All About Spike - Print Version
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Affinity
By Ginmar

Chapter 1

Ah. Adulthood.

Buffy wearily waved goodbye and adieu to the last of her coworkers and decided that she was going to be a little bit less conscientious next time. Sure, she got the nifty badge that said ‘Assistant Manager,’ but she also got stuck doing the closing, because she was so damned good at it.

After the hectic days, the silence of the restaurant was peaceful….for a few minutes. Then she noticed how loud the fridge was when she banged the door shut. Then she noticed the sounds and smells coming in through the drive through window. Then she noticed resentful thoughts she had been too busy and too tired to feel before hand. Such as, why am I stuck working my behind off? And then she would go out and slay….till she was so tired she would collapse into bed and not think.

Not thinking was definitely good. Not remembering was even better. She found tops to containers, labeled and dated them, carried them to the fridge and slammed the door shut. The sound seemed to reverberate in the little restaurant. She grabbed the green scrubbies and went to work on the baked-on gunk in the microwave, which looked so much like demon innards that she paused and sniffed at the sponge thoughtfully. Nope, not demon innards. American cheese. Big diff.

She was going to be so tired tonight. She knew she was going to tumble into bed, and then there would be no thoughts…..She kept coming back to the notion of….it. Him. That. During it, of course, there’d been no thought, except for a conscious effort to breathe. But then….how could she not be embarrassed?

Uh. Bad thoughts. Bad thoughts brought back to mind the certainty she’d had all day the day after, that while he….he….had turned out to be way more than she expected, she herself had somehow turned out to be less. She wondered if she would ever be able to think about..it…without cringing. “Very mature, Buffy”.

She hauled another armload of containers to the fridge and then gave the door and satisfying bang. It was so humid in the kitchen area, where there were no windows at all, despite the fact that it was the area most likely to need them in the whole restaurant. She sighed, turned, around, and then went to the drive through. Just for a minute. She needed the air. She was distinctly aware of how flushed her face felt, but it wasn’t the exertion that did it. She pushed open the window, and leaned out, smelling the jasmine on the rain-heavy air. Breathing. Very good.

Oh, it would be so good if she never saw him again, because when she had, she saw it all again…..Who would have known what he was like? How could she have known? With Riley, well, it was very much like Riley during normal circumstances, except there was more sweat involved. Sometimes there was jaw clenching. Then there were the sheets. Always sheets in the way, getting entangled in them, keeping her from….

She gulped down the soda because her throat was abruptly dry.

With Spike…She wasn’t even aware she was holding her breath. With Spike….who knew how soft his face was capable of getting? How could she have possibly known how long his eyelashes were till she saw them suddenly as his eyes squeezed shut beneath her, gasping, as he shuddered under her, in her, his hands clenching on her hips? There had been no sheets in the way with Spike; not even clothes after the first time, not after they’d torn frantically at each other’s buttons and snaps, kissing, gasping, separating for necessary seconds, then desperately positioning and ……And she wouldn’t forget that.

He was beautiful, the look on his face as she slid down on him slowly, his hands tightening on her hips convulsively. But she was sure there was nothing alluring about the way she had looked….She remembered the sensation too well, now, staring off into the twilight, feeling again the twinges of arousal that made her body move without her permission in ways she hadn’t known it was capable of. It wasn’t supposed to be like that; she was certain of it. How could she believe it was like that, that people could do that, then get up, get dressed, and go out into the world and leave behind the memory of what they’d done in the darkness?

They’d slept intermittently through the night, and then she’d awakened with a gasp, from a dream she couldn’t remember…a dream of aching pleasure, to find his hands on her breasts, her body twisting and turning, and Spike, between her legs in the darkness, as invisible as if he’d been in a mirror, but, oh, she could hear what he was doing, as surely as she could feel it….Though at first, she didn’t believe what he was doing….And then she was too far gone. It was one thing for her to see him as he shuddered with pleasure so intense it almost hurt, to see his face more naked than his body, but for him to see her, to taste her, to touch her….that was not fair. And he hadn’t stopped, till she was so weak she almost cried, as certainly as if he’d drained her blood. What was it he had drained from her instead?

The noise behind her made her whirl around and she dropped the soda in a plume of foam on the floor. For a second, they stared at each other, she white-faced except for two hectic spots of red on each cheek, he, somewhat abashed, scratching nervously at his jaw with his thumb.

“Y—Y—Y—You’re not supposed to be in here.”

He shrugged, glancing around, carefully, his posture stiff and careful.

“I—I—have a job to do, you know, I can’t do it with you hanging over me…”

Oh. Bad. Oh, so very bad. She could just see him again, just at the moment he was about to….She gawped at him, her flush turning deeper and deeper.

“I have stuff to do, you can’t lurk around like this….”

She brushed by him, too close, and smelled him so intensely that she shivered with it. He wasn’t happy about getting brushed off, either…He frowned at her, and she shuddered away from him, not in fear….of him, that is, but of herself…one little slip…

Then she was at the preparation table, and there were things to do, and she prattled away at him, in the desperate hope she might possibly scare him away with the power of inane chatter…..

”You know, I need this job, I can’t have people visiting me, and you were already here this afternoon, what, do you like making me feel bad?”

Oh, she flinched at that, knowing perfectly well that that was not the case at all…

”I can’t afford to lose this job, I have Dawn to think about, I have the house payment….” I have the smell of your cigarettes around me, the smell of the leather we laid on, rolled on, what are you thinking….”

She folded and packaged and arranged, babbling, while he lounged beside her against the edge of the table, his side to her, where if she just glanced out of the corner of her eye she’d see his lean figure, wonder if the scratches she’d left on his chest when she’d….

She stopped abruptly. It was absolutely silent in the restaurant. Even the clock ticked too quietly. She could almost hear her legs trembling.

If she turned, she would see him, see that concerned look on his face…. If she turned….

He saved her from the effort. He leaned in and kissed her, and the silence was broken by the sibilance of kisses, the creak of leather. She wasn’t even aware of turning, her arms sliding up his arms to his neck, just as long as his mouth was on hers, just as long as she could taste his tongue…

In a fraction of a second, she was pressed between him and the table, and he was harder than the table. She’d never known kisses like this, except perhaps with Angel, so eloquent and so urgent at the same time, accompanied by those little noises she’d never noticed before.

His arms went all the way around her, but they didn’t stay in one place, as if she were territory he had to experience before he could be satisfied.

He broke off for air, her chin in one hand, looking into her eyes. Oh, God, why did he have to do that, he looked at her as if he couldn’t fathom what his eyes were seeing, like she was some treasure. He caught her frown, too, and folded his palm against her cheek, as if she were some fractious child.

“Oh, God,” she whispered, “Don’t look at me like that.”

“Like what?” He whispered back. “Like I love you?”

Still, she thought. Still he did. It was her turn to look back, to search for ambiguity that wasn’t there. She couldn’t have said what she felt then, even if she knew what it was, and she didn’t even know that much.

Instead she kissed him again, and hoped it said what she couldn’t. They backed into the kitchen area, banging up against the wall, which was good because her legs were shaking, and which was bad as well, because walls were precisely how they’d gotten into this mess in the first place.

There were two layers of clothes too many between them, and their hands skidded over leather and cotton with clutching, greedy fingers. He found her breast with one hand and in one smooth echoing movement surged against her so urgently that she arched one leg around his legs without even being aware of it.

His hand dropped from her breast to the waistband of her skirt, and he pulled back from the kiss, watching her as his hand slid past her belly button, till they both gasped.

Her hands clenched around his neck, in his hair, and in her extremity, she couldn’t even look away from his eyes. He pressed his forehead to hers and thrust his mouth against hers, even as their pelvises ground together and his fingers plunged into her soaking depths.

He pulled back and she realized he was holding his breath as she was. She was alert to only two things; his face and what he was doing to her. And his face had that soft look that she had seen only before when he had been about to explode, so why now…why…It was if her pleasure gave him as much pleasure as his own.

She couldn’t stand it any longer. She first arched against him, then sagged against his shoulder as it hit her, her muscles shuddering to a stop, and then spasming with the release, aftershock hitting her again and again. Then there was forever, till she was aware she was breathing again, and she was standing, and her inner muscles were quivering with weakness and eagerness.

Then she realized he was more or less holding her up like she was a child. He gave her a very tentative, almost sleepy smile, and she pulled him to her mouth to kiss him languorously, luxuriously, long slow wet kisses that ended abruptly as they pressed closer together.

She slid her hands over his chest, and with a boldness she’d never felt before, slid her hands to his crotch and caressed the straining bulge there almost abashedly. Her reward was the way he gasped back from her mouth, and opened and closed his mouth with a shudder. His eyes were huge, and his entire body shook against her.

“I did that to him”, she thought.

”Oh, I know what else I want to do”, she thought, and then they were stumbling against the back door into the alley.

They broke apart long enough to prop the door apart and then Spike was backing her against the old metal fire escape, till she sat on one of the steps suddenly.

Once her shaking legs no longer had to bear her weight, she suddenly found all kinds of strength in her hands, pulling his shirt out of his pants so she could caress his chest, finding his nipples with her mouth, while he fumbled with his belt and her breast alternatively. With shaking hands, he ripped open her blouse and seized one of her nipples between his teeth, and Buffy made a gasping choking sound she’d never made before.

She found his fly with her hands and ripped it open, shoving his jeans down just far enough to free his erection. At the touch of her hands, Spike jerked convulsively and his cock bobbed against her soaking folds. He grabbed her face between both hands and kissed her so savagely she moaned, while he thrust against her. He broke free for one second, breathing as if he’d just run a marathon, and then pushed her panties aside with one hand.

Then he pressed his erection against her and found her entrance with a long explosive sigh. She grabbed his hips to pull him closer, her eyes locked with his, biting her lip to keep from making any more noise, which resolve lasted precisely as long as it took him to begin thrusting, faster and faster. Oh, she knew the things men and women did together, but she never knew it could be like this, that she could be doing this, anywhere, and not care, as long as he was buried inside her and his eyes were on her, as long as his face looked as if he was in pain, and she was the only thing who could bring him surcease….It had never been like this, a fever that fed itself, a hunger that perpetuated its existence.

He was the one inside her but she felt she was inside him, and it still wasn’t enough; she wanted to crawl inside him. She wrapped her legs around him to bring him closer and it still wasn’t close enough, not while there were clothes between them, not while he was separated from her by so much as his skin.

She could feel her muscles tightening, knew she was getting close, and looked up at him, gasping.

“Look at me, look at me….” She whispered.

She could hear only the creak of the step she was on, the noises they made, the noises their bodies made, and it was too much for her to hang on any longer. The crescendo broke over her and she arched beneath him as if shocked by an electric current, shuddering as each wave broke over her. Her climax sent him over the edge, and she held his face in her hands as his eyes squeezed shut almost in pain and he jerked against her. Everything had been fast and furious before this; now everything was exquisitely slow. They kissed as if tasting each other for the first time, lazily, almost sleepily, feeling the twinges of soreness.

“Oh, this is crazy”, she thought. “This is crazy, crazy”.

He slipped out of her, and pulled his pants back up, managing this despite never once stopping the kissing. He helped her adjust her clothes, which she was amazed to discover included her panties.

It wasn’t until she put her feet on the ground that she realized she was till shaking, which wasn’t helped by the fact that Spike was still ‘helping’, kissing her with sighs mixed in, so that it was impossible to do more than tug at her shirt before the kissing took over, and clothes be damned.

Somehow they got all adjusted and covered despite never once separating at the mouth, which is probably what caused them to reach the wall and stay there.

At long last, it was possible, even necessary to pull apart and breathe. She buried her face in his chest and rubbed her nose against his shirt, which made him laugh, and which in turn made her giggle because she could feel it.

“What?” He demanded bemusedly.

“I just realized how much I’m going to like this job.”



Chapter 2

Buffy stirred her cornflakes slowly, and tried to get conscious thoughts sloshing through her brain.

“Huh?”

“Work? Last night?” Willow asked hopefully.

“Oh, work.”

Yeah, work, another place which now had Spike connotations, which she hoped was not another word for residue or something. Now she’d have to dump garbage in the alley and try not to look the fire escape in the eye.

“It was okay.” “It was more than okay. He kissed me in such a way my knees are still quivering now, and I’d really like to know what it would be like in a bed, hell, even on a floor that didn’t have construction debris all over it…Oh, crap. Carpeting. Carpeting would be good. Crap again. Bad thoughts”.

“Well,” she sighed. “I worked. It was boring, and then it was over, and for this I will get paid the sort of wages they do exposes about on Sixty Minutes.”

She looked expectantly at Will, but noticed how deflated her friend suddenly looked.

“Maybe somebody else came back wrong besides me”, she thought. “From where? The living room? At least I have an excuse. God, what if there was a camera in the back room? What would it be like if we just took our time? Crap.” She sighed, and then abruptly realized that her sigh was being misinterpreted by her best friend.

“ ‘s okay, Will, I just have to get used to…” “Getting kissed like that. Maybe if I got some more practice at it….Crap.” ”Well”, she thought, “at least now I know why Spike says bloody hell all the time. I feel exactly like that right about now. “Willow looked very subdued.

“Do you have to work again tonight?” “No. Have to patrol.” “In Spike’s crypt. No. Absolutely not. Bad. Very bad Buffy. It was only twice, there’s still time to call it a bad habit…”

Although, technically speaking, it hadn’t been just twice. Not if you counted everything….How did one quantify sexual acts? Did it just count if, at the conclusion, someone, not that names needed to be named, scratched a certain party’s back and wasn’t even aware of it till much, much later?

Not even then, it had to be at least six times, which was beyond the bad habit category, and how could it be a bad habit, a mere activity, when…She suddenly saw Spike’s face so vividly it was almost like he was in front of her.

“It wasn’t just the orgasm Olympics or something”, she thought suddenly. “Not for him. Crap. “ “You need to rest,” Willow said. “You just look so tired.”

“Yeah. Maybe I am.” Buffy said quietly. “I slept clean through the alarm.” “That’s okay.” Willow said cheerfully. “That’s what I’m here for.” “To make sure I sleep through the alarm?” “Yes, that’s my mission in life.” Willow eyed her with a trace of her old sarcasm. “No, getting Dawn off to school, making the breakfast….I mean, if you’re going to keep working the night shift, that works well with the Slayage, and then I have school during the day, so there’ll always be someone around for Dawn.”

”Yes, Dawn”. Buffy thought. “God, what would she think if she knew?” Then a new and more insistent thought reared its head. “What would Xander think?” Xander. Buffy looked up at Will, but the other girl had taken her plate to the sink, and was running hot water---a lot of hot water, which was expensive…to wash their breakfast dishes. Will would try to understand. And try to talk her out of it. And Xander would be furious, but who with was the question.

Why did they have to know? Like any fever it would run its course….Buffy stopped that thought suddenly, knowing that it was unfair.

“Will? I’m going to go take a shower, okay?”

She brought her still half-full bowl of cornflakes to the sink, and Will gave her a cheery smile. “Okay.”

Was it her imagination, or was Will doing lots more housework since Dawn’s broken arm? Admittedly, some of it was just because Dawn simply couldn’t do things. But some of it was undoubtedly guilt. Or at least she hoped it was guilt.

The worst thing, Buffy thought uncomfortably, was that Will didn’t seem too guilty. The subject had not been brought up, and Buffy had tried, and then, deciding that perhaps Will was too unnerved by it, had simply waited. But within days, Will had gone back to being perky, and Buffy had started to get nervous.

”Why is it that Will doesn’t feel bad about causing the accident that got Dawn’s arm broken, and I feel bad about making love with someone who makes me scream?”Buffy froze, half way up the steps. Not making love. Just sex. With Riley, that had been making love….but this was just sex. Not to Spike.

She flopped down on her bed, and sat there, and now her thoughts were as traitorous as her body. She was worried about what her friends thought if they found out she was having sex with Spike. What would they say if she said it was more? She knew he wouldn’t hesitate to come clean, if only she gave the okay. Actually, he already had. The gang all knew how he felt about her, except, oh, yes, he hadn’t had that opportunity. She was the one who’d told everybody, making it sound as if it were some sort of sick adolescent crush.

But it was!

Was. Not anymore. Certainly he had changed.

”People don’t change, her right brain countered. Do vampires? It’s impossible. So is bringing the dead back to life. Crap .”

Was it her?

With Riley, after they made love, she’d be happy for a while, a couple of days. If they made love, fine, if not, fine. She had to admit that. And he had been so stoic about it. An occasional groan, some grimacing, but he was always in charge. Always in control. Always so logical, even in bed, the last place in the world she wanted…logic. Bad. Very bad.

Even before the next thought had sprung from her subconscious, she could feel her face flushing. With Spike, she could still be breathing as fast and as hard as if she’d run an obstacle course, and he could have only just pulled out of her, and she would want him again. Only exhaustion had stopped them, and she didn’t even know vampires could be exhausted.

Spike certainly wasn’t stoic, either. She had loved watching him in extremis, watching the sensations course over his face, even his body, like reflections skating over the surface of a lake at twilight. He held nothing back, not from her, and she knew if she asked for more, he wouldn’t hesitate. Was it his feelings for her that made the difference? Was it just him?

Because I’m just the same with him.

Because I have no control with him.

Because if I act like he does, does that mean I feel the same way?

“Buffy?!”

”Hm. Crap. Grrrrr. Argh”.

Buffy yawned explosively and wondered when precisely her bedroom ceiling had developed that water stain. Someone was tapping on her door, and she didn’t think it was a raven. Dawn poked her head in.

“Lazybones.”

“Is there a minimum daily requirement of harassment you have to dish out?”

“Yeah, well, somone’s got to.” Dawn came over and flopped on the bed. “Will said your work went okay.”

“Yeah.” Buffy said cautiously. Hm, normal conversation with a teenager? Could this be happening? “It wasn’t bad.”

“I could get a job, too.” Dawn said softly, and Buffy’s heart twisted.

Before she could do more than that, Dawn rushed ahead.

“I could deliver papers, you know.”

“In Sunnydale? With a broken arm?”

“After the broken arm is fixed.” Dawn said loftily. Buffy bit back any number of replies. “Besides, I could get Spike to help me.”

Spike. Helping Dawn. Saving her life, she could believe. But….Buffy was literally rendered speechless by the mental image Dawn so casually provoked. Spike. With an excuse to be in the house before the sun rose every morning. Bad. Very bad.

“Why do you want to get a job, Dawn? You’re only fifteen.”

“Cause.” Dawn said softly, bowing her head. “Cause you’re working, and you’re so tired all the time, and---and----I want to help. Cause we might lose the house.”

“Who said that?”

“I heard someone talking.”

“Who?”

“Now you’re mad.”

“Sweetie, I’m not mad at you. But I really don’t think it’s that bad, and I’d know. And nobody should be saying stuff like that about you.”

“But you were so tired you slept all day. You shouldn’t have to work like that, at that place, you should have some fun….You sang….”

“Oh, Dawnie….” Buffy sat up. “I’m a grownup. That’s part of the job. My job is to make sure that you ---you don’t have to get a job.”

“What if I just want to make some money for stuff?”

“Like how much money do you need? And what for? Hard drugs?”

Dawn giggled, a sure sign she was trying. Buffy was startled; she was almost sure Dawn would have exploded in a fit of fifteen-year-old hormones. “No, soft drugs only.” She said pertly.

“Give me some time, Dawnie, okay? This is the Hellmouth. Do we even have paperboys?”

“I’ve seen the want ads for them.”

“Were the ads placed by the Sunnydale Register, or by the Vampire Times?”

“Funn—eeee. Not.” Dawn flopped back on the bed. “Are you going to patrol tonight?”

“Yeah. “Buffy got up and stretched.

“Could you ask Spike what he thinks?”

“Oh. Uh.” Buffy wondered just how flushed her face got. “Sure. If I see him.” “Crap. Now I have a reason to see him, instead of an excuse. Crap”.



Patrol actually went rather well. Staking vamps enabled her to get her suddenly all-too-imaginative mind off one of them; then suddenly she looked around, and there weren’t any there. Except one. Crap.

“Nice skirt, love. Didn’t realize you were that big a fan of Britney.”

He lit a cigarette while she thought, “Bloody hell. Why did I wear a skirt? Haven’t done that in ages”.

Not since last night, at any rate. She flushed abruptly. How could it be so difficult talking to him when it was positively effortless to kiss him…?

”Laundry day. Nothing else clean.” “And here I thought I was the inspiration.” His eyes flicked up and down. “You’re all tense, luv. Didn’t sleep well?”

She stared at him for a minute, thinking, why is this conversation happening in a graveyard? Why can’t I have The Talk in a restaurant? Other people do. She braced herself preparing to hear things about herself that would make her cringe because they were true, and then looked at him, suddenly, wondering what was going on. She could just about hear something snapping. What was she doing standing away from him when she just wanted to climb up him like he was a tree?

“No. I didn’t sleep good. I have a lot on my mind.”

“Such as?”

She cocked her head at his tone, the tone that came out when she needed it most. It seemed to spring from the corner of his personality that the others never saw, only she and Dawn. Which was, of course, a problem in itself.

“Such as….” She sighed deeply, thinking of words that would keep him at bay till she was overwhelmed again. “Such as….”

Oh, hesitation. That was very bad, because it allowed her to remember things she shouldn’t be remembering. Because then she wanted to try them all over again.

“Look, Buff,” Spike tossed his cigarette on the ground. “I’d love to sit and wait for you to make up your mind, but I figured it’d take less time to wait for the seasons to change, okay? So why don’t you let me know when you come to a decision?”

“What?”

“I can’t keep doing this. “

He looked at her, the sort of look he usually had when they were about to rip each others’ clothes apart. Actually, now that she thought about it, it wasn’t that different from the Secret Spike look he had when he was being nice.

“You know how I feel about you; all I want to know is how you feel about me. That’s it. Real simple. Just….that. But I can’t keep doing this.” HE shook his head, a bit of anger in the movement. “Or you.”

“What am I supposed to say, Spike?” She burst out.

He literally brushed her off, waving off the rest of whatever she had been about to say, turning and walking away from her.

“Okay. How about this?” She grabbed his sleeve.

“How am I supposed to explain something to you that I don’t understand myself? I don’t understand this, and I understand dying, and killing, and vampires, and demons, and all sorts of things. But I don’t understand what I feel about you. And you know why, Spike!”

She held her ground as he flinched away from her look. “’What did it take to pry apart the Slayer’s dimpled knees?’”

He sighed at that, too, and she wondered if she’d gone too far, but it had to be said, and she knew that if it didn’t come bursting out now, she didn’t think she could be able to do it again.

“I don’t understand this, and it scares me. I’d be scared any time, but now? I really want to ask my Mom, but she’s not here. And my best friend?”

She took a breath that sounded perilously close to weeping, and Spike grimaced.

“Those guys you wanted to know about? They did everything they were supposed to, but I never felt like this with them. They had my heart in their hands, and they just squeezed…but you…..”

She took a deep breath that did nothing to settle her feelings, and then forged on ahead.

“You know how I really slept? I slept about as good as I ever have, at least since the night in that old house.”

She snapped the words out and Spike goggled at her.

“I slept really well then. I think it was you. I think it was being next to you. I don’t know what it is I feel about you, but I want you to know that. I just don’t know. It confuses me. I never felt this way before about anybody, and I don’t understand it. I don’t know if understanding it would be a good thing, but I just want you to know. I just…”

He stepped forward quickly, putting his mouth on hers before she realized it, and by the time she realized it, she was against the tree and his hands were cupping her buttocks, molding her against his front.

She broke off the kiss and shoved at his chest with both hands, which landed him on his butt in the grass. In an instant she was in his lap.

“Oh, God”, Buffy thought, “this is so bad, but how can it be bad, when he feels like this, when he tastes like this….”

She fumbled with the fly of his jeans, then ripped it impatiently, provoking a sharp intake of breath from Spike. She wasn’t sure if she’d hurt him or not, because he made exactly the same sound when her hand closed around him. Oh, he felt like silk in her hand, and then she was closing down on him, around him, which made Spike suck his breath in through his teeth.

He found her clitoris with his thumb and she rocked on it, her mouth waxing and waning against his, which was oddly exciting, enough of a distraction that it took him several seconds to realize that something was missing. Her panties. He traced up to her belly button with his free fingers and Buffy broke off the kiss as she realized what he was doing.

She had thrown him to the ground, his penis was inside her, she was just about to orgasm with his thumb buried against her, and she blushed a deep, deep red when she realized he’d discovered her secret.

For an endless moment, as her muscles convulsed hotly around him and pulled all of his senses with them, he thought that it had finally happened; they’d come so hard that they’d fused, and they’d be joined like this forever. It was so lengthy, so hard, that the roots of his hair hurt. ”Love doth make fools of men”, he thought foolishly, and wished he could remember the poet’s name.

He was so exhausted that he just wanted to die, but he suspected that would get him staked, even though it was a compliment in an odd sort of way. He could still feel throbs and pulses of pleasure in her muscles and his and he figured if he so much as moved there might be an unexpected encore.

Then he remembered the abashed way she’d looked, just before she came, when she’d realized her secret was out, and he had to give her such an involuntary, genuine smile that she grabbed his shoulders and kissed him ferociously.

Finally he had to break it off. Reluctantly, he lifted her off him, which was rather difficult to accomplish while joined at the lips, but he managed.

“What?” She said.

He saw the look of worry on her face, and wondered briefly how such a woman could possibly doubt her allure. He steadied her as she stood, and brushed leaves from the ridiculously demure skirt.

“I just remembered something.” He said softly.

“What?”

“I have a bed.”



Chapter 3

Spike led the way into the crypt, lighting candles as he headed toward the ladder that led to the lower level. Buffy hung back a bit, and he turned and looked into her eyes. She reached out a hand, and he took it and led her with him.

He lit more candles, then stopped, turning, looking at her. When he had finished, he returned to where she was only halfway down the ladder, and leaned forward, dropping to one knee on the step in front of her, his eyes never leaving hers.

She sat down abruptly, her knees having lost all their strength. He leaned into her mouth, his hands sliding up her thighs, his body separating her knees, his mouth opening against hers, his tongue….

Buffy broke away, her heands clutching his hair, to look at him, wondering if she would ever see the same facial expression on him twice. He was like a kaleidoscope sometimes, always different….

Then he was pulling her against him, lifting her against him, and then they were falling on the bed, and they were ripping frantically at each others’ clothes. He was entirely too good at kissing, soft and wet, hard and urgent, all at once, too much, till she bit his lip and he grinned down at her. He nipped at her chin, just a little, and she traced the scar in his eyebrow with a thumb.

The thought suddenly occurred to her: “No one can find us. We have all night. All night. Hours upon hours”.Spike traced her cheekbones with his thumbs, and kissed the tip of her nose. He decided that perhaps he’d missed a spot by her earlobe; then, oh no, there was another spot down by her breast. Oh, she had all kinds of little noises, he thought, but none was as naked as the gasp she made as he slid further down, kissing, till he hit her navel, and lifted her knee over his shoulder.

“Spike!”

“Present.”

“What---what---“

Spike, poised between her legs, rested his head on her thigh, and gave her the Look of Death. Ah, that was familiar, she thought.

“I’m making a collect call, Buff.”

“But there’s lights…”

Aha. He kissed the soft stomach between her navel and her brown curls.

“Yes, luv, there are, which is a good thing, isn’t it.”

“Well…”

He had wondered to himself before, and now he figured he knew the answer. Never. Not the sort of thing Angel would have tried with a virgin, hell nor anyone, and that silly git who’d tossed her away, well, no doubt there. As far as Captain Cardboard, he really couldn’t imagine the guy being so generous.

He looked at her and lowered his chin till he was giving her the most wicked look in his extensive repertoire.

“Yes, there’s lights, because you know what? I want to see you. Every bit of you. I want to remember you, every taste, every smell, every bit, so the next time I have to listen to Xander or Anya yapping about wedding dresses, I can remember you and how you felt, and how you moved, and everything you did. Even I can’t see that well in the dark, though.”

He slowly stuck his tongue out at her, locking with her eyes, and took an exploratory taste. She was bright red, and it was actually sort of adorable.

“But…you know…the…”

If she turned any brighter, she’d explode, he thought. “But?”

He held her eyes, dipping his head very slowly, while she tried half-heartedly to close her thighs. If she wanted to, she could have snapped his head off with one twist, but she didn’t.

She was still wet from their earlier encounter, but she was also swollen and trembling again. He parted the damp curls with his tongue, never taking his eyes from hers, till he reached her swollen clit and sucked it into his mouth. A fresh surge coated his fingers and he marveled with his last bits of coherent thought how responsive she was.

Then he began to suck and lick in earnest, and she moaned as if she were in pain, and arched off the blankets. She thrust her pelvis so hard against his face he had to lay his hands flat against her stomach to keep her from breaking his nose.

Then she froze, her eyes huge, and he felt them at the same time she did, the irresistible pulses of orgasm. Her breathing was harsh and unsteady in the silence of the tomb. He noticed she didn’t take any trouble to keep her legs modestly closed now, but her leg muscles were trembling so badly he didn’t know if she could.

He was as hard as iron now, and looking at her all flushed wasn’t helping any. He crawled up her body and settled on top of her, her legs wrapping around him almost automatically. She cupped his shoulders with her hands and looked up at him with bewilderment. “I just…”

“Hm?”

She flushed all over again and he mentally reviewed the things that didn’t make her blush: climbing him like a tree, riding him like a pony (but that had been in the dark) shagging him frantically in the graveyard, or up against a wall where she worked. But passionate as she was in the dark, she was shy about the light. “Hm.” “Is it always like this?” “You mean…? No.” He said finally. “For you…”

“Even….?”

He paused for so long she was afraid she’d said something she shouldn’t.

“No. Not even then.” He looked not at her, but elsewhere, and then at her again, rather mischievously. “You?”Buffy blushed all over again.

“No.”

He kissed her again, savoring the taste of her mouth, the way she pulled away periodically to sigh, which was wonderful because then her breasts crushed even harder against him. She was trembling, too, so much that it worried him enough to stop and look down at her. She looked up at him with wide eyes, almost curiously. Then she shook her head and asked,

“Who are you?”

“I hope this isn’t the point at which you usually ask that question, luv.”

She actually smiled at that. “No, who are you?”

She traced his cheek with the backs of her fingers. “You’re so…” Her voice had dropped to a whisper. She touched his mouth with just one fingertip, her eyes fixed on his, intense, still with that same expression of curiosity. “I don’t know you.” She whispered.

“Yes, you do.” He couldn’t figure out why, but it was very necessary to duplicate her whisper. “You’ve known me all along. Since….”

“No, just since..I don’t know.”

He realized why she was whispering, then; she couldn’t raise her voice because it would be too unsteady.

“But now….”

She was blushing furiously, her usual response to any intense emotion, but she kept looking into his eyes, unabashedly, making him drown, making him shiver, too, with something that felt almost like heat, even him, a cold creature who’d been so long without he could barely remember it. Then she pulled him down and kissed him hard, saying things she couldn’t put into words, shoving him over on his back, and then she was gone.

“Huh?”

Spike lifted his head and looked at Buffy, kissing her way down his body, her warm hand cupping his erection and she sucked on his nipples, then his navel.

“Did Adam and Eve have navels?” He thought suddenly, which made almost as much sense as Buffy, working her way down his suddenly tense body, because there was no way she was going to…

But she did. Oh, God, this just wasn’t happening, her mouth was so hot, and she was tasting him like he was a lollipop, getting used to the flavor…

”Buff…What are you doing? Buffy, stop….”

She looked at him with an expression of bewilderment that he realized, could turn into offense in a heartbeat.

“Don’t you want me to?” “Do you want to?”

Ah, wrong question. Oh, this was not happening, he wasn’t going to be able to stop, to last, she was acting as if he was delicious, the way she was, and oh, God, she was kissing his balls now, oh no, stop that, that was too much, it was just too much for him, good thing his heart didn’t beat, right about now it would be exploding…

Buffy watched his reactions, watched him twist, heaving himself up on his elbows, even while his head arched back. She took his penis back into her mouth, licking the slit, which made his whole body stiffen as if he’d been electrocuted.

“Oh, God, Buffy, I’m going to ---stop, I’m going to---OH---“

Buffy sucked so hard her cheeks hollowed, and Spike exploded, his hips helplessly jerking slightly, and his eyes squeezing shut as if he were in pain. He was utterly abandoned in his ecstasy, and Buffy thought mildly, that maybe he’d had a point. Now, if she was bored, she could just picture him, and well, that would certainly take her mind off her boredom. He was so beautiful, so lost in the pleasure she’d given him……

She crawled up him, just slightly, nestling his limp penis comfortably between her breasts. Spike, still breathing hard, looked down at her with almost alarm, shaking his head weakly.

“Who are you?”

She lowered her head to his stomach, and just looked at him.

“That’s when you usually ask that question?”



There wasn’t any progress on the monster, even though they went through pretty much every book in the Magic Box. Buffy wondered if their lack of progress might be partly due to the fact that she had spent the afternoon in bed with Spike, although, technically, it wasn’t in the bed after the first couple of times.

Progress was also not helped by the way he sat across from her at the table, his thumb circling a spot on the table in the exact same way he circled that spot on her cheekbone when he kissed her, the exact same way he circled her nipple.

He slouched bonelessly in his chair, which seemed to irritate Xander in some pissy little way that made Xander sigh repeatedly till Spike eyed him and said,

“Spring a leak, Floppy Boy?”

“Let’s go somewhere else.” Anya burst out suddenly.

“Where? The bridal shop?” Xander asked.

“We could stop there.” She said brightly. “But this is stupid; we’ve looked at everything, we’ve called Giles…”

“You, ah, called Giles?” Buffy asked carefully. “What did you say?”

“We told him about the frost monster.”

“Yeah, you could have told him yourself if you’d been around.” Xander said.

“Gee, the jobs cut into my chatting time,” Buffy said drily. She eyed him carefully, not certain of whether she should be cautious or not.

“She’s working every night,” Willow said. “Plus the patrolling, so Xander what’s your problem?”

“Nothing.” He muttered. “Nothing.”

“How about the Bronze?” Anya said eagerly.

“What?” Everyone said.

“How about the Bronze?”

“For what?”

“I’m sick of this.” She exclaimed. “We’ve done everything, and we still don’t know anything! This is pointless.!”

“Maybe she does have a point.” Spike said. “We could use a break.”

“Can we all fit in your car?” Buffy asked.

Xander drew himself up and glared at Spike, but before it went any further, Buffy glanced from one to the other, and inadvertently made things worse.

“I’ll ride with Spike. You guys go together.”

Xander kept silent except for a tight lipped, “Buffy, wear a helmet. Spike….Don’t wear one.”

Spike chuckled a bit at Xander’s glare, then zipped off, leaving Xander staring after them.



Chapter 4

“Xander, what is wrong with you?” Anya demanded

“Something’s going on with them.” He said tightly.

“What do you mean?” Willow asked.

Xander thought of actually telling what he suspected, but decided on a partial truth.

“I don’t know, I just think they’re spending too much time together. And Spike never stopped, you know, well, he just hangs around her all the time, and he’s got that accent, and he’s not bad looking, and she’s well, what kind of mood has she been in? She might do something stupid.”

“Spike’s not stupid.” Anya said thoughtfully.

“No, she wouldn’t…” Willow said worriedly. “It would be very unhealthy…he’s a bad person.”

“Well,” Anya said thoughtfully. “He did help a lot with us this summer.”

“That was just to make himself feel better after she died.” Xander said scornfully.

“How?” Willow asked softly. She looked as if she’d suddenly been zapped by something.

“What?”

“That doesn’t make sense.”

“Yes, it does, he knew he screwed up, he, ah…” Xander was starting to get nervous as it dawned on him that he’d said something entirely different from what he’d wanted to.

“It wouldn’t make him feel better.” Willow said softly. “It would make him feel worse, being reminded of her all the time. He couldn’t stand the Buffybot after Buffy died. You didn’t see him, Xander, but I did.”

“Well, he should have, that was disgusting.”

“And he did.” Willow pointed out with just a bit of impatience. “But if you look at what he’s done, you can’t say he’s still the same.” Almost cringingly, she glanced around. “He did help us a lot, and we never really thanked him.”

“Well, why should we? Thank you for not killing us this year? Thanks for not eating us? It’s just that chip.”

“The chip only stops him, Xander. It doesn’t make him do some of the stuff he’s done.”

“He just wants Buffy to be his—“

“Well, if he’s evil, there’s nothing to stop him from getting all kinds of minions to seize Buffy or something for him. If that’s all he wanted, he wouldn’t have been so broken up when she died… And then, with Glory…”

“Just trying to curry favor with Buffy so he could…”

“Xander, you’re not listening to me. She was going to kill him. If all he wanted was, well, well…just, you know….”

“That’s just what Spike said.”

“He never said that, Xander. And you saw him. You saw how badly he was beaten up. And you know Buffy was going to his crypt just to stake him.”

“So he saved his skin.” Xander said impatiently. “That’s what he’s always done.”

“You’re not listening to me, Xander.”

“Why do you care so much?”

“Because it’s not fair.” Willow said softly. “I don’t know what’s going on, but I did see what he was like after Buffy died.”

“Yeah, so…?”

“People change.” Willow said.

“He’s not a people, Will, he’s a vampire. He’s always been bad. And he’ll always be that way.”

Willow gave him a look. “Sure. And I’ll always be straight.” She gave him a look. “And maybe you will be, too.”



Spike sipped at his beer. “Don’t see them yet.”

“Not good.” Buffy said. “I bet they’re fighting. I just wonder who’s saying what.”

“Don’t worry. What would they do?”

“Well, you don’t care if they glare at you all the time…”

“They do that anyway.”

“And besides, they’ll probably give me the worst bridesmaid dress.”

“You look good in anything.” He leaned in very, very close. “Or nothing.”

She blushed furiously, and he wanted to kiss her badly it hurt.

“Ah. Judge Judy at three o’clock.” He nodded at an angry-looking little group approaching. “Just do what I do. Think of something else.” He smirked at her. “Me, for example. Naked.”

“That was helpful.”

“I aim to please.”

“Bastard.”

“I’ll have you know, my parents were married.”

“Shut up now.”

Bearing down on them, Willow studied the pair curiously, and she realized that Xander might be right. Buffy looked tense, but Spike looked entirely too relaxed, and he was leaning in Buffy’s direction, almost touching. Despite Buffy’s tension, there was something there, the way they were side by side, in almost identical positions. Buffy might be tense with the Scoobies, but she seemed entirely comfortable with Spike. Willow studied Spike, wondering if her judgement could be trusted. How could she judge Buffy for finding someone when all she herself had done was lose someone?

Xander gave Spike a withering look, which wasn’t as effective as he hoped, because Spike just smirked at him and made a kissy face.

“You know what they say, Harris? There’s a very fine line between love and hatred.”

Xander leaped off his chair as if it had been electrified, mouth opening to shout, but he never got the chance. Anya kissed him, and rather than shove her away, he gave in. Everyone raised their eyebrows, including Spike, whose eyes were so big they almost fell out.

Anya let Xander go, and there was a moment of silence as they all looked around. Spike was too smart to say something else, and everyone else was rather stunned.

“That’s called incentive.” Anya said by way of explanation. “Come on, Xander, let’s dance. That way they can talk about us.”

There were looks exchanged around the table, and all of them were wide-eyed.

“Well.” Spike drawled. “I really don’t know who to feel sorry for there.”

“Spike…” Willow said.

“Hey, not my fault.” Spike countered. “Can’t help it. He doesn’t need to be talking to the Slayer like that.”

Buffy and Willow looked at him simultaneously, Willow with dawning comprehension on her face, Buffy with an exasperated fondness. Then Buffy realized that Willow was looking at her, so she turned, and saw what was written on her friend’s face. She blushed, and if Willow hadn’t been sure before, she was certain then.

“I, uh, need some air.” She mumbled, and got up and left.

Willow sipped at Xander’s beer, then turned and looked at Spike. She looked at him for so long that he dropped his eyes, uncomfortable.

“Spike.”

“Willow.”

“If you hurt her, I will hurt you. I’ll come out of retirement for it, if you know what I mean.”

“You should ask whether or not she’ll hurt me. “ He said soberly. Then he got up and looked around for Buffy.

He found her on the catwalk, which was still covered with New Year’s decorations. If it hadn’t been for his vampire’s eyes, he would have missed her.

“What are you doing stuck up here?”

“She knows.”

“Yes, that she does. “ He lit a cigarette, hands shaking. She looked so forlorn he couldn’t stand it. “Buff…”

“I wanted them to find out differently. I didn’t want it to be this way.”

“Buffy, it’s just Willow. “

“I think Xander knows too.”

“How? It’s not as if he were Sensitivity Boy or something.” He shrugged. “You were going to tell them eventually, weren’t you?”

“As soon as I figured it out myself. I haven’t figured it out myself.”

“Have you really tried?” He blurted out before he could stop himself.

“Yes, I have!” She was angry for a moment, then she was sad all over again. “I don’t know what’s happening to me. I don’t know where I belong any more.”

She looked at him with such a wounded look on her face that he couldn’t think of anything to do but fling his arms open, partly in exasperation, partly in offer. What he didn’t expect her to do, however, she actually did: She gave him another one of those sad looks, then stepped into his arms and wrapped her arms around him.

“I’m so scared.” She whispered.

“Why?”

“Them.”

“What they’ll do?”

“Yes.”

“ I need them.”

“What about me?”

Buffy looked at him, gulping, and abruptly pulled away.

“I don’t want to, but I do.”

She stared down at the dance floor, braced against the railing. Spike tried to find something good in that statement, and decided to settle. He stepped up behind her, wrapping his arms around her, burying his face in her neck, but she flinched.

“I’ll make you want me.” He whispered.

“Don’t.”

He pressed tighter against her, sliding his arms up her stomach, cupping her breasts, feeling her nipples harden. She gulped.

“Stop that.”

“Why? How many times have we done this?” He whispered. “You always come after me, or actually, most of the time, it’s before and after, isn’t it? You come to me in the darkness, and you keep me there. Here’s the darkness, then, luv. What if your friends really find out?”

He slipped one hand down, down, downward, under her dress---odd how she’d started wearing dresses again, all of a sudden---and slipped under her panties, to find her already wet.

“Guess this’ll be another time, won’t it.”

“Stop,”

She sounded seriously annoyed now and he really didn’t know where he was going, except right to the edge. He stroked her cleft repeatedly, till she was shuddering, and then she reached up with one hand and pulled him roughly till she could kiss him.

Between kisses, he took her other hand and put it on his crotch. She kissed him harder, and grabbed him so tightly he almost exploded right there.

“What if they see us, Buffy? We’re right here, what if they see us, what if they notice we’re both gone, what if they find us? Would you stop? Could you stop? What if you’re coming, could you stop, could you---“

He unzipped his pants, and shoved them down just enough to free his cock, which bounced eagerly against her bottom. She shoved back against him, breaking the kiss with a loud smacking noise.

“What? You sure? What’ll happen, Buffy, they’ll find us? What if we have to stop? They’ll see, they’ll see….”

He pulled his hand from her wetness and she gasped, then gasped even louder, as he pulled her hips back against him. His erection slipped between her legs, and slipped back and forth against her slippery cleft. She gasped again, and he muttered,

“Arch your back a bit, luv, let me inside, let me…”

She did exactly that, and he shoved inside her to the hilt. She let out a groan that she wasn’t able to contain, and he matched it with one of his own.

“They’re going to find us, Buffy, what are you going to say? I’m good enough for the darkness, aren’t I?”

He rocked against her, barely moving, while Buffy clutched the rail, and tried not to make any noise. Ridiculous. They had never done it like this before, and it felt different, deeper, harder. She felt his coat falling about her, and thought dimly that nobody could tell anyway, because he was barely moving, and his hands were locked on the railing outside of hers. And it didn’t last long; a few more hard thrusts, and he was sagging against her, sliding out of her, and she realized he had deliberately taken her for his own pleasure and left her hanging.

”That’s what you’ve been doing to him.“No. That’s exactly it. He makes you forget. He makes you feel, and he loves you, how could he turn away from you? He thinks this is as close as he’ll ever get to you. “

She turned around, almost tripping over her panties, which had wound up around one of her ankles. He was shamefacedly pulling his pants up, tucking himself in, looking embarrassed, almost ashamed of himself, and she found that she just could not stand for him to look like that.

She pulled her panties up, then off, because one side had been ripped entirely away, and it made no sense to try and salvage them. She couldn’t figure out how they got that way. He took a step toward her, then hesitated, obviously expecting her to be angry, and instead was totally surprised to find her pulling him to her by the lapels and kissing him sweetly.

”She’s just making up to you,” Spike’s inner voice pointed out. ”I don’t care. She’s kissing me. This is all I’ve got”.

”Um, Buffy?”

They tore apart, shocked, to look at Willow, standing tentatively on the landing for the catwalk. Her face was almost as red as her hair.

“Uh…Uh…Guys?” She cleared her throat. “Um, we’re leaving. It’s boring here, so we’re taking off.”

”So were we”, thought Spike. “What did she see?”

Buffy swayed next to him, and he grabbed her arm.

“’s okay, Slayer.” I hope.



Chapter 5

Spike slid one leg over the windowsill and then looked speculatively at the ground two stories below. If he jumped, there was grass, he wouldn’t make any noise, he’d get away clean, and all he’d have to do was deal with it tomorrow. But…

He sighed, something he had gotten very used to doing, and ducked under the windowsill. Shoving it up higher would just make more noise. He dropped his coat on the floor, and pulled off his shoes, thinking the same thing. Then, still thinking, hm, window’s only ten feet away, he went to the bathroom door and peered inside.

For a moment, Buffy didn’t notice him. It wasn’t like she could see him in the mirror or anything. Besides, singing into the shampoo bottle like Britney Spears seemed to be taking up so much of her concentration that she wasn’t even aware that her nipples kept bobbing up and down out of the suds, which seriously eroded his concentration. Then she tossed her head a little too enthusiastically, and noticed him. It didn’t appear that it was her nudity that she was concerned with; it was the fact that she’d been caught performing the ouvre of Ms. Spears that paralyzed her. Then she recovered, tossed her head----sending suds everywhere-----and glared at him.

“Well, well,” he drawled. “Don’t you look all…minty fresh.”

He pulled his shirt off, then shucked his jeans off. She eyed him warily, but he slid in behind her without a problem, and began scrubbing her sudsy hair, while she glanced back at him suspiciously. Bit by bit, she relaxed, and she leaned back against him, hands dropping to his thighs and sighing. He could even see the tension seep out of her bit by bit as he scrunched her hair and then rinsed it off with the sprayer.

He rather wondered what other uses the sprayer could be put to, but it seemed like a really good idea to let that one go till later. Then he got to work on her back, squeezing and rubbing, paying special attention to the tension knotted up in her tight shoulders. She leaned forward to add more hot water to the mix and let out some of the cooling shallows they lounged in. Then she leaned back against him.

He settled back against the porcelain slope, and tried to ignore the coldness of the surface beneath his back. After all, she was relaxing against him, and bit by bit his own tension seeped away. The heat of the water soaked into his bones, and so too, he feared, was the scent of frangipani that pervaded the bathroom.

“Bet that’ll scare demons”, he thought idly. “If for no other reason than sheer surprise”.

But she was all slippery and soft between his legs, and he felt no urge to talk whatsoever. Her whole body was slippery and warm and wet and she was utterly boneless against him. She subsided against him peacefully, almost asleep, and although his instincts told him it was a bad idea, his common sense argued relentlessly for it.

“Slayer.” He whispered. “You don’t want to fall asleep in a tub.”

“No.” She muttered. “I want to….”

Then she turned, nudging against him, her lips finding his, and she sighed against him. What startled him was that she felt so bonelessly relaxed against him, her lips gentle and soft on him. He wanted only to cup as much of her skin against him as he could, and do that for several centuries. They kissed for years, turning, twisting, mmmmm-ing against each other, he stroking her back without even being even aware of it, and she….was holding his face in her hands, as if sheltering it.

He recognized this as something she wasn’t even aware of, and one day, he wanted to experience all of her secret little signals at once. There was the blush, the tremble, the sigh, the mmmm, the suddenly held breath, and best of all, the kitten gasp. She was utterly unaware of most of them, and he wanted to keep it that way.

He clutched her hair in both hands, and tried to concentrate on her mouth. Maybe it was the water; he felt so calm, so soothed…Maybe it was her. The thought made his lips quirk up a bit and Buffy felt it and looked at him. She didn’t say anything-verbally, that is, but she raised her eyebrows.

“Enjoying the novelty,” he explained. “You, me, and no fighting.”

Or anything else, he could have added, but it was rather nice. Buffy gave him one her patented Buffy shrugs, and snuggled against him once more, her breasts soft against him, her hands caressing his shoulders. Finally she just laid her head on his shoulder, and almost but not quite yawned. “Long day at the office?”

Buffy actually thought about it. First, the nightmares, then working late---and him. Then tiptoeing home, and well, not sleeping really well. Then more patrolling---and him. Then the Magic Box, and the Bronze---and him. And now. And Willow.

“I have to talk to Willow.”

He hesitated for a long time. “What, exactly, did she see?”

“Us kissing.”

He figured pointing out the use of the word ‘us’ was not a good idea just yet.

“When are you going to talk to her?”

“Not now.” She said emphatically.

“Okay.”

She snuggled again, and he wondered if he’d been forgiven.

“Buff?”

“No talking.”

“No?”

“Well…”

She picked her head up, gave a little yawn, and looked at his face. She gave him a sleepy little smile and then kissed him again. He could feel her smiling while she did it. He traced stupid things on her back, wondering how tired she was. She sighed mid-kiss, and he figured that was it; she was a rag doll now. “C’mon, Buff, up you go.”

“Hm?”

“Water’s cold.”

With her grumbling and muttering in a not very effective way, he pulled her to her feet, and grabbed a towel. Suds went everywhere, but his hands didn’t, carefully avoiding all erogenous zones. She tried to return the favor, but she was so tired, her coordination wasn’t the best. They tripped and stumbled over each other, till he managed to wrap a big towel around her and hold her up that way. He dumped her on the bed, and yanked the covers back, and she nuzzled into them and closed her eyes. He went back to the bath to get his clothes, and returned to the bed uncertainly with them in his hands. Buffy opened one eye.

“What are you doing?”

He cocked his head at her. She rubbed the bed next to her.

“C’mere.”

He didn’t need a second invitation, climbing in beside her. She didn’t open her eyes, draping her self over his chest and shoulder, and stroking his chest once, twice, three times…and then snoring. He glanced down. She was comatose.

“Poor Slayer”, he thought. “But lucky me.”

He dozed off himself.



Chapter 6

"But, Buffy, did you do anything to lead him on?"

Oh, this was the bad dream. Not good. Even in the dream, she wondered how come her mother didn't notice she was sleeping in her bed with Spike. Couldn't she just be happy to see her again?

"I hit him a lot. For Spike that's like third base."

"Are you sure that's all?"

In the dream, it was apparent that her mother, while not being aware that Buffy was dreaming this beside Spike, was nevertheless aware of recent events, at least the ones that had brought the house down. Buffy cringed, watching her mother mentally the review all the things she and Spike had done to each other.

"That's sort of disgusting, isn't it, Buffy? He's a vampire. But then who else would want you?"

Buffy sighed deeply and opened her eyes. Spike was curled up against her back, almost as warm as she herself was, the aftereffects of the bath and the warmth of the bed. She looked down and saw one of his hands curled loosely around her waist, its nails painted black as usual.

"Oh, God, I am so not ready for this."

It seemed to slam into her with all its messy implications. I am sleeping with Spike, literally. Sleeping with him. What if I fart or something in the night? An entirely gradeschool-like terror of the male species descended on her for a moment. Having sex? One thing. Sleeping together, arms wrapped around each other, naked, no barriers, that, that was entirely something else, and how had this happened?

She wondered if Maggie Walsh had actually conducted a good class; what about that dream interpretation stuff? She was afraid of being found out, she could figure that one out. But why was it anyone else's business? Why? If it was okay for Xander and Anya...

Buffy sat up abruptly. Spike sighed in his sleep next to her, then snapped his eyes wide open, the actions of someone all too used to uneasy sleep. He blinked at her back a few times. She clutched the sheet to her chest, knowing he was awake, and determined to avoid him.

Spike eyed her vertebrae skeptically. Maybe, he thought, phrenology wasn't such an inexact science after all. Buffy's spine seemed to be composed of two complete opposites: resignation and just plain aversion. He'd never known a woman whose body could well, embody such complicated emotions. He figured if he tried to touch her, she'd snap and shatter like some long-dead relic.

"Buff?"

If anything, her spine slumped even more. So that's what osteoporosis looks like, he thought.

"Nightmare?"

"Nightmare."

 Then she shrugged. Ah, Spike realized. Bad nightmare.

"Just a dream. Go back to sleep."

"Not now."

"Was I in it?"

She turned and glared at him, oddly perking him up. At least if she was pissed, that was better than the moping-around stuff. He sat and propped himself against the headboard, without covering himself up. Let the sheets fall where they may.

Buffy glanced over her shoulder at him, then flushed and hiked the sheet tighter around herself, which, while indicating a great deal about her mind set, was otherwise next to useless. He could see all of her back from where he was. He stretched out leg and prodded her back with his foot. She gave him another profoundly pissed look over her shoulder, and then, after shifting around, wiggled to the opposite corner of the bed, and glared sullenly at him while clutching the sheet to her breasts. He didn't quite smile at her, but something about her modesty touched him enough to keep his mouth shut. He leaned forward, slowly, and while she just looked at him, he took the edge of the sheet and slowly pulled it toward him.

"Stop."

"I've no intention of acting all Amish now, luv." He whispered.

She clutched the sheet to her breasts, and then he pulled it toward him, exposing first her breasts, which she crossed her arms over, then the rest of her.

"I could look at you forever, if you'd let me."

He dragged the sheet down her legs, which she crossed to go with her arms, but it was a start. He leaned back against the headboard and waited. Her face was flushed, and she looked down, but she made no effort to retrieve the sheet.

"It's customary to return a compliment with a compliment." He pointed out helpfully.

Which wasn't helpful, because all of a sudden she had to look up at him. If anything, she got even redder. He didn't have an erection or anything, and the two of them were eyeing each other from their respective corners of the bed like wary boxers, but at least she was looking at him, instead of scurrying to get dressed or something.

"Wonderful, just wonderful", Buffy thought. "This is so clinical".

Except it wasn't, not with Spike giving her the Spike look, and the knowledge that she could just look at him forever. Every time she'd looked at him before, it had been out of the corner of her eye, or while kissing, or in the middle of frenzied sex, so she hadn't had the time. He was completely unconcerned about it, although he did spare a thought for certain shrinkage issues, he being more sensitive to cold than a human male.

It would be so much easier staying away from him, if he had been ugly, Buffy thought:

"God, I'm so shallow." He was so lithe, all cat's muscles and long lines, and he felt as good as he looked. "Oh God. Why did I think that?"

Buffy wondered if she thought about baseball scores or something, she could ignore the naked vampire in her bed, looking at with sloe eyes, his hair all rumpled from sleeping. She especially liked it when it was like that, and usually she was the one who'd done it. Think of something else. Something else.

"What....?"

"Hm?" Spike cocked his head curiously at her. "You said something?" They were both whispering.

"What were you...?"

"I'm sorry?"

"What were you like....?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"What were you like when you were human?"

Spike, who had been contemplating what was visible of her breasts, and wondering why women didn't just spend all day naked in front of the mirror doing jumping jacks, was caught badly off guard.

"Wha....Huh?"

"What were you like when you were human?"

The full meaning of that sentence sank in slowly, along with a feeling of dread. He blinked several times, as the complete horror of his situation hit him. He froze as he considered the truth:

"Well, luv, I was the most pathetic twat you'd ever seen. Horrifying hair, prissy, never got laid till Dru, and the poetry...! Oh, God, I'd forgotten the poetry! Although, now that I think about it, I doubt very much that anybody who had to listen to it, ever forgot it. You see, that's why I offed everybody; I didn't want anybody telling exactly how ghastly was my verse. Sad but true. Doesn't that make you feel all amorous all of a sudden? Care for a shag?"

Then he considered lying, but that was even worse. He was an awful liar; the unvarnished truth was usually far more effective, but it was quite different to find one's self on the spot all of a sudden. He'd always done his best work there not by actually telling lies, but by not telling any bloody thing at all. Planting an idea and letting others run with it. Hinting, implying, speculating in careful not-quite finished sentences, that was the ticket.

But now...?!

Oh, this was priceless, he thought. Priceless. If he told her the truth, that would certainly douse the inferno they had going. End of story. She might feel sorry for him, but he'd bet it was a very platonic kind of sorry. And if he lied, he'd do it so badly she was bound to find out, and then whatever little headway they'd made would be blown to hell anyway. And what on earth could he make up anyway?

'Yeah, babe, I was a... a...'

Crap, he'd already implied as much.

"Bugger". He thought. "'Yeah, baby, I've always been bad.' Oh, bloody hell. "

Buffy looked at curiously, wondering why Spike of all people, who loved nothing so much as to hear himself talk, was suddenly silent. It did give her extra time to study him further, time she spent gainfully by eyeing his arms with wide eyes. For some odd reason, she was acutely conscious of how different their bodies were, and it wasn't a sexual realization. She eyed his Adam's apple, and wondered why on others, she'd never noticed. He was just so... different. He was also silent, still. She was the one to come over all puzzled. Then she realized the significance of it. He wasn't answering a simple question; it was worse than she'd feared. Was he worse than Angel? After all, the chronicles had said his nickname was 'William the Bloody.'

Spike saw her puzzled look turn to worry, and he did what all men do, even vampires, when confronted with the relationship equivalent of 'Does this make my butt look big?' He bailed.

"It's getting close to daylight, pet. I better go."

"Huh?"

He rolled off the bed, too fast to notice Buffy's consternation, the surprise of someone who hadn't actually considered not spending the rest of the night alone. He yanked on his jeans, boots, found his tee shirt, then picked up the coat.

"Buff, I gotta go."

"Wait." Buffy whispered.

Too late.



Chapter 7

Spike's feet hit the ground and he immediately wondered if it was too soon to climb back up to her window.

"Crap," he muttered. He turned around under her window, and looked up, planning the assault.

"Hm. I'm a git, here's the deal. I was... Argh. Bloody hell"'

A vivid mental image of his former self, curls and all, appeared in his fevered brain, and he winced, wondering if there was some way that could possibly be tweaked to be, well, something less git-like. He took a breath, assessing the tree he'd climbed so much earlier in the evening and had just descended, wondering how he was going to handle this.

"Spike?"

"Gah!"

He jerked around at the sight of a disembodied head floating at the corner of the house, but it was just Dawn, eyeing him curiously. At four AM. What the hell? He glared at her severely, but she was unimpressed.

"What are you doing here?" He snapped at her.

"What are you doing here?" She repeated pointedly. "Looking at Buffy's window?"

Perfect excuse, even though he didn't like to lie to the kid. Just some things she wasn't ready for.

"And your point would be?"

He lit a cigarette, and tiptoed toward the back porch, trying not to look like he was tiptoeing.

"Well, I thought maybe you were here to talk about my route, you know...."

She shrugged in a very self-effacing way that was so Buffy and Joyce-like that he stared, simultaneously touched and freaked at the same time. He regrouped and plunged in.

"What route would that be?"

He sat next to her on the deck, patting the wood next to him, and exhaling a smoke ring. Dawn cocked her head and grimaced at him, or perhaps the smoke, but she sat. They stared into the Summers back yard for several minutes, Dawn sleepily, and Spike with a certain degree of panic. There was a five second rule for retrieving fallen cookies from the floor, and there was a totally arbitrary time limit for retrieving one's ass from one's girlfriend after it had been pitched into the fire. He was afraid he was getting close to his expiration date. He also had the distinct impression that Dawn had something on the tip of her tongue, and was reluctant to spit it out. Family trait, that.

"All right, kid, what is it?"

"Buffy didn't ask you?"

"She might have mentioned it, but you know how fast she talks. Why don't you fill me in?"

"Well."

Dawn took a deep breath and clasped her hands between her knees. He saw for the first time she was wearing her jammies, which had little white sheep and moon and stars printed all over the tops and bottoms. She was also wearing little cow slippers; it was these that caught his eye, because they so perfectly embodied all her contradictions.

Catching his glance, she grinned in a nose-wrinkling way he could've sworn he hadn't seen since the spring, and stomped one foot down, hard, on the deck. The slipper mooed. He blinked. Dawn did it again, and he shook his head, rather disturbed. The second demonstration sounded as if the cow was in pain... or heat. Either way, definitely a fine end to a very odd day.

"Well, I like them." Dawn said rather sullenly.

Aha. Now he knew what he was dealing with: 100% sulking American teenager, a creature much easier to deal with the half sulky/half sweet Dawn who kept changing her moods as fast as... well, her sister.

He exhaled more smoke, and Dawn winced. She waved her hand in front of her face, and he was amused to see it; his smoking had never before bothered her, so he wondered exactly where she'd gotten that habit. Someone new she was hanging about with, maybe? He made a mental note to explore that area later.

"So?" He prodded.

"Well, I want to get a paper route." She blurted out.

He sighed, knowing where this was going. Good lord, Buffy was working in that awful place, now Dawn wanted a paper route. He knew perfectly well why she wanted one, but it had to be asked.

"Why?"

"Because..."

Dawn sighed an exact copy of his sigh, and he bit back a smile at that. It was obviously a delaying sigh, exactly as his had been, and he could see her weighing her options in her head. Explanation, or just spit it out?
She spit it out.

"We need the money."

"Buffy told you this?"

"Oh, no," she said disgustedly, irritated at not being kept informed. It had clearly never occurred to her that Buffy wanted to spare her any adult worries. "But I hear stuff, so I know."

"What about your Dad?"

Dawn waved a hand dismissively.

"He's off boinking his secretary and pretending he doesn't have us."

Spike flinched at her careless dismissal of her father, then wondered at the practiced way she'd said it. Then he wondered at the man who could ignore his girls in favor of some....

Dawn interrupted his thoughts.

"So I know I eat a lot, and there's bills and stuff..."

And that way, if I pay some of the bills, people will have to pay attention to me. If I help pay, then I get to decide stuff, too.
I want cable.

"You don't eat a lot."

"Well, we don't have a lot of stuff anyway."

Spike looked at her, puzzled, and she tossed her head, then jumped to her feet, and led him into the kitchen.
She wasn't exaggerating; there were lots of things like crackers and pasta in the cupboards, but there was nevertheless lots of bare space there. The fridge was even worse; only one shelf was half full, and there were only a few things scattered on the rest. Dawn caught his eye and shrugged.

"Mostly, that's Willow's."

"Meaning, hers alone?"

"No. Another shrug. "She says we can eat it, but she never has anything we like."

Hm. Hm indeed. He sat down at the table, and ran his hands through his hair.

"Does Willow pay rent?"

"I don't think so." Dawn said doubtfully. She hopped up on the counter, and poured herself a glass of water. "So what do you think?"

"How, exactly, do you have a paper route with a broken wrist?"

"That's where you come in."

Spike closed his eyes, suddenly picturing himself sullenly hawking papers on street corners while wearing a newsboy cap or something. So much for the Big Bad.

"So..." he said dryly. "I do the actual paper delivering, and you get the money?"

"No!" Dawn giggled, as if affronting his vampire dignity was amusing. "No, no, you just drive me there and drive me down the street while I toss the papers."

"Can you even throw papers like that?"

"They said I'd have to wait till my arm was better. But I got up early today so I could see what it's like.'

"Well. Did you?"

"Did I what? See... how it was getting up early?" She shrugged. "I pretty much already know what that's like. I really haven't slept later since Mom died."

He paused for a moment, thinking of Joyce.

"Did you think of any reasons why this might not be such a good idea?"

"Vampires?"

"Well, yeah..."

"And what else?"

"Demons? And uh, other things... Is that why there aren't any paper boys in Sunnydale?"

"Could be. What made you want this particular job?"

"I don't want Buffy's kind of job. You just do this and it's over for the day."

"It's a daily?"

"Huh? Oh, yeah."

Dawn looked in his eyes, and saw him wavering, why, she didn't know. She knew he'd help her, he always helped her....

"There's got to be a better way, Niblet." He said slowly. "There just has to be. Is it really that bad?"

"It's not good," Dawn countered. "Buffy has a whole drawer full of those bills. And she's tired all the time."

"She didn't seem too bad..." Spike stopped himself abruptly. Oh, no, she hadn't seemed too bad, but had he actually seen her working?

"She's working a lot." Dawn's tone seemed an equal mix of resentment and worry.

"Too much?"

He hadn't been paying any attention to much else outside of her that night, and to be honest, there hadn't been a lot there; just her, and the store. What had he missed?

"Much too much." Dawn clarified. "She's never home." She looked at him suddenly. "What, did you see her?"

"Huh?" Spike blinked at her, caught. "Yes. Ah, yes, I did."

"So? Wasn't she tired?"

Spike considered his options very carefully.

"You know, I wasn't paying attention to that."

"You were probably just, you know, paying attention to her..."

"Hey!"

"Oh, come on, Spike, I totally know how you feel about her..."

"Subject is closed, Niblet."

"So, are you going to do it?"

"I have to think about it."Spike said. "And there's something I have to do first."



Chapter 8

Spike drove slowly by the Doublemeat Palace, and tried to ignore Buffy so he could assess the place. Crap. He'd gone by it the other night in order to avoid the customers, and he'd been successful, but he hadn't gotten a real feel for the place. He'd been too consumed with her, being alone with her, after the missed meetings, the charade before her friends. He thought of his Slayer, who defeated demons with a quip and a well-placed weapon, and wondered how to amend the situation.

He watched the customers flock to the counter, yelling out their orders, yelling at Buffy, the stink of the place overwhelming him from across the street. The uniforms were garish, the hats designed to cause the maximum amount of humiliation in the wearer. And what on earth did places like that pay? Five bucks an hour? Six? Even after eight long hours, it was only forty bucks. How could he have missed it?

Her, of course. It was that simple. How was he supposed to concentrate on anything else? He'd crept closer, watching her through the window, thinking about that first moment, the kiss that started it all, her lips slamming against his, the struggle across the floor, the building shaking around them. The desperate search for some anchor in a world that shivered around them, and finding out the only anchor was one another. He swallowed now as he remembered it. That kiss... oh, and then everything after...

He shook himself. That wouldn't do at all. He couldn't concentrate like this.

What on earth could Buffy do, though?

He watched her standing disconsolately at the counter, and knew there was something he could do. Had to be, and it had to be beyond this horrible place. She wasn't supposed to be waiting on these ghastly, ungrateful people -- it was bad enough she had to save their ungrateful asses over and over again, she had to serve them stupid food. She'd been resigned to it the other night, having waitressed before, but this wasn't waitressing; there were no tips here. He watched her, and he found himself getting tired.

She did the same thing over and over again; wiping, cleaning, running, fetching, smiling at idiots who chewed with their mouths open. He watched people stand in line for ten minutes, get to the front, and then make up what passed for their minds. There was a guy who ordered a huge pile of food, then whipped out a checkbook, and when told, evidently, that the restaurant didn't take checks, he drew himself up to enormous heights, bellowing, and then spitefully knocked a cup of soda onto the counter. Some of the liquid splashed across Buffy's uniform. The customers snickered, and he vamped out so abruptly that his chip blazed a warning across his skull. He clutched his head, waiting for it to end, and wondered why it was even necessary to have a Vampire Slayer. Obviously what was really needed was the Slayer of Rude Bastards.

He watched in horror as a swaggering git dressed in head-to-toe logo wear sauntered up to the counter, and preened while he ordered. Spike, even without the vamp vision, could see that nothing the twit was wearing had his own initials on it, and amended his earlier proposal to Slayer of Rude Bastards Who Dress Badly.

Good God, more people were lining up. The place was an ant farm, the line snaking around velvet ropes, the drive through bumper to bumper. What did they put in those burgers? Drugs? Buffy smiled, took orders, cleaned, smiled, took orders, wiped counters, watched as careless gits carelessly spilled stuff, and just as carelessly shrugged it off.

Spike watched and thought of Dawn, trying to get a paper route with a broken arm that someone caused. Who, he suddenly wondered, was paying for those medical bills? He'd lay money it wasn't Willow.

All Buffy needed, he thought, was some respite. That was all. Not to be bailed out, just enough so that she could take a breather, rest, not deal with anything. She needed long dreamless nights without nightmares about bills, time to recharge her batteries. Couldn't they see that?

He wasn't even sure who they were. He just knew if he waited around for some of her friends to do something, he'd die of old age. One last try, he thought. Maybe if he just talked to her.....

But she was so bloody proud. Had to do it herself. It was one of the things he liked about her, not loved, but liked, the way she was so ferocious about doing it herself, coping. The problem is, she had been so good at it for so long, that when she had too much to do and cope with, she didn't know it was acceptable to get help.

He'd help, he thought. He had to. He was prescient enough to realize there was a certain selfishness there; he just couldn't bear to see her like this.

He shook his head at his own foolishness; picturing nothing more than the two of them as they had been in her bed before the nightmare, wrapped around each other, all warm from the bath, just sleeping, an act that somehow seemed almost more intimate than the sex. At least it would till both of them were making love and not just him.

He sighed and waited for the rush to end.



Chapter 9

You are the Chosen One.

It was the smell that defeated her, the smell on top of the cheerful visit from her friends. How on earth could they visit like that, be perky, when she felt as bad as she'd ever felt? Weren't they supposed to see that? Wasn't that sort of the definition of friendship? Were they even looking at her?

It was hard to say what was worse about the place; the comatose coworkers, the hours, or the smirking customers. She watched with clenched fists as one older gent, obviously drunk, yelled at one of the youngest workers, a boy no more than sixteen who looked twelve, because the kid hadn't put enough ice in his drink. What she could do to a guy like that... And the manager didn't do a damned thing about it.

Keep going, she thought. Just keep going. Overtime. Overtime is good. Rent would be better. She shoved that thought out of her head. My friends. Save the world a few times and people seem to think they can just wait around for me to come galloping in and clean up after them. She avoided the clock, which had become her enemy. She wiped the counter, swept the floor, mopped the floor, filled drinks, knowing that if she looked up, no more than seconds would have passed, and hours still remained. Keep going, Buffy, she told herself. Keep going. Paycheck.

But the mindless tasks left her with only two alternatives: think or don't think. She didn't want to think about this place, the very place she stood in now, because it seemed that this must be hell. The uniform was horribly cheerful, the hats were worse, and the smell... oh, the smell... If a demon had suddenly attacked her, she wouldn't have had the heart to fight back.

"Buffy! Empty that trashcan!"

She didn't even protest, because it meant looking at the Fire Escape of Lust, but it also meant fresh air. Freedom. She yanked the bag out of the can, and slammed through the back door, stomped to the dumpster, and realized her feet were practically numb. Accelerated healing powers, my ass, she thought. She sat down on the last run of the fire escape, wincing at the sensations suddenly flooding through her abused feet, and the memories coursing through her head.

Crazy. Bad. Disgusting.

She was so tired, she didn't have any defenses left. Crazy? Oh, sure, her best friend was marrying a thousand-year old demon who, if you didn't stuff a sock in her mouth right away, would just natter on about either capitalism or the good old days when she'd wreaked vengeance on the male half of the population. Her other best friend had managed to get so drugged on magic that as a result her little sister now had a broken arm. Her ex was living in LA. But her? She'd come back wrong. It was like a ghost, hovering around her, that thought, and the thought of Spike's last visit. The noises he made, the way he gasped against her mouth... Oh, it wasn't fair. She was a Slayer, she lived in a world with demons and monsters, and she had a vampire for a boyfriend, why couldn't she find a normal guy?

What's normal around here? A rebellious voice in her brain piped up. Vampires are normal around here. Get over it.

Bad, disgusting? It sure didn't feel that way. Spike was the only one who'd seen her naked, body and soul, and her friends, who should have known her better, mistook her excuses for her. But he didn't. She blinked rapidly. "Come with me, Buffy. This place will kill you." Oh, God, had she wanted to. But where to? How? He'd said he'd get money for her, and that was something her friend would surely notice. They wouldn't notice her depression, the hours she called 'patrolling' when in fact she was with Spike, they wouldn't notice Spike patrolling with them for months, trying to save Dawn, they wouldn't notice that she needed money that they had, and they wouldn't notice how tired she was. But they'd certainly notice somehow if he gave her money enough to stave off the worst of the money hemorrhaging. And they would disapprove. They would make her feel bad, but they wouldn't, of course, help.

She sighed. They needed me to slay, she thought bleakly, but I need them. I can't lose anyone else. She got up and went wearily inside.



The skies darkened, and the evening rush came. To her, they might as well have been demons, these people; they seemed to be so distorted, these people, all hurried, barking orders, glaring at her for her fumbles, all loud voices, too many of them, none of them looking her in the eye. She ran back and forth, filling orders, dropping things, dropping fires, never doing anything right, apologizing, explaining with a self-depreciating giggle that 'It's my first day,' only to be greeted with a shrug. She kept offering the statement as an explanation, receiving over and over again the same response: a disinterested eye roll, a 'whatever' or, worst of all, no response at all. Nothing.

Then she looked up, and there was no one waiting at the counter, and the tables were slowly being abandoned in the restaurant. She sighed at the chaos in the dining air, but there was a breeze coming from the drive through. She turned toward it, not yet ready to face the cleaning up, when she saw something through the window and froze.

Spike.

Come with me. This place will kill you.

He stared at her though the window, swallowing, a muscle in his jaw flexing as he looked at her, as if he could make her come with him by the sheer power of his stare. Behind her, there was cleaning to be done, over and over again, more food to be cooked, because her uniform wasn't yet totally permeated with the grease smell yet....

She brushed past her coworkers, banged through the back door, and stopped. He gave her an exasperated sigh that so reminded her of her mother that she could have broken down right there. Somebody else who cared enough about her to yell.

She couldn't go, she absolutely couldn't go, but she couldn't stay, she couldn't do the same thing endlessly over and over again, like that horrifying day of the repetition spell at the Magic Box, except here it was real. She realized, with something like horror, that she was going to cry, if she didn't do something about it, and he knew it, too. He reached out, as if he were afraid of being burned, and touched her hair. "Come on, Buffy. Leave." He whispered. It broke his heart to see her so exhausted, so defeated. Not his Slayer. She grabbed him by both lapels, and though he had some speeches all worked up in his head about how he only wanted all of her, they appeared to have been tossed out the window. She buried his face in his shoulder, and he realized she was shaking with exhaustion, too proud to admit it, too stubborn to quit something once she'd started it, and too naïve to realize that the job was Sisyphean. I only want all of you, he thought, as if it would convince himself. At least it was't a New Year's resolution.

"Come on, Buff." He whispered again.

"No. I can't. You know I can't."

He was the only one who knew, the only part of this horrible day that wasn't nightmarish. She buried her face in his chest, tightening her arms around his body till it almost hurt, wanting to crawl inside him, just wanting him.

The wall was against her back, and he was wrapped around her, the only refuge she had. He knew what was going to happen, knew he couldn't stop himself, wondered if he ever would. She needed him, he thought, and that was enough for now. He lifted her head off his shoulder with a gentle palm, but his other hand found her breast, the irresistible soft curse of its underside, and molded it into his other palm. He slid against her, hands sliding down her body, down her thighs, lifting her off the ground just enough, rubbing against her, while she clutched him like a drowning woman. She was the one who got his fly open, but she lacked her usual coordination, and he had to lower her the few inches to the ground to lower his pants. He noticed she winced when her feet hit the ground. He dealt with her clothes as if she were a child, she was practically limp against him, always looking desperately into his face.

