All About Spike - Print Version
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Shepherd
By Kimi

Sequel to Reminders; part of The Voicesverse

Rating: PG-13
Summary: Four months after Riley's death, Spike comes back to Sunnydale.
Spoilers: Post-Grave and my two fics, Voices in the Dark and Reminders. A Season 7 AU. If you haven't read them, you'll be lost as an Easter Egg. I'm just sayin...
Distribution: Just talk to me, I'm easy.
Disclaimers: All Joss, all ME, all the time...
Feedback: You beta, you beta, you bet! kimi37212@hotmail.com

Author's Notes: We are now beginning the third installment in an alternate Season 7 AU. Jumpy? Me? Nah... Yeah. Real jumpy. Any errors in continuity that may come up during the course of this fic are my own. No one can ask their beta to live in an alternate universe all the time. Chapters will probably take longer to be posted, so be kind!

Thanks to Chris for her encouragement and her ear, which has served me well, to Kelly for handing me the title of this fic and listening as I whined about the demands of the muse, and Colleen, who gives me solace and the best final beta there is!

Hope you enjoy.



Part 1

Dawn skipped down the stairs and headed into the kitchen for breakfast, sliding past Buffy to stop at the refrigerator. With a ceremonious bow, she opened the door to reveal an interior full of food and drink. She sighed in ecstasy and reached in to snare the bottle of 100% Florida orange juice. Setting it on the counter, she turned again to open the top door. Frozen treats lined the inside of the freezer, reminding the girl of the frozen food aisle at the grocery store.

Waffles joined the orange juice. She was so glad the Council was paying Buffy now.

Buffy's low, strained voice invaded the teenager's happy thoughts.

"Of course, I'll pick you up. I can so drive. I just...don't. But tomorrow, I do. Fine. You drive back then."

Dawn's ears practically swiveled to cup the next words, spoken even lower than before.

"A hotel? That's nuts. You can... Oh. Well, it's not like..." Buffy laughed but it sounded strange. Uncomfortable. "I don't think she'd..." The slayer looked up at her sister like a deer caught in headlights, as if she'd just realized she was in the room. Cupping her hand around the mouthpiece of the phone, she turned away toward the wall, saying something that even Dawn's "little pitcher" ears couldn't catch.

A breathy sigh forced its way past Buffy's lips. "Fine. Are you... Will you be all right on the plane and all?"

Dawn shuddered and immediately steeled herself for something she'd known was coming for a while now. She set her chin. It would be all right. They wouldn't let Willow leave if she wasn't a hundred million times better than she was when Giles took her away. Dawn dropped a waffle into the toaster and pulled a jar of peanut butter out of the cabinet. Buffy softly put the receiver on its cradle and slowly pulled her hand away, still gazing at the phone.

"So," Dawn said, clearing her throat. "When does she get in?"

Buffy's eyes crawled from the phone to Dawn. The frown line between her eyes was deep. "What?"

"Willow. When does she get in? And are we having like a 'Welcome Back, Ex-Wiccan' party, or just leaving the front door open and covering our heads with blankets?" she asked saucily.

The slayer looked bewildered. "Willow?" Buffy shook her head to clear it. "Oh! No, no Willow." She sat down heavily at the table and absently picked up the empty waffle wrapper, holding it up to her eyes to look through the cellophane. Laying it in front of her, she absently straightened it out, smoothing the torn edges together.

"Yo, Zombie Buffy. Come back...." Dawn began tapping her foot.

"Not Willow. Spike." She pulled the salt and pepper shakers together on the table, still frowning. After a moment, she pushed them apart.

Dawn wanted to squeal with excitement, but something was wrong. "Spike's coming home?"

"Tomorrow evening. Night. Whatever. On a plane."

Dawn's mouth tried to keep up with her thoughts and failed miserably. "I'll help Clem get things back together at Spike's place. And I can go to the butcher's too. Get blood in the fridge there and here, cause of course, he's gonna be here a lot, too. And the crypt will be clean, but Clem's got some personal stuff there that'll just make Spike barf when he sees it - even with the soul." Dawn ran out of air and thoughts at the same moment. "Wait. Hotel. You said 'hotel.'"

Buffy nodded. "He told me when he left that he wouldn't be going back to the crypt. Ever. So... not there. And not..."

"Here?" The teenager sat down deflated, as she finally homed in on the cause of Buffy's mood. "He's being all soulish and strange again, isn't he?" She took a breath and snatched up the forgotten cellophane. "All right. What's the what? Is he staying?"

Buffy started to tell Dawn it was none of her business. But she didn't. "I'm...not sure. He didn't say. He wants to talk. We're going out to dinner."

"Dinner?" The girl did squeal then. "Like a date? Oh, Buffy, we have so got to find you something cool to wear. A date? That's just so..."

"Weird," Buffy interjected. "Weird, Dawn."

"Nah. It's nice!"

"I haven't seen Spike in four months. Four months! Without getting graphic, dinner ought to be the last thing on his mind." It was the last thing on mine, she thought. Was. Past tense. She wondered if it was too late to start biting her fingernails. Smoking. Taking anti-depressants...

The vampire slayer's little sister held up two fingers in the shape of a makeshift cross. "Back, evil sex-maniac!" She giggled. "Besides, it sounds romantic."

"*It* may sound romantic, but he didn't. You didn't talk to him. He was all... distancy. Like from Mars."

"Oh, c'mon, Buffy, and that means what? You *know* Spike loves you. He got a soul because of you. You're the one being all weird."

"Oh, yeah, right. That's why I feel like I have the words, 'Dear Slayer,' tattooed across my forehead." She sighed. "I'm going back to bed. No class 'til one. See you after school."

"Sure. Later, gator," Dawn said cheerily as Buffy left the kitchen.

Dawn slid peanut butter across her waffle and took a bite.

God, her sister could be such a drama queen sometimes. She'd better be up there finding something special to wear. It was like...their first date, she figured. Which was kind of strange considering they'd been sleeping together off and on for more than a year.

She shook her head, chewing her waffle and scarfing down the juice.

Buffy and Spike were just *so* weird.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++

Spike looked at Daniel as he hung up the phone. "Well, that's it then. I'm bloody well committed now."

The younger vampire nodded solemnly, hiding his amusement. "Yes, you are. Can you get everything squared away between now and then?"

"If you keep runnin' interference, yeah." Thoughtfully, Spike looked down at the report in front of him. "And if that idiot Ralston will quit screwin' with me. Doesn't he understand anythin' about this?"

Daniel laughed shortly. "No. But you're the one with the heavy-duty back up. Not him."

Spike smirked. "Yeah. Yeah, I am." He thought back on his first interview with General Paxton.

The general had been waiting for Spike when he'd been shown in the conference room at the old Initiative facility. "God, man, sit down! You're look like you're dead on your feet!"

Spike, who had been carefully watching his feet to be certain they didn't tangle in each other, looked up with a trace of black humor, eyebrow raised.

"Well. Yeah."

Paxton had recoiled slightly and stared at the vampire. Then he had started to laugh. Uproariously, in fact. Two hours later, Spike had left the general with his life and a request for assistance: "That young soldier, the one you found, is prepared to come with us. Help sift through this mess. But even if he is a vampire, he's still a kid, a raw recruit - and he's got some 'adjusting' to do," the general had said carefully. "We'd prefer to have some help from someone a little more... experienced."

Still smiling, Spike glanced at Daniel. "You can always call him yourself. If there's a problem that you can't fix or you can't reach me. He'll listen. Lot at stake here."

