayers in the fight against the vampires.

Spike glanced around to discover that human Angel had disappeared.

“Human Angel’s gone,” Buffy observed as she kicked and parried with a maddened vampire.

“Figures, pet.” Spike fought off his own vampire and dusted another.

The battle raged on around them for what felt like hours, and Spike felt himself growing more and more tired. Buffy was also staggering under the weight of exhaustion, and Spike noticed that the sky was beginning to lighten in the distance, heralding the return of morning. Pink streaks reached thin fingers to paint stray clouds above in cotton candy colors.

“Sun,” he managed to convey between blows and stakings.

“Yeah,” Buffy said a bit listlessly as she killed yet another vampire.

“Hope Angel finds shelter.”

“Me, too. And vampire you.”

“Hey!” came a familiar perky but worn voice.

Buffy brightened and ducked a punch from another vampire. “Willow!”

“Is this ever going to end?” The redhead’s hair was disheveled, and her face was streaked with dust and drying blood. “‘Cause I could use a big fluffy bed right about now.”

“And a shower,” Buffy added. She circumnavigated a charging female vampire, and Spike neatly staked her.

“They’re like Energizer bunnies,” Willow said, zapping a little lightning bolt at one behind Spike. “Seriously wish I could bottle some of that rage.”

“Hey! I was thinking that. . . earlier.” Buffy sounded amused, and Spike wondered what she was talking about. He made a mental note to ask her later, much later after rest. “Spike, is that possible? You would know ‘cause you used to be a vampire.”

“You’re too cheerful, pet. Much too cheerf –”

With that, their brains short-circuited, and before they could register any pain, Spike and Buffy crumpled to the ground. All over the battlefield, the kranooks collapsed with them.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Three

 

Buffy’s first thought when her brain came back online was that she was sick to death of hospitals. If she never had to smell the scent of chemical cleaning fluids and hear the constant beep of the heart monitors again, she would be a happy woman. Plus, the sheets were scratchy and the pillows were flat; you’d think they’d work on that. After all, people deserved to be comfortable in bed when they were in pain and/or dying.

Her second thought was of Spike. . . nothing coherent about him. . . just. . . She sat up abruptly and opened her eyes, opening her mouth to speak. No words came out as she scanned the tiny white room in search of. . . there was Willow sitting next to her, back straight, eyes round in surprise.

“Buffy!”

Buffy started to panic a little when the words in her mind refused to come out through her lips.

Willow placed a gentle hand on her forearm. “It’s okay. Breathe.”

Buffy commanded herself to inhale, and when air rushed into her lungs, she thought, “Go, me!” She focused on breathing for several seconds, the oxygen flowing in and the carbon dioxide flowing out, her chest rising and falling, and her heart rate slowing. She became aware that her throat was rusty with lack of use, and she tried to hard to clear it, her fingers on her neck.

Recognition lighting Willow’s eyes, she explained, “You’ve been out for a while, Buffy. That chip. . . Roxy. . . she flipped a switch in the chips somehow with magic, and while it reversed the effects of Stephanie’s hold on the kranooks for a period of time, it also. . . well, fried your brain.”

Buffy’s eyes widened. She was a Slayer, and Spike was. . . “S-s. . .”

“Spike’s. . . he’s alive.” Willow’s words were a relief, and Buffy sagged back against the flat hospital pillow. After Buffy felt like she wasn’t going to hyperventilate, Willow continued, “He’s unconscious though. Like you’ve been.”

Buffy gave up on speaking and discovered that her arms and hands worked better than her vocal cords. With urgency, she mimed writing with a pen, and Willow scrambled to find a small notepad and pen in her messenger bag. Uncapping the small instrument for Buffy, she handed the supplies over, and Buffy scribbled, “Can I see him?”

Willow opened her mouth and paused as if she was going to say one thing but changed her mind. “Let me help you.”

The witch pushed the right buttons to push the railing on the side of the bed down, and Buffy swung her legs over the side of the bed. She swayed a bit as she stood to her feet, not because her body wasn’t strong but because a wave of dizziness and bright sparkly stars shone in her vision. She accepted Willow’s arm of support until the vertigo passed and she could open her eyes without the world spinning. She smiled at her friend, grateful to see and feel someone familiar, and Willow smiled back.

Buffy held onto the I.V. and vitals machine pole, rolling it along as she moved with increasing surety into the hallway.

Willow held her hand up to stop her. “Let me check for nurses. It’s not that I don’t think you can handle it, but I’d rather not deal with a confrontation right now.”

After Willow looked both ways up and down the hallway, they ventured out of her room. Buffy gave her friend a questioning look, and Willow inclined her head to the left. “He’s next door.”

With no further prompting needed, Buffy pushed open his door and entered the room. She stared at his still form beneath the hospital blankets for only a moment before she was by his side, awkwardly pulling up a chair to perch beside him. She found his hand under the covers, not caring if the I.V. in her hand snagged. His palm was dry and heavy against hers. She closed her fingers through his and felt immensely relieved that she could touch him. With her mind, she willed him to open those beautiful blue eyes of his and call her stubborn or any other nickname of his choice.

