All About Spike

Chapter: Prologue  1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12

When Darkness Falls
By L.A. Ward and Sanguine

The song used in the Bronze is "Nothing Can Stand Between Us" by Theory of a Deadman

Chapter Nine: Prodigal

Some days were horrible from beginning to end. This was one those days. First, Lilah woke to find that Wesley had escaped during the night, leaving nothing behind him but twisted sheets. Then she arrived at work to discover her assistant had been replaced with a Gonets demon whose azure skin prevented it from going downstairs to Starbucks for Lilah's double espresso. Next came a meeting with Linwood and Gavin to review their client's list of wants, needs, and desires and, yet again, Lilah was the only one with the balls to ask the logical question--how?

Gavin suggested seeking the assistance of Dr. Fetvanovich.

"That's problematic," Lilah said dryly. "Fetvanovich was murdered in the lobby of the Hyperion, or have you forgotten our failed attempt to grab Darla and her bad seed?"

Gavin's discomfort showed before he regrouped and suggested, "Dr. Melman, then."

Lilah arched an eyebrow. "The man who attached Lindsay's evil hand?"

"Do you have a better suggestion?"

"Has the natural way gone out of style?"

Gavin laughed cynically. "Natural? That's an interesting word choice."

"Enough." Linwood rose from his seat at the head of the conference table and eyed Gavin and herself. "I don't care how you choose to do it, just take care of this situation. Be proactive."

Easier said than done. After reviewing her limited options, Lilah agreed to contact Dr. Melman and his demonic medical assistants. Her conversation with the physician/alchemist was brief, but the doctor agreed to meet her client and discuss possible solutions for the. . .situation.

If pressed (with hot pokers and threats of painful death) Lilah would admit to having doubts about whether the doctor could prove useful. But in her business, appearances meant everything, so she agreed to deliver Dr. Melman to her client's door for a meeting. If nothing else, her client would be reassured that Wolfram and Hart was dutifully attempting to fulfill their part of the bargain. Gavin, of course, insisted on tagging along.

Now, Lilah sat in a limousine, gazing out the window in order to avoid looking at the demon, Dr. Melman's medical assistant, who sat opposite her. The black-robed creature had no face. Beneath its hood there was only a gaping black void, causing Lilah to remember Nietzsche's aphorism about looking into an abyss to discover the abyss looks into you.

The silence grew oppressive so she glanced at her other companions. Dr. Melman concentrated on working on his laptop computer and appeared irritated when she tried to strike up a conversation. Lilah gave the doctor a coolly, vacuous smile and glared at Gavin before returning her attention to the slowly darkening landscape outside the window. She read the road sign as they sped by it-WELCOME TO SUNNYDALE.

Music vibrated through Buffy and through the metal catwalk where she stood overlooking the dance floor. Strobe lights and writhing teenagers added to the throbbing atmosphere of the Bronze. It was all very hedonistic and seductive. Thoughts, images, and memories of sensations teased Buffy, hovered around the edges of her consciousness, refusing to go away no matter how hard she tried to force them out. They were part of her. He was part-

=Bad thought. Evil thought. Evil thought about an evil. . .thing. =

Buffy pulled away from the railing. She shouldn't call Spike that. She knew she shouldn't. It was the easy way out--easy to call Spike 'it' and 'thing,' easy because it allowed her not to think or feel. She could concern herself only about herself. Want him. Take him. Have him. Walk away when she was done. What did it matter? He wasn't real. He was just a thing.

The problem was, he wasn't. He was more.

Buffy moved through the crowd and toward the stairs.

Becoming involved with Spike had been all too easy and, looking back, all too disturbing. She had allowed need to overcome good sense. She had allowed desire to overcome judgment, and she had allowed shame to overcome. . .everything. It had been a confusing time, she told herself. But it was over--over and done--if only she could forget.

She should focus on something else. She was in the Bronze to patrol, not to contemplate her belly button. . .or other things. Insects and Kermits weren't the only creatures running around Sunnydale in hordes. Vampires were out in force.

In the last few years, evil undead threats had been pretty minimal. A little staking in the graveyards had kept things tame, but in the last week Buffy had seen more vamp action than she had in years. It hadn't been like this since the Master, Angelus or Spike had been the Big Bads in town.