"For us, yes. But for Paxton? I'm not so sure."

"Be sure. One of his officers bollixed it up. Big. Guilt is a powerful motivator, Daniel. I ought to know." Spike tapped on the pile of paper with his pen. "So. What's next?"

"Psych evals."

Spike groaned.

"Flagged a potential," Daniel informed him.

"Cut the Initiative jargon," he growled. "Don't like it." Spike scrutinized the monitor. "Well, who is it?" he asked impatiently.

"Jeffries."

"Got it." The older vampire stared at the screen for a long moment. "Can you put Zabowski up? At the same time? Do that split thing?"

"Yeah, and you could, too, if..."

"Call it job security. Keeps you from a staking out of hand, Fledge. So don't piss me off."

Daniel grinned as he exported the data to Spike's computer, already knowing exactly which charts the vampire wanted to see. He knew that Spike was very capable of running the 'split' himself. In fact, he'd caught him doing it one evening when he'd returned to the office unexpectedly after a class in the gym. The older vampire had demurred, saying that it had been an accident, but Daniel knew better. There wasn't much William the Bloody, as he'd once been called, couldn't figure out, given time, a reason, and the inclination.

Right now, he was watching for the vampire's reaction to the new information. He saw him lean back, massage the bridge of his nose, and sigh. "Another one."

"Murray calls them 'jumpers.'"

"He would," he growled angrily. Spike slammed a half-open drawer shut in a sudden display of frustration. "Gonna lose him, too."

"Not yet," Daniel said reassuringly. "But...it is headed that direction."

Looking at the younger vampire from under hooded eyes, he blew out a breath. "We're gonna lose 'em all," he said softly.

Silently, Daniel watched as Spike turned and gazed at the wall, eyes unfocused. The fledgling stayed silent, letting him think. It had served them well before.

The older vampire finally looked at Daniel. "Who's got the highest adjustment rating?"

"Marshall." Daniel didn't even have to look. "His stats are through the roof."

"Buddy 'em up. I want Jeffries so far up Marshall's ass there's talk."

Daniel nodded thoughtfully. "Might work."

"Damn well better. Or Jeffries 'offs' himself."

"Yeah," Daniel muttered.

"Yeah," Spike echoed sarcastically. "Get the shrink on the phone. I want to know why you're the one who flagged this and not him. Better yet, get his white clad ass over here. We'll give him a visual demo, since he doesn't seem to know what to look for. Don't have time to be doin' double work."

"Today? It's already six o'clock."

Spike gave Daniel a dark look.

Picking up the phone, the younger one punched an inside number and immediately began talking softly to the person on the other end.

The last four months had consisted of one crisis after another. Although the twenty-seven - twenty-six - vampires were housed in a high security facility, its very isolation had convinced Paxton to relax some of the precautions, so that they were able to move freely around the compound and interact if they so chose.

That had been the immediate problem when Paxton had arrived in Sunnydale - figuring out what to do with the Initiative-made vampires. The general had solved that one out of hand. Having just supervised the shut down on a secure experimental facility near Vale, Colorado, that had appropriate labs and living quarters housed within the compound, he was able to set the relocation up with a phone call. Within forty-eight hours, the vampires had a new home and new staff. Paxton's duties as a program auditor were the reason he'd wound up in Sunnydale in the first place.

No stranger to the black op type concerns that were sometimes masked by other programs, the general had been less shocked than most at what had gone on at the old Initiative labs. What *had* shocked him was the coercion of terminal patients, young men who were dying of leukemia, AIDS, liver failure and more, into becoming undead guinea pigs and ultimately eternal soldiers.

One hour and forty-five minutes into their interview, he had asked Spike if he would act as liaison between the programmers, doctors and scientists in a study, to try and assimilate the small group into something meaningful.

"What do you expect to find out from this 'study?'" Spike had asked with more than a trace of sarcasm.

"That's what I need you for. When you ace it, let me know. Until then, I'll fund it and take the flak from above."

"A 'study,' Spike said in distaste, turning the word over in his mouth.

"'Studies' get funded," the general explained. "A rehabilitation program for vampires? Even for ones that the US Government created? Well, that will get me laughed into a retirement home. In a straitjacket."

"Why me?" Spike's eyes had narrowed dangerously. He was tired, his head hurt and his body ached. It had only been a few hours since Riley Finn's 'study' and Spike's accidental dechipping.

The general had stared at him, undaunted and certainly unused to being questioned. Especially by a 'civilian' and a dead one at that. "Who else? You've spent the last," he looked down at a file and nodded, "four years in metamorphosis from a cold-blooded predator to a..."

"A vampire on a mission of redemption?" Spike finished sarcastically. "T'wasn't that noble. More a question of survival."

"You survive because you have a purpose. That's how most of us do. Good purpose, bad purpose. I'd like to see these boys survive. With a good purpose."

"These 'boys,' as you call them, are vampires. The term we use is 'fledglings'. It's doubtful they *can* survive. Why not stake them and be done?"

"Why didn't you stake the young soldier you found? You're the demon hunter, from all reports." The general's face reddened as he pounded a fist on the desk. "Look, we did this, and by God, we're gonna see it through!"

"See 'what' through?" Spike said heatedly, coming out of the chair and leaning across the desk. "They're dead! I'm dead! What part of 'dead' do you not understand? The 'un'-dead part? There is no place for them. Not even with other vampires. They're crippled, incomplete!"

The general had gazed coldly at the vampire until Spike sat down again, spent from his tirade. His eyes shifted to his steepled fingers, and back to the frosty blue eyes across the desk.

"Are you in?" Paxton asked levelly.

"If I was to say 'yes,' you do understand that I'm not a part of the zoo. I come and go as I please. And if you try to make me a part of it, it won't last. I've gotten out before and will again."

The general laughed. "I've never caged the zoo keeper yet. To my way of thinking, it's counter-productive. Besides, that chip's been doing a damn fine job of keeping you behind bars."

Spike blew out a breath and stared at the general angrily, choosing not to comment on his newly unchipped condition. The man met his angry gaze with one as cool as the other's was hot.

"Well?" Paxton prodded.

"Oh, bloody hell," the vampire said in frustration. "Yeah. I'm in."

Daniel's voice called Spike back to the present. "He's gone for the day. You're set up for 9 am."

The vampire looked at the younger one at the other workstation. Oh, yeah. The shrink. "What the hell am I supposed to do til then?" he complained.

"I guess pack."

Spike barked a laugh. "Pack what?"

Daniel gave Spike the once over, realizing that the other vampire had slowly adopted a working uniform of gray t-shirts and fatigue pants. Only the Doc Martens had survived - but barely. He laughed. "Well, you can't take her to dinner in that!"

Mouth falling open, Spike looked down in shock. "You're bloody right. I can't." He started toward the door, and then stopped. "What about the hair?" Spike started counting on his fingers.

"Oh, that's fine." Daniel grinned inwardly. About six weeks after they'd arrived in Colorado, Spike had come into their workspace with very short hair. All of the blond was gone. Daniel hadn't known who he was for a minute. After stammering inanely in apology, he'd set down to work with Spike on some of the mandated procedures.

A day later, Spike had come in with a head full of light, sandy-colored hair.

"Better?" he'd asked.

"Well, more Spikish anyway."

'Ah' was all Spike had said, but the younger vampire had never seen a trace of dark roots again.

