"Charms strike the sight
but merit wins the soul"
-- Alexander Pope
"Where?" Buffy's voice seemed as controlled as ever, but beneath the words lay a note of strain and exhaustion. Spike glanced at her, noting the paleness of her skin and the tense way she was holding her arm. It had to be hurting. She was probably hurting all over. Even Slayers don't just walk away from a beating like the one that demon had given her...not without scars. 'Course, the real question was whether they were on the outside or not...
Come to that, he wasn't feeling that great either. Hiking in the rain with broken ribs wasn't his favourite thing. And neither was this. Spike turned back to the swimming pool beneath his feet. It was large, lavish...and empty. The only thing between him and all that concrete...was thin air. 'Really not lookin' forward to breaking any more bones tonight,' he thought unhappily.
"Well?" The Slayer sounded impatient. "Where are we?"
Spike shifted slightly. "We're gonna have to jump," he said, not answering her directly.
Buffy swallowed. "Up or down?"
"Down," she repeated. "How far?"
"You're lying through your teeth, Spike."
"Yeah...well...OK, I am. Look, do you want to get your bloody sight back or not? 'Cause I don't have time to play twenty questions with you. You're just gonna have to decide whether you trust me or not. Your choice, Slayer."
* * *
Trust him. Trust Spike. Before tonight Buffy would have burst into hysterical laughter if someone had suggested that to her. Because if ever anyone was untrustworthy, it was the bleached blond vampire. She still hadn't fully forgiven him for what he had done to her and her friends last year...
And yet -- he was different tonight. He had saved her life and gotten himself injured in the process. He could have left her bleeding in the graveyard; instead he had brought her back to his crypt and bandaged her up. He hadn't even taken advantage of her or made fun of her...much. And, of all the people who were close to her, he was the only one who had managed to break down her barriers, to see through the lies and to keep pushing until she had finally done the unthinkable and ask for help. Ask him for help.
True, he was annoying, arrogant, and way too sure of himself. And dangerous. Don't forget dangerous. He might have a chip in his head that prevented him from acting out his violent impulses, but she knew they were still there. She had seen that look in his eyes all too often...when she could still see, that is. One day he might even manage to remove the implant. And where would they be then? He'd go back to his old ways and she'd have to kill him. Or he'd kill her. Either way, it wouldn't be pleasant. And, for the first time since Angel, the thought of dusting a certain vampire was...distressing. It would -- it would hurt, to have to kill Spike...
And she was so never going to tell him that. 'That's all I need,' she thought bitterly. 'Give him another weapon to use against me. Good plan, Buffy.'
Only -- only he wouldn't, would he? He had proven that much, at least. And what about last week, when he come after her with a shotgun after their confrontation in the alley? The alley. Buffy closed her eyes briefly. What she had said that night, the words she had hurled at him in anger and pain... She had been wrong. He wasn't beneath her. He had proven that tonight, a hundred times over. And she had to tell him. She owed him that much at least.
"Well?" he was saying irritably. "Are we going to do this or not?"
Buffy opened her eyes and swallowed deeply. "Spike," she said quietly, concentrating on the feel of his hand in hers.
"I didn't mean it."
"What I said. Last week -- in the alley. I...I'm sorry. And I wanted to say thank you. For what you're trying to do. Just...thank you."
The vampire said nothing, his hand cold and motionless in hers. An eternity seemed to go by.
"Spike?" Buffy said finally, biting her lip a little.
At last he stirred, shifting beside her. "Oh. Well. That's all right then." For a moment he sounded -- almost embarrassed. Sheepish. Sheepish Spike? The world just kept getting stranger and stranger...
Suddenly self-conscious and not really understanding the sudden tension that had filled the air between them, Buffy turned back to the -- whatever it was that lay ahead of her -- and said with false brightness: "So, are we going to jump or what?"
This time there was a hint of pleasure in his voice. "You trust me?" Spike said, pulling her into his arms.