Buffy shivered and reminded herself that the Master was dead, and Spike and Angel had left town under more painful conditions. But, as she peered into the shadowed corners of the Bronze, Buffy couldn't escape the fact that there were still vampires here. She could sense their presence. She could feel them--a brush across her senses, familiar and still somehow strange. She felt their energy vibrate in the air, and it inspired anxious butterflies to kickbox in her stomach. Bad things were close.

Buffy strained her eyes to stare into the darkness, thinking if she stared long enough she could see something other than dancers frozen in eerie tableaus during momentary flashes of light as strobes kept time to the music. She could see what she was up against. She could see them waiting.

Hyperawareness tingled across Buffy's nerve endings as the band sang, ~Wishing you were here.~

And something caught Buffy's attention-a flash of moonlight colored hair. = Spike?=

~...Guess I should watch what I wish for...~

It couldn't be him. Clem had said Spike wasn't coming back. Ever. Three months wasn't 'ever,' not even close. It couldn't be Spike.

She should think about something else, *someone* else, someone like...Dawn. Where was Dawn?

Buffy had left Dawn downstairs while she searched the balcony for vampires, but with the mega wattage vamp vibes that Buffy was getting, she was kicking herself for having left her sister alone. Leaning over the rail, Buffy searched the crowd for Dawn and felt an eerie sensation moving across her skin. Someone was watching her, waiting, and again, Buffy saw the flash of familiar platinum white.

~. . .Right on time, so invite me in. . .~

Okay, no joke, that had to be Spike. It *had* to be. Buffy pushed her way through the crowd on the stairs and plunged into the chaotic mass of humanity on the dance floor.

~. . .This is where your trouble begins. . .~

Buffy stopped, a small, still form in the midst of bodies in motion. Everyone was moving, but Buffy felt paralyzed. What she was doing? Was she trying to find Spike or hide from him? If she came face to face with him, what would she say? What would she do? Would she pound him into the floor for having hurt her, or lift her chin and apologize for the myriad ways she had hurt him?

Buffy stood on her toes but saw nothing but shoulders and backs. She hated being short. In crowds like this, she didn't have a chance of finding Spike. Or course, there was the 'Slayer sense' thing, but her senses were short circuited by the multiple vamps in the room.

~I like you better than the other ones.~

Most vampires made Buffy feel itchy, like wearing wool on a hot day, but Spike was different. He was supernatural cashmere. Of course, cashmere cost more than Buffy could afford, but she couldn't deny sometimes wanting it, even lusting for it. She knew how wonderful it felt to wrap herself up in it, to feel it caress her skin. It felt. . .good.

~You say I'm right when I know I'm wrong~

See, this was where she had gotten herself into trouble. It felt right. Spike felt right, but he couldn't be. He was Spike. Spike, the Slayer Killer. Spike, the Menace of Europe. Spike, the soulless thing.

~We could never just get along~

Sure Spike had changed. Circumstances had changed him, but could anyone change so much that they became the opposite of what they had been before?

~You're so damn relentless.~

Buffy caught the arm of a young girl she thought she recognized. "Liz?"

The girl shook her head. "Leslie."

Buffy frowned. Had she known that? "Um... But I *do* know you, don't I? I mean you know my sister, right?"

"Dawn? Sure."

"Have you seen her?"

"She's by the stage--"

Buffy was already turning away, moving relentlessly toward the stage, but she remained aware of Spike's elusive presence near her. . .so near her. She could almost smell his aftershave, sharp with the scent of limes and mellowed by the fragrance of sage. She remembered it so clearly. She remembered wondering how a vampire shaved without a mirror.

~And you will find ~ ~The two of us are like two of a kind~

Buffy could recognize Spike in the dark. She could find his particular vibration even in the midst of all this noise and chaos. That should frighten her, shouldn't it? Nothing inside her should be so attuned to him.

~This hits you harder than the other ones~

Buffy grabbed the arm of a young, beefy looking kid who had been nuzzling a girl on the dance floor. "Hold it, Buddy. That's a no-no."

He was no kid. He was a vampire. The stray kind that wandered Sunnydale for no rational reason Buffy could think of other than to make her life unpleasant.

The vampire blinked. "What the-"

"Outside. Now. Let's get this over with." Buffy was bored and impatient. She didn't have time for this.

The vampire scowled. "Back off or when I'm done with her, I'll look for you."

Buffy crossed her arms and tapped her foot. "Not exactly shivering in my boots." She stopped and stared. "Damn. I've scuffed the toe."