Willow hung back a little and stayed silent but then said, “Buffy. There’s more you need to know.” Buffy briefly glanced at her friend and nodded before returning to watching Spike. Willow found a chair on the other side of the bed and sat. “The chips fried the kranooks’ brains, too. All of them died on the battlefield. . . they just collapsed and poof. Dead.” Buffy’s head went up, and Willow amended, “Well, not literally poof like vampire poof. They died though. You. . . you and Spike almost died, too. . . well, you would have died, but I-I felt it. . . the shift just before.” Willow shuddered. “Before I went dark and almost destroyed the world, I-I never felt the powerful shifting forces of life and death, but I’m glad I did because. . . . I-I’m sorry, Buffy, I couldn’t help myself. . . .” She trailed off as tears welled.

Buffy somehow found her voice to reassure her friend, “W-willow. Don’t.”

“It’s not something I’d ever thought I’d do again. . . messing with someone’s brain like that with magic, but I was operating on adrenaline, and I. . .” Buffy watched Willow with complete compassion in her eyes. Willow kept going, “I dissolved your chips, or rather, I got yours but didn’t get Spike’s all the way except to keep him from dying.”

“Thank you,” Buffy said, her vocal cords clearer. “What else happened? Angel?”

Willow wiped her tears on the back of her hand. “Angel’s alive. He’s fine. He kept Roxy safe while she cast her last spell, but he couldn’t stop it from killing her. S-she destroyed her own chip, too.”

“Ohhh.” Buffy’s eyes filled with tears, glad that Angel was okay but surprisingly saddened by the witch’s passing. Perhaps it was because the young witch had such a tragic life.

“Stephanie’s dead.”

Buffy couldn’t banish the visual of Jon biting the vampire’s face off and shivered. “I remember that part.”

“Right. Well, we staked her for good measure.”

“Smart.”

“The vampires are. . . a lot of them escaped. But our team of Slayers, you’d be so proud of them. They staked a lot.”

Buffy giggled. For some odd reason, Willow’s choice of phrasing made her laugh. Maybe she was hysterical.

Willow smiled. “And I think the balance is restored. The tension lifted for now. The coven from England helped mask the city from human awareness ala Stephen King, but the city is still very much in our dimension until we figure out what to do with it.”

“Good.”

“Fred and Wesley organized a team of medical doctors and psychologists who are out there now helping with the human rehabilitation, and boy, is that going to take a while. Oddly enough, Harmony and Michael are helping out for now. We’ll see how it goes. Honestly, I think that Harmony just needs a direction of some sort like a not-so-bright puppy with pointy teeth. It’s weird to see her helping humans.”

Buffy felt a tinge of regret about Mary and the little boy from the hotel. “Did you see the C.B.S. and find all the locations? Stephan said there were a lot of them in the city.”

Willow nodded. “Awful. The whole city was weird and oddly horrifying with the modern conveniences for vampires. I think Wesley and Giles want to study the culture and try to understand it. For the archives, of course.”

“And Stephan thought it was a good thing. . . thought he was helping them be in less pain.”

“You know I feel about that,” Willow said. “It’s more with the brain manipulation. So not of the good.”

“Right. Like Dr. Kevorkian of the mind and spirit.” Running her thumb over Spike’s unmoving one, Buffy paused. “And the peeps from the other dimension. . . the alternative Angel, Spike, etc.?”

“The other Spike, Jenn, Angel, and I helped round up human Angel, Lorne, and Wesley. Between Jenn and I, we managed to open a portal back to their home place sans dimensional key because it got destroyed, too. By the way, I liked Jenn.”

“She’s got mad skills!”

“Yeah. That the other me taught her!” Buffy couldn’t help but share a brief laugh with her best friend, and then Willow kept going, “The other Spike. . . he insisted that they would deal with things there. . . that he had to be there for Celeste. Did you know you have a daughter?”

Buffy could still feel the little girl’s arms around her, hugging her like she was really her mom. “Well, other me did.”

“And other you died,” Willow said with sadness. “Again.”

“Yeah.” Buffy felt oddly detached from that fact. “I’m glad Spike. . . the other Spike is going to be there for her daughter.”

“Was it weird?”

“What?”

“All of it. Seeing Spike a vampire again? Seeing Angel human? Knowing you’re dead over there and that other you had a child?” Buffy noticed that Willow was always curious. . . unlike Xander, whose negative feelings toward vampires in general put an inevitable roadblock on any such discussions even now.

“Way weird.”

“Kinda like the time I met my vampire alter-ego?”

“Yeah! Exactly like!” They exchanged smiles. “And you know what? It made me grateful. Made me realize how I’m glad I made the choices that I did here. It made me think about myself, too.”

“What about you?”