She was wearing the tacky skirt that came with the uniform, a coarse polyester that didn't go at all with the Victoria's Secret panties he pushed aside. They were so close in height he only had to lift her a few inches against the wall, and then pushed into her. He rocked against her, trying to reach her, but she clutched him with her hands, pressed her forehead against his, and tried to pull strength from him. It always worked, he always did this to her, awakening her nerve endings, charging her cells with pleasure.

Except it didn't work, not the way she intended. She saw the dumpster over his shoulder, and reality descended on her. He was right. It was killing her. She remembered the first time, the shock on his face as she guided him inside her, the shock to her senses as he slid all the way home, hitting nerves she didn't know she had. The biggest shock had been his eyes, the same eyes looking all the way inside her now. He was watching her, worrying about her, when, she thought, I should be worrying about him. He slid one hand between them, finding her clitoris, and she realized with a shock that some things didn't change. It was short, and sharp, this orgasm, her muscles clenching around him, and she found she wanted him to come more than she wanted herself to. He braced his hands against the wall, and went faster, freezing against her, with his face pressed against the wall.

She didn't want to move, but that would mean being discovered. Why did she suddenly care? she thought. She never cared before.

Spike sighed finally, and pulled away from her, looking at her sadly. The thought hit him again: Money. Lots of money. He had to get lots and lots of money. Maybe it really was unfair of him to demand her love when he was a distraction from her responsibilities. Money. Where could he get money?

He leaned against her, kissing her with a calmness that he'd never felt any of the other times they'd had sex. It was almost pleasant, being so calm, so resolved. He knew what he had to do, and who he had to do it for, and to.

Who had money?

Angel.



Chapter 10

Spike rushed around his crypt, hoping there wasn't a camera any where. He hadn't been so happy since... okay, since, well, anything involving Buffy, but this was different. Kicking demon ass simply wasn't the challenge it had been, but this -- Angel -- this was a challenge. Just like the good old days. He'd whale some money out of the old bastard, get it funneled to Buffy somehow, and combine business with pleasure.

Okay, it would be more like combining pleasure with pleasure, but who cared?

He pawed through drawers and crypt spaces, shoving aside bones and things, and wondering what it would cost to get a cleaning service. One of these days, he was going to late up a fag, and the crypt would explode as the dust combusted.

Hm.

He found the cattle prod -- always useful for a family reunion of sorts -- then the stun gun, plus some ropes. Hm. What would especially irritate Angel?

Fun, probably.

He considered tossing in some Playboys just to be petty, then decided petty was just another word for creative, and threw his entire stash in there. The bag was satisfyingly heavy as he hoisted it to his shoulder.

He looked down at the bed, smoothing over the spread with a hand that seemed to remember Buffy as much as his mind did. "You're in my gut, Summers..." Funny that it turned out to be true after all this, he thought. Every part of his body had a different memory of her, and together they combined and made a terrible cocktail of sensation that seized his unbeating heat with electricity as if he was being electrocuted not from life but back to it.

He'd planned on leaving her a note, and cowardice had nothing to do with it. No, not at all. The fact that he'd been accusing her of holding back while he was reluctant to reveal his gitlike past was in no way related to his reluctance to look her in the eye just now.

He got out the roses and shook the petals all over the bed and then admired the effect. Then he sighed, and settled against the headboard with a piece of paper and a pen.

"Dear Buffy.." He chewed on the pen, irritated with the very salutation.

"Dearest..."Yeah, sure, that would be a good way or working up to the whole geek confession.

"Buffy," Yo, listen up. Sure. I'll get laid again before the next century.

He stopped and stared at the ceiling. Help was not forthcoming. He thought abruptly, she'll be in the tub about now. She'll be all wet and warm... and he wouldn't be able to see her for several days...

Really, it was terrible to leave a note for her. He should do it in person.

It was the least he could do.....



Chapter 11

Damned tree.

Spike cursed under his breath as another branch snagged something he'd prefer remained unsnagged. And he wasn't at all certain of the reception he'd get, the whole issue of William almost dampening his need to see her just once more before he left for LA.

He drew level with her window, and got a whiff of the shampoo she was using; something that made his stomach growl. At least, he thought that was his stomach. He hoped it was his stomach, but it was amazing what a day of abstinence did to a guy. She must use a different flavor every day, he thought, because the scent always wafted about him.

Type of shampoo, he corrected himself. Flavor was her herself; all the different tastes. For a moment, he seriously considered just ripping branches aside and jumping, the rest of the house be damned; but he considered the look on Will's face if she caught them somewhere between the bath and the bed, and with a great sigh, he tried to conjure up the sort of thoughts that had kind of worked when his blood was his own....

Ah. Bill Clinton naked.

Angel naked.

Harris in a tutu; Anya in a kitchen. The killer snot monster from last year suddenly developing an amorous yen for a bleached blonde British vampire.

That last might have succeeded all too well, he thought. He relaxed for a minute, or as much as he could, considering, and grappled his way to the windowsill. Trying not to look too eager -- like anyone could see him -- he tore off his duster, and yanked off his boots before tiptoeing to the bathroom door, almost shaking with eagerness.

Striving for nonchalance, he opened the door, poking his head around and looking in.

"You know, only in America do people get so dirty they need to bathe every day."

Buffy looked up at him, consideringly, relief flowing outward through her entire body. She'd been afraid he wouldn't come; and the feel of that fear made her wonder why. Just sex, that's all. That was easier to believe with him tearing his tee shirt off in front of her, and revealing that lean lithe torso. Her breath suddenly came up short, and her nipples abruptly tightened with a tingle. Which was absurd, because the water was hot... He shoved his jeans down his legs, and he was partially erect. She was glad she was sitting down in hot water, because there suddenly seemed to be tremors going through her limbs that mad her wonder if she could have stood up if she wanted to. And breathing? Who needed breathing?

Spike caught her look, her eyes huge, and froze for a minute. Oh, how was he going to last a couple of days in LA? He dipped one foot into the water between her legs, and slid down between her legs. He still wasn't certain of his reception; she'd looked at him wide-eyed, but hadn't said anything. Doubts, however, disappeared, as she slid against his back, sliding her arms under his, and around him, notching her chin over his shoulder. He could feel her swallow as well as hear it, and feel little tremors in the arms around him. He slid back against her, feeling her breasts tightening against her back, feeling her arms knotting tighter around his chest. His Slayer was such a frail thing sometimes, he thought, reaching up with one hand and cupping her palm with his hand. She was looking at him with uncertain eyes, but her cheeks were wildly flushed, and he could feel her heart beating wildly against his back. It seemed to reverberate all through his body. She was so passionate in bed, but it was a furnace that she didn't know how to control, and none of the gits she'd been with...He shut off that thought with a certain bitterness. Spike, vampire Doctor Ruth? Not bloody likely. She shifted against him, burying her face against the back of his neck with a shiver and a sigh, and he decided that words weren't so great after all. Who needed them? As long as she was wrapped around him like that, he didn't need anything else. He slid his arms over hers, and laced his fingers through hers. She responded with a sigh and a swallow that so obviously came around a lump in her throat that his brain locked and all he wanted to do was relieve that tension. Love hurts, indeed, he thought ruefully. Too right that was. Hurt him worse than anything to see her all locked up in her emotions like this, so clenched up she couldn't get the words past the knot in her throat.

She kissed the back of his neck, just once, pressing her lips against his skin as gently as if he was some virgin, as if he were still the boy in London a hundred years earlier. It said so much that she couldn't, and with her heart beating through his body as if it were his own, he couldn't contain himself, blurting out something he thought might make her feel better.

"You know, I was the most awful twit in the world."

"What?" She whispered.

The words tumbled over each other like water from a melting avalanche, unstoppable, like a verbal orgasm... "I was the most awful git in the world. There might even be pictures of me. Giles? Ha. Had him beaten. I had curls. I wrote poetry. I wrote bad poetry. I wrote poetry that was so bad people cringed when I opened my mouth. I was the biggest geek in London, and you have no idea how competitive that was then... I was such a geek, I had this crush on this stupid woman..."

Buffy reached around him, and turned his face to her, looking into his face wonderingly. "What are you talking about?"

"You asked what I was like, when I was human. I was barely human. I was so-- " She stopped him with a kiss, twisting around and making him twist with her till they were sideways in the tub, with one of her legs in front of him. She wrapped her arms around her head, and kissed him with the pent-up emotions of a stupid day, and wondered why it was that he alone could make her forget it all. His body slithered like quicksilver beneath her fingers, all lean muscle, and sleek bone. She pushed him against the back of the tub, pressing her hands against his chest, climbing over him till she was positioned just on top of the head of his dick, and he sucked on his own lower lip as she lowered herself around him, engulfing him like some whirlpool. She was hotter than the water. He grabbed her hips, wishing he could blush, wishing he could match her temperature. She hadn't even gotten all the way down, so slowly was she descending on him, making him aware of every part of her body, the slick muscles inside her. She braced her hands on the sides of the tub, eyes never leaving his, even when she hit bottom, and her clitoris hit his body. It was him that closed his eyes and shuddered, his hands leaving her body, flying to the edge of the porcelain and grabbing it as desperately if he was going to fall off a cliff. She swirled against him, rubbing against him, her muscles shuddering around him, locked onto him as if they were parts of the same machine. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, she used her arms to pull bit by bit up his length, and he saw black sparks in front of his eyes. He leaned forward and grabbed her in a kiss, but she didn't speed up one bit. "What are you doing?" He whispered. He knew if he tried to speak in a normal tone, his voice would break.

"Taking it slow."

"Why?"

She gave him a shrug that almost looked nonchalant. "Well," she said almost casually, "You are kind of old. Don't want you..."

He was startled into laughter, finally having to bury his face in her shoulder to muffle himself. She giggled into his hair, but stopped abruptly as they both slipped and she was abruptly jerked down all the way on top of him. The laughter made all sorts of different muscles active, around him, in him, and they both went rigid. She gave a choking noise, and he thought confusedly that she had something in her throat, but instead she gasped, and shuddered against him, her wet muscles clamped around him so tightly that he himself succumbed with a groan. It was so abrupt and so fast he was left shaking. The aftershocks faded and they stared at each other, wide eyed.

He reacted with his instincts, leaning forward and kissing her, all his tension gone. He felt like he'd been wrung out and ironed. "C'mon, love." He whispered finally.

"Why?"

"What?" He whispered into her neck, "questioning my judgment? At your age?" He shifted gingerly, pulling out of her, and watched her flinch and sigh. "Buff? Does that hurt?"

"What?" She looked at him, then blushed. "Yes. A little." She blushed even more."I guess. Don't like it when you leave me." She was so red he was afraid she was going to explode. She looked away and pulled herself to sit on the edge of the tub, grabbing a towel, which he pulled out of the way so he could slide into her lap, between her legs, grab her face, and kiss her until she threw her head back and sighed at the ceiling. It almost did him in.

"C'mon." He whispered again. He stood up and took her hand, grabbing the towel again, and patting her dry. She all flushed and hot, slippery with whatever she'd scented the bathwater. He ran the towel up her arm, following it with his mouth, kissing up her arm till he got to her wrist, where the pulse was jumping crazily. He got no further there because she abruptly wound her arm around his neck and pulled him to her mouth. He groaned into her mouth as they twisted against each other, one hand in her hair, the other sliding down her body till it dived between her legs. She started against him, against his mouth, and it was he could do not to wrap her around him right there. He disengaged, stepped back, and flapped the towel at her, cocking an eyebrow. "You're all wet." He said disapprovingly. "You'll catch a cold."

It had to be at least ninety degrees.

"Who do you think you're kidding?" Buffy asked as he dropped to his knees in front of her, the towel sliding down one thigh, as if he were polishing a piece of furniture.

"Well, I was hoping you'd fall for it." He traced her leg with the towel in one hand, and the tips of his fingers, enclosing her thigh with light fingers, sliding to her knee, then further. He pressed his face to her stomach while she sucked her breath in abruptly, causing him to look up at her, his chin in her pubic hair, his eyes so blue they were almost black in this light. He blew on her damp curls and she closed her eyes, beyond all self-consciousness now, trembling with anticipation. He slid his demon hands up her legs while she sucked air into lungs that didn't seem to work suddenly. He buried his face in her curls, breathing her in, absorbing her shudders into his very fibers. Her hands roamed through his hair, pulling and twisting. Reluctantly, he pulled away, possessed by an idea.

He traced his fingertips down her other leg, cupping her buttock with one light hand, tracing the muscles on the front, kissing his way to her knee, then kissing back up to her inner thigh. "Oh God." Buffy gritted out. With a grin, he popped up to his feet, a markedly cheerful presence in contrast to the way she clung to the door. "C'mon Buff." He whispered in her ear. He followed this pressing against her, his whole length, brushing his lips along her collarbone.

"Trust me?" He whispered.

"What?" She was in a daze.

"Trust me?" He pulled the sash of her bathrobe off of it, and dangled it in front of her eyes, and bit his lip. She looked at his lip and nodded.

He eased her back on the bed, shifting her to the center, then pulling her arms over her head and tying her wrists together. "Comfy?" He whispered.

She nodded. "Then let's see how uncomfortable I can make you." He whispered.

He slid off the bed, and walked around to its foot, seeing how she closed her legs, blushing. He seated himself casually on the foot, of the bed, looking at her feet, then thoughtfully reaching out and tickling the sole of one foot. She giggled a bit and then wriggled. Despite the situation, there was something so innocent about that giggle, so much of the old Buffy in it, that he had to look away, suddenly overwhelmed.

He was going to remember this when he and his sire had their chat. Oh yes.

He picked up her foot, making her wriggle at the exposure, but she sagged abruptly when he scraped his fingers slowly, lightly, in a straight line down the center of the sole. He followed this, slower still with his tongue. Buffy's eyes widened suddenly. He pressed kisses to the inside of her ankle, and then worked his way up her calf till he reached her knee. He turned on his back between her legs to kiss the back of her knee, then rolled over onto one side to start his way up her inner thigh. He rested one hand, casually, as if she were an armrest, on her crotch and abdomen, feeling the tension in her stomach muscles. He kissed the inside of her thigh, licking the tight muscles as if he were a cat cleaning its paws after a meal, kissing his way up the crease of skin between her thigh and body. He kissed the soft skin between her pubic hair and navel, glancing up as he did so to see her not quite panting at him, her breasts doing the most enchanting ebb and roll like waves on an ocean. He buried his face in her stomach to hide his response, afraid he was going to explode right then and there.

He sighed into her stomach, control reasserted, and worked his way down her other leg, slowly, leisurely, as if he had to map out her body with his tongue, licking her skin like a cook testing the taste, caressing her fevered flesh with the barest of fingertip touches. She twisted around him, a sea of skin and sense, her free leg rubbing against him, her muscles shivering despite the heat. He kissed her ankle, then paused between her legs to enjoy the view. Then on hands and knees he crawled up to her abdomen and started the journey northward. He lowered himself to her skin, kissing her abdomen, fingertips slipping along damp skin, feeling the heat and moisture increase against his own stomach. She was moving involuntarily beneath him, either trying to get away from the tormenting sensation or closer to it.

He'd been wanting to do this forever, to wander over till he knew every inch. He kissed his way between her breasts, raising his head to find her eyes on him, glazed, breathing shallowly. Instead of kissing her lips, he leaned forward and kissed the tip of her nose, then her forehead.

Then he lowered himself between her breasts, holding her eyes, cupping the sensitive flesh on the underside of her breast. He traced the curve, up and down, with one fingertip, as if it fascinated him, which wasn't too far from the truth. Then he kissed his way up the side of her body, finding the sensitive spots on the side of her ribs, and ending at the palm of her hand. "How ya doin'?" He asked jauntily.

"Oh, just fine." She said sarcastically.

"Really?" He traced one long finger over her left nipple. Buffy closed her eyes, and strained against the sash, and Spike had to close his eyes for a moment and think of Xander Harris in his boxers or something. "Do you have an appointment somewhere? Because I could go."

Buffy glared at him, and he spotted revenge in that glare. He traced his finger down her body, dipping with the lightest of touches between her legs, to find her so wet he actually had trouble finding his way inside her. She shuddered under him, thrusting against him, and he shushed into her mouth, just intending to tease her, stroking her clit with his thumb, finding it swollen. She moaned into his mouth, breathing hard. He had to stop for a moment, afraid again that he was going to explode right then. It was a good thing he hadn't intended to use his tongue, because he was afraid if he did so, he'd embarrass himself. He caressed her with his fingers, just stroking lightly, watching her eyes lose their focus, feeling himself lose his own control, wanting to taste her again, feel the shudders through his tongue, straight to his brain. He thought about cricket, about golfing, but a sudden mental image of Buffy in her sweats and tank top appeared before his brain, contrasting with the naked reality in front of him, and he tossed his plan aside. So much for self control. With his hand buried between her legs, she was arching and moaning against him, slicked with a fine film of sweat. He fell on her like a starving man, ripping the sash away, and diving between her legs as she rubbed her wrists once and then, ironically enough, grabbed the iron rails on the headboard as he found her clit with his mouth and sucked on it so hard that her eyes rolled back and her legs convulsively came up on his shoulders. He only time for a few strokes before she plunged her hands in his hair and pulled him against her. He savored the rythm of her orgasm, his own pelvis involuntarily moving on its own as she undulated under him. He crawled up her body with the last shreds of control he had, and promptly tossed that control aside and sank into her depths with a groan.

Her muscles twitched around him, still tender, and she wriggled to let him deeper inside. She slid her hands up his arms, locking her eyes to his, reaching up for a kiss, and he groaned again as if she were torturing him, and melted into her arms. He ground into her, throwing his head back as if to try and find some control somewhere but it was all gone. She was twisting under him, kissing every part of his body she could reach with her mouth, gasping against his chest, kissing his chest and shoulders with wet noises as his desperate rhythm pulled them apart and brought them back together.

In contrast to her, his orgasm was soft and gradual, rolling over him for so long parts of his body lost feeling. He rolled over her, burying his face in her shoulder, feeling the surge of ecstasy washing over him and leaving him almost helpless in its wake.

He came back to himself to find her watching him with those wide eyes. "What?" He muttered.

"I..." She gulped. Her face had turned bright red again, and there were even red blotches on her neck and chest. "I love watching you do that."

"Oh." Spike said faintly. "Really."

"Yes."

"Oh." Oh, hell. Angel could wait.

For centuries, if need be.

"Well," he said, "I guess I'll just have to keep that in mind, won't I?"

She kissed him, biting his lip. "You'd better."

They were both asleep before the last syllable.



Chapter 12

Spike woke up when she tied his hands to the bedposts with the same sash he'd used on her. He watched her face with some trepidation; she had an odd, serious, almost vacant look on her face, as if she were a million miles away. He was starting to feel rather miffed, when she turned and crawled to the foot of the bed, giving him a view of her behind and legs that made him forget to breathe.

At the foot of the bed, she gazed down at his feet, pulling his feet apart, sliding her hands up his calves, lightly scratching her nails at the back of his knee, dropping her eyes and looking up through her lashes. He wondered if she was deliberately looking innocent, which was quite an accomplishment, as she sat naked between his legs. He didn't get time to ask her, however. She got up and walked around the side of the bed, still looking serious, almost dreamy, hopping up beside him on the bed and looking down on him for several minutes. He tensed, wondering what was coming, remembering what he'd done to her, and wondering if now was payback.

What he wasn't expecting was the kiss that he got; sweet, almost virginal, soft and so light it was almost too little. He changed his mind as she relaxed into it, her body melting to his, bit by bit, till she was lying on him, her hands roaming over his body.

It began to dawn on him slowly that she had a different goal in mind than he had. She started kissing her way over his body, licking and biting just lightly down his chest, kissing the marks she'd left on him earlier. He wondered if she'd ever done this with any of her boyfriends; he rather suspected not. Unlike his tactic of avoiding her erogenous zones until they both couldn't stand it, she zeroed in on his nipples, the inside of his thighs, and his dick. She wriggled on top of him, her breasts pressing into his stomach, then his chest, as she dragged herself back to his mouth and gave him a kiss that went straight down his nerve endings to his burgeoning erection. She was sliding her hands up and down his arms, down his sides, fingering thoughtfully the muscles on his sides, his chest, stroking them in an oddly catlike way. All the time, the heat of her body burned into him, and he could feel how aroused she herself was. He bent his legs, trying to wrap himself around her like she did him, but she continued working her way down his body, looking into his eyes, thrusting her tongue into his belly button, before meandering further south between his legs and settling herself in on her side.

He still didn't know quite what was going on; she was being so gentle, and he'd expected ferocity. She handled him as if she were afraid he'd break, tracing the veins on his penis, then licking it as if it were candy, tracing the veins with her tongue like lines on a map. And then he stopped thinking....

It was delicate and fierce both, her tongue and her mouth unnaturally hot, her hands preternaturally gentle. The Slayer, who'd once been the only opponent to truly scare him, had somehow metamorphosized into elements that defied his definition. Heat and liquid, pressure and weight, all beyond his control and description. Her hands were gentle and possessive, saying everything she couldn't, and his last lucid thought was that it wasn't a bad trade. Not when his hips had begun gentle, small movements, and her mouth had not relented. He kept opening his eyes to find hers fixed upon his, and he wanted so desperately to touch her that it was frustration crystallized rather than frustration released that spurred him on. He couldn't help it, his breaths shrinking into gasps, his back arching like a bow; "Oh, God, Buffy...! Oh God, oh, God..." And then even breathing itself became a struggle, and he couldn't remember if he was human or not. Didn't only humans feel such things, such vulnerability? He was still a vampire, after all, but as his breathing slowed from gasps to even tempo, he wondered. He looked down at her, curled up between his legs, and wondered more. Had it been like this? When? As a human, he'd been hopeless, but now... He felt hope, and it was like a shock to his system. Maybe it wasn't his heart that needed reviving.

She bit her lip, watching him recuperate, and then pulled herself up between his legs, and crawled up his body till she was poised over his penis. With her legs on either side of him, her hands bracing herself on his chest, she settled herself on his insanely sensitive dick and made herself comfortable...but not him. She was burning him with her heat, and he hadn't recovered himself enough to do anything about it.

She leaned forward then, and with a sense of impending doom, he tried to reach up and meet her mouth. Now he understood the sash, the restraint. She didn't trust herself; it wasn't him that needed the restraint, it was her.

She kissed him, then, another one of those gentle, savoring kisses, sighing into his mouth, hands working through his hair, tongue meeting his own. He could feel how aroused she was, the pulse beating between her legs and reverberating through his flesh. She pulled back slowly, settling her weight on his penis, moving just a bit, back and forth, her wet flesh moving up and down his length, and he was amazed. He wasn't erect; but that was going to change really fast if she kept doing that. She was wriggling on top of the head of his penis in earnest now, the ridge hitting her in all the right places. He had to close his eyes as she slowly rubbed against him, her breasts too far away, but too much to see and not have. In the frenzy that much of their encounters became, he hadn't had much time to just appreciate how the sight of her affected him, but now he did, and he drank it in, knowing that it would probably be a couple of days before he saw enough of her again. She was a small girl, made smaller by the leanness of muscle, her body lightly dotted with scars, an especially nasty one low on her left side.

"Something nasty got a taste of you." Hoist by my own petard yet again, he thought wryly. Looking at her, however fun it was, though, wasn't the same as holding her, and he knew he could rip the sash off. He'd had however long since she'd tied him up, and as much fun as it was watching her, the best thing of all was feeling as much of her as he could enclose in his arms and hands. It wasn't enough to see her.

She stopped, froze, looking down at him, then slowly reached out and pulled the sash free. He rubbed his wrists, looking up at her, and she slipped off of him, down his legs, but he stopped her, pulling her up till she was on top of him, staring into his eyes as if she'd been caught at something illegal. He slid his own hand down her body, rolling her over so he could concentrate on his task, then slipping his hand between her legs. At that, she closed her eyes, and made a sound that shivered straight through his body. He was abruptly hard, and she felt it, too, because she bent her knee and tried to pull him over on top of her.

"Ah ah ah." He whispered. "This is yours..." He thought wryly; not even necessary, either; if she kept looking at him like that, he'd explode some time soon anyway. Oh, God, she was wet and tender, and he wanted to dive between her legs and taste her till he'd melted her bones. But the same voice that nagged him about her also pointed out that this was different. He needed to look into her eyes. "Look at me, luv. Let me see you." And then he didn't look away, not even when she reached out and grabbed his shoulders, not even when she spread her legs, as if she were trying to escape those tormenting fingers -- or make sure they didn't miss a single spot. Not even when she grabbed him to her, kissing him desperately, biting her lip between kisses, trying to stop the sounds in her throat. Not even when she came, silently, barely moving, looking into his eyes, rocking gently, the way people do when they're wading in the ocean and a wave hits them. But the waves stopped and she couldn't stop looking.



Chapter 13

Spike checked Buffy's alarm clock and groaned, contemplating a drive to LA with nothing in his stomach and no sleep at all. He scrubbed his hair, and gathered his strength to sit up. He wanted a cigarette, but that would require energy he'd need for the shower. Slowly, as if he were a very old vampire indeed, he got up and staggered to the bathroom, where his clothes still lay on the floor. He shook his head, picked them up and hung them on the towel rack, then turned the water on and sat in the steam. He thought about lighting up a cigarette, but this seemed like a rather bad idea. First off, the smoke was a dead giveaway; anyone who ever used the bathroom would know he'd been in here, unless Dawn was smoking on the sly, too. That of course, would raise far too many questions that as yet were impossible to answer. He doubted either one of them could articulate the questions themselves.

The steam was rolling out of the shower now, and he sighed with the weariness of a very old man and stepped in. For a moment he just braced his hands against the wall and faced the steam, finally groaning and tossing his head back as the pounding water punched some feeling into his exhausted cells.

"Hey." He whipped around at the sound of her voice, but before he could form syllables, she was climbing in the tub, smiling at what his hair was doing, independent of his wishes, and grabbing a bottle from the shelf.

"Hey!" He grabbed the bottle. "What's that?"

"Where I come from, it's called shampoo. It makes magic that cleans the hair of bleached blonde people."

"Who are you calling bleached, blondie?" He demanded. "All natural."

"Evidence to the contrary."

"Yeah, whereas you..." He raised one eyebrow at the proof that she was no more a natural blonde than he was, and got a headful of shampoo for his trouble. But his make-believe irritation washed away as she scrubbed his hair, with her naked body pressed against his back, her erect nipples slowly exhausting his composure. His concentration returned abruptly when he realized she'd molded hair and shampoo into one peak on his head. He eyed her over his shoulder with the air of a man beset by idiots, and ducked his head under the stream of water. When all the soap was out, he shook his head like a dog, splashing her vigorously, and then got his revenge. He started with her hair, but as soon as he'd rinsed her, he pushed her up against the shower wall and kissed her so hard he could feel her legs shake.

He didn't stop kissing neither her, nor she him, but he did realize that the shower wall was cold tile, and probably that was why she was shivering. He turned them around so he had his back to the wall, and pulled her tight against him, feeling her mouth opening, opening against his.

He could feel the heat and the steam affecting him, affecting the kiss, making it slow and luxurious, tidal, thorough, as they twisted against and into one another. He was so tired that he couldn't have done more if he wanted to, but he found it was just enough to kiss her. Her flesh was sleek and wet against him, and he could feel, strangely enough, goose bumps rising over her body. He didn't think he'd felt like this before, this slow seeping languor that crept over his limbs as the heat of the water warmed his blood and his lips.

They were so close in height that they fit perfectly together, her hands sliding up his arms and around his back, while she twisted against him. They kissed for an eternity with slow circles of motion, hands roaming across sleek muscles and sinew, supple and fluid, till only the cold water brought reality in.

"Oh, crap," Spike muttered.

They stumbled out of the shower, grabbing towels. Drying was hurried, and followed by a dash for the bed, where they both burrowed under the covers till the chill of the air was gone. Spike was startled that he wasn't startled by the way she curled up around him. How soon we get spoiled, he thought.

"Buff, you know, I have to go."

"Now? It's not nearly daylight."

"There's an errand I have to run."

"Now?" There was a distinct whine in her voice, and he lifted up his head to look at her; she wouldn't meet his eyes.

"Yes, now. It'll be a couple of days."

"What is it?"

He thought about it, wondering why romance sometimes seemed more perilous than any form of wartime endeavor. If he told her the truth, she'd freak; if he lied to her, well, he'd lied to her, and he'd yet to meet a woman who didn't have a spy network that made the CIA jealous. If he lied, she'd find out, and that would be it. "I don't want to jinx it, luv. Bad luck."

"Is it legal?" She asked hopefully. She was tracing circles on his chest.

"Completely." He said truthfully. He was sort of amazed at that. After all, what was he doing? Requesting a charitable donation. Ha. His sudden meeting with the truth left him giddy.

"Completely?"

"Oh, yes, but tricky. So I don't want to count my chickens before, you know, all that stuff."

"Oh." She subsided on his chest again, but before she could get all comfortable, he reluctantly shifted away.

"Must get dressed, or I'll stay here all day, and then what will we do?"

Buffy looked at him from under long lashes, biting her lip, and every bone in his body turned to mush. A whole day, he thought. A whole day... After which, no doubt, the sheriff would come to toss them out, and then all he could hope was that he never let slip how he'd had this idea and not acted upon it.

He got up and went reluctantly to the bath, where he yanked his clothes on bitterly as if they'd done something to disappoint him. Then, cracking his neck to get rid of the kinks, he went back to the bed, to put his boots on. Buffy gave him a sulky look, and he suddenly realized that only weeks ago, she would have hid that look from him.

He'd pulled on one boot successfully when he heard a drowsy whisper. "Stay."

Perfect timing, of course. He stared through the window at the stars, hoping to find fortitude there. "Can't luv, must go."

"Stay." She whispered again. He turned to look at her and she was drowsy and boneless with sleep. When she felt his eyes on her, she blinked, kittenishly, and then lifted the blankets to lure him back inside. Oh, God, he thought. She was damp and ruffled with sleep and shower, blinking owlishly, and the bed was a nest of warmth and slumber. All it would take would be for him to toss his boots aside and dive in, into warmth and sleep. He leaned over and settled on top of her, to discover that had been a very bad idea. He hadn't zipped up his jeans, and she wrapped her legs and arms around him, trying to push his jeans off with the heels of her feet. Spike felt her warmth seep into and thought, "Five minutes, five minutes, five minutes..." But the sun would rise soon, and he had to do this now. If it was this difficult leaving her now, how much worse would it be later? She cupped her hands around his buttocks under his jeans, and the cute wrestling suddenly became serious. One more second of this and he would have to stay. "Must go."

"Stay."

"Can't, but the sooner you let me go, the sooner I'll be back."

"Stay." The kisses were getting more serious, and he sighed and pulled away.

"You're evil." He said, as she traced her fingers over his crotch. He was sort of amused when she beamed suddenly at him, and chirped, "Thank you!" But her arms loosened, and it gave him the opportunity to pull up and away. Every cell in his body complained bitterly, and as he pulled on his other boot, she kicked him in the back. Then she sat up and wrapped herself against his back, her legs alongside his. He ran his hands up and down her knee, while she hooked her chin over his shoulder.

"When are you going to be back?"

"Two days, I hope. Hopefully faster."

She sighed against him, exasperated and showing it. He had a brief moment where he thought, God, she'll miss me! Before realizing how much he was going to miss her, too.

He leaned over and kissed her, barely touching her, then taking her chin in his hand and leaning close. "I'll be back soon, and I'm warning you now, it won't be pretty when I do. So be alone, okay?" He stood up and shrugged into his duster, then resolutely climbed over the windowsill. His last glimpse of her was one irritated-looking eye visible above the pillow, before he had to pay attention to getting to the ground.

Damned tree....



Chapter 14

Buffy sat on the back porch and told herself repeatedly that she was just fine. I'm just fine. I'm just fine. Really. I'm fine. It occurred to her that she should resent she was answering a question nobody was asking, but that was another thought she wanted to do away with, too. No, I'm fine.

It's my friends that are screwed up.

She glanced around surreptitiously, afraid somebody would read her mind. She'd been afraid when she lost her virginity that people could just look at her and tell; she'd been even more afraid when she first slept with Spike that everyone could look at her and tell she'd spent the better part of a night doing things she couldn't even put a name to. So far, so good on that one. But what she was really afraid of was them seeing her and not seeing her, the way they'd spent the fall. She was right in front of them, and they'd seen nothing, but it was Spike who'd noticed right off the bat.

She shifted uncomfortably. He would have to leave town and make her think about him non-stop, because while he was here, she spent all her energy not thinking of him. That was pretty damned challenging, too. She'd spent five years studiously ignoring everything about him except his very irritating self, and when that particular piece of wool got pulled from her eyes, it had been a very large shock.

Maybe this was an opportunity, she thought. Yeah, an opportunity. Spend time with her magic-addicted best friend, her shoplifting sister, and her soon to be hitched other best friend, while trying desperately not to notice that, well, she wasn't being noticed at all. Add to that a whole slough of feelings she resolutely didn't want to think about, and you had a very uncomfortable Slayer.

It was just the whole sex thing, she thought. After all, she was used to it now, the nocturnal visits, the secrecy, used to waking up next to him. The way they laid in her bed, or his, and whispered about any and everything, bullshit free. The way his body would warm to her temperature, even while she herself got goosebumps. That was it. It was a habit that was perilously close to being something she had to tell her friends about.

Part of her resented that. It's not as if they tried to tell her they'd bring her back in case she died, although that whole train of thought she suspected resembled Grassy Knoll-type paranoia. She really didn't want to think like that about her friends, but it was so hard to think about sitting down with them and saying, 'we have to talk.'

What they had to talk about was her and them, and him. That she suspected was going to be the worst. There was the house, which she was struggling to keep, with a house payment due in a few short days' time. There were the utility bills that accumulated when three women lived in a house, with at least one of them insisting on taking lengthy baths with a certain vampire. There was the car, which at least she'd managed to sell, but had discovered that it had been driven a lot during her absence.

And then there was the fact of rent. Willow wasn't paying any, and she wasn't contributing much except for babysitting, which was problematical because Dawn still made it clear that the witch was on probation. Dawn had spoken of a paper route, which would bring in several hundred dollars a month, but she wondered what would happen to Dawn's grades, and the money itself, once Dawn actually saw a paycheck. Somebody was going to have to be the Big Bad, and she didn't think it was going to be Spike.

Who really shouldn't have taken so long, dammit.

It had been two days; she kept waking up in the night to find him not next to her, and her colder than she liked. She'd finally started putting pajamas on again, because she got cold in the chilly California nights. Somehow he never made her feel chilly; in fact, he made her feel feverish, and she rather wondered how that would go over if she worked that fact into her little heart to heart with her friends.

She shifted around on the deck. In the intervening two days since he'd left, she'd played board games with a sullen Dawn, sidestepped around Willow and had long chats with Tara. She felt a great urge to do so again, but controlled herself. After all, it was important that she not wear out her welcome, not take advantage of the kind-hearted witch.

She'd done laundry, all except her sheets, which she kept finding excuses not to wash, because they had suddenly started smelling like leather and cigarettes a few days earlier. She could turn her head just so on the pillow and close her eyes and see him, not that that meant anything at all, thank you.

She wondered what would happen when he came back. Actually she knew what was going to happen when he came back; she just wondered how many times and in how many locations.

Not that that meant anything. Nope, meaning-free zone, starting here.

The whole thing about Spike was that he had changed. If he could, could she?

And worse, if he could, why couldn't they?

It only took a hundred years, she thought wryly.

"Buffy?" It was Dawn, looking through the kitchen window. "You want to go to Xander's?"

"You mean, in the we're invited to go there, and I'm supposed to pretend you're not grounded sense, or in the we're not invited, and I'm supposed to pretend you're not grounded what the hell sense?"

"Uh," Dawn thought about it. "Am I still grounded?"

"Have you worked off all that stuff?"

"Nope." She said sullenly.

"Well, then, I guess we're not going, " Buffy said softly, trying to lessen the blow.

Dawn considered it a moment, then said, "We?"

Oh, God, it about broke her heart to see the hope on that face. "Yes, we. I have to make sure there's still Chunky Monkey left if it's going to be the two of us."

"There isn't."

Buffy stood up, brushing off her jeans. "There isn't? Dawn-- "

"Hey! Not my fault, I swear. It was Spike."

"Spike? When?"

"The other day."

She shook her head irritably, but there was something comforting in getting pissed off at a guy eating you out... her eyes widened -- of house and home. Oh, God, why did I even think that?

Dawn looked at her with great concern all of a sudden, as Buffy turned a bright red that had no accessorizing potential and took a very deep breath. "Buffy? You okay?"

"There's no Chunky Monkey." Buffy said dryly. "And Spike ate it all. Sure I'm okay." She noticed how cheerful Dawn was looking, perhaps at the thought that the Big Sister was now directing her ire at someone else. "You do know what this means, right?"

"What?"

"We'll have to go eat Xander and Anya's Chunky Monkey."



There was a curious lapse of time after Dawn knocked on the apartment door; it was almost as if the people inside were considering whether to answer it or not, which was very un-Xander-and-Anya like. Buffy wondered what on earth they could possibly be doing, then realized exactly what they could be doing, and tried to smile, non-queasily, at Dawn. "Maybe we should come back later, when they're not..."

"What?" Dawn was bewildered for a moment, then realization dawned. "Huh. They're not having sex, they're probably..."

The door was abruptly snatched open at that, and they found themselves face to face with a tall female demon who was either very pissed or very pleased; it was impossible to tell. "Gah!" Buffy gasped. "What are you doing he-- Hey! What did you do with-- "

Anya poked her head around, and the demon shook her head at the two guests. "I'm not here on business, you two!" She trilled." This is just for fun!"

"Fun?" Buffy said cautiously, edging gingerly into the apartment. "For who?"

"Oh, everyone." The demon said airily. "Unless, of course, you're an unfaithful man or a child abuser or something..." Dawn looked quickly away at that, and Buffy suddenly found the ceiling tiles to be utterly engrossing. "Isn't this sweet? Look, now admit that it wasn't all for the best. Look at you two, spending time together. Would you be doing that if not for me?"

Damn. She had a point there.

"So, uh,"

"Halfrek," the demon said. "Oh, just call me Hallie. I feel like I know you all already."

"Oh." Buffy shot a suspicious look at Anya, who was very busy in the kitchen with sodas and cookies and any small object she could drop repeatedly. This only made Buffy even more suspicious. "So, if we're such good friends, does that mean you're not going to go all vengence-y again on us?"

"Well," Hallie said thoughtfully, "You know, vengeance, or justice, is really in the eye of the beholder."

"That's not fair." Dawn burst out.

All three looked at her. "It's not." She muttered. "It's not fair."

"Dawnie—"

"Well, it's just not. It's like Rebecca at school; she's always picking on me and Janice, because we're tall and everything, but I can't help it. Why should she pick on me? I never do anything to her. Never. I would sort of understand if I did and she did, then, you know?"

"Dawn," the demon said, "You're the one I'm interested in, not your little friend. It's people like you that I help."

"Do you?" Buffy said quietly.

"I beg your pardon?"

"Does it really help? To get revenge?"

"I prefer the term, justice."

"Oh, hey!" Anya exclaimed. "Look! Lots of cookies!" She took one and shoved it right in the other demon's face, and Hallie, for her part, was so startled that she morphed into human face right then and there.

"Now, you two, no talking shop. This is for fun."

"Well, we weren't talking shop." Buffy said quietly. "We were talking, uh, philosophy."

"Aside from which," Hallie said, going for another cookie after already eating the first one," we don't have work in common to discuss."

"Buffy is the Vampire Slayer," Anya said proudly.

"Oh." Hallie said. It was a little snip of a word, but it packed a tremendous punch. Disapproval radiated out from her in snide tsunami waves.

"What?"

"Oh, it's nothing; I guess times must have changed since my day."

"What are you talking about?"

"Well, I wasn't always a justice demon, but I do know something about it. I'm very well-rounded." With that, she reached for a third cookie.

"Well-rounded in what way?"

"Oh, well, as I said, I do know something about vampire slayers."

"Such as?" Buffy crossed her arms and waited. Hallie scarfed down the cookie in record time, patted crumbs from her ample chest, and then, as if to make up for the way she was plowing through the cookies, took an exceedingly delicate sip of tea from her teacup. She patted her lips with her napkin, and then gave Buffy a look that would have boiled cheese.

"Well, my dear, it's not my place..." Down the hatch went another cookie.

"What does that mean? You know, you can say anything you want to."

Dawn and Anya were exchanging uneasy looks as Buffy slowly got more and more rigid in her chair, and her eyes more flinty. Hallie, however, never looked directly at the Slayer, but kept sighing and hesitating, when even Dawn could see she was eager to spit something out.

"I don't know what you mean, really."

"You're a vengeance demon," Buffy pointed out. "You could do all sorts of things in the name of vengeance, and then just claim somebody else asked for you to do it."

"My dear," Hallie said with the sort of patient voice that implied she was feeling great impatience, "You must know that we are forbidden from taking revenge on our own behalf. It's tragic, really."

"So what?" Buffy spluttered.

"Well, I am forbidden from taking revenge, if you want to call it that, on anybody for my own personal gain as long as I wear this." She indicated the pendant on her ample chest.

"So you're more or less like a normal person, as least when it's getting pissed off?" Buffy demanded.

"Yes." Hallie sighed. "But you know what's tragic?"

"That hair?" Buffy asked.

"Hm. Ha. Ha. Aren't you funny?" There was a pause during which Buffy checked out potential high-velocity exits, and Dawn glanced from her sister to the demon, awaiting the smackdown. Anya wondered how much insurance she and Xander had, and vowed to increase it to cover act-of-demon immediately.

"No, but all this travel does take its toll. No, it's just that when I see someone with such potential..."

"What are you talking about?"

"Oh, my dear, it's tragic. If you don't know, it's going to be ghastly for you, and if you do know, well, you really aren't doing your job."

"What are you talking about?" Buffy demanded.

"Well...."

"I'll never tell anyone." Hallie assured her.

"Tell anyone what already?" Anya shouted.

Hallie nodded at Dawn, wide-eyed at the dining room table, leaning forward eagerly. "Do you really think?"

"Hey, already there." Dawn assured her. "Spit it out already, you're killing me."

Buffy winced at that, certain that Hallie would now subject them to a round of further evasions. Evidently, though, she'd misjudged the demon, because after primping her hair only once, she sighed and with the appearance of great reluctance, said, "There was a vampire at your birthday party."

There was a great gust of wind as three extremely exasperated women let out inheld breaths. "That's it?" Dawn demanded. "That's all?"

Hallie glanced quickly from face to face, obviously disappointed that her secret hadn't had quite the bang she'd been anticipating. "If half the things they say about him are true..." She waved a finger in Buffy's face. "And you had him at your party, with your little sister and your friends? He had to have had an invitation to get in, you know."

"Spike's welcome in my house any day." Buffy said quietly.

Hallie spluttered. "Spike? Spike? Is that what he calls himself? Spike? Oh, that is too funny -- in a touching, pathetic sort of way...." She giggled until her face turned red, covering her face with her hands.

Dawn frowned at her, then looked at her older sister, unsure of what was going on. This horrible woman knew Spike? She felt the faintest prickle of alarm looking at Buffy, too: she was as mad as she'd ever seen her. Her chin was down, and she was glaring at the demon woman, her lips tight and white. "Touching? Pathetic?" She repeated, with wonder in her voice. Who was this creature referring to? "Yeah," she said sarcastically, "It was so pathetic how he almost died instead of telling Glory who Dawn was."

"He did what?" Dawn squeaked, suddenly glowing.

"Oh, I'm sorry." Hallie said sweetly. "You don't mean you have some sort of feeling for him, do you? Maybe he's a better vampire than he was a human. I haven't kept up to date on him as much as I should have, but really, when he was human, he was so-- so-- "

"So what?" Buffy demanded.

A hand waved in the air, dismissing the subject. "He wasn't worth remembering, really. Let me see. Does he really call himself Spike? I don't suppose there's much else he could have called himself."

"That's not true." Dawn said. "People used to call him William the Bloody."

At that, Hallie laughed so hard she snorted. Dawn flinched, and Buffy sighed. Anya looked at her friend with great interest, not at all nonplused.

"Oh—Oh—Oh-- "Hallie laid her head on the table and gasped for breath, as tears streamed down her face, and she slapped the table repeatedly. "Oh, stop, you're killing me..."

"I wish." Buffy gave it the whole two-syllable pronunciation. She looked at Anya and sighed; Anya, completely bewildered as to what was going on, held out the cookie basket. "Cookie?"



Hallie recovered herself after a trip to the bathroom, where she evidently reapplied her makeup with a trowel, probably to counteract the lizard-like demon face that she turned back on. Once again calm, she reassumed her place at the table, sipping primly at cold tea, and sighing contentedly. "I'm so sorry, I just didn't realize that William had become a vampire. Although I wonder.."

"Wonder what?" Buffy snapped.

"Well, he was such a pathetic loser when he was human..."

"You keep saying that," Dawn said impatiently, "but you never back it up."

"Oh, he liked to call himself a poet." Hallie said. "He was always off in the corner, scribbling in a notebook, and of course, they were all about me! I was horrified," she confided, leaning forward. "He was awful."

"What do you mean, awful?" Buffy snapped. "Did he kill lots of people?"

"No," Hallie said pertly. "He just made us all wish we were dead."

"By writing poetry? So just what was the big hobby back then? Belching?" Buffy demanded.

"No, my dear, it was such bad poetry. It was awful. Bloody awful. That's what we called him, the Bloody Awful Poet. It was torture."

"Oh!" Anya exclaimed. "So he was a vengeance demon?"

"He might as well have been." Hallie said with a shudder. "Really, afterward.."

"After... what?" Buffy asked, dreading the answer.

"After he told me how he felt about me..."

"How did he feel about you?" Buffy suspected it wasn't the way she felt about the demon herself.

"Well, of course, it's one thing to have nice young men admire one, but he was just so... so..."

"Pathetic?" Buffy supplied.

"He really was," Hallie agreed, mistaking Buffy's helpfulness for agreement. "He was utterly beneath me, and the worst thing was, he simply didn't realize it! Kept on and on about how he was a bad poet, but a good man! Awful, awful experience. And then..."

"I was the most pathetic git you ever saw. I wrote awful poetry, and I had a crush on this awful woman. It was just terrible. And the poetry!" Buffy thought sickly, remembering. You're beneath me.

"You're completely right." Buffy said. "It must have been just terrible. Having a good man love you, even if he was pathetic. Write poetry about you, oh my God, the horror of it all. How did you cope?"

"I became a justice demon." Hallie said proudly.

"Huh?"

"Yes, it was just too much. I found out later that the man I really admired saw William cornering me at a party and decided that I must've been engaged to him. So he left, and I never got him."

"Did you get revenge on him?" Buffy asked carefully.

"The man I couldn't have? Oh, no, he wasn't worth it. Plenty of fish, all that. But it was so presumptuous of William to think I'd ever even consider... I never actually, formally, exactly, got revenge on him, but I like to think I helped. I believe he went out that night after the party with his little virgin heart all aflutter and tore up those horrible poems, and then a vampire got him. And then, of course, he did go after some of the party guests. I'd never have guessed he had it in him. If I had, I might have thought differently. It was even sort of witty, too, now that I think about it, the torturing people with railroad spikes. That's what we always used to compare his poetry to."

"Wow," Buffy said." What a loss."

"It just is, isn't it? If he hadn't kept bothering me like that, none of this need have happened. I'm kind of surprised to know that he's a better vampire than he was a man." She shrugged. "Who knows?" She looked around. "Are there any more cookies?"



Chapter 15

It was amazing how one's life could slip steadily past one's notice, changing in tiny little increments till one tripped over something that would have been impossible days earlier, months earlier. Then one tiny phrase, one tiny moment, and you realized that the tectonic plates of your life had rubbed off in a different direction, and that it didn't bother you at all.

Either that, Spike thought, or he needed better beer.

In what felt like three centuries of watching the Hyperion Hotel, he had discovered that they basically didn't have any damned fun at all, except for Cordelia, who had either had lots of fun, or very little, judging by the pram he'd seen her pushing about. Based on his brief glimpse of the little ankle biter, it didn't appear that the young black guy on the premises was the father, but he just couldn't picture the weedy-looking accountant-type guy as the proud papa either.

Nor the green demon who periodically took up walking duties. And the mick was nowhere in evidence.

There was another woman on the premises, although 'woman' appeared to be the wrong word; she looked barely older than Dawn, if taller, and possibly even thinner. She had something of Dawn's gawkiness, too, but based on the fact that there seemed to be no sulky body language in evidence, he guessed that she was a bit older than the late teens.

He didn't see Angel once.

He seriously wondered how he was going to do this.

Plan? Why bother? It wasn't as if he'd ever been able to stick with any of his plans any way, so why try? He was definitely better with inspiration, which was why he was still sitting grumpily in his car, glaring out the windows at the hotel, waiting for the muse. At least that's what he told himself. Inspiration, dammit. He needed an idea. That was all; he certainly wasn't dreading what would definitely be, even with rampant lying on his part, the most uncomfortable conversation of his life, and that included most of the nail biters he'd had with Buffy.

Except, no doubt, for the one awaiting him on his return.

He toyed with the idea of finding the safe and breaking into it, but tossed that idea aside. Angel had money, he knew, but he didn't exactly keep it in his mattress; he'd kept a fair amount of it in the form of small, portable things that were easy to carry.

Or steal.

That was a good possibility, too, except damned if he'd know how to recognize something valuable unless it was gold and had a big huge price tag with numerous zeros slapped on it. He and his grandsire definitely didn't share the same idea of value; Spike had always been the one to take a nice couple of well-bound volumes, aged and worn from generations of reading, but Angel had always gone for the shiny stuff, like a crow -- at least when there was nobody around. With an audience, he always turned into Mr. Sensitive Literature.

Besides, much as he dreaded the thought of Revealing All, part of him actually liked the thought, the build up, the anticipation. It would definitely be a rush, squaring off after such a long drought. Dru had passed on some interesting tidbits by way of explaining those nasty burns on her face, but he rather suspected she hadn't returned to Daddy after he'd set fire to her.

Yet.

And it wasn't as if he himself were in much of a position to criticize. His eye hardly hurt any more. Hardly at all.

For a brief and rather disturbing moment, irritation flashed through him; at Dru, for being so attached to Angel no matter what; at Angel himself, for general principles, for somehow, despite all his torment, still displaying that wonderful knack he'd never lost, that of hurting other people even while he ever so picturesquely brooded over his own torment. And, well, lastly, at himself, for being irritated all over again, when it looked as if his irritation was accomplishing nothing more than keeping him here and away from Buffy.

That last was the biggest step. He suspected they wouldn't believe him if he blurted out the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, but in an odd way, they'd not have a problem believing Buffy would shag him almost blind. And they'd think the less of her for it. Something told him that bringing that into the conversation would result in many vivid mental images of Buffy-boffing for the LA gang, when there was also the inevitable panicked dash to Sunnydale after he broke the news.

He was thinking of finding the least-secure bank in LA to rob, when a black convertible pulled up to the front of the hotel, and... who was it? Oh, it was -- could it be? Was it... Angel? -- Who got up and opened the passenger side door for Cordelia, who was carrying a car seat. Why yes, it was Angel. How nice, how very bloody nice. Funny Angel had never displayed that solicitude toward Buffy, he fumed. He knew her mother had died, he knew she'd died, and he'd never so much as sent a card or...

Him. Ahem. Hm again. So the Brooding One was going to help Cordy with the kid? Interesting. And opportune.

He'd been sitting in the bloody car too long, that was it, that was all. Too much time sitting here, thinking about Buffy, thinking about what he was doing. Time to get out and wreak havoc, or at the very least see what was going on. There was a payphone in front of the Hyperion, excuse enough to get out and stretch a bit. He couldn't stand sitting in the hot car anymore, alone with thoughts he'd rather not have, and a body that didn't belong to him anymore. Somewhere along the way, it had switched sides, going over to the enemy, becoming more hers than his. He got up and stretched like a dog, hearing bones and joints cracking as never before. Guess I'm not a hundred any more, he thought dryly. Time's wasting. He flipped throught the ripped-up Yellow Pages, and found the number for Angel Investigations. Angel Investigations. How cute. Just the right note of the divine. He fumbled for change, and then managed to dial the number, cursing Pac Bell for switching to ten-digit numbers. Always forgot some of the numbers by the time he got to the last four digits. Always. Bloody bastards.

"Angel Investigations. We help the helpless. Can I help you?" English voice, perhaps West London, he thought.

"What sort of help is it that you provide?"

"We do the sort of work most other investigators can't."

"Such as?"

"Sir, may I ask what the problem is?"

"Uh." Spike thought about it. "Vampires."

"What, in particular?"

Well, I'm one, and I'm in love with the Slayer. But she doesn't love me, or at least, she just won't admit it. And it scares the crap out of her if we even get close to talking about the R word. See this eye? But see, she wouldn't even have given me the time of day if she hadn't died and her friends brought her back. The sex is amazing. We've done everything I can think of that doesn't involve battery-operated devices and scary hillbillies. Got any Vampire Viagra? He actually wanted to say it for a minute, then stopped himself. "It's rather difficult over the phone. How late do you schedule appointments?"

"We could take you now, if you're close by."

"I might be able to make that," Spike said, as if he had other concerns draining away his free time. "Where are you located?"

"It's..." He tuned out the rest of the conversation, wondering what in hell he was doing. Then he thought of Buffy, and he swallowed his impatience. There just had to be a way of doing this. There just had to be. "Thanks then. I'll be right there."

He walked around the block a couple of times to kill time, then presented himself at the door of the hotel and knocked. As he'd expected, the door was answered by the guy he'd pegged as an accountant, who identified himself as Wesley Wyndham-Price, and who barely glanced at his eye before politely beckoning him across the lobby toward a small but tasteful office. He settled himself behind a desk, leaned back in his seat, and crossed his hands on his mid section. Then he gave Spike a look that was jarring coming from behind those librarian glasses, and asked, "So what sort of problems does one vampire have with other vampires?" He glanced at Spike's eye quickly, then, and rearranged the pens on his desk.

"Wasn't sure if I should mention that." He realized that the fellow was looking at his eye and he glanced away himself so he wouldn't have to pretend he didn't see it.

"We can't help you unless you're honest with us."

They studied each other across the desk, and it occurred to Spike that Wesley's body language wasn't that of a proper corporate minion. He'd had minions before, he should know. Hell, he'd briefly been one. All of them had certain minion-like traits, off the job and on. A certain submissiveness, perhaps, which was why he'd not lasted long in the ranks; ironic, really, because as a human he'd practically been born with a "KICK ME!" sign already in place. But this guy? He was the boss.

He tried to look properly bewildered, instead of calculating, stalling till he came up with a good explanation. "What sort of stuff do you do?"

Wesley sighed and looked thoughtfully at the ceiling. "Protection. Extermination, in some cases. Exorcisms, astral projections."

"Love spells?" He asked slyly.

"I'm sorry, Mr.—ah?" He glanced at Spike curiously, waiting for the name. Spike froze for an instant.....

"Ah--" Vampires didn't have last names; they weren't human; they didn't hand out business cards. He covered his hesitation by extending a hand for a shake, and after a moment, Wesley reached across the desk and took it, giving it a firm shake and dropping it after only one iteration. Hm, Spike thought. Maybe the guy was more nervous than he looked; then again, maybe he just wasn't used to shaking hands with vampires.

"We just can't afford to keep a witch on retainer for that, that, ah, type of thing." Spike could have sworn the guy blushed. "However, I can recommend you to certain—"

"No, just checking." He smirked. He didn't believe in love spells -- it certainly hadn't worked with Dru -- but it was amusing to see that Wesley might, if he was giving recommendations.

"So, what sort of problem is it that brings you here to us? Might I ask how you found us?'

"Word of mouth," he said, then wondered what sort of problem he actually had. Yeah, I need lots and lots of money, because my girlfriend is going to wither away from over work, and her worthless friends ought to be helping her instead of pressuring her to make happy. "I've heard interesting things about Angel."

"Oh." Now the human was shifting uneasily in his chair. "Really, may I ask what?"

Oh, you know the usual gossip; that he snapped and went bad, but not in an Angelus kind of way, although he did set fire to Dru and Darla. Plus there's definitely been some odd stuff floating around the past while about him and Darla, but I never could get a handle on that area. So you wanna confirm or deny? Enquiring minds want to know, especially if it gives me some ammunition.

"So, this problem you have with other vampires is...?"

"It's kind of complicated."

"You did come to us for help."

"Who's us, exactly? How did you choose the name of the company?" Aha. Another uneasy shift.

"Well, there's myself, of course..."

"How did you get into this, anyway?" Last time I was here, you weren't around, Angel was large and in charge, there was that belligerent little leprechaun, and I didn't have a chip in my head. And if Angel still has the Gem of Amarra, I'm in deep shit, he suddenly thought.

"I'm a former Watcher."

Spike started to laugh, and turned it into a cough. Angel had a Watcher on the payroll! At that, the former Watcher -- who was he kidding? The Council of Watchers thought they were like the bloody Marines, once a Watcher, always a Watcher -- --frowned and glanced at his watch. Then he looked at the vampire thoughtfully, and after a brief hesitation, continued. "Well, you know, aside from my experience as a Watcher, I have of course an extensive knowledge of ancient texts and languages, plus many years of training with weapons and tactics. All of the staff members have -- "

All of the staff members? There'd been a grand total of three the last time. Then at that thought he perked up. They were making a go of it. Got to be some money somewhere. Then he thought: More obstacles to get around. "How many staff members?" He asked weakly.

"Well, as I said, there's myself; there's Cordelia Chase, who has the gift of the Sight; there's Charles Gunn, who is a very fine investigator, Winifred Lewis, another fine investigator, and there's Angel himself, who is the founder of the company.."

"But..."

"What?"

"He's the founder of the company?" Spike gestured to the nameplate on Wesley's desk that said, "Wesley Wyndham-Price, Director."

"Ah, yes, well, family concerns," Wesley said with a shrug.

Such as setting your offspring and mother on fire, Spike thought, but brushed it aside. Then there had been something about lawyers, but he hadn't been able to make sense of what Dru had been babbling by that point, bless her heart. If it upset her, he could only imagine.

"Now, really, what is it I can help you with?"

Spike swallowed. Bloody hell, he'd managed to hold him off this long. He looked into the Watcher's eyes and wondered how one became a 'former Watcher.'

"Who was your Slayer?" He blurted out.

"I beg your pardon?"

"Your Slayer? Who was she?"

Wesley glanced down at the desk. "It was a young woman named Faith. Why do you ask?"

"Just curious."

"I suppose every vampire has some sort of curiosity about the Slayer, but, still, that's not why you're here, is it? I realize this must be difficult for a vampire to do, but what is it that you've come to us for help with?"

Spike looked up at the man and wondered again what had brought a former Watcher to the aid of the Vampire With a Soul. How did he deal with it everyday, the brooding, the noble self-sacrifice, the heroic jaw-clenching -- oh, wait, that was the Industrial Size Ken Doll. He saw someone who was younger than he had been when he was turned, but far, far, wearier, saw sorrow lines where there should have been smile lines, and wondered if it had been his Slayer that Dru had offed. Giles had had irritation lines on his face, surprisingly rigid lines that said, "I actually do know how to operate a chain saw, thank you."

Why had he decided to walk into the office, anyway? Case the place? Get the lay of the land? Criticize the décor?

"I'm in love."

He couldn't figure out who'd said that, and glanced away, as if looking for the culprit. Wesley looked down at the desk for a long moment.

"She doesn't love you back?" He asked quietly.

"No, it's not that, well, really, it's just a matter of time..."

"But not just yet?" Wesley flinched, and took off his glasses. In a gesture eerily like Giles' he wiped the lenses with the tail of his shirt, and then breathed on them and scrubbed them again. He sat up straight, and looked out the window over his desk. Spike got the distinct feeling that he was uncomfortable, and it was not with him. This he became absolutely certain of when Wesley sighed deeply and swallowed what was obviously a frog in his throat. "I don't know that there's anything we can do for you, sir. There's nothing more impossible than being in love with someone who doesn't love you back."

"Well, I know she feels something for me..."

"Has she told you that?"

"It's not like that."

"But she has to love you back herself of her own accord. " He continued in a low voice. "Otherwise, it's nothing. You may think you want anything from her, but if you really think about it, you'll realize that casting a spell to make her love you isn't enough, because actually, she'll just love the magic. Not you. It's not you she loves; it's no good. For her or for you. You just can't force it."

They looked at each other across the desk, for precisely one second too long. It occurred to Spike that there were a lot of things that a man could think when presented with a lovesick vampire who had a fading black eye. A rival perhaps? But instead he'd leapt to the truth. Just my luck, Spike thought. It really does take one to know one. Finally, he asked, in his talking-to-Dawn voice: "Who was she?"

Wesley froze, then licked his lips nervously, and with a great show of Giles-like calm, replaced his immaculate glasses on his nose. The effect would have been better if his hand hadn't shaken. "What? Oh, I'm sorry, it's just that, well, it's a subject we see often here, so we've developed a policy on it. I've gotten quite used to the lovesick."

No witches on retainer, Spike thought. Sure.

"It's, ah, William." He said quietly.

"Uh, look at the time," Wesley said suddenly. He had the slightest flush across his face, just like a schoolboy, Spike thought. "You know, my forte is really weapons and research, perhaps I could refer you to..."

If that s true, it explains a lot, Spike thought, not unkindly.

"Could I make an appointment for more time?" He asked. "Perhaps tomorrow? This company has come so highly recommended...."

"Ah, Mr.-- " Again, Spike noticed. Twitchy much?

"William."

"William. I just don't think we can do anything for you."

"You don't know what it is I want done." Spike pointed out. "I'm afraid I do go on and on. But I can't help talking about it. And you're such a sympathetic listener; most people don't listen to vampires."

Wesley looked down at that. "Ah, well, I'll tell you what. I'll consult with the staff, and see what they think."

"At the very least, you need all the particulars of my case."

"Yes, that. Mr., uh, well, our rates, I must tell you..."

"Oh, I quite understand." Spike said. "And once you hear all about it, you can tell me then whether you can help me or not." They're charging an arm and a leg! He thought. I can do this!



Chapter 16

Something about the vampire's visit disturbed Wes mightily, but in such a soft, intermittent way that it was like having a word constantly on the tip of his tongue. A vampire in love! When he had trained to be a Watcher, such a thought had been the subject of jokes, frowned on officially of course, but nevertheless, good fun. There'd been jokes about sexual practices, fashions, and just what an advantage it was that vampires didn't need to breathe -- even though many of them seemed to like it. He paused in the door to his office, taking it in; the nice cherry wood mission-style desk; the impressive brass plate on his desk that clearly indicated he was the Big Cheese, and the banker's lamps that gave no indication he'd found them in junk stores. Looking at it all, his cozy little environment, he shook his head, almost amused, picturing how he'd explain his job at the next reunion of his class at the Watchers' Academy.

Or at home.

It suddenly deflated for him, then, the cozy little office, even the door he could close between himself and the sight of Fred, all glowing eyes and coltish eagerness. He wanted to get angry over something, anything, but there was nobody to be angry at. Fred? Charles? Fred brought out a side of Gunn he'd never suspected, and more importantly, Gunn wasn't at all embarrassed by it, either. He wondered at the alchemy between souls, wondering what he could have brought out in Fred if he'd had a chance. Not like he hadn't dreamed about it, waking and sleeping, for weeks.

It just wasn't going to happen. He was slowly acclimating to that notion, like adjusting to a new climate. It seemed that since he'd realized it, his whole temperament, like the temperature in a greenhouse, had been thrown off, and he clung to the notion that he just had to ride it out, and then the pain would be over.

He closed the door behind him, crossing the lobby to the big old registration desk. Vampires in love, he thought. Two years ago, he'd have been scoffing at it. Before Cordelia, before Angel, before that awful poisonous incident. Once he'd wrapped himself in cozy suppositions, like blankets, to protect himself from the buffeting of the gray winds that whipped other people around. He had been certain, resolute, decided. He'd laughed at the jokes about vampires, especially the ones circulating about Angelus, the worst of them all. It made it easier to kill them.

Now, though, now... He'd read somewhere the burn victims were greatly at risk from infections, until they received skin grafts, because with their skin burnt away, they were vulnerable to every germ out there. Their nerve endings had no protection from the world. Now, he knew what that felt like.

Ever since he'd experienced that -- incident -- -he'd felt that way. He felt as if all those protective layers of reaction and distance had been stripped away and worse yet, the skin beneath them as well. Stuff he hadn't noticed before now seemed vivid and painful, as if his emotional skin had been burnt away and he'd been left exposed to what felt like every molecule he'd ever missed.

He could have killed her; worse yet, he'd wanted to. Oh, the memory of the joy of that thought. He still remembered how good it had felt to finally have the upper hand, to know she was scared of him, to know she'd do whatever it took to placate him. He didn't have to wonder what, if anything, she actually felt about him; he didn't care. All that had mattered was what he felt about her.

He grimly found his dictionary and opened it, finding the papers he'd tucked inside. They were very old, very fragile; it had been very irresponsible of him to do that. What if they were destroyed? Well, then he wouldn't be able to continue with the disturbing translation. Then he just wouldn't have to deal with it.

He flipped pages back and forth across the thickness of the book, not really ready to begin translating. He retreated, thinking back to the office, the vampire who'd shook his hand, as if he were used to shaking hands -- or observed a lot of it, which indicated lots of exposure to humans -- -and had claimed to be in love. Of course, he probably thought he was in love. But that was just impossible. It wasn't possible unless you had a soul; that wasn't one of the Council's stupid pronouncements, that just made sense. If you had a soul...

"Hey, Wesley." Angel peeked through the door, hanging off the doorjamb like a teenager. "Anything interesting?" Then he ducked back out of the door for a minute, returning with Connor clutched to his chest. He was making googly eyes at the baby as Cordelia brought up the rear, swinging a car seat from one hand. Wes had picked it up and found it rather heavy and unwieldy, but then again, he wasn't half demon. Smiling at him, she plunked it down on the counter and headed for the coffee machine with the tip of her tongue sticking out in anticipation. Angel looked up as she brushed by him, his eyes still and unreadable for a moment, then softening as he returned his gaze to the baby's face. Gently, he settled the child in the seat, wiggling the little body around to make sure no blankets were lumped uncomfortably against the baby's back. Then he lifted up the shirt and blew air against the child's belly, producing a startlingly vulgar farting sound. Wes sighed and winced just a bit.

Angel noted that reaction and did it again; Wes pretty much repeated his reaction as well. Angel raised his head and looked at him. "I saw that."

"Then you'll stop?"

"Why? He liked it."

"He doesn't sign your paycheck." Wesley said, but softened it with a smile.

"You don't, ah, actually, pay me."

"Well, I change more of those diapers than you do."

"Do not."

Wesley sighed and eyed the ceiling. "Do too. Don't pretend, Angel, I've seen you running away."

"Vampires have a more acute sense of smell than humans. And—" he sounded injured, "I don't run."

"Then how come—" Cordelia returned with coffee for herself, and blood for Angel, "I always see you sneaking in the opposite direction when there's a diaper to be changed." She nodded

"I don't sneak." Angel sounded worried, swinging around to look at Cordy as she casually clicked her way through the computer menu. "Cordy?" He looked at her plaintively.

"Yes. You. Do." Cordy said. Then she stuck out her tongue at him. Wes sighed and blinked from one to the other. He clearly needed to talk to Angel about it; on the one hand, they could always use the money; on the other hand, who could really say what that vampire had been up to?

He felt invisible for a moment, as Angel took the baby up to his room for changing, Cordelia following behind, coffee cup in hand. He shook his head, wryly; if Angel thought his feelings were more than temporarily unrequited, he was wrong. Then again, he thought, when have Angel's feelings ever been unrequited? When he was Angelus, he wasn't capable of love; when he was Angel, at least until Buffy, he had been too focused on survival to love. One moment of perfect happiness, he thought. Was it that simple? Did love just mean consummation? Until that happened, did what he felt even count? If he never got closer to Fred than her quiet co-worker, did he even matter at all?

"Going for some strong silent record, there, my friend?"

Wes started, his heart jumping at the sudden sound of an unexpected voice. He cautiously turned his head, warned by the sound of the demon's voice that there might be hurtful sartorial excess. "No, just thinking." He took a deep slow breath, trying to calm himself. It didn't help that Lorne, now attired in a yellow suit with a lime green shirt, looked perfectly calm and relaxed, almost debonair. If you squinted, and were colorblind, you could even sort of picture him as a sort of pastel-toned, scaly, Rick from Casablanca.

"You could think a little less and get out a little more. Or is there a prize involved in staying indoors this long?" He settled himself into a chair after turning it backward, and leaned over the back. "Because I think Angel's the titleholder. I mean, if you're that old, what else is there to do?"

"No, just a lot of translation to do. " Wes shrugged, and purposefully opened the book again. This time, he smoothed the prophecies out, and regarded them sternly, before meeting Lorne's eyes. "I've just been avoiding it."

"No wonder. I looked at that stuff and almost died of boredom. C'mon, honey, they're all tucked in for the night. Let's go kick up our heels -- in my case, literally."

Wes' lips twitched. "What, do you need a chaperone?"

"No, but you do. Somebody's gotta make sure you have some fun. C'mon, let's get out of here. You don't have to look at any happy couples and I don't have to get any insulin shots. We'll be a great team."

"I don't really care if they're happy or not. I'm glad for them."

"Honey, you lie like a rug. And I am proud of you. That's the spirit. Never let them see you cry. Don't cry out loud. I will survive. By the way, that's the karaoke list for this evening."

"I still don't understand why I have to be part of it."

"Well, see, honeybunch, there's this thing called 'fun' that they've invented. It involves entertainment, laughter, and sometimes nudity. There might be catering, from what I've heard. I used to be pretty good at it. And you could use some practice."

"Practice at what? Being miserable?"

"Not being miserable." Lorne said, grabbing his arm in a grip that was impossible to break. "See, here's the thing. You're being all noble and everything, and that's just great, but you know what? You need an audience for that."

"Are you implying that my behavior is... showing off?"

"No, no, honey, calm down. It's just that it's such a waste. Good looking English guy like yourself, tragedy, high cheekbones, perhaps a little sympathy sex..."

"Lorne..."

"Look I'm not saying you don't feel what you feel, but would it kill you to stop being so noble? Couldn't you be a bitch for just a little bit like the rest of us? Come down off that pedestal and roll around with the rest of us. Besides, think how much fun it would be to critique your rivals. C'mon, you're gonna tell me you really don't think it's nauseating the way they think they're not noticeable? Oh, hello, I can hear loud smacking noises as well as anyone, maybe better when it's somebody lip locking. You mean you haven't noticed Cordy cut Groo's hair like Angel's? You don't think that's beyond tacky? Plus it just doesn't look good, Freudian issues aside. You don't think it's sort of alarming that Gunn looks like he's going to start rapping about love one of these minutes? Is it really just me or would it be too much for Groo to assimilate and pick a name that doesn't remind me of oatmeal? Sounds like something they serve in old folks' homes to people who don't have teeth. Let's go."

"Shouldn't we get Angel?"

"Ah-ah-ah, sweetness, not a chance. Love the guy, really, really do, but the man needs to brood, plus change diapers, and who are we to possibly get nailed for nasty nappy duty? Uh uh. Love him, really, but take him to a whorehouse, and he'd induce celibacy. Now, I meant that in a good way. And, oh? By the way? You're driving."

"But...."

"I don't have a license. On this planet. Plus I don't think I can stand the thought of Groo dancing. Just sounds bad, doesn't it? The tequila is calling us..."

Lorne yanked Wesley up the stairs, giving him only enough wiggle room to grab a jacket. "Jeez, did your mother tell you to always bring a jacket in case it got cold? C'mon already, there's bitching to do..."



Chapter 17

"Yes, for God's sake, I did leave a note, would you relax? We have drinking to do!"

Spike had to look up as an unusual pair made its way into the bar. With a scowl he recognized the former Watcher and the still-Green Demon from his frustrating observations at Chez Angel. Of all the demon bars in all the cities in all the world, these two nitwits had to stumble into the one he was drinking dry. Plus, he wondered if his cover had been blown. Then he wondered if he even had a cover. That was all he had time for before they noticed him.

"Ah." Wesley said. Some vestige of laboriously-learned English manners re-asserted itself, and Spike nodded politely in acknowledgement. Unfortunately, Lorne beamed at the exchange, and poked Wesley in the ribs so that he winced. Without further ado, the demon shoved his companion at Spike's table. Which, he realized, just a tad too late, was the only one in the joint without at least two occupants. Bugger all.

Lorne artfully paused to assess the room, then strolled over and offered him an enormous green paw to shake, which Spike did, rather sullenly, before sliding further down on the bench. Wes was not as confident as his green companion. "Uh, yes, uh, you have friends with you, we'll only stay a minute." As he said this, he eyed the beer bottles on the table with apprehension.

"Relax." Spike said. "Just me."

"Well." Lorne said primly, eyeing the bottles. "What was it, honey? A big bad break up?"

Spike glared at him, but Lorne just waited. "My oh my, what a big pair of bright blue eyes. Who could resist those?"

"Someone can." Spike said sourly.

"Oh, really?" Lorne leaned forward eagerly, putting his chin in his hands, all ears. "Who is she? Was she?"

"Lorne," Wes said uncomfortably. "Perhaps--"

"Ever loved somebody who didn't love you back?" Spike said tightly.

Lorne smiled, his expression shifting subtly from gleeful chattiness to contemplation. "Who hasn't?"

"That doesn't exactly answer my question, does it, mate?"

Lorne nodded at the vampire while looking at Wes. "He's got a better accent than you do."

"That doesn't cut it, either."

"You two, huh? Both broken-hearted, and neither one of you wants to admit it. Huh. I know the perfect medication for that kind of stubbornness." He gestured to the waitress, a rather hard-looking young woman with surprisingly soft eyes, and when she'd reached their table, asked her, "What's good for a broken heart?" She gave it some thought, resting her hip against the edge of the table, and eyeing the beer bottles.

"Well, that does depend on what type of person you are." She nodded at Spike. "Beer is not the right thing for you."

"And that would be why?"

"You're into punk and all that, right? You should really do something dramatic and serious and rebellious. Not beer. Besides, you're broken-hearted, you want something that's going to fit your character and let it loose. For a punker, I'd suggest tequila, because you can do shots, and there's the worm thing. For you-- " Now it was Lorne's turn, "Martinis, definitely. And for you," she gave Wes a glance through her eyelashes, "it would have to be whiskey, because you look like you'd hold it all in."

"Sounds good." Lorne said. "Then let's get started."

Wes shrugged apologetically at Spike, and Spike just shrugged. He swigged the last of his beer, then asked, "Hard day at the office?"

Buffy, all soft and warm against him, the covers around them like a nest.

"Moderately so," Wes said.

"Gah! No shop talk!" Lorne exclaimed. "Am I right in assuming there's someone on your mind, Mr. Big Bad Vampire?"

"Huh?" Spike leaned back against the leather seat, somewhat discomfited by the full blast of the personality. He glanced at Wes, as if he were about to disclose something professional. "Yes. There is."