The vampire tried to pull away. Stupid vampire. Buffy twisted its arm until it cried out in pain. "Stop wasting my time," she bit out. "Let's go."

Buffy dragged the vampire through the crowd, glancing over her shoulder to search one last time for a different creature of the night, for the one she had been hoping and dreading to find.

Why had Spike come back?

~'Cause home is where the hurt is~ the band sang as the Bronze's back door slammed shut behind her with a solid, metallic clank.

With the steel door closed, the difference in noise level from the club to the alley was startling and eerie. Inside, the music had been deafening, loud enough to drown out thought and conversation. Here in the damp narrow space between the Bronze and the abandoned neighboring building, it was quiet. Not even cars could be heard in the distance. There was only a low, nearly inaudible bass beat throbbing in the dark.

Buffy let go of the vampire. It cautiously stepped away from her. "Who are you?" It asked.

Buffy reached into her back pocket and pulled out a stake. She twirled it in her hand. "Who do you think?"

The vamp looked nervous. "I wasn't doing anything," it protested.

Buffy rolled her eyes. "Oh yeah, sure."

"No. Honest, I-"

She dusted him. Why waste time with banter when she was in a hurry and in a bad mood?

Buffy walked to the door. The metal was cold against her palm as she slid her hand around the handle. It didn't budge. =What the...? Damn!= It must be some emergency door. It had locked behind her. Buffy would have to walk around the building to get back in. She kicked the door, (What did it matter? She'd already scuffed her boot) and turned to find-

Vampires surrounded her. One. Two. Three. A quick count came to a total of ten. Well, wasn't that nifty? Ten to one. Not the best odds Buffy had ever faced but do-able. Might be tough though. Perhaps even dangerous. If she messed up even a little bit, Buffy could find herself in big trouble. Then she saw a familiar angular face and athletic form half shrouded in shadows-the man...demon she had searched find.

Buffy smiled. Ten to *two* odds. Now, *that* sounded right.

With her hands on her hips, Buffy looked at her circle of opponents. "Who died and left you guys an army of vamps?" She dusted Vamp #1 and grinned. "Oops. Guess you did."

Buffy kicked Vamp #2 and spun on her heel to punch Vamp #3 before staking Vamp #4. It exploded in a cloud of dust that settled onto the damp ground at Buffy's feet. She ducked to avoid the blow of pissed Vamp #2 then stood and backhanded vamp whatever number. Buffy lost count as one of the monsters jumped onto her back. Losing her balance, she stumbled backward but used her momentum to slam into the wall. The vampire on her back grunted before she suddenly dove forward, tucking and rolling in an acrobatic move before rising smoothly to stand and staking Vamp #3.

Still facing eight hostile vamps, Buffy looked at Spike. "You're supposed to help, you know!"

Spike arched a scarred brow. "I am?"

His richly timbred voice set off tremors in Buffy's stomach--which she ignored as she straightened her shoulders. "Duh. Sort of out numbered here, or haven't you noticed?"

He shoved his hands into his pockets and slouched casually against the wall. "I noticed."

Vamp #5 attacked as Buffy moved deftly to the right. It missed her, but Buffy didn't miss it. Another cloud of dust settled to the pavement. She glared at Spike.

Pushing away from the wall, Spike slowly circled her. "I'm supposed to help." He spoke the words as if they were foreign to him. He cocked his head to one side. "Why?"

Buffy opened her mouth and searched for an answer but came up with a big fat nothing. Why had Spike *ever* helped her? For fun? For violence? For sex or money? . . .For love?

Buffy's gaze locked with Spike's. He smiled, but it was a cold, empty expression. He could be really scary when he smiled.

"No answer?" When Spike approached Buffy Vampire #6 rushed him. Spike ducked, and the vampire tumbled to the ground, landing in an indignant heap on the pavement. Spike planted his Doc Marten firmly in the center of its chest though his attention remained tightly focused on Buffy. "Don't worry, luv." Spike ripped off the vampire's head. "Haven't got an answer myself. Haven't had one for a very long time."

Vampire #7 looked from Spike to Buffy to Spike again. It blinked. "Wait! I get it." It pointed at Spike. "I know you. You're the Slayer's pet. Spot."


Buffy could see a muscle tense in Spike's chiseled jaw.

The vampire rolled its eyes. "Whatever."

Spike drew closer using a graceful stride that seemed to be exclusive to Spike. "That what I am? " he asked Buffy and there was a sharp edge under Spike's even tone. "Your pet? Trained to sit and beg?"