“That all my choices don’t have to be so profound. That I need to do things for me, too. That it’s okay for me to have a life outside of all the Slayer stuff. Somewhere along the way I forgot that.”

“‘Bout time you realized that.”

“And that Spike is important to me. That I can’t leave him again.” Her heart tugged at the thought of even considering leaving his side. “I love him so much, Will.” Tears blurred her vision as she studied his peaceful face. “Do you think he’ll wake up?”

“I don’t know, Buffy,” Willow said gently. “The other thing you should know is. . .”

“Buffy!” a familiar voice called out from the doorway.

Before Buffy could turn around, the owner of said voice threw her arms around her neck. “Oh thank god! You woke up!”

Buffy tugged on her sister’s arm and mock choked. “Dawn.” She gave her little sister a motherly frown. “How come you’re not in school?” She took in her sister’s short hair. “And what happened to your hair?”

Tears fell over Dawn’s cheeks as she patted up on her short bob. “Do you like?”

“I do. It’s a good look.” She paused. “Copycat.”

She blushed. “Hey! Couple of margaritas can sometimes make you do funny things.”

“I so don’t want to know about that. And school? What’s with the not being in it?”

“The semester’s over, Buffy. Don’t worry, I got all A’s. The teachers let me study from a distance so I could be here with you, and well, maybe my chemistry professor took pity on me and gave me some extra credit.”

Buffy tried to absorb what Dawn was saying, “Wait. What?” She glanced at Willow.

“That’s the other thing I was about to say,” the redhead said softly.

“How long have I been unconscious?”

Willow shrugged and not very reassuringly said, “Not as long as Faith was.”

* * *

Buffy was roused from sleep again by a gentle hand shaking her shoulder. “Buffy?”

She opened her eyes and groaned. Although her new awakening was less striking, she was greeted with a huge crick in her neck. Opening her eyes from where her head rested on Spike’s bedside, she saw Angel bending over her, his brown eyes concerned and kind.

“I heard you woke, and I came as soon as I could get away from the firm.”

Rubbing her neck, she eased up and stretched. “I’m here.” Normally, she would have greeted him with a hug or in the past, maybe even a kiss, but not now. Instead, she smiled. “And you’re okay, too.”

He ran a hand over the back of his head and sat in Willow’s vacated seat, Spike’s sleeping body between them. “I am.” She noticed that he didn’t take his eyes off her, as if he was trying to assure himself that she was really awake and talking with him. “Even though they’ve been telling me that your vital signs were improving, I’ve been worried about you. How are you feeling?”

“As okay as I can be considering I was out for so long. Willow filled me in on everything.”

“I heard.”

“I-I don’t know why Spike’s not waking up though.” She didn’t say how scared she was because that felt more than a bit awkward.

Angel studied his grandchilde’s face, and not for the first time, Buffy wondered how Angel really felt about Spike. She decided there was something beyond past jealousies. “Probably because he’s human now.”

“I hope he wakes up soon.”

“Me, too.”

Buffy remained comfortably silent with Angel for several minutes, as was always their way with one another during emotional times.

“What do you think about the prophecy since all is said and done?” Buffy finally asked.

Angel was thoughtful. “Well, we fulfilled it, I think.”

Buffy frowned. “Yeah, we did, but I was expecting something more.”

“Prophecies are usually a letdown.”

“True.” She then added. “Spike and I decided it was a red herring.”

Angel laughed. “That makes sense.”

Buffy emitted a small sigh. “The other dimension thing was weird. I mean, I was dead there.”

“I’m glad to be in this dimension.”

“Really? It’s ‘cause I’m alive, right?” she joked.

He gave her an even look. “That’s obvious. I mean, I’m glad to be here for another reason. I met the other me. . . the human me, and I didn’t like him very much.”

Buffy raised her eyebrows. “I forgot that you had to hang out with him with Stephanie.”

“Yes, and he was pretty bitter. He lost you. . . the you in his universe, and he didn’t handle that very well. I think being human made him vulnerable to losing sight of himself. . . of who he fought to be, and I think who Liam was before he was turned and re-ensouled didn’t really help. Liam was not a nice man. Long story short, I’m glad I remained me here.”

Although Buffy was surprised that Angel was glad she hadn’t chosen him, she didn’t ask him to explain. She was afraid he’d stop talking, and she wanted to hear what he had to say. He was quiet again, and she felt like she was holding her breath.

“I’m sorry. . . sorry that you had to be. . . see Angelus again. You know that the things he said and did. . . I regret that you got hurt.”

Buffy wasn’t sure she was quite ready to forgive that aspect of what happened just yet. “I might need some time.” He looked wounded, and she found herself quietly adding, “I’ll get there, I promise, but I need you to respect that.”

He nodded in acceptance, and together, they watched Spike breathe for a few more minutes. Buffy focused on each inhalation and exhalation as if she could will him to keep breathing. . . to wake up.