"Well, good. Then you two can talk about it. Nothing worse than being miserable separately."

Wes now looked as if he wished he were anywhere else. He nodded at Lorne while keeping eye contact with Spike and mouthed, 'sorry' but Spike found he was rather amused by now. When was the last time he'd had a social visit -- with humans, no less! -- that had to do with something other than losing kittens? They'd drink, they'd bitch about women, and then he'd somehow figure out what in hell he was doing. "I'm still waiting to find out your story, there—" He nodded at Lorne.

"Oh, Lorne," said the demon, blithely waving away the introduction. "But I haven't heard about your tale of woe."

"What's to tell? Vampire in love with the S-- a human," he added quickly. "Oldest story in the book." He thought perhaps Wes had raised one eyebrow at that, but he wasn't sure.

In fact, Wes hadn't. He looked up, considering first the demon, then the vampire, and wondered when things had gotten so weird. After all, once he'd wanted to be an accountant. Safe things, numbers. Quantifiable. So refreshing. "Were there vampires before there were humans?"

"Some people think so," Spike shrugged. "There's some that say that the world was originally populated by demons and vampires, and human came later."

"What do you think?" Wes asked.

"Beats me," Spike said. "I never really cared to find out. Besides, as long as there's lawyers, the demons haven't truly left." He could just see the conversation descending into a long, boring, Giles-type lecture. "And you, sir, what about you? Ever been disappointed in love?"

It was on the tip of Wes' tongue to blurt out, 'All the time,' but he stopped himself just in time. His dignified avoidance of the topic was, however, completely spoiled by Lorne, who clapped him on the back, and said, "Oh, come on, Wesley, share. It'll make you feel better."

"No, it won't."

"Yes, it will."

"No, it won't."

"Well, how about if it makes us feel better?"

"Trust me, it won't." Wes insisted, glancing with pleading eyes at the approaching waitress. If she'd only get here faster, she could save him from revealing his secrets. "Ah, look who's back. Here we are." Tremendously relieved at the sight of an interruption, he grabbed his drink and slammed it back rather impressively. Even Spike goggled a bit at the sight of the bespectacled accountant-wannabe knocking down something decidedly stronger than sherry. Rather defensively, he then tossed back his own, and then they both expectantly looked at Lorne. His head swiveled from one to the other, and then he carefully pulled the olive out of his martini and gulped it down. Spike and Wes exchanged glances. Lorne sighed, then lifted the martini to his lips and methodically gulped it down. It was very measured. He sighed, wiped his lips delicately with his napkin, and signaled the waitress again. "Another, but a cosmopolitan for me this time."

"And, uh, for me, some Scotch." Spike put in. "You're paying, right?"

Lorne rolled his eyes and gave an explosive sigh. "This round, I suppose."

Wes shook his head at the offer of another drink, but it was too late; the girl, sensing drunken tipping, was already gone. He decided it was his jacket bothering him, not the alcohol, and shrugged it off, but he still felt hot. He looked around the bar. Pool table, dartboard, video games in an alcove. All of a sudden he felt rather mellow. Fred's face swam before him, all luminous skin and huge eyes, and he swallowed at the way he'd rejected her attempt to set him up earlier that day. Why did this one hurt so bad, so sharply, when none of the others had caused this much pain this fast?

They'd gotten along, she and him. She wasn't a glamour girl, like Cordelia, or some research wonk, like Petunia. Only Virginia had made him feel like that. He'd felt as comfortable with her as it was possible for him to feel, which wasn't, truthfully, much, but there it was. Maybe he should get used to it. Where had his successes been?

He looked up at the vampire, who was slouched in the corner of the booth, staring at his refilled glass without seeing it. Supernatural being, centuries dead, and still a victim to the whims of women. In an odd way, it was almost comforting.

He lifted his glass and eyed his companions. "Shall we?"

"Whaaaaa?!" Lorne said.

"Yes, what?"

"To women." Wes said solemnly. All three looked around somberly, unwilling to meet anyone else's eyes. Lorne was the one to break the silence with a sigh.

"What?" Wes demanded.

"Oh, my dear, if you only knew.'

"Well, if I didn't want to know, I wouldn't have asked, would I? What's wrong?"

"Well, look at us, guys." He pointed out. "All of us miserable, but what are we doing? A toast! Really, we should do a curse or something."

Both Spike and Wes raised their eyebrows at that. They looked at each other, then shrugged, then looked at Lorne, who had the grace to look sheepish. "Just trying to help." He said. Wes brightened at that. "William... You never did get around to describing much about your case. Perhaps now's a good time."

"Uh...." Quite frankly, he hadn't thought much beyond: Get inside. Angel. Money. Leave. Okay, some gloating as well, perhaps some taunting, but not so much he wouldn't be back in Buffy's bed by dawn tomorrow.

"Talking always helps." Lorne said helpfully.

"Yeah, right."

"You did come to us for help," Wes pointed out.

"So I did." Spike looked at the table. Maybe he could dance around it a bit. Maybe get them drunk, then lift the keys, look around. What a plan, he thought proudly, ignoring the fact that plans generally were formed more than two seconds before their execution.

But where to start?

"Well," He said quietly. "She's human."

"How did you two meet?" Wes asked.

"Was it love at first sight?" Lorne perched his chin in his hand and waited expectantly, causing Spike to eye him.

"No." He thought about it for a minute. "It was hate at first sight. Well, okay, I was trying to kill her..." He swallowed. How on earth could he explain this? Where to begin? And where to end? "You know the drill, vampire, blah blah blah, but there was a sort of affinity there, even when I hated her guts. And vice versa, no matter what she says. Horrible taste in men, she had, till she met me."

"You mean vampires?" Wes asked. "Were you the first vampire she...?"

"No. I wasn't. First true love, blah blah blah. Then a couple humans for her. Me, always dated other vamps. Just a matter of who you're around. Wasn't around a lot of humans."

"And?" Wes looked very serious now, very interested. Spike was vaguely flattered and wondered what the Watcher would think once he'd found out his little tête a tête had been with William the Bloody.

"Well..." Here was the tricky part. Certainly everyone must know about William the Bloody's mishap with the chip, right? God knows, all the demons he'd killed, that had to be common knowledge. Certainly old Ripper must've written it up, which meant that Wesley must have stumbled over the account somewhere. "Injuries, mate." He said mournfully. "Really can't hurt humans now. Must be getting old. Happens to the best of us. Terrible shame, it is. Such an adjustment. So... I started hanging around humans more often. Shoulda remembered, never play with your food. Mum always was right about that."

"Was your mother a vampire?" Wesley inquired curiously.

"Hm? Oh, no." Spike waved the idea away. "No, but there are certain things that are timeless. Aside from myself, you know. Never play with your food. Always wear clean underwear in case of an accident. Never run with a stake in your hand. You know? That sort of thing."

"So, this woman, this girl. Does she even know how you feel?"

"Yeah. Long story, blurted it out one day, okay, after I kidnapped her and knocked her unconscious." Two startled faces stared back at him. "Uh, waitress? Another round, please...?" He stared at the table, tracing a finger along the rim of his glass, over and over. Stick as much to the truth as you can, he thought. Stick to the truth. "And, well, my ex did show up and threaten to eat her, but that's hardly worth having a grudge, is it?"

"Of course not," Wes said with a tiny smile. "But, you know, William... if you just keep hanging around this girl and she never so much as..."

"Oh, but she does." Spike said. He looked down at his glass again, surprised to find it empty. "She and I, well, she and I--" He looked up from one to the other. "She can sleep with me." He said. "But she won't tell her friends about us, and she won't say she loves me."

"What makes you think...?"

"Hm?"

"Well, what, exactly, makes you think that she feels something for you?"

Spike shook his head at that. "We're sleeping together." He said flatly. "And she's not that sort of girl at all." And it's not just sleeping together.

No.

Don't leave me.

I'll never leave you.

Her body, descending on his, enclosing him, the one thing he never dreamed of, her eyes huge with shock...

"Um, what?" He looked up suddenly.

Wes and Lorne were both staring at him, and there was more than a little pity on both their faces. "A vampire in love." Wes said softly.

"Not that unusual, mate." Spike said defensively.

"Well, it's unusual in the Chronicles..." Wes said in his patented Pedantic Voice. Spike eyed him with amazement.

"D'ya really think they'd report it?" He shook his head in disbelief. "Do you really think so? I can just see it now: 'Council of Watchers discovers vampires capable of love, what else can they feel that we prefer they not?' Because if you can love, what aren't you capable of then?"

"But vampires kill people...?"

"Do I have a choice?" Spike snapped. "Didn't ask to get turned, did I? Lovely for you, though; never once to think about what you're killing."

"Do you?" Wes asked.

"What?" Spike's indignation sputtered to a halt.

"How long since you were turned?"

"One hundred twenty two years. Why?"

"How many people have you killed, William? Do they bother you?"

He cocked his head in bewilderment, genuinely puzzled. Did he regret being what he was? He tried not to think about it at all. Did he regret surviving? No. Did he regret surviving at others' expense? He'd have to drink a lot more before he'd tackle that particular question. "No." He said quietly. "They don't bother me. Because otherwise, I'd be dead. "

"You already are dead." Wes pointed out.

"You know what I mean!"

"Uh, waitress, could we have another round?" Lorne asked nervously. The girl promptly appeared, and eyed the man and the vampire curiously. They were both leaning forward, elbows on the table, just one statement away from jumping to their feet and finger-pointing to the chest. She looked from one to the other.

"The same?"

"Got any more suggestions?" Lorne asked, just as Wes opened his mouth to speak.

"Uh, how about Shirley Temples?" The two opponents, still glaring at one another, slowly sank to their seats.

"Seriously, what else have you got in the way of inspiration?"

"Uh--" She looked at Wesley. "How about a nice port?"

"Oh, uh, lovely." Wesley said.

"Yeah?" Spike looked up at her.

"Bourbon?" She suggested.

"That'll work." Spike said sullenly. Across from him, and facing the door, Lorne stiffened suddenly, causing the other two to slowly turn around.

"And what about him?" Lorne inquired dryly, as the light from the door way was blotted out by a large shadow. Angel's shadow.

"Definitely cognac." The waitress said. "Definitely something with a high alcohol content."

Angel stood on the top step forever, first blinking while his eyes adjusted to the darkness, and then slowly stiffening as he recognized Spike. He lowered his head, just like a bull, Spike thought, and carefully, ominously stared in disbelief for several minutes. Quite the effect, he noted. Pity he didn't have a pad and paper, he could take notes on Making An Entrance101. Finally, he shook his head disgustedly, and stalked across the floor to the table, never once taking his eyes off Spike. "Why are you here?"

Spike gestured at the bottles. "Drowning my sorrows, what does it look like?"

"When are you leaving?"

"Soon's I get what I want."

"Who's the torturer this time? Found another Gem of Amarra? What is it?"

Spike didn't allow himself the indulgence of anger. He wanted Angel off balance, knowing full well if he told him the truth, he'd never be believed, and probably get staked anyway. "It's a long story, Grandpa." Struck by inspiration, he beamed up at his grandsire's bulk. "But if you give me an advance on my allowance, I'll leave right now."



Chapter 18

Spike waited eagerly to see if Angel had added to any of the Tactics of Doom. Really, he was wasted as a vampire; he would have made the most wonderful of repressing fathers, the sort that produced vehemently rebellious children.

First there was the Loom. This was what Angel was doing now, looming over the table, and the detritus of their drinks. The waitress hadn't cleared the glasses yet because Angel had given her Tactic of Doom #2; a deeply annoyed Angel look, which almost but not quite verged on Angelus. Angelus never looked so patient when he was irritated. Soon to come would be the Thoughtful Look, where Angel considered what to do, and how to make himself look sensitive while doing it. Then there would the Rhetorical Question, which was Angel asking something unnecessary, something so superfluous he knew it wouldn't get answered, but he tried anyway. Then, let's see what came after that?

Wes was looking at Spike with a certain disappointment. "You're Spike? Hm."

"What does that mean?" Spike demanded.

"Well, I did think you'd be taller. Hm. How interesting. I'll have to call Rupert."

"Yeah, you can do that tomorrow. After Spike leaves. Which will be now." Ah! Another one! The Empty Threat! He'd forgotten about that one.

"Now, now, Grandpa, is that any way to greet—URK!" Angel's hand slashed across the table and grabbed the front of Spike's duster, shirt, and tee shirt, and yanked him to his feet just like Darth Vader. "Let me go." Okay, not so empty threat...

"Why should I, Spike? So you can actually kill me this time?"

"I didn't come down here to kill you, Peaches. I've got other business here."

"Why did you make up that story about being in love with a human?" Wes asked. Angel dropped him, then, startled, and Spike, huffily straightening his clothes, at first didn't notice anything. Then he took a closer look. Angel was eyeing him with wary, curious eyes. Spike looked at the others. Lorne was watching the interplay the way he might watch a football game, his head swiveling back and forth, and Wes had reverted to staring at the ketchup bottle diffidently. Angel had backed up a step, and jammed his hands in his pockets, gazing at Spike's throat. Hm. Not his eyes. Interesting, that. Helpful, too. It gave Spike a moment to think.

They wouldn't believe him, and why should they? Him? Make up a story? Well, maybe. But not about love. Never about that.

They wouldn't believe him about Buffy, though. About the two of them. Interesting question, though. Suppose he did tell them, and the inevitable phone call ensued. What would she say? Spike shuddered at the thought. But he seriously doubted they'd even give a moment's thought to dismissing whatever he had to say as being lies. He glanced all around. The humiliation of it, not being believed. Of course the Slayer would never have anything to do with him, they'd say. For a brief and vivid moment, he pictured the laughter. Like he was an infection, afflicting her with his disease.

Then he pictured the lies he'd have to tell them. They must know about the chip; he wasn't the Big Bad any more. But he was worse, he realized. in their eyes; not scary, just a reminder of things past. Maybe a little pathetic. No, they'd not believe for a minute anything he had to say about Buffy. They'd resent it, too, if he tried to explain it. He wondered if he even could. She makes me feel alive, and I never knew I missed it. It occurred to him, abruptly, that they were all now looking at him, and he'd been silent the whole time, thinking about Buffy, and how her reputation amongst them would suffer if he so much as suggested...

"It wasn't a lie, was it," Wes said quietly. Angel sighed, a very good Angel sigh -- Spike gave it a 5.8 for execution, and 5.6 for creativity, plus another 6.0 thrown in for the hell of it because the bastard irritated him like no one else. "Was it?"

"No. None of it." He was almost embarrassed to be telling the truth. Hell, he was embarrassed, but when it came to Buffy, the truth was difficult enough. "'s true. She doesn't love me."

"And she's human." Wes said.

"Well, it was great catching up," Angel said suddenly. "So sorry to hear you're going." He reached out, but Lorne batted his arm out of the way.

"Sing, Sweet William."

"What the...? You're not going to set me on fire, mate, did that once already. Enough's enough, you frustrated... tutu groupie!"

At this outburst, pretty much everyone rolled their eyes in tandem. It looked positively synchronized. Spike wondered if they practiced.

Angel looked at Lorne thoughtfully, then glared at Spike. "You heard him, William." Bastard knew how much he hated that name. "Sing."

"Only if you tap dance, Peaches." Angel made another grab for him, then, but Spike was on his feet, and dodged out of the way easily. At that point, however, the waitress popped up, holding a glass of what smelled like very good cognac. Spike was tempted to take it himself, because fun was against Angel's religion. And, indeed, Angel waved it off. Spike grinned at him defiantly, and grabbed at it. Which, of course, irritated Angel even more, and he again slashed out that lightning fast hand, and plucked the glass off the tray and downed it. He downed it all in one swallow, licked his lips, and nodded to the waitress in dismissal. Spike's smile spread slowly over his face in response. "Well, that was fast, Grandpa. Talk about efficient. Seems I'd heard someone else say that about you, too. Who was it?"

"Sing, or scream, you decide." Angel growled.

"What is it with the musical comedy?" Spike demanded in bewilderment. "Already did that. Don't want to burst into flame, thanks. It's been real. Oh, wouldja look at the time?"

Lorne suddenly snapped his fingers. "That damned Sweet, was he...? Oh, of course." He looked immensely amused. "That guy is such a kidder, you have no idea. I remember this one time..."

Spike glared at him. "Guy set people on fire, mate." He winced at the memory of singing to an exasperated Buffy, but that led to thinking about her falling on top of him in the coffin, kissing him... "Oh, what, sorry? Were you done?"

"Not that sort of demon, my friend. so relax." Spike eyed the green demon's ensemble with visible skepticism. "What? Well, you obviously are not a spring, you have no idea what your true color scheme is." He adjusted his artfully-loosened tie just a tad. "I'm not one of those demons. I just need you to sing."

"Not gonna set me on fire?"

"No, sweetness, not unless you put more peroxide on that head than even I speculated."

"So..." Spike examined his nail polish. "What's it gonna do?"

"It will reveal the truth." Lorne said quietly.

"Bloody hell." Spike backed away, forgot they were in a booth, and sat down abruptly when his legs hit the edge of the bench. "You'll just tell Angel, won't you?"

"Only if you have something dishonorable in mind." An acerbic glance at the other vampire. "God knows, that'll happen some time soon."

"Shut up, Lorne."

"So nice to know PMS affects vampires, too."

"Would you like me to leave you two alone?" Spike enquired solicitously. "Because I could always get a room."

"All we need," Lorne said," is for you to sing."

"Yeah, and then what?"

"No fire, no destruction." Lorne assured him.

"What if I don't believe you?" Spike eyed Angel as he said this.

"Believe me." Lorne ordered him. "Oh, him? Just ignore that. He does that at breakfast, too." Angel groaned, rolled his eyes, and sank to the bench beside Wes. Great dismount, Spike thought. Definitely 5.9 material there. "Just sing something. Anything."

"Why don't I make recommendations, and you get the CD?"

"I need you to sing. You. Any song. Just a syllable. That's all. Nothing's going to happen to you, but I have to hear you. C'mon. Aren't you the scourge of Europe?"

Spike, happily remembering an evening spent torturing a rich double-dipping doctor, nodded agreement. Ah, the good old days. Then he remembered his present location and looked around. He licked his lips. "I died, many years ago, and..."

Lorne's face changed the way sand changes on a beach at high tide, the waves washing formation away, and smoothing all the variations. His face crumpled, grimaced, smoothed over, and started all over again. He looked at Spike with wonder. "I thought it was just Angel."

"What?!"

"I thought it was just Angel." Lorne mused. "A vampire in love, who'd have guessed? These things just don't happen."

"Well, I wish..." Spike stopped himself, but it was too late. There was a violent flash of light, a loud crunch, and a demon appeared before them. It was, undeniably, Halfrek. She looked around expectantly, then blinked. "Oh. Gee. Sorry. You're all... men. I just hate this on-call system. Sorry." She popped out of existence, but on the breeze of her passing, they heard a whisper: 'Hey! That was.... William?!' Spike looked around suspiciously, expecting another appearance, but the smoke was already clearing.

Lorne was looking at him curiously." C'mon, mi amigo. We have some talking to do."

At the booth, Angel had started to stand, but Lorne shook his head at him. "Just he and I." He pulled Spike outside in the cool night air, and watched while Spike lit a cigarette, shielding the cigarette behind the lee of the club's open door. "So? The Slayer, no less. How'd that happen?"

"Like I said, except this time just add the title." Spike rubbed his forehead. "You going to tell him?"

"He's not my boss, Blue Eyes, till he gives me a pay check. Sure, he may give me a place to lay my head, but as many diapers as I change, he's the one who's in debt here."

'Diaper?' Spike thought, but kept it to himself. Why in the hell would Angel be helping Cordy with her brat?

"Besides, if I wanted him to know, would we be here?" Spike smiled a bit at that, and looked at him.

"So, tell me, ah, Lorne, what is it that I'm supposed to do?"



"She really doesn't love you?"

"Don't think so. Hope so, though. Every day. We...." He looked away. "It's like we can barely look at each other without... wanting to..." He took a deep, ragged breath.

"You got it bad, my friend. And, I take it, so does she?"

Spike shrugged again. "She wants me. Not the same."

"And the rest?"

The rest being his purpose in coming here. "She's dying." He said. "Her friends pulled her out of heaven, and now she's working for people not good enough to eat, much less serve, and she's doing it for sixteen hours a day, just about every day. Her bloody friends don't help out at all, and her sister is acting up something awful."

"What can we do about it?"

"Well, I figured if Angel's fists could be pried open and some money felt out..."

Lorne just looked at him. "You want money?"

"Yes."

"And you came here to get it from Angel? Who hates you very enthusiastically, I might add."

"Yes, and I realize that. I'm not exactly president of his fan club either."

"And if he found out that you and Buffy were...?"

"I'd be a pile of dust."

"But nevertheless, here you are." Lorne looked at him for several uncomfortable minutes, face fixed and hard, no humor left at all. "For this human, this Slayer, who doesn't love you, but shags you senseless every chance she gets, while you pine for her."

"I don't pine for her," Spike pointed out. "I just... I just..."

"Oh, really? Do you find yourself thinking about her at all hours? Missing her? Worrying about her? Written any bad poetry? Gotten drunk lately? Taken any strange road trips with impossible goals in mind that could at the very least expose you to death or embarrassment?" He leaned forward, poked his long, green finger in Spike's chest. Spike noted that the nail was manicured. "Found yourself suddenly caring about people and places just because they have some connection with her? Oh, yeah, baby, you have it bad."

"Well, so?" Spike blew a long stream of smoke in the demon's face. "I don't have a soul like Angel. What's he done with his? Dru told me some stuff, but I got the feeling she didn't tell me everything. There's some things even Dru feels a bit twitchy about. Why is it so weird for me to love her? Why can't she love me? Bloody Harris and the ex vengeance demon don't get the crap I've put up with, and she was a demon ten times longer than I was."

"Anyanka? Oh, she was very good in her day." Lorne thoughtfully consulted some inner list, while Spike observed with interest. "Very... thorough." Something about the way he said, 'thorough' made Spike give a bit of a shudder, not as a vampire, but as a man. "Very original."

"Good thing Angel can't call down a demon on me." Spike said. "Because if he finds about Buffy and I, he'll kill me and then he'll race off to Sunnydale and be so sensitive and caring it'll cause a whole series of suicides. And he'll make her feel terrible, I can predict that. I can just see it now." He threw his cigarette away with a snap. "If I tell him what it's for, and who, he'd do it. Bastard. But I can't do that because he'd have it out of her hide. Look what a wonderful thing I did, have I mentioned it in the last five seconds? Show me some gratitude so I can wallow in noble sexual frustration for a while. Hey, have I mentioned I did this really nice thing?" He looked at Lorne, suddenly alarmed. "You won't ever tell him, will you?" He drew himself up to his full height, a good six inches shorter than the tall green demon, so why was it that Lorne found himself taking a step back. A muscle twitched in Spike's jaw, and his hands clenched into fists. "Angel never finds out. Never. He'll make her miserable, and—and -- -"

"I won't tell." Lorne said. He punched the vampire's shoulder as if they were drinking buddies or something. "But I'll help."



Chapter 19

Angel eyed Spike and Lorne as they came walking back in the bar. Suspicious. Very suspicious. So Spike was in love with some human. Who was it, Willow? Typical of him, to A) fall in love with a human; B) fall in love with a lesbian; C) fall in love with someone who had nothing but bad memories of him trying to kill her and her friends over and over again and D) actually believe he was in love. Probably embarrassed by it, rightly so. What a pretense that was.

Absolutely impossible to love without a soul. He glanced at Wesley, as if Wes's orderly presence would confirm his belief. Wes, the former Watcher, would understand the folly of believing that any but a select few vampires were capable of the higher emotions. He nudged him. "So, Wes, what do you think's going on?"

Wes shrugged. "He's in love. He's desperate."

Angel swiveled and looked at him. "You don't really believe him, do you? Spike is the biggest bullshitter in the world. In any world."

"Oh, of course...." Wes trailed off. "But I have read the Chronicles, you know, Angel."

"You've read them?" Angel said sarcastically. "I lived them.'

Wes looked at the back of the vampire's head. "Indeed." He looked around for the waitress, while Angel continued to eye Spike suspiciously.

Spike was doing a little checking out on his own. "We gotta get him drunk."

"With what? He's a vampire. And he's a lot bigger than you, kemosabe."

"Hah." Spike said, spotting their waitress. "Say, love, can you do me a favor? I've a really special request..." He leaned forward and whispered in her ear, while Lorne, amused, chuckled over the pretense of clandestine drink requests. Something about the vampire's attempt at discretion touched him. They were in a dive that served vampires, demons, and God knows what else, including politicians, and Spike was whispering in the girl's ear so as to avoid attention. The platinum optimist. He sidled closer and nudged. "What did you order?"

"Angel always used to drink absinthe." Spike muttered. "Really strong stuff, mix of opium and vodka. Not legal here in the States, but it shouldn't be hard to whip up a batch."

"And then...?"

"And then, well, see if we get lucky.... Why are you helping me, anyway?"

"I saw you, remember?" Lorne looked over at the booth and assayed a little wave, very much like British royalty: low-key, discreet, and hinting at inbreeding. "Maybe it's just the romantic in me. You crazy kid— er, vampire, you. That took guts, my friend, coming down here, and I appreciate that. Besides, your aura was eloquent. There was a nice bouquet of passion and desperation there. There were touches of loneliness. There was an undertone of, well, call it... karma.

"You know, sometimes when I read someone their feelings about someone else can give me some sort of reading on someone important in their life. I got a very strong feeling about your Buffy. Very strong."

Spike stared at him. "Strong? Strong? In what way? Why didn't you say so?"

"I'm saying so now, William. It really is William, isn't it?"

Spike grumbled something and looked away. "What else did you see?"

"Be careful what you wish for, my friend. That's all." Lorne said, not unkindly. "And that's just for now, though. Things change. If you came to me in a week, I'd get a different reading. You won't stay as you were forever."

"Be careful what you wish for? What the hell does that mean?" Spike's voice was loud enough that both Wes and Angel looked up.

"The way you two are now is tearing you up, my friend. Have you ever considered what it would be like if you got your wish?"

"How could that possibly be bad?"

"How many women have you loved, William?"

Spike drew himself up and looked him in the eye. "Physically? Or...?"

"Oh, don't get all macho on me now. You can try that on Angel, and I'll sell tickets, sweetness."

"Two." Spike muttered.

"Two."

At that moment, the waitress came up to them and with a flourish, presented a tray with what looked like four cognac glasses brimming with a green liquid. In a little dish on the side were sugar cubes and what Dru had always referred to as a 'sugar tweezers'. "Oh-- I only wanted the one." Spike pointed out.

She fixed him with a hairy eyeball. "There is no way just one guy is drinking this stuff, okay? What, you're going to sit there and watch him get silly?"

Spike was momentarily entertained by precisely this idea, but Lorne sighed in a very Ward Cleaver kind of way and spoiled it. "She does have a point there, sweetie pie." He patted the sulking vampire on the back. "Maybe it'll be fun."

Angel took one look at the glasses and then sighed again. "Why?"

"You used to drink it before," Spike said, sliding into the booth.

"Yeah, I used to drink blood, too—"

"Children, children...." Lorne said. Then he picked up one of the glasses, and gulped its contents back. This was promptly followed by choking noises, crossed eyes, and much hand waving. "Would you just relax and loosen up? Oh, my. Sweetheart..." He called to the waitress. "More, please, that was scrumptious. And I want the recipe."

Spike picked up his glass with his index finger and middle finger, and took a sip. Always had been more of Angel's drink than his, but it wasn't bad. The waitress had been right; he was definitely more the tequila type of guy. Still, it wasn't bad; had quite the floral undertone, but it wasn't enough to choke back the bitter flavor of the anise. Therefore, the sugar. He tweezed up a couple of cubes, and dropped them into his already half-empty glass. Angel looked on with quite a disapproving stare, arms crossed and face stony. Oh, wait. Spike thought. That's his normal expression. Hate to see him in the midst of an orgasm. Probably look like he was having a root canal... He took another gulp, and looked around. The colors in the bar were flowing around him, and the décor had ceased to be irritating. Even the demon across from him had stopped looking like a demonic refugee from an Irish Spring commercial and had become a Demon of a Different Color.

Wes picked up his own glass, intrigued by the exotic bouquet of the drink. "I'd thought that this went out of style."

"It did." Angel said. He was still glaring at Spike distrustfully, which, suddenly, became too much for Spike's happy mood.

"Good God, would you cheer up?!" He reached across the table, and poked Angel in the chest. "I don't want to kill you or torture you -- well, at least not right now -- or anything really painful. Why can't you relax? Drink up." He finished off his glass with a flourish, just in time to see Wes swirl the glowing liquid around in his glass. "You, too, bookworm. Take your mind off things."

Wes smiled just a little uncertainly. Absinthe carried with it great dangers, but great allure. It was said to be the drink of artists, poets -- and madmen -- and inspired as many hallucinations as it did works of art. There was a glamour to it, an aura of tortured bohemians soothing away their torment with the liquor and the visions it inspired. It smelled of short, passionate lives, and works of art snatched from the demons of madness. It was the temptation of oblivion. He took a swallow.

It really didn't taste very good, and he realized he'd missed the sugar. With the tongs, he unsteadily dropped a cube in and watched it dissolve. He almost believed that when he looked up he would find himself in a bar near Montmartre, surrounded by women in long skirts, and men wearing evening dress and ink smudges. French would swirl around him, and in the corner Toulouse Lautrec would sketch Wes' face with inspired hands. Certainly he deserved a painting or two. Even a vampire could find love, and with a human, no less. Wasn't that against the rules? He'd fall in love with anyone at this point, so long as they loved him back.

Angel glared sullenly around and gulped his drink down. His eyes widened as it burned its way down his throat, and Lorne leaned over and belted him on the back a few times. Good God, but that was strong. He'd forgotten how strong it was, how bitter. The last time he'd drunk had been in Paris just before the turn of the century, when women still wore silk stockings -- so fun to tie them up, with -- and frothy lace things that he couldn't even name. He glanced around disapprovingly at the bar jackets and jeans. People had no idea how to dress any more. It was deplorable. He traced a finger around the rim of his glass, wondering if there was more, but hoping otherwise. After all, he had to stay in control. Who knew why Spike really was here? His visits never brought good news, and in fact, very often involved sharp pointed objects.

Like the drink itself, looking at Spike brought up memories, but he wasn't sure he liked these. Buffy; Sunnydale, exile, the first year in LA, Doyle, oh, and the bleakness that had been the previous year. The inexorable fall into darkness, without Buffy at the end of it. The whole painful experience with Darla. Why did Spike seem so damned happy? It just wasn't fair, it wasn't.

"Why are you so happy?" He demanded.

Spike was nodding his head in time to the song on the jukebox and didn't hear it at first. "What?"

"You're so happy. And you're evil. Why is that, Spike? You want to explain?"

"Uh, well," Lorne said thoughtfully. "Not sure if that's entirely accurate."

"What do you know?" Angel said scornfully. "Why are you happy? I'm not."

"Maybe it's that damned hair." Spike snapped. Inside, he groaned.

The waitress deposited another tray of ammunition in front of them and scurried away. Angel took another glass and gulped it down straight. Even Spike was awed; the stuff had to be about sixty proof, and humans who drank it typically didn't finish a liqueur glass full of it. With vampires, three was absolute tops, and Spike didn't think he'd ever seen even Angel go that far. And there he was, two thirds of the way there. "Maybe," Angel said judiciously, "it's because you're evil."

Spike was startled. "Evil? Me? Huh. Haven't really devoted a lot of effort to it, mate." Kind of hard to, as well, when all you could think of was a girl with a thousand-mile look in her eyes, whose kisses made him shiver. Couldn't exactly pull off a caper when all you wanted to do was crawl in her bed and lodge yourself forever between those legs, in her warmth, and just dissolve.

"Love does that to people," Lorne pointed out helpfully.

"You don't believe that, do you?" Angel said scornfully. "He's a vampire."

"What are you, Peaches?" Spike asked, but there was more wonder than anger in Spike's voice. "Oh!" He exclaimed. "I get it now. I'm a vampire -- and you're not. You're special. You're the vampire with a soul, and there are rules only for you. You're the only vampire who can love, is it? Think so? You sound just like a Watcher, trying to get some sleep at night. Trying to think we're all just wolves who need putting down." He pushed aside all thought of his hobby of demon-killing for the sheer joy of it, plunged on ahead. His head was light and fizzy, and he practically bounced in his seat at the thought of unloading some very old baggage. "Make you feel different, does it? Is it worth a hundred years of celibacy?"

"You just proved my point, Spike." Angel said quietly. "Is it just sex to you?" Even as he said it, he knew it was unfair. Spike had been far more loyal to Dru than he himself had. Nevertheless, Spike was evil. He didn't deserve credit for whatever good things he might have done accidentally.

Saving the world, for example.

Not my fault. Wasn't me. Angelus did that. Tried to do that. Not me.

Spike was staring at him. "Is it just sex, Angel? For me or for you? Is that why you left Buffy? Because you couldn't have sex with her? Was that perfect happiness to you? You came? God, if you jerk off, we're all in danger then. How will you try and destroy the world then? Kind of running out of options, aren't you, mate?" He jumped to his feet, swaying as the absinthe hit him all at once. "You and that soul, still hasn't changed much of the Liam within, has it?"

"Yeah, you're Chip boy. Whatever you've done, or not done, is just because of the chip."

Spike knew he should have been deeply angered at this, but he just couldn't figure out why. The chip didn't make him love Buffy or Dawn or miss Joyce's cocoa. And the soul hadn't changed Angel into less of a bastard. It had just made him feel sorry for himself.

"Does it bother you, mate?" He asked quietly.

"What? Having a soul?"

No— having that hair, Spike thought, but he manfully bit his tongue. "All the things you did."

"Yes." Angel said firmly, and with a great burst of relief, Spike convinced himself that his grandsire was lying. He hadn't been much exposed to the soul-having angel -- too inconvenient to have those barf bags always jammed in one's pockets -- but he knew right then and there that Buffy felt more guilt for driving badly than Angel did for all his kills. And as for Dru and Darla, well, he wouldn't toss them a glance.

"And you, Spike?"

"Me? Hm." Spike thought about it. "Good question. Hadn't really thought about it." Actually he had. There were some kills he relished, occasionally hauling out the memory when he was bored, or just drifting off to sleep. There were the party guests after he'd gotten turned, for example; there were certain individuals in Prague, for another, but the rest? Why pretend? He looked at his sire thoughtfully. "Can't say I do."

"See?" Angel demanded triumphantly. "Proves my point."

"That I'm evil? This isn't exactly late-breaking news."

"Why did you come here, Spike? I'm curious."

"Money."

"What?"

"Money."

"Kittens?"

"Actual money, and I know you have pots of it."

"Why do you need money for?"

"Same reason you do. Make my way in the world."

"Why come to me? Why not just--"

"Can't." Spike shrugged. Buffy would definitely not be pleased if he robbed Sunnydale Federated. For one thing, it would be hard to overlook. "You have money, and besides, it's not all that much."

"How much?"

Spike shrugged, trying to keep his excitement from showing. "Couple of grand."

Angel thought about it for a minute, then smiled. It was not a pleasant or angelic smile. He looked quite close to Angeles there.

"I'll give it to you on two conditions."

"Which are?"

"You never come back to Los Angeles, ever."

Big deal. Like the guy had psychic friends network, keeping him informed. Spike shrugged.

"Well, so?" Angel demanded.

"Yeah, okay, I guess. He looked up nervously. "What's the second condition?"

Angel smiled that smile again. "Your coat."



Chapter 20

"You know....."

"Hm?"

"Weeeeeelllllll....."

"Yes?"

"You're not working this weekend, are you?"

"Not. At. All." This was said with relish.

"Weeeelllll......"

Uh oh. The tone was familiar; she remembered using it on Joyce, and with dread realized what it signified. A fun-filled evening of sibling blackmail awaited her.

"This is going to be bad, isn't it?"

"No." Dawn said firmly. Not for me, at any rate, she thought. "I was just thinking..."

"You realize your chances of getting what you want decrease in proportion to how much you drag the suspense out, don't you?"

"Oh, okay. Bummer. So much for the long, subtle buildup and the surprise conclusion."

"We had that last week."

"It was kind of fun, though."

"What? The demon trapped in the house, the... Oh no. You don't mean...?" Buffy looked at her sister with horror.

"IreallyhadfuncouldIhaveaslumberpartyandthenI'llbegoodtillI'manadultpleaseplease?"

Dawn did everything but get down on her knees in front of her and clasp her hands together beneath her chin. Buffy could only blink. It was disconcerting, to say the least, to find yourself, yet again, being faced with something that wasn't so removed in one's past, but somehow from the opposite side. She found herself wondering why her mother had never committed infanticide. Or adolescentside. Weird.

And not fun. She had gotten the impression (coughGilescough) that being a parent involved lots of disapproval, but she had just worked a ridiculous number of hours, and had spent two Spikeless days getting rid of suspicious amounts of excess energy by cleaning the house from the basement to the attic. Odd how it was almost as hard being apart from him as it was to be around him. And the idea of a slumber party aroused some pleasant memories that didn't involve unexpected demon visitation.

"No demons?" Buffy ordered.

"No demons." Dawn agreed.

"No supernatural occurrences, no felonies, no, ah..."

"No, no, nope, none of those, I promise."

"No Janice."

"Awwwww....."

"No whining, either. And you pay for the videos out of your allowance."

"What about pizza?"

"What kind?"

"Pepperoni? Sausage?"

"We'll split it." Buffy decided, because I will be pigging out. "When?"

"Friday?" A day away. Time enough to get the stun guns, earplugs, and tranquilizers ready. Doable.

"Did I mention no demons?"

"You did, and I agreed. So we're good?"

"Yes."

"Can Tara come?"

"Well, it might be uncomfortable for..." Buffy trailed off, watching Dawn's chin do a fascinating little crumple that seemed composed of equal parts rage and disappointment. And why not? It wasn't as if Willow had really apologized, except in the moments after the car crash, and Buffy put that down to panic. The omission was bothering her, but she simply didn't know how to approach her best friend anymore. "But the real thing is whether Tara says yes."

"I'll call her right now." Dawn jumped up and ran to the phone. Buffy watched her, seeing for the first time in too long the little sister who'd used to be her own personal Barbie Doll. She didn't think it was the idea of the slumber party that had intrigued Dawn; it was the idea of a whole evening to talk with Tara. Buffy wouldn't have minded that herself, but she cringed at the way they were monopolizing the witch's time. Really, they were both taking advantage of the sweet tempered girl, and using her nature against her.

Taking advantage of Tara was one thing; listening in on Dawn's side of the conversation was quite another.

"So, hey, Tara, what are you doing tomorrow night?"

This was followed by a pause during which Dawn twisted one ankle around the other as if she really, suddenly, badly, had to go the bathroom and had reverted to six years old. The answer was evidently favorable, because she squealed, and bounced. "Cause I'm -- " She looked guiltily at Buffy, who was almost amused at the sudden attack of conscience. Wouldn't do to offend the slumber party-giving Big Bad Sister. "We're having a slumber party. No," She said sarcastically, "I didn't think it was that bad. Well, yeah. But it was nice to have everyone in the same house again. Well, it wasn't exactly. I don't think so." She listened intently, and Buffy pretended to be reading the magazine she found on the coffee table. She glared suddenly at the coffee table, remembering; hadn't Spike brought it over after he claimed to have tired of it in his crypt? She eyed the table as thought it were the table's fault. Did he have to insinuate himself into her life the way he did into her thoughts?

Not to mention her...

She brushed that thought away promptly. When did you become such a....?

"Huh? Why? I don't know." Dawn turned and looked at Buffy. "Has Spike been around?"

"No, why?"

Dawn waved the phone at her, and Buffy got up and took it away. "Hi, Tara."

"Hi, Buffy. How are you?"

"Oh, fine, you know. Bored."

"Bored with... working sixteen hours a day. Or...?"

"Or? Oh, no... I meant, well, you know. You do, don't you?"

"No, actually. What's wrong?"

Buffy noted Dawn's extreme studiousness with her school books. What a little scholar she was. Did Keys have really sharp ears? Or was that just vampires? She turned her back to Dawn, and hunched over the phone. "It's just that he hasn't been around for two days, and it's been really.... You know."

"Hm. Boring?"



"Yes, exactly." Boring. No long hours in bed, wrapped around each other, not even talking; no one else in the tub. Scary. No sudden kisses out of nowhere. No surreptitious touching, no rather frighteningly vivid memories with which to entertain one's self at soul-sucking job. Of course, she actually had memories, but who wanted to remember stuff that was two days old? No, just boring. Not lonely.

"So,' Tara said, "Let me sum up. You don't miss him or anything, but it's kind of blah without him around. Sleeping okay?"

"Fine." Buffy snapped, then cringed.

Tara laughed. "It is okay, Buffy. When I first realized that I didn't feel the same way about men than my cousin did -- "

"You mean, you didn't think that they were evil but financially attractive?" Buffy interjected, thinking of Tara's cousin.

"Yeah." Tara laughed again. "I didn't want anyone to know till I came to terms with myself, you know? So I know what it feels like."

Hm. Buffy thought. That was interesting. I need to come out of my closet. Or maybe it's Spike's closet, because he's the one who's so good at getting me out of my clothes. She idly considered this, then sighed, realizing that there would be no changes in clothing status till he got back. Then she remembered she was supposed to be conducting a coherent, adult conversation with Tara, not thinking rather unpleasantly wistful thoughts about a certain absent vampire.

"And I heard that." Tara said.

"What?! Heard what? There was nothing to hear. I don't know what you're talking about."

"You sighed."

"Did not."

"Buffy, this is me, remember? There's nothing wrong with that."

Yes, there is. Buffy's mind countered. Yes, there most certainly is. What do I feel about him? Something, dammit, but who knows? "Yes, there is, Tara. I just feel it."

Tara couldn't find an argument against that. "We can talk about it in depth when the kiddies are asleep."

"Didn't you go to slumber parties when you were a kid? They never go to sleep unless you drug them. Hey..." Buffy looked around thoughtfully, raising her voice. "I bet there's some drugs around here. I bet if I looked really hard, I could find enough to really give them sweet dreams."

"Hey," Dawn objected. "They're my friends, not your experiments."

"Hey, share and share alike." Buffy said. Then she turned her attention to Tara. "Tara, bring drugs. Lots of drugs."



"Real simple, request, Spike." Angel pointed out. "Don't come back to LA--"

"Like you actually care." Spike scoffed. "Besides, you know what happened to me. Can't hurt anyone."

Angel regarded him steadily, this contradictory offspring of his, and shook his head. If he had stopped to think about it, he would have recognized the gesture: it was one his own father had used on him many times -- at least before he'd killed the old fart. "And the coat."

"Then it's a whole hell of a lot more money."

"Okay, then," Angel said, "All that or..." He sipped at his drink "...the truth."

"I told you the truth."

"You never tell the truth."

"Christ." Spike snarled. "What a poncy, smirking, self-righteous bastard you turned out to be. Liked you better when you were Angelus." He turned his head to look at the waitress, who mistook his look for entreaty, and consulted with the barman quickly. "But of course," he smiled, "that was in no way, shape or form, the truth."

"You're hesitating."

"Bloody hell."

He was saved from immediate danger by the waitress, who had brought another tray of absinthe, despite the fact that of the four of them, only Angel's was now gone. "Cheers," She whispered, and scurried off, looking fearfully at Angel. Lorne frowned at that, then muttered his apologies, and went after her.

"I'm just curious, William," Angel gave him a hard, flinty look, so much inferior to what Angelus was capable of doing.

"Grandchild," Spike corrected helpfully, trying to smirk, but not quite achieving it. Wes was now glancing back and forth between the two of them. The correction didn't buy him much time. Shitshitshitshit. Hoist by his own petard yet again. Perhaps that had been the motto on the good old family crest. Hoist by their own petards. Putting their feet in it since 1679 or... something. Dithering in the face of danger. Here he was, and what was he hesitating over? Telling Angel something he wanted Buffy to shout from the rooftops. The irony of it all.

"What were you like when you were human?"

So who was the one hesitating now? Just a jacket, after all. Nothing special there, nothing at all. Not compared to Buffy.

Angel took another gulp of the absinthe, and rolled it around in his mouth. Spike eyed him sourly, wondering what would happen if the bastard choked. Could vampires choke? He'd have to look it up. "Who is it, Spike? I mean, even if I believe you could love somebody..."

"Do you realize how Republican you sounded just then?" Spike asked, genuinely curious. "What's next? Lecture me on the smoking?"

"No, it'll kill you." Angel gave him that dead-eyed stare, so different from Angelus. "Save me the trouble, maybe." He stood up slowly, looming over the table. He's going to go all Angelus on my ass now, Spike thought. And he will kill me. This is it -- He feinted sideways toward the aisle, but Angel still caught him by the lapels, picking him up and shaking him like Darth Vader. The thought remained, clear in his head, like a note of music. He's not Angelus; he's just pretending. He's got an excuse now, and he's using it.

He's got an excuse, Spike thought....

I've got an excuse.

Buffy's got an excuse.

Dawn's got an excuse.

They stared into each other's eyes for ages, Spike's slowly changing expression, filling with a sort of disgusted wonder. Couldn't be true, Angel thought. Oh no, not possible. Sarcasm, maybe. But if anyone was in a position to feel contempt, it was him, shaking this much smaller vamp over the aisle like he was trying to shake coins out of his pockets, this much smaller, lighter vamp who really didn't have a chance of fighting back. This much smaller vamp, who, if the rumors were true, had gone through some interesting reversals, according to Dru. As he himself had.

He dropped Spike, ignoring the six or eight inches that separated his feet from the floor. No, Spike was not some sort of noble vampire, he'd never been good, never been tormented, what right had he to expect any sympathy?

He straightened his clothes, aware of many eyes staring at him. Disapproving eyes. Wes was staring up at him, with the sort of look he hadn't seen since he'd fired them all last year. Lorne, trying to get a date with the waitress from the looks of it, looked down at the floor, as if he were embarrassed about something.

He shrugged, trying to adjust his clothes, running one hand, suddenly nervous, through his hair. He looked at Wes again. "Hey, he's Spike. He's dangerous."

"He's chipped, Angel, and you're bigger than him." Wes took a sip of his drink, and Spike watched the grimace that followed with great appreciation. Good lord, hadn't any of these people ever gotten seriously drunk? He was dead and as bad as things were for him of late, he had more of a life than they did, despite lacking that crucial thing called a pulse.

"You say you're here to help the woman you love, a human. Can't do it any other way. Is there anybody who could confirm this?" He glanced around; Spike suddenly looking anywhere but at him, and Angel suddenly, utterly inscrutable. "I think I know who would know. I mean, really, it's her job, isn't it?" He sighed, considering the thought of handing off this dilemma to someone who could deal with it far better than he.

"I've got the solution." Wes said quietly. "Let's just call Buffy."



Chapter 21

Buffy tiptoed round the corner, nerves zinging with electricity, darting glances for exit in case the attack came. She had one exit on her left, another on her right, so she should have enough escape routes. She froze in place, breathing shallowly, in case the thing was close by and could hear her. No noise from her left. Moving one molecule at a time, she slid one foot noiselessly forward, closer to her goal. Was that a creak? She went rigid, waiting, Goosebumps rising from tension, only a couple yards away now. She listened again, Slayer sense attuned to the dangers that lurked around her. She slid forward, lithe and stealthy, closer; closer still... She could practically taste...

...the pepperoni she kept swiping from one of Dawn's pizzas. The front door slammed down the hall from her, and she jumped several guilty-looking feet in the air, eeping as she did so. She whirled for the back door, but before she got to there, Dawn was at the kitchen door, scowling. "Buf-fy! Stop that!"

"Hey." Buffy tried for placating, but it came out... whiny. No, that wasn't a whine, dammit. She did not whine. "I'm just hungry."

"You'll spoil your appetite." Dawn said, glad that she had one. "Besides, you always pick all the pepperonis off."

"I paid for half those pepperonis, I'll have you know." Buffy pointed out loftily. She pointed a finger at Dawn, but got intercepted again, because Dawn was eying her other hand and grabbed it.

"Knock it off, I mean it. Or I'll tell Spike that you—"

Buffy's jaw dropped. "What-- what-- -? Dawn!"

The doorbell rang, and Dawn, with the smirk of a successful small time crook, whirled off to answer it, leaving Buffy with several questions.

Tell Spike what?

And how?

And what all over again?

And when did Dawn get back to normal?

She cast a resentful eye toward the front hallway, then picked a pepperoni off the pizza, firmly closed the box, and popped the slice in her mouth.

"Dawn's gonna get you for that," Willow observed from the hallway. There was something satisfying in the guilt on Buffy's face, she noticed.

"Hey, aren't I entitled to a pepperoni here and there?"

"I don't know if it's the pepperoni bugging her so much." Willow picked off a piece of pineapple and down the hatch it went. "It's the sneaky part of it."

Weak languid kisses in the shadows of the Bronze, Spike's coat wrapped around her... like he himself was. The secret sensation of moisture between her thighs, the sensation of him only just gone... She turned white, remembering. Willow's red face, almost a match for her hair... Once this would have been a shared conspiracy, the two of them filching something they shouldn't have, but she didn't like the tone of Willow's voice. "Uh, Will -- I've been meaning to talk to you about something..."

"Who with?"

"You, doofus." She nodded at the back door. She took a deep, steadying breath. "Wanna huddle?"

They stepped outside, sat down on the steps. Buffy was sorry to notice how far apart Willow put herself from her, and how it didn't seem accidental. "So." Willow said, looking at the toes of her sneakers. "Talk."

"Well..." Buffy said, and her throat closed up. "Well..." Oh God, how could this be happening? Once there had been nothing they wouldn't talk about; now there was nothing they could. "The other night...?"

"Which other night?" Willow asked, still looking down. "Tuesday? Wednesday? Or I don't know... maybe the night I saw you kissing Spike? That night?"

"Will?" Buffy asked forlornly.

"Buffy, I know..." She swallowed and quickly glanced up, then quickly away. "I know, with the magic and all.... I haven't been a good friend. I've... been..." She swallowed hard and stared sternly and the wooden stair railing. "But what' s going on there?"

"I couldn't tell you." Buffy said. "I don't understand myself."

"Well, how serious is...?" Buffy flushed to the hairline, and Willow regarded this with some amazement. "You mean... you... with Spike? Spike?"

"Oh, God." Buffy moaned, burying her face in her hands. She ran her hands through her hair, then stopped, recognizing the gesture; it was his, when he was particularly frustrated. It was almost as if he was hoping to shake some brain cells loose. And now she was doing it. Maybe it was the times she spent with her fingers in his hair...

Will, though, mistook the meaning of the gesture. "Buffy...? Really?"

"Just don't tell anyone."

"Anyone meaning...?"

"Xander." Buffy said firmly. "I'll have to explain it to him, and I just can't explain it to myself."

"Buffy, do you love him?"

"He loves me."

"But do you...?"

"I don't know!" She burst out. "It just feels so different! I can't tell what it means, it just feels so strange, so... new... I don't know what to think. I just..." she shrugged helplessly. "I don't know what this is."

I didn't understand that I didn't think of men the same way my cousin did, Buffy's mind prompted. "I never felt this way about someone like Spike..."

"Angel?" Willow supplied thoughtfully.

"He had a soul," Buffy pointed out sadly. "So he was... different." She concluded lamely. She couldn't finish the thought precisely. Angel had a soul; Spike did not.

Spike has you, her subconscious prompted.

"So he's different. Not the same species." Buffy continued.

"Vampire."

"Yes."

"But vampire with a soul."

"Right."

"As opposed to chipped vampire."

"Yes."

"Totally different animal." Willow agreed, not seeing Buffy wince. "Didn't feel the same at all?" She prodded hopefully, trying to be useful, trying to help. "I mean... You know, the way you felt about him...?"

Not at all, Buffy thought. Lots of torment and denial; with Spike the only denial was in front of her friends. Was it just the difference between the two vampires, or was the difference in her? She only knew everything felt new with Spike around, as if she'd never felt anything before, tasted anything before... "I mean, vampire, right? Impossible. Angel was the exception; one-time thing. Once in a lifetime. For me, anyway." She brushed away memory of their uncomfortable little meeting. " But this... If he weren't a vampire, if he weren't Spike...." She swallowed. "It would be... perfect." She whispered.

Willow looked at her, her face worried, then reached out across the bitter months, and brushed Buffy's hair out of her eyes. "It's okay, Buffy."

"You're just saying that because it's in the Best Friend Bylaws that you have to do that."

"No." She said softly. "I'm just glad we talked. I could tell something was bugging you; you had to come out with it."

Come out with it? Buffy thought with a panic. Come out? That was what Tara had said.

"Hey..." Tara poked her head out the door. "Uh...." She hitched her shoulders up with tension, then regained her composure. "Hey, Buffy." Her voice dropped. "Willow."

"Oh, Tara, it's so cool." Willow jumped to her feet. "It's so neat." She gestured at Buffy, who was moving from puzzled to a little annoyed. "Buffy just came out."



"Uh... what?"

"Well, of course, Spike," Wes said with great, adult, calm. "Buffy should know what's going on, shouldn't she?"

"None of her business, innit?" Spike glanced between the Watcher and the nemesis. "Don't exactly go to the tanning salon with her, do I? Punches me in the face every chance she gets." Not to mention the shagging. He drummed his fingers on the table, wishing he had a watch to look at so as to give the impression he was completely without a care or time to care. As if the thought that they would discover that he and Buffy wereohI'mdeadhaving sex didn't make him wonder what it felt like to get staked. Well, actually he did know that part, the World's Biggest Slice of Wonderbread having staked him with plastic the one time. He'd heard -- the sort of tales that got told around campfires (or microwaves, waiting for the blood to heat) -- that being staked, before you were dust, felt like being burnt alive.

Kind of like what if felt like when he and Buffy... He jerked his thoughts back to Wes and Angel, wondering what they'd seen, what they'd noticed while he gazed off dreamily in the distance. Was it that obvious? Did he look all wussy and poetic now? They were frowning thoughtfully at one another, prompting a time-wasting smirk from Spike. "Want me to leave for a moment? Have something to discuss?"

"No," Angel said tightly. "Just something to do."

"We'll have to call her." Wes said, with more than a little reluctance.

"Uh, let's not and say we did?" Spike suggested. The badness that would result from this phone call could not be contained by his brain cells; it would be like a nuclear blast, spreading debris over whole continents.

"What's the matter, William? Afraid the Slayer's going to slay you? Oh, she doesn't know, does she? Wonder what she'll do when she finds out. I mean, who could it be? If you'd ever actually gotten anywhere with whoever this woman is, you'd be bragging to anybody who'd listen."

Spike forgot his apprehension for a minute, and just looked at Angel. He shook his head slowly. It had always been Angelus who bragged of his conquests -- or massacres, was the better word. Never did like a fight unless the odds were on his side. And women? Who did he himself have to brag about, Dru? How could you brag about poor Dru, when the slightest kindness did her in, the poor twisted little thing. Angel was smiling unpleasantly, certain he'd struck a nerve. "Unless you have no hope of success with her? Have you even told her you're a vampire? Too scared to?" Spike shook his head again, and Angel, mistaking the gesture for a no rather than what it was -- a negation of him -- continued to needle. "Who is it, Willow? The lesbian witch? Or maybe it's Joyce... that'd be more your style, William, pining after someone you can't have because she's dead..."

Spike flashed to his feet before he was even aware of it, but Angel stayed sitting, completely cool, as unaffected by the other's vampire's anger as he was by the errand that had brought him here. This has been entertaining but it really has gone on too long. Finally, having made his contempt more than clear, he languidly stretched to his feet, reaching out and dusting off imaginary specks on Spike's collar. "Time to decide, Spike. What's the truth? Your little girlfriend, does she know what you are? Or does she even know you exist? You're not the Big Bad any longer, you know? So what are you? The... Medium Bad? "

"Sod off."

"Afraid not. You come here, into my town, demanding what, my money? and... I'm supposed to hand it over? Why? Because I feel sorry for you? Maybe I feel sorry for your..." He chuckled unpleasantly. "...for your little girlfriend. If she's your girlfriend. Because how could any human love you?"

Spike lashed out, but before he'd even extended the punch, the pain bloomed in his head, twisting his features with anguish. He sank back down onto the bench. Wes and Angel exchanged glances. "Right, then." Wes said. "Do you have any change?"



Buffy cast a gimlet eye at the arriving guests, while Tara sent a few sideways glances her way. "What?" Buffy demanded out of the corner of her mouth.

"You gonna check ID's, too?"

"That's a thought." Especially seeing as how I wouldn't put it past Janice to being a demon in her own right. "You know what we need?"

"Hm?" Tara asked, smiling at a wide-eyed Sophie.

"A demon detector."

"I was going to go for another bathroom, but hey.... Nice to have at airports."

"It would so simplify my life."

Then again, maybe not, as Anya, former demon, appeared at the door with... Oh. No.

"Oh, no, I don't think so."

"She's in town for the wedding."

"She locked us all in the house."

"Oh, that." Hallie dismissed this little contretemps with an airy hand wave. "That wasn't personal."

"It was to me." Buffy said through tight lips.

"But, sweetie, you're the one who had the vampire at your birthday party. What's another demon?"

Ha! Buffy thought. That only works if you're a bleached blonde vampire with a certain wit and a wicked tongue. The last two were not necessarily synonymous. She crossed her arms resolutely on her chest, and glared at the demon. "You're not just another demon," She pointed out. "You think I'm a bad older sister to Dawn. What are you going to do, hang around and wait till someone wishes something?" She glared at Anya, who shrugged. Then an idea visibly struck the former demon, and she held out a hand to Hallie. "Give it up."

"What? A cover charge?"

"The amulet."

Hallie looked more aghast than any demon who didn't intend mischief should have looked, giving Buffy a certain satisfaction. After all, at the very least, she was protecting the members of N'Sync from a room full of teenage girls. She considered for a moment how much fun it would be to speculate on what form that would take, then shoved that thought aside as being very unworthy.

At least till she could discuss it with Dawn, later.

Sulkily, the demon gave up the amulet, which Anya pocketed without a second glance. "So," She said with great satisfaction. "Where are the cookies?"

The phone rang.



Spike tried the puppy dogs eyes look at Wes, but it just wasn't working. Wes, covering the receiver with one hand, gave the vampire's chest a shove. "Push off, Spike, I need to concentrate."

"It's concentrating that I don't want you to do." Spike glanced back at the table, where Angel had spread out, almost triumphantly across one side of the booth. He had one arm stretched along the back as if he owned the place, and the fingers of one hand were leisurely tapping in time to the music of the jukebox. Spike frowned. Angel didn't like music much. What was...?

"Hello, is Buffy there? It's Wesley." There was a pause. "Wesley Wyndham-Pryce Buffy's former Watcher. Yes, I was." Another, lengthier pause followed, during which Wes crooked the phone on his shoulder, took off his glasses and wiped them. Spike eyed the stubble of a neglected beard, and wondered what that was about. Weren't Watchers supposed to be all neat and tidy? He made a grab for the phone, but noticed two things simultaneously: Wes had the plunger pressed down on the phone, and was staring past Spike's shoulder with enormous eyes.

Spike whirled around, just in time to see Angel's eyes slowly cross and assume an extremely befuddled expression. Then he slowly rolled forward till his head banged on the table. There was a baritone chuckle, a sigh, and then all was silent. His own knees just about gave way; no more harangues, no more lectures, no more Ohpoormewiththesoul. Then he remembered Wes. He turned around to find the Watcher replacing the phone receiver back in the cradle and meeting his gaze with a certain -- and, he felt, rather inappropriate -- cockiness. He nodded at the phone. "What was that?"

"Thought I needed to stall him." Wes nodded at Angel. "And what was that?"

Smile gave him an entirely appropriate smug grin. "I had the waitress put all the laudanum that should have gone into my drink into his. So I got half and he got twice as much. " He turned and waved cheerily at the girl, who at that moment was stroking the silk of Lorne's tie very gently, like it was a pet. Who knows, maybe it was. Lorne perked up right away and came sauntering over. "So it was a success?"

"Depends on how big a hangover he has tomorrow." Spike shrugged. He turned to Wesley. "Why didn't you...?"

Wes looked away. "Because it's Buffy, isn't it?" He scrubbed his glasses vigorously, ignoring the way Spike's jaw dropped.

"You won't -- You can't..." Spike's throat abruptly turned dry. "If he finds out..."

"He won't find out from me," Wes said quietly.

"Why did you...?"

"It occurred to me, that a vampire can be a very useful ally. Or spy. Or lots of things."

All three of them looked at each other, then Lorne cracked up. "That's it, honey, no more James Bond movies for you. You get all frustrated after you watch them."

"I was completely serious."

"I'm sure you are, sweetness. But see, I just thought how sweet it would be, two lovelorn kind of... guys... joining forces." He sighed loudly, affixing a wistful look on his face. Given that he was green, had horns, wore an outfit that made him look like an Irish pimp, and was actually gazing wistfully at a bar full of tacky American vintages, this was an impressive feat. It also gave Wes time to look off in the distance, and Spike an opportunity to examine the toes of his boots.

"I'm a former Watcher." Wes pointed out stiffly. "And I am the director of this company, so I decide what gets done with petty cash." He looked sternly at Spike.
"This is not a gift. This is a retainer." He glanced at Angel, face down in the booth. "And it just seems practical that we do this on a cash basis due to certain... tensions... That's all. Now. Shall we?"



Chapter 22

They manhandled Angel out to the car, but Spike acted as a sort of UN observer: he absolutely refused to touch him, so of course the only thing left to was observe and critique. They didn't do enough dropping, in his opinion. Also, there were some severe deficiencies in the head-banging department, too. Finally, they dumped the other vampire into the backseat with a satisfactory thud, and then headed back to the hotel, the three of them jammed into the front seat. Lorne didn't help matters; he sat in the middle and hummed show tunes, occasionally breaking into snatches of "It's May."

This was not helpful.

Wes kept glancing into his rear view mirror as if he expected Angel to revive suddenly in the back seat. Spike saw that and grinned at him. "Uh, Watcher? You, ah, do realize that if he suddenly wakes up, you won't be able to see him in that mirror, right?"

Wes flushed suddenly, then recovered enough to give him a haughty look. "I'm well aware of that. But I could see some things shifting if he wakes up."

"Why is it so important?"

"There was an incident—was it last year? Or so, I forget precisely when. Angel was drugged, and it induced a false... euphoria. He became Angelus for a while. I'd like to get him home before that happens-- if-- if-- that happens -- so he can be restrained."

Hm. Interesting, Spike thought. "Was this when he set Dru and Darla on fire?" He asked pointedly.

Wes pretended to be preoccupied with passing another vehicle and ignored the question. Hm again, Spike thought. So he went all Angelus and that wasn't how Dru and Darla almost got toasted. What an interesting little tidbit that was. What was he when he decided to go all Firestarter?

They screeched to a stop in front of the Hyperion, and again Spike watched as they maneuvered the larger vampire up the steps. Dead weight indeed. And how disappointing; if it had been him, he would have at least dropkicked him a few times. Lorne must have picked up on some of that, because he insisted on taking Angel to his room, and presumably tucking him in. Spike was amused by an image of the demon attempting to put Angel into his pyjamas. For a moment, he entertained himself by speculating on Angel's choice of nightwear. After all, he certainly couldn't wear the coat to bed.

Wes poked his head out of the office, and beckoned at him. Spike, remembering that he was about to be given a fair amount of money, suddenly tried to remember what gratitude was. Certainly, there was that feeling he got when Buffy touched him anywhere, but he didn't think Wes would appreciate that particular expression if confronted with it. He peered around the doorjamb, hand scratching uncomfortably at the back of his neck, right about where Buffy usually put her hand when she kissed him. With a practically audible snap, he wrenched himself back to whatever it was that Wes was saying.

"How much do you need?"

"Well, house payments, for a few months at least..." Spike thought. In truth, he hadn't planned for this, and now, confronted with his success, he had no idea what to ask for.

"What are you going to do?" Wes asked curiously.

"Thought I'd, you know, get some information from Dawn, make a few payments, take a bit of the heat off..." Spike trailed off uncomfortably as he felt Wes' eyes on him. "Dawn will do that for me."

Wes shook his head, his eyes blank and amazed. "You know, she won't even think it's you when she finds out someone's paid some of her bills."

Spike just shrugged. Big deal. Just as long as he could crawl into her bed, and this time not have to leave while she tried to persuade him to stay.

"What if she thinks it's Angel?" Wes said gently.

"What if she doesn't?" Spike countered. "They met after... she came back, you know. She won't talk about it. And he set Dru on fire, and you already told me he wasn't Angelus at the time." He stared away with some bitterness. "What did he do after she died?"

Wes looked away.

Spike scowled at him, even though he wasn't the problem. "What'd he do, go party? Sounds like him." He refrained from pointing out the misery of those 147 days. "Guess it wasn't a timeless thing for him, like he told her, was it?"

"Spike... I would like to ask something."

Spike nodded his assent, expecting something technical, but that wasn't what he got. "She doesn't love you at all?"

"No, it's not like that." He answered. "There's something there." He scrubbed his hand through his hair. "Not sure I can handle it, if it does happen, you know? I know it, know she doesn't love me, but sometimes I think I see it, in her eyes, it's just that she hates saying stuff like that." He glanced down at the floor, unable to meet the Watcher's eyes. A Watcher and a vampire, talking about love. He wasn't sure if it was a good thing, but he did know one thing; it was extraordinary, and Buffy was the catalyst for it. "Putting it into words -- not her strong suit."

"You were a poet."

"When I was a human." Spike thought about it, then added, "That's what I feel like... when..." He had to look away. "You?"

Wes shrugged uncomfortably, leaning forward on his elbows on the desk, unwilling to answer, but unwilling not to; how could he not, when the vampire had been nothing but honest? He was momentarily silenced by the idea of it all; sharing confidences about love with a vampire. He sighed, swallowing a lump in a dry throat. "She... uh.... she loves someone else."

"Then she's not for you." Spike said quietly. He thought of Dru, always willing to drop him at the crook of Angelus' little finger. "Know what it's like, I do. Won't make that mistake again. It's like you're not there, when there's someone else. She's -- she's -- aware -- of me. I come up behind her, and she... senses me. Feels me. I know what that's like, don't I? That's how I felt with... this..." His voice got very soft. "...this woman I loved. I felt her, when she was around me, like the air had a tide and she shifted through it like a current." He shrugged with embarrassment. "Never felt that way about anyone till Buffy." Not even Dru, he thought regretfully, but he wasn't sure that was a bad thing. Dru had been so dependant on him, but Buffy could get along quite well without him, he knew. Nevertheless... She was still there, wasn't she? Not like she was going with the first human who came along.

"Can't help what I feel." Wes said ruefully.

"No, you can't." Spike said thoughtfully. "All you do is ride it out. Like an undertow, mate, that's what it is. You fight it, it will drag you under. Just have to go with it, because you'll use up all your strength against it, and it won't matter. It'll kill you."

Wes nodded silently, looking at his desk. Spike looked at him soberly. "Who?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"Who is it? You used to be sweet on Cordelia, didn't you?"

"Oh, that..." Wes brushed that infatuation away. "Things were so different then." He considered it for a minute, the pleasant certainty of that crush, crumbled in a heap on a library floor. It was almost sweet, compared to the twist he felt in his gut every time he looked at Fred. He knew he should try and feel glad for her sake, but he just couldn't. The fact that Gunn obviously treated her like fine china only made him feel guiltier. "No, it's not her. Not that she's not a wonderful woman."

Aha! Spike thought. She's still in love with the father of the kid. Isn't that the same old story? "You have to give it time, Wes." He said. "'Course, what do I know, I'm a vampire."

Wes blinked at him. "Spike, I'm beginning to think you might be as unique as Angel himself."

"Uh, yeah." Spike brushed that away. "Well, that I am, but not for the sort of thing I'd like. William the Bloody has reverted to his true roots. Next thing you know, I let the hair go, start listening to harpsichord music, 'f you can call it that music. Please stake me if I do, would you? I don't mind being a—a—house pet -- quite so much as I mind the idea of being... a.... tacky house pet."

Wes blinked at this, having no idea how to cope with a vampire suffering an identity crisis. He'd figured he'd reached the limit of his adaptability with the whole vampire-in-love thing now, but now here was something else. Really, he needed to write this stuff up to truly cope with it.

"Ah -- I'm sorry. Spike, how much was it that you wanted?"



Lorne flipped the blankets over Angel's prone form and considered that maybe being a vampire wasn't a bad thing. No snoring, for example. Definitely a plus. On the other hand, to adequately nurture a grudge and a desire for retribution, it appeared there was nothing like a centuries-long life span to truly give one an attitude. He'd of course been around for the whole half Angelus thing the previous year, but unlike the others, well, he hadn't found it depressing. At first. Killing lawyers? Well, darn. Now, he hadn't had anything personally against Dru or Darla, but nevertheless, vampires, that whole thing, why couldn't they go vegetarian or something? Or pick off obnoxious people? So, again, there, not exactly feeling the dismay. It had taken him a while, he admitted it, but maybe it had been the cumulative effect, but finally it had gotten to him. Still, wasn't it unreasonable of well, some people, to expect Angel to be...so...well...angelic...all the time? There was some poetic justice there somewhere, and he really didn't know quite where.

He was good at dealing with..stuff; had to, with his abilities. Nevertheless, he found tonight to have left a rather unpleasant taste in his mouth. He'd read Spike, and never before had Angel doubted him. It was as if Angel had changed the rules just for this one night, this one case, this one vampire. It wasn't like him, although it was perilously close to last year's Angel for his taste.

He'd heard all about Spike; he'd heard about Buffy. He knew about the chip as well. What he just couldn't figure out was how the one affected the other. He had no doubt about Spike, but he didn't know nearly enough about Buffy to make up his mind.

Why do you care? His subconscious asked.

Because one lovesick vampire was more than enough.

And, maybe, just maybe... He sighed heavily, unwilling to bring that thought to its sappy conclusion. He hadn't had nearly enough to drink for that. A vampire in love with a Slayer? He looked at Angel again. So different this time around, wasn't it?

Spike poked his head in. "How's the poofter?"

"And people say you don't care, you crazy kid." Lorne adjusted a pillow, and Spike wondered how he could resist the temptation to press it over that face. Of course, it wouldn't kill him, but it would mean one didn't have to look at him.

"I don't, actually," Spike said. "But there was something." He swung the bag he'd brought with him, and out came a cascade of Playboy magazines, in a satisfying flurry of pages. Angel did not so much as flinch. Spike wondered what it would be like when he woke up; he was sort of sorry he'd miss the fallout, but not if it kept him from Buffy for any longer than necessary.

"It's interesting you stopped by." Lorne pointed out.

"I needed to do some more gloating."

"Sure it wasn't something... more... compassionate?"

"Uh... Yeah." Spike fixed him a perfectly balanced scowl in which scorn, amusement, and disdain were evenly mixed. "I just wanted to make sure he hadn't thrown up all over you."

"Oh, ack." Lorne said, backing away. He brushed off his hands unconsciously, turning Lady MacBeth for an instant. Then he tiptoed gingerly around the bed. "Well, thank you very much, Mr. Smarty Pants. Just for that, I'm coming with you."



"So... I thought we were leaving."

"Just one more thing I have to do."

"Are you going to tell me what that is?"

With that, Spike slowly, patiently, turned his head and glared at him. Lorne was impressed by the deeply annoyed quality of that scowl, but on the other hand, Angel had the patiently-enduring-thing perfected to a more subtle degree. Spike looked as if the next notch up his particular ladder of pique might involve ripping off heads. Angel always looked as if he were going to sigh repeatedly, then get tight-lipped, and finally threaten to rip off heads. He wondered if impulsive head-removal was just something one outgrew, like impulse shopping; after all, Angel had at least a hundred years on Spike in the age category. How did vampires mature, anyway?

Spike yanked the car over to a parking spot in front of a store, and leaped out, duster practically flapping with glee. Lorne shook his head. What on earth was going on in that bleached blonde head? Was it the peroxide?

Spike pegged the clerk's look instantly: Huh, leather good, but attitude sort of scary. Customer or potential robber? Let's walk in front of one of the fitting mirrors, he thought, and really freak this guy out. "I need something that looks like this." He said, gesturing, and watched as the clerk visibly relaxed. "Except," he savored the thought, "in the smallest size you've got."

It didn't take long; the clerk was only too eager to placate him and then see him on his way, his unease in no way alleviated by the way Spike haggled over the price. Oh, for the good old days, when he'd dealt with indecisive twits like this by making them dinner instead of commission. Bastard. Damned if he was going to pay that much for something he'd never use.

Finally, he intimidated the git enough for the purchase to be rung up as a sale item, then snatched the bag and raced out. Just closing time: how fast could he drive, and he still had a final stop to make. He completely ignored Lorne's skeptical expression as he performed a fast and highly illegal U-turn, then went screeching back to the Hyperion.

"Hey, I'm not coming back here just yet, sweetie," Lorne pointed out.

"Relax, leprechaun." Spike muttered, grabbing the bag and dashing back in the building. "Just one last thing..."

Careful now, he tiptoed up the stairs, looking in both directions at the landing, checking for noise. Nothing. He went to Angel's room and was pleased to see his grandsire both unattended and still deeply unconscious. Even better. Once he'd not have hesitated to get revenge for a century of irritation both so extreme and so petty he'd have called it human. Now he had a better plan...

He pulled the new coat out of the bag, ripped off the price and size tags, and threw it over the sleeping form. Bastard wanted a coat? Well, then see if this one fit. At least the size was appropriate... Soul or not, Angel always had been nothing but an extra small.

Light-hearted again, and light-headed with the thought of seeing Buffy again -- how many centuries had it been? -- he sauntered out to the car, duster swaying around him. He slid behind the wheel, sighed with as much contentment as a vampire could muster, and then cranked up the CD player to The Ramones.

"Don't you dare sing." Lorne said.



Chapter 23

Buffy had just decided which pepperoni was going to be next when there was a thunderous sound in the hallway, and Anya appeared, panick-stricken and flushed, in the doorway. She grabbed at the doorjamb for support, and gaped first at Tara, who had just missed a real good swat at Buffy's hands, and at Buffy, who was using her Slayer reflexes in a rather unscrupulous extra-curricular kind of way. At first Buffy cringed at getting caught pepperoni stealing, then glared accusingly at Tara, who didn't seem to think it was stealing if it was pineapple chunks. Somewhat abashed, both of them avoided each other's eyes, focusing brightly on Anya. Tara recognized the look on the other woman's face, but was rather startled by it; it was the frizzy look that Miss Kitty Fantastico got after she'd gotten too stimulated with catnip, and was looking around for something else to destroy.

"What's wrong?"

"Cookies!" Anya gasped. She staggered to the sink, yanked the faucet to 'gush' and gulped down the whole glass of water in practically one gulp.

"Is, um, your next word going to 'Rosebud' or something?" Tara asked. "Because I just don't quite see...?"

"We're out of cookies." Anya whispered. It was the same tone of voice that Buffy remembered using in reference to mascara, a combination of horror and realization. "What are we going to do?"

"Uh... mug a Girl Scout?" Buffy suggested.

"Oh, yes, that's so funny." Anya filled another glass and drank it slowly. "But she's in such an awful mood, I don't know what to do; it's only the cookies keeping her calm."

"Uh, get her some more maybe?"