She didn't fight him. "Yeah. I do. Call me Demento Girl, but I trust you."
"Good. After you then." And with that he gave her a hefty shove in the small of the back, stepping forward with her...and together they fell, the ground vanishing from beneath their feet.
* * *
Only Spike saw how they crashed right through the concrete on the bottom of the empty pool, as if it didn't really exist. They fell together for several more feet and then Spike was tucking and rolling, and springing back to his feet with feline grace.
Buffy wasn't quite so lucky. Unable to see where the floor actually was, she couldn't anticipate her landing. She managed not too badly thanks to her Slayer instincts, but she nevertheless hit the ground pretty hard. For a moment she lay unmoving at Spike's feet and fear sliced through him. What if she were badly injured? Hastily the vampire reached down toward her...only to be shoved violently away as the Slayer climbed to her feet, unaided.
"Next time I decide to trust you, Spike," she snapped, rubbing her knee with one hand, "remind me to bang my head against a wall until the feeling goes away."
"That's my bad-tempered Slayer," he said absently, no longer listening now that he was sure she was all right. Instead he pivoted around, surveying the room.
It small, poorly lit, and devoid of furniture. Torchlight flickered off stone walls, giving it a medieval look. Shadows cast by the flames stirred in the corners, but there was no other movement. And no people.
"I am so not your anything," Buffy was saying peevishly. "And where the hell are we, anyway?"
"This is the place of the trials, my dear." The voice came from directly behind them. Where there had been only emptiness a moment ago. Buffy and Spike both spun toward the sound, the vampire instinctively morphing into his game face. "Who the bloody hell are you?" he growled.
A smallish man stood before them, wearing slightly rumpled, old-fashioned clothing and an expression of slight distaste. "Please, sir. Language."
"Sod my flaming language. Who the hell are you?"
The man drew himself up, holding onto both lapels. "I am...why, I suppose you could call me the Valet. I am here, after all, to make sure things go as...smoothly as possible." He had a distinct English accent, similar to Giles'. "And you are..." the Valet looked down at a tiny leather notebook in his hand, "William the Bloody, also known as...er...Spike, and Miss Summers. And you are here to restore Miss Summers eyesight. Quite a laudable goal, really. For a vampire."
As he spoke, the little man moved towards Buffy. Without warning, he placed both hands on either side of her head and she yelped in surprise, pulling away from him.
In an instant Spike had interposed himself between the Slayer and the Valet, shoving the man away from her. "Touch her again and I'll..."
Unconcernedly the man shrugged off the vampire's hand and straightened his waistcoat. "Oh not to worry Mr...ah... Spike. I'm only checking to make sure we really can help her before the trial begins." He leaned a little closer, ignoring the fangs, his voice dropping conspiratorially. "Just between us, we had a bit of a...situation...recently. One of the supplicants actually managed to pass all his trials, but we weren't able to grant his reward due to a...an unfortunate mix up. All quite embarrassing really."
"Who was it?" Buffy asked curiously.
"Another vampire, oddly enough. Needless to say, I've been ordered to check first and make sure we can keep up our end of the bargain. After all, we do have a reputation to maintain. So..." He took a step forward, shooting a cautious glance at Spike who was still hovering protectively over the Slayer. "...if you will permit me..."
Buffy swallowed then nodded hesitantly. Once more the Valet reached out for her and closed his eyes. Several seconds ticked by and then he stepped back, smiling and looking pleased.
"Yes. We can definitely do something about that. No problem at all. So now there's just the matter of the trials..."
Spike didn't stir from Buffy's side, although he did allow his face to morph back to his human appearance. "What exactly does she need to do?" he asked, shooting a concerned glance at the Slayer.
"Miss Summers?" The Valet glanced at Buffy in some surprise then his gaze returned speculatively to Spike. A cold sensation began to crawl up the vampire's spine.
"Miss Summers?" The man said again. "Why, nothing at all."
"No, it is you who must undergo the trial."
Continued in Part 10