Her silent meditation was broken when Angel spoke again, “You know, Buffy, I am proud of Spike. . . the person he’s become, and I’ve been thinking about what you said before we went on this mission, about how Spike didn’t have it so easy even though it sometimes seemed that way.” He paused. “You were right.”

Buffy thought about saying that that was easy for him to say now that Spike was unconscious and might not ever wake up, but she was too exhausted to pick a fight with her ex, and she could tell that Angel had more to convey.

“He and I. . . we have a long history,” he caught her expression, “that you know all about. But what you don’t know is what he’s been like since he came back. . . since he’s been working with me and my team.” Angel played with his fingers for a moment. “He drove us all crazy at first with his snarky comments that were a little too honest for comfort, and he never said it, but if I’m honest with myself, I know he had a hard time being human. He’s always loved the fight. . . relished his strength and enjoyed a good challenge. I suppose being human was one of those challenges.” Angel took a deep, unneeded breath and sat forward with his elbows on Spike’s bed. He didn’t look at Buffy. “And when it came down to it, when our backs were to the wall, he was on our side. He worked just as hard as the rest of us, and he earned everyone’s trust even though there were a lot of dissenters at first.”

“He had a lot of those in Sunnydale, too,” Buffy admitted, feeling guilt wash over her for how she treated him when he was trying to do the right thing.

Angel let her comment slip by without acknowledgment. “And Buffy, he never stopped loving you.”

Buffy’s eyes brimmed with tears yet again.

“At first, he didn’t talk about you at all except to make sarcastic comments about you and me and our relationship. Then, as he softened up. . . .well, when we got drunk together a few times, I thought he had you on this pedestal. I thought he saw you as this angel of unwavering goodness, kind of like how. . . kind of like how I saw you when we were together.”

Buffy was surprised by this admission, but something about it rang true. “First loves are like that sometimes.”

Brown eyes knowingly met green ones, and Angel gave her a small smile. “Yeah.”

“But Spike doesn’t see me that way.”

“No, No, he doesn’t. He sees the whole of you. He loves the whole of you.”

“Even the not so nice parts.” In the past, she would have ducked her head in shame at the remembrance of her past behaviors, but this time, she recognized that she loved Spike for himself, flaws and all, too.

“Even the not so nice parts.”

“You care a lot about him,” Buffy observed. She was struck by how grateful she was that Spike had had Angel and his friends over the last three years.

“And you.”

“You should tell him.”

“What?”

“When he wakes up, you should tell him what you just told me.” She knew the advice applied to herself, too, but she didn’t say it to Angel because it wasn’t his to hear. She paused and then added, “Tell him again.” At the question in his eyes, she continued, “I heard you when you thought I was asleep at Stephan’s. I heard you talking with Spike about me. Well, at least the end of your conversation. You said that you wouldn’t stand in the way of us.” She paused until she knew he was following her. Then, “You knew.”

“Knew what?” Angel sounded tired.

“That I love Spike. . . that I’d choose him.”

His smile was sad. “You already had. It’s just that neither of you knew it yet.”

Angel stood then and rounded the end of the bed. He opened his mouth as if he wanted to say more, but then, he kissed her on the temple and quietly left the room.

Chapter Text

Recapitulation

 

When he woke up in a hospital in Los Angeles to find himself alive and still. . . well, still human but still strong, he recognized that something didn’t feel right. He dismissed the emotion, shoved it aside, but it kept reasserting itself.

He wasn't sure when he realized that he continued to feel that way.

Maybe it was when his brain came online again after the heavy sleep of further healing, and he saw a concerned and tired-looking Angel lounging in a chair in the corner of the cramped, white hospital room.

Or it could have been around the time that Fred, Wesley, and Gunn came to see him in the hospital, making awkward small talk and bearing a slightly wilted bouquet of flowers to brighten up his room.

Maybe it was when, after a morning of staring at the ceiling and counting tiles waiting on test results, he decided to pull all the damned tubing and wires off his body and took a short-lived, inadvisable trip down the hallway.

Perhaps it was when Willow popped around to talk and let him know that the reason Buffy wasn’t at his side right at that moment was because she and Dawn forced the exhausted Slayer to go to her hotel room to eat something and get some rest after several days of constant vigil.

After the cab dropped him off at his apartment and he’d entered his living room, he took in the scope of his small space and recognized that something still didn’t feel right. When the icy cold air from the refrigerator hit his face as he bent to retrieve a bottle of beer, he knew that sod it all, he couldn’t stay there another moment waiting, because he had waited far too long for his life to start, for his heart to be okay again. He shoved aside his stubbornness and reminded himself that she had been there and that she had said she loved him and that surely it wasn’t just because they were facing imminent death yet again.

The refrigerator swung closed with a soft clank as he strode into the living room, grabbed his car keys off the end table, and slammed the door on his way out. He mused that even now, he remained the same fool for love he always told other people they were. Deciding that he didn’t really care, he left everything behind and joined the night.

* * *

Fingering open the slip of paper he’d retrieved from his pocket, he read Dawn’s loopy handwriting to remind himself of the room number.