"Where?" Anya demanded. "I don't think there's anything open at this hour anymore."

"There's got to be a Seven Eleven or something," Tara said. "Besides, shouldn't Hallie be leaving soon?" It's not like she was invited, she thought. But how did you eject a vengeance demon who supposedly couldn't exert the forces of revenge according to her own desires? She checked the time: eleven thirty and the girls were still up. Judging by the squeals periodically being emitted from the living room, they were quite up.

"What are you guys talking about in there?"

"Oh, you know, teenage stuff; hair, clothes, boys, music, boys, sex--"

"Uh, Anya, you're not talking about sex with them, are you?" Tara pointed out gently. Buffy, thinking she had a clear shot, snatched a pepperoni and popped it in her mouth.

"No! They're the ones that brought the subject up."

This caused such a long glance between Tara and Buffy that even Anya noticed. "Well, it's rude to change the subject, isn't it? Besides, I didn't know any of the words. I thought they would be helpful in my retail career. A good vocabulary is always helpful. And, besides," she muttered, "Hallie was telling them all about the good old days."

"The--" Buffy swallowed, envisioning the lawsuits in her future -- "the good old days?"

"When Hallie was human and I was a vengeance demon."

"Oh, and what else was Hallie saying?"

"Well, sometimes I was on the front porch. But Willow was telling them about the boyfriend that used to be a werewolf."

"Oh, good." Tara said mildly. "Buffy?" There was a loud shriek, a chorus of "OHS!!" and Anya froze, jumped, and whirled, all at once, disappearing back toward the living room. Tara blinked. "I think that actually violated the laws of physics."

"You know, it really is getting kind of late..." Buffy gestured for silence, and headed toward the living room, expecting to hear occasional shrieks, but it was suddenly, ominously, quiet. This was good, perhaps... or was it? She paused outside the living room. She could hear a soft voice, soothing, rising and falling as gently as water on a shore, almost sense the in held breaths of eleven girls. Did Vengeance demons also cast spells of silence?

She peeked around the door, and saw Hallie, in game face, surrounded by girls sitting cross-legged at her feet, with Willow perched on the end of the sofa. "....And the Married Women's Fair Credit Act enabled women to get credit on their own and buy things without having to...." Anya saw the thunder in her expression and unobtrusively slithered to her feet, the picture of guilt, sidling past her back toward the kitchen.

Buffy sighed hugely and was suddenly the center of thirteen pairs of eyes. They all looked at her curiously, Dawn's scary older sister, who reportedly had truly frightening weirdness cooties that were totally ineradicable. Now, she thought, why are demons less frightening than eleven disapproving teenage girls?

She gestured enthusiastically -- too enthusiastically, she realized; she looked like someone trying to guide in a jetliner on a runway -- for the chat to continue, then backed away with a huge sigh of relief. She wondered just how many older brothers and fathers would find themselves the subject of lectures tomorrow.

"Anya!" She snapped from the kitchen doorway.

"What?"

"She's talking about the Federal Fair Credit Act or something. Not sex."

"Well..." Anya shrugged. "I think credit is sexy.'

"Yeah," Tara said, "You and Alan Greenspan."

Buffy and Anya exchanged blank looks while Tara took a deep breath. "Okay, well, I thought that was funny."

Anya patted her on the shoulder. "Maybe I just don't understand lesbian humor." She squared her shoulders and headed back into battle, leaving Buffy and Tara shaking their heads.

"Alan Greenspan?"

"Chief of the Federal Reserve Bank."

"Lesbian humor?"

"Can't help you with that one, sorry." Tara eyed more pineapple, while Buffy looked over the pizza and sighed. "So... what can I help you with?"

Buffy groaned. "You've helped too much as it is." She picked at a pepperoni, while Tara half-heartedly slapped at her wrist. "Buffy, why don't you just eat the whole damn thing?"

"You said damn, Tara! What's next? Combat boots?"

"It's the pineapple, it makes me all aggressive." Tara watched her disapprovingly as she snagged more contraband from the practically-nude pizza. "You know, you just pick and pick and pick, because why?"

"Too many calories."

"How many of those have you eaten?"

Buffy swallowed guiltily and tried to look innocent.

"Yeah, okay, Buffy, but think about it. You've been picking all evening, picking at bits and pieces, but you've eaten so many of those slices, you probably might as well have eaten the whole pizza by now. Except this way you get to convince yourself that you didn't really do that much, it's calorie free because it's just a bit here and there. It's more fun just to admit it, and just take the whole thing."

Buffy stared at her.

"Sorry, Buffy, I just...." Tara wondered suddenly if she had inadvertently inflamed some sort of eating disorder, the way Buffy stared at her with wide eyes.

"No, you're right." Buffy gave her a strange smile, and shook her head. "You know what, Tara, you are right. You really are. You always are. It's funny, isn't it?"

"Oh, Buffy, I didn't mean it like that, okay?"

"Oh, I don't know... I think it worked...." Buffy slid off her stool at the counter. "Hold down the fort, okay? I need some air."



"Slow down."

"Whose car is it?"

"Certainly not yours, sweetness. So slow down so we can get it back to the rightful owner in one piece."

"He's given up on getting it back."

"Okay, then, slow down so you can get me back in one piece."

Spike gave him the double whammy of a stare, and an exasperated sigh, made all the more impressive by the cut-glass cheekbones and the scarred face. It didn't work. Lorne had too much sympathy in his face for Spike not to feel guilty, especially when he considered his ulterior motive in allowing the demon to come with. He wondered if Lorne had an ulterior motive. It was getting to the point where it was just easier to assume everyone had an ulterior motive and be pleasantly surprised when they didn't. Although he wasn't sure about Angel; his motive was crystal clear: kill him and/or make sure he suffered. Seeing as how this pretty much summed up his own ambitions for Angel's future, this actually worked pretty well.

"Remind me why you're here again."

"Just curious to see the inestimable Buffy, who slays vampires when she's not l--"

Spike whipped out a hand, and Lorne was impressed by that; the vampire seemed to barely twitch, and then he was pinned to the seat with what felt like a hand of cool marble, utterly inescapable, and implacably squeezing off his air.

"Talk about her like that again, mate..."

Lorne gestured surrender, and Spike fixed him with icy blue eyes, releasing him. Lorne watched with some wonder as the vampire swallowed hard, then stared so intently out the small unpainted aperture in the windshield that it was surprising it didn't melt.

Lorne thought about vampires, about this vampire in particular. He didn't have a soul, but he was puzzled as to why the humans bothered so much with that concept. Here was a vampire at his most evil, singing Bruce Springsteen for a woman he feared didn't love him back. And a vampire in love with the Slayer! He marveled at the concept. Even though he knew of two cases, it still awed him, and he'd heard too many awful renditions of "If Ever I Would Leave You,' to not be a bit cynical.

He had his own little guidelines for judging people, and Spike had effortlessly confounded them. Much as he resisted it, he had to contrast the two vampires; the one with the soul, the one without. He knew he shouldn't compare musical tastes or execution, but it was impossible not to think about Angel's rendition of 'Mandy' in contrast with Spike's version of 'She's the One.' Or Angel, brushing aside Buffy's death with a lament about a wasted vacation. Spike, traveling to LA on some harebrained quest to get enough cash to take the heat off her for a while.

He knew none of it mattered, knew it was unfair to let it matter, but he wanted to see the woman who inspired two different men to two such extremes. Maybe, technically, they were vampires, but something about her made them behave like men, and he wanted to see that.

He eyed the vampire beside him, face taut with concentration, and wondered if he was approaching the dilemma from the wrong direction. Maybe it wasn't the things they did, the desires they had that was important. Maybe he shouldn't be trying to solve this puzzle from this angle. Maybe it wasn't the woman he should be considering; maybe the key to understanding vampires in love wasn't the vampire part, maybe it was the part about love.



"Hey."

Buffy whirled around in surprise. "What are you doing out here? You're the hostess."

Dawn shrugged. "Too much Maybelline, I guess." She displayed a hand on which every fingernail was a different color. "I think the fumes were getting to me." She edged closer to where Buffy was sitting on the top step of the deck. "At least, I think it was the fumes. Maybe it was Halfrek. They sure must have some strange perfume taste in Demon Land."

"No argument here. So I'm just your ulterior motive? Huh. Just a cover, that's me."

Buffy tried not to look too pleased.

"Well, yeah." Dawn scoffed. "So, um, you wanna be alone or something?"

"Not if you have other plans."

"Oh... Okay." Dawn scooted forward and plopped down on her butt next to her sister. She cocked her head tentatively at her, then snaked a arm through one of Buffy's. "Just, you know, we used to do this. With Mom." She glanced away. "I missed it."

"Me too."

"And you, too."

Buffy turned sharply and looked at her. God, what a knife blade teenagers put you on, she thought. A joke would be too flip; too serious and she'd smother. All she remembered from her own adolescence was panic, resentment, rules, mayhem, and Angel. Dawn was studiously considering the trees in the backyard, as if they had only recently just sprouted. When she was sure the coast was clear, she cleared her throat, and cautiously glanced in her older sister's general direction. "So... um... is Spike back?"

Oh. "No. I haven't seen him yet."

"Well... damn."

"Dawn..."

"What?"

"Uh..." Buffy took a deep breath. Why shouldn't Dawn know? If she found out that Willow and Tara knew before she did, the fall out would be nuclear winter like.

"What, uh, made you think I'd know if he was back or not?"

"There's something going on, isn't there?" Dawn shot back. "I mean, I've seen the way he looks at you."

"Well, you know, there's that whole thing last year...."

"No, this is different. He looks at you different this year."

"Well, he's... glad I'm... back."

"I'll say. He looks like... . I don't know." Dawn struggled with what she was trying to say. "Maybe it's not him. Maybe it's you."

Buffy gulped, and gave it away without a fight. "Um, he's been really... really..."

"Really what?"

"Helpful?"

"Buffy... look, it's okay." She had just consumed an entire box of Girl Scout cookies on her own, after having rescued them from Halfrek by virtue of her own cunning, and she was feeling pretty benevolent. "Remember how Willow didn't tell us about Tara? How she acted around her? That's the way you act around Spike."

Buffy looked around for another sign of the apocalypse.

Dawn tightened her grip on her older sister's arm. "Besides, it's really convenient, if I get that paper route..."

"Oh, okay. It's my priorities that are the problem. I must get a vampire boyfriend so you can get a paper route."

"That's what I was hoping, anyway." Dawn was silent for a long time. She clutched Buffy's arm hard and looked down at her toes, which were also color-coded. "It was awful when you were..."

"It's okay to say it, Dawn. I was dead."

"Okay, when you were... dead. Spike was..." She looked up, trying to find the word, sighing with impatience. "He was... just... He wasn't even sarcastic with Xander. Xander just kept saying these things to him, and Spike just wouldn't even notice. He just ignored him; I don't think he even heard him most of the time, you know? He and Giles actually talked -- "

"You mean, about the weather or..."

"No, shop talk, you know, Slayer stuff, but Giles talked to him, you know. I mean, they actually talked." Dawn marveled at it all. "It was polite and stuff. Giles would ask him questions, and he'd think of something, and then Giles would listen. But when you came back... Giles stopped being nice to him."

Giles, always with the protective instincts, just a little bit too late. Buffy did a mental gulp at the thought of telling Giles. Xander's reaction paled in comparison to what her imagination could speculate about Giles' response. "What, um, else, did he do?"

"He'd baby-sit me every night."

Every night I save you.

"And he was real strict." Dawn crinkled her nose at the memory. "Worse than Giles." She clutched again. "It was kind of weird, too."

"What?"

"He wouldn't talk about you."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, you know," She bumped her shoulder against Buffy's like a cat. "Your name would come up, and Spike would just... disappear."

"What?"

"And you know, if we kept talking about you, how much we missed you, he'd change the subject in the most rude way. He was nice most of the time -- you know, Spike's kind of nice. But he'd just get this look on his face; you kind of felt sorry for him and scared of him at the same time."

Buffy thought about it for a minute, then asked: "You were scared of him?"

"Well, you know." Dawn shrugged. "He might call you something terrible that you'd have to look up in a dictionary. So there was the delay issue, you know, in getting back at him. You know how he is; he would tease me" -- and here Buffy watched with some amusement as Dawn preened just a little bit -- "but I never pushed him. It just made it worse."

"Why?" Buffy asked gently.

"Because now, like, they're pretending that summer never happened, you know? I mean, I watched him Buffy, and the whole summer, if your name came up, he just disappeared. And now it's like Xander is-- is-- forgetting all that stuff, because it's real easy to ignore somebody who's not here, you know?"

Buffy stroked her hair, looking into her worried eyes. "Well, Xander's going to have to stop that, isn't he?"

"Are you going to tell him?"

"Tell him what?"

"Buffy, it's totally obvious." Dawn crowed.

"Um, what? What's totally obvious?"

Dawn rolled her eyes, full of adolescent superiority. "You know how you used to glare at him when he came in the room or something?"

"I, uh, glared?"

"Yeah! And then you'd kind of sigh or something. Well, now you don't do that. You kind of don't look at him. Because it's like you know he's there. You don't have to look." She sighed happily. "It's so romantic."

"No, it's not, it's..."

"Is it just sex?" Dawn asked curiously.

"NO!" Buffy shouted, panicked now. She shrank back against the porch rail and eyed the alien who had stolen her sister's body. "No, it is not just sex, it's..."

"Oh, is it love?"

Buffy had to look away. "Dawnie, I don't know. I really don't."

"Will you tell me when you find out?"

"Keep you updated, you mean?"

"Yes. Now go away, you're making my head hurt."

Dawn jumped up and sauntered toward the door, a Woman With a Mission. At the door, though, she stopped, and turned. "Buffy?"

"No more sex!" Buffy cautioned her.

"Okay." Dawn agreed soberly. "No more weird sex talk confidences." She paused thoughtfully. "At least till I have some myself, right?"

Buffy's eyes got very wide. "Which will not be till graduate school, right? Decades of graduate school, then graduation, then doctorate. Okay? And no vampires, and...."

"Buffy," Dawn sighed. "Chill. This is Sunnydale. Not like there's lots of options. But when I do..."

"Yes," Buffy conceded, mentally crossing her fingers. "When you do."

"Buffy... will you promise me something?"

"Uh..what?"

"Will you keep Spike updated, too?"

Buffy waited a long time before answering. "When I know, I will."



Chapter 24

At first he thought he had the wrong house. "Stay there," he snapped at the demon. Once he parked the car at the curb, and the engine died, he could actually hear screaming coming from inside. He froze for a second, startled, then jumped out, slamming the door hard behind him. Halfway up the walk, though, he realized what it was, and relaxed.

Teenagers.

Then he realized what it was. Teenagers.

He changed course to go round the back, and was not too surprised to find Buffy sitting, rather hunched, on the back porch. She didn't see him for a moment, staring off longingly into the back yard as if looking for escape routes. From inside, there was a shriek, then a flurry of giggles. Spike winced, lighting a cigarette. At the sound of the cigarette, Buffy's eyes widened, and she looked up at him as if he were a ghost. Cool Face, he reminded himself, Cool Face, but even he could see she was trying not to smile. "Suppose the crime rate dropped while I was gone," he commented, padding noiselessly closer.

There was a burst of giggling from inside the house, and Buffy was the one who winced. "Don't be too sure of that."

He paused at her feet, tossing the cigarette away. "Victim or villain?"

She nodded at the house. "Won't know till I get the bills." He sank to his knees on the step in front of her, and she stopped breathing. "You were gone..." Her voice trailed away as he looked down at his hands on her knees, pushing them apart, sliding his hands up her thighs, then to her face where, she realized, he must be able to feel how flushed she'd suddenly become. Damn. He was eight inches away, and she could feel him already, as if there were a charge between them.

"Hey, Buffy...?" Tara called from the kitchen. Spike recoiled as if he'd received a shock. Tara glanced out the window, and paused at what she saw; Spike, one hand running through his hair; standing stiffly several feet from the porch, and Buffy, glancing guiltily over her shoulder. She stepped out the door and looked at Spike. "Oh, hi, Spike." She looked back and forth from one to the other. "Another cramp?"

"Uh-- well-- she had something - in her eye--" He glanced at Buffy, as if he expected her to confirm this. "Uh, yeah, terrible. Hay fever. Little bits of... things. In. The. Air. Horrible." Evidently this concept was best demonstrated by flapping one hand in the air, as if to disperse all the rapacious little bits. "But. It's, uh, gone. Gone." He added helpfully, as if Tara hadn't been paying attention, and the situation required note-taking or something. "Trees." He looked accusingly at one. "Nasty things. Grr." He shuddered, which would have been more effective if he hadn't done it like a big, wet, dog. He checked to see if the story had any chance at all of working.

Tara smothered a smile, not certain she wanted to give up teasing Spike. "I could get some ice?"

"No, that's okay." Buffy interrupted. "Uh, Spike—"

"Spike!" Dawn shrieked, and then jumped, ambushing him in a hug that made him stiffen in surprise. She'd never hugged him before. He waved his arms in the air, at sea, while Dawn clutched him in a death grip around his middle. "I'm so glad you're back." She looked up at him with cat's eyes of adoration. "Can you show my friends your vamp face?"

He looked at Buffy for approval or confirmation, and was relieved to see she was amused rather than irritated. "Uh, that's up to Buffy." He gave Dawn a stiff pat on the shoulder, as if she were radioactive. "And her lawyers."

Dawn gave him another squeeze that threatened to rearrange his internal organs, and then sighed deeply and retreated. "Did you bring me a present?"

"Not till your birthday." Is it today? He mouthed desperately at Buffy, who gave a tiny conspiratorial shake of her head.

"Huh." Dawn grumped, but she wasn't upset, and Buffy stamped down a momentary spurt of jealousy. Where did that come from all of a sudden? Dawn looked from Spike to Buffy, and then smirked. "I guess you two want to be alone." With that, she was gone, missing the way Spike's jaw dropped at her departing back.

"What? Huh? How? You told her?" He shook his head. "I... wanted to." He muttered. He could only imagine the way she'd handled it.

"I didn't tell her." Buffy said. "She figured it out on her own."

"She..." He scrubbed his hair with his hands again. "And Tara?"

"I told her."

"You...?" Spike shook his head again, and Buffy blushed so red that it almost hurt. Oh, God, here it is, she thought. Oh, God. He stared at her, so pleased that he wasn't even aware how young it made him look. Buffy found herself suddenly confronted with a discomfiting glance of what he must have looked like as a human, all fuzzy and so happy he was flustered by it. He opened his mouth and closed it a few times, blinking rapidly. It was rather disturbingly charming to see him so happy, and not have it be prompted by something major, like her returning from the dead. On the other hand, it was rather scary to be thinking of Spike in boyfriend terms, as if he were Ordinary Guy. She wasn't sure she was quite ready enough for that particular milestone.

"When... ah... did you tell her?" Spike asked gruffly.

Oh, God. She sank down on the top step of the porch, glancing behind her for witnesses. If she'd found any, it would have meant postponing the Talk that she most emphatically did not want to have. She patted the wood beside her, and he plopped agreeably down next to her, much the way Dawn had. "I asked Tara if she would check why... you could hit me." She said quietly.

"Ah." He said, equally quiet. "And?"

And, she thought. And how to phrase it? I was using an excellent excuse for what we were doing, and now that's gone, and the only thing's that changed is I have to find another one? Why do I have to look at you and see the past five years? Why don't I just see you?

She looked at him, and tried it. What was there to see? Of course, there were the looks -- the face that was not half so vivid as the one she saw in private; the lithe body, the intelligent eyes. What she didn't see was problematical; the torture he'd endured in order to save her the pain of losing her sister; the comfort after her mother died; the fact that only he saw clearly she was drowning after she came back. That list entitled him to something, and she wasn't sure just what it was.

"Well... And...." She had to swallow, then. "That was after..." She swallowed again. "After what happened in the alley." How could one atone for that? How could one make amends for deeds with words? "I thought there was something wrong with me, because you and I...." She took a shaky breath. "Because there had to be something wrong with me, because... You and I, that's what I thought. Because I thought if you could hit me, it was the same reason why you could..."

"Yeah," Spike whispered wearily. "Sure."

"Because... because I'm the hero, I don't kill people. I thought I killed her. That girl. I..." She swallowed harshly then, her eyes tearing up. "I thought I killed her. I really did. I couldn't bear it. I mean, if I had been better, I would have known I hadn't, but everything was wrong, so that was...that was... I thought you were wrong, too. I thought that was just one more wrong thing. And then Katrina. It was one thing to hurt myself... or you. But... she was... She didn't deserve that, and it was my fault. And you tried to talk me out of it, so it seemed to me that you were bad, still, and that so was I because...." She blew out her breath, pausing to compose herself. "Because I... Because if all I wanted was you then, not my friends, not anyone else..." She covered her mouth with her hand. "And then Tara..." She looked at him, then looked down, so ashamed of herself that she couldn't meet the vampire's eyes. "There's nothing wrong with me. There's some little cellular changes, but that's all. Nothing. So I don't have an excuse for..."

"For beating me up." Spike supplied.

"Yes." Buffy whispered. "Tara thought, at first, that I was talking about you beating me up."

Spike gave her a humorless little laugh at that. She bit her lip. "I have to go inside..." She brushed her behind off, from the dust on the porch, and quietly went inside. He sat still, staring off into space without a thought in his head. He heard her rattling around in the kitchen, cupboard doors banging open and shut. He took a very deep breath, not knowing precisely what to do. Had that been an apology or not? He felt not too different than he had at the time. He knew she'd been tortured; but even he hadn't realized how bad it was. It had seemed to him at the time that she'd been closer to the grave than he himself was, and that was like saying that one was closer to celibacy than a virgin. Now he knew it for a fact, and he wondered again where in the hell her friends were. She was self-destructing before their eyes, and what did they notice? Not a damn thing. She'd had to pull her closest friends aside to tell them, although he got a certain amount of satisfaction out of the fact that Dawn had twigged to something, but not too much, he hoped, at her age.

He got up and silently crossed the deck, peeking in the kitchen door. She was bustling around the kitchen, chin determinedly set, doing nothing more productive than moving one Kool-Aid pitcher from one counter to the other. When she saw him she lost he grip on the one she was holding, sloshing the viscous red substance all over her front. She looked down, Kool-Aid dripping off her hands. "Great." She said, far too sarcastically. "This stuff never comes out."

"Uh, then better go change it."

"Yeah." Not meeting his eyes, she slipped past him. He tossed a dish towel on the drying mess on the floor, and ran over what had just happened in his head. The pained revelation on the back porch, followed by the retreat in the kitchen. She'd plastered over all that pain with that cheerfulness she presented to her friends, and he was suddenly nervous. Very nervous. He sidled down the hallway, peering into the living room. No one really noticed him; Willow was asleep on the couch; and Tara and Dawn were curled up together in one chair. Another woman was partially visible on the far side of that armchair, curled up against another chair. Nine or ten girls were scattered in an abstract pattern of sleeping bags on the floor, riveted to the television. He slipped past them and up the stairs, gliding on the balls of his feet, a trick he'd picked up that made one practically inaudible. Vampire silence had little to do with the supernatural, and everything to do with practice.

He got to Buffy's door, and hesitated at the threshold for a second, realizing it was only the second time he'd entered her room through the door. He opened it and stepped in.

It was a tie who was more startled; Buffy, who had tossed her stained sweatshirt aside, and was holding one in front of her; or Spike, when she stared into his face, and slowly lowered the shirt till she was standing before him, bare to the waist, and as still as a statue. This lasted till they heard the soft footsteps on the stair. Buffy reached for him, shoving him toward the bathroom, and stuffing her arms and legs toward holes in the shirt. She closed the bathroom door almost all the way, and leaned against it.

The footsteps came up the stairs, stopped for a second, and then came to her door. "Buffy?" It was Tara.

"Yeah?" She and Spike were pressed side by side against the wall, he with his front pressed against the wall, hands spread, she with her hands jammed into her pockets. She could feel his eyes burning into her, could feel the air heating up between them.

"I'm going to take off now."

"Oh... Okay. I'll be down in a minute." She stepped out into the room, gesturing to Spike to stay where he was.

"Okay. We've only got two pizza left."

"Okay."

She waited. Spike froze in the doorway of the bathroom, his eyes locked on her. She tried to avoid those eyes. She was afraid of what she might see in them. She waited, not breathing, for the footsteps to go back downstairs, and finally they did. When she was sure Tara had gotten to the foot of the stairs, she tentatively raised her eyes to Spike's.

Two steps brought him to her, as he took her jaw in his hand and kissed her till her breath was gone. There was no sense to that kiss, nothing at all, coming out of nowhere, pushing them across the room to the wall, where he pushed himself between her legs and pressed her so hard that she gasped. There was one moment for air, then she took his face in both hands and pulled him back to her, twisting, turning, searching, till it got far too serious, and she had to push him away.

"Stop."

"You don't want me to stop." Spike whispered back, illustrating his point by finding her neck and nibbling his way down it with such attention that her knees shook.

"There's people down there."

"We'll be quiet."

"I can't be quiet!" Buffy blurted, earning her a sloe-eyed look from Spike, even as he slid his hands under the sweatshirt, and filled his hands with her breasts. Gold sparks danced in front of her eyes, and all sorts of muscles trembled with anticipation. Two days of deprivation made it all but impossible to resist, especially as he slid down her body, his mouth cool against her flesh, shockingly so against her nipples. He wrapped his arms around her thighs, kissing her bellybutton, hooking the waistband of her sweats with one finger. "Spike," she whispered.

Oh, but this is unfair, she thought. He worked his way back up to her mouth, pinning her hands above her head, then leading them to his neck. Do whatever else, she thought, but it was his kisses that made her weak in the knees, and that was saying a lot. "Girls downstairs," she breathed.

"We're upstairs," he countered.

"I'm noisy," She protested weakly. One of his hands returned to her breast, and every nerve ending in her body felt like a plucked guitar string.

"You won't be." Spike took her hand and drew it to his crotch, part appeal, part demand. She watched his face as she pressed against him, watched his lips part and his eyes drift shut. They sank to their knees behind the bed, Spike lowering her onto her back with one hand, settling on top of her, between her legs, with another Spike motion she was adding to her list; the wriggle he did, the slightest shift from side to side as he settled himself on top of her, the slow slide on his weight on top of hers. He peeled her sweats and panties away from her body with one hand, freeing one leg and sliding one finger between her legs to find her so wet she was almost embarrassed. Almost. He ripped his fly open, not helped by the fact that she was pulling him down at the same time, shoving his shirt up, trying to find his skin. Except for one of her legs, and his pants shoved down, they were both fully clothed, and she felt as if the clothes around her were abrading skin that suddenly seemed painfully sensitive.

There was no room or time for speed, or noise, so he shoved inside her, slowly, pushing inside her with an endless motion that took her breath away as he pressed forward, a long smooth curve that went so far he finally couldn't go any further. He found room where there didn't seem to be any, burning inside her. He whirled his hips, and Buffy lost the ability to breath. She could feel it beginning already, as he withdrew, pulling slowly past what felt like every nerve ending in her body, scraping every sensitive one of them, taking centuries, taking her breath with him, shuddering with the effort it took to stay in control. He came back again, slower, harder, taking forever, dropping his head with the effort, going as far as he could, and then probing further, tearing a loud gasp from her. He clapped a hand over her mouth as her eyes widened, her hands clawing at the leather of his coat, her body already starting to shake, replacing his hand with his mouth, muffling her gasps with his tongue, murmuring into her mouth. Then he pulled back again, slamming back into her hard, muffling her gasp with his mouth as she stiffened under him, doing it once, twice, three times more...

Every muscle she had seemed to tighten and hold, then, locked into endless reverberations, while she tried not to cry out. Caught squarely between the impulse for explosion, and the need for repression, she grabbed his shirt with both hands and buried her burning face into his chest, rocking under him and around him, half afraid it wouldn't end, half afraid it would. She drifted back to herself, to find herself terribly sore, and Spike panting into the floor boards next to her shoulder. She was almost too weak to kiss him.

Almost.

Oh, God, she snapped back to alertness, what was that? There's a roomful of girls downstairs. Spike lifted his head wearily as he felt her stiffen, somewhat amused. He picked up her wrist and pointed out her watch.

Ten minutes. At first she just glanced at it, then her jaw dropped. Ten minutes? "How can you have a slow quickie?" She demanded.

He shrugged, which was quite a feat considering their positions. He shifted off of her, and watched as she scrambled to her feet, hopping as she ran to the bathroom with one leg of her sweatpants on, one off. He rolled over onto his back, and put himself to order, wincing a bit. I have muscles you've never even dreamed of, he reminisced dreamily, even as he flinched a bit. It felt like she'd bit him again, too.

She came dashing out of the bathroom, but he jumped to his feet and intercepted her at the door with a kiss that made her sag against him. She bit his lip and he eyed her with the ultimate weapon, that dropped-chin-sloe-eyed look. "You're all flushed," he whispered. "All over," He added.

"Stay here," she ordered, but before she could open the door, he grabbed her again and kissed her with soft lips. "Five minutes, okay?" Then she leaned forward and kissed him back. "Go out the window, okay?"

He smiled a bit at her caution, but he plopped down on the bed agreeably. If he had his way, he'd just be climbing in the window in a few hours anyway.

Buffy tumbled down the stairs on bare feet, to find herself greeted by a calm Tara in the kitchen. "Sorry," she said weakly. "Kool-aid accident."

"That stuff, it's dangerous." Tara agreed. "You want me to come back?"

"Yeah, that'd be great." Buffy wondered precisely how flushed she was. "They're still eating? I thought you said there were two pizzas left."

"Well, you know how it is." Tara said dryly, just as Spike sauntered far too casually into the kitchen. "Some people are just insatiable..." Spike grinned at Tara, and Buffy suddenly felt the need to verify the pizza situation herself by picking up the box and shaking it. "...with pizza." Tara finished.

"Terrible stuff," Spike agreed blandly.

The witch glanced from one to the other, and made her escape. Buffy watched her go. "Hello, Child Protective Services."

"You were quiet."

"No, I wasn't."

Spike examined his fingernails. "Yes, you were. Maybe it's just that if felt so...." He smirked at her, which should have irritated her, except her knees were still trembling.

Willow popped her head through the kitchen door, looked from one to the other. "Oh, pizza, good, we still have one."

"Think we'll need more?" Buffy asked worriedly.

"Maybe not."

"How are you doing, Will?" Buffy asked.

"Oh, I'm perky." Willow assured her. "Caffeine is a many-splendored thing. It's just I'm hoping if I stuff them enough, they'll get all full and sleepy."

"Really?" Spike perked up instantly. He nodded to himself thoughtfully. Willow rolled her eyes at Spike Plotting, and retreated to the living room.

"What?"

"Oh, nothing," he said casually. He picked up the pizza box, took two steps to the kitchen door, and pitched it toward the garage. "Darn. Guess we need to get some more."

Buffy shook her head at him, amused in spite of herself, but the amusement disappeared fast as he stepped up to her. "I volunteer. Wanna ride?" She nodded mutely, wondering where they could find some deserted place to park the car. Somewhat distracted, she went down the hallway and beckoned to Will.

"We had a little pizza incident, Will. We're going to get more."

"Okay."

Too easy, Buffy thought, trying to convince herself she was a bad person for remembering abruptly the dimensions of the DeSoto's seats. She was so tense with anticipation that at first she didn't notice anything unusual about the old car parked in front of the house.

Nothing unusual about it at all, except for the big green demon leaning casually against the passenger side door.



Chapter 25

Well, well, well, wasn't this interesting?

Lorne checked his watch. Yes, indeed, it had been about an hour since they'd gotten to Sunnydale, and Spike had driven with one hand clamped on the wheel and what had felt like both feet and several weights jammed on the gas pedal. Now, he was ambling with loose-limbed giddiness to the car, accompanied by someone who could only be the Slayer, and she, too, was suspiciously loosey goosey as well. Spike's hair was tousled, and to Lorne's interested eyes, it was pretty obvious whose fingers had done it. As far as the Slayer herself, she was tiny and mussed, wallowing in huge sweats, hair wild around her face, and lips obviously just-kissed. Well, well, well, wasn't this impressive. Back in town less than an hour, and they'd already gotten naked and -- from all appearances -- looked like they'd soon be going at it again. After the sterile confines of the Hyperion, it was rather refreshing in an unexpectedly vivid kind of way.

Both of them smacked up against the same invisible obstacle when they saw him. The body language was exceptionally interesting. Buffy, who had been glancing surreptitiously out of the corners of her eyes at Spike, tripped over a molecule, and thumped over her own feet, then flushed. Spike, who had been more or less blinking his long eyelashes non stop at the Slayer, stopped abruptly, probably at the same proton, and stared at him blankly as if he'd never seen him before. Comprehension dawned with visible slowness, probably at the same rate of speed as brain cells were repairing themselves, post orgasm. Lorne watched as the vampire visibly struggled for some clue as to his identity. He waved helpfully, hoping to disperse the almost-visible pheromones clouding around their respective heads. "Slayer," Spike finally said, "This is Lorne."

"Slayer," Lorne drawled. "What an unusual name for a girl. Did this make your life interesting in the public education system?"

"Um, it's actually Buffy."

"Well, that's mundane by comparison." Lorne said. "So where are we going?"

They exchanged glances. "We?" Spike asked. "You're not going anywhere with us. Right now. Because we have pizza to get."

"Uh, huh." He eyed the way their hands dangled too close together, as if they'd just been separated. "Sure, sweetness, pizza. Thirty minutes or you get a freebie?" He eyed the house, more than a little curious. "So, what's going on here?"

"Slumber party."

Lorne sadly reviewed his life; once the owner of a wonderful club with all sorts of interesting people, he now looked forward to a room full of teenagers. How art the mighty fallen? He smiled at the two of them. "Don't be too long." Just long enough so I can plot something, he amended. The three of them stood there and eyed each other uncomfortably, and he wondered, were they going to christen the car right there in the street or something? Spike opened the passenger side door, and Buffy gave Lorne a curious glance as she climbed in. Spike squinted at him for just a second over the roof before he got it. "You're not planning on having any little sing alongs, are you?"

"What can I say?" Lorne asked. "I'm a musical kind of guy."

Spike shook his head, but Lorne was too much of a distraction from Buffy, who was leaning over the seat and looking up at him. He slid in and started the car, pulling away from the curb with such haste he left rubber behind. Buffy settled into the seat with a sigh, and he glanced over at her. It suddenly occurred to him that they were alone, for a while. Not necessarily alone in hey-let's-shag-again-alone, although that was a possibility. Alone as in no-need-to-worry-about-putting-on-a-fake-face-type-alone. Although there was the post-coital nervousness thing to worry about, the way she got all twitchy some times after the clothes came back on, which seemed to be what she was doing now. He sighed, wondering how long it would take this time.

Buffy stared out the open window, the breeze rustling her hair, suddenly confronted by more unnerving thoughts on the order of, Oh, all alone, I see. No friends around. No need to deal with whatever this is, no need to pretend, no need to act. She had gotten so used to the pretense that its absence almost made her miss it. Now, that's bad, she thought. My life has officially become a bad country song, although it's going to be hard to work the whole vampire thing in there and still break the Top Ten. She glanced at Spike. Plus he definitely was not the country type. She had no idea what to do with worry-free time, and the idea of being worry free in Spike's company was so recent an addition to her Theories of Life that she was still writing the play book out. Hm.

Uh oh, Spike thought. She's thinking. This was not good. Thinking led to reasoning, which invariably involved not doing fun things, like shagging for hours, kissing where her friends might find them, and well, doing what they were doing right now, which might very well lead to more shagging. He stretched his arm out along the back of the seat and Buffy surprised him by turning her cheek into his palm. Her hair curled over his hand, and he found himself looking more at her than the road. She rubbed her cheek against his hand, and his fingers curled automatically, response to irresistible stimulus, feeling her skin flush even more against his hand as she closed her eyes and leaned her head against his arm. He kept glancing at her stealthily, which he knew was stupid, but he couldn't quite do away with the fear of getting caught. She usually only let her guard down with her clothes, and for her to snuggle while dressed was a milestone.

They came to a stoplight, and the absence of movement made her open her eyes. She blinked at her, then, after a moment's hesitation, scooted over the seat, and nudged her head into his shoulder. Do not say a word, he ordered himself. Do not say a word. Saying a word invariably meant he was trying to say something, but would wind up saying it in such a fashion as to cause words. Even Iloveyou -- said at the height of passion, and really uncontrollable -- had been known to get her dressed and gone. So he had to bite his lip every five seconds as yet another phrase would arise in his mind that seemed clever while merely a thought but would undoubtedly be disastrous if he ever dared let it out. These were in fact legion, but he refined his list while waiting for the light.

I love you. Best said while arguing.

The whole animal thing. She could climb him as nimbly as any monkey, ride him like a rocking horse, but if he ever wanted her to do it again, he'd best keep it to himself. Although the mental image was fun, and accurate, dammit, he sincerely doubted his ability to turn any reference to a primate into a complement.

Her bounteous bottom. It wasn't that it was huge, it was just curved, and lush, and there was no way on earth he could say that without putting parts of him in jeopardy.

Any reference whatsoever to the way he adored her super Slayer strength in terms of duration or enthusiasm. One thing hadn't changed in a century (as if William would have known) -- Never, ever, imply, or infer, or suggest, or somehow indicate, speculate or otherwise give the slightest impression, that any woman anywhere at any time or in any place might have been to bed before with someone else and learned how to do a few things properly. Or improperly, which was actually better, once you thought about it, and oh, Christ if he was thinking about it, it was only moments till he was blurting it out.

The light changed, and he stamped on the gas with more enthusiasm than necessary, startling Buffy, not a good thing, because it was possible she might suggest driving herself.

Which he promptly forgot as Buffy snuggled closer, his arm around her waist, her arms around his waist, and sighed in his ear. Bloody hell. She pulled closer still, till her head was on his chest, and he got a brief chance to bury his face in her hair before he yanked the wheel over to the curb, and pulled her as close as he could without actually donating any organs. Her hair smelled like mint and strawberries, and just that Buffy smell that she had, which invariably went straight to his nerve endings. She twisted in his arms till she was curled up in the opposite direction, almost on her back in his lap, too easy to kiss not to, tasting his mouth while she touched his face with the slightest of fingertip touches. He spread his legs for her so she could wriggle into his lap and be that much closer, and then, not coincidentally, put her bottom right where he could fit it into his hands. It wasn't a demand, he wasn't trying to seduce her -- any more than usual, that is -- he just loved the way her bottom fitted his hands.

"Pizza." Buffy murmured between kisses.

"Request, order, comparison, observation?"

"Mm." Buffy gave one of those little sighs. "Reminder."

"Bugger the pizza." He slid his arms around her waist, and tightened till she squeaked. "Kissing takes precedence."

"Kids waiting at home."

"Eating you out of house and home, no doubt."

Well, hell, he thought, that did it. "It's worth it, because Dawn's so happy." She sounded injured.

"Is she?" He stroked her hair again, and she laid her head against his left arm. Pieta with Slayer, he thought. Interesting concept.

"Oh yes." Buffy smiled at the thought of she and Dawn on the back porch, arms linked, grossing out at the thought of Sex. With. Boys. Or boy vampires, she thought, trying not to giggle outright at the sudden thought of a vampire in a Cub Scout uniform. Spike raised an eyebrow.

"What?"

"Well, your name came up in the conversation."

"Probably in vain."

"Hm, dramatic much? No, this was the Talk."

"The Talk?" He heard the capitals, and wondered what sort of initiation rite he'd missed.

"You know, the Talk. Sex came up." He raised an eyebrow again, and she was torn between envy at his eyebrow skills and... well, more envy. She'd always wanted to be able to do that. "Sex with you."

"You talked about sex with Dawn?"

"Actually, it was more like the other way around." She made a gesture of collision. "I didn't know what hit me. Train wreck time."

"Not fun, was it?"

Buffy rolled her eyes. "I'll turn her loose on you when we get back and you'll see. " He gave her one of his Spike looks, which mixed skepticism with just plain sex, eyeing her so challengingly that she leaned up and kissed him.

"Oh, hell." He took a deep breath. "Let's go."

"Why?" She wriggled against him, deliberately, he was sure.

"Pizza, you said. Sooner we get back, sooner I can get you alone."

"In a houseful of girls?"

"Worked before." He pointed out silkily.

Well. That was what was called an irrefutable argument right there. "Pizza then." She sat up sulkily, sticking out her lower lip. He gunned the motor, then leaned over and kissed her lightly.

"Pizza." Buffy sighed, in the way of reminding him.

"Pizza," he agreed, but he didn't stop kissing her.

"Pizza!" Buffy gave him a small shove, and he sighed, with great patience and pulled away. Domino bastards, he thought, and pulled out into traffic.



Lorne ambled around the perimeter of the house, picking up fragments of conversation within, and nips of the scent of garlic. Garlic? Now that was interesting. It wasn't present in the house any longer, but there'd been so much of it at one point that the scent lingered on. How interesting. Spike had said she didn't love him, but he believed she felt something for him, and at one point at least, that feeling had been fear.

He came around the back porch, to find a voluptuous blonde sitting on the top step with her chin on her knees. "Oh,' he said, startled. "Pardon me."

She sagged visibly, as if he were the final straw, the last indignity. "Oh, God."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Another demon?"

"Well!" He snapped, affronted. "I'm not just another demon. Allow me to introduce myself, sweetness. I'm Lorne of the Deathwa clan, and my goodness, how you must moisturize. I'm impressed, especially in California."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Well, you know, this dry air." He waved his hand through the air as he said this, as if to specify this air rather than other air. "It does just terrible things to my pores, and I just don't think I packed really well for this trip."

"This trip?"

"Oh, you know, I thought it was just going to be an overnight thing, maybe, but well, I've seen the hotels around here, and all I could think is, the only way two people ever get in one of those showers together is if one of them is Norman Bates." He added thoughtfully, "Would have done him some good, you know."

"Showering is definitely good."

"So, uh..." He looked around, searching for further conversational forays. "Known Spike long?"

"Spike!" She smiled suddenly. "Oh, you're a friend of Spike's! Oh, that explains a lot."

"Such as?"

"Well." Tara was stumped by that one. "Your sudden appearance."

"Good save," he said admiringly.

"Well, I thought I recognized you, but I wasn't sure."

"Oh, really?" He gestured at a spot next to her, seeking permission, which she granted with a nod. "Spike has a lot of demon friends from my clan?"

"Well, demon friends, at least."

"A lot?"

"Well," Tara thought. "There's Clem."

"And...?"

Tara thought about it for a minute. "There's... Clem."

"He's a very popular boy, our Blondie, isn't he?" Lorne said thoughtfully. They sat in silence for a few minutes, long enough to hear a burst of giggles in the kitchen, plus what was unmistakably an adult's voice. Tara froze at once, darting a startled glance at Lorne, and then jumped up. Brushing off his pants, Lorne followed curiously to the door, where he saw several teenage girls in their pajamas, plus another demon, of a type he couldn't place. He and the demon stared at each other for a few minutes, while the girls exchanged nervous glances. Then he remembered his manners. "Lorne."

"Halfrek." They shook hands, and Lorne had to shake off an uncomfortable feeling of invasion, as she held his hand far too tightly, and peered into his eyes." How nice to meet you."

Dawn bounced up to him, sticking out a hand and shaking his vigorously, freeing him from the uncomfortable scene with Halfrek. "Are you a friend of Spike's?"

Well, well, well, Lorne thought, watching Halfrek stiffen. Really, these humans -- or former humans -- were so obvious sometimes. From Buffy, stealing virginal glances at Spike, to Spike, hovering next to her, to Halfrek acting like she'd just seen Bill Clinton when she was busy with someone else, they all might just as well have been wearing signs.

He thought about Spike, and what he'd told him; that sometimes there was so much of another person in the singer's thoughts that he could pick up impressions of that person. He thought about Angel, long since over Buffy, but not likely to react well when he heard the news of precisely who she'd moved on to. And he looked at the demon in front of him, a former human like Spike, who, unlike Spike, radiated waves that reeked of demon, and eyed the coltish little girls around her like a hungry cat.

"What a lovely speaking voice you have," he tsked at her. "I bet you sing divinely."



Chapter 26

Every now and then something would happen which made Buffy realize just how odd her life was. Saving the world from the Master in her coolest dress? That was weird. Seeing the Mayor turn into a giant snake? Again -- fairly high place on the Weird-O-Meter. Having a commando boyfriend? Positively tame. After all, he had a pulse.

Watching Spike look at the toppings list for pizza thoughtfully, as if he were just any other guy on a humor-the-girlfriend-type-of-a-date? That had to be in the Odd Top Ten. Of course, the whole Spike thing was Oddness personified; and the oddest thing about it, was how unweird it felt. Which brought the whole weirdness thing up again, because she suddenly wondered what would happen if Giles found out. This produced a slight wince-- half cringe, and half irritation-- because he was gone, and why should she care?

"You sick of pepperoni, yet?" Spike asked. Buffy thought about it; what, really, was there to life except pepperoni? Leave it to a guy, living or undead, not to figure that one out.

"What are my options?"

"Bacon, sausage...?"

"I'm looking for cholesterol." Buffy pointed out.

"So...you want the maximum in artery-clogging, is it?"

Buffy deflated abruptly at mention of ‘artery.' Damn, hit by reality yet again. Why did he have to use that word? It just made her think of...reality...yet again.

"Yeah," she said dispiritedly. She suddenly remembered Tara's words, and knew she'd be nibbling on the toppings anyway. She could practically denude a pizza while remaining morally sure that she hadn't eaten more than a few little snippets off the top. "I want dietary badness. Why can't we just skip the pizza, and just order the toppings?"

"Well, we could," Spike said thoughtfully. "But you're the one who's going to explain to this poor bloke what it is you want."

"What?" Buffy shook her head, seemingly disappointed. "You mean you're not going to tell him what I want?"

Spike eyed her. "Well.... It's just that it does seem to change every day."

His eyes were on her, considering, wondering if his name would come up, and the joke fell flat. "Pepperoni's good." Buffy said quietly.



Lorne wondered if there was some sort of bylaw about vengeance demons being insecure. He could practically smell it on her; that, and the smell of sulfur.

He slowly drew Hallie away from the girls, out onto the deck, while Willow and Tara performed hopelessly lame magic tricks in the living room. He wondered if it was just the gig that did it to them, or maybe it was just her, but looking at the former Anyanka, he doubted that. Or maybe it was just having heard the conversation between the two of them.

"You don't much care for Anyanka's hubbie to be, do you?"

"Oh!" Hallie waved the remark away, then glanced around. "I never said that."

"I'm good with instincts."

"What do you do, by the way?"

"I, ah, I sing." Lorne said modestly, brushing away a speck of pollen from his linen lapel. Really, why had he chosen linen? He'd never get the wrinkles out. It was possible the suit could survive another trip to LA in the Spikemobile, but he doubted it would survive Greyhound. And there was as much chance of Angel giving him enough money for plane fare as there was of Spike getting a suntan. "And, well, I try to ah, help, as it were, other people to express themselves in song."

"Really? Is that your job... or your, ah, talent?"

"I'm lucky." Lorne said quietly. "It's both."

"Oh, I know what you mean." Hallie giggled. "I'm the same way with dismemberment." She giggled even harder. "And I do mean... dis mem--""

"Ah, yes, thank you, I've got that particular mental image burned in already."

"Oh," Hallie giggled again. "You men... No matter what kind of demon you are, that's the topic that really gets you touchy."

"Well, it's just that castration isn't exactly something one could do over, could one? It's not like liposuction, is it? Don't fat cells always grow back? At least mine do," he added thoughtfully. He sighed. "My clan has the biggest hips in the region, it's a curse. Terrible inconvenience; that' s how our enemies always caught us during clan wars." He sighed again, both relieved to be somewhere where hippiness was only an inconvenience rather than a death warrant, and also where convenient payment plans meant that he would never have that ghastly nightmare again, about being criticized for his figure, and then executed for it.

"So.." Hallie eyed his sleeve. Interesting. A demon who chose linen for spring. "Where are you from?"

"LA."

"Originally?"

"Is anyone in LA really from there?"

"But, originally?"

"Oh, honey, if I told you that, you could dig up my old yearbook, and find out how old I really am. And no one is pretty enough for that." He batted his eyelashes at her. "But why are we talking about me? What about you? Where are you from?"

"Oh, England, originally."

"And you and Anya met...How?"

"Oh, it was just terrible. There was this terrible person chasing me around, just completely beneath me, and you know..." She leaned forward. "And that's how I met Hallie. I just wanted to get rid of him. He kept distracting me. He kept distracting this...man." She giggled. "It's too funny, all of us meeting up this way."

"All of us?"

"Oh, Anya and I, even him -- that vampire..."

The light dawned. "That vampire." She preened a bit, as if primping herself in the mirror.

He drew away a little, wanting to see her clearly. There were some things that he didn't need singing for. "What about him?"

"Who knew it would turn out like this?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, when I wished he was dead, I never thought...."



"Why five?"

"Because we got one free that way." Spike said, injured. Much as he liked having all that money in his pocket, he was suddenly, acutely, aware of prices. Certainly, it was Buffy's money, but that didn't stop him from feeling very protective of it. And here she was, dissing his financial acumen.

"But why do we want one free?" Buffy wrinkled her nose at him. "They're hyooooooge."

Spike had to bit his lip to keep from commenting on the two-syllable pronunciation, knowing that it would sink any and all hopes for nudity any time in the extremely near future. "Something wrong with leftovers?"

"Fine." Buffy shook her head. "You get to convince Dawn to eat leftover pizza for the next week."

"She's a teenager, don't they inhale food?"

"Not if anyone's looking."

"Well, maybe we should make it forbidden or something, then she'll be mad for it."

"How do you know so much...?" Buffy shut up abruptly and looked out the window again. The pizzas, steaming, and sweating oil through the cardboard, were heaped between them, and he suspected that tossing them in the back seat and grabbing her would not be well-received.

"How do I know so much about women?"

"I didn't say that."

"Which means I'm right." He glanced over at her shrewdly. "You always have lots to say when I'm wrong." Of course, sometimes she also had lots to say -- torrents to say -- when he was right, too, so it wasn't an absolutely airtight theory.

"Well, maybe that's because I get lots of practice."

"Oh? Name one example."

Oh, hell. Buffy thought. Perfect opportunity, but worse circumstances could hardly be imagined. The weirdfest that is my life. Trying to have a conversation with Spike. Trying to have a normal conversation with the person I'm sleeping with.... The vampire I'm sleeping with. It somehow seemed below the belt to bring up anything pre-chip, and post-chip was like an open wound. Whoops. I guess he's not like a normal boyfriend after all, she thought. The silence had gotten to the point where it hung in the car, as much a third entity as Spike's eternal cigarette smoke, making known with its presence her inability to come up with a light answer.

But then... Inspiration struck. "Harmony!"

"Bloody hell."

"What was that, Spike? C'mon, I'm sure she was sensitive, intelligent, witty -- "

"And not prone to gloating." He pointed out.

"Yeah." She rolled her eyes, mimicking. "My boyfriend's going to..." She hummed a few bars of "My boyfriend's back... Hey la, hey la..."

"Bloody hell." Yet another twinge; Harmony calling him her boyfriend at the slightest provocation; Buffy, steadfastly refusing to. How could he get any more lucky?



"So, sweetness..." Lorne settled himself on the deck, knowing what it was going to do the linen, but well, some things had to be done. "I'm not completely clear on the whole wishing thing..."

"Well, this is how it happens." Hallie said cozily, settling in beside him. "You make a wish, and the wish is done. But I had such potential that D'Hoffryn -- he's the head of the division -- offered me a job. I have a real talent for it."

"For death and pain and torture?" Lorne enquired softly.

"Don't forget maiming," Hallie pointed out. "Or dismemberment. I'm sort of known for my dismemberments."

"I'm not clear, either, on how you got invited here..."

"Oh, I'm not allowed to divulge that information." Hallie said primly. "But I only go where I'm needed. Or my presence is requested. Now, Dawn, for example. Everyone was leaving her behind, so I fixed that." And myself, a voice said, but never mind. Let's forget that embarrassing little episode.

"You... fixed that?" Lorned shifted uncomfortably around on the step, wishing she hadn't used the word, ‘fixed.' "How did you do..." He gulped... "that?"

"Well, I can't really divulge that, can I? But someone has to look out for these girls."

"Girls? What about boys?"

Hallie brushed that off. "Why would they even need demons? You should just hear what my coworkers tell me about other places, the things they have to do just to keep up." She sighed for a moment, and her shoulders slumped. "You know, as much as we do do, we're still terribly short-staffed. And that's despite the fact that a lot of people never even wish because they don't even have hope enough for revenge."

"Revenge?"

"Justice," she amended. "These politically correct times, you know. But really, if you cut off a woman's -- well -- you know, what do you think she's going to want in return?"

"Now there's a job description I'd like to see."

"Well, really, what was I supposed to do when I was human? All I did was go to parties, look pretty, and pretend I was flattered by men. And so many of them were so... so... beneath me. And gossip; I did lots of that. I perfected that, but it was soâ€"so -- circumscribed."

"So you became a vengeance demon because you had a talent for it, huh?"

"Oh, yes. It's very subtle, sometimes. I mean, when I was still human I did a few things, but it was so difficult. I just didn't have the opportunities as a human that I had when I became a demon."

"Why were they beneath you?" Lorne asked curiously.

"What? Well," Hallie shrugged, dismissing the question. "They just were. That vampire, for example. Nothing like the other men, always writing poetry."

"What were the other men like?"

She sighed, as if it was a pleasant memory. "Oh, very masculine. In control. But he was... Well, he was so sensitive! He was always thinking about things that spoiled the fun."

"Such as...?"

"Oh, I remember this one! There was this terrible woman who was always at parties; terrible bluestocking. And William was so nice to her, even though she was really worthless."

"Worthless?"

"Shopkeeper's daughter or something." Hallie explained. "And William was nice to her. Asked after her mother, actually had conversations with her. Some of the women did like him. All the tacky ones, that is."

"Tacky?"

"Low-class, you know. The spinsterish ones. Probably grateful for any man, even him."

"And, sweetheart, I hate to interrupt, but was he poor? Tacky? Low class?"

"Well, there was that poetry...." Hallie said thoughtfully. "But no, he was respectable enough, except he always wanted to think differently than the rest of us. He kept spoiling it for the rest of us. We stopped going to little get-togethers at his mother's house, because he caught one of our boys with one of the maids, and booted him out of the house. Can you imagine?"

"Can I...?" Lorne looked at her. "What?"

"One of the maids." Hallie said significantly.

"One of the... maids?" Lorne asked. "What was he doing?"

"Well... Anyway, who cares?"

"Aren't you a justice demon, you said?"

"Yes, but... that was different."

"How so?"

"Well..." Hallie shrugged, trying to put into words something she'd always felt but tried to articulate. "It just didn't matter to men then. She was just a little Irish shanty girl. She should have been grateful she had a job."

"And if the job included being...?"

"Oh, that? Well, I knew the man!" She exclaimed. "And he was perfectly nice to me!"

"Like you knew that vampire?"

"I didn't want to know him, that was my point! And he kept insisting on bothering me!" She frowned at him, a face that hinted at what she looked like at work. "I didn't want to be bothered."

"Like what vampire?" Buffy asked curiously. She was followed by someone who appeared to be Spike, but who was obscured by a pile of pizza boxes. From behind it emerged a thin trail of smoke. Hallie peered around to get a side glimpse at him, and smirked with satisfaction at Lorne.

"Like that one."



Chapter 27

They all stood and stared at each other, Spike shifting the pizza boxes to one arm and eyeing Halfrek with no recognition whatsoever; Buffy glaring at Hallie and attempting to look like she really actually tolerated the demon's presence; and Lorne shifting further away. "Yeah?" Spike said. "Do I owe you money or something?"

"No, it's just for nostalgia's sake... William. You don't remember me?"

Spike pricked up his ears at this, noting the tell-tale I-know-you-but-I'm-going-to-draw-it-out singsong. Who in the hell was this woman? Or vengeance demon, he remembered now. At that thought, he glanced over at Buffy, mouthing, "Dawn?"

Buffy shook her head at that. "I'd ground her," she promised. "She tried that once."

"Yeah, and look what happened." Spike brushed past Hallie into the kitchen where he dumped the leaning tower of pizza on the table and stomped down the hall. He hesitated before the living room, wondering if he should cover his eyes or something, then decided his best bet was bellowing. "DAWN!"

The chattering in the living room got cut off like water from a tap. Holy Hell, it was one in the morning, what were they, fledglings? "Come here!"

Dawn's worried face appeared at the door. "What?"

"Dawn, if anything happens to any of those Backstreet Boys..."

Dawn's trepidation turned to bewilderment. "Why would something happen to them? Didn't they, like, retire, or something?"

"Well, roomful of teenage girls, vengeance demon, what am I supposed to think?"

"So you just naturally thought we'd... uh, what? Get, uh, vengeance? For what?"

"For being an abomination to the idea of music?" Spike suggested, then realized he was ruining his Strict Male Figure impersonation.

"I still totally don't know what you're talking about." Dawn said.

"Well, just don't go wishing any revenge on people."

"Especially tacky boybands?"

Talk about temptation, but Spike manfully bit his tongue. "You heard me."

"Heard, but well, comprehended, that's still kind of...?"

"Just no...."

"Yeah, yeah, when did you become my dad?" She flounced back into the living room, to be greeted by a highly descriptive silence and then a burst of whispers. Spike shoved both hands through his hair in exasperation, wondering how he had become the savior of All Things Tacky, before turning away. He almost smacked into Hallie, who'd followed behind him. "Who are you?" He snapped, irrigated. Woman -- or demon -- moved like a ghost, which she wasn't, but he could do something about that.

"You don't remember me, do you, William?"

That smile, he thought sickly. That smug smile, those predatory eyes, gleaming with malice. Something else, too, glimpsed behind the confidence, something small and frightened lurked like a monster behind her eyes. She had the smile of a fighter who always picked a smaller opponent, a conqueror who picked smaller armies. That smile was most definitely familiar; he'd last seen it on the face of a woman who'd found him revolting, but believed his adoration only her due. And she expected him to adore her still, he saw; she was waiting eagerly, poised to say something, watching for the moment he crumbled. And then what? Would she console him, or just watch and gloat?

Watch and gloat, he saw. That clinched it for him. "Hello, Cicely." He said quietly. Bloody hell, but the air was dry inside this house. See what smoking for a century did to you throat; the Surgeon General had a point. He brushed past her, past Buffy, who had followed Cicely, and out the back door.

Buffy watched him as he went past, seeing his face work with emotion before he was gone. Then she turned to the demon standing there. Behind them, Anya hovered in the living room doorway, and glanced brightly from one to the other. "Oh, did Spike bring pizza?" She turned back into the room, "More pizza, girls!"

There was a rumble, like a gathering avalanche, and then the two demons and the Slayer were buffeted by a powerful current of teenage hunger. Tara and Willow bobbed past, like corks caught in a flood, casting worried glances at the little cluster of demons and Slayer in the hallway. Then they were alone again. Anya looked from Buffy to Hallie and back again. Desertion definitely the better part of valor, here. She started to tiptoe past, but Buffy grabbed her arm and twisted. "You're not telling me something, are you?"

"What?"

"Spit it out, Anya. Why was Spike so upset?"

"Spike was upset?" Anya dodged. Who knew what got a vampire pissed off? O positive shaken and not stirred? "Uh, I don't know. Why?"

"Anya probably doesn't even remember." Hallie said softly, slowly, and Buffy turned on her, hearing the malice in her tone. Looking into the woman's eyes, she could see it as well. It was all Hallie could do, she saw, from not going after Spike and not rubbing some more salt in whatever wound it was that she'd just opened. "Do you, Anya?"

"Huh? What?"

"Remember me? What happened?"

"When?"

"When you granted my wish. When I became a Justice demon."

Anya looked even more puzzled, if that was possible, and just frowned at the both of them, starting to get irritated. "Of course, I remember that. You're my best friend, why wouldn't I remember that?"

"Remember the man?" Hallie smirked. "Or boy, really. Remember him?"

"Not really," Anya said regretfully. "I really didn't have to do a lot of work on that one. You did most of that yourself. I hardly did anything at all."

"Did what?" Buffy asked in a firm voice.

Uh, oh. Anya thought. Buffy's arms were crossed, and she had that mustslaysomethingnow look on her face that Xander always talked about. Better not be me, she thought. "I can't remember everything I did," Anya whined defensively. "I mean, you should have seen my filing system for just the maimings alone! Plus it was a thousand years of this stuff. It's not like I had a stenographer or something."

"Think," Buffy said, and this time her voice had gone from firm to hard. Anya knew she was in real trouble, but she couldn't quite figure out why.

"Well, I don't know." Anya said carefully. "I really, really, didn't do much; I've never seen an amateur who had such command of the craft, you know? So ask Hallie, and let me go. I like having blood run through all my veins."

"What did you do, Hallie?"

"Nothing much. I just wished he was dead." Hallie examined her fingernails.

"You didn't say that before."

"It didn't come up."

"Well, I wonder why not?" Buffy said tightly.

"Well, I'm not a fool." Hallie glanced up from where she was examining her fingernails. "How stupid would I have to be to tell the Slayer her vampire boyfriend used to be some git who tied his cravat wrong and stuttered?"

Anya goggled. "He's your boyfriend?"

"What's a cravat?" Buffy shook her one question aside. "Never mind. Is that it, Hallie? That's all? That's all he had to do to irritate you? God, how shallow." Hallie sniffed.

"I just have high standards."

"Yeah, that explains why you're stuck on a Saturday night, trolling a kid's pizza party for vengeance? What's the matter? Can't get anything more glamorous? Getting a little bit too into your work? Homelife suffering?"

"He didn't just irritate me," She snapped. "He--"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, we went over all this before. Gotta wonder, Hallie, I really do, why you keep coming back to that. You mentioned it before, but methinks the demon protests too much. I mean, I've only seen you the three times, and every time you bring it up somehow."

"Well, I guess I shouldn't -- a vampire slayer who doesn't so much slay vampires as-- AWK!" Buffy slammed her against the wall so hard the pictures rattled, and there was sudden silence in the kitchen.

"My personal life is my personal life, and that includes Dawn. If I ever catch you or any other vengeance demons sniffing around here again, I'll...." She dusted her hands off, as if they were covered with something dirty. "I'll slay you. And that's my job."

Hallie snarled at her; there was no other word for it. "There are lots of people who'd love to know what the Slayer is doing with a vampire--"

"What is she doing with him?" Anya asked eagerly.

"Really? Then where were they with Angel?"

"Angel was a good vampire."

Buffy laughed. "What makes you think you're in any position to judge?"

"I bring justice!"

"You torture people." Buffy said quietly. "You say you do it for justice, but you'd do it for any excuse at all."

"And what do you do?"

"Well, I don't torture people, but I could change that." She grabbed the demon by both upper arms and propelled her toward the front door. "Starting with you." She yanked open the door, and tossed the woman out on the front porch. She reeled as far as the first step before she caught herself. Adjusting her rumpled outfit -- and dignity -- she collected herself on the top step and glared into Buffy's eyes. For just a minute, Buffy swallowed and forgot she was the Slayer. Slayer, hell, there was nothing more frightening than the prospect of fighting high-maintenance women, the sort who hoped to divorce well. Add the demon factor in, and Hallie made Glory look like a head cheerleader with mildly bad PMS.

"This isn't over." Hallie said.

Buffy pulled out a stake, and brandished it. "It could be. Wanna try for now?"

Hallie disappeared in a poof of smoke that smelled like some department-store perfume Buffy knew she was never going to be able to afford. She inhaled for a moment, then turned to Anya, who was fidgeting in the doorway. When Buffy looked at her, Anya waved nervously, her eyes huge.

"You should have told me."

"Why would I?" Anya muttered guiltily. "I didn't know he was your boyfriend!" The last word sarcastically emphasized. "If I had known that, I would have told you, except I don't even know that I knew that stuff, because Hallie really was the one who did most of that. They were just convenient."

"Who were?" Buffy asked tiredly.

"The vampires."

The vampires. Angel, prowling the streets. "Spike." Buffy said carefully. She couldn't figure out why she was asking, or even what she was asking. "Did he cry?"

Anya winced. "Well..."

"You have to tell me."

"I-- think so. Hallie might have exaggerated, though. She always did love that part."

"What part?" Buffy asked sickly.

"The gloating." Anya flinched at Buffy's look. "Hey! Look, for me, it was just a job with benefits! For her, it was like... A religeon."

"Stop, you're making me sick." Buffy grimaced. Then they both looked at each other, Buffy stepping back to the door, and glancing out. No Hallie, thank God, just some char marks on the porch.

And Spike, leaning against the passenger side door of the DeSoto, smoking a cigarette with furious pulls.

"You're not telling Xander anything, Anya." Buffy warned.

"Not eve...?"

"Nothing." Buffy snapped. "You and I are so going to have a talk."

"About what? Sex?" Anya quailed at Buffy's look. "Well, what else are we supposed to talk about? Boyfriends?"

"Seeing as how we both have one, yes, we could." Buffy stepped out on the porch and glanced back at Anya, who was curiously peering out the door from her to Spike and back again. "Just so long as you don't share this with any of the girls."

"Fine." She didn't move.

"Go away, Anya."

She saw the way Spike looked down as she approached, tossing his cigarette to the sidewalk with careful finesse, as if he were doing a cigarette ad. "Was she the one?"

"That was her." He agreed. He looked up into her face, then shook his head as if he'd just suddenly remembered something. "Wonderful taste in women I have, innit?"

"Present company excepted, I hope." She tried to smile at her own joke, but Spike gave her such a intense, questioning look that she bit her lip. She hesitated, lifting one hand, then reaching for his arm, and could not have been more surprised when he raised his hands, not in surrender, but in protest.

"You're never going to love me." Spike said flatly. "Just finally realized it now, I did. Not going to happen."

"I--" Buffy took a deep breath. "You can't tell me that."

"Why? Because we shag? " He lit another cigarette, and Buffy noticed his hands were shaking. "That's all it is to you, in't it? I keep telling myself otherwise, but I know it now."

"I can't say yes or no right now." Buffy said quietly. "I'm not like you, Spike."

"Neither was Angel."

"I don't mean that." Buffy said, but this time her voice was even softer. She had to take a deep breath to steady herself. "It's-- You know, you're part of the reason." She looked up at him. "Afraid I wasn't worth the second go?" Her breath trembled this time. "You meant it."

"You said that before." Spike said flatly. "We talked about this before. Is that what you're always going to say?"

"No." There was a long pause, during which Spike wondered if she could hear his nerve-endings jangling. He hoped not, because it seemed very important to be mad at her right now -- very mad at her, because he had to cling to the sudden certaintly that there was no hope at all. He wanted nothing so much as to leave before she saw things he wasn't ready to show, no matter what else she'd seen. Not just yet. "But Angel..."

"Yeah, Angel..." Spike said scornfully. "Bye, then."

She stumbled back as he swept around the car, slamming victoriously into the driver's seat before she could form syllables through a dry throat. She dropped her head as he pulled away, so she wouldn't see him leave.



Chapter 28

Buffy trudged back to the house, to find the kitchen full of bright-eyed girls who wolfed down pizza with what seemed like several hands apiece. None of them showed any sign of conking out, and she wondered what it would take. The last thing she needed was to be confronted by cheerfulness. She was feeling distinctly uncheerful, and she had a sneaking suspicion that she was actually right in feeling that way.

How badly had that little scene gone? She really wanted to be the angry one, but she was back to being ridiculously tired again. She avoided Dawn's eyes, snagged a pepperoni slice, then had to avoid Tara's glance as well, as the witch suddenly shot a glance at her. I'm depressed, she thought, I'm entitled to cheat on my diet. Besides, they're eating me out of house and home. She sighed and then glanced around, hoping no one had seen that. Maybe they'd get so exhausted by cholesterol they'd fall asleep and she could....? Dawn caught her eye. "Where'd Spike go?"

All eyes were on her. "Um... he went to get some stuff." She glanced down, to find a plate in front of her with an obscene piece of pizza on it. She looked up at Tara, who looked half concerned, half amused, and Willow, who just looked confused. "My theory about men...." Tara said. Post adolescent ears perked up. "Not that it's worth much, you know."

Buffy looked around frantically, wondering if any of the girls had gotten that reference. None of them looked interested in the slightest, which was the proper approach to some boring adult saying anything about theories. "Yes?" This fulfilled her basic minimum of conversational requirement for the evening, she hoped.

Suddenly every eye in the kitchen was poised on Lorne, hovering in the doorway, and a bit flummoxed as to his status. As the guest of a guest, he was suddenly feeling rather at sea. "Want some pizza?" Buffy asked.

"Yes, I do." He looked around, scooping up the biggest slice with impressive speed, and an adept wrist flick. "So where'd Spike go?"

"Stuff," Buffy mumbled. She demolished half her slice at once and discovered that everyone was eager to avoid looking at her when her mouth was grotesquely full. "Tara?"

"Huh? Oh, yeah, right." She took another bite -- as a delaying tactic, Buffy saw -- and then chewed delicately and swallowed. "Well, see, you ever notice that -- " They all turned and looked at Lorne as the representative sample. "It's just that, well, you remember how in school, all the girls always grew up faster than the guys?"

"Tell me about it," said one little blonde creature, managing to pack a lot of bitterness in that phrase. Buffy was suddenly glad again that she'd tossed Hallie out of the house.

"Well, I just think that's true most of the time." She glanced around, deflating. "That's it. That's my theory." They all looked at Lorne. He was patting his chin with the handkerchief he'd pulled from his breast pocket, a paper towel spread over his lap. "A lot of guys." She added.

Hoo boy, Buffy thought. "You know, let me get some of those boxes out of the way." She collected the remains of previous boxes from the counter, and headed out for the garbage cans. She dumped them in, picking up the pizza box Spike had tossed away earlier so they could be alone.

"Hey, Sweetness," Lorne said from the porch. "You want a little advice?"

"On clothes?" She eyed his ensemble skeptically.

"On men." She cocked her head at that. "Men, vampires, demons, whatever." He dismissed inter-species differences the same way he'd dismiss white shoes after Labor Day. "Tara was right, I think. Hm. Maybe disinterest is the key to understanding something, because that girl did have a point. Should have known. She never paid the slightest bit of attention to this suit."

"Maybe she has cataracts or something?" Buffy pointed out helpfully.

"Always good, trying to cope." He sat down on the porch and gestured for him to join him. I should just live out here, she thought. The only thing I haven't done out here is...

"What? I'm sorry?"

"Men are always such boys." Lorne sighed.

"Sure you want to tell me this?"

"I figure you could use my perspective." He stared off into the back yard as if there was something fantastic and exotic there occupying all his attention. This was technically true; he'd never seen quite as decrepit a selection of lawn furniture as that which was arrayed before him now. "I'm not, after all, a friend of Spike's."

"Then whose friend are you?" Buffy asked skeptically.

"Technically, Angel's."

There was a long pause.

Buffy tried to decide what that meant. The truth was, she didn't really care. So Angel got a full report about her goings on? She was starting to think that if people cared as much about her as they claimed to, they could start demonstrating it in a more concrete fashion. She thought about Angel, trying to conjure up the old feeling, but all that surfaced in her mind was the feeling of effort. They'd had one tense meeting since she came back, and she realized that the thought of him finding out about her and Spike bothered her less than thought of Xander or Giles finding out. Damned if she was going to regard it as some sort of infidelity.

"So what are you going to tell him?"

"Well, that's sort of the problem. I don't know that he won't ask, but I don't think it's his business." He found himself absurdly pleased by the firm look of approval Buffy gave him. "But if he asked?"

"I'd tell him, you have a lot to deal with. I'd tell him that, perhaps, you have too much to deal with. Too many worries, not enough money. And then I'd see what he'd say. I can't help it, Ms. Slayer, but the big buffoon is my friend. You can't help but have your friends."

"What if they stop acting like friends?" Buffy asked soberly.

"What if they don't know they're not acting like friends?" Lorne countered. "Sweetie, I can't tell you much, until you sing, but I can tell you this; I've seen a lot of heartbreak in my day--" Here, he examined his buffed nails with a certain pride, then returned to the topic at hand. "--and the only thing I've learned from it, is, that there's only one way to find out what's wrong." He leaned closer. "And that's why you have to ask."

"Great." Buffy muttered. "Wonderful."

"Oh, and your vampire?"

"He's not my--" Buffy said automatically, then caught his look and dropped her eyes.

"Then whose is he?" Lorne prodded her gently. "Of course, you may toss unstable vengeance demons out of your house on a regular basis for vampires you don't like, but I think that's a pretty good indication of something."

"And what would that be?"

"Well, here's the deal...." He said. "Why don't you sing for me and we'll find out?"

It was almost worth the trip to see the look on Buffy's face.



The worst thing, the worst thing about America was the alcohol selection. Granted, her travels as a vengeance demon exposed her to lots of different cultures, but she remained convinced that England still had had the best vintages. Nothing she'd tasted since then -- and that'd included the heart of a Republican politician -- had had quite the flavor of the things she remembered from England.

"Gimme a rum and Coke." She snapped at the bartender.

Even though she wasn't in game face. Hallie could still be pretty ferocious when she felt like it. And now she definitely felt like it. How dare that little Slayer throw her out? And how dare Spike -- what a ridiculous name! -- not die! Although, technically, he had died, since he was a vampire, obviously, but he wasn't supposed to be so... so...

...human?

No, he was supposed to have died an ignominious death, or at the very best, arisen and become someone she could safely hate with all the fervor she had. Somehow she'd always felt obscurely guilty for hating him, which of course, had made her hate him all the more. For a brief while after his demise, she'd forgotten about him, as she settled into the new job and everything, but then remorse had arisen about him, and she was appalled at the way he refused to stay dead. Just like a man.

She knocked back half her drink in one swallow, earning her raised eyebrows from the barman, who then blinked rapidly like a cornered rabbit, and whirled around so he could wipe his glasses in peace. She patted her lips delicately, and looked around. Really, the place was a dive, but what else was open in this little human town? Even demon bars had to close, though, and closing times were usually ripe pickings for vengeance. She licked her lips, trying to look approachable. She'd had awfully good luck that way, pretending to accessible, prying details out of unsuspecting men, and then visiting their exes. Of course, though there were some humans here, the clientele was mostly demon. Which meant they tended to cut out the middleman, so to speak. Why wish for vengeance when it was right at your fingertips?

She finished her drink and artfully slid the glass behind her so that she could accept if someone offered. Except no one looked like they were going to. She faced away from the bar on her stool, and licked her lips as she surveyed the room. Of course, all the demons knew what she was, but the humans didn't, and they weren't even doing the ogling thing she'd punished so many men for. She waited a few more minutes, hooking one foot over the rung of the stool, and placing the other one on the floor so her breasts jutted out more than usual. Not so much as a flicker. With a disgusted humph, she turned back to the bar.

"Gimme vodka."

The drink appeared with flattering speed, and she gulped this one back, too. The bartender was watching with extreme nervousness, putting another shot in front of her without being asked. "Did someone buy me that?" She asked coyly.

"No, I figure you'd need it. We're closing in ten minutes." She gave an exasperated sigh. Maybe it was Monday or something.

"Fine," She snapped. "Just fine." God, humans, what stupid little rules they always had. Unwilling to give the impression of being the last person to leave the bar, she got up and with careful steadiness, headed for the door. She managed the door, but the motion of the heavy door yanked her out with it. She paused in the door overhand for a moment, befuddled. Stupid American vodka, she thought, terrible tasting and strong.