Spike stared at the door, lost in thought. "I'm goin' out for a while," he said, getting up and heading out of the office. "Where's the mall?"

Daniel's mouth twisted into something faintly resembling a smile. Somehow he managed to straighten his face long enough to reply. "Which one?" he asked wickedly. At Spike's confused look, he grinned. "Beth Liles can tell you the best one."

"Beth." He turned back. "She the little mousy girl? Pulls her hair back too tight?"

"Yeah."

"Right then." Spike pulled the door open and put one foot out, stopped again, and looked over his shoulder. "Pull the trends for Jeffries from two weeks back and run 'em against the others' tests for this week."

A smile broke across Daniel's face as the simplicity of the plan hit him.

"If you don't see anything," he continued, "go back four weeks. Do it til you see somethin'."

"And I'll throw Zabowski's into the mix after."

"Yeah, good. And have 'em get me a car. Tell 'em I'll be down in ten."

"Okay," Daniel said, reaching for the phone with a chuckle. "Have fun."

+++++++++++++++++++++++++

"Okay, so tell me again. What do you have planned?" Dawn was sweeping her sword across the ground, cutting at the tips of the carefully manicured lawns of the cemetery. It was by far the nicest, and usually the least active of all of them. Very restful. Like a picnic spot, but dark and treesy.

"Well," Buffy began, "I thought we'd start our sweep here, and then move on to as many cemeteries as we can hit tonight. That way..."

"No, no. I get that. You want to have a night out without slayer's guilt," the teenager said impatiently. "I mean... when you pick Spike up at the airport."

The slayer concentrated on the surrounding grounds to gain some time. Finally, she gave up and shrugged. "I don't know."

Dawn accepted Buffy's reticence and decided changing the subject would be of the good. "So what are we looking for tonight?"

"Things that go all bumpy I guess. Lumpy bumpy and bumpy in the night. Anything that shows up on the Sunnyhell demon buffet," the slayer answered, grateful to her sister for the change of topic.

Dawn walked along beside Buffy, quietly thinking.

"So what do you think he's gonna say?"

Buffy glanced at Dawn, deciding that the key might very well have psychic powers - or maybe it was just that sister thing. She sighed.

"I don't know. I really don't. But it kind of gives me the wiggins, Dawnie, 'cause he's so different."

"Is he?"

"Oh, yeah. See, now he's got all this stuff happening. First, there was the whole 'come and help' thing, and he goes. And then, it's the 'he's helping' thing, and he's still there. He talks to me about some of the things they're doing and I kinda feel..."

"What? Dumb?" Dawn snarked.

Buffy shot her sister a sharp look. "How about 'out of the loop?'"

Nodding, Dawn thought about it. "Yeah, hard for you, huh? 'Cause you're the slayer and everyone looks to you and suddenly here's something important that he's doing, and it doesn't involve you at all."

Reaching behind Dawn, Buffy grabbed a hank of hair and tugged.

"Hey!" Dawn squealed, rubbing the back of her head, with a grin.

"Just remember, I'm still your big sister," Buffy said wickedly. "Even if you do carry the big sword."

+++++++++++++++++++++++++

They wouldn't let you go to the gate anymore. When had that happened?

Oh.

Buffy stood at the baggage claim, because she really didn't know where else to wait. She was shredding a flyer someone had given her. Someone religious. Maybe she should have read it first. She hoped it hadn't been anything important.

She was nervous. Really nervous. Which was silly, because it was just Spike. Except he hadn't seemed like 'just Spike' in a long, long time.

Their first few phone calls after he left had been...nice. His disembodied voice had rolled over her. Intimate - full of low tones and throaty chuckles. And she could really, really enjoy it. Because he couldn't see her, couldn't see what just the sound of him did to her.

He would call her and tell her what he could. About Daniel. About the others - the vampires that had basically been created in a lab, under controlled conditions. She would tell him about Dawn and what she was doing in school. And each of them would talk about what the other one was doing. How they'd spent their time: the new movie she and Dawn had rented, the new flying kick combination he'd come up with in the gym.

He never asked about Xander and she didn't bring him up.

Then he would tell her he missed her. Sometimes, she told him first.

But lately...

Lately, the calls had been shorter. She would tell him about Dawn and how she was doing in school and in their now-regular workouts and patrols. About some new demon she'd never seen before. And he'd tell her about something Daniel had done. Or about how one of the vamps had an inclination toward drawing and painting.

Suddenly, they talked about everyone but themselves. Like it hurt too much to do that. She wasn't sure when the conversations had changed, gotten shorter, gotten less personal, but they had.

She hugged herself against a sudden chill that had nothing to do with the air conditioning. She wasn't sure when it had begun to matter so much, but it did. Maybe it had mattered for a long time, and she'd been too stupid to realize it.

After Spike had left, she'd felt abandoned, yes. But being able to talk to Giles about it had helped. And little by little, she'd adjusted to his being gone. She had decided that a lot of the way she felt about him was could be loneliness. The 'lone slayer alone' thing.

Slaying, training Dawn, and a few classes at Sunny U had begun filling her time. Happily, the Doublemeat Palace had long been a thing of the past. She even got to the Bronze once every couple of weeks and danced like she had in the old days. Xander was a great one for knowing she was down and getting her out of the house, even though he had started dating again, and Buffy was once again a fifth wheel.

She swallowed hard. She was angsting out over a vampire. A vampire with a soul, Buffy corrected herself. Again, she added. Shivering, she pushed away the unwanted memories and her uncertainties about Spike's trip home.

When had she started thinking of Sunnydale as Spike's home?

"Hello, Buffy."

His voice came from behind her. How the hell did he do that anyway? She stiffened. "Hi, Spike," she answered, taking her time about turning to face him.

There was a heady silence, rich with... something. Her body whispered to her. There was a warm spot that spread from the pit of her stomach and moved through her, into her throat. She stuffed down the emotions she was feeling and finally turned to him.

She managed to paste on a bright smile, and his face seemed to fall in reply to it. Spike looked at her searchingly. "You all right, pet?"

Buffy couldn't believe it. She'd *been* just fine. And no. She wasn't all right. She would never be all right again. The second she heard his voice, saw the tenderness in his eyes, it all fell into place.

She hadn't just been lonely. Oh, no. She was in love with him. Not 'I want you, Spike.' Which was bad enough. No, this was 'I need you, Spike.' 'I'm in love with you, Spike.' 'I can't stand to be away from you, Spike.'

Now she knew for certain that she was really never going to have a normal life. Never have someone to warm her feet on. Never have the heartbeat of her lover to lull her to sleep.

Ever. As long as she lived.

She'd been waiting, she realized. Waiting for him to come back. She hadn't been on a date, hadn't even looked at anyone as potential dating material in a while, even though she hadn't really been sure if he was coming back at all.

She was sorry he was here. And sorry he'd ever gone away. She wanted him to leave and she wanted him to stay. Complicated. Why did everything have to be so complicated?

Her eyes filled with tears as she looked at his earnest face. The remnants of the shredded flyer drifted to the floor.

The vampire watched the slayer's eyes widen. He smiled ruefully.

Finally. She *saw* him. And he couldn't stay.



Rating: PG-13
Summary: Four months after Riley's death, Spike comes back to Sunnydale.
Spoilers: Post-Grave and my two fics, Voices in the Dark and Reminders. A Season 7 AU. If you haven't read them, you'll be lost as an Easter Egg. I'm just sayin...
Distribution: Just talk to me, I'm easy.
Disclaimers: All Joss, all ME, all the time...
Feedback: You beta, you beta, you bet! kimi37212@hotmail.com

Author's Notes: We are now into the third installment in an alternate Season 7 AU. Still nervous, 'kay? Any errors in continuity that may come up during the course of this fic are my own.