Delving down the darkened hallway, he mused that everyone in the hotel was asleep, and the mischievous little boy in him was tempted to knock on all the doors on the way to hers. Then, he decided that she wouldn’t like that very much and that he was a grown up now. . . as grown up as he’d ever be. So, he focused on finding her.

Glancing up every now and again to check room numbers, he wove his way through the tangled maze of hallways in search of the right door.

When he found it, he hesitated, the feeling that he couldn’t quite label rising again in his chest. In trying to analyze it, the emotion slipped away like sand through his fingers.

Weary of thinking, he raised a certain hand and gave a gentle but firm knock.

No sound of movement came. . . no lamp light shown through the cracks, and his heart ached more than he wanted it to.

And then, without fanfare, the door swung up, granting him entrance into her world.

In the dim hallway, she hovered in the doorway and blinked up at him with sleepy, dark-circled eyes, and before he could speak, she flung her thin arms around his neck, holding him so tightly that he thought his heart would burst in his chest. . . killed by passion and not by a pointy bit of wood.

Dropping back on her heels but not releasing him completely, she blinked, tears forming in her eyes. “You’re here.” She reached up to stroke the concave of his cheek as liquid splashed over her cheeks. “You’re alive. I was so worr – afraid that I lost you.” The word “again” hung between them.

He cupped her chin and gently pressed his lips to hers, allowing himself to linger only for a moment lest he get lost and forget his plan.

Her eyes were closed when he broke away, but she opened them at the loss of touch, and he said, “Do you trust me?” The query was one that was multi-layered like the scales of an onion, but he couldn’t find words to convey what they were.

Reading all the layers in his eyes, she nodded.

With her assent, he found her hand and guided her into the hallway. “Come on.”

Glancing down at her cotton nightgown and slipper-covered feet, she wavered but then, seeing something she couldn’t quite label in his expression, she followed.

Not wanting anyone to disrupt them or ask questions, he led her down the stairs and out the side door where he’d parked the DeSoto.

She stopped short at the sight of the raven-colored vehicle. “You got your old car back.” She noticed the windows free of opaque spray paint. “And it’s clean.”

He chuckled and opened the heavy door for her. “It’s not the same one. Got a new one. . . well a refurbished one anyway. What can I say? I’m a creature of habit.”

Smiling, she didn’t balk at his chivalry when he opened the car door. She slid onto the front seat, the smooth black leather cool under her thighs and palms. When he joined her and put the car in gear, she sleepily asked, “Where are we going?”

“On a bit of a drive.”

She saw the gentle determination in the set of his jaw and leaned toward him over the center armrest, closing her eyes, dreams tugging at the corner of her mind. “Okay.”

The tires crunched over the gravel of the hotel parking lot as he pulled onto the highway, and as the vehicle built speed, the gentle thrum of the engine and smooth glide of the wheels over concrete rocked Buffy to sleep. He marveled at her trust in him as he drove through the night, one hand on the wheel and the other threaded through her long blonde hair.

Once they were well out of the bright lights of the city, the stars slowly peeked out of hiding, and the moon cast a soft luminescence over the desert sands so that they seemed to glow with an inner light. As the road narrowed to two lanes, no cars came toward them or pushed up behind them.

He felt like perhaps they were the only souls left in the wide, vast world.

He mused that she was his whole world. . . had been since well before he knew she’d moved into his heart and remained so even after years apart. He couldn’t imagine even now how that had happened, but he knew in his blood that it was true and always would be no matter where he went after his permanent death.

Time passed more quickly than he realized on their journey, and they reached their destination as the blackness of the sky began to lighten, marking the arrival of a fresh day. He couldn’t remember the last time he appreciated that inevitability. Probably the last time he was here.

The tires resumed their noisy discussion as he pulled off the pavement to his best guess of where they had been before. Slipping the car into park, he reluctantly removed his hand from her warmth and turned off the engine. She sighed and shifted a little, still lost to her dreams. He took a deep breath or two and studied the peace on her face, her worry lines smoothed out and lips slightly parted.

Then, he reached into the back seat, dragging forth a thick blanket, the kind he kept in his car even though he no longer had to be fearful of the sun’s rays pouring onto his skin. He rounded the car and opened her door, rousing her only a little as he pulled her into his arms. She didn’t make a sound but tucked her head against his chest.

The drum of his heartbeat roused her further into consciousness, and keeping her eyes shut, she asked, “Where are we?”

He kept walking, following a nature made path to his destination. . . to the edge of everything. “You’ll see, love.”

She opened her eyes, wanting to see, and all she could make out were the silhouettes of desert vegetation poking up like dark sign posts against waves of sand. Her mind started to put the pieces together as he set her on her feet next to what registered in her mind as the brink of a cliff. She shivered a little in the desert air and goosebumps swelled over her arms and legs as he momentarily stepped away to fan out the blanket on the ground.