She heard the voices just a second too late, turning in the darkness toward them, but her reflexes were just a second off. She realized that she hadn't had enough pizza to absorb the alcohol. There was a strange burst of light, green with flashes, and then she slumped to the ground.

"Cool." Warren said. "Let's get her tied up."



"Just a few words." Lorne coaxed.

"No."

"Just a phrase."

"Not a chance."

"Why not? What are you afraid of?"

Are you afraid I'm gonna...? Buffy remembered suddenly. She closed her eyes, and felt him, not the sex, but the afterward, or the before, all the moments beside sex that didn't have names. I'm afraid that the world is way more complicated that it used to be. I've never felt this way, and I'm afraid to find out what it is. I'm afraid I feel something toward this-- this-- vampire -- that is utterly wrong. I'm afraid I don't. I'm afraid I do. She looked at Lorne. "Everything," she said simply.

"So... Do you think it'll be better if you stay ignorant?"

"Well..." Buffy said briskly. "I know this much, I felt lots better just before I opened the checkbook and found out how much money I didn't have."

"Yes, but did you suspect something was wrong before then?"

He had her there. She'd dismissed the niggling feelings haunting her as being byproducts of being so recently dead. Once she'd confronted the whole debt issue, some of those feelings had cleared. Wonder if that would work with certain vampires?

"Wouldn't you rather know than not?" He asked gently.

I already know, she thought. It's not him that's wrong, it's me.

"Just a few words, sweetie. I'm not asking that you go all diva on me. This isn't 'Behind the Music.'"

"You're not going to set me on fire, are you?"

Lorne blinked at this. "I'm out of marshmallows."

"So what do you need?"

"Just sing a little, okay? Doesn't have to be loud—or long —just so long as you sing."

"And what should I sing?"

"Anything." Lorne assured her. "Absolutely anything."

Anything? Buffy wracked her brain for something, and drew a blank. She leaned back on her hands, and tried to think.

"Honey, you're not auditioning, just belt something out, okay?"

Still nothing. She was very conscious of him looking at her. She wondered if he was surreptitiously checking his watch, while she wracked her brain to find something that wasn't too out of date, too hard, or too stupid. Unfortunately, everything she came up with was at least one of those things. Be dead a few months, and you get hopelessly behind on your hit songs, she thought.

"Look, honey, would you just blurt it out? I need to get ready to leave sometime soon."

Startled, she blurted out, "Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream..." And was interrupted by a sniff from the doorway. They turned, and found Dawn and several of her friends crowded into the doorway, staring down at them with identical expressions of disdain. Buffy cringed, and then resented them for making her cringe. Hey, I'm the Vampire Slayer. I just tossed a demon out of this house. So... why did the disapproving gazes of a bunch of teenagers make her feel old, out of date, and unfashionable?

"Uh, Buffy... we're going to bed, so could be quiet?"

"Sure," she answered with her best but-I'm-a-cool-older-sister-dammit!-look, then sagged with relief once they were gone.

"Tough night, huh?" Lorne asked sympathetically.

"You bet." They both stared into the foliage. "So...?"

"Well...." He surprised her then, by wrapping an arm around her shoulders, and squeezing her. "You certainly hit the ground running, didn't you?"

"What?"

"Well, this is the deal, sweetie. I can see you when you sing, but sometimes it's just potential that I see. Like one of those Polaroid negatives." He shuddered for a moment. "What an appalling name for a retail product. It just sounds like something that you need to treat with prescriptions and pads. Anyway, where was I?"

"Grossing me out?"

"No, I was talking about potential." He looked at her, and she was rather disarmed to see the kindness in his eyes, despite the horns, the green skin, the neon suit, he looked at her, and for a moment, there was so much compassion being directed at her that she could feel it. She had to blink and look down. "You haven't much luck with love, have you?"

"No," She whispered. "Except for Angel."

"Really?" Lorne looked down at his hands and considered his words carefully. "Because the guy's my friend, but I have to tell you, I wouldn't be ready to put him into the plus column."

"But...?"

"Hear me out, sweetheart." He braced himself. "Not a good foundation for a relationship there, was there? How old were you? How old was he? Knock off two hundred years and you've still got a problem; actually, knock off two hundred years and you can maybe see the problem clearly. But that's neither here nor there. It's over, but it casts a shadow, doesn't it? Because he left. For you. "

"Yes," Buffy said.

"Or for him?" Lorne asked quietly.

"For him?"

"What did you want?"

"I wanted him to stay." Buffy said softly. "Are you saying...?"

"I just want you to think about it, sweetie. Maybe it might help to get another perspective. You need to let it go."

"I'll think about it. What else?"

"Well, this is the real dilemma, isn't it? You and Spike. You're afraid of that, and I can't blame you. You're a vampire slayer, but you're not exactly Miss Chatty Cathy, are you?"

"You guessed."

"Hon, it took me five minutes to get you to sing; usually -- " He preened a bit, here -- "I have to beat them off with a stick. Nevertheless." He sighed. "What do you know about dealing with this? Nothing. There was Angel on your resume, again, a much older guy, but not a democracy there. Then there was the unilateral one-night stand guy. Sweetheart, don't look like that, I've gotten dumped a few times myself. Now I just make everybody sing before there's any nudity. It just solves so many problems, let me tell you. Anyway, where was I? Hm. Oh, yes. What a jerk." He waved away a mosquito with his hankie, and for a second, Buffy thought he was talking about the insect. "It's a shame he's not a demon, isn't it? Then you could slay him in exactly the fashion he deserved, and feel a lot better. Instead he's going to keep doing his little thing with all sorts of girls, and what can you do?" Buffy nodded. "Sometimes, you can't really slay the people that really need slaying. And this other guy, this soldier... Hm." He smiled, and then explained. "Tara's little theory. How cute. Not too far off, either. You just don't have enough experience with men to tell there's the crap that nice guys do, and there's the crap that bad guys do. And when what you think is a nice guy starts pulling a bad guy's tricks, it's really confusing, isn't it? And vice versa, too, am I right?" She nodded again, looking down at her hands.

"And now this." Lorne said. "Now, I'm not supposed to tell you stuff I read off of someone else, but I don't think telling you that the guy loves you will come as much of a surprise, will it?" Buffy shook her head again, not meeting his eyes. "Sweetie, don't look like that. How often does a person get to be loved in their life? It's not something you plan; it's not something you fill out a job application for. It has no logic at all; you can make up shopping lists for what you want in a guy, but that doesn't matter. You just don't have any choice in the matter. C'mon, sweetie, you know you're not afraid of what your friends think. Not really. If they're really your friends, that is. Of course, if they were really your friends, they should have noticed a lot of stuff before now, shouldn't they? You can't use them as an excuse much longer, sweetie, and you know it. And--" Here he answered a question Buffy hadn't even been able to form: "Do I think this would have happened if they had been better at the friendship job?" He patted her hand. "I think so; you just stepped up the pace a bit. No, sweetie, it's not them you're afraid of. It's yourself. You felt something wrong a lot sooner than Soldier Boy did; but what you're feeling now isn't a warning, sweetie. You know it and I know it. Who can really disapprove of you, anyway? Anyone else been in your shoes? Anyone else picking up your slack? No, then they don't get to judge you, either." Buffy took a deep shuddering breath at that. "Sweetheart, I don't think it was ever them that you were worried about. You're worried you're doing something wrong. Either he's right and you're wrong, or he's wrong and you're right. "

"What?" Buffy said.

"You have this idea that you can only love good people, or at least, people who aren't vampires. Simplifies things, doesn't it? Except, sweetie, you don't go about it like you're looking for a new employee. It's like roses and candles, and all that cuteness. That's just exterior."

"But, you know, what if I'm wrong?" Buffy asked softly. "I never felt like this before."

"It's just the whole vampire thing, isn't it?"

"Well, no, it's..."

"It's the whole sex thing, isn't it?" Buffy glanced away and Lorne laughed. "Sweetie, good girls have sex, haven't you noticed?"

"No, it's not that." Buffy sighed. "It's just that... it never was like this with anyone else."

"That's too bad." Lorne said. "Hm. Are you Catholic?"

"No," Buffy said dryly. "But Mom voted Republican a few times."

"Nope, not quite. Uh, sweetie, it's not that that's the problem; it's your previous boyfriends. Who knows why there's a shortage of decent guys on the Hellmouth. If you really want to see a sorry bunch, though, you have to come to LA. Now, there's a bunch of losers." Buffy gave a little smile at that. "Not that I'm naming names, you know. Professional secrets and all that. But still...."

They sat in comfortable silence for a while, Buffy looking down at her hands. "Spike told me I'd never love him."

"Recently?"

"Less than an hour ago."

"That's why he left? Ah. Tara was right. Seeing his ex who broke his heart? Such a guy thing. Girls cry. Guys mope. Even vampire guys. It's universal. Ah." He gave a deep sigh. "Ah, L'amour."

Buffy eyed him sideways. "Oh, yes, I know, but I'm bored and I'd really like to go home now. I think I've done about all I can do here."

"There's a room full of teenagers in there who might disagree with you."

"Uh, thanks, sweetie, but... no. I don't need to read burning thoughts about, uh, some post pubescent hottie who has yet to shave or complete a thought. Can I use your phone?"

"Uh..." Uh-oh, Buffy thought. That sounded like long distance. But what could she do? "Uh, sure. How are you getting back?"

"Oh, I'll just call Angel and see if I can't badger him into wiring me some money out of petty cash." He sighed deeply. "This should be fun."



Chapter 29

"You know we have to talk, right?" Buffy asked.

"Why? It was a hundred years ago!" Anya sulked.

"But this was now." Buffy leaned in the kitchen doorway, and looked at Anya fidgeting at the center block. The ex demon looked distinctly guilty, and that was just fine with Buffy. Stay that way, she thought.

"Don't suppose you ever thought Hallie might be a danger to us, did you?"

"Oh, no, that's stupid. She didn't even like the guy, and who knew you were boinking him? She was the one that rejected him and men don't usually like that. Maybe the person we should be worried about is Spike."

"Don't even try that with me, Anya." Buffy said icily. "What happened all this summer, when I was... dead?" She swallowed, throat suddenly closed. "You might be able to overlook that, but I can't. I won't."

"Fine. Just don't think he's changed because he's boning you."

"Don't ever say that around me again."

"At least I've changed; Spike's still a vampire."

"A vampire who hasn't hurt anybody in forever. The thing is, Anyanka," Buffy said, deliberately stressing her former name, "if Spike's changed, it's because he's changed himself. You got forced into it."

"He was chipped." Anya said scornfully.

"And you were stopped. Giles did it, and you weren't happy about it. What made you change so much?"

"Xander." Anya said quietly.

"Why do you think what you do with him is so different than what I do with Spike? Is that--" she shuddered a bit -- "boinking?"

"Because I never figured you'd be one to like the French maid's outfit or the handcuffs.....?"

"Uggghh, that's it, out. There will be no possibility of continuing this conversation. I just meant..." She had to look down to collect herself. "Is it just sex with you two? That's all? Nothing more?"

Anya also looked away. "I had sex. When I was a demon." She studied her toes. "That's not what it's like with Xander."

"Then you know why I don't want you to use that word about... Spike. And. Me. I just don't like it." She was struck by a sudden thought. "Is that all it was for you when you were a demon? Just... you know...?"

Anya shrugged. "Pretty much."

"And Hallie?"

"Well, she plays the field a lot." Anya said thoughtfully, considering it. "And then she levels it."

"You don't suppose...?"

"Suppose what?"

"Has she ever been in love?"

Anya looked puzzled at the idea. "No. Vengeance demons don't love."

"Really?"

"Really." Anya crossed her heart. "Can I go now? We're obviously not going to talk about sex any more, and I'm not real good at the other subject."

"Who is?" Buffy asked sadly, and they looked at each sympathetically, a bit startled. "And....Anya.....?"

"Yes, right, I know. No telling Xander."

Buffy watched her leave, uneasy. Having sex and making money were Anya's two most favorite hobbies in the world; talking about sex came in third. How long would it be before she just forgot and blurted it out? It was too juicy a tidbit to keep to herself. She stared at the door as if it had caused her problems, the impulse to get up and slam it almost irresistible. She settled for glaring at it instead.

Crap.

Spike's still a vampire, she thought.

Maybe I should've asked Anya how she liked being human.

Maybe I should ask Spike.



Buffy tiptoed through the silent house, easing by the sleeping girls in the living room, past Willow sleeping at the door, past Tara sleeping in the hallway. Tara mumbled in her sleep as she glided past, and Buffy smiled just slightly at the witch as she went past. She hopped up the stairs, avoiding the fourth one, which squeaked, and slid through her own door with a sigh of relief. She plopped down on her bed with a sigh.

After being tired all day, she was suddenly un tired; she was more than un-tired, she was positively restless. The little discussion with Anya had gotten her blood pressure up, and she couldn't very well do jumping jacks to relieve the tension. Maybe she should patrol a bit. No, definitely not. Girls downstairs, and Lorne rooting through his pockets looking for Angel's phone number, which she carefully avoided mentioning that she of course had. Not giving him Angel's number meant A) she could avoid that whole subject; and B) have an excuse to ask Spike a favor. Not that she was going to, though. She absolutely was not going to go to him. Nope, not her. She was morally certain she was right, and defending Spike to Anya had really clinched the deal.

Dammit.

She couldn't believe she'd actually defended Spike to Anya. But 'boinking'? There was simply no way she could allow Anya to use that word.



Spike flopped down in his old chair and scowled at his TV as if it had personally offended him. The perils of not having cable. That was the only reason he'd gone to the door twice so far this evening, and both times had stopped as if slapped. Nope. He was morally certain he'd been right to go stomping out in a hissy fit. That woman had broken his heart -- actually she'd stopped it, if you wanted to get technical, and he was going to have a little chat with Anya sometime soon as well. He might very well include Harris in it, as well; especially after finding out that not only had Anya played a part in his changing circumstances, but hadn't even mentioned to him, either.

He started patting his pockets, looking for cigarettes, ignoring the one hanging, unlit, from his lips. Damn. No fags. He was just going to have to go get them, then. He stood up, scanning the area for his lighter, even taking the cigarette out of his mouth absently because he couldn't see around it. Nope. No cigarettes. With a noticeable lightness to his step, he grabbed his duster and shrugged it on, heading for the door. Shame about the convenience store being so close to Buffy's house, but...

Jamming his hands in his pockets, he encountered a small, hard object. He was just opening the door to his crypt when he pulled out his Marlboros, and looked down at them. Full box, too. Damn. He stopped, annoyed, then tossed the duster on its hook and flopped back down in his chair again.



"Well... What are you doing in Sunnydale?"

"What, are you my mother? Just send me some money out of petty cash and I'll pay it back to you."

"Could you stop yelling?"

"I'm not yelling."

"Well, could you stop doing whatever it is you're doing? Because it hurts."

"It hurts? Well.... What was that you were drinking? I must try that stuff. Absinthe?" He rolled the word off his tongue. "It even sounds decandent. Now there's something you don't see everyday in a beverage."

"It's illegal."

"You're a vampire; I'm a demon. Don't we get exemptions or something like that?"

Angel was either still extremely drunk or was just getting extremely hungover, but either way his voice sounded like something rattling over a gravel road. Even so, he sounded amused. "No, I'm afraid. No tax deductions for us. Hang on."

I'm in Sunnydale, Lorne thought. Is there something else I could be doing except for lounging around this suburban kitchen, and critiquing the décor? He heard rattles, shuffles, papers crinkling, banging doors, and after each of these individual sounds, a slight moan from Angel. There was a completely silent pause, during which he pictured Angel standing motionless in the center of the room, letting the phone dangle, clutching his head with both hands.

"Hang on." Angel whispered again.

"Still hangin'."

"Well.... we don't seem to have any petty cash." Angel said. "Just stay there. Where are you?"

"Uh.... I'm at Buffy's house."

There was an eloquent silence, which, in the nature of guilty people, he felt compelled to fill. "I found her. Only person I knew, you know."

"How, ah, did you get to Sunnydale in the first place?"

"That's over and done with. So how am I getting home?"

A voice in the background asked Angel something, and Lorne sagged against the counter in relief. The phone dropped to the floor with what sounded like a crash, and then a different voice came on. "Lorne?" Wes said. "I'll come get you."

"Angel doesn't know anything."

"Let's keep it that way, shall we?"



Buffy rolled over on her side and stared at the window and was confronted by an all too vivid mental image. Spike climbing in the window, after she'd left it open. What a far cry from strands of garlic that was. She turned over on her back, and looked at the ceiling. This brought the mysterious stain into view, which was not exactly relaxing. She turned over on her other side, staring at the bathroom door, scene of far too many bubble bath extravaganzas with Spike. Well, now there was a restful thought. Cranky bastard.

She kept comparing and contrasting the two different faces she saw; private Spike and public Spike. That was the thing she kept coming back to, since that night -- The night that dare not speak its name. She sighed. He had this way of wrapping himself around her, cradling her head in the crook of one elbow, while he toyed with the strands of her hair with just his fingertips. And then there was the kisses, some of them so light she could barely feel them, or taste them, others so forceful they made her go limp and boneless and shaky. Too say nothing of everything else he did. It wasn't even the way he moved when he was inside her, lost in it, driving into her, making her crazy, making her scream; it was the way he stared into her face, as if he was looking for something. She'd almost expected the sex to be the way it was; what she hadn't expected was the man.

And her! That took some getting used to, as well. She had been so certain that both her faces were identical, that she was always the same Buffy, that this whole thing had come as a terrible shock. She had always been the same, before this, before Spike.... Now she knew she was a different person in private, and the shock of what Spike had turned out to be like in private had scared her. She remembered her confusion the first night, the night she couldn't think about too often. She could only think about bits and pieces; the way he'd actually glanced down as she came down on him, as if he couldn't believe it; the way something more than clothing had seemed stripped away from him. She couldn't shake the thought that she had seen him for the first time in years, and maybe he had as well.

Who could love someone like that? She thought. Not anyone she knew. And who could be loved? She went back to that thought. To be loved; that was something. You had to allow that, give consent to that. It was something that could be accepted... or not. And what came after?

Now there was a wonderful thought. She flopped back on her back, and crossed her arms, glaring at the ceiling as if it was the ceiling's fault. Fine, then. She'd just have to go patrolling. She'd never have to think her way in circles before. He wanted to be that way, it was just fine...

She jumped out of bed, grabbed sweatpants and tee shirt, and yanked them on. He wanted to play games, well, good, that just wasn't going to go over well with her, not after... She started to climb out the window, then found herself face-to-face with Spike, and jumped at the sight of him. They goggled at one another for a minute, and then he pulled himself through the window, while she backed up as far as the bed. He followed, reaching for her, reaching for her face, and the kiss dissolved all her irritation and made her liquid. "Mmmmm...." She sighed, a sound that went straight down his spine. Then she remembered that someone had to be the voice of reason.

"Stop." This was somewhat contradicted by the way her arms climbed around his shoulders, and pulled him closer, even while her mouth continue kissing him.

"I will if you will." True up to a certain point, but he was rapidly reaching that point, and Buffy actually got there before he did.

"People."

"Yes, I know." Fumbling her onto the bed, wiggling against each other, desperate for skin and sweat and friction, pulling and tugging clothes aside, stopping for a second as Spike shrugged out of the duster. Somehow he managed to do that and pull her sweats down, kissing his way back up her body and pushing inside her all at once. "Quiet. Quiet. Oh, quiet..." He braced himself, not daring to move, trying to imagine the consequences of being found in this position...But then she pulled him in, arms and body and motion, and he didn't care if Angel himself found them, just so long as he could look down at her face and see every flash of pleasure across it. He rocked into her, barely moving, holding himself off of her, but she spoiled his self-control, shoving his tee shirt up, trying to find skin somewhere. "Shhhh...." He whispered. She pulled him all the way down to her, all the way in, and they rocked together, silently, Buffy panting in his ear, hands grasping at him as if she were going to drown. She struggled and wriggled beneath him, shoving away her sweatshirt, pushing his tee shirt up. They stared into each other's eyes, willing silence, doubting it, starting to feel a shudder every time he surged forward, starting to wait for it. "Oh, God," Buffy whispered. "Oh, oh, oh, oh..." She heaved under him as if she was trying to buck him off of her, but instead she was pulling closer, her arms tightening, all her muscles tightening. He felt it, felt it all along his skin, inside him, inside her, and black things danced before his eyes. It seemed to start at the base of his spine gathering strength, surging up his nerves. He stared into her eyes, thinking, I love watching you do that. She was clutching his face in her hands now, watching him shudder, feeling him, which only seemed to prolong it. He threw his head back out of her grasp, beyond all control now, shoving hard into her, feeling something break inside him, shatter and implode, breaking all his bones, blackening his vision. He sagged to her shoulder, blinking at the spots dancing in his eyes. He knew he was gasping for air like a beached fish, knew she must be, too, but his ears were so numb he couldn't hear it. His head was throbbing, but he couldn't understand why, any more than he could understand his fingers tingling. But some dim corner of his mind was aware that she was stroking his bare back under the shirt he still haphazardly wore, and that her other hand was twined with his.



Chapter 30

Buffy clicked off the bathroom light and stepped out to find Spike hovering between the bed and the window. He was dressed again, or rather completely dressed, because neither of them had gotten undressed, exactly, and he looked like he didn't know what he was doing. It was if they hadn't just been silently struggling on that bed scarcely fifteen minutes earlier. Every trace of that intimacy had been erased. What struck her was that it made her uncomfortable.

He looked like he was going to leave. At the very least, he didn't look as if he was sure he could stay.

Boy, isn't this great? Buffy thought. Fight, shag, kiss, all sorts of things, but say, 'Please stay' and it's impossible. But it was. She couldn't meet his eyes, because he was staring at her with William's eyes, and that made it worse. Worse still was the thought of him not being here. No arm beneath her cheek in place of a pillow, or cool body around hers. But she couldn't even get the words on her tongue.

Instead, she maneuvered toward him, brushing her hair at the vanity, dropping her earrings off at the nightstand, turning off the light, and finally coming round the bed to draw the blinds so there'd be no sun on them in the morning. She kept her eyes to herself, hoping he'd notice the significance of that little gesture, but even with an extra century, he was still a guy, post orgasm. So she padded up to him in the dark, touching his stomach with hands as light as blown leaves, hesitating, not daring to look into his eyes, shoving his coat down his arms and lowering it. She heard his breath catch in his throat, then, and had to look away, so she took the coat away and hung it over the bathroom door. When she turned back, he was undressing in front of her, and she found herself mentally stumbling over yet another one of those odd moments that seemed to lurk where she least expected them.

She'd seen him nude, obviously, it couldn't be that. Not to put too fine a point on it, they'd been about as intimate as you could get with another person, so why did she feel so strangely frightened, so suddenly, at Spike casually tossing his clothes on the floor? Maybe it was the casualness of it. She checked her mental list of Guy irritations to see if it was a typical guy-being-messy-type-of-reaction, but it didn't seem to be that. She padded forward on silent bare feet, and let the drapes fall closed. Turning to him, she found the pitfall she'd been avoiding.

He was naked, and she was struck by it. Naked, he reminded her of all the times he'd forced her to look into his eyes when they'd had sex, and now it was just being forced to look at him while not in the throes of arousal or ecstasy. Naked, quite simply, he was just a man, not Spike like at all, not a vampire, not frightening. In fact, with his hair all mussed, and his eyes smudged with tiredness, the very idea of applying the name 'Spike' to him seemed amusing. He leaned back on his hands and cocked his head at her, the way he'd done so many times before, but this time, she climbed into his lap and kissed him. It wasn't exactly a 'hello sailor' type of kiss, not with her fingertips on his face, in his hair, her lips barely on his, but he slid down onto his back and took her with him. "William, William, William..."

"Hm?" He paused, blinking up as she pulled away, and propped herself on her elbow so she could trace circles on his stomach. "What?"

She couldn't meet his eyes; afraid she'd see the response she was always afraid of getting, afraid he'd suddenly look at her the way she'd once looked at him. Except I really deserve it. The thought unnerved her.

She sat back up and took off her sweats, getting up and going to the door to toss them haphazardly somewhere in the general direction of the bathroom. She must not have aimed really well, throwing them backhanded and blind, because they hit something in the bathroom, and knocked it to the floor with a clatter, a clatter that made him flinch.

Vampires, Buffy thought, don't usually do that.

Vampires, no. She thought. Dawn did, though; that was a very Dawn-like thing to do, when Mom's name came up; she supposed she herself did it, when Riley's name surfaced. She'd seen Xander stiffen abruptly in his parents' basement, when they reminded him of their existence by anything, and even Anya gave a little involuntary shudder at the thought of poverty, free giveaways, and celibacy. All perfectly human, given the provocation. But here was Spike, twitching at a loud noise around her. And that, she thought, I did deserve.

He sat all the way up and watched her, watching her watching him, intrigued, wondering what had shifted. There was something in the air, something in her eyes, because she wasn't a girl who was comfortable enough in her own skin to walk around nude and not care if he watched. Except... Except, just now, for some reason, he got the feeling that she had jumped past the getting-accustomed stage to the part where... He shook the thought off as being too optimistic. She tugged at the bedclothes under him and he obligingly shifted so she could slide under them and cuddle next to him.

She could see practically nothing, and hoped that he could. In the dark, she felt invisible, but not carefree as she had before. It was different than escaping her responsibilities, it was as if she could cope with them differently because they had different shapes and incomplete forms. In the dark, she was only aware of warmth and comfort and cool skin; his lips against her forehead, her hands pulling him closer. In the dark, she could do the things she wanted to do, and hoped that feeling them was as good as seeing them. So she traced his lips with her fingers, over and again, as if she were writing her name there, holding his palm to her cheek while she buried her hot face against his chest, and tried not to let it overwhelm her. His hands stroked her back, up and down, just fingertips, as if he were tracing her for memory. She did his gesture; his head on her arm while she curled her fingers in his hair, tracing his face with the back of her fingers. She couldn't see at all, only feel, and it gave her the courage to put motion to her feelings, completion to her impulses. She pressed her face to his, and braided her fingers with his, wrapping arms and everything around him, not even thinking, not even worrying. Maybe she couldn't say it with words, what it was that she felt, but this was her declaration. She pressed her lips to his palm and held his hand there till he pulled it away to take the gesture from her and give it back. In the dark, she was no longer a vampire slayer, and he was not a vampire. He was love and comfort, and all the sorrow that had permeated her melted in her fibers and seeped away.



Lorne picked through the pizza leftovers and wondered if the microwave would make too much noise. At least LA was a big city where he didn't have to worry about what would happen to his green behind if some parents found him lounging around the kitchen while their nubile daughters slept the sleep of the innocent in the living room. Where's Emily Post when you need her?

He stepped out on the deck, checking to see if the door would lock behind him. He considered his options; wait in kitchen, sit in chair, stretch out on dining room floor or dining room table, steal Spike's car and drive himself back to LA with his unkicked-butt in tow, win the lottery and just go wild? He wondered if he did win the Lottery if it would be worthwhile to go on working. On the one hand, there was helping the helpless, that sort of thing. On the other hand, Angel had that pretty well covered, and there was Club Med.

He sat down and looked up the stars. Shame about not getting Hallie to sing. He must be getting old, that was all there was to it. Once upon a time, he'd been young and could have done a whole room full of people at once; now he had to take them one at a time, and then rest a bit between them, unless they were really shallow. He glanced at his watch. Two hours away from LA. Two hours away from LA. Good God, what did these people do for fun?



"I don't like this one."

"Yeah, well," Warren said, "You don't want to do the dirty work, you don't get to pick. She's not bad." He cast what he hoped looked like an experienced eye over the woman's silent, sleeping form. "Besides, after what happened, I gave her an extra large dose."

"Is it gonna last longer this time?" Andrew asked cautiously. It was so easy to say the wrong thing around Warren; he just erupted over everything, especially since the Katrina debacle.

"Yes, of course it's going to last longer, Curious George. Why don't you go away and count pimples or something?"

"I don't have any pimples." Andrew said. "I use Stridex."

"Yeah, well, go away already. I need to work."

They both looked at the unconscious woman again. "Hope I didn't give her too big a dose," Warren said thoughtfully. "She's bigger than -- than -- -the other one."

"Well, I don't want to be second. I did see her first."

"She was the only woman drunk enough to try it on, you moron."

"Still...Well, she's too drunk now, anyway."

"What are you talking about? This would be perfect. She'll never know." Warren drummed his fingers impatiently against the coffee table. "Then we can just get rid of her and find the perfect one."

"Buffy."

"Buffy." Warren agreed. "But until then, we have to practice."



No more ice. Angel winced into the freezer and tried to remember if being killed had hurt this much. Actually, being evil, he'd been pretty much impervious to pain, so perhaps this was an okay development. Anything, anything at all that kept his aggrieved brain cells from thinking about the hammers attacking them was a good thing. He closed the freezer and took a can of soda out of the fridge and pressed it against his skull.

Cordelia watched from the doorway, sympathetic but amused. Connor snoozed in her arms, emitting tiny baby snores. "That's a new look for you.'

Angel didn't even bother talking. Sarcasm was wasted on him while he was this embalmed with alcohol; nothing could hurt as bad as his skull did now. Nothing. He carefully placed one foot in front of the other in her direction, but she shook her head and took a compensating step back. "Nuh-uh. Get away from this baby. You'll get him drunk with your breath."

"I don't breathe."

"Well, you do something, because I can smell alcohol, and I don't want to have to go to toddler AA. No Barney DT's for me. So back off, buddy. Besides, you'll get me drunk, too."

That hit the conversation with a certain force, bringing to mind as it did certain incidents which had proceeded while under a drunken sensation. Not drunken, technically, but just as intoxicating. They both avoided each other's eyes. "He's wet. I have to change him." She risked an impish look in his direction, Cordelia in charge yet again. "Besides, his diaper's soaked with alcohol fumes."

"I can take a hint." He protested.

"Then why am I the one leaving?"

"Good point." He pretended to skirt around her while she made a huge point of plugging the baby's nose, but that was an excuse and he knew it. He was so drunk that he was still intoxicated rather than really starting on his hangover, and he wondered if he could just die before that happened. Of course, the fact that he was already dead could mean a number of different things, all of which he desperately wanted to avoid thinking about. Maybe Wesley knew a vampire hangover remedy or something. Maybe Wesley just had an extra stake he wasn't using. He staggered down the hallway, trying to find a pain-free position, but none of that was working. He finally came to a door, and fetched up against it to keep from falling over.

Inside, Wes looked up guiltily, and Angel wasn't so drunk he didn't notice. "Going to get Lorne?"

"Yes."

He eyed the stuff spread out on Wes's desk; weapons, Tupperware, and Thermoses. Some clothes. "Either you pack like Buffy, or you're taking your vacation time."

"I like to be thorough."

"Thoroughly weighed down?" Angel winced as a thought made his brain cells hurt.

"Well, I just like to have everything I might need." Wes straightened up from where he was tying a knot on a sleeping bag's tie sack. "There's nothing worse than needing something, hundreds of miles from home, and not having it."

"Well, makes me wonder." Angel said. "How long are you going to be there?"

As long as it takes me to get away from Fred for a while, Wesley thought. I'll do some research, whatever. I'll work.

Looking at Angel's sodden face, he thought with a shudder, Perhaps I'll get drunk. With Spike. There was a certain rebellion in his face as he returned Angel's curious look.

That's what people do when they're miserable. I'll get drunk and I won't work. I'll...drown my sorrows. Just the thought of getting away was lifting his spirits.

"Angel, why are you asking me questions?"

There, that was the Boss tone. That should work wonders. And it did; even drunk, Angel bristled a bit. "I just think it's interesting. Spike comes to town, asking for money, petty cash disappears, Lorne drives off into the sunset with Spike, why wouldn't I ask questions?"

"Well, you're really in no condition to be doing much except sleeping it off, are you?" Wes jammed a pile of stuff into his overnight bag, but knocked his Tupperware container of sandwiches to the ground, and thus missed Angel's carefully-blank face.

"It's just that I get the feelings there's something going on here that you're not telling me."

"Sometimes employees don't need to know everything." Wes said quietly. He wavered a moment between shame and triumph, then Angel finally looked up and met his eyes, and he felt something entirely unexpected.

Fear.



Chapter 31

Anya might have been human only for a few years, but sometimes she acted like it had been centuries. It was like she'd been reading Cosmopolitan for decades, at least, absorbing all the girl stuff possible, so that you really couldn't tell she was only a recent addition to the family of Homo sapiens. On the other hand, sometimes Xander wondered if there was much of a difference between the female of the species, and any female of any species anywhere, and he was especially curious about verifying this when certain cycles happened to align themselves with the torture of Housework Day.

He hadn't expected her to come home early from the party. He thought she'd stay there, bitch about men and demons, and maybe come back in just enough time so he could clean up the junk food wrappers and score rare brownie points for being both neat and addicted to health food. Instead, he found himself rocketing up off the couch, chips geisering out of the bag as he clutched at it convulsively. He wondered if Halfrek had decided to throw him a demon bachelor party, but before he could decide on his hiding place of choice, the door flung open and he found himself in the headlights of Anya. It was just amazing how demon-like she could look when she was either pissed-off or shortchanged.

"Uh, Anya...? Honey? Sweetie? What's..." He swallowed. "...wrong?"

She kicked off one shoe, glared at him, then the other. "Everything is the matter. I can't remember everybody I got revenge on, can I?"

"Well?" Xander cautiously laid the chip bag down as if it would explode with rough handling. "Um, An, why would you want to? I thought..." He swallowed. "I thought that was all behind you?"

"But I keep getting reminded of it!" She exclaimed. "And I don't want to be."

"What-- happened?"

"Hallie came to Dawn's party and talked about all kinds of stuff, and it just brought back memories of how Spike became a vampire, and then Buffy and I had... words... and I don't want to talk about it."

"Huh?" He shook his head as if to loosen the brain cells. "What was Halfrek doing at Dawn's party?"

"She wasn't invited." Anya said sulkily. She flopped down on the couch next to him, tugged at his shirt hem, and he sat down, hard, next to her. " But she came anyway. And then..." She sighed in a way he recognized; the pay-attention-to-me-because-I-feel bad sigh. It was going to be a loooonnnnnng evening now, he realized. No hockey for me. "I can't remember everything I do." She looked at him. "Do you remember what you had for breakfast ten years ago yesterday?"

"What?"

"Well, then, why should I have to remember everything I did a hundred years ago. Or a hundred twenty?"

He noted the second figure, wondering why a little sensor in his brain was telling him the same thing it always told him, for example, on Housework Days: Here be Dragons. Nevertheless, he had a duty, a calling, a death wish, so he plunged on ahead. "What are you talking about?"

"I don't see why Hallie's so pissy." She sniffed. "It's not like he killed her. You can't be a vengeance demon and dead, you know?"

"Uh, don't take this the wrong way, sweetie, but what in the hairy hell are you talking about?"

"Ugh, Xander, that's gross."

"Well, okay, then what are you talking about?"

"Spike. He used to know Hallie. She's the reason he's a vampire, and he's the reason she's a vengeance demon, so it really doesn't have anything to do with me, and you know what? I think I'm going to stop returning her calls. Every times she's around, things just get so complicated."

"Well." Great. There goes the seating chart again. However.... Fewer vengeance demons around the house? A good thing. More confusion around the house? Business as usual. Once again, he found himself compelled into No Man's Land. "An? What are you talking about again? Spike and Hallie? An item?"

"No, they're not an item, it's Spike and--" Anya clapped her hand over her mouth. 'Oh. My. God." She jumped to her feet and to Xander's bewildered eyes, started doing the Macarena. After a moment, he realized instead she was digging in her pants pockets, although he was completely confused as to why. Confusion ended abruptly as she yanked out a pendant and dangled it before his eyes. She stared at it and then at him. "It's Hallie's vengeance pendant. Oh. My. God. She's helpless without it. I have to call Buffy. Oh my God, poor Hallie, who knows what could happen to her?"



Phone.

Crap.

Phone ringing in ear.

Fumble, fumble, mmm, Spike sighing himself awake under her cheek, oh, no, house full of girls... Buffy jerked awake with a violent start and sat up in the darkness. Crap. She rolled over to grab the phone off the nightstand, rolling on top of Spike to do so, and finding herself unable to roll back when he wrapped his arms around her and kept her on his chest.

"Hell—o?"

"Buffy, it's Xander. Do you know where Hallie is?"

Buffy stopped a moment to consider this. Why, yes, of course, Xander, I keep track of her movements religiously so I can worship her more effectively. Clamping down heavily on the sarcasm pedal, she counted to ten and found a tepid answer. "Not a clue, Xander. I encouraged her to leave." Spike raised one eyebrow at this, and Buffy glared back, wriggling to try and get into a position where she could talk in a normal tone of voice. He slanted a look up at her under his lashes, wondering what he could get away with.

"Why, uh, did you encourage her to leave?"

Oh, crap indeed, she thought. Because she hurt Spike's feelings. Because I couldn't let her do that without wanting to smack her around for some reason. Crap. "She was causing trouble."

"Anya said something about Spike being there."

"He was at the time. He left, too." Of course, he also came back, and currently is lying in my bed, under me, looking up at me with the sort of eyes that mean big trouble, but why mention that? "Why?" Mm. Big trouble.

"Well, would he know where she was?"

"Who, Hallie? Xander, you woke me up after a day full of boybands so we can talk about a vengeance demon who... what?" Who hurt Spike really badly? Definitely not to be included in the conversation.

"Anya's worried. She has Hallie's pendant."

"So... she can't accessorize now?"

Spike pulled himself higher on the pillows and loosened his grip. Buffy, without even being aware of it, made a sulky face at that, and sat up, sheets tumbling off her to curl around her legs. She looked so pouty that he cocked his head at her thoughtfully, finally reaching out and brushing the hair out of her eyes.

Anya danced around Xander, making grabs for the phone. Xander, very much in the manner of King Kong batting away bi-planes, waved her away. "No, Buffy, she's helpless without her pendant, right, Anya?"

"Well, not exactly." Anya said. "I'm really not sure how bad it is. I think they tell us that so we won't try stuff without it." Spike sat up slowly, shifting, the picture of caution, till he was beside her, face buried in her hair. His hands slid with infinitesimal slowness over her skin, and she began to sweat under his fingers. "Uh, well, it's always been understood, sort of..." Spike, kissing her neck now with the lightest of touches, sucking on her earlobe..... She arched, and he slipped closer, eyes glittering in anticipation, sliding his hands around her....

"Huh?" Xander and Buffy said simultaneously.

"At least I kind of think so. Officially, she's helpless without it."

"Officially?" Xander and Buffy said. Xander sounded slightly squeakier.

"Well...." Anya said guiltily.

"I'll call you back." Xander said tersely.

With that, they both turned to their respective companions at their end of the phone line, and hung up. Xander planted his hands on his hips and shook his head at Anya, and Buffy reached around and grabbed Spike, kissing him onto his back, and only then remembered that she was supposed to be perturbed at the way he'd tried to distract her during the phone conversation.

Somehow she managed the bi-athlete-like feat of rolling her eyes and shaking her head at Spike, then crawled forward a bit and lowered her face onto his chest. He tried not to give any indication at all that this was unusual. "Good thing he hung up."

"Tedious, isn't he? Nice to see you admit it."

She poked him in the side in an especially ticklish spot, and he wriggled like a hyperactive ten-year-old for a moment. She gave him a sphinx-like look, savoring his reaction and filing it away for future reference. He subsided as she continued to blink up at him with solemn eyes, till finally he leaned down and unleashed the ultimate weapon; the nosetip kiss. Poking him in the ribs again briefly seemed a good idea, but she decided to settle for wriggling closer and nudging against his face. He eyed her consideringly, thoughtfully, before he consented to be kissed, smiling against her mouth, urging her closer. Biting her lip, she pulled away. "Sleep." She muttered.

He kissed her again, rolling them onto their sides, pulling her closer, till it Buffy pulled back, sulking up at him. "Can't."

"Why not?" He punctuated this by kissing her chin.

"Girls downstairs."

"We were quiet."

"You tried that one already."

"Worked too, didn't it?"

"Well, not this time." But she looked into his eyes for so long, blinking up at him, that he was content to lie there, indulging in periodic kisses while she made up her mind. Only when he slipped from her mouth to her breast did she sigh and shift, pulling him back up to face her, smiling slightly and shaking her head.

He supposed in the name of men everywhere he should put up a fight, but she was warm against him and the best was a nest of soft blankets. She wiggled under him, pulling him closer, and he subsided on her breast, stroking her arms with hypnotic sweeps of one hand. He could feel her sigh as much as he could hear it, feeling her breath in his hair, her fingers playing across his back. They were both asleep in minutes.



"What the....?"

Hallie blinked with eyelids that seemed glued shut, and tried to figure out if she was dead or not. She was in too much pain to be dead, but she couldn't move, either, which made her wonder if she was paralyzed.

"Well, Sleeping Beauty finally woke up."

Hallie didn't recognize the voice; it was male, human, and excessively optimistic, if he thought had a chance against a pissed, hungover and impatient vengeance demon. "Who are you, human?" She began to realize that her hands were cold from the wrist down.

"Human? Who do you think you are, Spock?" The voice shifted, steps approached her, and a male face topped by a frizzy rodent appeared in her vision. She squinted, and realized it wasn't a rodent, it was his hair. The sight actually made her hangover worse.

"I'm a vengeance demon, human!" She hissed, but he looked blank. "A vengeance demon?" She clarified. " A justice demon!"

"Yeah, but you look human. You're just trying to scare me."

Hallie rolled her eyes, which made her head throb like it was going to explode. She couldn't necessarily exert her powers on her behalf, but she could certainly defend herself. She sniffed scornfully at him, and concentrated....

Nothing happened.

She blinked, running through her pre-curse checklist; she hadn't missed anything. When you did something every day for a hundred and some years, you got the routine down. She hadn't omitted anything. Her concentration, however, was distracted when Warren ambled closer and leaned over her. Her fists involuntarily clenched, and she realized that she was tied down. "I don't know, she just doesn't look like a demon."

"She has a name." Hallie spat out furiously. "It's Hallie."

"Well, nice to meet you, Hallie." Warren said sarcastically. He directed an irritated look at Andrew. "You must've done the spell wrong, doofus. She's supposed to be still unconscious."

"I did it all right." Andrew shrugged. "She said she was a demon."

"She sure looks like one." Warren said. "Damn." She couldn't see for sure, but the two of them looked like they were exchanging accusatory glances. "So, demon, why don't you curse us?"

Hallie tried to push aside the hangover and remember what it was she was doing wrong. "Untie me and I won't hurt you." Much, she thought to herself.

"Why should we?" Warren demanded skeptically. "You just look like any old chick to me."

Hallie focused on recent setbacks, current irritations. That ridiculous Spike, the Slayer standing up for him, undoubtedly because there was something going on there, Anyanka taking her pendant....!

Her pendant!

Fury temporarily overcame alcohol fumes and she snapped into demon face abruptly. Warren froze, and Andrew wilted to the floor with a yip that got cut off once he made impact with the cheap linoleum. "OH, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit," Warren muttered. "You are a demon."

"Untie me, and I'll let you live."

"How can I trust you?"

Warren eyed her carefully, assessing the distance to the exit out of the corner of his eye. "Hell with it," He muttered, and bolted.



Angel soaked a towel under the cold-water faucet, and draped it over his head. Cordelia, having tucked Connor into bed, watched this sympathetically but a certain amount of anticipation. After all, she didn't often get to tease him, and here was the opportunity of the year. "Two new looks in one day."

A baleful eye glared at her from underneath the dripping towel. "I'll remember that when I'm..."

"Sober? Oh, I can hardly wait. You consumed the equivalent of the gross national product in one sitting, assuming they measured it in spew units, and you're threatening me with what you're going to do when you're what? Less pickled? If you open the fridge again, you'll spoil Connor's milk."

Another baleful look. "Why is this funny?"

Cordelia shrugged. "Because you're not exactly funboy, Angel. It's good to see you go out and have fun with your friends."

The eye disappeared, guiltily. Angel looked away. Cordelia didn't notice, and went on. "So what was the occasion? Did you get the wedding invitation?"

"Huh?"

"Xander's getting married."

"Xander...?"

"Xander? Buffy's friend? God, you really are drunk."

"No so drunk." Angel muttered. He cocked his head at the sound of Wes banging around in what had once been Angel's own office. "Not so drunk I don't know people are lying to me."

Spike, in love? Who was it? Dawn? Willow? That other person Buffy had mentioned, Willow's new girlfriend? Joyce's memory? It seemed to intensify his pain, not knowing, not being able to warn this anonymous woman. At the very least, Buffy would be able to..?

There was a thought forming in the mass of alcohol-soaked marbles that made up his brain. Buffy should know. Buffy would know. Wes. Buffy. Wes. Buffy. Phone call. He'd crashed before then, what had Wes found out?

He raised his head, and tried to squint at the hallway to see how many miles' away Wes' office was. My former office, one of the more pickled parts of his brain piped up. Enough of that, admonished the mature brain. He wasn't sure how that part had gotten less alcohol, but it was distinctly unpleasant. "Cordelia, can you do something for me?"

"What?" She asked cautiously.

"Ask him what Buffy said when he called her."

She gave him a resentful look. "I knew I should have gone with you guys. Men just don't know how to gossip effectively." Unwilling to miss a minute, she backed out of the room, and kept her eyes on him till she'd covered the three feet or so to Wes' office.

"Hey, Wes?"

"Yes?" He looked up from his suitcase. Only Wes packed for an overnight trip as if it were for an expedition to Sri Lanka, Cordelia thought, conveniently ignoring the contents of her oversized bag, which included shampoo for those emergency situations.

"Angel wants to know what Buffy had to say?"

Wes blinked at her, flummoxed. Angel remembered that? "Um, about what?"

"Hey, Angel, about what?"

Angel cringed at her tone of voice, which was, admittedly, slightly above normal speaking level. "What?"

Cordelia turned and looked back at Wes. "Do I have to act as interpreter here, Wes?"

Wes looked out. "What were you asking, Angel?"

"What. Did. Buffy. Know. About. Spike?" Angel whispered, clutching his head, or rather, his towel.

"Um, not much."

"But what did she know?"

"I, ah, couldn't get a lot out of her."

Angel thought about it, weighing consequences in his brain. "I can get a lot out of her, Wes." He straightened up. "I have to go with you."



Chapter 32

"Buffy!"

Buffy stirred to consciousness reluctantly, too comfortable to want to wake up. She was curled up against some male-shaped object, which, in turn, had its arms wrapped around her. Nice arms. She wriggled closer, then realized there was a lot of niceness to be had pretty much everywhere.... Her eyes snapped open. Spike, eyelids at a sleepy half-mast, gazed at her drowsily, too peaceful to move, and naked to boot. He was lying face down, so if anyone poked their head in her door -- and why shouldn't they, who knew he was here? -- the first thing they'd see would be his flawless behind, then perhaps his arm flung across her, his head pillowed on her shoulder. She rather suspected that perfect though his butt was, it might be rather startling to come upon it unawares. She jumped out of bed before that could happen, tripping over their clothes, all of which were strewn around the room. She grabbed garments at random and wound up in jeans and camisole, then poked her head out the door. "Dawn?"

"Hey, we're leaving."

"Oh, shit." Spike one's visible eye looked amused at this, then shut. She slipped out the door, seizing her sweatshirt on the way and yanking it on as she went.

At the foot of the stairs so much gear was piled up, it looked like the invasion of Normandy, assuming Normandy was invaded by either drag queens or teenagers. She saw bags, suitcases, deflated air mattresses, comforters, pillows, and more makeup boxes than there were actual girls in the house. Among them were Dawn's. She looked around for the clock, then Tara and Willow. Nowhere in sight, and the girls milling in the living room looked distinctly uncomfortable with her presence. "Hey!" She thought. "I'm a cool older sister! Honest! No dork cooties here! Seriously!" She nodded and waved at them as if to indicate her own harmlessness, and they responded by staring in appalled silence and then huddling in furious whispers. With a queasy smile, she thought, "You're all going to wind up dating chess club members!" and headed for the kitchen, where voices of the witches alerted her to perform a nookie check in the hall mirror. To the uniniated eye, this looked, in fact, like nothing so much as an itching attack, as she frantically patted various body parts in the reflection and checked not-so-surreptitiously for hickies. A cough made her freeze. Three of Dawn's guests, arms folded across their non-existent chests disapprovingly, stared at her from near the front door. As she blinked at them in horror, they exchanged glances, then whirled and escaped to the living room, where another furious storm of whispering erupted. She tiptoed after them, and beheld a group of girls, each of whom seemed to be hissing into her own pastel-hued cell phone. She shrank back from the doorway, and made her escape.

At the kitchen door, she paused, trying to compose her features into that of someone who had not just spent the night, naked, in the arms of a vampire. The club was just not ready for that quite yet, she was afraid. Hell, look how she'd dealt with it, and for her there'd been the definite compensation of orgasms, not only her own, but Spike's, which were... She derailed that train of thought with effort and plunged onward. "Hey, guys."

Tara and Willow were on opposite sides of the island, and as she glanced from one to the other she felt the sinking sensation of She Who Has Been Talked About. Fine. What, was she not supposed to...? She dragged herself back to the present with almost-visible effort. "What's up?"

"Well...." Willow said. "Dawn wants to go over to Janice's house."

Janice, the very definition of The Bad Teenage Influence. "Uh..." Buffy started to say.

"She wants to make it up to her for not being able to invite her to the party."

Buffy thought about it. "Kind of defeats the whole purpose of it, doesn't it?"

"Well, there's that." Willow said. "But, you know, Buffy, if you try and keep them apart any more than you have, they'll just, you know..."

"Act like you and I did when we were their age?" Buffy asked wistfully. "But Janice just doesn't have any sense..."

"That's why we invited them over to my places," Tara said proudly. "You don't know about that, by the way."

"I don't?"

"No." Tara said firmly. "That way, they get to have a little slumber party, and we get to curry teenage favor, and Dawn gets to feel like she pulled one over the Authority Figure's eyes."

Buffy was impressed. "Is this a two-person job?"

Willow flushed. "Well, you know, chaperoning and all that..."

The front door opened and there was a flurry of voices and commotion. Buffy poked her head out and found herself confronted by a man she'd never seen before. "Hi?"

"Hi. Are you Buffy? Jake Long." Her hand disappeared into a huge mitt that could have caught baseballs. "Nice of you to have my girls over. We'll have to have Dawn over real soon."

"Oh, no problem."

"Oh, no," Dawn said suddenly. "No, this was like the best party ever. Really." She put her arms around her older sister's shoulder and hugged her a little too desperately to be convincing. "It was great having you." She followed them out onto the porch, casting an innocent glance in Buffy's direction that implored her to stay inside.

Spike's upstairs, sleeping, Buffy thought. Her own private mantra, tailored to the occasion. She drifted back to the kitchen, noticing once again the odd feeling of unease with her friends. Willow seemed more comfortable with Tara than she did with Buffy, and Buffy herself was suddenly tired. She'd told Willow something about Spike, but Willow had not offered her anything about herself. How's the magic addiction going? What's up with that?

Parents sifted through promptly now, making her wonder if there had been some pre-arranged signal. If she were a parent in Sunnydale, she sure as hell wouldn't leave her kid unattended even during the daylight. She hung back, uncomfortably aware she hadn't brushed her teeth yet, certain that if she ducked upstairs to do it, they'd all vanish behind her back. She kept her mouth firmly closed, smiled, and waved. Tara, Willow, and Dawn were the last to go, and she tried to feel bad about locking the door behind them. Even before she turned away from the lock, though, the reason for that was behind her.

Spike came padding down the stairs in bare feet, bare-chested and rumpled. He was wearing sweats. More importantly, he was wearing her sweats. She was torn between two thoughts, looking at him, looking at the narrow line of hair that led from his bellybutton to where the waistline loosely floated, inches below. If I pull that drawstring, she thought...Bad enough, that one, but even worse was the sequel; I guess vampires get morning erections, too. She swallowed suddenly, her face abruptly flushing, her throat dry, her temples hot. Heat bloomed through her veins, as she looked back into his eyes. She leaned back weakly against the front door, watching him swallow, too. "They gone?"

She nodded, knowing her voice would squeak if she talked.

He hesitated, seeing the flush on her face, afraid his own voice would crack. They stared at each other. A long minute ticked past. "Want to go back to bed?"

"Oh, yes," she whispered breathlessly, and then he crossed the five feet or so at the foot of the stairs and kissed her so hard that her head actually fell back against his arm. She wrapped her arms around his neck so tight he gave a little grunt, then pressed her hard against the door, grinding into her, hitting the seam of her jeans just perfectly. The sweatpants revealed every line of him and he took full advantage of this, shoving against her at just the perfect angle, even while he cursed the concept of button flies. She was making noises of her own in the empty house, urging him on with little pants and moans, till he grabbed her waist and pulled her around him. She pulled back and gasped, "Right here?"

Breathing hard, he jerked his head no. "Uh uh. Too fast the last few times." He stumbled toward the stairs with her wrapped around him like some pretzel. He thrust his tongue into her mouth and she responded by tightening arms and legs around him and squeezing fiercely. "Just wait," he hissed at the threshold of her room, then stumbling to the bed. He wanted to go slow this time, but his blood was frantic, his hands shaking. He'd thought, hours alone, an empty house, but he felt he was going to burst if she touched him. She yanked him down against her, fumbling out of her sweatshirt, not even noticing when he ripped her camisole. He tore at the buttons of her jeans, pausing one moment to draw a finger over her crotch and feel how wet she was, even through the material. He was so hard it was physically painful, blood beating in his head in a way that shouldn't even have been possible. Not that he noticed, not with her wriggling out of her jeans under his shaking hands, shoving them down to her ankles, and spreading her legs for him. The sight of her, wriggling for him, trying to skin the jeans off her ankles even while she sucked his tongue into her mouth, almost ended it for him right there. His cock was poking out of the sweats on its own and with something like desperation, he shoved the fabric down and shoved inside her as if she were some sort of finish line. It was harder than he'd intended, and she stiffened around him, clenching him so hard he arched backward like a bow, trying to stave off the crashing orgasm, feeling the minute throbs of her muscles around him as she slowly relaxed around him. Every muscle on his body was rigid with the effort, not helped by Buffy bracing herself as close to him as she could, her nipples hard and red, brushing his chest like little fingertips. He swallowed convulsively, not even able to look at her for fear the sight of her would set him off, not even daring to thrust.

He breathed again slowly, letting it out, lowering himself to her, bowing his mouth to her breasts. Her gasping echoed in his ears as he found his rythm, pulling out as far as he dared, then sliding into her like some long wave at low tide, going as far as he could, then just a little bit further. He twisted on top of her, desperate to touch everywhere, cocking her leg against his side, and startled by the jeans still around one ankle. She toed them off behind his back and wrapped her legs even higher around his back, so that when she pulled him against her, her knees kept bumping into her own arms. The bed beat against the wall and his fingers tore holes in the cover as his hands clenched and released with the tide of her movements.

Ohgodohgodohgodohgod.... he couldn't tell if it was her or himself gasping that frantic refrain with each thrust, didn't matter who did it. He could feel it, feel it start with her, twist her around him, till he shook against her, forehead against hers, gasping in time to a pulse he didn't have, emptying what felt like his soul into her. If anything, she wrapped her legs even tighter around him, kissing his forehead, his hair, his shoulder, whispering things he thought he was hallucinating. Couldn't be hearing it, couldn't be thinking that he was hearing it, don't trust anything anyone says at orgasm.

Except she whispered into his hair, her body shaking against him, under him, and he remembered, that's when I say it. That's when she lets me say it. With the last strength he had, he pulled out of her, and tried to be surprised at the way she pulled his body back against her, and pulled his head to her breasts. Her hands traced him over and over as if she were taking an inventory, and he noticed it. It was what he did. She was shaking, her fingertips unsteady in his hair, but her lips were soft on his forehead.

"Don't tell Xander." He muttered.

"Huh?"

"Don't tell Xander."

"How romantic." She lifted his head so she could look into his eyes. "Why?"

"Because I like the idea of him not knowing." He wiggled a little, till he was nose to nose with her. "Not knowing what" -- his voice dropped to a whisper -- "what we do when we're alone." He bit his lip, looking at her lips. "I want to look at you across the room and see you the way only I see you."

"Well, you and the football team," Buffy said lightly, trying to look away.

"Ha." Spike said. "Isn't that cute?" He sat up, between her legs, and was rather startled that she didn't shift or act uncomfortable in the slightest. It was all he could do not to look at her till he lost consciousness, all that soft skin, the way she tasted so amazingly different in locations just scant inches apart. "That's all I was thinking about, when I was..." He managed to see the cliff before he jumped off it. "When I was away." He finished lamely, avoiding her eyes. Looking for a diversionary tactic, he picked up her foot, and tickled it. She gave him a God-you-are-so-lame look that didn't intimidate him in the slightest; as a matter of act, he found it so cute that it distracted him from whatever it was he had been thinking. It took a minute, but the thought occurred to him, what did she just say? 'How Romantic'? Wasn't that it?

Romantic. Sarcasm to indicate he wasn't doing something that... he had been? Romantic. They had both been silent for seconds now, looking at each other, Spike watching her breathe, noticing that she was breathing faster, Buffy noticing his eyes going dark, and swallowing.

Spike crawled over her, lowering himself to her body, and then wriggling. Buffy stiffened under him and he stroked her cheek with one finger. "What?"

"That thing you do." She whispered. Her voice got even quieter. "The way you..." She swallowed. "Just before..." With a visible effort, she steadied herself. "Just before you come inside me, you do that, you shift, like you're settling in, getting comfortable...." He stared at her, sliding one hand down her body, slipping one long finger between her legs. She blinked a bit as he did that, her face all rosy and guileless, and she looked so innocent, somehow, that all he wanted to do was give her pleasure.

"Anything else you like?" He whispered, thinking, Damn. There is something to be said for making love in the dark. Her eyes were going to set fire to him. He had his chin propped in one hand now, but his other hand was busy, relentless, and her eyes were getting hot and confused. She cocked her leg around his hip, trying to pull him closer, but he just gave her a half smile. "Take notes, luv. There's going to be a quiz. Can't have you forgetting." Keeping his eyes on hers, he kissed his way to her breasts, taking her shivers into his mouth. She tangled her fingers in his hair, her eyes closed now, but when he lifted his head she slowly opened her eyes. "Pay attention," he teased. He kissed lower and lower, licking her belly button, the little hipbone, the inside of her thigh. He checked; oh, he had her attention, all right. No time for finesse, now. He shoved her legs wide open, separating her flesh with cool fingers and honing in on his goal. She was a fresh peach, soft and liquid, her pulse pounding against his tongue, in his brain, through his nerves, straight to his heart, his cock, the roots of his hair. He kissed her, showing her some of the things a man can pick up with a certain amount of inspiration, like a Slayer making soft little inarticulate noises above him. He clutched her hips to hold her still, lifting his head and clucking at her in mock disapproval for disturbing his rythm. Then he shook his head at himself, playing around when he had her spread out before him like a delicacy. He leaned in again, sighing in sheer pleasure when he could, murmuring appreciative noises in his throat, like some sort of gourmet. She clutched at his hair, the sheets, twisting, but she didn't look away. Tipping her hips up for more, she matched his motion, circling and twisting, till all her tension gathered in a little ball and shook apart, tearing her thoughts to shreds and fragments. She was breathing hard, sweaty, her eyes heavy-lidded, her limbs quivering weakly, and Spike lifted his head, burning her image into his brain. Then he settled himself for another siege, thinking to himself that daylight wasn't so bad, as long as it didn't kill him. He could savor the sight and taste of her, the rare pleasure of seeing her clearly as he drove her mad with his tongue and his hands.

Only when she came again, and again, and he felt her wincing did he stop, realizing she was sore. Her hand lay limply in his hair, the other against his cheek, and he had to smile against her soft little stomach to hide his smug male expression. She was all soft and boneless, breathing with soft little pants as she came down. He kissed his way back up to her mouth, and was startled to find her clutching at him urgently, her fingers digging into his shoulder. Then she took his cock in her hand, and he gulped. "Sure?" He whispered.

"Oh, yes," she breathed into his mouth.

Oh, she was wriggling under him, and he wanted to, all right. He was hard all over again, and she wasn't helping at all, or rather, she was helping much too much. He positioned himself delicately, watching her close her eyes and shudder as he did so. "Buff?"

"Yes." She kissed him with both hands on his cheeks, licking her lips when they separated, and he bit his lip in response. She found his cock again with one hand, but he knew the way, sliding into her as gently as he could. She flinched a bit at that, and he froze. "Buffy... I'm going to..." He made to pull out of her, but she stopped him with her feet behind his buttocks.

"No, it's okay," she gasped. "Don't stop." With gingerly care, he pulled back, feeling her relax slightly, and she urged him back with her mouth and hands, her little breaths against his shoulders. He went slow, a long languorous sweep into her body, giving them time they'd not had before. There was nothing like it, this slow leisurely fuck on a hot afternoon, having time to see her face, having time to see her body. Unreality hit him; this is really happening, the two of them rocking in each other's arms, twisting and sighing, every sense rubbed raw and sensitive. He had to glance down to believe it, past her face, her breasts, his own body, to see himself, sliding into her. She was tensing and relaxing around him with shivering little gasps, freezing at the top of every stroke, her hands fluttering to his face and back, sliding all over. "Oh, god..."She whispered. She caught his lips as he thrust and receded in her, kissing him slow, whispering things under her breath that he couldn't hear. She was boiling around him, turning him to ashes, so wet she was an ocean around him, the only thing keeping him from bursting into flames. He braced himself on his elbows to see her better, awed at the impossibility of it all.

"What?"

The very question deserved a kiss. Buffy Summers, demanding an explanation during sex. She shook her head at him, smiling slightly, and he wriggled his hips in the cradle of her thighs, watching her eyes widen. "You." He whispered. "Trying to distract me."

"Is it working?"

He didn't know why it struck him as funny, but it did, and he laughed out loud, burying his face in her shoulder and collapsing on top of her. She giggled, too, despite being crushed, which only made him tip a glance up at her. "Now what?" Sad to say, he was having trouble keeping his concentration.

"Well, I was just going to say, it's a good thing that I didn't say what I was going to say."

"What?" He slid forward in her, wondering if he could break her concentration. Slow and hard, as far as he could go, holding himself there, go a little further. He stared down at her, watching her watch his stomach muscles twitch as his hips rocked against hers. "You were saying?"

She brought up her fingertips to her face, her flat little stomach shaking against his, hands gripping his arms tight enough to bruise. "You." She took a ragged breath as he hit something exquisitely sensitive. "God, you're beautiful."

He stared at her, eyes huge, proving her point. With his wide, stunned blue eyes and soft mouth, he looked like a debauched angel. She'd never complimented him before. His mouth opened and closed, and he looked bewildered. Her amusement faded away as she saw it -- such a simple phrase -- reverberate. Reaching up with both hands, she pulled him down to kiss him as gently as she could, unnerved by the look on his face, the look that didn't go away. Slowly, he began to move, burying his face in her shoulder, faster, deeper, till one hard thrust made her freeze beneath him, hands clenching on his shoulders. Then he lifted his head, staring down into her eyes, and she back at him, face washed free of all defenses by orgasm. Almost dazed-looking, he moved slowly inside her to his own orgasm, never looking away, not even when it hit him and his whole body trembled, shaking. You're beautiful, she thought, never more so at that moment. She hadn't been lying when she'd told him she loved watching him come. He was naked in more ways than one then, and she wondered if she was seeing William without Spike's defenses.

He rolled over onto his side, taking her with him, fingers on her chin. His scrutiny was unnerving, the same serious look he gave her when it mattered, when she was most in need of it. "I meant it." She said quietly. He didn't exactly smile, but some of the look left his face.

"Any other confessions you'd care to share?" he asked, too lightly.

The question fell like a rock between them, and Buffy scrambled to repair the damage.

"Lots of stuff." He took a deep breath at that. "An awful lot of stuff. There's..." She swallowed. "It's easier for me to feel it than say it, you know?" She laid her hand anxiously against his face, swallowing when he turned his cheek into her palm. "But..."

He nodded, never looking away from her eyes. He could cope with that. "There's got to be something you want to tell me."

She moved closer to him, biting her lip to keep from grinning. "Well..."

"What?"

"You know what I was thinking?"

"When?"

"Before?"

He let it go, amused at the air of Big Secrets About to Be Revealed. "So?"

"You were wearing my sweats."

"So?"

"So now both of us can say we've been in my pants." She dissolved into giggles, embarrassed but pleased, and he drank in the sight of his Slayer, making stupid jokes.

"Is this a preview of the wit I have to look forward to?"

Buffy gave him a look that was so much like the old Buffy that his undead heart gave a jump. "If you're lucky."



Chapter 33

Wes had actually been looking forward to Sunnydale. First off, there was the drive itself, two peaceful hours of contemplation free of interruption, during which he could start to get some perspective. Then there was Sunnydale itself, scene of several humiliations. He rather liked the idea of putting those bad memories to rest, coming to terms with them. Not being loved in return might not hurt quite so much if he didn't lump it onto the pile of everything else he'd fucked up, along with that handy mental list of flaws he kept at the back of his mind. Even the thought of seeing Buffy again had a certain piquancy. The idea that she might be pleasantly surprised at the Wes he had become seemed to release a lot of his pressure, and perhaps they might even have an educational session of catching up. It would be good to discuss Watching, recent developments on the Hellmouth, new regulations in Slayerdom.

Finally, well, there was Spike. The idea of chatting up a vampire would have been an alien one two years ago, something he once wouldn't have dreamed of doing. He had to wonder, now, how many things he'd once never questioned were holding him back. Besides, he needed to talk to a kindred soul. He couldn't discuss lost love with Angel, seeing as how Angel regarded himself as the touchstone for the subject. Angel had never loved someone without reciprocation; how could he talk about it? Truth was, the friendship there had undergone some troubling sea change not helped by the last several months. Much as he hated to drag his friends down with his feelings, he also couldn't help but think that they might have displayed some tact in the way they acted around him. Young love was difficult enough to take when one had loved and been rejected; when the object of one's affections then joyously took up with someone else beneath one's nose and on one's payroll, well, there was something to make a sober man contemplate alcohol.

Talking to Spike had been a curious experience, something he wanted to see if he could recreate sans alcohol. He wanted to talk about how much he loved Fred, how lonely he felt when he saw her with Gunn. He'd not only lost his love, but his best friend, hell, his only friend; maybe only another soul who loved heedlessly could understand that.

And then, too, how ironic to think of Spike in those terms.

All in all, it had been a pleasant plan, sort of like a mental process of packing, and he had found it immensely soothing.

Unfortunately, things had worked out rather different.

Instead of driving Angel's convertible, top down and wind in his hair, he was driving, well, Angel's convertible with the top up and blankets across the windows. Instead of the wind in his hair, he had air conditioning in his face, and he suspected it would give him a cold. Finally, there was the matter of two hours of thoughtful contemplation of life. It was just a tad difficult to think about life when one had a hungover vampire in the back seat, alternately moaning, and groaning, "Pull over," so he could throw up by the side of the road. He'd pulled over so many times that they had probably left a quite clear trail of, well, clues, behind them, and if he lost his roadmap, unlike Hansel and Gretel, he'd be able to find his way back, thanks to Angel.

He just wasn't sure of his feelings toward Angel right now, and the fact that Angel was sicker than a dog -- well, a dead dog -- didn't make that easy to admit. In fact, he wanted to be able to resent Angel tremendously, and it somehow seemed desperately unfair to do so while his putative employee curled up in the backseat and moaned in heartrending tones.

He was rather pleased that he remembered the way to Buffy's house; rather startled at the destruction of the high school. That was worth a second look, so he pulled up in front of the corpse of the building, and looked at it with a shiver. He got out of the car, crossing around the front, and leaning against the passenger side door to cross his arms and stare up at what was left of the building he'd once thought of as Hellmouth High. The class that had given Buffy her Class Protector Award. The library where he'd kissed Cordelia -- or tried to. Faith, all bravado and torment, now long jailed. He felt the familiar twinge at the thought of her, the loss of potential, the waste. Looking up at the building, he thought perhaps it was a good thing they'd let the burned-out hull remain. It was a good thing to remember one's mistakes, to remember the consequences... and the rewards. He was no longer a Watcher, and he was troubled by what was going on with his friends, but at least he had friends. No posing as something he wasn't. He ran one hand over his chin, feeling the beard he'd not bothered to shave, and wondered where the old Wesley had gone.

There was a groan from the car. He winced at the sound, as much as at the reminder as the actual noise itself, then squared his shoulders and headed back to his duties.



Warren zipped down the sidewalk at a faster clip than he'd ever attained in Phys Ed. The keys in his pockets jingled annoyingly, the change bounced out of his pockets, and his hair looked about ready to jump ship on its own power. Dignity be damned. Who knew those fucking demons could look so human they'd fool you? Sure, vampires and all, but a drunken woman being a vampire...! It just wasn't fair. It altered the natural order of the fucking universe. Damn. He dwindled down into a limping trot, then fell into an unsteady stagger, and doubled over, breathing like a two pack a day man suddenly embracing fitness. He coughed, hands braced on knees, and wondered how he could blame this on the Slayer. Not that he really needed a reason. That blonde bitch had it coming, just for the smug way she wouldn't fucking get out of the way. Her continued evasion of his revenge was almost enough to make him turn around and figure out how to use the demon against her. Fucking women, he thought, with all the bitterness of a college geek who'd had a grand total of two girlfriends, one of which had required recharging. It never occurred to him that while he'd sneer at a girl with a vibrator, constructing a girlfriend who had her own voltage adaptor might indicate certain frailties in his own logic.

He straightened up gradually, taking a deep breath that hurt his lungs. What in hell was he supposed to do now? There had to be a better way to get girls. First there had been the unfortunate malfunction with Katrina, now this, but the device was the best way they had of getting some. Maybe there was something to be said for those drugs, after all. Maybe once they took control of Sunnydale, they could lay in a supply of those pills and just bag the babes that way.

Hell, at this point, it had been so long for him that he...He turned thoughtfully, to look back at the way he'd come, and in doing so glanced across the front porch of the house he was stopped in front of. He stiffened.

Jonathon, sitting in a glider, sipping a shake, was looking at him calmly, no doubt filing the sight of him gasping for breath after his hundred-yard dash away for future blackmail purposes. "Hey, Warren." Jonathon said uncomfortably.

"Jonathon." They eyed each other carefully, Jonathon trying to look unsuspicious, and Warren trying to avoid letting his contempt show. Then he realized that if he looked scornful, it would be normal, and Jonathon wouldn't have any reason to think he'd been fleeing in terror from a feminist demon who no doubt wanted his balls. And not in the good way, either.

They sized each other up. Why did I say something first? Jonathon thought. Why? I should've waited, made him squirm, made him wonder what I was thinking. What would Obi-Wan do? Which he promptly forgot, because he was so wigged out by Warren's frazzled appearance. Frazzled on Warren meant only one thing, and that was bad. Frazzled meant Warren was pissed, therefore Jonathon would soon be the butt of something.

"So, Warren," Jonathon asked softly, "Whatcha doin'?"

"I'm out for a jog, you dwarf." With a visible effort, Warren shook it off and glanced away, trying not to show too much contempt. After all, the demon had been pissed off at him. Who knew if it would be pissed off at Jonathon? Did anyone ever really get pissed off at him? How could they maintain their ire in the face of the soft voice, the boyish mop of hair, the virginal brown eyes? Even if they did, did it last long? How long could a demon hold a grudge? She had been really drunk, maybe she'd have passed out again by now. That could be kind of fun if she had. Maybe he could find stronger rope. He'd never had a demon. Well, actually, except for Katrina, he'd never had a human, but it could be time to branch out to other species.

They stared at each other, Warren calculating, Jonathon puzzled. "I've got a new thing to try out." Warren said finally. He actually hadn't planned on sharing with Jonathon, useless little twerp that he was, but hey, he could adapt now.

"What sort of thing?" Jonathon asked warily.

"A new thing for getting girls."

Jonathon felt his stomach drop several stories. Great. Just great. What would Obi-Wan do? He thought. Well, for sure, Obi-Wan wouldn't be pandering to this budding Ted Bundy. This was definitely Darth territory. His stomach dropped several more stories. A new thing. Who now? He carefully brushed aside thoughts of the twins he himself had bewitched, and focused on Warren's beady eyes. Warren definitely had beady eyes, therefore he was in no way shape or form a good villain. Jonathon knew from long contemplation of his mirror that he had big brown puppy dog eyes, and was therefore not a bad guy, but maybe a Tortured Anti-Hero, like Heathcliff from the sort of chick flick he secretly watched when the other two weren't in the lair.

"What sort of thing?"

"Oh, I still need to get some ingredients." Warren said casually. "Figured I'd go see what I could find. It's really rough."
"Uh..."

Too casual, Jonathon thought. Something here he wasn't talking about. Knowing Warren, that meant there was something he had that he didn't want him to know about. The bad stuff, like disposing of bodies, he'd dump on Jonathon just fine. But the fun stuff? That was definitely for Warren and Warren alone.
"Oh, what kind of ingredients does it need?"

"Oh, just the usual stuff..." Warren looked off into the distance. "I gotta go get some, you know, stuff. Why don't you come by later?"

"How much later?"

"Oh, much later." Warren said with a smirk. "Wouldn't want you to get intimidated by my expertise or anything. So I gotta go now, John-boy. See ya later, right?" He turned to walk away. "Much later, okay? Don't screw up this time. I don't want any interruptions. I'm going to make this special. You know how chicks like that. Even sex slaves. Especially sex slaves." He gave Jonathon a wave, sighed like a man who's done a job very well indeed, and ambled off as if he didn't have a pissed-off demon plus an unconscious minion in his lair.

Jonathon stared at his back. It didn't occur to him that Warren turned at the wrong corner to go downtown; it didn't occur to him that Warren had turned in exactly the wrong direction to go downtown, and it didn't occur to him that Warren might be pulling Jedi mind games on him while he was wondering what Obi-Wan would do. There's a girl there. The bastard already got a girl. The bastard's going to...He stared at the corner Warren had taken, unaware that his erstwhile buddy was peering at him through the hedge. Bastard, he thought. Of course, once again, the whole twin affair was overlooked. Somehow it just seemed so different when he had done it.

That's it, this is really it, he thought. I'll rescue her. And it will really piss Warren off. All of a sudden, he felt all Jedi-like. Actually, it was the first time he'd felt all Jedi-like since the whole super villain thing had begun. Maybe she'll be grateful, he thought. Maybe we can watch Star Wars together, on that pirated DVD I downloaded off the Internet. Oh, boy, maybe he kidnapped a cheerleader.

Warren watched as Jonathon whirled around like a startled cat and dashed back into the house. Delegate, delegate, delegate, he thought. The secret to good management and successful world domination.



Xander knew it was serious when Anya rang up a hundred dollar sale and didn't step into the back room to do the Dance of Capitalist Superiority. He knew it was worse when someone tried to break a twenty for a cup of tea, and she didn't even snap at the luckless fool for depleting the precious change that was meant for better customers. And when Dawn came in with Willow and Tara, Anya did not bodily separate her from the merchandise. But when Willow came in and Anya didn't do the subconscious Willow face, he realized how very bad it was.