Thanks to the Usual Suspects. Chris, Kelly and Colleen, who always encourage me to hear the muse, and not back off when the story takes a turn I didn't expect.



Part 2

Daniel shut down the file he was working on and shook his head. Wasn't sure whether it would work, but he'd effectively 'buddied' up all the vampires that had troublesome adjustment trends with those who were doing better than average. Or whatever average was, according to the stats.

He wondered if Spike had arrived in Sunnydale, and if the slayer was glad to see him. Resisting the urge to send Dawn an email, he picked up a hard copy of the Zabowski file.

That had been a shock to him. Certainly, he'd seen the manner in which the vampire isolated himself, but suicide had never entered his mind.

Probably because suicide had never entered Daniel's mind.

There had been a period of euphoria for nearly all of the vampires, as they were effectively 'let out of their cages' at the new facility. Although security was very, very tight, if covert, there hadn't been any problems at all between the vamps and the humans who ministered to them. Other than a few hot tempered moments during the psych evaluations.

The euphoria also had to do with their delayed reaction to the fact that they were not going to die - at least, not of the disease or condition that had brought them to the attention of the Initiative. Most of them had not had the opportunity to even think about that part of the change. Suddenly, they had the luxury.

Daniel shook his head as he looked at the charts on screen. *Everyone* hated the psychological evaluations, including him. As a young fledgling, even he hadn't escaped the probing of the psychologists. Hadn't seen his own reports, but Spike had told him chuckling that he was the best adjusted of the lot. Seemed to take a certain amount of credit for it, too. Daniel was more inclined to think that Clem was the key to it.

Clem - and Daniel's email correspondence with another Key. A vibrant sixteen year old girl with flashing eyes.

He knew it was wrong, but Dawn's emails kept him from feeling so alone. She had a lot to say about normal things - her teachers and her friends. Things he was forever separated from now. And she had plenty to say about other things, too - like the demons she and Buffy encountered on patrol. On top of that, she was intimately aware of what Daniel was going through. After all, she'd been watching Spike deal for years.

Sometimes he felt guilty about sending that first message. The addy had been lying on the older vampire's keyboard, as if it was a reminder of a letter he needed to write. An addy that hadn't been hard to remember, even three days later.

Daniel thought that that was probably a vampire thing. Or it could be a guy thing. All of that was mashed together now in his head.

He brought up his email and started typing.

+++++++++++++++++++++

An epiphany in an airport. Typical. Never the right place or the right time. Buffy tore her eyes away from Spike's, keenly aware that she needed some distance. And quickly. Clearing her throat, she stalled for time, knees shaking and heart pounding away in her chest. She realized, in retrospect, that the throat clearing may have sounded suspiciously like 'choking'.

Eyes darting toward the exit, and wondering how fast slayer-speed could get her there, she carefully avoided his eyes, saying something inane about baggage and the car outside and.... Instead of talking to his face, she found herself staring at his feet.

Which were so not his, she realized. Absently, unthinking, she gazed at the dark brown boots and upward to a pair of charcoal gray khakis. And on to a bulky turtleneck under a navy pea coat. The strap over his shoulder held a flat bag nestled under one arm.

Which took her back to his face. Where she so didn't want to be. And his hair, which she hadn't consciously noticed. Sandy blond all over and cut fairly short. With curls. Well, short curls. Waves maybe?

An odd look passed over his face at her scrutiny. "What?" he asked indignantly. "Oh," he answered his own question, looking down at his clothes. "Wardrobe shift. Hello?" he said defensively, an embarrassed look on his face. "Colorado?"

Her surprised expression had morphed into that knowing look that made him want to throw himself at her feet and beg forgiveness.

"I went...shopping! All right? Ended up at a bloody mall!"

She continued to stare at him.

"A bleedin' Banana Republic. Because, sod it all, no one has decent pants in a twenty-eight! And I thought..."

She giggled at his discomfiture, the ice broken into a million pieces. "Oh, Spike... And your hair is all light again."

He reached up and touched it self-consciously. "Well. Yeah. No Nibblet, so... nothing too creative, you know."

She nodded. "New clothes, new hair..."

"Guess I was afraid you wouldn't get it." He chuckled at being caught out.

Her eyes sparkled. "Oh, I get it all right." Her eyes narrowed. "Wait a minute. You *shopped*?"

"Couldn't very well do dinner in t-shirt and jeans." Discomfort flitted across his face. "Yeah. I shopped. In Vale. All the pants were too bloody big except at this one..."

"Right. You said that," she said, with a smug grin.

"Yeah," he said, relieved at the finality in her voice.

She looked down at her own clothes and sighed. "Well, I guess I better go home and change if we're going to be seen together."

"You look..."

"Fine?" She laughed wryly. "Not really. Can't have the vampire showing me up at dinner. Slayer? Remember? Reputation? That stuff."

"Right then," he said with a nod. "Keys." He held out his hand.

"I can drive," she said with a thrust of her stubborn chin.

"No, Buffy, you bloody cannot. Give me the sodding keys and let's get out of here before security notices my lack of pigmentation."

The vampire slayer looked down at his bag, lying at his feet. The same army green duffle. As she watched, it came up off the tile. She glanced up to see him settle it onto his shoulder. Just like any other guy who had come home for a visit.

She knew it then. "You're not staying, are you?" It was almost a statement of fact.

He let out a slow breath. "Let's not do this here."

++++++++++++++++++++++

As he walked her to the car, he remembered the last time he had seen her in the flesh. Four months ago when she had come to his crypt to let him know about the stipend the Council had approved to take care of Buffy and the Bit.

She had found him packing to go with Daniel. Finally, after much argument, she understood. At least she said she did. Spike thought she did.

He had told her approvingly, "That's my girl," and that time it hadn't rankled. She had risen on her tiptoes and slipped her arms around his neck, pushing her head against his shoulder. "If you have to do this, go away like this, I can wait," she had said softly.

"Don't want you to wait," he said gruffly, arms lightly going around her back. "Things'll be better now. The Watcher's made sure of it. Money comin' in - real money, not a pittance. And the Little Bit...." He pushed her back so that he could catch her eyes. "Pet, you have to deal with her and her bloody key-ness. She popped the locks all over that place. Played hell with the security codes. Christ, Buffy, what else could she do?"

She stiffly smoothed her shirt down. "I could have used some help with that, you know," she said softly. It was a gentle accusation.

He sighed. God forbid she'd make this easy on him. Didn't she know what it was costing him to leave? "Call Giles. The bloody council is better set for this sort of thing anyway."

Buffy's temper flared. "I don't trust them where Dawn's concerned. You know that!"

Frustration colored his next biting words. "Your little circle's gettin' a bit restricted, pet. Time to let someone else into the inner."

"Oh, really? Well, I let Riley in and you see where that got us!"

"Ian Browne is not some callow over-achieving boy. And I'm a damn good judge of people. For the most part. But of course, the man's not a Scooby, so..."

"Well, you're not..."

"No, I'm not." His words had a certain finality about them. "Look around you," he said, indicating the crypt. "This is what I am."

"Oh, I'm looking. I'm looking at what's right in front of me. I know you have to go. I get that. Well, kind of. And I do trust you to do what you think is..."