Vampire #7 began to back away, but Spike caught its collar and dragged it with him as he strode toward Buffy. "Am I your dog? Something to keep chained outside your door? Guard the little sis, watch your back, but don't allow it inside the house. Never forget it's a mongrel unworthy of attention. That it, pet?"

"Going a little far with the. . . uh. . ." Buffy looked at Spike. "Is it a metaphor, simile, or allusion?"

"Don't you know?"

Buffy avoided answering the question by dusting Vampire #8.

Spike chuckled and shook his head. "'Course you don't know." He released the vampire he'd been holding and sidled even closer to Buffy. He placed his hand on the wall above her shoulder. "It's none of those things." Spike leaned close and whispered in her ear. "It's my *life.*"

Buffy blinked.

"Oh, right," Spike bit out sarcastically. "I don't have a life. Not real. Just a thing." In contrast to the suppressed anger in his voice, Spike's touch was tender. His fingers were cool and gentle as they brushed her cheek. "I'm nothing."

Spike pulled away, leaving Buffy slumped against the wall. His gaze narrowed and there was the hint of a sneer in the curl of his lip. "But you, luv, are a ball busting *bitch.*"

There was a scuffling sound in the alley. Spike and Buffy turned their heads to see the two remaining vampires run for their unlives. "Cowardly buggers," Spike muttered. "Piss poor fighters too."

But the creatures were forgotten even before they disappeared. Spike's contemptuous gaze settled on Buffy. "Little girl with little rules," he mocked. "Simple. Nothing to stress her heart or mind. Keep it easy. Don't shed light on the dark corners of your world. Might have to face the truth and that's not allowed."

Spike started to walk away. Like *hell* would she let him walk away.

Buffy tackled Spike, throwing herself against him, wanting to drive him into the ground, but Spike anticipated her attack. He moved with lightning speed and preternatural strength, pushing her off him. He sent her flying across the alley and watched her flail helplessly before landing ignominiously on her butt. Spike stalked over to her, emotion flowing off him in raging waves. He glared at Buffy as she stared back from the ground.

"It's not Saturday," he snarled.

The steel door of the Bronze swung open and from behind it, Dawn called, "Buffy?"

Spike disappeared in the blink of an eye.

Dawn walked around the door and frowned when she found Buffy sprawled on the pavement. "What happened to you?"

"Vampire," Buffy said somewhat unsteadily as she rose to her feet and brushed the dust off her pants.

Dawn looked surprised. "One got the best of you?"

Buffy took three steps toward the mouth of the alley. She stopped and stared into darkness in Spike's wake. "Not even close."

It's not Saturday. What the hell did that mean? But a memory teased Buffy- the memory of the very first time she had laid eyes on Spike.

"What happens Saturday?" she had asked on that night long ago.

Spike had told her, "I kill you."

Buffy grabbed her sister's hand. "Dawn, let's go."

It was after 11:00 pm when Giles stepped out of the taxi to stand on the sidewalk outside the Magic Box. His legs ached. His back ached. And he was convinced that coach air travel was a method of torture more sadistic than anything the Spanish Inquisition had dreamed of. Ignoring his deep- seated longing for a shower and hot cup of tea, Giles approached the front door and smiled when he saw the light on. Trust Anya to keep late hours. He could almost hear her explanation about the vast number of under- serviced magic patrons who preferred to shop after dark.

Giles opened the door to find Anya sitting alone. She wore a pale floral dress whose primary color was almost-but-not-quite yellow and her hair color of the week was a flattering mid-brown with hints of auburn. She lifted her head at the ringing of the bell and a blindingly bright smile lit her beautifully refined features.

"Giles!" she cried. "You're home!" And Anya rushed to greet him with an enthusiastic hug.

~Two Days Earlier...~

Spike looked poleaxed by the sound of Buffy's voice, and it wasn't difficult to understand why. It was far easier to let something go, to leave well-or bad-enough alone when there was no call from home begging for help.

Spike handed Giles the phone and crossed the room to stare out the window. Lydia and Reggie goggled with shock and fascination as Spike stared down at the sunlit street. Willow was far more accustomed to Spike's reckless disregard for personal safety so she wasn't surprised. She did wonder what made him do such potentially self destructive things. It was almost like he enjoyed playing chicken with the sun. Or maybe he simply refused to accept the limitations of his state.