"An," he sidled up behind her and whispered in her ear."Wanna talk?"

She was sadly fondling the money, stroking the big bills with a gentle finger. Only big bills for my girl, he thought fondly, then saw it for what it was; she was trying to console herself. Willow and Dawn were giggling over something in the corner, and Anya didn't so much as even glance up. Ever since the whole, "Willow's a demon" thing, there had been a certain tension between the two, because Willow had not liked being called a demon, and Anya had not liked that Willow had not liked it. Women, he thought. It used to be simple to insult a woman. Tell her she wears combat boots, and it's all over. Now accuse her of belonging to a different species, and not only might it be true, but the recipient of the remark might very well regard it as a compliment. Who knew?

"I haven't heard from Hallie." Anya said softly. "She didn't call."

"Maybe, she, ah, forgot."

"She could only do that for a bit." Anya said softly. "It becomes a part of you after a while. You feel naked without it. She should have noticed by now."

They looked at each other, and when Willow giggled in the background, Anya didn't even so much as flinch. "We'll call Buffy." Xander said cheerfully. "Look! Problem solved."



Wes didn't feel nervous till he pulled over in front of the house, and turned off the engine. Angel snored in the backseat, something that once would have made him flee, but compared with the nausea-o-rama the trip had been, was a delight in comparison. He did get out of the car rather fast, though.

Buffy had to be home; there was an old DeSoto parked in front of the house, but as he looked closer at the car, he realized it only meant that perhaps Spike was home. The vehicle looked like the one he'd seen parked in front of the hotel; and it had blacked-out windows. Either it was a vampire's car, and they weren't really known for possessing them, or it belonged to an albino with a Sid Vicious fixation, if the bumper stickers were any indication. He stepped close to the car cautiously, as if the rust would infect him. Definitely Spike's car. He glanced up at the house. Had Spike come directly here after returning? Hm. All of a sudden, he wondered if he should really go knock on the door. Maybe he'd be interrupting something. Shoving his hands in his pockets so they wouldn't wave around like they always did when he was nervous, he tried the passenger door, and pulled it open.

Hm again. It was surprisingly neat. He didn't know what he'd been expecting, but he hadn't ever devoted a thought to the car-cleaning habits of soulless demons. No beer bottles, for example, no body parts, no smell, except, perhaps, of cigarettes. He glanced in the back seat and froze. Lorne, sacked out and peaceful, a pleasant smile on his lips, lay stretched out on the back seat. His shoes were on the back window shelf, and the windows at his head and feet were slightly cracked. His ankles were peacefully crossed, and he was wearing the most amazingly colorful socks. He looked as composed as Sleeping Beauty herself, except for the green skin and the horns. Wes shook his head in amusement. God, how do you wake up a demon? He cleared his throat in preparation for making a loud remark.

"I wouldn't if I were you."

"Why not?"

"Because I could blackmail you with the fact that you have a secret addiction to Patsy Kensit, and the only thing keeping you from plastering her eyebrowless face all over your apartment is the fear you might die suddenly." Lorne grimaced at him. "Oh, my back."

"Buffy didn't let you sleep on the couch?"

"The couch was occupied."

"Ah." Spike, Wes thought. Ah, well. He wasn't sure whether that was good or bad. Vampire, vampire slayer, but still, how boring was it if birds of a feather...? He pulled himself back to reality at the look on Lorne's face. The green demon eyed him patiently.

"You're doing it again."

"What? I am not."

"You're thinking of that Kensit person. Or Emma Thompson. Don't even look at me like that, babycakes. If I said the words, "Much Ado About Nothing" in the lobby in front of a crowd of people, you'd blush like a schoolgirl." Lorne sighed, and pulled himself up. "My mouth feels like the floor of this car." He shook his head a bit, cracked his neck, rubbed his neck. "And I need a shower, so be warned. This wasn't just a social call, was it?"

"No, we came up here for you."

Lorne sighed happily at the prospect of home and shower, then focused abruptly on Wes. "We?"

"Angel and I."

"Where is he?"

"In the car."

"In what car?"

"Angel's car." Wes gestured at the black convertible behind Spike's, and then watched as Lorne's jaw dropped in horror.

"And what sort of mood is he in?"

"He's not in a mood." Wes said dryly. "He's in a condition."

"Well, he'll be in another condition if he gets out of that car." Lorne shoved the door open and jumped out. "Let's go." He glanced down, grimaced, then snatched his shoes and shoved them off his feet.

Wes fidgeted.

Lorne jumped to the side door of Angel's car and looked in through the crack on the shady side of the car. Sure enough, there he was, and he was so much paler than he usually was. If he got any whiter, he'd be see-through. "How nice to bring him with. Why did you bring him with?"

"I can hear you, you know." Angel mumbled irritably.

"Great." Lorne said. "Let's whisper." He yanked Wes down the sidewalk. "Just how good are vampire ears?"

"As good as any predator's, I suppose." Wes shrugged.

"What does that mean?"

"Well, I'm sure he can hear quite easily into different rooms if he wants to."

"Even while he's drunk?"

"Actually, I suppose then it would be rather a disadvantage, wouldn't it?" Wes said thoughtfully.

"Well, it's going to be a disadvantage now unless we get moving, Wesley baby, so what do you say we go?"

Behind them, Angel blearily pulled himself up into a seated position in the back seat of the car. There was a fraught moment during which various internal organs tried to rearrange themselves and escape, but he won that battle and managed to focus his eyes. "Hey, that's Buffy's house." He was, Wesley saw, at one of those weird pockets of bonhomie that sometimes interrupted really monumental hangovers. The vampire's eyes peered unsteadily at the vehicle in front of him. "Hey, that's Spike's car." He swiveled back to the house as if to confirm its presence. This was followed by the unsteady return on his gaze to the car. "You'd think he'd trade it in for a decent model." He stared through the windshield and then his eyes slowly, steadily cleared. The fog departed, and the blank expression on his face gradually resolved itself to curiosity, and then bewilderment. "Why is Spike's car here?" He looked at Wes, all goofiness gone. "Something weird is going on." He gestured at them furtively. Cautiously, so as to avoid the alcohol fumes, they edged closer. Angel nodded encouragement, and beckoned them to come nearer.

Glancing nervously at one another, they tiptoed forward. Angel shook his head impatiently and reached out and grabbed. "I have an idea."

That was quite an accomplishment in his condition. "What's that?" Wes asked, dreading the answer.

"Let's steal it."



Chapter 34

Andrew found himself looking at ceilings tiles and struts. This made no sense at all because he'd been dreaming about some universe where he got to wear a tight black uniform and play with all sorts of cool weapons. Also, his head hurt, and it was becoming apparent that there were going to be repercussions unless he could crawl upstairs to the bathroom. He closed his eyes to see if that lessoned the pain. No such luck. Cautiously, he turned his head; there was the entertainment center. He turned it the other way, feeling the cool concrete oddly soothing. In the other direction was a gurney-like thing that Warren had set up and...Oh, shit! He yelped and sat up, scooting backward on his butt away from the woman on the table. "Don't hurt me," he quavered.

Hallie was not feeling good. She, too, had a distinct premonition of oncoming digestive difficulties, and the idea of what that would be like while tied to a table made her forget that she was tied up. If she had felt better, the knots wouldn't have been a problem. The biggest item on her radar was her hangover, and Andrew was just an annoying noise that she'd slap away as soon as she felt better. If I ever feel good enough to get revenge on anyone again, it's Jack Daniels I'm going after, she thought. Her mouth felt like the bottom of an coal miner's laundry hamper. She turned her head just slightly. Strange. Ratboy was gone. In his place was some boy she knew she should have some vague memory of, but really couldn't bother to waste the energy on. She tried to focus on this one, who skittered away from her as soon as he saw her looking at him. He looked like he was going to cry. She just hated that. A surprising number of these sleazeballs did all kinds of crap—murder, rape, whatever -- and burst into tears when she so much as threatened their golf handicap. She'd told OJ Simpson she was going to curse him with girlfriends who were as beautiful as he was innocent, and he'd promptly displayed more acting ability then than she'd ever seen in his movies. Of course, D'Hoffryn just loved OJ's movies, so she'd seen the damned things numerous times. Shame, really, that there was no category of artistic revenge....She drifted pleasantly for a few minutes, occupied by thoughts of making N'Sync pay for their crimes, when she realized she was still tied up. Damn. This reality was so unpleasant. Next time she was definitely going to pop out before the hangover arrived. She concentrated her brain cells and focused on breaking the ropes. Nothing. Not even a fizzle. What the hell was going on...?Then she remembered. Her pendant. Anya had her pendant. She stared at the ceiling resentfully for a while. Then she licked her lips and tried to figure out which of the two boys she saw actually existed. "You."

"What?"

God, how pathetic, she thought. Human. "Untie me."

"You'll hurt me."

Well, duh, you fool. Then she realized, mournfully, that minus her pendant, and severely hungover, she might not even be capable of that. Unless, of course, she could scare the little bugger. She turned her head the other way and tried to morph into demon face, but the hangover was rapidly getting worse, and all she could manage was a really bad case of acne. She sighed and turned back. "I won't hurt you." She paused. "If you untie me."

"Oh, I don't know." Andrew said tremulously. "Warren will be so...." His eyes widened at the way she glared at him. Hm. Think like a Supervillain! He thought. She was tied up. Warren was not. Warren might come back. Besides, how many people could boast they'd caught a demon? However, in order to get away, he had to get by the table to the stairs. Hm. How pissed would Warren be? Hm. He looked at where her hands were tied to the table; there were several thicknesses of rope around each wrist, and he knew her ankles were just as securely tied. She wasn't going anywhere, at least as long as she was tied up. Tied up, she was just another woman, just another experiment. He smiled slightly to himself, relieved. His favorite solution to every problem was simple; do nothing and wait for Warren. Here was a perfect opportunity.

Hallie cleared her throat. "Well?"

"Well, I don't think I should."

A scraping noise on the stairs made them both turn. Jonathon stood on the stairway, wearing his Superman Tee-shirt, jaw agape. His expression of astonishment gradually faded into one of disappointment as he realized that Halfrek in no way, shape or form resembled a cheerleader. She hadn't bothered to morph out of the demon face she'd managed, so she had a rather severe skin condition as well. "Oh," Jonathon said faintly. No cheerleader. No gratitude. Rescuing her no longer seemed interesting; disposing of her seemed to be the problem now. He grimaced. Supervillains or superheroes were supposed to get all the cool girls; what was going on here?

"Uh," Jonathon said. She was conscious, too, which meant he was about to experience conversational awfulness that no doubt would eclipse whatever torments had he'd survived in high school. How did you make polite conversation with someone your evil genius buddy had kidnapped for purposes he'd forced himself not to think about? Crap. He'd wanted to rescue a cheerleader. This person just wasn't pretty enough to rescue. He sank down onto the steps and sighed.

Hallie looked at him, then waited for five seconds before looking again. He was still sitting there, pouting, and she wondered if she'd inadvertently turned him to stone. She looked at the ceiling supports for a while, then glanced back. Nothing. Was he just going to sit there? "You." She said. "Untie me."

"Uh," Jonathon said, nervously standing up. It occurred to him he would have untied her if she'd been unconscious, but he just couldn't do it while she was looking at him. He hesitated, completely flummoxed by something he hadn't expected. "Uh. It's ...the phone." He said faintly.

Inspiration dawned on Andrew's face. "Yeah, I'm expecting a call."

"No, it's for me!" Jonathon said. "I'M expecting a call!"

"No, I am." Andrew snapped, jumping to his feet.

"Are not!"

"Are too!"

"Are not!"

"Am too!"

Jonathon leaped and whirled up the stairs, Andrew at his heels. Out of Hallie's sight, there was a thump, and a scuffle, muttered threats and insults, and then a door slamming. Her sigh reached only the ceiling.

She looked around again. No phone. No company. No pendant. No way to get a hold of anyone. She was hungover, sick, and not likely to improve if she didn't get some aspirin. Plus, she just was not in fighting shape, and if those three twits came back, she'd have a great excuse for revenge, but not a lot of opportunity.

Oh, God, this is going to look so bad on my quarterly review, she thought. She closed her eyes and began chanting, softly and uncertainly. Before she'd gotten far, there was a roar, a puff of smoke that did her stomach no good at all, and an irritable-sounding cough. She tried to spot anything in the green smoke. There were tentative footsteps on the concrete, and the smoke swirled as someone waved irritably at it. Horns emerged from the soupy fog, and D'Hoffryn peered at her, only his head and face visible. "Hallie?!" He looked over her predicament. "What happened?"

For the first time, Hallie let herself get good and joyously angry. "You know that rule about us getting revenge on our own?"

"Yes?"

"Well, we need to talk about changing that."



God, the phone again. Buffy jerked awake and glared at the thing. She was curled up against Spike's back, her arms looped bonelessly around his middle, his hand curled back around one of her thighs. She groaned in a very un-Slayer like way, and rolled over to grab the phone, vowing to turn the ringer off when she was done.

"Hello?"

"Buffy?"

"Xander, don't take this the wrong way, but if it's another missing demon, your birthday present is in serious jeopardy."

There was an interesting pause. He was calling from the Magic Box; she could hear the noise of the cash register behind him. Behind her, she heard and felt Spike move, rolling over onto his back as she had, then beside her. She glanced down and Spike was stretched thoughtfully out on his side next to her, cheek propped on one hand.

"Well, does it count if it's the same demon?" Xander asked.

"Tell me again why I should care?"

Anya was saying something in the background, her voice alternatively buzzing and clearing in the earpiece. She sounded like a giant bug. "Anya says Hallie left, then Spike..." He let that phrase dangle suggestively in the air.

"What are you talking about?" Buffy demanded.

"Well, evidently there was some sort of history there between Anya's friend and... Spike. I know you've been all buddy-buddy with him lately, but..."

Buffy's mood slid from irritated to outright pissed in one second flat.

"Why don't you just spit it out, Xander? What are you trying to say?"

"Well, like I said, you know, Hallie broke his heart when he still had a heart, so who knows what he'd do if he had the opportunity?"

Buffy thought rapidly, frowning, trying to figure out something she knew she was missing. Spike reached out with one finger and traced her thigh, distracting her from whatever it was that she was trying to remember. "This was Anya's little vengeance demon friend?"

"Well, yeah." Xander said cautiously.

"So if she broke his heart, how come she's a vengeance demon?" Buffy demanded triumphantly. "He didn't kill her then, why would he do it now?"

More muttering buzzing sounds just a bit too far away to hear. Buffy glanced down at Spike, sensing impending distractions. Actually, she was actively hoping for them. "Anya said Hallie left first, then Spike took off."

"So?" Buffy said. She had the perfect defense, right in front of her, and she couldn't use it. He was here with me, all night.

"Jeez, Buffy, what is it? You're sticking up for him."

"Somebody's got to." Buffy snapped. "You just automatically blame him for everything." Something like shock slipped over Spike's face, and he looked up at her with wary eyes. "Dawn was telling me about this summer, Xander."

There was a tense silence, and when Xander finally broke it, his voice was tight. "Yeah, so what does that mean?"

"He fought alongside you all summer, and you might be able to forget that, but Dawn and I can't. And Glory tortured him."

"That's what he says." Xander said scornfully.

"You saw him, Xander. Do you think he did that to himself?"

"He's always getting into fights." Xander said contemptuously. "He's always got bruises and stuff all over. Look at that shiner he had at your party, and he didn't even bring you a present, did you?"

"Xander, you have whatever opinion you want." Buffy said. "But I have an opinion, too, and at least I change mine when the person it's about changes. I'll ask around about Anya's friend. " She slammed the phone down, hard, then picked it up and ripped the cord out of the base. Spike watched this with unreadable eyes.

"Talkin' about me, were you." It was not a question.

Buffy flopped down next to him. The day was at that perfect time of afternoon, not too hot, not too bright, not too dark, not yet cooling off into desert chill. Except Xander had spoiled it. "He talked, I just..."

"You were sticking up for me."

She turned and looked at him, giving him a fierce look. "I'd do that no matter what, you know? I change my mind! You've changed, you've done things, and Xander just doesn't change..." She glanced away sullenly as he brushed her hair out of her eyes.

"You talked to Dawn about more than boys, didn't you?"

"Well, let's face it, boys..." Buffy's shrug encompassed the entire gender. "Not a big subject."

"Oh, really, Little Miss-I-Change-My-Mind?"

"Living or dead." She amended with a smirk.

"Well, thanks." He was looking at her again, far beyond serious now, and she simply couldn't look at him. She had stuck up for him to Xander, it was true. She wanted to believe she would have done that no matter what, but she really wasn't sure. Desperately, she clung to the belief of Fair Buffy, able to change her mind, able to grow. "So what did Dawn have to say?"

It was her turn to reach out and brush his face, not because his hair was anywhere long enough to obstruct her view, but because she had to touch him. "I could tell you, but I'd have to kill you."

"Well, what did Xander say?"

"He said that that friend of Hallie's was still missing."

"So?"

"He thought that you..."

"Ah...." Spike shook his head and dropped his head back to the pillow. "And Anya said that?"

"How'd you guess?"

"I'm psychic." Spike said sarcastically.

The phone rang. Buffy jumped, staring in surprise at the phone she'd disconnected, then realizing it was the one downstairs. She jumped up, grabbing her robe, and dashing down the stairs. Spike got out of bed and stretched, noticing that all the blinds were drawn. He looked around, startled. She'd closed all the blinds so the sun wouldn't shine on him? No, probably just a coincidence. He ambled his way across the floor, tripping over his clothes, then kicking them out of the way. He scrounged in his pockets for smokes, pausing as he encountered the big roll of bills. God, he had to talk to Dawn, and who knew when that would be? He leaned in the hallway door, trying to catch bits of the conversation downstairs. All he could catch was a series of "Oh? Ew. Oh, no. Crap. Uh. Huh." Then the sound of the phone being hung up rather more enthusiastically than was necessary. After a moment broken by the sound of stomping feet, Buffy appeared at the base of the stairs, not looking happy. She started up about the time he started down, and they met in the middle. He turned her sideways till they on the same step, then turned around, so that she was a step higher.

"What?"

"Bad news."

"And that would be?"

"Something weird is going on."

"This is Sunnydale." He got his hands into the pockets of her robe, and she squirmed against him, grumpy but still persuadable. He kissed her just once, hands cupping her bottom through her robe, inching her robe open. Warm skin against his, heat spreading to his bones, he leaned against the wall, kissing her again, gauging her reaction. "How weird?"

"I guess somebody turned half the chess club into newts, and the trekkies at the Trek marathon were suddenly afflicted, with, uh, toaditis."

He pulled back and looked at her. "You are kidding, right?"

"Nope." She leaned against him for a minute. "So now I really have to go and act all Slayer like."

"I guess that means you have to get dressed."

"That's the plan." She muttered.

"Does that mean I have to get dressed?"

"Well," Buffy said thoughtfully. "I kind of thought, you could drive me there..."

Visions of slow twilight driving, Buffy with her head on his shoulder, suddenly appeared in Spike's brain. "I'll think about it."

"Think about it fast, because..."

They both jumped at the sound of the knock on the door. Oh, God, Buffy thought, then remembered that the door was locked. However, there were windows, and there she was with Spike, with her robe half off, and him completely naked. "Oh, God." Buffy said out loud. Spike rolled his eyes at the timing, and silently retreated up the stairs, giving Buffy a sarcastic look at she composed herself and her robe. All neatened up, she fixed a smile on her face, and headed toward the door. Of course, the house was so dark on the inside that whoever was outside in the bright sun couldn't see inside anyway, but why care about reality at this point anyway?

She positioned herself carefully behind the door so as to block whoever was selling Girl Scout cookies or whatever from seeing that she was still in her bathrobe. Definitely not good. She waited for the next knock, and opened the door a fraction.

The green demon who'd come up from LA with Spike looked down at her. She stared. He stared back. "Lorne?"

"Hey, sweetie." He looked at her, then smiled. "See you took my advice."

"Wha..? Huh?" She looked down, realizing that it was possible to see the fuzzy sleeve of her bathrobe as she held the door open. "Oh, uh, that, I, uh..."

"Never mind, sweetie, I gave you the advice, didn't I? You lucky thing. Uh, anyway, there's been kind of an interesting twist. You might want to get dressed."

"Well, I was just..." Lorne stepped aside, and Buffy stared at someone she knew she should recognize, someone who looked vaguely familiar, but not familiar enough to actually place.

"Hello, Buffy." Wesley said uncomfortably. They stared at each other, former Watcher and Slayer, Buffy staring in open astonishment. This was not prissy Wesley, not with that five o'clock shadow, wearing jeans -- okay, she could imagine, in a theoretical way, Wes wearing jeans, but she figured he'd press them or something, and probably make sure they were a perfect, dorky shade of blue. But here he was, wearing faded blue jeans, his hands stuffed uncomfortably in the back pockets.

"Wes." Buffy closed her mouth with a snap. "What brings you to Sunnydale?"

"Well, it's kind of complicated." Wes said uncomfortably.

I'm sleeping with my former mortal enemy, and somebody is turning geeks into amphibians, maybe kidnapping demons. So what isn't weird around here? Buffy thought.

"Try me," Buffy said. "It can't get any weirder."

"Yes it can." Wes said grimly. "Angel just stole Spike's car."



Chapter 35

Xander hung up the phone slowly, as if he were afraid it was going to bite him.Which, come to think of it, was pretty much what Buffy had just done. He looked at the phone as if it had betrayed him. "Something's going on." He said slowly.

"Do you think so?" Anya said worriedly. "Really? It's not just me, is it?"

Xander looked up at her. She was thinking, he saw, of Hallie; he was thinking of Buffy. Buffy, his erstwhile best friend, who had just defended Spike to him. He remembered the night at the Bronze, the weird affinity in the way they always wound up together, and what had once been dismissible, suddenly seemed real. Something unpleasant tiptoed around the edges of his brain, something sinister, something he most definitely did not want to deal with or see... It was like having a word on the tip of his tongue. He knew if he pressed for it, it would disappear back into the mist at the back of his brain. Blinking at Anya, he wrenched himself back to her. "So, sweetie, what were you saying?"

"Hallie." She said, rather miffed. Her best friend was missing, without her pendant, and what was he thinking about? Buffy, no doubt. "But go right ahead, thinking about Buffy."

"I was not thinking about Buffy." Technically, this was true. What he was thinking about was Spike, how the bugger always showed up... Oh, more unpleasantness there. His brain literally flinched at linking Buffy and Spike in the same sentence. Maybe we haven't been there for her, he thought. But it's so hard; she's so different these days.

Dawn ambled up to the counter, looking at him. "Nervous yet?"

"You're behind the times." He said. "I've been nervous for a while. Weddings are a plot." Anya glanced up, and he launched the punch line. "Make you totally forget the marriage afterward. That's the part I want, but there's no way you can have 'marriage maid dresses' or things like that. Defeats the whole purpose of capitalism."

"Maybe you and Anya could start a new tradition."

"I like that." Xander said. "Hear that, Anya? Our own custom."

"What would that be?" Anya demanded. Did Xander just diss capitalism?

Uh-oh, Xander thought, hurrying into the breach. "Our own capitalist custom." He said. "Marriage... rituals, with all the appropriate -- and expensive -- thingies that could be trademarked and sold here. Like a sequel to the store?"

"Really?" Anya's voice was squeaky, high-pitched, and pleased. She bustled over to give him a peck, which Dawn smiled indulgently at, as if they were two cute senior citizens. "Just like Martha Stewart."

"Except without the demonic possession thing." Dawn said, trying to be helpful.

Anya glared at her."Hey! That's mostly a myth."

"About Martha Stewart?"

"No. About demons. Not all of us take hostages or anything."

"Okay." Dawn shrugged uncomfortably. Oh, goodie, something else she'd done wrong. She kept trying not to do the same stupid things again, but she kept running into new stupid things to do. How was she supposed to know they were stupid till she tried them? Sometimes you just couldn't tell. Anya looked at her a second longer, and Dawn could practically hear what she was thinking. Must keep Dawn away from small, portable items. True, but over, she thought. Why don't grownups ever move on? She was sorry, it was over, she'd never do it again, but Anya didn't trust her. It was like Spike; he totally hadn't done anything evil for ages, but evidently that concept hadn't gotten through the grownups' heads. She looked at Anya thoughtfully, an idea forming then, an idea so evil that her eyes popped out with it.

"Anya?"

"Here." Anya said, thrusting a feather duster at her. "Go dust." She paused a moment. "But only the big things. The things that make large bulges if you try to steal them."

Dawn eyed the implement skeptically, but took it. "Can I ask you a question?"

"Are you asking me questions so you can delay paying off your debt by being forced to work?"

"No." Dawn glared at her for a moment. "No, I just thought of something."

"What's that?"

"How long were you a vengeance demon?"



"Why is Angel here?" Buffy asked. The fact that she was in her bathrobe appeared to have been ignored by both Lorne and Wesley. Lorne she expected to ignore it.Wasn't he some kind of love demon, anyway? But Wesley? Wasn't it his job to be nosy? And disapproving? She kept turning around to glance at him suspiciously, awaiting the disapproval. She made extremely bad coffee in the hope that this would distract them from the not-so-stealthy sounds of Spike getting dressed upstairs, which at one point included a yelp and a very loud thud. This brought the painfully nervous conversation to a heart-thumping silence.

Lorne glanced with interest from be-bathrobed Slayer to scruffy former Watcher. Buffy folded her hands in her lap, and looked into her coffee cup. Shoulda listened to Mom going on about manners, she thought. There was silence upstairs. "So, uh, what brings you and Angel to Sunnydale?"

"Oh, we had to pick up Lorne." Wes said.

There were light footsteps on the stairs, and Spike suddenly appeared in the kitchen doorway. "Oh, hi, Spike." She said, far too enthusiastically. "Did you get your clothes in the dryer?"

Spike, never the best of liars when his heart was involved, came to a full stop, and stared at her. Her statement, and what it meant, visibly worked its way through his head till it connected with his mouth, at which point, he started to babble. "Uh. Yeah. Thanks. Slayer. Uh. Uh. All.. done. Sorry it took so long. Uh." His eyes were the size of silver dollars. He scrubbed at his hair with both hands as if he were trying to either restrain brain cells or force them to work. "Good thing, uh, Angel didn't see me doing laundry. Yeah! He gets all sorts of... So! Got any beer?" He finished desperately.

Everyone exchanged a look. Wes smiled slightly, and with a certain familiar touch of prissiness, put his coffee cup, practically full, back on its saucer. "You two seem to be getting along fairly well these days." Spike gave a massive twitch, as if he'd just backed into a light socket, and Buffy froze in place.

"Uh?" Former Watcher, Buffy thought. Oh, God. "Well, you know, I was dead, and Spike.. is dead, so we have a lot to talk about, and uh..."

"I think it's good." Wesley said firmly. He looked her right in the eye. "I think after your experience, Buffy, you desperately need someone to talk to. It's good that you can change and grow. Some people can't." He took a sip of the God-awful coffee, ignoring the fact that now it was Buffy's eyes that had gotten huge. "Look at me, for example."

Buffy was, quite frankly, already looking, partly out of a desire to gauge how much he was swallowing her story, and partly because she still hadn't gotten over the idea of Wes in blue jeans. Plus the stubble.

"I used to think that vampires were all the same. Animals. And now Angel's my friend." I hope. "What would have I missed out on if I hadn't changed my mind about that?"

"Oh." Buffy gulped. "That's good." She closed her open mouth with a snap. "Who are you? And what have you done with Wesley?"

Wesley grinned, and again, Buffy frowned with concentration. Damn. There's got to be a mark where they cloned him and gave him a personality, she thought. Where would that be? Someplace where there's hair. Ugh. Aside from which, she'd never seen Wes grin before. He'd always had the tight smile of some prissy dowager, afraid of showing off those facelift scars. Now he grinned, and all sorts of character lines appeared; much-traveled smiles lines at eyes and mouth, obviously often-used. She shook her head at her own astonishment. You're shocked, little Miss I'm-Sleeping-With-My-Ex-Mortal-Enemy?

"So, um," Buffy said. "You guys planning on sticking around?"

More glances were exchanged, except in Spike's case; he twitched again, and looked around as if scanning the ceiling for leaks. "Well, obviously, we have to find Angel." Wes said.

"Why did he come with?" Buffy asked curiously, ignoring yet another massive flinch from Spike.

"Well, he's either really drunk or really hungover." Lorne said. "I thought the Irish were supposed to be able to hold their liquor."

"Well, it helps it they don't drink enough to..." Spike drawled, then had a coughing attack as Buffy turned to look at him.

Buffy looked from face to face, wondering what she was missing. Coming to get Lorne, she thought. So, here he is, come get him. And Angel? Not exactly his style, but she'd never once seen him drink, either. A sharp pang cut through her, at the thought of all the things she didn't know, all the things she hadn't known, thanks to the curse.

She glanced at Spike. Was it fair to compare the two? Spike felt her gaze and met her eyes, and the rest of the room spun away. It wasn't fair to compare the two, but she kept coming back to that last glimpse of Angel as he walked out of her life, the way her legs turned to water beneath her from the pain. Contrast that with Spike, beaten almost to death, and determined that she never know. Why was it that two such different memories made her feel exactly the same way? Much as she didn't allow herself to remember that moment with Angel, she also didn't allow herself to think about that moment in Spike's crypt, either.

"So," she said brightly. "I'm going to take a shower. Now. That. Spike. Is. Done. With. All. The. Water." Spike winced again, and compensated for it by overacting.

"Oh. Sorry about that, Slayer. Just let it built up. Had to do it all at once. Laundry. Not used to. Ah. Things. Laundry." He specified. Then they both looked around to see if anybody was buying it.

"I'm going to go take a shower." Buffy announced again, in case anyone had missed the previous bulletin.

"Oh, hell." Spike said.

"What?"

"Well, it's just that it's been a while since I got to see Angel drunk, and I'd really like to enjoy it while it lasts. But, no, go right ahead, Slayer..."

"What?!"

"No, go ahead."

God, he would have to get all flirtatious now, she thought. She reasserted reality with a yank. "Well, maybe if somebody hadn't almost used up all the hot water..."

"Go."

She went, dying to know what was going to be said when she left.

Spike waited till her footsteps were all the way up the stairs before he got up and dumped his coffee in the sink. Wes groaned, and handed his across, as did Lorne, with a sigh. "Lovely girl, and I'm sure she's wonderful as a Slayer, but really, some people should not be allowed near the coffee filter." An examination of the coffee machine produced a groan and an additional comment. "Actually, someone should just plain introduce her to a coffee filter. What the hell was that, fertilizer?"

Spike leaned against the counter, and glanced around, anywhere but at the other two. Wes looked down at his hands. Lorne swiveled from one to the other, back and forth, like he was watching a tennis match, then finally gave an explosive sigh and spread his hands with eloquent impatience. "So? How are things?"

Spike glared at him. "Well... Ah... Things.... Ah....."

Lorne studied him, then slowly, gently, smiled. "Young love." He said dryly.

Spike avoided his eyes. Something about discussing Buffy in her own kitchen made him cringe. "Did you two talk?"

"Yes, we did."

Spike fidgeted, unwilling to meet the other demon's eyes. "So... ah...?"

"Can't tell you that."

"You can't. You can't? Whaddaya mean, you can't?"

"No, I'm like a priest."

"A priest wearing lime-green linen?" Spike blurted out.

"Besides, my friend, I don't think there's any doubt now."

Something about Lorne's obvious assumption irritated Spike, even though it happened to be true. Like talking about Buffy in her own kitchen, it just didn't seem right. "I was doing laundry." He lied stiffly. Worse yet, he knew he was stiff, and it made him irritable. Not a fun lie, he thought. What happened to all the fun lies?

"Isn't that sweet?" Lorne demanded of Wes, who was once again eyeing his hands. Lorne nudged him for a response. "I said, and I quote, 'Isn't that sweet?"

"Yes," Wes said quietly. "It is."

"You're afraid I'm going to make you say 'sweet', aren't you?"

"What?"

"You're afraid I'm going to make you say sweet, a word that most men are pathologically incapable of saying. If you keep being gloomy, I will, no doubt about it."

"No... I'm just concerned about Angel."

"Yeah, maybe he'll get a sunburn." Spike scrubbed at his hair again.

"Well, he's not in the best shape, admittedly, but..." Wes frowned and studied his own hands again, afraid they'd see his trepidation on his face. How to put into words his suspicion about Angel's drunkenness, the fear it aroused in him, the memory? Long forgotten, or suppressed, came the vision of his father, drunk, calculating, putting into action while intoxicated all the spiteful things he said while sober. It was always the alcohol that was to blame, never him. And now he couldn't help but wonder at Angel's behavior. His insistence on coming here, his unshakeable belief that he could get information out of Buffy, made Wes wonder if in fact he could just grab Angel and get him out of Sunnydale before real trouble started.

How much did Angel remember of that incident with that actress? Wes thought, and shuddered. He realized that Lorne and Spike were both staring at him curiously. "What?"

"You're off in Never-Never Land, Watcher." Spike said. "Thinking of her?"

"No, Angel." Wes said without thinking.

"Ah." Spike stiffened at that. "First and foremost in our hearts, isn't he?" He scrounged around in the fridge, and did, in fact, find a beer. "Gotta make sure he fulfills his destiny."

"Well, at this point," Wes said dryly, "I'd just be happy if he'd sober up. If he had to retain some human characteristics, it would have been nice if they'd been useful ones."

"Oh, now that was evil." Spike smirked at him approvingly. "Which ones are those?"

"He was sick all the way up here."

"Bad?"

"Awful. Now, stop it, Spike, this is beneath you." Spike was clearing his throat repeatedly in an effort not to laugh. "It was terrible."

"For you, yes, I'm certain it was....How bad was he sick?"

"Really, no, he's my employee, it would be terrible if I talked about my employees behind their backs."

"Even after they committed grand theft auto?" Lorne pointed out.

"There are still standards..." Wes protested.

"Was he in pain?"

"Stop it, Spike."

"Oh, indulge me a bit, would you? I never get to have any bloody fun at all. Well, except for the occasional demon hunt, that sort of thing..."

"Demon?" Lorne said suspiciously.

"Bad demons." Spike amended. "Never pick on things their own size, if you ask me. Then they always whine when I take exception to it..." He took another swig of the beer, staring at his boots with ill-concealed disgust. "Once there was this time, Buffy and I, we're patrolling and...What?" Both Lorne and Wesley were giving him puzzled looks.

Spike, Wes thought, not even aware of it. A vampire patrolling with the Slayer. How come love turned some... creatures... noble and reduced others to pettiness? And which group was he himself in?

"Yeah, what?" Buffy said from the doorway, all pink and flushed from the shower.

"Spike was just discussing your patrols with us."

"Well, huh." Buffy said, scrubbing at her hair with the towel. "You know, I was thinking too....."

Just the tone of her voice made Spike nervous. I was thinking was a female code phrase, and he'd known that even as a clueless Victorian virgin. The only more-feared phrase in the English language was, "We have to talk."

Buffy tossed the towel over the back of the chair, and crossed her arms over her chest. "Well, you know, Spike had this big errand he had to run to LA. And he wouldn't tell me what it was. The next thing I know, you guys show up. With Angel. So what's going on?"

Three males, if not exactly men, froze at the tone of her voice, each face startled into the immobility of fear. One of them was a green demon from another dimension, one of them was human, and one of them was a vampire, but all of them looked like they'd just been caught at the cookie jar with full hands.

Buffy eyed each face expectantly, looking for the first one to crack. She tapped her foot for an added extra dollap of suspense, and watched all three of them cringe and gulp at once. "What's the big....?"

The phone rang.

Buffy swore under her breath, Spike suddenly breaking into a grin behind her. That's my girl, he thought. I never even knew she knew that word. She made a disgusted sound and stomped into the dining room, while the guilty trio huddled their heads together and tried to come up with an alibi.

"What are you doing here?" Spike hissed.

"Angel noticed petty cash was missing..."

"Why didn't you just tell him to..?"

"Because he was all hungover, I thought he was going to have an episode!"

"An episode of what?" Lorne interjected. Vampire and Watcher both glared at him.

"One of those... episodes."

"Oh, like where he set Dru on fire? One of those little episodes?"

"Well, not exactly..."

"Well, what bloody exactly, then?"

The phone slammed down and Buffy stomped back into the kitchen. "We have to go."

"What's going on?" Wes tried to look as innocent as possible, but now Buffy looked rather suspicious.

"Somebody's been watching way too much Charleton Heston." Buffy sighed. "Frogs, toads all over the place, they're hitting every Radioshack in town. "



Chapter 36

Driving was ordinarily a good thing, but he noticed that driving in this case led to motion, and motion was bad. For several whole seconds, he'd been quite cheerful, quite pleased with himself, but then his stomach informed his head that both had been abused and revolt was necessary. Since his wastrel days, he hadn't done much drinking, and besides, vampires more or less lost the ability to deal with solid food early on. Alcohol, therefore, was traumatic. If he'd been chugging down anti-freeze, he couldn't have felt worse, although he very likely would not have had as bad of a hangover. Ah, the ironies of vampire existence. Although his stomach didn't like food, it could handle just about anything and survive. Spike, once upon a time, had gone about trying all kinds of liquid experiments to find out what he could survive. Pity I stopped him that time, Angel thought. He peered through the three whirling windshields in front of him, and decided the middle one seemed like the best bet. He slowly puttered over to the side of the street, and sagged over onto the passenger side seat.

Oh, God, this is bad.

He was lying in the most twisted position possible. Not that it mattered or anything, because he was dead; it just felt like he wasn't dead enough. It's not as if this position was a surprise, either; he'd been doing this for quite some time now, falling over onto the seat, wanting to die, realizing he was already dead and that there wasn't much more he could do about it. After several minutes' recuperation, he'd be perking up in the most inexplicable way and setting off again.

He couldn't remember the last time he'd been this drunk; it was very possible he'd still been human at the time. Funny how this hangover felt worse. No tolerance any more, he thought, with the pride of the ex addict. No tolerance left at all.

Strangely enough, this had once been fun. So many things had been fun. Stay up all night in some club in Montmartre, watch the silly men and their sillier girls, getting drunk on fizzy champagne chosen solely on its ability to match their clothes. Hell, it had been too much fun to kill them, when you could just sip their blood a bit, sample the vintage so to speak, then stagger back home, tipsy with the excitement of it all. No hangovers then, hadn't even been necessary to kill, not with all the pretty girls agog over his size and his build. He twisted over on his back and stared at the roof of the car. Those were the days, indeed, even better than his human days. Humanity meant hangovers and consequences.

Like sex, for example. Nothing more fun than sex. Nothing. But back in his human era, it had been actively dangerous, not to mention, well, shortcomings in the protection department. He was fairly certain he'd not have outlived his father, not with the pox. He knew for a fact Darla would have died of syphilis if the Master hadn't have turned her. Yes, definitely an upside in getting turned.

All the drinking he'd done as a human had never done more than provide a temporary escape from his father, and all that ridiculous guilt he had felt at being such a wastrel. All the beatings from the old man, all the disapproval, and he had been the one to feel the guilt, not his father. The old bastard had never once shown him anything more than contempt, and he had had every right to try and escape with the only methods available to him. The girls he'd deflowered, the ones he'd given the diseases to, the ones he'd impregnated, those had long been forgotten. So now, two hundred years later, why did he suddenly remember?

He'd been running from guilt as a man and a vampire, and all it seemed at this moment, was as a vampire he had more strength to resist it. It wasn't supposed to have worked out like that.

Like the whole deal with sex, for example. No consequences, no pregnancies, no diseases...but Darla had neglected to mention the bluntness of it, the numbing of the body. Something was lacking in it, and in all the centuries he'd been a vampire, he'd never gotten close to what it had been like, close to the worst sex he'd ever had, as a drunk and a man. Until Buffy. One brief moment in an innocent girl's arms, and he'd been a man again, ever fiber of him alive, and then it had not only been gone, it had been shattered.

He swallowed, staring up at the ceiling. Should drink more often. Even with Spike as the impetus. Spike. It just wasn't fair. Spike was his grandchild, and the bastard managed to dance circles around him when he felt like it. The fact that he seldom felt like it was another careless slap in the face, because it obviously wasn't a challenge for the bastard. Becoming a vampire had been the latest in a long series of disappointments for him; for Spike, it had been a coup. Drunk or sober, he managed to say things Angel knew he himself could have a hope of managing only after study, cramming, and an exam. The worst of it was, he saw flashes of the dolts they had both been as human, but on Spike it became something suspiciously close to humanity, and on him, it became righteousness. He'd been a vampire more than two hundred years, and even that wasn't enough to keep him from turning into his father.

He patted his head gingerly. More than anything, he needed a clear head to figure out what was going on, and he was still so sick he feared that wasn't possible. He wanted to look Spike in his beady little eyes when he asked him a few questions. The questions were so absurd, though, that that shock might almost make Spike honest. He snorted at his own paranoia. Spike in love with Buffy!

He rolled over on his side, and a bolt of lightning scorched through his head. Ah, not yet, then. He chuckled at the thought of Spike in love with Buffy; it was almost as much fun as picturing him in love with one of the lesbians. Buffy could never love him. He didn't often allow himself to remember the other night The Powers That Be had granted him with Buffy, but he kept that memory safe, like a relic. For two hundred years, even the feel of sex had been somehow muffled, and but that one night...He had never had, nor ever would again, he knew, have a night like that with any one else, and the fact that Buffy could never know it had happened made him all the more determined to protect its memory.

Grimly, he pulled himself into an upright position. Time to do something.

Unfortunately, this turned out to be getting sick.

He shoved open the passenger side door, noted that at least the car was parked in the shade of some commercial building, and miserably endured the nausea. Wondeful, just wonderful. Finished, he lay limply across the seat, and tried to figure out what building he was in front of. "THE MAG -- "

Reading made his sodden brain cells hurt even worse than just thinking. He weakly shut the door and passed out.



Wes sat at the table and checked his watch while Lorne checked his nails. Both of them swore softly under their breaths. In a way, the delay was a good thing, because Spike had not yet found out the fate of his car, but in another way, it was bad, because Wes didn't much care for frogs, and didn't want anybody else to find that out. There was also the whole Angel dilemma, but he had been so hungover that Wes had stopped being concerned once he'd seen how sick Angel really had been. It was the Angel that lurked between intoxication and hangover that worried him, and he hoped feverently that wherever Angel was with the car, he was still terribly sick.

Although he did feel rather badly for Spike if that were the case.

Next time, go to a temp agency, he counseled himself.

Buffy had grabbed a bag and packed it full of stakes and weapons five minutes ago, then disappeared upstairs for a mysterious phone call, evidently to Willow, before vanishing into the bathroom. This had left Spike, Wes, and Lorne exchanging bewildered glances over the kitchen table, until Spike felt guilty and scrounged up two additional beers. He finished his first, then sighed manfully, and with every appearance of great reluctance, had headed up the stairs to pry Buffy out of her realm. There had been the sort of suspicious silence since then that indicted whispered conversation, and if Wes hadn't figured out the situation before hand, the bathroom issue would have done it for him. The bathroom was the inner sanctum, and no woman allowed a man in it during any part of her toilette unless they were very intimate indeed.

He got up and tiptoed out into the hall, hoping for sounds of progress. All he heard was that suspicious silence instead. He sighed. Lorne raised one eyebrow at him. "Can't you just go knock on the door?"

"Well, ah..."

"Wesley?"

"What?"

"Have you gone through puberty?"

Wesley just gave him a very adult sigh that indicated, entirely by accident, that yes, in fact, he had gone through puberty, had gone through it very fast indeed, and had come out barely noticing. Hm. Lorne ran down a mental list of the prettiest demons he knew and wondered what he could do. Phone numbers? Accidental meetings? Lock them in a room? There was no way an adult man should be that squeamish. He pushed around Wes and cocked his ear at the stairs. "Slayer!"

There was a pause, then, that really put the nail in the coffin on the whole bathroom theory. "Yes?"

"Are you ready yet? Because evil's afoot in Sunnydale, and I don't need any more warts. Or to be declared Queen of the Frog Festival or something gauche like that, so could you get a move on?"

There was the sound of Buffy clearing her throat, then Spike clearing his throat, then the bathroom door opening. Both Lorne and Wes looked rather startled at the visible lack of ripped buttons and disarranged clothes. After all, Lorne thought, how are we supposed to live vicariously?

"Brushing teeth." Buffy said sheepishly.

"Flossing." Spike added.

"Yes." Wes said briskly. "I'll go get the car." He looked from Buffy to Spike and back again. "And Lorne will come with me."

"I will?" Lorne looked around for confirmation. "Oh. Then, I will. Here goes."

Buffy and Spike watched the front door close, and then she smacked his stomach. "Flossing?!"

"Well, sort of." He grinned at her. "Don't know why you wear those things, although they are sort of cute."

"Well, I'm not wearing one now, am I?"

He slid his arms around her waist and pulled her against him, not kissing her, just giving her one of his wicked looks, chin down, blinking up at her through his eyelashes. "Just think, Slayer," he whispered. "Never know when, never know how.... He slid his hands down till he was cupping her bottom, lifting her against him. She wriggled to get away, but the wriggling made the seam of her jeans move around, and she finally jerked out of his grip with a gasp. He grinned at her and she summoned up her Look of Pissed-Offedness Number 17, which Spike recognized. His smirk softened all at once. This was not the pissed-off look she directed at Dawn; that was different. She had a whole repertoire of them, and this was the one reserved for male-type people who pissed her off in such a way that she had to bat her eyelashes at them furiously while sticking out her lower lip. He hooked a finger in her waistband and pulled her in for a kiss. The sound of the door opening made them both jump back. Wes shook his head for a moment and wondered why they even bothered. Buffy was clutching at the newel post with tense casualness and Spike had his hands jammed so far in his pockets he could probably pull his socks up. They both looked like they'd each just received a massive unexpected electrical shock.

"We're ready,now. Car's out front in the shade."

"No offense, Watcher," Spike said, 'but I'll take my own." He pulled on his coat, and found himself facing two statues. Wes looked away at Buffy; Buffy looked at the floor. "What's wrong with you two? Let's go."

"Uh, we're going with Wesley." Buffy said.

"No, we're not, I'm driving my own car."

"You didn't tell him?"

Buffy looked from one to the other and spread her hands out. "Spike, there's kind of a problem with your car..."

With that, he stepped to the door, and yanked it open furiously, so annoyed he forget to check the time. He had to flinch out of the way of the setting sun's rays, and mentally blamed that momentary loss of cool on Angel, as well. Bastard. Street. Angel's convertible parked right in front of the house, Lorne smoking a cigarette while leaning casually against the front. He maneuvered around the softening sunlight to get a look in the other direction. What was missing from this picture?

Oh, no, he thought. I did not get turned, become a vampire, suffer Angel's yapping for a century, and endure disco in order to find out that vampires are subject to towing laws. No, absolutely not. I am a supernatural being, not some bloody frat boy with expired tags. Absolutely bloody not.

"Where," he hissed, "is my bloody car?"

"We don't know." Buffy said quietly.

"Did it get towed?"

"No."

No? She knew? "Well, then, what did happen?"

"Uh, we're not sure."

Abruptly something clicked in Spike's head. "Where's Angel?" He took another look at Angel's car, trying to find out if from his elevated vantage point on the porch if he could see the miserable lump somewhere inside. Nothing. He rounded on them triumphantly. "He took it, didn't he?"

Wes and Buffy exchanged looks. "Uh, we don't know for sure."

He turned and looked at them both almost pityingly. "Please, people. If you know someone who would kidnap Angel, let me know, because I've been trying to find someone to get that poofter off my hands for ages. He took my bloody car." He shook his head, lighting a cigarette with an expert snap of his wrist. "Right, then." He grinned sharkishly at both of them. "Then I guess I'll have to take his, then, won't I?"



The only thing worse than stepping unexpectedly on a frog was stepping on one unexpectedly in the dark. Willow shrieked and jumped up mid stride without ever actually touching the ground, thereby violating the laws of God and man, but at least saving another little froggie's life. Behind her back, Tara and Dawn both rolled their eyes. Sure, the little buggers were sort of cute. Sure, they were helpless and didn't deserve their fate. On the other hand, that had been blocks ago, and the whole, 'frogs are cute, we can't hurt them,' thing in combination with the mysterious 'I must meet my source'charade was starting to wear thin. Dawn wanted to get to Janice's, and Tara suspected she needed to get back to the store before there were any uncomfortable silences. There'd been too much unexpected goodness today to not expect the arrival of the proverbial other shoe.

Willow stopped abruptly and held up one hand for silence. She was looking intently down an alleyway, and must've seen something neither of them did, because she made whirling motions with her hand, and took off stealthily down the alley.

"Ew," Dawn said. "What's this?"

"My source." Willow hesitated before a recessed doorway where a shadow lurked in the darkness. "I'm here. Come on out."

There was the sound of a throat clearing, then a muffled voice answered. "I can't reveal my identity."

Willow reached into the shadows and yanked out...Jonathon. He was wearing a black fedora that hung down over his ears, and a black trenchcoat that hung past his ankles and probably went around him twice. With the waist bunched up by the belt, it almost looked like some sort of bulky dress. He blinked at the three of them. "Hey!" He looked at Tara and Dawn, both of whom were wearing identical disapproving expressions, over seriously pissed-off crossed-arm body language. "You were supposed to come alone!"

"Oh, please, Deep Throat." Willow scoffed. She eyed his outfit skeptically, but kept her comments to herself. "So what's with all the phone calls? How come you know about this before anybody else does?"

"Well, it could be me, you know." Jonathon said defensively. "I know a lot of these guys that got turned into frogs."

"Uh, yeah, I'm sure you're doing this out of the goodness of your heart. Did Warren do this?"

"Not exactly." Willow leaned over him menacingly. "Well, it's true."

"So...?"

"It's a demon." Jonathon said. "We, uh, found a demon."

The three girls looked at each other. "And where did you put this demon?" Willow asked softly.

Jonathon snorted at her. "I'm not going to tell you where our lair is! We have all sorts of Sta -- secret stuff there."

Willow stepped forward and grabbed him by the oversized lapels. "Where is this demon, Jonathon?"

"Oh, please." He wriggled free and Willow tried to make it look like she'd let him. "Besides, she's not even there any more. She escaped."

She escaped, Willow thought. Sort of made it sound like there'd been something to escape from. These three geeks capturing a demon? "She?" She said suddenly. "She? What kind of demon was it?"

"I don't know!" He shrank back against the wall. "One minute she just looked like a girl -- a woman—"He added hastily as all three glared at him, "And the next minute, she had this awful face on." He cringed at the look all three girls gave him. "I—I have to go."

"Yeah, tell your mom 'hi,' " Willow called absently. Jonathon, coat flapping, thudded off to the sound of trenchcoat flopping around on his body.

"Do you think it could be Hallie?" Tara asked.

"Yeah, I bet it is. And she must be really pissed." Willow thought about it for a minute. "You know, we could kill two birds with one stone here. Hallie's really pissed at the Trio, the trio have been doing all kinds of stuff, and...."

"And," Tara sighed. "That means we have to go back and tell Buffy."

And Janice, Dawn thought happily.

Wearily, they turned back and headed back toward the store. "Hey, great." Willow said. "There's Spike's car. Buffy's here already." She looked down at Dawn. "We can get to Janice's on time after all."

Very much relieved, they poked their heads inside the door. "Buffy?"

"She's not here." Anya said.

"Well, Spike's car is here..." Tara started to explain, then watched Xander's face tighten as the implication hit him. "So we thought they were here."

"They're supposed to be finding Hallie." Anya said sullenly.

"I'm sure they're looking." Willow said cheerfully. "But now we have a very big clue."



Chapter 37

"We actually have more than a clue," Tara said. She pulled Willow out of the store onto the sidewalk, nodding at the car parked there. "We have a problem, too."

"Well, like... what?"

Tara nodded again at the car, lowering her voice to a whisper. "They're not, uh, in the store, are they?"

Willow's eyes got very big. "Oh, my God. Right here?" She looked at the vehicle with distaste. "You don't really think...?"

"I don't know, but why aren't they in the store?"

"Maybe they just couldn't... Oh. Oh. Don't wanna go there, definitely not." Willow grimaced. "Look, let's be adult about this. These things happen. I'll just... knock."

"Knock?"

"Yeah. So there." She squared her shoulders and marched over to the vehicle. Arching her body as far away from it as possible so that there was actual daylight between her and the car, she knocked on the window. Nothing. She did it again. There was a loud groan from inside, and the two girls started, then whirled and dashed into the store, slamming the door behind them. Anya looked up from the cash register, Dawn looked up from her magazine (Young Wicca) and Xander looked up from the phone book he was flipping through in a vain effort to find a listing for demons. "Uh." Willow said frantically. "Well, here's the thing..." She glanced desperately at Tara.

"We... uh..." Tara looked around for help.

"Yeah, we, uh..."

"Did, you, uh, find Spike and Buffy?" Xander asked. "Seeing as how they're joined at the hip these days?"

This produced guilty looks between the two witches. Maybe he should've said pelvis, Willow thought. Oh, God, gonna wash my mind out with soap, now. "No, not exactly." Willow said carefully. "But! Hey! We found a clue!"

"For...?" Any asked.

"For Hallie!" Willow exclaimed excitedly. "We know who took her!"



I should have figured this out when he didn't put up a fight about not driving, Buffy thought. In the front seat, Wes drove, and Lorne looked out the window. Spike, hidden under a blanket over her lap, pressed his face to her stomach and generally made it impossible to think clearly, coherently, or of much of anything except the way his tongue periodically felt in her bellybutton. Damn low-rise jeans. She should have been suspicious when he laid his head in her lap; but no, she'd actually liked it. Under the blanket, she ran her fingers through his hair, and not until he captured her hand and sucked her middle finger into his mouth did she realize she was in trouble.

The problem was, it wasn't that sexy of a gesture if you just thought about it, but the way he did it made her feel all empty and dizzy, as if her stomach had dropped suddenly to the bottom of an elevator shaft and left her behind. He nipped just a little at her finger, sucking it slowly, thoroughly, using his tongue so slightly that she automatically wanted more, and when she finally thought, Oh, my God, that' s what he does to my..! she turned so red she had to roll the window down. Wes and Lorne kept their eyes focused right out of the car, and didn't appear to notice when she gave him a half-hearted smack under the blanket. It was almost dark now, and it was almost safe for him to come out, something he obviously didn't want to do. But the creeping darkness provided even more cover, and he took the hand she'd smacked him with, and pressed it first to his mouth, giving the palm a delicate little lick in promise of things to come, then pressed it between his thighs. Despite herself, she couldn't bring herself to move away, instead stroking him and tracing curves and bulges over and over again with the slightest of movements till he finally grabbed her wrist and stopped her. One blue eye peered at her from under the blanket, and a pleasant little tendril of heat curled from her bellybutton straight down between her legs.

The car stopped at a red light and Buffy carefully avoided Wes' eyes in the mirror. The sounds of traffic...and frogs...seemed to come from very far away. She folded her hands in her lap and tried to think about amphibians. Spike had one arm under her legs and now he shifted it under her till his hand was between her legs, tickling her right where she most definitely did not want it, at least not right now. He'd snipped her thong off in the bathroom with one expert flick and the seam of her jeans had been driving her crazy ever since they'd gotten in the car. Now, he stroked her with one light fingertip, and she remembered his crotch under her hand, and didn't feel embarrassed at all. He traced back and forth over denim, breathing lightly on her bellybutton as she stared out the window and tried to keep her thoughts and sensations from her face. Oh, God, right here?

"Excuse me, huh?" She said suddenly.

"There's the Magic Box," Wes said suddenly. He paused, peering out the window -- "And there's Spike's car! Guess we know where Angel is."

"Huh?" Spike said thickly. He sat up abruptly, clutching the blanket with both hands. This allowed him to conceal from the men what he revealed to Buffy with an intense look that made her shiver: the fact that he had an erection. He turned around so that he was facing her and away from them, and still managed to get her hand between his legs one more time. This time, though, she left it there, safe in the knowledge that neither Wes nor Lorne could see. Spike glanced out the window and then turned a long, intent look back on her. Finally she dropped her hand, and he settled back against the seat, his coat casually draped over his lap. She didn't dare look at him again

Wes pulled up behind the black DeSoto and parked the car, exchanging slightly worried looks with everyone. "Spike, Buffy, you'd better stay here. I just want to see, ah, what kind of mood he's in."

"Okay." Buffy whispered.

"I'll, ah, I'll help." Lorne said.

She was almost disappointed when Spike contented himself with tracing lines on her shoulder, his breath cool on her hot skin. "Sure, that's a big help now." She hissed skeptically.

"I'll help you later." He breathed, and she swallowed.

"How much later?" Then she looked at him, trying to be irritated, but failing when she saw the look on his face; he was studying her with almost predatory intensity, smiling just a bit when he found her looking back. His expression didn't fill her with a lot of hope of getting much sleep, but it made her shiver just a bit.

He smiled at her, one of those smiles only she got, the ones that started at the crinkles at his eyes, and sometimes even made it as far as his mouth.

"Ah, Spike?" Wes asked uncomfortably. "I think we might need your help."

Spike shook his head at her, then reached over and pushed open the door and climbed out. She noticed the effortless way he somehow kept his coat over his lap and wondered how she herself looked. "What's the problem, gentlemen?"

Wes stood by the open car door and looked in. Buffy came around him on the sidewalk and looked in. And blinked.

Angel. Drunk, evidently, because she could smell it from where she stood, three feet away. This was something she'd never seen.

"Uh... Why is he drunk?"

"Ah, well, long story, pet." Spike said hurriedly. "Let's get him out of there and into his own car, shall we?" He grimaced at something on the sidewalk. "At least before he gets sick again."

"Hey, I know." Buffy said. "Why don't Wes and Lorne do that, and you tell me what happened?"

"Uh, now, love, you know...."

The door to the store opened, and Xander looked out, frowning as he recognized everyone, then glaring at Buffy and Spike. "What the hell....?"

"Uh, Xander, what is your problem?" Buffy asked. "Cranky much?"

"Well, I think it's understandable, being cranky, when Spike's car's been there for... how long?"

Willow and Tara poked their heads out, too, goggling at Angel sprawled on the front seat of Spike's car. They each looked around, trying to avoid each other's eyes, but when they glanced at each other, both burst out laughing. Lorne glanced back at them curiously, then caught Xander's annoyed look, and Buffy's desperate-trying-not-to-be-here look. "One big happy family," He said sardonically. "So tell me, kids, how long has Angel cakes been baking out here?"

"We noticed the car earlier." Willow said.

"Yeah, after we came back from the meeting with Deep Throat." Dawn said. She danced around behind the girls and Xander, trying to see around them. Wes and Spike had grabbed Angel by the hands and were pulling him out of the car like sausage out of its casing, and finally Xander stepped forward with a sigh. "Jeez, is he heavy!" He grunted, and then all three, two humans and one vampire, collapsed under Angel's dead weight. The minute he hit the pavement, his eyes snapped open, and everyone took a jump back. There was a confused moment while people who happened to be men wriggled and clambered to their feet and brushed themselves off as far as possible from other individuals of the male persuasion. By the time he was done swiping at his clothes, Xander was practically in the doorway. "Well, looks like Daddy's home." Spike alone looked more disgusted than startled, snapping a match alight to his ever-present cigarette.

Angel blinked up at the ring of faces peering down at him, and tried not to think that alcohol made people a lot uglier. He clambered to his feet, his head throbbing, and looked around till his bleary eyes found Buffy.

"Buffy."

"Angel." She said quietly.. Oh, boy, I can just tell this is going to be bad, she thought.

"Can we talk?"

"Sure, but why did you steal Spike's car? I'm just curious here."

"Oh." Why was she asking such an embarrassing question in front of her friends? Was she trying to make him look bad? "I was really really drunk."

"Are, you, ah, sure you're not still intoxicated?" Anya said from the doorway. "Because I can smell it from here."

"Well, I don't feel really good," Angel said dryly.

"Which is consistent, because your appearance isn't very attractive, either." Xander's head swiveled between Anya and Angel, genuinely confused as to whose side he was supposed to be on. Everyone turned to look at Anya, and she beamed, pleased at having said something accurate.

"Look, we really need to talk." Angel said.

"Well, sure, but why couldn't you have called me? What's so important?"

"Look, I need to talk to you now."

"Buff..." Spike started to say. "...y the Slayer,"he finished lamely. "Can I say something first?" Now everyone's head swiveled in his direction. Buffy looked around and counted those heads.

"Yeah, that's a good idea." Angel said. "I'm sure he's got a really good explanation for how all the petty cash disappeared from my office."

Buffy turned a furious look on Spike and grabbed his arm. He stared at her, a wounded look on his face, before she yanked him into the alley a short distance from the door of the shop. Once safely out of sight of the Scoobies, he turned on her with something like despair on his face, but didn't get a word out as she grabbed him and slammed him against the wall and kissed him hungrily. "Doing that to me in the car," She muttered angrily. He pulled away from her and looked down at her.

"What?" She demanded.

"Are you going to ask?"

"Oh, that? Yeah, what's going on?"

"Huh?" Spike shook his head at her. "Are you going to be mad at me?"

"You mean, mad-er?"

"Was is that bad in the car?"

"Yes. Now you're stalling."

"Sure." He stepped forward, eyeing her seductively. He slipped his hands into her back pockets and lifted, pulling her up against him abruptly. "I almost forgot to ask, how does it feel getting older?"

"You're the old fart around here, maybe I should ask you?" He was delaying, and it was starting to bug her, because she'd given him a huge out and it evidently wasn't enough. He released her, touching her chin with one fingertip, sliding along the line of her jaw to the tender spot by her ear, down the collarbone he pressed his head against sometimes when he came shuddering to a stop inside her, and continuing to the upper slope of one breast. With the barest of touches, he traced a trail down to one suddenly hardened nipple, then skidded down the soft bottom curve of one breast to her bellybutton, where he toyed with her innie by swirling his fingertip delicately inside it. Last but not least, he traced the fly of her jeans down to the seam and stroked there with exquisite lightness, not even touching her enough to intensify the sudden hungry tension there. "Feels pretty good." He said quietly. "What do you think?"

"Nice try. One the rare day that I don't give you enough rope to hang yourself, you have to go and...?"

He sighed. "You're going to be mad."

"I will if you keep stalling like this."

"Here." He reached into both pockets and started pulling out huge wads of cash, practically tossing them at her in his eagerness to get rid of them. She scooped them up, holding them to her breasts, staring at him, blank-faced. "What did you do?"

"I figured I could get Angel drunk off his ass and then take his money, but Wesley decided he could use me so he gave me all this."

"You wanted money all of a sudden?"

"For you."

"For...?"

"Can't stand watching you work at that place." He said quietly, not meeting her eyes. He tossed the half-smoked cigarette aside because it gave him a chance not to look at her. "Kills me, it does, even though I'm already dead, makes me die again, seein' you have to suck up to those bastards for minimum bloody wage when you've saved the fucking world four or five... times." He stopped suddenly, abashed.

"You...?" Buffy's face was completely, utterly blank.

"Whatever he's telling you, it's a lie." Angel said suddenly.

Spike and Buffy both looked at him stupidly for a minute. Spike pulled out another cigarette just to have something to toss aside, but Buffy caught his arm, just a half a second before realizing there wasn't anything worse she could have done. Angel just stared at her hand on his arm, his face full of the sort of bad temper some people get from drinking. Had she known it, she was looking at the same face that had scared Wesley earlier. "How would you know?" She said quietly. "It's been two years since you were around. How would you know what's true or not?"

"What?! Are you defending Spike?" His hands clenched into fists, and Buffy's eyes flew to them. Even drunk, Angel noticed that and consciously relaxed himself. Later would be good. Later he'd have enough time. "God, what did he tell you?"

"Well, you know, Angel, at least he's around to tell me things." Buffy snapped. "I thought it was really nice the way you kept in touch after I came back."

Angel flinched. "Look, Buffy, I'm sorry, but..."

"But?"

"But why are you defending him when he's tried to kill you all those times? When he cleared out my petty cash? You don't actually...Oh, God. Oh, God." He sagged against the wall. "You're not... He's not.... You..."

"Why is that your business?"

"Because he's Spike!"

"And here I thought he was the Lost Backstreet Boy." Spike rolled his eyes at that. Some things were too evil even to joke about. Not funny, he mouthed at her.

"All right, then, why is it not my business and my business alone? Why is it your business?"

"Because you don't know him like I do." Angel said grimly.

"Maybe," Buffy said quietly, "You don't know him like I know him." She crossed her arms. "I'm still trying to figure out why after two years it's your business. What about you, Angel? You haven't exactly been sending me reports on your life. What have you been doing? I want to know everything. Then maybe we can talk about how Spike saved my life and Dawn's life while you cared so much about me those two years that you didn't bother to call."

"Cordy's got a baby." Spike spoke up. Both of them glared at him. "Well, catching up on gossip and all..." He ran his hands through his hair again.

"Is everybody in LA trying to keep me in the dark?" Buffy burst out. "I talked to Cordy, why wouldn't she tell me that? I'd have sent a card. Unlike some people," she added darkly.

"Buffy, it's complicated."

"I bet it is." She said grimly. "It's just that whenever stuff gets complicated, you disappear. And if that's not bad enough, you tell me it's for my own good."

Angel flinched. "That might be true, Buffy, but he still stole all that money. What's he going to use that for?"

"Ah, excuse me." Wes poked his head through the entrance reluctantly. "Couldn't help but overhear. Uh, that's not correct, Angel. I gave that to him. As a retainer."

"A... retainer? Spike? For what?"

"Well, with Buffy being so overloaded with responsibilities, it seems to me it would be a good idea to have someone here in Sunnydale who could keep us posted on activities here. And elsewhere." He finished lamely. "Besides, I gave him a receipt." He glared into Spike's eyes. "Didn't. I. Spike. I. Gave. You. A. Receipt."

"No, you didn't, mate, you said it was...Oh. Fuck, yeah, lost the bugger. Horrible with little slips of paper, always think they're for my fags, then realize they. Were. Ah. Important." He looked away to avoid seeing the reaction to his Grade Z acting job.

"See?" Wes said. "Retainer."

"Well, if you don't like Wes giving out retainers, Angel," Buffy said helpfully, "It just seems to me you should discuss that with your staff, not with me."

"Ah." Wes said regretfully again. Angel glared at him. "You see, Buffy, that' s changed as well."

"What?"

"I don't work for Angel anymore. He works for me."

Buffy glared at everyone impartially. Then she took the money, and stuffed it back in Spike's pockets. "I need to talk to Angel alone. Go talk about frogs or something."

When they were alone, she uncrossed her arms, recrossed them, and cocked her head at him. "So? You wanted to talk? Talk. Why is Wes the Boss man now? And if you really want to be part of my life in some capacity, you'd better tell me the truth."

Angel shook his head and looked at the ground, knowing then and there that one of them was screwed. "I'm sorry, Buffy. I can't."

"You're not even going to try?"

"It's too complicated."

"I hate that." She hissed. "I hate it when you do that, you always do that!"

"Do what?"

"You don't even know, do you? C'mon, Angel, guess, what do you think pisses women off?"

"Buffy.."

"You're really good at that, you know?"

"What?"

"Thinking that you're doing stuff for my own good, that you're making some sacrifice for me. But you made me sacrifice you. You left me, Angel, and I didn't want you to, but you left. It was too hard for you, so you left, but you said it was about me. And now you're doing the same thing to me that you always do, you just shut up and say it's best or whatever. I want to know."

"Buffy, that's not what I came here for. You can't trust Spike... I don't care what he's told you."

"And you don't listen to me, either, do you?" Buffy said with something like wonder in her voice. "Where were you when my mother was dying? You didn't even call. Yeah, you came to the funeral, that was nice. But that was all. You can't do this to me, Angel." She started to say something else, then stopped herself, tightening her arms around herself. "You know, you don't change, either. Spike changes. He thought he was helping me when he went to you."

"I... didn't know it was for you."

"Does it make a difference now?"

Angel looked away. "Yes, yes it does. You can keep it. I hope it helps."

She gave him that look again, partly astonished, partly disgusted. "I don't believe you."

"I can't do anything about that, Buffy. Your mind is made up." He turned away from her and stood in the alleyway entrance. "I'm sorry."

"Yes, you are." Buffy said. "I can't believe you're walking away again."

"I have to. You're not listening to me."

"Angel, I loved you." Buffy said quietly. "But until your business is my business, and I get to interfere with what you do the way you do with me, there's nothing to listen to."

He shook his head in exasperation, and went back to the little circle waiting expectantly in front of the store. Buffy followed quietly. Willow eyed her worriedly, searching her face anxiously for clues, but it was Spike who didn't meet anyone's eyes, smoking with his eyes on the ground. Buffy just glared at everyone impartially. "So, Will, anything new on the frogs?"

"We, ah, think it's Hallie." She glanced nervously at Angel and his little entourage as she spoke. "My, ah, source, okay, it was Jonathon, said they'd, well, I don't know exactly what they did but she wound up 'escaping' from them and now she's getting her revenge on nerds everywhere."

"So, once Angel leaves, we'll start looking."

"We're not leaving." Angel said grimly. "We can help."

Buffy stared at him, then said, "Whatever. So we go look for nerds. Where do a lot of them hang out?" She looked at Spike.

"What are you looking at me fo..? Oh, c'mon, Slayer, I know just the spot."

"Xander?" Buffy asked.

"There's place out on the highway that sells D&D stuff, but can I go home first? I need to change."

"Xander, you don't look geeky," Anya said helpfully. "But you could put on your construction man outfit."

"We have to go home for the big, ah, nothing." Willow said. "But, hey, we can call around. We'll help."

"Great."

"Ah, Buffy..." Wesley said.

"Wes, you guys don't have to stay." Buffy said icily.

"No, this could be educational. What can we do?"

"Uh... look for frogs?"

"Will do."

"Spike?"

"Huh?"

"I guess we have to go look for geeks."

"Oh, sure, Slayer."

"Everybody..."

There was a strange moment while they all got themselves arranged and allied; the two witches with Dawn, excited at the prospect of illicit sleepovers; Wes and Lorne waiting for Angel, who gave Buffy one last stare before climbing in the back seat of the car, because Wes refused to let him drive, and Xander and Anya dithering with keys and belongings before driving off. Then Buffy and Spike were alone, leaning against his car, arms crossed, staring at the sidewalk. Long and silent minutes passed by. Guy-like it finally got to Spike and he heaved a huge sigh of capitulation.

Spike looked at her. "You pissed?"

"Yes."

"Why, for fuck's sake? I did it for you, it's not like I've got a bloody fucking trust fund. I can..."

"Can we not do this in public?" Buffy asked quietly. "I've just had about enough today with lying men."

They scrambled into the car, and Spike sat stiffly behind the wheel. "I didn't lie."

"You didn't tell me the truth, either."

"Well, I couldn't..."

"Why?"

"Because you'd have stopped me."

"Why would I do that?"

"Don't want Angel knowing how bad it is for you."

"You are so stupid sometimes." Buffy snorted, turning to him. "Just drive, okay?"

The old DeSoto rumbled into life and they pulled away in silence, Spike nursing a entirely male anger at female capriciousness, and Buffy merely biding her time.

"But, you know..." She said thoughtfully. "Sometimes you can be real smart."

"Thanks."

"Just not now."

"How am I 'sposed to be smart when...? What?"

"You were right. I didn't want Angel knowing how bad it was. But you never noticed I didn't mind for you to."

Spike stared straight ahead, then dared to look at her. His mouth dropped open in surprise. "Oh."

"And you never asked me who I was pissed at."

"And that would be?"

"Well, right now, it's Hallie."

"For frogs?"

Buffy leaned against him and put her fingers on his arm. When he turned her head to her, she suddenly flowed against him so that he had to jerk the vehicle over to the side. When they finally surfaced from the kiss, she was smiling at him and he was startled witless. "For delay."



Chapter 38

"Told you!" Wes said triumphantly. "There is a Barnes and Noble here in this town."

Lorne managed not to roll his eyes. "Well, I'll just sleep so much easier now." He sighed, seeing his impending shower recede ever further into the future. "I've been tossing and turning forever, wondering exactly where..."

Both Wes and Angel glared at him. Two for the price of one, he thought. They were following a trail of frogs to find some PMS demon, when they had a whole city full in LA. Why did it have to be just the one demon? The two of them together were obviously having difficulties, and he quite frankly thought they were asking for more by insisting on specific demons. Hell, they'd managed to find him, hadn't they? Why couldn't they just call it a day already? "So what's the allure of this joint?"

"Ah... Books. Games. A mall with lots of geek-type stores." Wes said, making a tight turn around a batch of frogs that had wandered into the road in front of the Radio Shack. Safely past them, he stopped, put on the four-way flashers, and jumped out. While Angel stared and Lorne gaped, he stepped out into the lights of the high beams and shooed the frogs to safety. Somewhat abashed, but refusing to be defensive, he slid back into the seat, gunned the engine, and pulled into the parking lot to look for a spot. Lorne pitied the hapless 9-11 operator fielding the phone banks just about then. "Uh, yes, sir, but what sort of dumbass was it that rescued all the frogs? A wussy dumbass? I'm sorry, sir, but could you give a description? Did you get a description on the frogs?"

"So." He said crisply. "Why did we volunteer to help?"

"Well." Wesley said. "We've already found you, and I've never met a vengeance demon, so I thought it would be educational..."

"Educational?"

"Yes, Lorne, everything is not about entertainment, I'll have you know."

"I'd like to reiterate my question about puberty, there, bucko. "

"Lorne, really."

"You want education? Hah!" Lorne said as they pulled up in front of the store. He looked out of the window suspiciously. Lots of empty spaces, and in the prized first row nearest the stores, too. Then he heard a 'ribbit.' Down on the sidewalk, a tiny green frog looked up at him, and cheeped again. "Damn." It was sort of cute, now that he thought about it. He glanced around warily, in case somebody could see him looking at the lonely little creature.

Wes got out of the car and looked around slowly, automatically weaving through the frogs at his ankles. "Lots of spaces." He walked out a bit and peered out into the lot. "Lots of rubber, too."

Lorne froze at that statement. "Huh?"

"Yeah," Angel said. "Somebody decided to leave really fast."

He and Wes exchanged glances. "Several somebodies." With that, they headed decisively toward the mall entrance, every bit the Action Heroes, but they only got about four steps before they had to modify their Masters of the Universe strut into a Afraid of Squishiness mince. Lorne composed himself, glancing longingly at the cute little frog on the sidewalk.

Well, Wes needs a girlfriend. He thought. I need a pet.



"Hah!" Buffy said triumphantly. "Willow said the biggest geek hangout is the B&N at that nasty new strip mall. Take a left up here."

Spike smiled to himself as he wheeled the car around. "So..the losers in town hang out at a law firm or something?"

"Barnes and Noble." Buffy corrected. "Lots of well, geeky, stuff."

"Which, of course, you wouldn't know anything about."

"'Course not."

"Oh, of course."

She gave him a sideways glance. "Okay, spit it out."

"Never been a geek yourself, then, is what you're saying?"

"Nope." Buffy shook her head with the confidence of the fashionable and the I-Just-Told-The–Ex-Off. Nothing could destroy her mood.

"It's just that..."

"Spit it out."