He laughed bitterly. "Buffy! *I* don't even trust me! That's what this is all about. And I'd be bloody devastated if you weren't sad about it," he said. "Be hurtin' more than I already do if..."

"What, and I don't hurt?"

It was a cry of desperation, for recognition of her aloneness. It almost broke his heart. But he needed to be strong for her, finish packing his things, as much as he needed to affirm her words.

Love's bitch. It was still the way of things. He put his arms around her and pulled her close. "You know I'm not runnin' out on you, right, pet?"

She was silent, but the stiffness had begun to leave her limbs. Beginning to surrender her soft arms, he caught himself and took a deep breath, already regretting the words he was going to say.

"Do you trust me?"

He deliberately mirrored a tone from an earlier time - it felt like a lifetime ago.

She pushed away from him, spots of color slamming into her cheeks. Then, images slammed into her brain. Four years worth of images. As suddenly as it had reddened, her face went white.

"Ah," he said apologetically, sorry for having been cruel. "I don't either. Need some time here, love. Rupert will help with the Little Bit."

Her chin quivered. It made him ill to see her hurting.

"Buffy, I love you too much to stay."

And now, he was back. Spike made a mental note to kiss the watcher for having smoothed away the financial problems. There was an easiness in her that had been missing since her mother had died.

He walked out into the parking garage and followed her to Xander's car.

She grudgingly put the keys in his hand.

"Now, pet, you know I've been driving since before you were born," he said in reproof.

"Oh, yeah," she said in a long-suffering voice. "Keep reminding me."

+++++++++++++++++++++++++

"Oh. My. God! Did you look at him?"

Dawn was squealing. In a whisper. Which seemed impossible.

She'd thrown herself at Spike when he'd walked in the door. Luckily, he had been prepared to catch her. It was very different from his reception from her when he had returned from Africa. And Dawn was flying high, practically fainting over Spike's hair, Spike's clothes, Spike...

"Buffy?"

"Uh huh." When her sister had slammed into the bedroom, she'd found Buffy deliberately flipping through her closet. Which had much yummier things than it had during her Doublemeat days, but nothing that seemed to be jumping out at her.

"Buffy!" More squeals and bouncing that looked suspiciously like bunny hops, or the demon they'd killed last week. She couldn't believe how calm Buffy was.

The slayer slowly turned and looked at her sister. "Yes. I agree," she said levelly. "He's totally hot, okay?"

It wasn't the response Dawn wanted. "But Buffy, he's back! And he's like, so..."

"Different? God, I'm sick of that word. Sick. Of. It." Buffy sat down on the bed and stared at Dawn. "And don't get too attached. He's not some puppy you can keep. You know he's not staying, right?" she said coolly.

Her sister's eyes widened. "Did he say that?"

"No... but I can tell."

"Oh, right." Dawn's voice dripped with sarcasm. "Cause you're *so* intuitive. Empathy Girl, that's you." Dawn went to the closet and pulled out the dress she'd located earlier in the day, knowing that it would probably come down to the wire on dinner dressage. "Here," she commanded. "And the strappies..." The teenager easily rescued the sandals from the top of the closet.

"Dawn, I don't..."

The teenager said smugly, "Hey, if you're gettin' the kiss off, look good!" As Buffy winced, Dawn threw her arms around her sister's neck. "I don't think this is what you think," she said conspiratorially. "At all."

The slayer looked into Dawn's eyes.

The girl smiled reassuringly. "Okay? All set? Because I'm going down to play catch-up with Spike. Oh, and spending the night at Janice's, so..." Dawn let the sentence trail off suggestively.

"Dawn..." Buffy said warningly.

"Don't have to feel like you have to hurry home," Dawn said quickly, heading off Buffy's disapproval. Then wickedly decided to push it. "Or come home at all. Or worry about who you bring home."

"Dawn! Besides, it's not going to be like that."

"Right," Dawn said knowingly. "Never happen. Of course not. You and Spike? Ridiculous!" She flounced to the door. "Well? Hurry up! It's been months! Aren't you even curious about what he's been doing?"

Buffy picked the dress up off the bed and looked at her sister. "Go entertain the ex-Big Bad. Just give me twenty minutes."

"Take an hour. I need my Spike fix."

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Buffy looked at her hair, gave her eyelashes a final tug of mascara, and made a face at herself in the mirror. Okay, not perfect, but he wouldn't show her up too much.

She could hear Dawn's laughter float up the stairs as she left her bedroom. Buffy stopped and just listened for a moment, at the teasing sound in her sister's voice, the mischeivous banter that characterized his. She shook her head. Spike and Dawn had always had something magical, even if she did hate to admit it. With her, he became all easy, but protective. Big Brother Spike.

It wasn't that it made her jealous, but it did make her long for an easier relationship between her and Dawn. Those two had a real relationship with lots of levels. Pretty much all of them good, even when they were snarking back and forth at each other like siblings.

Her stomach fluttered, and her hand involuntarily cupped it, trying to contain it. Oh, no! Not butterflies. Not over Spike! She stuffed them back in their cocoons until later and took a deep breath.

Spike looked up as she walked down the steps and smiled. There was something about a woman with brown legs and shoulders in a black dress and heels, he thought admiringly. Especially Buffy Summers. She was like a cat on coals right now. He could see it in her stiff shoulders. "So then. You're ready," he commented, in a matter of fact tone.

Dawn spun around, mouth open, and punched Spike in the arm. "Hey! Compliments are welcome. Even encouraged!"

Ignoring the Bit, he opened the front door for Buffy. Then, remembering an earlier rejection, he smirked. "Dunno about this," he said wickedly. "Last time I opened a door for you, it didn't go over well."

"Can it, Spike," she growled, wishing she could just drop pesticide on the damn butterflies that were making her queasy. "Just start the car." Buffy cast a threatening eye at him as she sailed past and into the cool California evening.

Spike looked at Dawn. "See? Better left unsaid." He winked as he shut the door.

Catching up to Buffy near the car, he reached for the handle of the car door and looked at her questioningly. She stopped and sighed in frustration.

"Are you going to do this all night? Make with the snarkiness?" She looked at him suspiciously, putting her hands on her hips. "Are you going to do this at the restaurant?"

"Might," he admitted.

"Okay, that's it," she said, turning to walk back in the house.

He laughed at her, a low chuckle that stopped her in her tracks.

"God, I missed you, Slayer."

She shivered, with a chill that started between her shoulders and ran down past her knees. Slowly, she turned and walked back toward the open car door, chewing her bottom lip as she climbed inside. Spike shut it behind her and walked around the front, never taking his eyes off her.

"Now," he said, getting in and starting the car. "Dinner."

+++++++++++++++++++++++++

They drove to the Sunnydale Inn, where Spike, not so coincidentally, was also staying. He told her that the small dining room in the Inn reminded him of a bed and breakfast in Maine.

"And you would know this...how?" she asked as he brought the car to a stop in the parking lot.

He put the car in 'park.' "Which thing?"

"What?" she asked, confused.

"How I know the dining room looks like a bed and breakfast in Maine, or how I know what the dining room in a bed and breakfast in Maine looks like?"

She couldn't help it. Smiling, she laughed. "Okay, either thing."

He laughed then, too. But it was more of a self-deprecating rumble in his throat. "Well," he said candidly, "you know how I am about food. Not very vampire-like I know, but there it is. Anyway, had lobster in New York, right? Decided I had to try Maine lobster." He shrugged. "So I did."