Spike's expression was grim, and Willow resisted the urge to tell him that he was brooding. She was sure he'd comically protest, "I do *not* brood!" But, given the circumstances, Willow kept her mouth shut, watched and waited as Giles hung up the phone and described recent events in Sunnydale.

"Plagues!" Reggie cried, his pudgy face filling with excitement bordering on glee.

Giles looked grim. "Yes, quite."

"Something bad is brewing in Sunnydale and it's not May?" Willow almost winced at her own attempt at gallows humor. No one answered her question.

Lydia murmured to herself, "Frogs and insects."

Spike, who still stood near the window, looked over his shoulder. "Come again?"

"Plagues," Lydia repeated. "Frogs, insects. Doesn't that sound the least bit familiar? "

Spike moved away from the glass and asked with disbelief. "Are you suggesting these are *Biblical* plagues?"

Reggie's attention snapped to Spike.

"What?" Spike demanded defensively. "There *was* a William the Bloody before a Spike the vampire, you prat."

Yes, Willow acknowledged. There had been a William the Bloody, and more and more Willow was coming to realize that she and the gang had gone years without having a clue as to who that man was.

=Beloved Brother. Beloved Son.= That had been written on his grave. William's grave. *Spike's* grave.

Beloved. Spike. Spike was a *person.* It shouldn't have been a revelation, but it was. How had they missed something so obvious? The answer wasn't flattering to herself or her friends. Willow couldn't help remembering the upset and concern Xander and Buffy had expressed when faced with a vampire version of herself. She couldn't help remembering Buffy's desperation to save Angel when his soul had been lost. She couldn't help remembering and contrasting it with their treatment of Spike.

Would Spike's mother or sibling have given him a crayon speech? Judging from the things Willow had learned by sitting in on Spike's interviews, the things she had witnessed herself, and the inscription on William's grave, Willow would bet that, yes, there had once been people who would have wanted Spike to be saved. And a question that had been niggling at Willow since the night Spike had rescued her in the alley sprung to full blown life in her head. Exactly how good must a person be for any hint of that goodness to remain inside a vampire?

For Willow, it was no longer a question of whether or not William had been a good man. He had been. It was only a question of how good. . .and what exactly made herself or Angel more worthy of saving than him?

The damning answer, of course, was nothing. More damning still, was the fact that both Angel and herself had needed to be forcibly prevented from their world-destroying rampages. The only reason they hadn't succeeded was because someone had intervened. Someone *else* had prevented the destruction and removed responsibility from their shoulders. . .and they had been granted fresh starts. Spike on the other hand, had made decisions on his own to help save the world not once but twice. And as for taking responsibility for moving toward change, Spike had done nearly all the heavy lifting on his own.

While everyone pondered Lydia's observation about the plagues, Giles removed his glasses and polished the lenses. "I hesitate to place Biblical significance to these events. At least insofar as Judeo-Christian religion is concerned."

"As the Judeo among the Christians, thanks for that," Willow quipped.

Reggie glanced hesitantly in her direction. "Actually, I'm a Buddhist."

Giles blinked. "Truly? I never would have guessed." He donned his glasses and assumed an authoritative tone. "As I was saying, I hesitate to assign religious significance to this, though naturally Biblical text may be a useful place to begin research. It would be advisable to examine texts of correlating cultures-"

Spike began pacing. "Spit it out, Rupes. You don't know what this means so you want to go into research mode."

Giles eyed Spike. "Yes, Spike, I believe I said that."

Spike muttered under his breath, "Poncy bugger could have said it in four words, but did he? No."

And that's when all hell broke loose. It was like when a car wreck happened; time seemed to stretch into something just a bit short of infinity. It gave a person time to observe events in exacting detail but there never seemed to be time to react.

Willow saw the library door open behind Spike, and Quentin Travers step into the room carrying a loaded crossbow aimed at Spike's back. Travers let the arrow fly even before Willow could draw a breath to scream and gory memories of Tara's murder flooded her mind.

Reggie, standing closest to Spike, dived toward the vampire, shoving Spike far enough to the side so that instead of the arrow plowing fatally into his heart, it lodged high in Spike's shoulder. Giles charged Travers as the vampire and the young Watcher landed on the floor with audible grunts. Giles then slugged the head of the council, knocking the Travers's crossbow to the ground.