Good thing she doesn't have super vamp vision, he thought. She sees this look on my face, it's all over. During the summer that would not end, Dawn had developed a terrible urge to go over memories she didn't, technically, have. Therefore, Spike had been treated to the pigtail phase, the big hair phase, and the scary Stepford Junior High experiment. At the time, of course, it had been awful, seeing a Buffy he'd never known, but now, of course, listening to her blithely deny the existence of Pippi Longstocking hair, it was all he could do not to burst out laughing.

"Nothing, love, nothing."

"There's something."

The something was a purloined photo of Buffy, grinning in a wide, carefree way that he'd seldom seen her do since. She had her hair done up in braids, boasted huge braces on what seemed to be thousands of teeth, and looked so utterly adorable he'd had to ration glances at the photo. This was the Buffy he'd never known, and during all that long summer, he'd dreamed that that Buffy was alive, somewhere, blissfully unaware of vampires and demons and evil. For some reason, it had been perversely comforting, as if he had been preserving something for her that had been utterly impossible.

Now, of course, although he was still fond of the picture, it served almost as a talisman. This Buffy would have a chance at that sort of life, now. This Buffy was his Buffy, and she was alive and well. Of course, she also had a secret past composed of Dorothy Hamill obsessions and Ice Capades fixations but that was no longer a matter of nostalgia, but of carefully-plotted blackmail.

"Oh, sure." She stared out the window, replaying the conversation with Angel in her head. How come I spend so much of my time telling people to stop doing stuff for my own damned good? Whenever they said they were thinking about you, that was a sign that they weren't. She snapped back to reality guiltily. "What?"

"Geeks aren't so bad." He said firmly.

"Because you used to be one."

"That I did, pet."

"How bad could you have been?"

He snorted at her, pulling out the lapel of his coat and displaying it to her. "Look at this. This is a bloody one eighty away from where I was."

She was silent for a moment, the immortal sign of Incoming Question of Death. "And Cecily?"

"You know how geeks are, right, pet?" To his surprise, he could actually hear the bitterness in his own voice. "Always want the one thing they can't have."

"What was she like?" Buffy asked, then hesitated. For his part, he was somewhat surprised to find her at his shoulder, not because of the closeness, but because of the speed with which she'd moved. And then it occurred to him what a luxury it was not to be surprised at the way her chin fit on his shoulder, or even at the fact it was there at all.

"I know what it can be like," she continued cautiously. "And you said you were awfully geeky. And... Cecily wasn't."

"One day, I'll get drunk enough to dig out the pictures." Spike said dryly. He drove on silently, no sound but the breeze through the windows, and the creak of leather as Buffy nudged closer.

"There's pictures?"

"Aren't there always?"

"I wouldn't know." Buffy said archly.

"Wouldn't you then?"

She looked at him for a moment, mystified, then scowled. "Don't look at me, Mr. Buffybot. That was you."

"Right, then, Miss-I've-No-Idea-Where-That-Lighter's-Gone-To."

"Accident. Plus I was pissed off at you."

"Was that what that was?" He tipped a glance in her direction he knew he couldn't get away with in stronger light. He looked at her and saw her the first night, or the second, or the third...

She stared at him in the dark, then slapped him lightly in a very girly way. "That was different."

"Oh, yeah? Why then?"

"Well, you may be the Big Bad in a lot of ways..."

"...Really? Do tell...."

"But when it comes to breaking the news in front of my friends, you are kind of ... impaired. Come stomping into the house in broad daylight, all... 'I've lost my lighter.' Slow."

"I thought...." Spike leaned closer to her ear, never taking his eyes off the road. "Funny, I thought you liked that."

She smiled off into the distance, then found her inner Buffy. "So what about Cecily?"

"What about her?"

"Well.... What was she like?"

"Actually, she's more tolerable as a demon." He said thoughtfully. "Couldn't bloody understand her as a human at all. I thought she was mysterious. Maybe it was constipation."

"That's awfully mean."

"Is it mean to be accurate?"

"Depends. So how come you loved her?"

"Because I was a twit?" Spike shrugged. "What did I know about women? Me mum, and the others..."

"The others?" Buffy perked right up.

"Me.... my sisters, my brother." Spike added slowly. "Much older than me, you know. All married and gone by the time I was your age."

"How old were you?"

Spike actually glanced at her as if he could find this piece of information on her face, honestly bewildered. How long had it been since he'd pulled out these memories? Not since Dru, easily. Only since Buffy had he tried to find his memories of his humanity. "In my twenties. Much younger at that age than somebody today would be. Odd it was. We died so much younger, then, but we were so much younger too. No," he corrected himself. "Not younger. Innocent." He savored the word on his tongue as if it were some exotic flavor he was trying to place. "God, I was so innocent. Worse than Dawn."

"Did you steal stuff, too?" Buffy couldn't help herself, and Spike gave her one of those laughs that the Scooby Gang never heard. "I mean..."

Spike waved her off, amused. "Just wait, pet, just wait. I won't tell Dawn you said that."

"If...?"

"Oh, I don't know yet." He said airily. "I'll think of something."

"So... You. Portrait of the Vampire as a Young Geek. How bad was it?"

"Awful." Spike sighed in earnest, not exactly wanting to tear open this particular wound at this particular time. "Just didn't feel like a man, amongst that lot. And Cecily... I thought she was mysterious, I really did. Thought she saw something in me I could barely see myself. That's what I really wanted, you know? Wanted people to see what I wanted to be, not what I was. Nobody did."

"And you thought Cecily did?"

"Stupid."

"What about me?"

Spike hesitated, all the sounds around him fading into a silent roar. "What about you?"

She dropped her eyes then, picking at non-existent lint on his shirt. "I do, you know."

"Yeah?"

"Yes." She raised her eyes, looking up at him gravely. "Know what else?"

"What?"

"That was our turn back there."



"Well, that was a bust," Xander sighed.

Anya tossed a Cheez Doodle in her mouth and chomped. "Except for the part where you ran in there and shouted, "Where are the frogs? Get out while you still can! I enjoyed that."

Xander climbed into the car with the weariness of a much older man. "I didn't think it was funny."

"Oh, but, it was! Especially when the man in the strange uniform pointed that thing at—"

"It was a tricorder."

"Yes, a tricorder. It was very funny. "Anya sighed happily. "Hallie's always been so good at things like this."

"'Things like this?'" Xander said. He turned the ignition and tossed his hard hat in the back seat, checking the review mirror for amphibians. "What do you mean, 'Things like this?'"

"Well, this." Anya said. "Obviously, she's mad, but she's not doing actual harm or anything. It's temporary."

"How come you're so sure about that?"

"Like I said, it's temporary. I mean, remember what I told you about us vengeance demons not being allowed to use our powers for ourselves? Even if she's found a way around it, it's got to be some jerry-rigged thing that will fall apart as soon as she stopped being pissed."

"How can you be so sure?"

"Well, there's only one way otherwise," Anya said thoughtfully. "And that would never happen."

"What's that way?"

"Well, D'Hoffryn could grant one of us a wish, but he'd never do that."

"What makes you say that?" Xander stopped at the light, and looked around. Almost no traffic -- in their direction. Coming from the new strip mall, however, traffic was heavy.

"Oh, I know he never would." Anya said again. " I mean, I asked him for it once and he refused me, and I was always his favorite. For a thousand years, too. He always liked me best."



"This is like that dream where I'm at the club, and I'm in my underwear." Lorne said queasily. He tiptoed over to a pillar and leaned against it, mopping his brow with a hankie, while Angel and Wes rolled their eyes. "Except worse."

"How could that be worse?" Angel demanded.

"Underoos?" Lorne specified, and the vampire winced.

"How could this be worse?" Angel nodded at all the frogs, who seemed to recognize helpful-minded humans in some scary movie of the week kind of way and were hopping single-mindedly en masse in their direction. It was startling, to say the least.

"They're frogs." Lorne whispered. "At least temporarily, they are. They're kind of helpless. I know the feeling."

Wes shook his foot gently to dislodge and frog climbing on it, and shot a glance at Lorne. "It's okay, Lorne, they'll be okay soon."

"Yeah, but I've met the babe who did this to them. I'm not sure."

They tiptoed forward, and Lorne shook his head at the image they must present to both prospective opponents and clients. While Angel and himself certainly looked ominous, the effect was somewhat spoiled by the fact that he hadn't showered in a day, and felt bad about it, aned Angel actually looked quite dead. Wes, well, Wes was a great guy with the books and the language and the research, but he just didn't strike terror in the heart of anyone... who actually had a heart. Maybe it's the glasses, Lorne thought. Maybe it's time for a makeover. Then he glanced down again. Maybe we just fix all the frogs so we can stop tippytoing through them like Tiny Tim and his ukulele.

They got closer and closer to the big store at the heart of the stripmall, and it became apparent that Wes had been right; occasionally, people ran past, but mostly they were wending their way through frogs, with the occasional snake for good measure. Wes wondered privately at those. Was that some feature of the spell? Or was it some feature of the victim? Visions of research danced through his head, and he mentally made a list of his references, stopping only when Lorne saw his eyes glaze over with book-lust, and poked him sharply. "Knock it off," he hissed.

"You knock it off," Lorne said. "We need you here in reality, not La La land."

"I'm here, I'm ready, I'm -- "

They had reached the entrance to the huge store, and from within came a huge roll of smoke that boomed out over them and made all three duck. "...ready." Wes said faintly.

They slipped inside, past New Releases, past Staff Recommendations, (Wesley snorting at a copy of something that offended him) past Travel, past Foreign Language, where he lingered at the dictionaries for just a moment, till Lorne grabbed his collar and yanked. They reached Literature and Fiction, just around the corner from Games and Media, and all three cowered behind Poetry for a moment, while frogs hopped past briskly.

"Well, that's all of them here,"came a female voice.

"Yes, I guess so. How disappointing." There was a pause. "Still don't remember precisely what they looked like?"

"Awful hair."

"Anything else?"

"Just... geeks." The female voice said again, sounding regretful. "They're all the same."

"Well, then, we're done here."

"Oh, bugger," Wes breathed feverishly. He took a deep breath, visibly puffed himself up, and stepped out from his hiding space. Both Lorne and Angel cringed tighter against the books.

"Oh, look," Hallie said. "Another one." She looked significantly at the demon next to her, and D'Hoffryn sighed and started to search the pockets in his robe.

"I thought you were done." He complained. "I put it away."

"I just like to be thorough." Hallie explained.

"I completely understand." Wes said politely.

"Oh, you're English? Where from?"

"Oxford. You?"

"A long time ago." Hallie said coquettishly. She reached up and patted a stray hair into place.

"Certainly not that long ago." Wes blurted out. D'Hoffryn snorted at this and glanced up skeptically as he turned a pocket or two inside out. Balls of lint drifted to the floor.

Hallie shook her head at D'Hoffryn and realized it was her turn. "I really should have known, just by the manners alone, that you weren't from here. Americans are so rude."

"Almost as bad as the Irish." Wes agreed. "So, would it be rude of me to enquire as to..?"

"Oh, this?" Hallie's little hand wave, no less flirtatious than her earlier hair primping, encompassed an eerily deserted store and a sea of frogs. "Well, I'd like you to know I was extremely provoked."

"Really? Sometimes, it can be helpful to discuss it."

"Oh, well, what's the harm?" Hallie glanced at D'Hoffyn again. He was patting himself distractedly, looking for pockets he'd forgotten about. "I was kidnapped."

"Really?" Wes was genuinely startled. Granted, she was in human face now, but he couldn't imagine..."That's awful." He stepped forward, so as to be able to lower his voice. "Were you hurt?"

"Not physically." Hallie sighed, packing a lot of just-because-I'm-a-demon-did-I-manage-to-get-away into those five syllables. "But it was terrible."

"And because of the shock, you can't identify them."

"And who'd listen to a demon?" Hallie added. "Nobody believes us. You know what I heard someone say?"

"What was that?"

"Demons ask for it." She shook her head mournfully. "It's just terrible." Next to her, D'Hoffryn jerked suddenly, and yanked a slender dowel of wood out of his pocket. Wes' mouth dropped open.

"A... wand? You're using a wand?"

D'Hoffryn shrugged, refusing to be embarrassed. "I like the way it looks. I've read all the Harry Potter books. I always wanted to be a wizard. Oh, well." He looked at Hallie. "This one, too?"

"Sorry." Hallie said. "But I can't make exceptions."

"Well..." Wes hesitated.

"What?"

"It's just that... do I really look like a geek?"

Hallie looked him up and down. "Well, not as much as the others, but, you know, it just wouldn't be fair. You know how it is."

"Certainly. It's just that, well, really, shouldn't you..?"

"What? Shouldn't I what?"

"Well, I'm not denying I might have once been a geek, but shouldn't you be more scientific? Perhaps develop a questionnaire?"

Hallie looked startled. "You know, that's an awfully good idea. Now why didn't I think of that?"

"Shock, probably." Wes said quietly. "I understand. I've been abducted myself."

"Really? How bad was it?"

"I was tortured." Wes aid truthfully.

"Oh, dear. Hm." Hallie turned thoughtfully away and contemplated the shelves of books next to her. "So a questionnaire? I like that idea." She took a deep breath. "What was the significance of the Federal Fair Credit Act?"

"I beg your pardon?" Wes gulped.

"The Federal Fair Credit Act. What, for example, was its significance for women?"

"I'm sorry, I'm a bit..."

Hallie sighed regretfully, and Wes stepped forward, holding up both palms placatingly. "No, I just wanted..."

"Sorry, I have to be fair." Hallie stepped aside, and D'Hoffryn raised the wand.

"No, I just wanted to ask one question!" Wes blurted out.

"And that would be?"

"Which one?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"Which one?" Wes whispered. "The British or the American?"



Chapter 39

Dawn looked wistfully out the window, and heaved a huge Life's-unfair sigh. Behind her back, Willow and Tara tried not to look at each other. The sound of frogs coming in through the window was very loud.

"Dawn?" Willow asked tentatively.

"Janice is still in the bathroom?" Dawn plotted strategy. Damn. Be careful what you wish for, indeed. How long had she wished for this?

"Yes?"

"Oh, it's just funny, you know, pulling one over on Buffy, but it looks like she got the better thing."

"Huh?"

Dawn flopped down on the couch. "I just can't win. I get to have Janice over, but there's demons and stuff."

"Maybe they're...." Tara thought frantically for a moment. "Maybe they're gooey demons. With mucus. No fun at all."

"Maybe." Dawn said softly. Willow flopped down on the couch next to her.

"Gooey demons are not fun, Dawn." She said seriously. "Not even dry-cleaning helps. But, you know, maybe we could sort of study up on demons."

Tara eyed her over Dawn's bowed head, not quite sure what she was up to.

"Why? What's the point?"

"Well, Buffy, uh, had to read about lots of demons and stuff so she could, ah.... fight them. So maybe if you read a lot, not only can you avoid the messy ones, you could, ah..." She tiptoed to the border of the cliff of Not-My-Business, and peered over its edge. "And, ah..." Tara shook her head frantically at her over Dawn's head. "You can't do anything unless you know what you're dealing with. Like magic!" She said suddenly, as a thought struck her. "See, I had to study years before I could do magic. So, if you start now..."

"But you can't do magic now." Dawn pointed out.

"Yes, but that's because I didn't study enough." Willow countered. "I rushed into a ...lot of stuff.... that I shouldn't have. See? I just didn't study enough."

"Really?"

"Yeah, really?" Tara asked skeptically.

Willow glanced from one to the other, all dewy innocence. "Of course. There's just nothing you can't fix by studying."



"Oh, look, parking spot."

"Yeah, an asphalt oasis in a sea of frogs." Spike said dryly, but he pulled into one right in the front row. Even after a hundred-odd years as a vampire, several wars, all the continents, getting a front-row parking spot still counted up there as a major victory.

Buffy was mildly startled to find him abruptly at her door, opening it for her with don't-you-dare-say-anything-bravado. Vampire speed, with that added Spike touch. Every now and then he did that, reminding her that he was still a vampire. She cocked her head at him as she climbed out. The sidewalk was full of frogs, but the parking lot wasn't, which made her wonder uncomfortably how much of their personalities they still had. "Look." She pointed out. "They're avoiding the parking lot."

Spike squinted. "Well, most of them are. Don't suppose that -- " he gestured at a spot that Buffy, thankfully, couldn't see. "Don't suppose that could be Warren, could it?"

Buffy sighed wistfully. "I don't think we're that lucky."

Spike shrugged. "Survival of the fittest, then."

"Ew."

They maneuvered their way into the mall, sidling past frogs that blocked their way in huge groups. Buffy wondered how many former classmates were among them, and she almost took off her shoes for a minute, so she wouldn't hurt any of them. They seemed to be avoiding the parking lot, which meant that they must understand the concept of frogs + cars = inadvertently amusing obituary. "How much do you think they understand?"

"Smart enough to stay away from cars." Spike considered. "Smarter than Angel with a hangover, I'd guess."

"Stop."

"I'm not doing anything at all." He glanced at her sideways. "So?"

"So what?"

"So? What do you think, so? Why did he come here? I don't even know."

Men! Buffy thought. Always jealous.

Women! Spike thought. Millions of women out there who'll jabber on till you want to stuff a sock in their yap, but no, I've got to fall in love with a Slayer, no less, who had problems with...

Buffy really tried to be angry, something that would have been easier several days ago, but she was mentally shaking her head at Spike instead. It was far more entertaining. He was jealous of Angel? She stopped, looking down at her sandals, and the frogs who hopped closer, as if hoping to attract her attention. It was oddly... touching. She was certain there was still some capacity for reasoning there somewhere, otherwise, why would they be avoiding the cars, and crowding around her?

"Spike..."

"Yeah?" His voice was rather muffled, as he made quite a show of turning his back on her to nudge frogs aside with his boot.

"Angel and I talked. He thinks it's a bad idea, you and me."

You and me, Spike thought. You and me in the same sentence with an and.

"And I told him that it was none of his business anymore."

He blinked at her. "Just like that?"

"Well, there was more, too." She glanced down, at the frogs now gathering around her feet. "But we can talk about it later. You know, in detail."

"In detail."

"Yeah, you know, old boyfriend gossip. Always fun."

Spike just stared at her, mouth open, till Buffy finally reached out, grabbed both lapels, and jerked him toward her. Miraculously, the frogs hopped frantically away just in time to avoid being squashed, and when she kissed him, it was in a frog-free zone. "Just cope, okay? Would you relax?"

He shook his head at her, some of his old swagger returning, and managed a smirk. "Not around you, luv. Never around you."



"Well, up until the passage of that particular bill, an Englishman could legally marry a woman, strip her of all her property, sell it -- and her -- and then leave her with nothing. Her relatives could write wills, but women who were alone were essentially helpless, because what was to prevent unscrupulous people from..."

D'Hoffryn, sitting in one of the easy chairs with his face propped up on one hand, sighed loudly, and Hallie glared at him. "Yes?"

"Uh." He straightened up in his chair. "It was ah, the radishes, for lunch." He beckoned, almost regally, at Wesley. "Go right ahead." Hallie turned eagerly back to the conversation.

"And the American?"

"Well, did you know, that up until the Seventies here in the States, it was very similar? I admit, I'm not as up to date on the American situation as I am on the British..."

"Oh, of course." Hallie murmured.

A snort came from somewhere in the region of the Harry Potter section, where D'Hoffryn had stealthily migrated was now pretending to be bored. Hands clasped behind his back, he blinked as both Hallie and Wesley eyed him impatiently. He patted his chest. "Radishes. Terrible thing, middle age."

"You're only three thousand and seventy two."

"Yes, but I have a far more active life style than my father did, and now I have arthritis."

"Well, then sit down." Hallie said. D'Hoffyn slumped back into a chair with a sigh.

"Well..." Wesley said, having lost his chain of thought. "Where was I?"

"Americans." Hallie said helpfully.

"Oh, yes...." He cleared his throat. "Would you mind if I got something to drink?"

"Oh, of course." Hallie smiled at him. "I wouldn't mind something to drink myself."

"They've a café here." Wes said thoughtfully.

"Oh, a cup of tea would be lovely."

Wes hesitated, then offered her his arm, which she took. Neither one paid any attention to D'Hoffryn, who was once again propping up his face with his palm, or to Angel, who was hiding behind one of the bookshelves, and who started quite violently when they passed by him, chatting amiably so amiably that he barely registered. They stopped talking for a moment while Angel collect himself, then detoured around him as the deserted café appeared at the end of the bookshelves. "You know, I haven't had a good cup of tea in ages," Wes said.

"Americans don't really appreciate good tea." Hallie dropped her eyes, then looked up at him. "You have to realize, it's unusual to find a man with your interests?"

"My...? Oh." Of course it is, Wes thought. She's too tactful to blurt it out. "Ah. Yes. My mother."

"Was your father...?"

Once again, he felt a curious stab of curiosity at her tact, so at odds with what he knew of her. He decided on something daring. "You, ah, aren't going to call me a mama's boy, or something similar, are you?" It was risky because it might very well backfire.

"Why would I do that? I don't think there's anything wrong with that."

"Well, not if it's my..."Ah. He reminded himself. Primary motive here was to rescue all these poor frogs, not swap secrets with the demon responsible for their being frogs. "Ah, look, I wonder if they have tea."

Hallie eyed him curiously, noting the abrupt shift. "It's the frogs, isn't it?"

"I.beg your pardon?"

"The frogs, right?"

"Oh, that." Christ, Wes thought. Now she gets to be blunt. "Ah, well..."

"Well, you know, they abducted me."

"All of them?" He asked weakly.

"Well, no." She dropped her eyes. "That was D'Hoffryn."

"Who did abduct you? Do you know?"

"I don't like your tone." Hallie said tightly.

"You almost turned me into a frog!" Wes exclaimed. "I think my tone's understandable." They glared at each other, and it was Hallie who looked away.

"They tied me up." She said quietly, studying her shoes.

"I'm sorry."

"Are you?" She asked skeptically. "I mean, really?" She smiled at him wryly. "Don't think I don't know what you're doing, by the way. I just wanted to believe it for a while."

"I wasn't..."

Hallie gave him a look that was almost kind. "You don't want to be a frog. Does anyone? But, still, it was sort of charming..." Wes gave an enormous twitch that, had he been able to see it, would have reminded him exactly of Spike's earlier in the kitchen. "Oh, relax." Hallie clucked at him.

Wes found himself flushing with embarrassment. Of course, he actually had been a little proud of himself for fooling her, and now oddly enough, he was ashamed of himself. Made him no better than the rest, really. Made him no better than all the guys he didn't want to be like, and actually, made him worse, because he knew what it felt like to be on the receiving end. "You're, you're, um, right, actually."

"I know."

"But not about all of it. You tell me then, you've much more experience than I do, what does a man do? My father..." He swallowed. "If I don't want to be like him, other men call me a-- a-- and then -- and women say, 'how sweet.' So, seriously, would you mind explaining how I do this? Because quite frankly, I'm out of patience with the whole thing."

"I...what?"

"Well, it seems I'm perilously poised between being a geek and being a brute, and I'd really like to know what you want."

"If you knew, would you care?"

"Of course I would!"

"You're just saying that because I'm a demon."

"Partly." Wes swallowed, then steeled himself. "But you're not a demon right now, are you?"

Hallie cocked her head at him, startled. "I think I'm both."

Wes snorted, almost exactly as D'Hoffryn had. "Sometimes, I have to think, what woman isn't?"



Spike stopped, and held up his hand. "What's that?"

"The sound of you whispering?" Buffy whispered back, which got her a raised eyebrow and a disgusted look.

"No, that."

They both, stopped, and listened. Laughter. A woman's laughter. The frogs around their feet actually seemed to cower. Buffy glanced wistfully at Spike, thinking, My line of work, where the sound of a woman laughing doesn't mean amusement, it means impending amphibious disaster.

They tiptoed forward cautiously, Spike reaching back and grabbing her hand. He stopped, suddenly, stiffening and straightening, and drew himself up to his full height. Then he pounced around the corner of the bookshelf. "Well!"

Angel leaned against the bookshelf and examined his fingernails. Slowly, deliberately, he looked up, steadily regarding Spike for one long moment, then Buffy. His eyes dropped to where they held hands, and Buffy deliberately tightened hers. Angel sighed. "I wish there was a way I could make you listen to me."

"Well, sign the adoption papers, because you're starting to sound more and more like my dad. At least when he was around." Buffy snapped. "But you already act like him, because you're the one always taking off. Do we have to do this all over again?"

"It's got to be settled, Buffy, because you're making a big mistake."

"No, you made a mistake." Buffy had to drop Spike's hand to plant her hands on her hips, but Spike didn't mind, because then he could flop into one of the armchairs and watch an impossible fantasy come to life in front of him: Buffy arguing with Angel. About him... Better than Man U, he thought happily, and wished for a beer. "You left me. I really liked the card, by the way."

Angel shook his head, puzzled. "What card? I called you, I came to see you."

"The card that said, "Gee, happy you're back from the dead. How are you doing? Oh, that's right. You never sent one. Why did you bother coming, Angel? I mean, that meeting...." She looked away. "You want to know why I'm so pissed off? No, you don't, you just don't want me to be pissed off any longer. You don't care what's going on with me, it's just when I do something you don't like that you get interested."

"Buffy..."

"Angel, you have your life, I have mine. You can't come in here and tell me what to do when you haven't exactly been keeping up to date on what I've been doing this whole time. And it's not like you call me up to chat."

Connor, Angel thought uneasily. But that's different. She wouldn't understand.

"Look, Buffy..." He glanced at Spike. "Could we not do this here?"

"In front of Spike? You were the one who came up here and wanted to lecture me about my life. The life that you don't have any interest in at any other time, by the way. I had to find out about Cordelia's baby when it's, like, months old!"

She was paying attention, Spike thought, and sighed happily. Then froze in horror because Angel glared at him and Buffy gave him a look he simply couldn't define.

"Oh." Angel muttered, glancing at the floor. Cordelia's baby, he thought. "Well..." Christ, now what? He tried to imagine telling her the truth, and the mental image this produced was so horrifying that he had to look away from her.

"The only way it would be okay for you to do this would be if we were chatting on the phone all the time. Like adults." Buffy said uncomfortably. "You know, grown ups. And...talking about stuff that's going on, so it's not such a shock. You can't come charging up here and..."She crossed her arms, and looked up suddenly, startled. D'Hoffryn had ambled over, and was now glancing expectantly from one to the other.

"So, do any of you want revenge, or are you just going to keep going over it over and over again?"

"We're done." Buffy said quietly.

"Buffy..." Angel said, half in warning, and half pleading.

"All right, Angel." Buffy said. "I'm done. I've done all the changing I'm going to do. It's your turn now. When you want to actually talk to me, you know, back and forth, then we'll talk." All that was missing, Spike thought, was Buffy dusting off her hands with a great flourish of finality. He almost felt sorry for Angel, but the self-preservation in his character made him profoundly relieved it wasn't him on the receiving end of Buffy's wrath.

"Hallie!" D'Hoffryn shouted. "Where are you?"



"Oh, hell. He's so impatient." Hallie said irritably. " You know why he's so mad? He just refuses to learn how to set the VCR, and then he gets cranky when it's time for one of his shows."

"Do I want to ask?" Wes asked.

"No." Hallie whispered. "I don't want to know, but I have to. He has this awful fascination for this show ...." She shook her head at The Show That Dare Not Speak Its Name, and Wes let it go. They both got up from the table, and Wes picked up his teacup and put it near the cash register, using it to anchor the money for the tea. Hallie glanced at him rather sharply, then at the money, then at the way he put her teacup next to his.

"You know, I have to ask..."

"About?" She prodded hopefully.

"The frog thing."

"They can't be allowed to do that to a woman. If Anyanka were still a demon, she could have handled it, but really...."

"But these aren't the frogs who...the men who actually did this to you."

"I can't find the ones who did it, though."

Wes thought about it, sighing as he went over the options in his head. He computed expenses, gas, mileage, and came up with a plan. "If I help you find them, will you release these?"

"You'll do that?"

"Yes." That didn't sound firm enough, perhaps because of the monumental ambivalence he was feeling, so he tried it again. "Yes, I will."

"That's very sweet." She said, and Wes winced.

"Could you pick another word? My y chromosome just shudders when someone uses that word."

"All right, then." Hallie said. "Very nice."

They stopped at the bottom of the steps to the café, and looked around for a clue as to where they'd been. Wes listened for voices, and grabbed Hallie's hand and pulled her in that direction. Hallie looked down at her hand, and then gave him another one of those curious glances, trying to reconcile his appearance with his actions. He hadn't shaved in a while, and he was wearing old jeans, but he had the sort of manners that came from kindness, and it just didn't seem to fit together. But his hand felt very nice.

Wes stopped, and looked around, glancing up over the tops of the bookshelves, and checking for any sign of what was going on. He noticed Hallie's look and explained. "Oh, smoke, you know, that sort of thing."

But without smoke signals, they were forced to follow the voices, which sounded like they were bickering. Finally they rounded a corner and found themselves confronted with the sight of one elderly vengeance demon, slumped in a chair with his face in his hands, staring at the floor, Spike flipping through a volume of Byron's poetry, and Angel leaning against a bookshelf while Buffy pawed through a book furiously on the other side of the area.

"Well." Wes said loudly. "Here we are."

"So, to frog or not to frog?" D'Hoffryn asked eagerly, sitting up straight and shooting a glance at his watch.

"We've reached a compromise." Hallie explained. "I get my vengeance, and anybody who didn't kidnap me gets de-frogified."

Everyone exchanged glances.

"Huh?" Buffy said. "How are you going to do that?"

"It's going to be, ah, um..." Hallie searched for a word. "Well, seeing as how I'm a justice demon, you know..." She glanced around modestly, as if expecting a response. "I should be more... just. So I'm going to concentrate on the actual guilty parties."

Great. D'Hoffryn thought. This is a volume business, and I have an IRA to think of.

"You're going to find the trio?" Buffy asked.

"I promised to help." Wes added modestly.

"Wow." Buffy said. "Freebie."

"I beg your pardon?" Wes asked.

"You have to find the trio. I've been looking for them. Does this mean I get a day off?"

"Well, you drove me up here." Angel said. "I guess I'll have to..."

"Take a train." Buffy interjected.

"You said I can't tell you what to do, but?"

"Give it a rest." Buffy said quietly. "You promise, Hallie?"

"I promise."

"Then I say, we party."



Chapter 40

Buffy had experienced lots of uncomfortable silences in her life. For example, there was the one that had occurred after she'd reluctantly admitted to her mother that she'd slept with Angel. Then there had been the tiny moment of silence with which she had contemplated her death. Her second resurrection had prompted its own share of silences, too, as her poor, tired, brain tried to come to terms with what had just happened to it.

But, really, for vivid, uncomfortable silences, the one that descended over their little group at the shopping mall after all the geeks in Sunnydale had dashed for cover, really deserved the prize. There was Angel's glowering silence, Spike's cheeky gloating, and Wes' visibly nervous consternation. Hallie alternated between looking bored and looking at Wes, while D'Hoffryn was eyeing his wand with a mixture of disappointment and betrayal. Lorne just leaned against Angel's car, buffed his nails, and looked expectantly from face to face. "So, Superfriends?" He drawled. "Now what? And I expect to hear the phrase, 'Lorne gets to take a shower at my place' figure heavily in the next few sentences." He glanced around the twitchy little group, making sure he glared into everybody's eyes before, at last, he caught Hallie's eye. "You're a vengeance demon, right, sweetie?"

"Well, I prefer just---"

"Whatever. Listen." He looked around firmly. "Listen up, because hell hath no fury like a hygienically frustrated member of the Deathwa clan, okay? I want to take a shower. I must take a shower, or I will lose my mind and run amuck. Do I make myself clear?"

"Uh, not exactly." Buffy said. "But...my place?"

"A party, too, you said?" Lorne asked.

"Well, did the last one count?" She asked, rather annoyed at the implication she was some sort of party person.

"Why wouldn't it?"

"Well, it's hard to get into the party spirit when you're actually trying to prevent a real party from breaking out."

"I see your point. So, will there be music?"

"Uh.."

"Let me be specific...Will there be music that I, and I alone----because I know what these two listen to when nobody's around--- can pick through and save us all from the horrors of boy bands?"

"Hey." Wes said defensively. "I've been told I have very good taste in music."

"You do have great taste in music, that's the problem." Lorne said agreeably. "You know I think you're a great guy, Wes, even if you do iron your boxers. But---"

"Hey!" Wes said again, this time flushing.

Hm. Hallie thought. Boxers?

Oh, God, Buffy thought. Watcher underwear. I'm too old to have childhood trauma.

Humans and underwear, Spike thought.

"But while 'Ode to Joy' is, in fact, great music, and good for air-conducting, it is not, in fact, dance music. So I and I alone will be in charge of the soundtrack."

"Definitely." Buffy said with great relief.

"Well, then, let's go." He poked Angel, who was standing as if he'd been turned into granite. "That means you, too, gorgeous. The only thing between me and my shower is your, ah, attitude." He raised an eyebrow at Hallie and she smiled to herself in a way that made Wes visibly straighten up and look at Lorne.

"Well, then, I say we have the ingredients for a party." Buffy said brightly.

"Alcohol would be good, too," Lorne said. He opened the back door of Angel's car, sliding in and laying one arm with perfect nonchalance out the window. He looked from one to the other, but everyone seemed frozen. Only D'Hoffyn perked up, blinking at this indication of progress and exclaiming, "Shotgun!" Nobody else moved.

"Just give me one of those." Spike muttered, and Buffy poked him.

"I heard that."

"Sorry. I'll whisper next time."

"Right." She glared at him, in what he correctly interpreted as a 'just-wait-till-we're-alone' glare. Fine with him.

"Buffy..." Angel said.

"Not now, Angel." Buffy said quietly.

"Get some beer, Oxford, would you?" Spike said, but Wes was eyeing Hallie as he slid behind the wheel of the car. Hallie, now looking a bit bored that Lorne had evidently decided against vengeance, slid in from the other side and crossed her arms over her chest, staring straight ahead. D'Hoffryn plopped in next to her and slammed the door enthusiastically, caressing the car with appreciation.

"Such a nice model." He glanced around Hallie at Wes. "What year is this one?"

"Oh, I don't know." Wes said apologetically. "Angel, what make is this car?"

Angel climbed in the back seat with Lorne, not bothering to answer D'Hoffryn, but taking the time to give Buffy a long, thoughtful glare.

"Uh, Buffy..." Wes said cautiously. "We're sort of crowded. Could you and Spike....?"

"Sorry, Wes, we've got an errand." Spike answered for her. The fact that he spoke for her irritated her, as did the fact that he'd said what she'd wanted to before she'd thought of it. Not a chance on sharing the car after that last car ride, she thought. Not a chance.



"Well, that was Angel's car." Anya said.

"Angel and who else? Was he driving?"

"Someone scruffy looking, but not Angel." Anya said thoughtfully. "It looked crowded, that's all I could really see."

"Well, I said I was sorry I got lost."

"It's okay, sweetie. I understand about not asking for directions."

Xander risked a glance over at her, despite the speed he was going, and the amount of irritation he was feeling. She was placidly looking out the window, utterly unbothered by the idea that something might have happened to Buffy. In fact, she would probably be glad if something did happen to Buffy. He felt instantly guilty at the thought, then irritated again at his guilt, then guilty all over. He reached out and squeezed her hand as penance.

"Xander..." She said.

"What, sweetie?"

"Could you slow down? I know you want to get there, but I think whatever was going to happen has probably happened by now. There must be a reason we saw all those naked Star Trek people."

"A Star Trek streaking convention?"

"Well, maybe it was a gay Star Trek streaking convention." Anya said thoughtfully. "Because I didn't see any women."

"You didn't look too disappointed."

"Oh, I know what you mean."

"Huh?"

"You just think I liked looking at all those strange men's penises. Hm." She said thoughtfully.

"Huh? No, I do not. It's fine if you..." Xander stopped himself with an effort. "I mean, it's not okay if you look at...but if you did, I wouldn't mind...because.....because...."

"Oh, Xander, it's okay. You know there's only one penis I want to look at, and it's yours." Anya beamed proudly, incontestably certain that she had finally Said The Right Thing.

"That's nice to know." Xander said quietly, but he was abruptly irritated again, and he didn't know why. He didn't want to discuss whether or not his fiancée wanted to look at the genitalia of strange men, and it made him irritated that he was having a conversation in which the word 'penis' figured heavily. Having such a conversation with a doctor was one thing; having such a conversation with Anya, however, in which the appendage in question belonged to another man, or other men, made him feel so confused that his head hurt.

His silence continued too long for it to be comfortable, and he glanced over guiltily at Anya. She was looking at him with wide, puzzled eyes, and guilt won out over irritation. "You know what, An?"

"What?" She asked in a tiny voice.

"Angel's left; I bet Buffy has, too. Let's just go and figure out what's going on, okay?"

"Okay." She said softly, still looking at him. Yes, let's find out what' s going on. She thought. I wish I knew.



"Payback's a bitch." Buffy said.

They were pretty much all alone in the parking lot, and they were eyeing each other over the roof of Spike's car.

"And you're telling me this because...?"

"Because of all the stuff you were doing to me in the car."

"You helped." She flushed abruptly at the memory of feeling him beneath her hand, hardening beneath fabric...

"Well, still...."She said lamely.

"Don't distract you with facts?" He speculated. With that, he climbed in the car, reached over the seat and shoved her door open, not yet sure enough of her mood to actually do his opening the car door routine. She peered in at him, and that with vampire fast timing, he grabbed her and pulled her in.

"And those would be which facts?" She demanded, wriggling, but he let her, because it was becoming very clear very fast that she was only giving him a hard time. She maneuvered onto his lap and looked down into his face. He raised his hand, hesitating, and then traced her cheek with one fingertip.

"This fact," he whispered. Another fingertip, this time on the other side of her face, resting the back of his head against the head rest, looking up at her with serious, solemn eyes. After the shenanigans in the car, she felt a curious mixture of disappointment and excitement. "And then there's the fact you liked it." He murmured, looking steadily into her eyes. And that was, in fact, true. She couldn't argue with that one. However, there were certain rules to be upheld about behavior, not that she knew what they were, and didn't really care, because she was just screwing with him to get back at her for firing her up in the car.

"Yes, but..."

"Bugged you, being in front of those two, didn't it?" He asked suddenly, looking down, and not, she saw, at any part of her, so conveniently close.

"Well...." Whoops, what just happened? She thought. He's all serious? Huh?

She stared at him, so puzzled her mind went blank for an instant. Oh, crap, he believed me. She thought. How come none of the others...? What is it with guys, anyway, they always believe all the wrong stuff...? She studied him curiously, assessing the abrupt mood swing. Not your typical guy mood swing, either. Those tended to take the form of, 'Oh, it's not you, it's me,' and usually involved the male half of a duo making an exit. What a pretense. Pretense. She looked at him afresh. With Angel, it had been pretense, on whose part, she wasn't entirely sure. Parker had had so many, she still wasn't certain he had his own personality at all. And then Riley....What was the difference between pretense and defense? She shook her head for a moment at the many varieties of male obtuseness before simply grabbing his face with both hands and kissing him till he was the one who pulled away, rather mystified. "Duh, already, okay? Boy, men."

She called me a man, Spike thought.

"This whole timing thing of yours." She looked at him. "Birthday party, remember?"

"Always an appropriate present, that." He grinned at her.

"Maybe it's impeccable, who knows? But your timing? Seriously sucks."

He wrapped his arms around her waist, sliding his hands slowly against her skin, while she slid hers around his neck. Parking lot, she thought. Parking lot, bright lights, and who knew when all the fleeing shoppers would return? But also.... hands against skin, denim against denim, the slow tempo...She pressed her face against his, and he sighed into her throat. "Timing, is it? Care for a demonstration?"

Buffy frowned at him for moving away, tightening her arms around his neck and not moving anything else. "I have a houseful of demons coming over."

"This is different from the other day how...?"

"Actual demons, as opposed to hormonal demons."

"Didn't stop us before."

"One of the demons being Angel."

"Great." He said sourly. "I don't know how I'm going to recover from that." Actually, I can think of several good ways to recover from that.

"Dawn's sleeping over at Tara's."

"I feel better already. Hey, the sooner we get there, the sooner they're gone, right?"

"Right." Buffy agreed.

They looked at each other. "I guess..." Spike said reluctantly.

"I have to move, don't I?"

"Well, just for now...."

"Good point."



"Uh, thanks, Spike, 'preciate that." Tara said uncomfortably.

"Spike?" Dawn squeaked. "What's going on?"

"Yes, that was Spike. Ah, Dawn, stay away from the window, okay, sweetie?" Tara sat down a shade too precisely and smoother her robe over her knees. "It seems the nerd problem has been, ah, well, I don't know if I can call it solved...."

Willow cleared her throat at that impatiently. "You know, I don't know if that's what I'd call it, sweetie."

"I'm sorry?"

"Well, you know, oh, nerd problem. What problems do nerds really cause, anyway?" She exclaimed. "I mean, really, what's wrong with being all serious about punctuation and---and---spelling? They really didn't do anything, well, except for Warren and his, his, whatever--- and I don't think you can really say it was something they..." Dawn and Tara both eyed her as if she'd sprouted another head, and both heads were having a conversation in front of them. "Okay, shutting up now. What, ah, what happened?"

"It's got to be something in the water here." Tara sighed. "You know how some people answer a question with a question?"

"Like this?" Willow demonstrated.

"Yes, like that." Tara smiled at her. "Well, uh, it seems that D'Hoffryn needs a few more classes in wand management because when he turned all the nerds back into humans..."She grimaced again.

"So what does that have to do with answering a question with a question?" Dawn asked.

"Well, okay, that's just what it made me think of." She said absently. "You know, fixing one bad spell with another bad spell."

"What do you mean...bad?" Willow asked delicately.

"Well, ah, something went wrong." Tara said dryly. "Somewhere. Somehow. And wand using is kind of a lost art, anyway. Don't see lots of people using them much any more. It's just that when D'Hoffryn turned them all human again, he must've left out part of the spell, because they came back...without their clothes."

Dawn's eyes widened and she jumped back from the window sharply. "Okay, then."

"How come you guys all look like that?" Janice said from the hallway.

"Sometimes," Willow said, "You just have to look like this."

"Well..." Dawn frowned thoughtfully. "I bet that'll make finding the nerds easier."



When did I grow up?

Seeing Angel sitting on the top step of her porch, his face in his hands, jerked Buffy back to high school, to innocence, to possibility. Seeing him vulnerable, so attractive to someone whose job description included the very antithesis of the concept, ricocheted her back to Senior Year, to things like cheerleading and pep rallies. Odd that a two hundred year old vampire could do that to her. Odder still, that despite her irritation, she found a certain longing for innocence, when his every kiss had been a revelation, when every touch was a conquest. What happened?

She lingered so long in the doorway that he felt her, and he stilled, lifting his head from his hands. She raised the beer she had impulsively grabbed by way of explanation. He shook his head wryly in answer. "I've already done my drinking for the week."

"The week? Really? That's impressive."

She was standing in the doorway, his back to her face, and it took her a while to interpret the body language of his bowed head, his stiffened shoulders. I loved you, she thought. But would I love you now? Another part of her brain whispered, and with sorrow, she calculated all the killing, the wars, and the deaths. Who was he, now, and who was she? What solace he had once been had changed into distraction. He had been a refuge, but now he had become a complication.

Oh, God, my life. She thought. Vampire. Slayer. Vampire with a soul. Slayer. Capulet. Montague. Cubs. Yankees. What else? What better? They stared up at the stars together, and it was Angel that finally looked down, and tried to find a way around the lump in his throat. "I'm sorry."

She wanted desperately to wipe away the distance, to go back to innocence, to lay a hand on his arm, to offer some comfort, but it seemed like a retreat. He should be sorry said one part of her brain. Shouldn't we all? Said the other.

Instead of touching him, she looked at him. It was the defeated slump of his shoulders that got to her, and made her move through the door to him, rather than away. Men, she thought. Who knows what goes on in their heads? Who cared if he was right about Spike? She was an adult now, and he had no business giving her orders when he gave her nothing else.

She'd often suspected that vampire hearing was so good he could practically hear her thinking, standing in the doorway, so when he sighed and looked up, she wasn't surprised. She held up the beer she'd brought with her as an excuse---one of Spike's, actually----and asked, neutrally, "Run out of things to say?"

He grimaced at that. "Afraid to open my mouth, actually."

The thought struck her that he felt this was unreasonable, that he blamed her for it. In more than two hundred years, he'd evidently seldom felt the need for self-reflection, but she saw for the first time the self-pity that Spike hinted at. She brushed it aside and charged in. "So what's really pissing you off?"

He glanced at her, startled. "Well, when I told you that, before..."

"No, that's not what you're pissed about. What is it, really? Every time somebody tells me they're pissed off about something, it's never the thing that they're really mad at that they talk about." Except Spike, came the thought.

"I really didn't want to intrude." He said quietly. "Your life..."

Buffy tamped down the anger that flared up, then took a deep breath and threw caution away anyway. What, is he going for a prize or something? She thought furiously. "God, men." She said with great precision. "You didn't want to intrude? Yeah, sure. You don't want to intrude when it really would have been a big help, and you do want to when it's just a pain in the butt."

"It's Spike, Buffy. It's Spike. I've known him for a hundred years. I made Drusilla, and Dru made him. He doesn't have a conscience, he doesn't have a heart, and he doesn't have...."

"Enough.You know what? We're not going through all that again." Well, okay, she thought. Except for this part. "Angel, I don't want it to be like this. And by that I mean, I didn't want you telling me how to live my life---" She stopped and swallowed, hard, to keep the words, 'when you weren't interested in helping me live it,' inside her. They sat on her tongue but after all she'd already said to him, she just couldn't add that to the pile. She looked at him, and tried to feel sixteen again, but there were too many deaths between that Buffy and the Buffy she was now. There'd been too many funerals, including her own, too much mourning rushed through and glossed over, and too many wounds that hadn't so much healed as they had hardened. It had all changed her, sometimes in ways she didn't like. Maybe he just didn't change; maybe he was beyond it. The thought came to her, then, that if she had just met him, it was possible she wouldn't fall in love with him. They'd loved each other when everything had seemed possible for her, but when things had become impossible, he had not been there at all. She had been sixteen when they'd met, after all, and he had been the same man he was now. She had been the malleable one, but looking at him now, she couldn't think of a single time he'd gone against his judgment for her; always the other way around. The only time she'd ever talked him out of something he supposedly wanted to do was the suicide attempt that Christmas.

When you can't die, what are the stages you go through? Is there some kind of puberty for vampires? In an odd way, it was rather comforting that this centuries old vampire could be just as annoying as any man. On the other hand, it was also profoundly disturbing that he hadn't done much with his time. She half glanced over her shoulder at the kitchen window at the sound of Spike's voice. Some of the changes in him had certainly been because of the chip, but the rest? It was as if he was maturing before her eyes. His love for her, and the torture of losing her had put him through his own crucible, unearthing things in his character he hadn't even been aware of. Was it then so fair to expect Angel to be aware of that sort of Spike when it had taken Spike himself by surprise?

Taken Spike by surprise.

Had it?

How long had he loved her? When had it begun? He'd never told her.

She kept coming back to one thought. Angel had known her longer, was supposedly good, ensouled, decent. But it hadn't been him caring for Dawn or helping her fight off a Hell God. She could feel herself getting angry all over again. So this is why people get so angry after a breakup, she thought. All those things you never let yourself see

She let herself see for just one moment. How could you love someone but not believe in love otherwise? How could you do that? One painful moment came to her, a moment she'd once have happily killed Spike for at the time. She sat like stone on the step and felt the past spin her away. Spike, pinning her and Angel down with desperate eyes, wounded and humbled, but not so cowardly as to retreat. Drunk and dumped, but still not retreating. What had he said? What was it? God, how irritating.

She looked at Angel. "Do you remember after you came back?"

Clearly nervous, he nodded cautiously. "Why?"

Doesn't trust me because he knows I'm going to argue with him, Buffy thought. Hm. "Stay here, would you? A minute?"

She got up and went to the kitchen, but Spike had moved on, standing in the hallway, leaning in the door. Wes, Hallie, and D'Hoffryn were setting up a Monopoly board on the dining room table. As she approached, he stilled, the beer pausing on its way to his lips, and then he half turned. "Having a fun chat?"

"Oh, very." She looked around him, at the others, then up at him. Instantly, he lowered the beer, and she took his other hand, pulling him into the darkness in the hallway, leaning into him. "I had to ask you a question."

"Is the question, 'Why don't you take off all your...?"

"I don't think so." Buffy said acidly.

"Oh, of course, how stupid of me. You never ask."

"Like damaging your wardrobe is a big fashion crime."

"Yeah, that must be why you're so eager to get rid of it."

She shook her head at him. "You know, there was a reason I came over here."

"Just not the right one." He said dryly.

"Well, not the right time... anyway." She said. "Do you remember...." She watched his face close, warily, and cleared her throat. "Do you remember what it was you said to Angel and I? When you, ah, came back after Dru dumped you?"

His expression relaxed, then, but he still looked bewildered, honestly puzzled over the question. "God, luv, I don't think I do. Give me a clue, here. She did dump me a bunch of times....Which time was this?"

Well, she thought. Oh, you know, after Angel and I slept together, and he went to Hell and back, and you and I had that temporary truce, that time. "You came back, and you wanted to make Dru love you again..."

"Oh, that." Spike tapped his forehead with one index finger. "That time. Bloody hell, I burnt my hand that trip, too. What did I say? God, luv, I was bloody pissed that time. Could you give me a jumping off point? Something?"

It was amazing how mad she'd been at him at the time, and you'd think that would make it memorable. "Angel and I." She said. "Something really infuriating."

Spike leaned against the wall, her leaning against his side, watching him concentrate on the tips of his boots. "Just drawing a blank, Buff. But..."

Buffy eyed him warily. "But...?"

"I know what I should have said."

"What would that be?"

"He shouldn't have ever left. Couldn't understand that at all, myself. Even then, didn't get it, you know, and I didn't, well, at the time, I didn't, ah, much care for you, myself."

"Not at all?" Buffy asked. He rubbed his forehead with one finger.

"This is one of those questions women sit around, thinking up, isn't it?"

Buffy shook her head, amused despite herself. "No, just curious. And what did you mean, 'much'?"

"Well, I noticed you, you know."

"That's all? Now I'm curious."

"Hm." Spike turned his head toward the kitchen. "Was it something about friendship?"

"What? Could have been." Buffy said thoughtfully. "I wanted to remember it, because it really pissed me off."

Spike looked pleasantly startled. "Did it? Wish I'd been paying more attention." His expression changed, and she turned to follow his eyes. Angel stood in the kitchen doorway, looking both irritated and guilty. He stared at them, face tightening with anger, and Buffy found herself getting angry. It was one thing for Spike to bicker with her, but it was another thing for Angel to say one thing and then do something else. Can't even ask him to stay put, she thought.

"It took a long time." Angel said quietly.

And you just couldn't do one damned thing I asked, Buffy thought. "Well, yeah, it was a long time ago." She said, walking toward him, conscious of Spike behind her, wondering if she had to fear some sort of flare-up between the two. It occurred to her that while Spike didn't want to piss her off, Angel didn't care if he did or not. So who cared more? "I asked you to stay out there."

"Yeah, why did you do that, Buffy?" Angel demanded, drawing himself up to his full height.

Why do I have to have a why and you don't? Buffy thought, but she just couldn't say it. "Just because." She said. "I forget."

"God, I still can't believe it." Angel said scornfully. "Looking at the two of you..."

"Then leave." Spike said tightly. Buffy glanced at him, startled, then back at Angel.

"Uh, guys?" Buffy said gently. "My house, my rules. They're really simple: do what I tell you or I'll kick your asses. You do not get to kick each other's asses in my house because that's my job, and besides, I know you really want to. And you?" She frowned at Angel. "You're pissing me off."

"Well, Buffy, wouldn't you do something if you saw somebody you..."

"Somebody you what?" Spike asked quietly. "Where were you, mate? Havin' another relapse? Funny how it is that you never hurt yourself when you have one of those nasty little...." Angel actually took a step forward at that, and Spike took a compensating step backward, muscles twitching in his jaw.

"Yeah, what would you know, Spike? Done any bragging yet about this Slayer? That's all he ever talked about before."

"Yeah, and that would be when?" Spike now looked deeply and profoundly bored, studying his fingernails. "Did you send me a Christmas card I missed? Oh, and you might want to get a new postman, because the birthday card seems to have gone missing, too. For a century." Spike glanced up at Angel and promptly looked more bored, if that was possible. "But good help is so hard to find."

"You know what I mean." Angel said tightly. "That's all it is to him. That's..."

Spike thrust the beer at the counter and flashed forward, not even registering the crash as the bottle teetered on the edge and crashed to the floor. Buffy shoved Angel aside, stepping in front of Spike, who froze. She raised one hand to his chest, and laid it there, part request, part consolation. "No asskicking, remember?" She turned to Angel, just in time to see the fleeting look of disgust leave his face. It was Spike's expression she missed; for one fraction of a second, his face softened, and it was at that, really, that

Angel glowered. Before she could open her mouth to speak, though, somebody else did it for her.

"Uh..." Wes said from the doorway. He took in the sight before him, Angel glaring at Spike, Spike, tight-faced and rigid, and Buffy standing between the two of them, her hand on Spike's chest. The smell of beer rose from a puddle of foam and broken glass at their feet. "Ah" A triangle, he thought. Time to leave.

"What did you want, Wes?"

"What? Oh, a quarter." Wes looked startled. "We need to flip a coin because D'Hoffryn and Hallie both want to play the same piece."

"The same what?"

"Monopoly." He said apologetically. "D'Hoffyn's idea of a party."

"What the vengeance demon wants, the vengeance demon gets." Buffy said dryly.

"How about more beer?" Spike added, just as acerbically. He cocked an eyebrow at Angel. "What about what the vampire wants? Might make some things more tolerable."

"Oh, Wesley...." Hallie sauntered up behind Wes and laid one hand on his arm. Then she looked around, hard, and shook her head. "We've reached a compromise." She smiled a little too sweetly. "In the living room."

"Hey!" Buffy said brightly. "There's an idea."

"So..." D'Hoffryn squeezed through the group at the entryway, and stopped. "So, are we going to do something? Or are you guys just going to talk about it again?"

"Well, Oxford's going to get some more beer, aren't you?"

"One track mind." Angel muttered. Buffy glared at him, and Hallie considered that glare with some interest. D'Hoffryn shook his head at her, and she glared back at him. Angel, too wary to glare at Spike with Buffy in such a precarious mood, just scowled at the floor.

"But we do need more beer." Spike said helpfully. Everyone stopped glaring at whoever they had been glaring at, and glared at him instead. "For it to be a party."

"Uh..." Wes ducked back. "Beer? Ah, you said beer?" Hallie, right behind him, grimaced in a kittenish way that Buffy suspected she practiced in a mirror.

"I don't like beer," Hallie pouted.

"Michelob?" D'Hoffryn asked hopefully.

"What do you like?" Wes asked in a low voice.

"Champagne."

"Hey!" Buffy said. "I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but could you settle the beverage issue at some other time?"

"There were a couple left," Spike said thoughtfully.

"Hey!" Buffy snapped, and he froze, then grinned at her, sticking his tongue out. She looked around. She had never seen such an interesting group of guilty-looking faces in her kitchen; Hallie, looking sullenly at the floor; Wes, eyeing the remains of Spike's beer with longing, and Angel, looking like Angel. The moment fixed itself in her mind, another little glimpse into the weirdness that was Chez Summers. Two vampires, two humans, two demons----no, make that one, as Hallie sniffed and stomped off to the living room. It occurred to her that it would take some doing to eclipse the weird factor for this evening. Now, there's a challenge, she thought.

Buffy cleared her throat, and watched the reaction. I really am Mom. Oh, God. Everyone looked suddenly guilty again for a moment, then briskly resumed whatever it was they were doing. Wes rummaged in the fridge for a beer, then handed it back to Hallie, without noticing she was no longer behind him. It was D'Hoffryn who took it, twisting the top off with a casual flick of the wrist that had been sadly absent during his wand-wielding demonstration. Wes casually handed another to Spike, who took the opportunity to eye her over it as he savored the first taste, turning a swig of beer into a heavy-lidded study of her suddenly flushed face. The moment was spoiled when he coolly raised one eyebrow at Angel behind her, and Angel responded by trying to step around her. She held up a hand like a referee and turned a withering scowl on Angel, but when she'd turned back to the kitchen, only a slightly startled D'Hoffryn was looking at her. She had to sigh and regard Angel with impatience.

"Come on."

They returned to the porch, assuming opposite corners like boxers. "I really don't like this, Angel, but there just doesn't seem to be any way around it, okay? I've changed, and you aren't dealing with it."

"Buffy, that's not it at all. I know you're different, so am I."

"Prove it."

He frowned in puzzlement, and Buffy saw that, too. He's not used to me disagreeing with him. Yet. "How?"

She sat down on the porch step, implicitly inviting him to do so as well. Stiffly, he adjusted his coat and sat across from her.

"Cordelia's baby." She hugged her knees to her chest. "How come she didn't tell anybody? Who's the father? How old is it? What happened? It's killing me."



Chapter 41

"Uh...what?"

"Cordelia's baby." Buffy specified, as if there were another baby around that they had been discussing. Angel shifted uncomfortably on the step, and Buffy recognized it for what it was: the sort of discomfort that preceded lying, especially male lying. "God, Angel, relax. Whose is it? I mean, what could possibly shock me? Is it Wes'...? Okay, actually, not sure I want to think of Wes like that at all. It'd be like thinking of Giles....Ugh. But anyway, how come she didn't say anything? That's a lot of stretch marks for Cordelia to deal with. Huh. Did he run off and leave her or something? It just seems so...different...for Cordelia."

"Oh, God." Angel said. "Why are we talking about this again?"

"Because you absolutely cannot talk about my personal life and my friends if I can't do the same thing with your life and your friends."

"Yeah, but, Buffy, what if the same stuff doesn't happen to me that happens to you?"

"Well..." She said thoughtfully. "I guess you're right. It's not like you can date somebody who's incredibly inappropriate that all your friends will disapprove of. But, you know, at least neither one of us has to worry about getting pregnant!" Her face slowly changed as she watched his face freeze up. "Oh, God, Angel, I'm sorry. I really am. I just..." Her hands twisted together in her lap. "I'm so, so, sorry."

The silence that followed wasn't just uncomfortable, it was positively excruciating. I can't talk to him any more, Buffy thought. I used to think I could, but could I?

And Angel thought, I can't tell her. She'll never understand. "You know, it's just that moment of perfect happiness that's the curse." He said quietly. "Imperfect happiness isn't too bad."

The words hung over them, twisting, changing, exploding.

"Oh. Oh." Buffy stared at him. "Angel..." She swallowed over a lump in her throat. The one constant in her life had been him, and the connection they'd had. The type of connection he couldn't have with anybody else. She considered her next words carefully, and tried to think mature thoughts, and of course blurted out what she actually wanted to say. "Oh. Oh. You mean...You had sex?"

"Do we have to discuss this?" He did his uncomfortable shift again. "This is really hard for me."

She just stared at him in astonishment. He was uncomfortable talking about his love life? Before she could jump in, he said quietly, "I have to...I have to settle, Buffy. I don't have the options you have."

She was still staring at him in that way he was now associating with unpleasant outbursts. She shook her head slightly, which made him even more nervous, but all she said was, "Were you always like this? Did I, like, just not notice because I was sixteen?"

Angel winced again. Good, she thought. You won't talk to me, then I'm going to make you so uncomfortable you'll have to talk to me. "Angel, have you been taking notes? Because we're getting real close to the part where we basically just repeat everything we've ever said today over and over till I fall over from starvation and exhaustion."

"Park Place, baby, it's all mine!"

Both of them stopped, startled, freezing in exactly the same pose, heads slightly lifted and turned, ears cocked to the sound of D'Hoffryn gloating. "Hah! I've always wanted Park Place! Tonight's my night!"

Angel choked and then burst out laughing, slapping his hand over his mouth to muffle the sound, and Buffy, after a shocked silence, smiled too, but more at Angel than at D'Hoffryn. We used to do this, she thought. I remember this. What happened?

"It's nice that he's so mature," Angel said cautiously, bringing back a sharp memory of the Angel she had known.

"Well, maybe that's why he's a vengeance demon."

"One Monopoly board away from demonic employment," Angel said dryly. "You never know when..."

"You know, now I'm curious as to what he was like when he was human."

"Monopoly?" Angel said.

"Plus the whole wand thing," Buffy pointed out.

"And he was the demon who turned Anya?" Angel speculated. He shrugged. "Nerd, I'm guessing. But a thousand years ago? Nerd with really bad hygiene. And bad teeth."

Buffy sighed at that, her mind helpfully producing an all-too-vivid image of a snaggle-toothed, greasy character with gaping, picket fence teeth. The mental image faded, bit by bit, as she realized that Angel was watching her and she was watching back. "Talk to me, Angel," she said quietly. "I don't want to dislike you."

"How about if I do that?" Spike drawled from the doorway. "See you a minute, Buffy?"

Buffy glanced in frustration from Angel to Spike, her mouth opening and closing. Dammit, he was going to say something. I had him all softened up. Then another part of her brain asked, why should you have to soften him up? What was he hiding?

"Be right back," she said to Angel. She stepped inside the kitchen, where Spike grabbed her hand and pulled her behind the basement door. "This better be good," she whispered. "I really need to find out what's going on."

"Why? Why don't you just call Cordelia and ask her?"

"She hasn't called me." Buffy said stubbornly. "That means she's really uncomfortable talking about it, which means it would be really uncomfortable for her if I just asked her about it."

"Because then she might ask how you found out in the first place."

"Well, why? I could just tell her you were in LA."

"Why was I in LA? You're going to tell her that?"

"No," Buffy dropped her eyes, unsure where he was taking this. "It's not like she'll ask, anyway. So...this wouldn't have anything to do with me talking to Angel, would it? I mean, he and I, talking...Are you jealous?"

"Always," Spike said, leaning in, grabbing her arms, and kissing her. Angel's right out there, her mind protested, but her body abruptly recalled the morning spent in bed, the teasing car ride, and responded eagerly. Maybe he'd expected resistance; maybe he'd expected something else, but he pulled away and looked at her. She read that expression correctly: when had he ever been any good at concealing his feelings?

"Jealous much?"

"Too bloody right," he muttered, leaning against the wall, sliding his hands all the way down her back to her behind, and grabbing. He pulled her against him, driving his tongue into her mouth, and his erection against her stomach. She jerked back with a gasp as voices entered the kitchen.

"Look, what we need is strategy." Wes said quietly.

"Oh, why bother? He'll win anyway. He sulks if he doesn't. Eats all the best deserts in the fridge...He once ate a whole cheesecake that was supposed to be for Anya's. ..." The fridge door opened and closed, and there was a curious silence, during which they could hear Wes make a frustrated sound. "Why don't you use the bottle opener?" Hallie said skeptically. Another silence, during which Hallie gasped. "I'm so sorry! I had no idea! How did you hurt your hand like that?!"

"Well," Wes said modestly. "I used to be a rogue demon hunter..." The voices receded, and Spike grabbed Buffy's hand and pulled her down the basement steps. Oh, God, this is so bad, she thought. He turned around at the foot of the stairs, his face tight and intense, and she half-jumped, half-collided with him, wrapping her arms around his neck, her leg around his waist, and her tongue around his. He kissed her back hungrily, feverishly, reaching down and lifting her, pulling her other leg around his waist. She gasped into his mouth, half-laughing, half-groaning, as everything combined in exactly the right spot. He reeled across the basement floor with her, bumping her butt on the washing machine. Oh, God, this is so good, she thought, as he wrapped his arms all the way around and pulled her against him. "Oh, God, I can't." She whispered. "There's no time. They're right upstairs."

"We've had this conversation before, haven't we?" Spike muttered against her mouth, but she was wavering and he saw it. He pulled one of her hands from his hair and fitted it to his crotch, watching her watch him as she did what she'd wanted to in the car. She molded her hand to his erection, and explored him through his jeans, unabashedly rubbing and stroking him, while his eyes squeezed shut and she wished it was skin rather than fabric. "Oh, God." she whispered, finally. He pulled her off the machine, slipping his hand down her belly, down into her jeans, ignoring her gasp and her flinch as he found sensitive flesh. She tensed against him, grabbing his wrist, whether to stop or encourage him, he didn't know. What he did know was that she kissed him greedily, moving against him in rhythm with his fingers. Reluctantly, he withdrew his fingers from her, guiding and coaxing her till she was facing away from him. He found the zipper of her jeans, and she stiffened, but he buried his face in her neck, muttering because he couldn't help himself, "God, I want you." Instead of resisting, she arched against him in response. He pulled her jeans down a few inches, just enough, and felt her shudder and gasp. "Shh..." He whispered. His hands shook as he fumbled with his belt and zipper, freeing his cock. "Shhh.." He repeated again, slipping one hand down her belly, between her legs, finding her wet and soft. He slipped inside her, wrapping his arms around her, burying his face in her hair. She shoved back against him, moving with him, covering his arm around her body with her own. He couldn't kiss her mouth, but he kissed her neck instead, moving slowly, pulling out and thrusting back inside her with a gasp.

"Oh, God," she whispered. "Oh, God." She could hear the creak of the house upstairs, the sound of footsteps on the floorboards. None of it registered much at all as she absorbed the new sensations, the feel of it. He didn't have to move hardly at all. He was pressed against her back, one arm wrapped tightly around her, bracing himself on the top of the machine on his elbow, while his free hand roamed to all sorts of places. Her jeans were only lowered just below her buttocks, and he'd done little more than open his fly. What would this be like naked? She thought. She reached back with one hand, feeling his face twist as he sucked in air between kisses. Not exactly kisses, either; he was devouring her neck and back with his mouth, which didn't seem the same as mere kissing. She could feel the muscles in her legs trembling as she got closer, the muscles quivering as he surged inside her, starting to move faster and faster, the two of them moving like one thing. Beast with two backs, she thought suddenly, remembering something he'd tossed at her once.

"Buffy?" Wes called.

Spike's eyes jerked open, and Buffy froze. Both of them held their breath, as there was a pause in the kitchen, then footsteps moving toward the porch. Angel, Buffy thought. Spike gasped in her ear, and she went rigid. The kitchen door opened. "She was just talking to Spike." Angel said. There was an eloquent silence .The footsteps came closer, and now there were more of them. "Fuck!" Spike muttered breathlessly. Then, with a low groan, he eased out of her, jerking his pants up. Before he zipped himself up, though, he straightened her up, pulling her jeans up. She was in a daze, so lost she could do little more than tug at the waistband of her jeans. He did it for her, wincing as she flinched. Just enough time for a kiss on the tip of her nose, then, grimacing, he tended to himself, zipping up with exquisite care. By that time, Buffy had recovered enough to step in front of him to hide the suspicious state of his jeans, just as Wes followed by Angel tiptoed down the stairs. At the sight of them, Wes stopped, dropping his eyes. Behind him,
Angel stepped down stiffly, hands jammed in his coat pockets.

"Uh...? Excuse me. "

"Yeah." Angel said sarcastically. "Excuse us." His lips were so tight with anger they were little than a dash.

"That's okay, mate." Spike said, attempting a nonchalant lean against the washing machine, and missing it entirely. He fumbled, and Buffy shifted in her place, to make sure she was still standing in front of him.

"Knock it off." Buffy said tightly. "What's wrong...?"

"Well, there's no champagne, and I don't think Angel really should drive..." Angel's scowl tightened even further at that, and Buffy thought uneasily, He looks like Angelus when he looks that mad.

Spike and Buffy both stared at him for a moment, then turned to look at each other. "Champagne." Spike said thoughtfully.

"Ordinarily, I'd go myself..." Wes said apologetically. "It's just that D'Hoffryn is being rather..."

"Oh, no." Spike said.

"No." Buffy said vaguely. "No problem." Wes turned eagerly and ran up the stairs, but Angel remained. Buffy cleared her throat. "I said, 'no problem.'"

Angel glared at them both, and then, with a completely unnecessary swish of his coat, stalked up the stairs.

Spike materialized against her and Buffy sagged back against him. He grabbed her arms and muttered in her ear, "Car. Us. Naked. Okay? Just hold on."

"Oh, sure." She whispered sarcastically. "Thanks." He pulled her against him, pressing his crotch against her, and she quivered.

Going up the stairs was absolute torture, and it was compounded by the fact that he had to grab his duster and shrug it on to hide his condition. It was with some interest that he watched her very carefully place each foot, one at a time, in front of each other. In the kitchen, she started to turn toward the back porch, but he grabbed her hand and pulled her toward the front of the house. That was when he noticed that his own walk left something to be desired in the normality area; he walked like a man who'd had a sudden amputation. Which was pretty much what it felt like.

After an eternity, they reached the living room doorway, where three startled faces looked up at the interruption. Wes stared up at them for a moment, and then looked down. "Beer." Spike said by way of explanation.

"Champagne, too." Buffy pointed out.

With that, they marched to the door, calmly opened it, and with Spike gesturing Buffy out the door grandly, they stepped out on the porch. For a moment, with Spike ushering Buffy out the door, he looked like a weird only-in-Sunnydale game show host, directing weird flourishes at the prizes. Then Spike carefully shut the door, and they both took deep breaths, and dashed off across the lawn. Spike yanked open the door and Buffy practically dived in, only to be followed by Spike, landing directly on top of her, and hitting every spot on her body that was far too sensitive already. He crawled up her body and found her mouth with his own.

The next-door neighbors clicked their porch light on.

Spike groaned and swore, noting for the first time the passenger side door was still open. Reluctantly, he sat up, conscious of Buffy's wince as he pulled away from her hands. Resentfully, she continued to lay flat on the seat, but gradually she pulled her arms up and crossed them. This did not bode well. "We do have to get beer or champagne or whatever the fuck-all it was." He muttered. "C'mon, luv, up you get."

They wrestled around one another on the front seat so that Spike could find himself behind the wheel. Buffy slammed the passenger side door shut, and he pulled out from the curb with far more screeching of tires than was strictly necessary. He had no idea where he was going. All he was aware of was Buffy sitting beside him, several miles away. "Buff?"

She looked at him warily, entirely unsure of what her response should be. I used to be sixteen, she thought. Now I'm looking for a real dark parking spot so I can..."Hey!" She exclaimed.

Following her eyes, he saw what she did; a dead-end street with only a construction site on it. He sighed in relief, pulling in and parking the car in the shadow of the construction crane. Even before the car stopped moving, she was sliding toward him, and by the time the motor had started to cool off, she was on his lap. They met at the mouth, Spike shrugging out of the coat, never once separating from her lips. She tugged at his shirt, which probably would have worked better if she'd once stopped kissing him, and watched what she was doing. He was wiggling out of his coat, trying to shove it away and get his hands under her shirt when there was a shadow at the window, and a knock at the glass. Buffy jumped and Spike hissed through his teeth, turning to find himself confronted with a security guard. The guard looked both bored and pissed at the same time. Spike cranked the window down and glared.

"Not here, folks." He smirked. "Get a room instead of putting on a free.."
Spike snarled at him and snapped into game face. The guard tossed his flashlight into the air and then all they saw was his retreating back, bobbing away above flashing shoe soles. Spike sighed and banged his head back against the headrest. "Right then." He muttered, avoiding her eyes. Buffy slid to his side and he started the car, but he paused as she adjusted, stretching her legs over his lap, pulling herself closer with one arm hooked around his neck. She sucked at his ear, then worked her way down his neck. He could feel her smile into his neck as he shivered. She tickled the back of her neck with one hand, but the other was slipping down his chest, between his legs, gentle and insidious. A muscle jumped in his jaw as he wheeled the car around, but when she tightened her right hand and kissed the very line of his jaw he had to shake his head at the futility of it. When he turned his head to her she was dreamy-eyed and flushed, too much not to kiss. The car swerved disastrously, and he pulled his eyes back to the road. He slid his arm around her waist, bringing her closer still, so that she was burning into his side, but she pulled his arm away, bringing his hand to her mouth. He almost drove off the road entirely as she toyed with his index finger, biting it lightly, then kissing it. A quick glance found her with a mischievous look on her face that changed to a sly stare when she met his eyes. She put his middle finger into her mouth and sucked on it delicately.

That was when he floored it.

The car bumped wildly down the street, screeching past a ragged gate and shuddering to a stop in front of his crypt. Buffy gave him an unreadable look, and then uncoiled herself from the car while it still jiggled with the momentum of its stopping. He was already in the crypt when he realized she wasn't plastered to any part of his body any longer. He whipped around at the sound of the crypt door closing, and saw her, leaning back against the door, her face flushed. He stared at her, his entire focus narrowing in on her face, and then flashed across the floor to her, the door banging in the frame as he collided with her. In a good way, she thought, clutching at his shoulders. They were fumbling with each other's clothes, trying to kiss and move at the same time. He ripped his belt free, undid his zipper, but in that tiny little time period she made a pathetic noise in her throat because his hands weren't on her. He shoved against her even harder, not so much kissing her as he was devouring her. Her hands scrambled at his arms, his shoulders, fluttering from his hair to his face to around his neck, trying to find some place to alight.

For one relatively calm moment while he tried to unzip her pants with shaking hands, one of her hands found his erection and he had to pull away. Nose to nose, an inch apart, she stared into his eyes as she leaned away, wriggled out of her shoes, then slithered her jeans down her legs. The frenzy melted away. He took her face into his hands. Tasting her mouth with long and thorough strokes, but it was still a bit too much for her. She had to pull back now and then, leaning the back of her head against the door while she gasped for air. She tightened her arms around his neck, pulling him closer, and he reached down and picked her up. They wiggled against each other, Buffy staring into Spike's face, watching his face change as she moved against him, his cock sliding against her, maddening her. That's another face I like, she thought. Another one to remember. And then he slipped inside her, so deep she had time to gulp as gravity pulled her down on top of him.

Oh, she thought. Oh. He grabbed the doorknob with one hand, moving against her, his face buried in her chest, her hands skittering in his hair as she shifted and moved, pulling his face up to kiss. Her thighs ached around his waist, his collarbone bumped into her face as she gasped into his shoulder. He burned inside her; she was going to catch fire, burst into flames...

And then she did. Her breath stopped in her chest, her hands fisted around his neck, and every muscle went rigid as if shocked and then spasmed. Her climax brought on his own, and she got to watch him, his head sagging back, his eyes closing as if to hold off some sort of agony. Even while her own body moved against her control, she kissed him weakly, softly, as if there was nothing left in her veins. He dropped his forehead to her shoulder, and she cradled it with one arm, half glad he couldn't see the expression on her face as she kissed his hair. All the blood in her body seemed to have been replaced by bubbles and the muscles in her legs had turned to rubber. He lifted his head, staring into her eyes as he held her around the waist while he wriggled out of her. Her legs slipped down his thighs, and her feet touched the ground, which seemed to be moving under her feet. Sighing, Spike leaned against her, nuzzling her neck and collarbone, but the romance was spoiled when he tickled her bottom.