"Why do I get the feeling that this is not the be all and end all of the story?" she said, shooting him a narrow look that was visible even in the dimly lit parking lot.

"But it is. All I'm saying and all you're getting. No true confessions tonight, except the ones that count. No past imperfect. Done with it." He reached beside him and flicked open the door. Determined to head him off, she quickly opened the passenger side door and got out. He grinned at her with a knowing look on his face.

Once inside, Spike talked quietly to the maitre d', a short man with a swelling paunch. He bowed slightly and indicated that they should follow.

The small table was made up in all white and plain crystal: white tablecloth and napkins, single white rose, clear votive holder complete with lit candle, and sparkling water goblets. Buffy couldn't remember the last time she'd been out to a nice dinner in a quiet pretty place.

"May I get your chair?" Spike's solicitous question barely masked his lightly sarcastic tone. She nodded curtly, grim set to her lips.

Chuckling wickedly, he pulled the chair out and waited patiently for her to sit down. He expertly maneuvered her into place and took the seat across from her. "Again, thought it'd be better to ask than risk a nose bleed," he said impishly. She sensed an edge to his words.

"What is this? Why do I feel like I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop and kick me in the ass?" she complained.

There was an odd flash of bitterness that flitted across his face, which was immediately replaced with a smile. "Paranoia?" he suggested archly. He sighed and looked at the waiter, who was hovering at his shoulder. "Have a glass of wine and relax. I am." Spike gestured and the waiter nodded, moving quickly away. "This is dinner. *Just* dinner."

"Like we've done it so often..." she groused.

"Hey. Might've, if you'd ever allowed yourself to be seen with me outside of a graveyard."

She snapped her mouth shut, looked down, and felt her cheeks grow hot. In the silence that followed, Buffy decided that this was going all wrong and she didn't know why. Glasses moved and clinked at the edges of her vision. The waiter moved away.

Spike sighed. "I'm sorry for what I said. That's not why I'm here. It's just that you... Oh, bloody hell."

"You're not coming back, are you?" she said flatly, looking for the answer in his eyes.

He avoided giving it to her. "I'd think a nice dinner might buy your ear, Slayer. Or at least rent it for an hour. On neutral ground."

She kept her face blank, but he saw the tenseness in her shoulders.

Picking up the wine, he took a drink, using the time to gather his thoughts. This wasn't at all how he'd planned it, so the carefully prepared speech went out the window, along with any tactfulness or diplomacy he'd summoned up.

He put down the glass and blew out a breath, leaning forward in his chair. "Okay, here it is then. No candy, no hearts and roses, no beatin' around the bloody bush. You want it straight, yeah? No pretty words or flowery build up to the climax, right?"

"Straight is good," she said through gritted teeth, face reddening all over again.

"M'doin' well, Slayer. Got a point - a purpose - now. Once I thought you were my sole reason for not takin' a walk in the sunshine. Found out I was wrong."

Buffy looked down as a menu appeared in front of her. She heard Spike draw an impatient breath. "Give us some time," he said curtly. "Not sure I'm stayin'."

Her eyes flew to his, reaching absently for her wine, to cover her confusion, as the waiter moved off.

"Oh. That got your attention, dinnit?" he said drily. "Well, I'm *not* stayin'. Not now. Can't. Got responsibilities. Two days. That's all I've got."

At a loss for words, she stared at him. So not what she expected, and yet it was. And not 'won't'. 'Can't.'

His eyes were steady as he looked at her. His arch tone was replaced with a wistful one.

"Yeah, I'm doin' well," he continued softly. "And it's not something I want to give up. I don't *have* to come back here. Got plenty to keep me occupied in Vale." He leaned closer, capturing her in a gaze that made her heart quicken. "The only thing I *don't* have is you," he said in a low voice that made her shiver.

For a long moment, there was no one in the room but the two of them. Of all the things he'd ever said, in all the ways he'd ever said it, this was the one she'd remember best: the look on his face, the flicker of the candle, the way she could feel herself falling into his intense eyes.

Finally he leaned back a little, breaking away from her soft gaze and trying to recapture the thread. "Well," he said, with a self-conscious laugh.

Buffy swallowed and looked down quickly, almost embarrassed.

"That said," he continued, "I've got a proposition for you."

She looked up from the forgotten menu to examine his face. Her steady gaze made him lose his nerve. So much was riding on this.

"Dinner first, all right?" he said, willing to postpone it for awhile if she would. "Eat. Relax. Tell me about the Bit, Harris, the Watcher. Then we talk."



Rating: PG-13
Summary: Now complete. Four months after Riley's death, Spike comes back to Sunnydale.
Spoilers: Post-Grave and my two fics, Voices in the Dark and Reminders. A Season 7 AU.
Distribution: Just talk to me, I'm easy.
Disclaimers: All Joss, all ME, all the time...
Feedback: You beta, you beta, you bet! kimi37212@hotmail.com

Author's Notes: Final chapter of the third installment in an alternate Season 7 AU. Any errors in continuity that may come up during the course of this fic are my own.

Ladies, this one's for you! Thanks to the Usual Suspects: Chris, for being a damn good sport and a grand slam beta; Kelly, who always gets it and stirs things up some more; and Colleen, who gives me excellent fic and great beta. And thanks to everyone who fed the muse! God, demanding little thing that he/she is!



Part 3

Spike leaned back in the comfortably padded chair in the hotel dining room, watching Buffy talk about the class she was taking at Sunnydale U. She'd deferred the serious conversation about his 'proposition' in good grace, which was damn lucky for him, because once again he was at a loss as to how to start.

One thing about it though. Two glasses of table wine and the slayer was positively bubbling with good humor. Something to remember. He had carefully eased the bottle of wine to his side of the table, remembering that a drunk slayer is a sick slayer. And that his boots *were* new.

"Of course, Giles is so thrilled," she continued. "Higher Education Buffy is back. No more slinging burgers, no more stinky hair. Didn't you think my hair smelled?" she asked, disingenuously. "You never said so."

A question. Which meant he needed to answer. Unfortunately, he'd been looking at Buffy and not necessarily *listening* to Buffy. Oh, there it was. Doublemeat hair. He smiled.

"Well, love, that's an occupational hazard, right? You've got 'em in slayin'. How many pairs of leather pants have you ruined in a fight? The Palace? Hazardous duty of the smelly hair kind. Never minded that part. Minded the damn job."

She sighed. "I know you did. Minded it. The job, I mean. But no more Doublemeat..." She leaned forward. "Hey, did I tell you about Dawn's run in with the Fyarl demon?"

Sitting up abruptly, Spike frowned. "Bit took on a Fyarl?"

"Gee, Spike, she didn't just charge out there to filet him with her sword..." Buffy stopped. "Well, actually she did. But that wasn't the deal. And anyway, I had that cute little knife with me. You know, the silver one I carry in my boot? So I took him out. But not before he doused Dawn's shoes!"

Spike's nose wrinkled. The mucous of the Fyarl demon became a hardened glob as it cooled. "And the Nibblet ended up with a pair of cement overshoes," he said in amusement.

"Huh?" She looked confused.

"Never mind," the vampire grinned. "Just that pesky age difference again."

"You should have seen Giles," she went on. "He had a mallet and chisel, chipping away. And that was just so we could get her feet out. The shoes were definitely dumpster worthy."

Spike laughed. "God, you gotta love Rupert. I can just see him when you showed up at the door. Did he clean his glasses?"