Spike didn't stop moving after hitting the floor. His landing drove the arrow through his shoulder causing Spike to yelp in pain as he rolled to his feet with the acrobatic grace of a performer in Cirque de Soleil. Reggie squeaked and backed into the table as Spike's eyes flickered from blue to gold and his handsome visage transformed into something unnatural and terrifying.

Giles backhanded Travers, a brutal blow that Willow cheered. Then he shoved Travers into the wall with such force that books fell from the shelves.

Willow heard Spike roaring like an angry, wounded lion, and she turned to see Reggie sag with against the table leg when Spike's attention shifted from himself to Travers. Spike charged toward the head of the Council.

"Spike!" Giles barked.

Spike stopped in his tracks, his game face fading to be replaced by his angry human features. Spike sucked in his cheeks and lifted his chin in a frustrated gesture Willow recognized from the countless times she had seen it before as Spike grabbed the crossbow off the floor and broke it.

Giles pulled Travers away from the wall and forced him into one of the table chairs.

"Why?" Giles demanded in a sharp, clipped voice. "The games are over, Quentin. Now, tell us why!"

Travers glared at Giles. Fury darkened his ruddy features as Travers announced with implacable arrogance, "Because it is what should be done. It is what must be done."

"Spike is no danger to anyone."

Travers laughed. "You think not?"

"What do you mean?"

"Do you truly believe the potential for destruction in that unnatural thing can be contained by a microchip? When is it ever that simple?"

"Simple or complicated. It doesn't matter." Giles slammed his hand against the table. "Tell us *why.* Why spend all this time interviewing Spike? Why kill him?"

"It's not about him," Travers snapped. "That *thing* is nothing. Vampires are interchangeable."

"But it wasn't just any vampire you wanted brought here. It was Spike."

"Spike *is* slightly different," Lydia observed as she helped Reggie off the floor. "Otherwise you never would have wanted the interview."

Travers sneered. "Not so very different, Lydia. You only believe so because his anti-hero traits appeal to your overly romanticized sensibilities. He is what they all are-"

"Then why is Spike the one demanding your attention." Giles eyed the broken crossbow laying on the table. "And your rusty assassination skills."

"Because time has run out. Your phone call from the Slayer means that time has run out."

Giles gazed at Travers suspiciously. "What do you know about the phone call from Buffy?"

"Bastard probably has the phone bugged," Spike growled.

"Nothing so elaborate." Travers's voice dripped with condescension. "Simple eavesdropping."

"Which still leaves the whole 'why' thing flapping in the breeze," Willow murmured.

Travers laughed. "What is always the answer for us? A prophecy."

"Spike is part of a prophecy?" Lydia looked surprised, intrigued, and excited.

"Brilliant!" Reggie exclaimed.

Spike shook his head and looked trapped somewhere between disgust and despair. "Bugger it all to hell."

Giles was not as easily distracted. "Which prophecy in particular, Quentin?"

"The End of Days."

That grabbed everyone's attention.

"What do I do?" Spike asked in shock.

Willow observed, "I'm guessing from the assassination thingie that it must not be good."

Travers crossed his arms in an impatient gesture. "I don't know what he does or if he does anything at all."

By that point even Giles looked confused. "At the risk of becoming tedious, again I ask why? Why assassinate Spike?"

Travers leaned forward. "It doesn't matter *who* he is, only that he is part of the Order of Aurelius. The order must be complete for the prophecy to be fulfilled."

Spike cocked his head to one side. "Complete? What the bloody hell is 'complete?'"

"Seven," Travers said. "There must be seven representatives of the Order."

Reggie frowned. "But. . ." He glanced at the other occupants of the room then grabbed Lydia's notes. He offered them to Travers as if they were evidence. "There aren't seven members of the order *now.* There's no reason to kill Spike."

"Bloody right!" Spike exclaimed. "Most of the so-called order has been dusted, or have you forgotten?"

Giles nodded. "True. The Master, the Anointed One, and Darla have been removed from the equation."

"So that leaves only Dru, the Poof, and me. Three, not seven."

"Your prophecy has been averted, Quentin," Giles said with irritation. "The Order has been broken. This has been an exercise in futility."

"You bloody fool, when is there ever a dearth of vampires?" Travers's tone dripped with contempt. "They are replaceable creatures. All that is needed is for one of them to make more."