His mission complete, he sank to the ground and pulled her into his lap, borrowing her radiance as she borrowed his.

“What is this? Some sort of spiritual journey into the desert? ‘Cause I’m not really dressed for the part.” Her tone wasn’t caustic. . . was more amused than anything.

His voice deep and low, he said, “Well, it is a journey of sorts; we’re not going anywhere other than here. You’ll see. And I wanted to watch a sunrise with you. . . to be in the moment between light and dark with you again.”

At his words, the sky seemed to perceptively lighten, and Buffy’s eyes widened as her mind took in the wide yawning pit before them. “Ohhhh.”

He used her awe to continue, his breath over her ear in a distant echo of the past. “It’s where it all began for me, pet. Meeting you, finding a reason to change my life, figuring out what it means to put others before myself. . . falling in love.”

“Coming back to life,” she breathed, finding his hand and pushing the back of hers against his palm.

His fingers slid between hers. “In more ways than one.”

She rounded to face him so he could view the truth of her words behind the sheen of tears in her gaze, “You did that for me, too, you know.”

“Did I?” He thought back to all the times he hurt her.

“Maybe not at first. Maybe because I didn’t let you. I had so many naïve notions of what good and bad were. But you. . . you started me on that path. You changed me. . . my view of what love is – of what’s real.” His bloody face in his crypt after being tortured by the hell goddess remained vivid and raw.

“How so?” He wanted to hear her say the words, to understand that he impacted her, too.

She didn’t know where to start with helping him understand. . . truly understand how he turned her world upside down. How he made her see the shades of grey but also found a way to allow herself to be human. How his compassion for her even as a soulless demon let her find compassion for herself, for the people in her life, and eventually for him. “I-I’m so sorry.” Hot tears spilled over her cheeks and down her neck.

“For what, love?”

“For causing you so much pain. . . for hurting your heart so much. That’s one of the things that I had to face about myself.” She again pressed a palm over the left side of his chest, feeling his heart pounding like a bird beating its wings beneath her fingertips, feeling grateful that he was still alive and here with her. “I wish I could take it back. . . I wish I had stayed with you after you came back and been there for you. . .”

He ran a thumb over her chin and cheeks to wipe away her tears, and he gave her compassion once again, “I forgive you, pet. Forgave you a long time ago. . . the same way you forgave me.” As he said the words aloud, he realized how true they were because even though she’d left him, he understood. They had needed the time apart. Him to figure out who he was apart from her and her to do the same.

She kissed him then, not with gentleness but with urgency, infusing her affection with longing. When he returned the passion, his warm lips gliding back and forth over hers, her body was awash with fire and heat like the flame that had engulfed their hands as the world came down around them. She inhaled his familiar scent and arched her neck as his lips found their way downward toward her chest, his curls tickling her and making her shiver.

A moan escaped her, and then, she knew that she wanted his body next to hers, his skin on her skin.

Tackling him back against the plush blanket, she ignored his small grunt of surprise and purposefully slowed things down, her heart hammering. He needed tending to first; she owed him that and so much more.

Straddling his hips with her thighs, she sat back a little, head bent, long hair surrounding her face in thick locks, as she fumbled for the hem of his well-worn t-shirt. Her fingers found their target and nudged the fabric up so that her fingers found and raked over the sculpted canvas of his abdomen. As her lips trailed languidly up his stomach, he inhaled with sharpness, feeling his need for her press against the flimsy cover of her opening. He allowed her to lift the shirt up and over his head, throwing it aside, forgotten, as he bucked his hips against hers. She rode his movement and swept her nightgown over her head, letting it flutter atop his errant shirt.

She found the sweet spot along his collarbone and nuzzled him before continuing toward the hollow of his neck where she pushed her nose before licking the space with her tongue. He couldn’t wait for her any longer and pulled her head up, kissing her lips once again and enjoying the feeling of his tongue over hers and the weight of her slight body against his torso. She thrust her tongue into his warm mouth, marveling at how different he felt. . . and yet the same.

She wanted him so much.

Her other hand dipped to the swelling in his jeans, teasing him a bit before hunting for his zipper. Not taking his lips off hers, his hand covered hers and guided her movement as she freed him from constraint.

She pushed back then and watched his face as she stroked the length of him. He met her eyes for several seconds, a mix of hunger and unabashed happiness in his gaze, until her fingers found his tip, and then, he closed his lids, lost in the sensation of her touching him for the first time since. . .

With a growl, his hands landed on her hips, and he flipped her onto her back so that she laughed with joy at tables turned.

Slipping his jeans off, he ran warm fingers up her calf, pausing only to tickle her in the soft spot behind her knee that always turned her on. He was pleased to discover that hadn’t changed and still set her squirming. He smirked at her in that way of his that drove her wild even when she didn’t want to admit it, and then, he used the lightest of touches to run up her inner thigh to the top of the only piece of clothing she still wore. She trembled as the tips of his fingers eased below the elastic band to find her swollen clit and dip inside her while he teased her hard nipples with his mouth until they were warm and round again. He couldn’t wait and brought his body to hers, and she relished his weight on top of her. As she kissed his neck and grasped his earlobe between her front teeth, he pressed himself against the soft, wet cotton of her panties.