"Wasn't wearing any. It was four a.m. Had on the craziest pajama bottoms, though. I think it embarrassed him. He kept saying they were a gift and nothing else was clean."

Spike laughed, for the moment perfectly relaxed. "The Watcher isn't such a tight ass as you might think, Slayer. Had a couple of drinkin' bouts with him the summer you were gone. Pitiful heaps we were, too. But once he got wound up..."

"Whoa. Rewind. You got drunk with Giles? My watcher?"

"Well, yeah, I did. Lot of things happened while you were gone. And it was quite educational. First, his tolerance for alcohol - quite impressive that. Raised my estimation of the shop-keeper mightily."

Buffy closed her eyes, trying to dispel the image of Spike and Giles drunk and hanging on each others' shoulders. It didn't work.

"And the way he mourns a loss. Almost Irish. Music. Booze. Cigarette smoke. Lots of soul searchin'. Not that I had a soul to search. Not back then." Spike frowned. "Don't know if he ever really forgave me for seein' him like that," he mused. He stared at the empty glass, reached over and poured himself another glass of wine. Finally, he looked at Buffy, an amused glint reappearing in his eye. "Know for a fact he never forgave me for gettin' him hooked on 'Passions.'"

Deciding that she really didn't want to know any more than she already did, Buffy cast around for a different subject. "Oh! And Clem is good! Wants you to come by. Might even come see you here, if he can slip in. He still sits with Dawn sometimes, not that she really needs it. They're really just video buddies. Business has really taken off."

"Yeah, partnerin' up with him was smart," Spike said, relieved that they'd headed off any broody discussions. He pulled out his thick wallet expansively. "See? Flush. ATM card, too. Which is almost more than my ex-Big Bad heart can take," he said shrugging with a self-deprecating grin.

"No more stealing?"

"Nah. Nickin' days are over. Lessen I have to for God and country," he said flippantly. "Don't need much money anyway." He pulled out some bills for the dinner cheque and laid them on the table.

"Hey!" With Slayer reflexes, she grabbed the wallet out of his hand. "What's this? Pictures?" She flipped it open and saw an ATM card and a picture I.D. "You have identification now?" She realized that it was a military card. She stared. "That's you."

"Yeah." Extremely uncomfortable, Spike reached across the table for the wallet.

"No," she said. "Wait." His hand dropped to the table as she scrutinized the picture.

"You're like... all legal now. Like a..."

"Person? Not really." He shrugged. "Still a vampire here. Just a blood sucker with fake papers, a social security number and a vague title.

"A title?" She squinted, trying to find words in all the numbers. "Oh. Vale Project Liaison?"

"Government approved. And sufficiently vague," he said reaching for the wallet again.

"Hold it!" She pushed his hand away. "This doesn't say 'William.'"

Spike sat back, resigned. "Well, no. It's a kind of joke. Bad enough anyone knows the William part of 'William the Bloody'. Needed to get a new name sooner, like the Poof did. I'm not givin' anybody my real name." He nodded at the wallet. "But now I'm stuck with that one, y'see."

She looked up, shoulders shaking with laughter. "Oh, Spike," she gasped. "This is so you! Randall S. Giles? Randy Giles?" She looked at him with eyes brimming with warmth. "'Why not be Horny Giles, or...'"

He rolled his eyes. "'Or Desperate for a Shag Giles?' Okay, Slayer. Fun's up. Give over," he said as he easily recaptured his wallet.

She had willingly surrendered it, weak with giggles. A fresh onslaught of laughter left her with her head lying on the table beside the plate. She cut her eyes over at him and slowly raised her head. "Oh, God, this is great. I haven't laughed that hard since... Well, since before you went to Vale. Thank you, thank you, for the laughy goodness!" Another thought popped into her head. "Wait. You have a code name, don't you?"

"What?" he said innocently.

"A code name. You know, like a call sign? Hey, I saw Top Gun!" she fired back at his amused look. "A code name for...well, coded ...stuff. Communications." She laughed. "Riley had a stupid one. Lilac. But since you're like military vampire guy..."

"Am not," he said indignantly, stung.

"Oh, yes," she said mischievously. "Yes, you are. So. Do you?"

Spike sat silent, looking at her with an upraised brow.

"Well, do you? And is it stupid?"

"Is what stupid?"

"Stop being all avoidy. Now I *know* you have one."

He blew out a breath, steeling himself for the discussion. "Yeah, I do."

"And it is? C'mon, Spike, I'd tell you! Like pulling fangs here," she said playfully, smelling blood. "Give."

"Shepherd."

She sobered immediately. "What?"

"Shepherd." He leaned forward. "You know what a shepherd is, right, Buffy? Watches over the lambs? Helps them get safely where they're goin'?" She stared at him as he broke eye contact and chuckled wryly. "Not all Grrr!Military Vampire here, much as the thought might amuse you."

He leaned forward again, capturing her eyes in an earnest gaze. "I told you I was goin' to look after Daniel's best interests," he said quietly. "I'm doin' that. And it's in his best interests that the others are taken care of, too. So that's what I do. I fight the red tape and the rigid military mindset and take care of them. Make sure they don't get messed with or shoved off in a hole somewhere to starve."

"Shepherd," she repeated. The word came out in a whisper.

Spike's eyes broke away and found his wine glass. "I think it's about time for that proposition now," he said, draining it.

"Here?" she squeaked, looking around the nearly deserted dining room.

"Why not? But first, Riley Finn."

+++++++++++++

Daniel popped into the gym and found Marshall working out with Jeffries. "New moves?" he asked, interested.

Marshall laughed. "Probably ancient. Saw Shepherd doing this yesterday. Thought I'd try it. Jeffries is helping out. Making sure I don't find a piece of wood to land on."

Daniel looked around at the spotless gym, made up almost wholly of plastic and steel. "Right," he laughed.

"We might get it some time this decade," Marshall explained. "It's a little complicated."

Sitting down on a weight bench, Daniel nodded knowingly. "Yeah. But remember, he's had over a hundred years to perfect it. It's his street fighting that interests me. I was Golden Gloves in high school. Did a little college boxing, so..."

Jeffries perked up. "Really? Haven't seen any of the street stuff yet," he commented, interested in spite of himself.

"Definitely not in the manual. Not exactly government approved." Daniel rubbed his chin in remembrance. "But it gets the job done." He grinned. "Stomped me into the ground, right here, late one night. And I've got inches and pounds on him."

"Man, I'd like to see that," Jeffries said wistfully.

Daniel laughed. "Well, I did pick up a couple of things. Again, not even close to government approved. And he can show you better, but..."

"No one's around. And we won't be tryin' 'em out in gym or anything," Jeffries said slowly.

"Right," Marshall concurred, looking at the eager look that was slowly beginning to color Jeffries' expression.

Daniel smiled. Looking at Jeffries now, it was hard to see the beginnings of the downward spiral that had lost them Zabowski, but the evals were clear.

"So suit up." Daniel waited, grimacing at their confusion. "That means gameface, okay?"

Shepherd's second in command settled in for a good long bout.

++++++++++++++++

Spike poured himself another glass of wine, and kept his eyes on the glass. "Right then. As you know, not feelin' very comfortable about myself when I left."

The slayer stirred uncomfortably in her seat. "Well, you made a wish and it went..."

"I made a wish and it went right," he interjected, making certain she didn't misunderstand. "Exactly like I wished it. No more Finn. And dead by Drusilla's hand. Literally."