Reggie shook his head. "I still don't understand. Spike's chip prevents him from siring anyone. Angel's soul would most likely prevent him. That only leaves Drusilla. Why murder Spike? Drusilla could simply-" Looking embarrassed, Reggie averted his gaze from Spike. "Make a replacement."

Traver's dark, bushy brows lowered. "She doesn't know that there *needs* to be a replacement, now does she? It might slow things down." He gestured to Spike. "If that. . . that *thing's* execution buys the world one more hour, one more day, then it is worth it."

"You bloody, arrogant *fool!* Giles yelled. "You assassinate what may prove to be a valuable ally so that he can be replaced by the minion of a madwoman?"

"It's a chess game, Rupert."

"So you thought you would leave an opening for the evil side to cry checkmate?"

Traver's face became a mottled red. "Think, Rupert! Who is the Slayer more likely to defeat, her ex-lover, a creature who has built its reputation on defeating Slayers or a nameless, faceless minion?"

"You aren't giving the Slayer proper credit," Spike said quietly. "She would kill me." He avoided looking at Willow.

"Would she? Then why hasn't she?" Travers turned to Giles. "All it would take is the Slayer hesitating one moment too long, Rupert. Another incident such as the one with Angelus and, we will *all* suffer the fate of your Miss Calendar."

Giles stood absolutely still, his breathing somehow both controlled and labored. With agonizing slowness he faced Spike. Spike squared his shoulders and lifted his chin, his defiant brand of raw courage prominently on display.

"We can't kill Spike," Willow said softly. No one seemed to hear her so she repeated her statement more sternly. "We can't kill Spike. Spike isn't Angelus. He. . ." She paused and searched for the right words. "Even back then, even with Acathla, even before. . .all the stuff we've gone through, Spike helped us. Buffy couldn't have fought both Angel and Dru and won. She had Spike's help. And. . . uh. . .Giles, if Spike hadn't stopped Angel from torturing you. . . "

Giles relaxed his stiff stance. His shoulder's relaxed. "For he today who sheds blood with me shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile. . ."

Willow frowned as the words teased her. She knew they were Henry the V, but. . . She remembered. It had been the night they had faced Glory. Spike and Giles had been gathering weapons and, uncharacteristically, the two Brits had spoken in turn, "We few, we happy few, we band of. . .buggered."

Giles had sighed and sat on the corner of the table. "We shan't kill Spike." He focused on Travers. "Now, exactly what are the specifics of the prophecy we are speaking of?"

Travers reached into his pocket. Spike growled, a low, unnerving sound.

"Slowly," Giles instructed.

Travers produced a torn piece of parchment with an elaborately ornamented ouroborus prominently displayed on the upper left hand corner. It was the emblem of the Order of Aurelius. Giles took the paper and spread it out on the table. Lydia, Reggie, Spike and Willow gathered around him and peered over his shoulder. Quickly scanning the text had made it clear that the Order's fate was tied to the fate of the world and the plagues disturbing the Hellmouth. Though the parchment was incomplete and the lower portion had been ripped away, there was no room to doubt that the End of Days was near.

"I shall return to Sunnydale immediately," Giles announced. "The rest of you-"

"The rest what?" Spike tone and stance were belligerent. "Sit on our duffs being useless? That's fine for Watcher wankers but not me. Where you go, I go."

Giles shook his head. "I don't think that's wise. The Order of Aurelius--"

"You don't tell me what to do, Watcher."

Giles stood toe to toe with Spike. "Quentin may be an arrogant arse, but he's right."

Spike shoved the bloodied arrow he had earlier pulled from his chest into Giles's hand. "Want to finish the job?"

Giles threw the arrow away. "You do not need to be near Sunnydale. I will take care of this. If the Order of Aurelius--"

Spike circled the Watcher. "You know, Rupes, I remember Dru having you in thrall in under five minutes."

"And who is the man she seduced into becoming a monst-"

"Guys!" Willow interrupted. "Speaking for the rest of us, can we drop the Dru thing? The thrall and seduction stuff is kind of ookie."

"I'm going to Sunnydale," Spike insisted.

"I won't allow that."

"You don't *own* me!" Spike spat. "Where did you-*any* of you-come by that idea? Because you pay me pin money for blood and smokes? Do you truly believe I can be bought so cheaply?"

Willow opened her mouth in a small 'O' as she realized that every now and then Spike slipped up and sounded like the erstwhile Victorian he was.