Her voice came out in the softest of whispers as she closed and then re-opened her eyes against the brightening sky. “I love you, William. Please.”

The simple words were genuine and kind and full of so much meaning. . . the tone such a sharp contrast to her manner of the past.

He followed her permission by pulling away the final barrier and plunging deep inside of her. She moaned and wrapped her legs around his waist, drawing him further in. He began to move – with deliberate slowness at first, relishing the slow friction until they were both burning with need and craving. Breathing hard, she bucked up against him, holding onto him as they increased their speed and rhythm, the energy building until neither of them was aware of anything around them except for one another and the sensation of being connected. . . of being one. He couldn’t hold back from the threshold anymore, and when she came calling his name, he climaxed hard inside of her.

He rolled to the side with her still in his arms, throbbing inside of her, and they stayed that way, joined in the aftermath of their coupling. She kissed his chest and held him close, her green eyes latched onto his blue ones to remind him that yes, she was here with him now in this step forward, in her admission of love for him.

When at last they parted, she turned her eyes to view the streaks of yellow pink light that were marching across the sky.

“Look,” she said, her voice hushed as she propped up on her elbows.

He emulated her movement but then had to sit up all the way, his arms wrapping around his bent knees. He felt nothing but awe at nature’s beautiful display of light and color over the vast crater that was Sunnydale, its pathways crumbled and wiped away by the wind and erosion. He couldn’t believe how different it appeared even after only three years. He also hadn’t realized how close they were to the edge.

Viewing his expression as she followed him upward, she couldn’t help but be reminded of the moment that he discovered that he was more than undead, and she laid her head on his shoulder.

“It’s so empty,” he observed. In the brilliant light of day, coming here didn’t seem as romantic as he’d pictured it in his mind . . . as it had seemed in the dark of night. He shivered, their mingled sweat evaporating in the breeze.

“No,” she said, leaning forward, hope for them and hope for their future flowing in her heart. “No. It’s not.”

Her hand touched a thick green vine growing over the threshold of the crater and joining them on the blanket. His fingers found and caressed the tiniest of blossoms.

They smiled at one another.

“I had a feeling,” he said.

“I know.”

They’d finally found the way home. . . a home that they were both ready to embrace at long last.

Chapter Text

Coda

 

Two Years Later

“Stubborn woman,” he muttered under his breath as he hovered behind a tree in the cemetery.

She constantly drove him crazy with her said obstinacy, although if he slowed down enough to push past his aggravation and admit it to himself, her willfulness was something that fueled his passion and gave him the energy to act. And live.

She would kill him for this particular action though because he had promised her a night to herself. . . her first night alone in many days – days she’d been up all night, not sleeping. Working valiantly to hide her exhaustion, she had batted her wide emerald eyes at him and promised him that he’d be roundly rewarded for his permission. Not that she ever needed permission. Still, he had fallen for it hook, line, and sinker.

What else was new?

As soon as she strapped on her boots, pulled on an old pair of stretched out jeans that she was amazed still fit, and headed out the door with a stake, he’d taken one look at Dawn, ignoring her verbal and visual warnings of possible regrets, and followed his heart into the night.

The love of his life strolled beneath the oaks, stepping lightly around tombstones, twirling her stake around her fingers, and humming to herself. She sounded as carefree as if she were basking in the sun on the beach somewhere or dancing in a night club with her friends.

One nice thing about being human was that she couldn’t sense him until he got really close or if he made a noise, and he was using this little fact to his full advantage.

Finding the new grave she was aiming for, she glanced down at the mound of dirt, a smile on her face. “What’s this?” Bending sideways in front of the marble, she checked the date on the tombstone. “Just in time, too.”

She plopped to the ground, crossing her legs underneath her on the cool grass. “Happiness is a just-right fresh grave in a place full of undead types.”

He almost chuckled to himself; it was like she was commenting on the freshness of eggs or avocados.

His amusement turned to annoyance though when she set aside her stake, pulled out her cell phone and started surfing the net – no doubt shopping for new jeans – and then, he was annoyed with himself for sounding like Rupert in his head.

As time went on, he found himself sitting down with her, back against the trunk of the tree. He watched her with affection at first. Oblivious to him, she laid on her stomach, being mindful of her lower abdomen, and propped her head in her palm as she stared at the tiny screen, periodically glancing at the unmoving mound of dirt.

She sighed.

This vamp was taking forever to rise.

He had half a mind to go home, grab a shovel, and start digging the fledgling out himself to speed up the process. There were other ready graves in this cemetery, and waiting for numero uno to show his fangs could lead to. . . well, to more than one vampire at a time, and he didn’t know that she was ready for that.

In response to his prediction, growls of varied pitch and tone echoed in a strident chorus from all around them.