He waved a hand impatiently before she had a chance to speak again. "Now. Had some problems with that. Thought the soul would take care of the evil thoughts. But no. Just lets me know that they *are* evil. Already had a pretty good grasp of *that* anyway. Can still act on 'em. Now, without the chip, could drain that maitre d' like a hose siphoning gasoline out of Harris' car," he said, peering over Buffy's shoulder. "Won't, but could."

Staring at him, Buffy picked up her water goblet and drank.

"Thing is," he continued, "Riley Finn stepped over more than one line. And in more ways than just the ones you know about, Buffy," he said, with a distant look in his eyes. He refocused on her. "So believe me when I say that after four months of," and he laughed ruefully, "soul searching, I'm not sorry I did it. Bugs like that should be squashed, not put away in a cell somewhere, where they can slip out through a crack in the wall."

Looking down, Buffy focused on the napkin in her lap, so that she could think about what he'd said. Finally, she looked back up. "Okay."

His eyes widened. "Okay? Did you just say 'okay'? That's your only comment?" He shook his head. "I cannot believe you, Summers. I've been eatin' myself up over this and..."

Her temper flared. "What do you want me to say? You tell me that you had other reasons besides the ones *I* know for what you did. You won't tell me what they are. You just play Mr. Mysterious Guy about it." She let her anger out in a shaky breath. "Either I trust you or I don't," she said honestly. "I trust you."

Spike's eyes filled with tears. Blinking furiously and looking everywhere but at her, he grabbed the wine bottle. "Bloody hell, Buffy," he said hoarsely.

She reached across the table and took the wine from him, setting it off to the side as she tried to capture his eyes. "Now, about that proposition you've got for me..."

++++++++++++++++

Dawn quietly slipped in the front door of the house on Revello Drive. She stood still and listened. "Buffy?" she whispered. In a moment, in a more normal tone, she again said, "Buffy?" Still not satisfied, she bellowed at the top of her lungs, feet stomping in time with the drawn out syllables. "Bu-ff-fy!"

"Cool!" the teenager exclaimed. "She's still gone!"

Dawn's friend Janice peered around the door. "You sure? Sure she's not here?" At Dawn's nod, she set foot inside the house, looking a little braver, and abandoning the hushed voice for something approaching Janice-Normal. "Cause your sister hates my guts!"

"Buffy doesn't even hate her ex-boyfriends," Dawn countered.

"Nope," Janice muttered. "Just me."

Dawn started up the stairs. "Laptop's in my room. C'mon." She stopped, sensing that Janice was hanging back. "S'okay. She's gonna be late." The girl giggled. "She has a date."

"*Buffy* has a date? You're messin' with me, right? Cause she is like... old."

"She's not so totally old. Just acts like it," Dawn said condescendingly. "Hurry up. We'll check my mail, then sneak back in your house. Very uncool to get caught out on a school night."

"Well, duh. You're the one who had to check your stupid mail!"

"And you're the one who has the Internet Dad, who will be online for just days!" Dawn shot back. She disappeared up the stairs.

Janice took a long look around, then ran to catch up, thudding up the steps in her tall stacks.

She found Dawn logging on, and threw herself across the bed. "So," she said in a deceptively disinterested voice, "this is like 'guy' mail?"

Giggling, the girl's hand moved the mouse into point and click heaven. "Yep. 'Male' mail." She turned quickly to look at Janice. "But not in a boyfriend kind of way. Just a guy who helped me once." Her fingers busily coaxed the computer closer and closer to her email screen.

"Yep," she continued. "'Friend' mail. Who just happens to be... a guy. We stay in touch, and he... Oh! Cool!"

Dawn moved the mouse some more, and clicked on her message. "Willow's laptop is very fast. Like turbo..." Her voice trailed off as she scanned the words on the screen. A shrill cry flew from her lips. "Oh. My. God! Omigod! Omigod!"

"What?" Janice said eagerly, disinterest abandoned for the moment.

Dawn's head turned toward Janice, hair swinging. "Cool beans! He... Um, just cool! Cool, cool beans! Like beanie weenie cool!"

"Really?"

"Oh, yeah." The teen's smile faded slightly as she reread the screen. "That is, if my sister doesn't screw it up," she mumbled.

Janice rolled her eyes and onto her back to stare at the ceiling. "Oh, well, so much for that."

+++++++++++++++++++++

Spike took a deep breath, pushed it out, and began. "Wasn't thinkin' straight when I left here, right? Haven't rested in four months. S'been good for the program, of course, but not so good for me. And when I do pass out, the last thing I think about is you. "

Uneasily, Buffy looked around the restaurant. "Spike, I don't know if..."

"If this is the right place for this?" he finished. "Good a place as any, pet," he said, resigned. "Prob'ly won't take long anyway," he muttered, swallowing hard. "Here's the thing. Got... baggage now."

"Baggage," she said flatly, eyebrows raised.

"Yeah. Twenty-six vampires and Daniel, nineteen support techs and shrinks. That's all the time. Sometimes there's extra. So, yeah. Baggage."

"What are you saying?" So he wasn't coming back. After everything, he wasn't coming back.

"You can't leave the Hellmouth, Buffy. I know that." He leaned forward, trying to capture her eyes in his, willing her to understand what he was saying so poorly. "But I can move the whole lot of 'em here."

He paused as her eyes went wide, then rushed on before she had a chance to cut him off. "Talked to Paxton. Been working up the proposal for a month now. Take two months to refit the old Initiative facility. Wipe away some of the bad there, try to make some good. I can train 'em up, Buffy. It'll give 'em a purpose. Give you some help. Get me home. Where you are."

He hurried along faster. "Been workin' with a few of the vamps already. And Daniel, of course. We can help, Slayer," he said earnestly. "Fight the good fight. Just say the word and we're here." He reached for Buffy's hand, but didn't complete the gesture, hand falling palm up on the table.

Breaking away from her startled stare, he steeled himself for her reaction. "Now," he said, looking down at his hand. "You can just tell me to bugger off." He bravely raised his eyes to her. "Been expectin' it really. Know it feels like I ran out on you. And I did, I reckon. You've got your Scoobies. S'Not like you can't handle yourself. You're the slayer - a damn good one, too. Hell, I should know. It's just..." His voice trailed off as he realized he was rambling. His mouth closed with a snap.

"Let me get this straight. You want to come home. And bring twenty-six vampires with you," she said flatly.

"And Daniel," he amended.

"Move into the Initiative headquarters," she continued, "and play task force. Fight the good fight. Help the helpless."

"God, Buffy, you make it sound like a bleedin' comic book." He shook his head. "Bugger it. I knew this wouldn't work." Getting up, he looked at the money on the table, picked it up, counted it, threw it back down. "I...I'll just go."

"Two days?"

He stopped and stared at her, dropping back in his seat. "What?"

"You've got a two day leave?"

"Not a leave," he said bristling. "M'Not army. But, yeah. Two days."

"But you can be back here in two months, right?" she prodded. "You can pull that off? Get everything done and be back here in two months? With the... baggage?"

"Well. Yeah. Give or take. But..."

"You know," Buffy complained, "for some reason guys always seem to leave. Is it me? The slayerness? I don't know." She looked up at him, at his slack jaw and wide eyes. "But you? You leave, but at least you always come back." Eyes glittering wickedly at the hope in his eyes, she leaned back in her chair, chewing her lip, determined to make him twist a little. "Two days, huh?" She nodded slowly. "I think I can be persuaded in two days."


The End