"For educated men and women, you are a stupid lot." Spike stopped pacing and looked at them with a mixture of irritation and scornful disbelief. "Do you think I couldn't go to that bar in Soho where I found Red and not find a demon or fledgling or *three* to do my dirty work?" He looked at Giles. "What's happened to that prodigious brain of yours, Rupes? I commanded a gang of vampires when I first came to Sunnydale. Do you believe I forgot *how*? I do what I do because *I* choose to do it. Not you. Not the Council. Not even the Slayer."

Spike tossed Lydia's notes into the air and watched them flutter to the floor. "Every time I answer your bloody stupid questions it is because I *choose* to answer them. Every time I sit in a room filled with people who hate me, who mock me to my face or behind my back, it is my choice. Mine. I choose these things. So don't think you have any say in what I do-"

"Spike!" Giles said commandingly.


"This ends now. Clearly you have resentments that have festered for some time." Giles checked his glasses for non-existent lint. "And, I must admit, not all of your complaints are without merit. But before you rush to impulsive action, sit down and think."

The two men stared at one another, judging each others merit. . . .and Spike did as he was told. He sat. Giles circled the table, laid his hand on the vampire's shoulder. "*We* will figure out what we must do."

And maybe, for the first time ever, Spike was included in the "we."

Spike stood in the shadows and watched Buffy and Dawn hurry down mainstreet. He had an advantage over other potential Slayer stalkers. He didn't need to follow her, which she might sense. There were only a few places Buffy would go at a time like this. Spike could afford to wait.

Buffy had chosen the Magic Box. It made little sense, but habits were sometimes difficult to break. Spike watched her open the door and pull Dawn inside.

The window of the shop glowed a warm, incandescent yellow in stark contrast to the deep indigo night, and in its light Spike could see the joyful expression on Buffy's face when she first saw Giles. She threw her arms around the Watcher, hugging him close, and Bit was only a step behind. Both of Spike's girls -- he still thought of them as his girls-- were safe and happy in Giles's comforting arms.

"Welcome home, Rupes," Spike murmured quietly to the darkness.

How very different was Rupert's welcome compared to his own. In the alley behind the Bronze Spike had looked into Buffy's eyes and seen confusion, anger and what had to be hate. . .and it hurt. It wasn't that he didn't deserve it, and it wasn't that he hadn't seen hate in her eyes before. Spike had always seen it. He had tried to deny it. He had tried to live with it, but over the years it had caused an aching emptiness inside him that had grown to a gaping abyss.

When Spike had left Sunnydale last spring he had done so with a sense of purpose and determination he had rarely felt in his long existence. There had been a fire inside him to *prove* to Buffy that he was real, that he could change, that he was more than 'nothing.' He had dreamed of arriving at her door, presenting his hard won soul and saying, "Here. This is what I've done. It's the right thing. I did the right thing. You said I couldn't, but I did. That's something, right? That's important. That's *real.*"

Damn it! He really was a pet begging for the approval of its master, just a pat on the head. . .only it really wasn't that simple. It was all so much worse.

Spike sighed as he considered his sad little dream of a prodigal's return. Dreams were painful things, painful because they so rarely resembled reality. And his dream was no less painful because it had been small.

Spike's grand soul quest had resulted in a guilty conscience, dreams turned to nightmares, and a disgust of his very existence. He had wanted to walk up to Buffy and tell her what he had done. What he-not Angel but he, William the Bloody Useless--had done. Spike had never wanted anything quite so badly. . . and there was nothing in the world that he feared more.

What if she didn't care? What if it meant nothing? He feared it meant nothing and he *knew* it wasn't enough.

Spike had to laugh. The cosmic joke was on him. All that he had really accomplished was screwing himself over more than ever. For everything that had changed, for every way that *he* had changed, it still wasn't enough. It would never be enough. He still loved her. He still hated her. He was in hell.

But he would help her. That was the plan. He and Rupert agreed that Travers had a point about Buffy not having a moment of hesitation should things go wrong. For Spike to remain in Sunnydale, he needed to break any tie between himself and the Slayer. There shouldn't have been a tie left- not after everything that had happened-but Spike needed to be sure. He needed to make the division between himself and Buffy clear to all the creatures haunting the ugly underbelly of the city. He needed the demon world to know Spike was back, and he was a bloody animal. If he was to attract Dru's attention he-

Spike turned to see Vampire #9 smack him in the face with a two-by-four.

Continued in Chapter Ten: Masters and Minions

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