Hands scraping over tree bark, he scrambled to his feet in an instant as she jumped to hers.

He hung back for a moment, keeping his promise for as long as he could. He was, after all, someone who kept his promises. Plus, he never tired of studying her from afar; only now, he was less interested in ending her life than prolonging it.

Her long ponytail bouncing with her movements, she grinned at her foes. “Wasn’t expecting a party on my first night out! You must have missed me.”

The first vampire lunged, dirt still clinging to his hair. He was obviously ripe for the picking, and his Slayer easily dispatched him without a fuss, dust flying in the air around her.

Two more flew at her then, grunting, groaning and not speaking, which she, of course, had to comment on. “Quiet bunch, huh? Not much for small talk? This party’s gonna get really boring really fast.”

She ducked one foe’s punch and kicked back at the second one, so that he staggered and growled. She spun to stake him while he was fumbling and then flipped her bit of wood to her other hand and launched her arm back to stake the second one.

She crossed her slender arms and stared at the vampires hanging back. “Seriously? Is that all you got?”

Seven or eight more materialized, and as they attacked, she stumbled a bit as one landed a punch to her stomach. When she cried out at the brilliant sharpness of the pain, he couldn’t hold back any longer. It reminded him too much of how she got wounded in the now distant past, and he could care less if she was brassed off at his presence.

He flew into the fray, jerking back the offending vampire and planting wood in his chest. Dust swirled around him. “Hello, love.”

The anger in her eyes was a bright beacon that was a sight to behold, and he felt like laughing with joy at her spirit. He liked his woman with a lot of spunk, and she gave him a show, spinning and kicking and punching and slaying. He danced with her, matching her move for move until all the vampires were gone, and they stood panting and sweating in the middle, her glaring at him and him grinning at her.

“You! You were supposed to let me go out on my own! I just needed a moment alone! Couldn’t you give me that?” She crossed her arms and jutted her chin up at him.

Now he was irritated. She almost got bloody hurt! “Not with you in the state you’re in!”

She rolled her eyes. “I am a Slayer. Giving birth and healing from said birth are much quicker for me. Slayer healing powers, remember?”

“But you didn’t have a typical birth!” She was petite, the baby had been a lot for her small frame, and he’d never seen so much blood come out of anyone. . . at least not someone he loved. She’d ended up with an emergency C-section and in the ICU despite her Slayer healing powers. He’d never been so terrified in his life.

This gave her pause because she caught the fear and hurt like an open wound in his eyes. She’d gotten better at truly seeing that in him, and it always made her stop. It wasn’t that she didn’t see it before, but she had never stopped to acknowledge it. Stroking the warm concave of his cheek, she pulled his forehead to hers, her voice gentle with a kindness he still sometimes couldn’t believe. “I know, but really, I’m okay. The vamp didn’t really hurt me; scar and insides are all healed. He just caught me off guard, and sometimes I get a twinge.”

He kissed her then, bringing his lips to hers with renewed hunger. She met him more than halfway, twining her fingers in his curls. They moved back against the headstone, and she perched there as the heat between them grew, and she felt like she might burst into flames.

Just then, a cold hand pushed its way out of the loose earth at their feet. The fingers latched onto Buffy’s ankle, and the vampire began to pull his way up. Not letting this cause a hitch in their passion, she leaned to the side, grabbed the nuisance by the collar of his burial suit, and held him in place as her partner silently staked him.

Reluctantly, she shifted back from his touch. “We should go home.”

“Ah, love, we were just getting started.” He wasn’t sure if he was referring to the fighting or potential shagging or both.

She moved past him but turned, walking backward a few steps, and gave him a come-hither look. “We can continue this. . . after we relieve Aunt Dawnie.”

“Right. She’s got a test coming that I’m supposed to help her with. History.”

“That’s the one.”

She swung around again as he grabbed her hand, and they headed toward home and their family.

She yawned, a marker of just how tired she was. “And you take the night shift with the little guy?”

He couldn’t believe he was a father, and he was enjoying every moment of their happy accident. “Of course.” He wanted her to get some rest.

As they ambled through the rusty cemetery gate, she added, “And can we work on this moment alone thing? ‘Cause I really need one, as much I love our baby.” She squeezed his hand, happy to share something so precious with him.

He lifted an eyebrow at her.

“One night a week by myself. A night where only one rising is predicted,” she bargained. “No apocalypses. . . yet.”

“How about one night a week, and I come with you, or you take one of the little girls. And no cell phones on patrol.” There were two or three other Slayers in the city where they’d settled, where Dawn was attending college. “And you can start by showering alone.”

“Fine. It’s better than you skulking in the shadows being watchdog.” She pouted then. “And I don’t want to shower alone.”

He smirked. “Beggars choosers, pet.”

“Ugh. Fine. Mr. Overprotective.”

He kissed the back of her hand. “Love me anyway?”

She hugged his arm. “Always.”

Completed 3-28-17 (before edits)