"Hey! Way to spoil the mood!" Buffy exclaimed. Of course what mood was appropriate for a up-against-the-door quickie with a vampire that left both of them half-naked and shaking....? Well, that was a stumper, and Spike was not helping. He slid down and kissed her belly, his hands cupping her bottom in such a way that she tried to wriggle away. "Stop..." He started putting his tongue into his kisses, turning her bellybutton into an erogenous zone she hadn't been aware till now. "Oh, stop, stop...Knock it off...Stop..." He slipped lower. "Oh..."She sighed suddenly. "Don't stop, don't stop..." He smiled into her skin, and her knees simply buckled under her. Spike eased her to the ground, and took advantage, even though she was clutching his hair tight enough to pull it into a Mohawk. It was worth it, just to see the way she arched into his mouth when she came, just to hear her scream when it hit her. He pillowed his head on her thigh and waited for her to recuperate, admiring the topography of her body as she tried to catch her breath. Fine with him, more time to indulge in unabashed Buffy watching, especially seeing as how it provided him with a pleasant respite in the midst of Angel-enduring. He sighed.

Buffy stared up at the ceiling, wondering where her bones had gone. How come the more they had sex, the more she wanted, and the better it got? Didn't matter when, where, how, it was an addiction, except it didn't make her feel bad. She couldn't imagine lying comfortably, unabashedly naked with Riley, and not only not caring, but actually liking. There was an odd innocence to it, a complete absence of the guile she'd experienced with other men, where the goal had been to get some sort of control over her. Spike's goal appeared to be to make her lose control as often and as enthusiastically as possible.

Her eyes snapped open, looked at the ceiling, and then she raised her wrist with her watch on it before her eyes. She groaned, lifted her head, and glared at Spike, aiming a very girlfriend-style kick at him. "Hey!"

"What?!"

"That wasn't quick. It was supposed to be quick, and it...Oh, my God."

"It was supposed to be quiet, too," Spike pointed out, "But it seems that whoever was in charge of the quiet quickie division has been falling down on the job, too." He stuck out his tongue at her, then turned it into a lascivious pout. When she sat up, he sat up as well, grabbing her legs and pulling her into his lap. Before she could do more than sulk at him, he leaned in and kissed her. She wrestled free, standing up and swaying, which he observed with a certain feeling of accomplishment. Then he got up himself, hampered slightly by the jeans around one ankle. Buffy was already pulling hers on, wincing as she did so. "What?" He asked.

"These are so..."She turned slightly pink. "Skanky. Ew."

He pulled his own jeans up, buckling his belt, while Buffy grimly zipped hers up. "'Fraid it's going to have to get a lot worse, though, pet."

"Why's that?"

He went and got one of his own beers from his fridge, opened it, and gestured at her reluctantly. "Angel." He said. "He'll...ah...know. What we've been doing."

"Know? You mean....Oh. Ew." She eyed the beer. "What's that for?"

"Might be able to hide it."

She thought about it. Angel knowing that they'd rushed off to have a not-so-quick-quickie, or sitting in a puddle full of beer on the way home? Besides, Angel already knew about her and Spike, even though he evidently thought he could talk her out of it. Then she thought of the look he'd get on his face as the realization hit, which a day full of talking his ear off had not accomplished.

She held out her hand for the beer, and Spike gave it to her. But he was rather startled when instead of pouring it on her jeans, she took a swig out of it, looked him straight in the eye, and then choked as the flavor of it hit. "Ah...gah." Then she swallowed it.

"Buff...He'll be able to..." He left the sentence tactfully unfinished.

"Well, he knows already." She said grimly, trying another swig. "But he doesn't think I should do someone, er, something that he doesn't approve of. So maybe he'll really know now."



Chapter 42

The first thing they saw from down the block was Xander's car, parked in front of the house. "Great." Spike muttered. "Maybe they're just leaving."

"Hey!" she smacked him. "You like Anya."

"Well..."

"You do... don't you?"

Spike shrugged and pulled over. Her smacking him would have carried slightly more weight if she hadn't been sitting yet again half across his lap, one arm around his shoulder, and utterly unaware of it. "I guess."

"No honor amongst demons?"

"She's a former demon," Spike pointed out. "I, however, have not let my membership lapse."

"I'd noticed." He got out, reaching in the back for the bags, but by the time he'd gathered them up she was out of the car, looking at him over the top of the car for a moment.

"Had you?" He eyed her as well. "Was it the excessive reliance on sunscreen that gave me away, you think? Or the aversion to Judeo-Christian religious symbols? Or maybe it was the, oh, I don't know, sexual endurance level---"

"Hey!" She hissed. " We're in public!"

"So which is it?" He enquired evilly. "Public discussion or vampire discussion that's got your knickers in a twist? Well, assuming you were wearing any?"

"Public! Somebody might hear you!" She whispered, glancing around. "Dawn's already asking about sex! I don't want her to be reminded that it... exists. Or happens. Or whatever." She closed her eyes and sighed. "Just have to resign myself to that one, okay? Like in ten years or so."

"Uh." he muttered, suddenly sober. "Could always show 'em the fangs, Slayer. That'll keep the buggers away...from... her... Oh...." Off her glance, he shifted his eyes away, wondering what he'd done now. "Well," he cleared his throat. "Cross that bridge when we get to it, won't we? Dawn's not nearly old enough to begin dating, is she? Nothing to worry about."

She gave him a look as he crossed around the front of the car, another Buffy look he simply couldn't interpret. I can speak how many languages, but nobody's ever yet deciphered Female, he thought to himself. Nevertheless, there was something companionable about their silence as they approached the house, even if both of them were bracing for something, him for Harris, and she for Angel.

The Monopoly game was in full swing when they entered the living room, with Anya having enthusiastically entered the fray and laid waste to her opponents. Angel was sitting in aloof silence at one end of the couch, watching the players go at it, while Harris perched on the edge of a chair and from all appearances tried to rein Anya in. Hallie seemed to be doing little but moving her piece, giggling, and clutching at Wes' arm. D'Hoffryn sat at the opposite end of the couch from Angel, staring twitching at Anya's every play. As the two of them came in the front door, they all looked up, and Spike raised the bags from the liquor store, partly as explanation, partly as shield. "Beer. Wine. Champagne. Let's medicate, shall we?" D'Hoffryn perked up instantly, raising a hand like an obedient schoolboy. "Oh... Heineken?" Spike freed one from the bag, and tossed it to him, and retreated to the kitchen, but not before catching the slow tightening of Angel's face as a certain realization dawned. Angel's eyes darted at Spike, then Buffy, and stayed on her. He stared at her, then slowly ran his eyes up and down her entire length, before looking her in the eye again, his jaw agape, his eyes wide and startled. For a moment, he looked so much like he had when she'd loved him that it hurt. Then it vanished, as his face twisted and he drew back an inch or two. It might as well have been a mile. She felt that as keenly as she'd felt it when she'd stabbed him.

"Buffy?"

She looked at him squarely. "Angel? Is there something you want to say?"

They stared at each other, three feet and three years apart.

His lips tightened, and he shook his head at her. It came across to her less as a negative answer than a total negation of her and everything she'd asked him. Unless I do what you want, you're not going to be nice to me? She thought. Well, fine. Two can play at that game. "Well, we're back." She said lightly. "I guess I'll go take a shower, and then we can talk about Cordelia's baby."

Wes' jaw dropped, and he slowly closed his mouth, looking for a long moment at Angel, then back at Buffy. "Angel?" He asked.

"Never mind, Wes."

"But... Angel...."

"I'll deal with it, Wes."

"Well, it doesn't look like...." Wes said slowly, but Angel turned around and looked at him, and he suddenly remembered what he'd felt early, staring down a drunken Angel in his office. He dropped his gaze, and everyone in the room suddenly found it difficult to know where to look. Hallie's bright and perky face softened into concern, and she gave his arm a gentle squeeze, completely different from the rather clutchy grip she'd had on it all evening. When he glanced up at her, she met his eyes firmly and gave him a little nod. He found his voice: "I have pictures." He said helpfully.

"What?" Xander asked. Even D'Hoffryn tore his attention away from the game.

"Oh, I have pictures." Wes said with forced cheer, pulling out his wallet. "He's such a remarkable baby, really." He flipped open his wallet to show the credit card compartment, which turned out to be completely filled with pictures of Cordelia, a young black man none of them recognized, a slender girl who again was unknown, and a chubby-faced infant who couldn't have been more than a month or two old. "See? That's Connor." He passed the wallet around. D'Hoffryn was the first one to take it, his face scrunching up at he looked at the infant. "Aw." He muttered.

"God, looks like someone's had an influence on the poor girl," Spike said, rejoining the group. "I didn't have her pegged for the Irish name type of thing. More like a Justin or a whatever's trendy type of name." Angel winced, but Spike was working his way through the bodies around the living room and missed it. He flopped down into the chair and looked around. Angel stood immobile, hands jammed in his pockets, and Spike raked him with a skeptical glance. "What's the matter, sweetness? You act like a minister with dirty pictures stashed somewhere. Or a blonde who's afraid somebody's gonna find the peroxide." Angel made a disgusted sound, which made Spike laugh outright. "Better watch it, Grandpa. That's an old man's noise." He turned in his seat to look at the other vampire, now truly amused. "Is that it? You don't approve of Cordelia's kid, do you? Does it soften the blow, disapproving of something you can't have? Or do?"

Angel took a swift step forward, but Buffy, lingering in the doorway, cleared her throat quietly. "My house." She said quietly. Xander recognized it as the tone she'd once used on Quentin Travers. "You shouldn't be worried about each other. You should be worried about me."

She stood there and stared Angel down, till bit by bit the tension in his body relaxed and he slumped. Then she turned and walked up the stairs. At the landing, she stepped inside her room and then slammed the door, just because she had to slam something. What she wasn't expecting was the yelp from the bathroom.

"Uh, hello...?"

"Oh, is that you?" came a familiar voice. There was the sound of water sloshing, then the door creaked open and Lorne peeked through. He was wearing a shower cap. "Uh... be just a moment more." He disappeared and the door almost shut, but there was a squeak, and Lorne reappeared, plucked a yellow rubber ducky from between the door and the jamb, and vanished. She flopped down on the bed. There's a demon in my bathroom, she thought. Maybe it's the Sunnydale version of 'How Much is That Doggy in the Window?' It occurred to her that at the moment, the humans in the house were outnumbered by demons, and this was scarcely the first time. Normal? Here? This is normal? Being human in Sunnydale is like being....a virgin in a whorehouse. Rare and not likely to stay in that condition..

She stared up at the ceiling, half-listening for fighting noises downstairs. Nothing. Were Spike and Angel behaving? Or were they just afraid of her? She smiled at the ceiling. Not a half-bad thought, actually. At the very least it would make them behave.

She stared up at the water spot in the plaster, and tried to remember normality. All that came to her were vague pastels, memories of crushes, fashions, and gossip. Angel. I'm too old to be twenty-one. Oddly enough, with Spike, she felt not her age, or her vulnerability, but her potential. She looked forward. With Angel, she struggled to remember. Loving him had been the last gasp of the teenager she had desperately wanted to be----the cheerleader with the boyfriend who should have been a football captain. In real life, it was very likely what he'd been.

Football player. She shook her head at herself. What had Spike said?

What had he been?

She rolled over on her side, punching the pillow into a comfy shape. Of course, vampires were nothing like the humans they'd been. Angel didn't act like a football player, he acted like the dad of a football player, somebody who'd probably peaked in school, and then gone downhill from there. It was funny how she'd never really seen some of these tendencies at sixteen, but who could, the way Angel had mysteriously swooped in and out, disappearing before she could complete a sentence, much less ask a question? Whereas, of course, with Spike, he was always around, always talking....

"So what were you like when you were human?"

Spike was a perfect example; geeky git as a human....

...a walking rebellion as a vampire.

She sat up abruptly.

He'd thought of himself as a poet; the others had thought of him as a git, at least according to Spike. Angel hadn't disagreed with that assessment at all; she'd seen it herself. They act like two brothers, the older one picking on the younger one, if the older one was an athlete, and the younger one was a geek...What was the name of that football player who died, and whose nerd of a brother tried to make him a girlfriend?

The bathroom door opened, and Lorne stepped out, fully dressed, if damp, and toweling his hair vigorously. He surfaced from the towel with a rapturous smile on his face. "Honey, I feel like a whole new demon. What a palatial bathroom that is. I'm envious. And nice shampoo, too." He paused, studying her. "What's going on, sweetheart? You look like you just got hit over the head."

"Do you think Angel's like a football player?"

"I...What?"

"He acts like a football player. He acts like a guy who used to be a football player. He acts like a former football player who's going bald and selling used cars and---" Inspiration struck. "----fussing about his hair. He acts like he's middle aged all of a sudden."

"Well." Lorne said carefully. "Sweetie, I can't reveal anything, but Angel's going through some changes."

"Why? What changes? Middle age?"

"Long story, darling, and not something I can really tell you."

"How come?"

"Professional ethics and all that."

"Yeah, but you're a demon."

"We have ethics."

"What are they?"

"We're sort of like the AMA. Can't reveal stuff, you know. Maybe like a priest."

"Why, are you celibate?"

"Not by choice, sweetie, not by choice." He gave her a sly look. "Unlike you."

She shrugged, embarrassed. He shook his head at the ceiling as if appealing either to a deity or the plaster for help. "Sweetie, on the one hand, it's nice to see someone taking my advice. But you know what? I don't get to offer advice like that a lot of the time. You know why?" He looked down, gathering his thoughts. "Love is rare, and most people don't get to find it. So they don't ask me for advice about dealing with it. They ask me for advice about coping with not having it. Or poor shadows of it. They ask me advice about finding it. They use substitutes, they find close facsimiles, they fall in love or they tell themselves they fell in love, they love somebody who doesn't love them back... but they're not in the position you're in. Somebody loves you. Doesn't make any sense at all. But run with it, sweetie. Life is short, especially if you're the Slayer. Get all the chocolate cake and nookie you can." Buffy blushed bright red, and he slapped one arm around her shoulders and gave her a hug that so reminded her of Joyce that she blinked for a second, whipped between a memory and wish. God, I wish Mom was alive. I could ask her about Spike.

"There's no real dilemma here, is there?" Lorne asked. "Not a big talker are you? I think, you just damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead." He squeezed her again. "Angel, well, Angel...."

"How long have you known him?"

Lorne thought about it. "I tend to measure time in terms of demons fought, drinks drunk, clubs destroyed, diapers changed..."

"That's the dilemma." Buffy sighed. "Cordelia's baby."

That took a moment to sink in. "Cordelia's... what?"

"Her baby."

"Her baby?" Lorne pulled away to look at her. "Who told you it was Cordelia's baby?"

"Well, Spike saw her in LA, and..."

"What did Angel say about that?"

"Well, we got interrupted last time. I don't think he likes talking about it."

"How did you get interrupted?"

"Spike."

"Ah. How fortunate." He rubbed his chin, obviously thinking, and Buffy stood up. "You know what? Go take a shower, it helps. I have to go do something."

"Huh?" Buffy frowned at him, puzzled by the sudden change into Mr. Decisive Demon, but the siren song of the shower called to her. She shrugged it off and went to prepare for the next round. Nothing like being all shower fresh when you argue.

Behind her, Lorne sat on the bed, and stared at her as the bathroom door clicked shut. "Yes, how fortunate. For Angel."



Gotta stop having sex in the tub if that's all I'm going to think about later, Buffy thought. It just seemed a terrible hardship to soap her own hair and scrub her own back, to slosh around with no sleek male body to fit against and melt into. Kissing him under the stream of water, feeling his body warm to hers with the temperature of the water, slipping and sliding against his skin. It wasn't even sexual, that feeling, well----until it had turned into sex----it was more like a whole body sigh, as every muscle relaxed, every cell exhaled its tension. The way his head tilted back slightly when she did anything to him, his lips parting, his eyes drifting half shut....

Great. That was helpful.

She soaped resentfully, sighing periodically, but no one came to her rescue. After a moment it occurred to her that Lorne might very well be still in her bedroom, and God only knows how he was interpreting her sighs and mutters. She scrubbed between her toes and replayed Angel's look as he'd looked at her, reality dawning over his face, shock setting in....

The question was, how much reality?

Maybe it was just being around Spike, who habitually blurted out whatever thought was in his head at the time, no matter where he was or what he was doing. Example: "I knew it. Only thing better than killing a Slayer would be f----" But at least she knew exactly what was going on. Not like he was going to go all broody or anything on her.

She smiled at the thought. Spike's version of brooding would probably be to throw things and swear all the time instead of just now and then.

Her smile faded. It wasn't just that Spike blurted out whatever was on his feverish brain, no matter what; it was that she was surrounded by people who didn't quite do the same. Willow? There was a huge chunk of missing there. Xander? Between the Dancing Demon and his refusal to acknowledge what Spike had done over the summer, she didn't know where she stood with him. Giles? Gone.

And now Angel.

What was wrong there?

It wasn't that he said anything that seemed false. It was just that what he said seemed so... incomplete. She'd been expecting something else to come out of his mouth, some other shoe to drop, and it hadn't happened.

What could it be?

Did Cordelia get impregnated by a demon?

Well, okay, bad, but who cared? After all, this was California, they made birth announcements for just about every pairing. Why not interspecies?

Okay, maybe it was something worse. Cordelia got impregnated by an actor? Again, ugh, but so what?

Musician?

Mucous demon?

Who cared? Why hadn't she called? Why hadn't she written?

She stared down at the water, scrubbing between her toes, thinking, It's so much more fun when Spike does that. Crap.

Had something bad happened to Cordelia?

Again, she had to dismiss the idea. There was no hint of that in Angel's speech, his demeanor, his attitude.

He just doesn't want to talk to me.



He sat on the bed for a moment, listening to her moving around in the bathroom, starting the water, getting out towels. Then he got up and padded in his bare feet to the stairs and silently glided down them till he was standing motionless in the hall outside the living room, watching the Monopoly game. Angel stiffly sat on one end of the couch, cheek in one hand, the picture of slowly-stewing irritation, while Spike sprawled cheerfully in the chair across from him, sipping nonchalantly from a beer and breaking out occasionally into a grin of pure malice. He was practically bouncing in his seat with sadistic delight.

Wes and Hallie huddled on one side of the coffee table while D'Hoffryn intently scanned the board from the head of the table and cast sullen looks at Anya, who appeared to have taken over on behalf of both herself and Xander. Xander was paying more attention to the TV than to the game, glancing over his shoulder now and then at Anya's exclamations and muttering, "That's nice, sweetie."

Lorne leaned in the doorway. I used to have a club, he thought. I used to have a club. I used to be somebody. Now I change diapers for somebody. It wasn't so much the diapers he minded, it was the fact that Connor didn't seem to have the same effect on Angel as he did on himself and Wes. Hell, Wes was carting around pictures of the little rug rat. Given the opportunity, he himself could natter on happily about the little brat for quite some time, but it bugged him that Angel... wasn't. Might not be my kid, might not be my ex.... but how could you be so proud of the kid and not talk about him with the love of your life? Didn't he trust her? Why was he lying to her?

"So, Angel..." He said. "I guess you and Buffy have been having some interesting conversations."

Angel looked up at him, and a slow moment passed, ticking by, as everyone else ignored them. "Well... Yeah."

"Cause, of course, you've been discussing Cordelia's baby and all. God only knows that's a subject you want to just go on and on about."

Angel's eyes sharpened suddenly, and Lorne found himself confronted with a face he didn't recognize, but Xander did: Angelus. He glanced up from the game, casually looked from demon to vampire, then back at the television. There was a moment's delay while his brain caught up with his eyes, before his body recognized what his eyes had seen, and he froze in his place. Then he turned and looked carefully at Angel. He glanced up at Lorne, too.

"Well, who wouldn't be fond of that kid?" Angel chuckled. His sudden smile looked more like a grimace than a smile, the sort of thing a man might do during acute intestinal distress.

"Yeah, who wouldn't?" Lorne asked quietly. "Because evidently, one way or another, his father doesn't care to own up."

And Xander watched as the tense smile was whisked off Angel's face as if it had been slapped off. His hands turned cold, and his face felt hot. "So... Cordelia had a kid?" He interjected weakly. " Cordelia as a single mom. Can't imagine she'd do that. Isn't it kind of bad for the..." He gulped as Angel turned to him, that tight, white face bringing back all too many memories. "....complexion?" He finished breathlessly. Angelus, crowding against him in a hallway, while his best friend struggled to keep breathing. Was it unfair of him to still blame Angel for... well.... everything? If he had helped them instead of, well, everybody else... Maybe you just didn't get credit with the Powers That Be for helping your friends. A sudden thought hit him. He never came back after the funeral. Looking at him now, he was seventeen again, and it wasn't a good seventeen, either.

"Oh, pregnancy isn't bad for the complexion." Anya said helpfully. "It's actually quite beneficial."

Spike had glanced up as the tension mounted, his wide grin slowly ebbing to a smile, then fading entirely away. Wes, likewise, had leaned away from the game, and was steadily regarding Angel. Hallie kept her eyes fixed on her hand, laid next to Wes' on the carpet.

"Good to know." Xander said, nodding vigorously, his eyes fixed on Angel's face. "Good to know. I'll be taking notes."

"No, you won't, sweetie." Anya said absently, hopping a piece several squares and seizing on a property that made D'Hoffryn's face pucker up with tension. "Your handwriting is awful, but you make up for it by doing lots and lots of----"

"Anya!"

"Oh, yes." Anya looked up, finding all faces turned to her. "It's okay, Xander, see? I didn't make any sort of sexual reference. Isn't that good?"

"That's wonderful, sweetie. I'm so proud of you." He leaned forward and pecked her on the lips.

"Why are your lips so cold?" Anya enquired. "Are you afraid I'm playing for money?"

"No, sweetie, if you did, we'd be able to buy a house."

"Hey!" Anya said suddenly, turning to the other players. "Could we play for money?"

A ring of skeptical faces suddenly surrounded her, like petals on a flower. "Anyanka," Hallie chided. "Is that all you think of, money?"

"Oh, no!" Anya corrected brightly. "The rest of the time, it's Xander!"

Xander turned suddenly to her, all the fear washing out of his system. "Anya..."

"What?" She whispered, worried by the look on his face. He was so serious all of a sudden, his eyes full of something that she couldn't interpret. "What did I say wrong?"

He cupped her shoulder with one hand, stroking her comfortingly. "Absolutely nothing, sweetie. Absolutely nothing."

"Which is nice." Lorne said. "Because it does kind of bring us back to the motif of the evening, which is sort of similar. Let's talk."

"Already tried that." Buffy said from the stairs. "Didn't work. So what do you want to talk about?"

Lorne regarded her steadily. "Oh, this, that, stuff. Here's an idea. How saying nothing sometimes can be worse than lying. Point, counterpoint."

Spike yawned. "Are you getting all philosophical? Because I could use a nap."

"Yeah." Angel muttered. "I'll bet you're tired."

"Would you?" Spike leaned forward, his legs relaxing, falling slightly further open. "Because that would be kind of ignorant of you, wouldn't it? Not that you'd really... know." He relaxed further, sinking deeper into the cushions of the chair, His hand sliding down his chest and pausing at his belt buckle.

"Hey!" Buffy snapped.

"Sorry, luv." Spike glanced at her, abashed. "Didn't mean it quite that way."

"I still can't believe it." Angel said. "You and..."

"Well, I know what you mean." Buffy said. "After all, he's still here."

Heads snapped up around the table. "Uh...." Xander asked, then swallowed. "What did I miss?"

"Nothing." Anya sighed. "They're just going to talk and talk and talk, and then they won't even say what's pissing them off."

"And nobody will get revenge." D'Hoffryn muttered sadly. "And then they'll probably start talking again."

"No, we're done talking." Buffy said quietly. "Because you're not talking to me, Angel. I can tell you're.... you're not exactly lying but you're not telling the truth." Her glance fell on Xander, suddenly, and her face softened. "And I'm used to being around friends who at least try to tell me the truth."

"Oh, we can?" Anya said. "Because that top..." She paused regretfully. "It's just so the wrong..."Xander poked her and she frowned. "Hey! She said..."

"No, it's okay." Buffy said. "You know, I did some thinking in the shower. " Spike cocked his head at her, consideringly. Damn. Knew I was missing something. "And I just kind of came to the conclusion that you don't want to talk to me, Angel. You just don't. And I want to know why."

Angel glanced scornfully at Spike for a second, no longer, as if the younger vampire weren't worth more attention. "You know why."

"No, I really don't."

"Him." Angel spat out. "Him and his chip. I trust him about as far as I trust that chip."

To Buffy's surprise, Spike didn't get mad at all. He simply looked disappointed and rather disgusted. "Yeah, because souls are so trustworthy."

"How would you know?" Angel spat. "All you have is a piece of plastic."

Spike stared into his eyes. Again, his reaction was not the one Buffy expected. "You're forgetting, mate." Spike said. "I have a lot more than that. "

The two vampires stared at one another, and Buffy felt the most curious shiver of depression slither up her spine. There went my childhood, she thought, and the way I used to feel about him.

"Yeah." Angel said quietly. "How long before the chip fails?"

"There's something you're missing, Angel." Buffy said quietly. "It's not the chip you have to trust, it's me. If he really wanted to be all Big Bad, he'd have minions doing his work for him. I mean, if you really want something, you really do find a way to get it done." She looked around the room, to find all the faces turned up to her, running the gamut from Xander's rapt expression to Wes' distracted glance. Lorne buffed his nails on his shirt, assessed the result, and gave her a firm little nod without missing a beat. "If I trust Spike, then you should, too. When somebody almost lays down their life for my sister, for me, and... well... doesn't insult my friends nearly as much as he could have, I think that means something. So either you trust me, or you don't. That's fine. But don't pretend there's anything left between us if it's only when you feel like it."

Angel jumped to his feet. "Buffy... You're going to tell me that you... trust Spike more than me?"

"He's been here, Angel. You haven't even tried to be here."

"Buffy..." Angel ran his hands through his hair, something that made Spike open his mouth. Buffy could practically see the remark form on his tongue, and shot him a look that made him sigh and sink back in his chair. "I can't trust him. I can't. I've known him since..."

Spike frowned suddenly. "You don't know nothin', mate, nothin' at all about me." Putting his beer carefully aside, he stood up, as casually as if he intended to stretch. "Don't give me this crap about you knowin' me at all. I haven't seen you in a hundred years—well, except for that little relapse----but I have heard about you. What you did to Dru. What you were doin' with Darla. Or is it only you that's allowed to...?" Angel snarled at that, and lunged forward, but Buffy was faster, snapping between them.

"Darla?" Buffy asked.

"Nothing." Angel said. "Nothing."

Buffy stared into his face, seeing more desperation than anger. "Why can't you believe me?" She asked.

In answer, Angel just jerked his chin at Spike, who was simply standing there, his arms crossed. "I know him, Buffy, and I've known him longer than you, no matter how you count it."

Buffy thought about it for a minute, then answered. "Well, he's known you a lot longer than I have. Should I listen to him about you?"

Xander grinned to himself and swiftly stifled it behind his hand. "Especially seeing as how it's always been Angel trying to end the world, and ah, Spike..." Xander stopped so abruptly he made a choking sound. "Oh, God, I almost said something nice about Spike. Oh, God. Oh, God." Anya patted him on the back efficiently, but her eyes never left the little scene going on in front of her.

Spike's glance in Xander's direction was oddly consoling. "Know how you feel, Harris. Almost had the urge to say somethin' about you which wasn't entirely derogatory, but I laid down and it went away."

"I don't even care what it is you're not telling me any more, Angel." Buffy heaved a great sigh and turned and walked away, to stand in the doorway. With her back to him, her head bowed, and her arms crossed, she continued, "I mean, I know it's something about Connor, and I don't think he's Cordelia's baby or anything, and I know you're probably trying to protect him, but I really don't understand why. And you won't tell me. And you won't listen to me, either." She turned and looked at him. Everyone was still, even Spike, who had jammed his hands in his pockets. "I don't want it to end like this, Angel, I really don't. I've lost too many people who I loved. The way you feel about somebody never goes away, does it? Not even when they do." Her throat closed, and her eyes filled, so that she had to look down again, to study her blurry socks. She looked up and saw her life, perfectly posed before her. Her past, her present, her future. The past love of Angel, the present and perhaps future of Spike, and the constancy of Xander. Even Wes and Hallie were woven into the fabric there, Wes part of her past, and part of Angel's present, and Hallie from both Spike's life and Anya's. Why did they have to be of separate phases? Why couldn't they all be like this, all the time, no ruptures, no separations? Why did it have to end?

She looked at Angel. "Choose, Angel."

"Buffy, I can't."

"Then give me a good reason."

All he did was turn and glare at Spike. For a moment she had an idea she knew what it felt like to get staked, because that look just seemed to shoot through her. "I can't, Buffy. Not with Connor's life."

"Connor's life?" Buffy exploded. " What about my life? Because you sure seem to like popping in when it suits you. I mean.... What, did you adopt him or something? Is that it? He's not Cordelia's, he's not Wes', is he yours?"

Angel blanched, his jaw dropping open, flinching back away from her. It was Buffy's turn to stare in disbelief at him, throwing her hands up in the air. She shook her head at his reaction, but it took a moment to sink in. "He is yours? How? Is that all? You didn't....You couldn't even... send a card?" She spread her hands, bewildered. "God... You... adopted a kid? Why?" D'Hoffryn, still holding the baby pictures, glanced at them again, then at Angel, shrugged, and raised his hand. Everyone looked at him, and he hunched with embarrassment. "He's, ah, he's a really cute baby."

Angel ran his hand through his hair, momentarily pleased, then shrank, at the circle of disapproving faces.

Spike gave a short bark of laughter at that. As they both turned and glared at him, he covered his mouth and cleared his throat. "Sorry, but... how Los Angeles of you. Isn't adoption the big thing now? No stretch marks and all. Actually, that way I could believe it was Cordelia's..." He coughed again as everybody glared at him. "Well, makes more sense than Granddad here adopting a human. He is human, isn't he? It's not like you were ever a good father anyway... What next?" He enquired cheekily. "Hair transplants? Yoga?"

Xander raised his hand. "Uh... You do realize, this makes my family look normal." Everybody stared at him. "Sorry. But that's never happened before." Anya beamed at him.

Wes had been staring at the game board silently for quite some time, face flushed, almost embarrassed-looking. He bit his lower lip and looked up, his eyes firm and his mouth set. "Angel," he said quietly. "You can't keep doing this."

"It's none of your business, Wes."

"Well, it's not business, is it? We're not talking about work, are we? Because if we were, I could discuss how I came to be your employer."

"What would that prove, Wes?"

"Nothing, really, except that you've made some terrible mistakes, Angel." Angel's eyes bored into Wes', but the slender Englishman didn't blink. He raised his chin defiantly, and took a deep breath. "It's not as if I don't understand what a terrible strain this is upon all of us. But this.... "

Buffy thought about it for a minute, then tried to interrupt. "Oh, Wes...." I just called a Watcher by his nickname, she thought.

"Please, Buffy, let me finish." He smiled slightly at her, and nodded graciously in acknowledgement. It was so Watcher-like she had to smile herself. Once a Watcher, always a Watcher, she thought. He turned to Angel again. "The things we do, the things we see, take a terrible toll on us all. But... this really doesn't have anything with Spike's chip. Well, it might, but then we'd have to ask about your soul, too. Isn't your soul supposed to accomplish the same thing as Spike's chip?"

Angel stared at him ferociously, and after a moment, Spike slipped unobtrusively between him and Buffy, sought her eyes briefly, and then turned to face the older vampire. Angel didn't say anything, though, and the silence was so complete that they could hear the clock ticking in the hallway. Xander let out an explosive breath, then gulped another one in and held it.

"It should." Buffy said quietly.

"Then why didn't it?" Wes asked quietly.



Chapter 43

Buffy was left staring between Wesley, Angel, and Spike. Then, gradually, what Wes had said sunk in, and she turned and looked at Angel. It was several seconds before she could talk. "It...What? It didn't work? What? You have a soul, they don't...they don't...run out of....batteries...! What do you mean, it didn't...?!"

Angel shrank away, leaning against the wall as if he was afraid of an ambush from behind. "Buffy---"

She was beyond speech, staring at him, and he knew enough to realize that it was going to be unpleasant when she remembered how to talk again. "It's just that...." He gritted his teeth. "There was so much stuff going on, all last year. It didn't happen over night. It all just crept up on me, and---and---I couldn't talk about it."

Buffy stared up at him, her eyes huge. Not going to say anything, she thought. Mom died; you came for the funeral and that was it. Was that when you disappeared? After Mom died? Oh, God, she had lived on the memory his visit for months, using it to console herself, using it to keep her spirits up, what with Riley gone.... But somehow, she hadn't called him. It had been so hectic all that year, with Dawn, and Mom, ---oh, and Spike, always around, always complicating things....She turned and looked at Spike, her expression unreadable.

"Angel," Wes said reproachfully. "Why did you think that?" Angel shook his head impatiently, and Wes did the same. "We were...always there."

"It's so easy for you to talk, Wes." He said quietly. "It's never been easy for me. Never. Who should I talk to? Who could possibly understand? I mean, is there a—a---group for vampires with souls? I mean, maybe if there were, I could..." Wes sighed, very softly, flinching away from meeting Angel's eyes. "What would I tell you? I know!" He looked around fiercely. "Yeah, I can put this all into words. Really. Because it wouldn't any of you uncomfortable at all."

Angel cleared his throat nervously, and looked around. Wes cleared his throat as well, and visibly looked for tact, still not meeting the vampire's eyes. "Angel....We were all your friends. No matter what."

"Yeah, in that uneasy we're-friends-with-a-vampire-who-might-go-evil soon way. It's so relaxing."

Wes shook his head again, disbelief coloring his face with wonder. "Is that what you think? Why would you think that?"

"Tell me I'm wrong. Tell me everything is fine. Tell me you totally trust me now, and there's no reason to be suspicious. I mean, aside from the fact that I fired all of you guys and...."

Everyone in the room looked up at Angel at the same moment. "Maybe they disapproved of you and Darla." Spike said tightly. He caught Buffy's twitch out of the corner of his eye, but decided not to distract himself with it. "A good influence there, mate. Maybe that was it."

Angel ripped around with a snarl, but Spike surprised him by meeting him halfway. "Chip doesn't work on vampires." He said. "What does it say on your warranty?"

"I should have staked you when I had the chance."

"Your idea of a chance is when you've got the good odds, you wanker." Spike slouched away and leaned against the wall next to Buffy. "Don't have them now, do you?"

Angel looked around and wound up looking at Wes. Wes stared back, trying to look encouraging. "You know," Angel said desperately. "I came here to try and help."

"Christ." Spike said. "You came here because you're pissed that Buffy---"

Angel snarled at him again, and Spike grinned, straightening up lazily and showing every tooth he had. "Why does it matter so much to you, anyway? You haven't been keepin' anybody here on the Christmas card list, even though it might have done some real good for some people. Would have been nice, you know." Once again, he eased forward, as if the floor was mined, and he was afraid of hitting something that could explode. "Suppose you were too busy fighting the good fight, weren't you? Helping the helpless and all?"

"Well, yeah, I guess the person I want to discuss morals with would be you, wouldn't it, William." Angel spat out. "Because a couple of years makes you think you're a man, is that it?"

"No," Spike said quietly, so that only Angel could hear. "She does."

"So, uh, Angel," Xander said. "You adopted a kid?" He looked around, seeking support. "I mean, uh, why? What's the big deal?" He shrugged, embarrassed to be the focus of so many eyes. "The kid's human, right? So Spike can't hurt him, if that' s what you're worried about. Besides, I don't think Spike would want to, anyway. That was not a nice thing," he assured Spike, as Spike's expression gradually moved from puzzlement to full-out exasperation. "It's just an observation. Kids aren't fun to hurt, are they? So Spike wouldn't...uh...." It occurred to him that Buffy, who had been in some kind of private reverie, had abruptly snapped out of it and was staring at him."....wouldn't, uh, hurt them."

"No, they're easy." Anya observed matter-of-factly. "But no one's tried it with Britney Spears yet." She deflated with disappointment.

"Uh, hey!" Hallie waved one hand delicately. "Justice Demon, here. Child abuse is not funny."

"Unless it's Mary Kate and--" Xander said. He suddenly found himself the focus of the sort of stares he thought he'd left behind in high school. "Oh, hell, never mind. But I wasn't wrong, was I?"

"No, you're not." Spike said reluctantly. "If I wanted to hurt Angel, I could, and why go through the brat? I know the bloke's got pretensions, but not even a vampire with his taste in clothes is going to get so deluded he thinks he can fool people into believing the kid's really his. 'f the kid was his, I could understand him feelin' that nervous about it, I really can. But it's not something you'd have to worry about, would you then? I'm kind of flattered you'd think so, but really, mate, there's lots of people should be higher up on the list than me." It gradually dawned on him that his little speech had not sounded quite as anti-something or other as it should have, and he glanced around to assess the reaction. Everyone looked rather blank. He shrugged. "Like I said, you'd only have to worry if it was your kid. Then I expect you'd have to give out numbers..." Buffy was eyeing him with an unreadable expression that he was afraid would turn out to mean: You're sleeping on the couch. There were far too many people looking at him. "Besides, how stupid do you have to be to figure out that two vampires can't..."? Behind him, Buffy gave a little gasp, and straightened up abruptly from leaning against the wall.

"Imperfect happiness." She stared at Angel, dazed, before turning to look at Spike. "What did you say?"

"About what? Oh." He tried to remember what Dru had said. "Him and Darla."

For the second time, Buffy was beyond speech. Her mouth dropped open as she stared at Angel, and it was like she was looking at him for the first time. She remembered, uneasily, having the same feeling about Spike, some time after he'd defied Glory, and it was the same sensation, but not in a good way. It was like her skin was electrified by his presence, but with Spike it was a good feeling. Now? She had goose bumps as her nerve endings realized things before her brain processed them. "Darla? Darla? Not that Darla, right? She's dead. She's...tacky. She's....She's....I saw you stake her."

"There were some people that brought her back." Angel said quietly. "As a human."

Buffy gulped for air, then steadied herself. "Oh, and do you think you could have told me? I mean, how many times did she try to kill me? And how many times did she try to kill me before you finally killed her? Might have been nice to know somebody else who wanted to kill me was back. I mean, I like to keep a list. Even if she's human, she could still, like, get a gun and make me follow her fashion advice. What else is there? I mean, you didn't mention her, what else did you ...miss?"

" Well...." Angel took a deep breath. "She's not...she wasn't...human long. She, um....Well...when she was turned, originally, she was ill with syphilis. When they brought her back, she still had it. It was killing her." His voice was a monotone, colorless and practically without inflection.

"Did it?" Buffy snapped.

"Did it what?"

"Did it kill her?"

"No." Angel took a deep breath again. "So they found Dru and Dru turned her back."

Everyone stared at him. "So, yes, that was my stressful year." He said bitterly. He shot a look at Buffy.

Spike grinned at him. "Why stop there, mate? Isn't there more?"

Angel looked from Buffy's face to Spike's, and had to look away. "I didn't come back after you died, because I've already lost you so many times already. I've lost count. Everybody's gone. Everybody. I outlived them all, and with you...it was three times, over and over again. It never gets easier to watch, Buffy. Knowing I can't do anything, can't stop you from doing the things that will get you killed?" He rounded bitterly on Spike. "Darla was somebody I thought wouldn't die, but she did. I was just so happy to have her back." The two vampires stared at one another. "See how you like it, when you have to live without somebody, when you have to watch them die."

Spike glared back. "I already have," he icily. "Oh, that's right, you weren't here to see it. Guess you were suffering, though---when there were witnesses." Angel looked away, from both Buffy and Spike, but Buffy never looked away. Everyone else was staring uncomfortably elsewhere, but Buffy could not take her eyes off his face. Well, there's another uncomfortable silence, she thought.

"Come on," she said suddenly. She reached out and grabbed his hand, and although a muscle in Spike's jaw tightened, he stepped back. She yanked Angel with her out the front door, leaving Spike staring at the front door as it slammed behind them.

Buffy leaned against the railing and looked up at Angel, who leaned against the front door and gave no indication of going any further onto the porch. He doesn't even want to get close to me, she thought. "All right. You had a bad year, and I had an...awful year. We could have helped each other, but we didn't." She was startled, then, by the tears that flooded her eyes. Thought they were all gone, she thought. Hoped I'd used them all up.

Angel swallowed. "I thought you had Riley."

"Yeah, so did I."

"What happened there?"

"Well, the Slayer thing was...too much for him. He didn't feel like I needed him. And you were a factor."

"I—was? I was?"

"You sure don't sound upset."

"I didn't like him."

"I'm trying to be mature here."

"Then why Spike? Why? Why him?"

Why Spike what? She thought, but that was just an automatic response. "How do I answer that, when I don't even know what it is myself?" He's different from you, she thought. Is that it? I always know what he's thinking, whether I want to or not. He sure doesn't agree with me, but he never goes and does shit for my own good---unless I'm dead at the time. She looked at him closely as another thought occurred to her. Yeah, when he does stuff for my own good...it is for my own good. He sure didn't tell me about watching Dawn and fighting with the gang. The first thing he did tell me was how he'd screwed up trying to save Dawn. How come you weren't helping? How come I can't even say this stuff? Something in her balked at justifying Spike to Angel, trying to describe the formless intimacy they had, the way he seemed to understand her in ways she didn't even understand herself, irritating thought it was. And I'm not explaining Spike to Angel when he's not exactly gushing out his Darla explanation and all, came a resentful thought. Especially then. Especially then. "I can't lie to him," she said quietly. "He won't let me. So maybe it just gets harder and harder to lie to...myself... and to other people. Like...No matter how painful it gets. Angel, Angel, you...you...get so uncomfortable with stuff that you take off. You don't finish stuff. " Of course, Spike never lets stuff go, she thought, so talk about reacting to that tendency by going off and picking the opposite extreme. "You just leave. Maybe it's not...like, you leave the vicinity, you know, but you just sort of take yourself out. Away. You just escape. You should have called me."

"And told you what? 'Oh, hi, sorry to interrupt you with something else you need to worry about, along with Joyce dying, and a God being in town....but guess what? I've finally reached the end of my two-hundred-year-old tether, and I'm about to explode.' " There was a great deal of desperation in his eyes when he looked back at her. "Maybe I'll go evil again. That's just what everyone is waiting for, anyway. Why don't I just shorten the wait?"

"No, you wouldn't." Buffy said quietly, certain. She was startled when he laughed bitterly.

"You're so sure, aren't you? Which is nice, because I'm not. I'm not at all." He cocked his head at her, a gesture eerily reminiscent of Spike's, except on him it was not quizzical, it was almost threatening. The hairs on the back of her neck were standing up. Am I afraid of him? "Why are you so certain I won't go bad?" He asked quietly.

"Well, uh, you're good..." He stared into her eyes, and she flushed. "Well, then there's the other thing..."

"The other thing?" He stepped forward and grabbed her by the upper arms. "The other thing? Oh, the other thing?! This thing?" And with that, he kissed her, hard. Almost before it started, it was gone. He was back, rigid against the door, hands jammed in coat pockets. "That thing? That thing that makes me go all evil? That thing that you don't have to worry about with Spike? Tell me, Buffy, have you told your friends about Spike? All of them? Sat them down and told them all the details? Called Giles?"

She lifted one hand and slowly brushed it across her lips. He really did that, he really just did it like that. All the times he kissed me, and he did it like that....

"Why should I? You haven't told me about Darla." She squared her shoulders. "I will if you will." He'll never go for it.

"Great. Just great."

"You said it, yourself."

"Okay, then. Here goes. Truth or dare." He licked his lips. "I didn't adopt Connor."

"O...kay." Buffy deflated slightly, having been waiting for something...significant.

"He's mine."

"He's...yours?"

"Mine. Mine and Darla's."

Buffy didn't even try to conceal her amazement. "Yours. And Darla's. Yours. Yours? Yours and Darla's?" Okay, this is significant.

He shrugged, almost modestly. "Some sort of prophecy." She tried to decide how much of it was masculine pride at fatherhood, and how much of it was the experienced humility of someone long accustomed to being special.

"Two vampires...have a baby Two vampires and a baby. It sounds like a sitcom." She kept shaking her head. Guess I better start using birth control after all. Between headshakes, she stared up at him. "You have a baby...You have a baby!...with a vampire!....and you're still angry about me and Spike?"

He had been jittery with tension, but now it abruptly drained away, leaving him slumped against the door. "Darla was....someone familiar to me. Someone safe. I thought. Someone who could live forever, and not.... You're not safe for me, or anyone else. And Darla...she couldn't...give birth. Not normal. She killed herself for him. So he could live. And you know what?" He blinked at the floor of the porch. "I never thought I could be a father...but...I wished....I wished..." He swallowed tightly. " I was so isolated. I was so lonely. I should be grateful just for this, but you...I wished it was you."

Is this what it feels like when people betray you? All the little ones and now this? She thought. She couldn't even form complete thoughts. Darla? Darla and him? Darla? She tried to kill me. So did Spike, but that's different. She tried to kill me. He didn't even think of that, did he? Someone familiar? In the sense that you romped across Europe, killing people for hundreds of years, and that she kept trying to lure you back? But what....You got lonely? Lonely? Why on earth wouldn't I want to know? Lonely? You were lonely?! I got lonely! Read a book! She shook her head at him, almost more disappointed than angry. You let it get bad, she thought, so you have an excuse to explode. There's always an excuse. Leaving? You had an excuse, but I didn't want you to. But there was an excuse.

She saw Spike's face as he first realized it was her, back from the grave. What would Angel have done? And why wasn't he there? Realization hit her. He was busy with other things. Well, if those things were so important, more important than her, then she wasn't significant enough to be this angry over, either. Darla. She shook her head again, almost amused, in a ghastly I-won't-be-bitter way.

She stared up at him, eyes wide and stunned. "It was Darla. Wonderful...but.... Darla? And, oh, what, the fact that she tried to kill me over and over just didn't seem to be a big thing when you were lonely?"

"Spike tried to kill me, too, you know."

"Yeah, but you're a vampire, Angel. I'm human. Darla could do stuff to me that Spike couldn't do to you." Like choose my outfits, she thought. God, do not laugh. I must not laugh. .

"I shouldn't have told you."

"No, you should have told me a LONG TIME AGO! Do you think I'd be this pissed off if I'd heard this a bit at a time, instead of all at once? Darla!" She paced away from him now, waving her hands in the air, not even aware of having moved. "But if you had, you wouldn't have felt lonely enough or whatever enough to give you an excuse to go---do that! If you had called me, I could have come down and we could have talked, instead of you just getting worse and worse...and doing what you wanted. You wanted to, I know it. I would have," she added forlornly. "If you needed me, I would have come right away."

"Yeah, look what happened last time."

"I'm sorry Spike followed Oz that time, but don't even try to tell me you're pissed about me giving you the Gem of---What?" He glanced away, avoiding her eyes, and she stepped back into his line of vision. "What? What can you possibly find wrong with that?"

"There was the other thing."

"What other---oh, that." Thanksgiving. "You know, you were the one sneaking around then, why couldn't you have just told me, okay? It was too painful for you, but I would have liked to see you. I had to go all the way to LA to see you. You think I came just to chew you out? I just.." She spread her hands out in appeal. "I just wanted to see you again. That's all. You didn't seem too happy about seeing me, though."

He swallowed and looked down.

"Angel, maybe the reason it's so painful is because you just never deal with it. You know, you came up here, and you snuck around, but we could have just talked. It just gets bigger and bigger, and then, boom! I mean, I'm not Chatty Cathy, but...." She rolled her eyes at the heavens, as if appealing for divine intervention, but the effect was somewhat spoiled by the fact they were on the porch, and she was looking at the porch light.

Angel looked down at the floorboards. "Buffy, I don't want to deal with it, okay? You do, but I don't. There's too much. People use it against me. I have a lot more to deal with, you know? And I dealt with it badly, I know that..."

Maybe they should use it against you, she thought. No. I didn't just think that, didn't happen. Did not do that. Did not think that.

"You have to deal with it!" She exclaimed. "You have to! You can't just sulk, you have to get up and deal with it. If you don't deal with it, then I have to, and everybody else has to. It's hard enough for me now, Angel. I mean, I'll help you, but I have to know it's coming. It's not easy for me, either. All I need is some..preparation. You see what I mean. Spread it out or something. You can't just spring it on me." She stared furiously at her toes for a minute. "How old is Connor?"

"Seven weeks."

Her lips tightened, and she whirled around and faced the street.

Behind her, he stared at her back, more confused than he'd ever been in two and a half centuries. That's why nobody wants to be good, he thought. You have to think all the time. All you have to do when you're evil is not think.

She turned back and looked at him. "You're really pissed off at me, aren't you?"

"What? About Spike..." He flinched from her glare, studying his shoes. "About that, yes."

"Well, do I have to start the whole thing about Darla, then? But anyway, why are you so pissed? I was asking you that before, and you never told me."

"I'm not..."

"Yeah, you are."

"No, I'm not, except for Spike."

"Well, I'm pissed about Darla." She said quietly. "So we're even." He finally lifted his eyes. "I'm probably never going to have a baby, you know that, right?"

"Why? Because...."

"I'm a Slayer, Angel, not a superhero. Not a vampire with a soul. Us Slayers, we're expendable. I'm not special. I'm...just temporary. There's no significance to me, except maybe in the footnotes. When I die permanently, somebody will take my place. You can live forever, but I can't. I could get pregnant, but a pregnant Slayer? It could get me killed. How would I even know I'd live long enough to even have the baby? So, no, no babies for me. No future, either, really. All I have is now. You have forever." She glared at him again. "So I don't have time to waste with people who won't try. So try, Angel. Because this is the last chance you'll get."

Crickets chirped in the yard. From a distance, they could hear the sound of a fire engine. The leaves rustled in the trees.

He spread his hands helplessly.

"That's not trying."

He sighed and looked up the same way she had. A car drove by on the street. "It's just..."

"What?"

"It's just that...I would like it if I didn't still love you." He said quietly. "It would be so nice if I didn't feel this way. I'm not...a good person. Not good enough to be good, even when I try as hard as I can. But I'm really good at being bad. Everything I do... I was a rotten human being, too." She was frowning at him, he saw, and he rushed on ahead.

"When you and I were together..." He swallowed and looked away. She saw that, and that hurt her. Look at me, she thought. Show me what it is that you feel. Why are you hiding this from me?

"When you and I were together....I felt good. I felt like I understood why people want to be good, not because they get credit for it, but because it makes it easier for somebody they love. I felt human. I felt like...I didn't have to be perfect. I remember everything." He said softly. "Everything about you...Everything I can't be around anymore, because it hurts to be near you and know what the consequences are. All I want to do now is forget. I don't want to remember you, Buffy, but I do. Every day I do. I used Darla. I know that. And maybe I used you, too. But I used you to make me happy. You made me happy for a while. I've never felt that way before. I don't think I will again. That's why I don't want to remember. That's why I wasn't here. Being with you made me better, but....being away from you makes me.....I..." He shrugged uncomfortably. "Maybe I'm mad you're happy without me. It's just that...Darla was all there is for me. I can't be around you, Buffy. We shouldn't have gotten involved. I should have...You made me want all the things I can't have. I didn't even imagine them before you. Now I do. Every day. And they're not possible, because I know what could happen. That's all there is to it."

She tried to forget what it felt like to be dead, but she did remember effortlessly the first shocking moment back, the first breath drawn, the first glimpse of light. She remembered her first kiss, and her first love. Despite everything, she couldn't find it in her heart to regret loving him, because how could she have known what would happen? And now...Oh, God, this is over, she thought. It's all changed for me, he changed it. I can't go back.

"Are you...sorry?" She whispered. "Are you sorry we...?"

Angel looked into her eyes, finally. She tried to see what he was thinking, something she always thought she could do. "Buffy...." He said. "I can't be around you. You make me...think all kinds of things. I remember you every day, Buffy. Every day. But...."

She stared up at him, and it seemed that everything that happened over the past year telescoped and hit her all at once. There had been pressure everywhere, and one of the few bright spots had been his presence at the funeral. With Mom gone, Glory on the rampage, she had clung to Giles and the Scoobies, and the pure memory of him. Now he was lost to her, taking his memory with him. "Oh, God, Angel...Just don't..." It wasn't so much distance she crossed as time, wiping away a year, and winding up as she had so many times before, crying on his coat front, quietly and hard, the way strong people always did. She was seventeen again, and Angel was potential in her arms, not regret. They had kissed at her mother's grave side, and now she wondered if she had pushed him. What did he do afterward? She thought, but it flashed away and vanished.

The funny thing about crying storms was that they were like those weird summer showers than erupted suddenly and vanished just as fast. Crying was supposed to make you feel better, because it got rid of all the tension. Bullshit, she thought. Nothing erases all the tension of this. She lifted her head and looked up and he looked down. She sniffled, and stepped back, adulthood restored, to find herself eyeing a hankie that Angel had produced from some pocket. She took it ruefully, blew her nose, and then realized that she had no idea what was the polite thing to do. Nothing like realizing that you needed to maintain distance from your ex to protect you both, she thought. Yay for maturity.

When in doubt, retreat. She stepped further back, then smacked him. "You could have avoided all this, just by sending out an announcement!" Distance restored, she retreated further. "Cards and letters are your friends, you know?"

"Yeah, well, this is one of those situations where Spike is actually right." He shoved his hands even further into his pockets and tried to grin at her. It looked like someone had pasted the expression on his face. "If I should take out an announcement about anything, it's that." I get my wish, he thought. Now we get to pretend to be friendly exes. I get to go away.

"Yeah, well," Buffy muttered, "It looks like both of us are going to have to make announcements, aren't we?"

"Are we?"

"Yes, we are." She took a deep breath, that, dammit, did not tremble at all. "Because, you know, I just kind of thought of something." She glared up at him briefly. "Now you told me, and---and----I have to tell them, don't I? Of course," she added, "you have to tell them, too. Fair's fair."



Chapter 44

D'Hoffryn had just scored a particularly triumphant hotel sweep when Spike cleared his throat. Loudly. It was so loud, and so fake, that slowly, everyone's eyes paused on the Monopoly board and then in tiny increments looked up. Angel and Buffy had crept back into the house, Buffy with her hands jammed in her back pockets, and Angel with his crossed in front of his crotch, the look of a man who subconsciously feared an all-too-immanent kick in the crotch. From the discomfort displayed by both of them, it looked as if he might have good reason for that fear. Buffy looked as if she'd just received a shock, and Angel had the pained look of a man who'd expected to deliver one and might have gotten one himself.

Five expectant faces stared up at them. Spike stared at the ground, and scuffed around with one boot, as if drawing patterns in non-existent dirt.

"Okay, I give up." Xander said. "This is not good, this silent stuff. What is it, another apocalypse?"

"Well." Buffy said.

"Well," Angel said faintly.

"You know..."

"Yeah." Angel sighed.

"Uh..."Buffy swallowed and looked at the ground, just as Spike finally looked up. Finding her looking down, he swallowed, too, and then went back to staring at the floor. "Angel and I were catching up." She said firmly. Too firmly. "A lot of water...Uh. Under the bridge."

"Yeah." Angel agreed. "A lot. Better than over the...Uh. Bridge. Well, anyway..."

"Well, and there's some stuff we got caught up on..."

"Oh." Anya said briskly. "Like the whole year?"

"Yes, the whole year." Buffy said gratefully. "And the...baby." At that, Angel jerked as if he'd been jabbed with a cattle prod. Buffy cast a suspicious glance at Spike, but he had the virtuous look of a vampire who'd never told a lie about laundry in his life.

"Yeah." Angel said. "Not to mention the whole...inappropriate love life."

Spike perked up and raised his eyebrows at Buffy. "Well," Buffy said. "I guess everybody's got a lot to talk about, then, don't we?"

Angel regarded her thoughtfully for a long moment. "Some more than others."

Buffy stared at him and slowly and surely, felt adrenalin cook through her veins. "Yeah, Angel, I guess there's some lessons nobody ever learns, right? I mean, what have I got to fall back on? Should I try and pick some nice guy? I did that three times and they all turned evil. Well, maybe not evil, but...not nice." How scary is it when a vampire starts acting human, and it means he stops returning your calls and dumps you? She thought. Some vampires, she amended, glancing at Spike. With a mental shake, she returned to the subject at hand. "Then I picked the evil guy and he turned nice. All you did was trade up to somebody who's temporarily human. Oh, yeah, and she tried to kill me a bunch of times and you didn't care! And," she muttered, "she dressed like a schoolgirl. A tacky schoolgirl.Ugh. Lolita much?"

"She's not the only person who tried to kill you," Angel said, starting to get mad. It's different, he thought, not quite sure how, but certain that it was. I bet there's a prophecy about it. "But I guess it's only okay if it's..."

"Yeah, Spike's tried to kill Buffy a whole bunch of..."Xander said happily, then stopped as if he'd slapped up against a big brick wall. "Okay, why am I disliking this conversation all of a sudden?"

"Because it's boring?" D'Hoffryn muttered. "Because neither one will---" Buffy, Spike, and Angel all glared at him. "Sorry, but you... you...humans. Look at that friend of yours who's a witch. She didn't have any determination. She would have made such a great vengeance demon. Such unhappiness, such anger, and she tossed it all away on you guys! What a waste! Do you know what it's like, hanging around, waiting to see if you guys are going to do anything to one another? And then...no follow through. Or you go after some poor demon----" He glanced mournfully at Hallie, who tried to look pitiful, but spoiled it by glancing up demurely to see if people were looking at her."----who was just minding their own business. Really, it's..." He shook his head, not so much disgusted as just disappointed. "It's very disturbing."

"Well, we're human." Buffy said stiffly. "We do things like that."

"Buffy..." Xander said slowly. He looked at her, then at Spike, who leaned against the wall behind her. Despite the relaxed pose, the vampire was anything but calm and Xander could practically see the air vibrating between them. Spike stared at her whenever she wasn't looking at him. But she was looking at him---when he wasn't looking at her. Nothing unusual there, was there? Xander thought, but in fact, it was slowly dawning on him that there was something unusual about it. Buffy had never used to look at Spike, at least during the whole tense period after the Revelation of his crush on her. But that was last year, he thought queasily. She'd gone off to his crypt after the whole Buffybot thing, all set on staking him, came home in a tight-lipped snit, and then had stalked back with bandages. No explanation for that turnaround. She'd never told anybody exactly what had happened. But after that, for the longest time, till she died, he thought, she hadn't looked at Spike directly, but sideways, or out of the corner of her eye. Business as usual, he thought, but no, it wasn't. What made it notable was that he'd noticed it, somehow, noticed that it was odd for them to be avoiding each other's eyes all of a sudden. When did that happen?

Come to think of it...he thought. He tried to remember what it had been like after she came back, right after she came back. She'd been so distant, so dazed. It was like she'd been in a dark place forever and the sudden bright light hurt her eyes. Where had Spike been during all this?

Think, brain, think.

The very first night, they'd come from her grave to find Spike sitting across from her in the living room, holding her hands like they would break. And then, afterward, they had found him outside, the same as always, under the tree, but crying. He'd never been able to put into words the feeling of disgust and pity that had swamped over him at the time. A vampire, crying, for the Slayer. Too complicated for me. Definitely do not want to feel sorry for William the Bloody.

Of course, that was bad news. It meant Spike was obsessed again. Good old Spike, who you could tolerate, sort of, like the one person in school who was more unpopular than you were, and who was so damned grateful if anybody treated them nice at all. He liked that type of gratitude, didn't want to see it end. Sort of like the way he himself had treated Jonathon. But the problem with Good Old Spike became apparent when Buffy came back, and she was so weak and quiet...and in Spike's company. .And why would anybody find the company of a vampire so attractive? Wasn't he a reminder of where she'd been? Who would want to remember hell? If she'd been in darkness, why would she associate with a creature of it?

The dancing demon, he thought. Of course, omit entirely, the whole cause of the dancing demon, and what you were left with was that peculiar feeling of something going on just out of sight, just out of hearing. That was it. The way she'd spoken to Spike in the Magic Box... "You said you didn't want to see me..."

He could feel the blood draining out of his body. Seeing her. Oh, God. Think, think. Why did that make his stomach shrivel up into a raisin? What am I even thinking about? Buffy would never... An image came to his brain, and he furiously shoved it away, of a sheet-clad Spike, and a tomb that looked like a tornado had hit it. Nope, not gonna go there. I'm seeing things; that's it. Hell, I'm even hearing things. What did Buffy just say?

"You...ah...You said three guys. Three." He held up three fingers and laughed nervously. "I mean, we all know that Parker had a dual personality, but you're counting both of them now? Did you give the other one a name...?"

Buffy turned a bright red and stared at the coffee table for courage. Oh, God, here it comes.I am so not ready for this. Yes, I am. No, I'm not. Oh, boy. Oh, God. No, I can do this. I can do this. I've died twice, what could be worse?Being friendless, that's what. Even great sex all the... She glanced up at Spike for a moment, not even aware she was seeking his encouragement, which he gave her with a tight nod. I can do this. I can do this. Xander saw that and blanched white, that fast bright look flashing between them, making him wonder what he'd been missing. After a long pause, Buffy turned her eyes from Spike to Xander, looking at him for a long, steady moment before replying. You stayed with me this long, she thought. Don't stop being my friend now. "Angel, Parker, Riley." She said quietly. "People...men...who tried to be good. Well, except for Parker. He was a jerk. But they weren't good for me. Or maybe I wasn't good for them."

"You said." There was a shrill note in his voice now. "Three good guys and one..."

"I should have said something earlier."

"Said something? About what?! About what?"

Buffy took a deep breath. "About Spike. About Spike...and me."

Xander blinked several times, turned even paler, and fainted.



"Did I hit my head on something?"

"No, sweetie, I was right here and I caught you."

"What happened?"

"You fainted."

"I did not."

"Yes, you did, honey, you turned white, and your eyes rolled up, and then you went..."

"Oh, God, it must have been a hallucination."

"About what?"

"I dreamed Buffy said..."

"Oh, that wasn't a dream." Anya said. "Buffy's boinking Spike."

"Oh, God, somebody please hit me over the head."

He was still extremely light-headed, lying flat on his back with an afghan tossed over him, and he seemed to feel extraordinarily cold.

"Anya." Buffy said firmly.

"Oh, yes, I'm sorry." Anya said agreeably. "Buffy and I already discussed this but I forgot. I'm not supposed to use the word boink about her and Spike."

"Oh,God. Oh, God. Can I trade this for syphilis? Syphilis is so much less painful."

"And it's curable." Anya pointed out. "Penicillin and all that. It didn't use to be. It used to be one of my best attention-getters."

"An...you and Buffy talked?About this? You talked already? Her and...?"

"Oh, yes."

"And you didn't tell me?"

"Well, Buffy asked me not to, which I understand now, because you're not reacting well. Neither is Angel, either. Maybe men shouldn't be allowed to discuss this type of thing."

"Angel's a vampire."

"Well, not really..."

"Hey..."Angel snapped.

"Buffy?"

"Yes?"

"You told Anya, but you wouldn't tell me?"

She hesitated such a long time that he had time to wonder about her state of mind. "I was afraid you'd react the way you ...are."

"Well, of course I..." Xander glanced unwillingly at Angel. "You think I'd be glad about it? He's a vampire."

"People change," she said quietly. "Spike changed. So did I."

"You haven't changed." He said weakly. "You're human. He hasn't changed. He's a vampire."

"He's changed."

"Yeah, because of the chip."

"The chip didn't make him watch Dawn all summer when I was gone."

"The chip didn't make him try and get in your...Sorry."

"The chip isn't the problem, is it Xander?" She threw up her hands in exasperation, and noticed Angel flinch back slightly out of the corner of her eye. "You know, it just seems kind of unfair that everybody wants to interfere in my life, but nobody wants to interfere in, like, a helpful way. You want to interfere? Interfere with my job or my bills. Nobody does that."

"I need to sit down," he said breathlessly.

"You are sitting down." Anya pointed out. "Well, sort of."

"Then I need to lie down."

"You are lying down. Look at the bright side; at least she's a Slayer; I bet she wins all the arguments." She didn't notice Buffy's flinch at that.

"You and Spike..."

Buffy took a deep breath. "Me and Spike." She checked the others' reactions. Lorne was beaming at her, Hallie looked a little miffed that everyone was now staring at Buffy, and Wes had removed his glasses and was polishing them with his shirt tail. That must be the first thing they teach them in Watcher School, Buffy thought. D'Hoffryn stared down at the Monopoly board with great glumness, and Anya patted Xander. She looked pointedly at Anya, but when she repeated her earlier statement, her voice was gentle. "People do change."

"People change," Xander said in a thin voice, "but Spike's not a people."

"Hey." Spike snapped. "Try and at least be interesting about it." But his heart wasn't in it. The good guys all turned evil and the evil one turned good, he thought. "You're one to talk, Harris, dating the ex-demon and all."

"The key word there is ex." Xander pointed out.

"Yeah, well, there's this chip.."

"What happens when the chip fails then?"

"What happens when it doesn't?" Spike said disgustedly. "Oh, that's right, that bloody doesn't matter, because whether it's the chip or it's me or it's just the fact you're too far below my standards to eat, you're going to treat me the same no matter what. And demon girl was a demon a lot longer than I've been a vampire. Where's her chip?"

Xander stared at him, words coming to his lips automatically. "That's...different."

"Yeah, it's different." Spike snapped, and Xander struggled to sit up. "It's different because it's you and your girlfriend." Then Buffy stepped forward and gave them both a look, laying a hand on Spike's chest that seemed to stay there far too long.

"God, do we need to have a study hall or something so you guys remember what I said? And I'm feeding you, too. Those were supposed to last all week." Buffy gestured at all the snacks covering the table. "And you know what? You guys are cleaning all this up. And you're doing the dishes, too." She crossed her arms and tried to look firm. A little yelling was something she could handle; she was surprised it wasn't worse than that.

"Well, I don't have a chip because I'm not a demon any longer," Anya pointed out helpfully. "Although I supposed those soldiers would have given me one if they'd have caught me."

"That's different, sweetie."

"Well, no," She sighed. "There used to be fairy tales about me. Of course, now there's fairy tales about those soldiers. If you're a demon, that is." She looked around. "I liked it better the other way around, when I scared people, although now I scare shoplifters, so it's not totally different. What?" She looked at Xander. "That's something at least."

Spike stared at her, then at Xander. "Explain something to me, Harris, if you don't mind."

"I don't have to explain anything to you."

"Well, maybe someone can."

Buffy turned and looked at him. Angel had slumped into a chair and was staring at the floor in the exact same pose as D'Hoffryn, both with one palm supporting their chin, raising only their eyes to whoever was speaking. "What?" Buffy mouthed at him.

"Well, demon girl was a demon how many years? How many centuries?"

Anya beamed at him. If she had a photo album, Buffy thought, she'd be whipping it out right about now. This is how I spent my last eleven hundred summers, torturing men. "It was about eleven centuries," Anya said brightly. "But you have to take into account leap years."

"So if you put me and Sunshine here together, we haven't been around even half as long as you were, right?"

"Nope, you two are novices." Anya said happily. Somebody who spoke her language! Even though Xander was white as a sheet, he was getting that tight-around-the-lips look he got when she brought up her demon past. "Really, there's a big stylistic difference in killing as opposed to, oh, I don't know, maiming, wounding, slow lingering deaths. It's sort of like comparing fast food to a gourmet meal. I mean, no offense, but you two really do it the quick and easy way. I bet you guys use microwave blood, too." At this, both Angel and Spike hung their heads a moment in embarrassment. " It's just that fast food mentality, it's done away with the artistry of killing. I bet you've never done research at all." She rolled her eyes. "I could certainly show you a thing or..." Xander cleared his throat, and put his hand on her arm, but Anya shook her head impatiently. "Now, Xander, I was a demon for a long time, you can't expect me to pretend it didn't happen. I mean, I need something to talk about in my old age."

"No, of course not, why explain anything to me?" Spike answered for him, completely ignoring Anya. "But what I bloody want to know is this. How come Soul Boy here and Demon Girl get a free pass without so much as liftin' a bleedin' finger----him and that curse, and her with whatever it was, I never did get the memo. I don't even know what you bloody people want, actually. But nothin' I do gets me any recognition at all, nothing whatsoever. Explain that to me. Think I wanted this bloody chip? Think I wanted my life, er, unlife, turned upside down? But I make the best of it, I try to change with the times, and none of you so much as bloody notice. Why?"

"Oh, that's easy." Xander said. "That's ever so easy. Because you're evil. You might have a chip, but you're still evil and the minute that chip comes out you'll go after all of us, like you've done before."

"What makes you think if I wanted to, I wouldn't have found a way to before now, you git?"

"You never found a way to, before." Xander blurted out, then looked confused. "Okay, that was supposed to sound way more critical."

"Uh, excuse me?" Buffy raised a hand. "Can somebody correct me if I'm wrong a minute here?"

Everyone looked expectantly at her. "Well, number one, there's me, a Slayer, dating a vampire. Who loves me. Who stayed with me, even when I was dead. Who didn't leave." She added pointedly, but her back was to Angel, so she couldn't see him stiffen. "Then there's, uh, Xander, who is dating an ex demon, who was a demon a lot longer than Spike was a vampire. And of course, there's Angel."

"What about Angel?" Xander asked curiously. "Seems like he's the most, well, normal one of all." He tossed a pointed glance in Spike's direction. "Doesn't kill people, has a kid..."

"Call the hairdresser," Spike muttered.

There is a God, because my sex life is no longer the topic of discussion, Buffy thought. Angel's is.

"Uh, what?" In his chair, Angel's eyes widened suddenly as everyone swiveled around to look at him.

"Oh, I forgot Willow." Buffy said, reprieving him briefly. "She dated a werewolf. But anyway, go ahead, Angel."

Even Xander perked up a bit at the prospect of some Angel gossip, even though he knew, guiltily, that he wasn't supposed to dislike Angel anymore. However, Buffy had been very unhappy with the way he'd taken off like that, so he felt entitled to some situational dislike. Especially seeing as how this conversation didn't seem to be going anywhere good at all.

"Well." Angel looked at the coffee table, too. "Darla..."

"Excuse me, who's Darla?" Xander asked.

"Blonde vampire from a couple of years ago," Buffy muttered, as if whispering in class.

"Uh, Buff, lots of blond vampires. Darla?"

"Jesse." Buffy said softly. "She turned Jesse." She'd saved a lot of lives, but it was the ones she'd lost that she remembered.

"Jesse." Xander said quietly. He was seventeen again, and dealing with the reality that there could in fact be monsters in his closet, when he had only just gotten over convincing himself that there weren't. Ah, yes, Sunnydale, where all the fairytales are by the brothers very very Grimm. Now I'm going to have to think about all the other people who vampires got before Buffy came here. "But Angel staked her, so why are we talking about her? Setting up a dental college fund or something in her memory or what?"

"Or what," Buffy said dryly. "She was, ah, I guess, she ah, made Angel a vampire, and she was, oh, about four hundred years old. She tried to kill me, too, with guns, well, at least once, and then Angel staked her."

"But----" and here Xander swallowed and tried to find his funny voice, "she bit the dust, right? Another one bit the du---oh, never mind."

"Wolfram and Hart brought her back." Angel said. His voice had the monotonous tone of a man who was reciting something he could barely think about, much less speak of. "As a human."

"Oh." Why Darla and why not Jesse, huh?Or Jenny? Why not Jenny? Why don't they ever bring back people like Jenny? What if Spike...? He glanced nervously at Spike, who of course noticed it instantly.

"Stop it, Harris, or I'll go all shy."

"Would you?" Xander retorted. "Would you leave then?"

Buffy gave Xander Joyce's Mom Eye Roll, then Spike. "I'm starting to think Anya is right. Maybe we just shouldn't allow you guys to discuss this type of thing. Well, at least not until after Angel's done. Go on."

"Well..." Angel shifted uncomfortably in his chair. Too many faces were looking at him. "And..." He shifted again. "I can't explain it."

I don't even care if you can explain it, Buffy thought. But I tried and you have to try, too, dammit. In front of people.

"Darla was human." Angel said quietly. "For a while. Wolfram and Hart wanted to use her against me."

"Uh...who are they?" Xander asked.

"Huge law firm in LA." Wes said. "They're quite evil." He glanced down. "They had some doings with Faith, when she was in LA."

"Did she kill one of them?" Buffy asked, then shrugged before he could answer. "Don't know who to root for, there."

"Uh..." Wes blinked at her for a moment. "Sorry, I simply don't know."

" 's okay. Go on, Angel." Buffy nodded at Angel.

"Well..."

"Wait..." Xander said. "You mean, she didn't get, like, you know, offed right away?"

"No," Angel said uncomfortably.

"No?" Xander repeated. "No? No? Why not?" He took a deep breath to settle himself and found that it didn't work at all. He glanced up at Buffy, not sure how much he could say about Angel in front of her. Then he turned, shaking his head at Angel and himself, both. Did you and Darla have a lot of catching up to do? Wanted to reminisce about old times? Different methods of trying to kill Buffy? How to really drive her nuts?

"It's complicated," Angel said. "It's really complicated."

"We're all complicated!" Xander exclaimed in frustration. "But..." He ran into that brick wall again. Oh, God, he thought. Oh, God. She was your sire or whatever it is orwhoever it is that makes you a vampire, and you...? You definitely didn't kill her. Did she know you went all Angelus on us for a while there? How could you not...?

"She was human," Angel said helplessly.

"Well, so, she gets a Get Out of Hell card automatically? She killed my best friend! She turned him into..." He glanced at Spike.

"Hey." Spike snapped. "That is different, I'll have you know."

"How?"

"Angelus was the one always turnin' things right and left." Spike said. "Me, I just wanted...lunch."

Silence thumped down on the room.

A car glided by outside, and from somewhere else they heard another car horn honk.

"So...what happened, Angel?" Xander prodded.

"Well..." Angel sighed. He looked around the room. D'Hoffryn was looking up, only his eyes following the conversation, while Wes and Hallie politely waited for him to start speaking again. Lorne was idly buffing his nails on his blazer, then blowing on them. Spike, lounging against the wall by the stairs, was out of his vision, but he could practically feel the other vampire's eyes boring twin holes into him. He took a deep breath to stall and found that he still couldn't force a single word out of his mouth.

"C'mon, Angel," Buffy urged quietly. "Confession's good for the...Oh. Sorry. I never thought about that."

He actually opened his mouth, looked around, and still nothing came out. It was just too much; he didn't even understand what had happened himself, and he was supposed to explain it to people who didn't even like him?

"Oh, God, how about if I try?" Buffy said.

"Try what?" Xander asked.

"No," Angel said. "No."

He stared at his hands. There must be some way I can do this, he thought If I had a year...

"Angel..." Buffy urged.

"Buffy..."

She looked down into his eyes, and he tried to compose himself. The same eyes, she thought. Those same eyes. How can people change so much on the inside and still look the same on the outside? "Let me try."

"Let me try," she repeated.

"Try what?" Xander asked.

"Let me see if I can tell this story, because Angel can't." Or won't. She stepped forward, took a deep breath, and cleared her throat. "I was fighting evil all last year and it got really difficult, and I was really lonely." She looked at Angel, who stared at her fiercely for a moment before dropping his eyes. "But then these lawyers brought back Darla, and made her human. So even though I knew she was evil, and had been evil for four hundred years, we, you know, and somehow she got pregnant! Now I have a kid. And the mother used to be a vampire or, actually is a vampire, or was a vampire, till she dusted herself, and even though she was a vampire, I'm going to forget about that around people who have relationships with vampires who are a whole lot less evil. Than her. Did I miss something? Oh, yeah, throw in something about vengeance demons and we've got everybody covered. Because I think just about everybody in this room has had sex with a vampire now." She sat down with a plop in the last chair. "Did I miss anything? Anything at all?"

"A vampire got pregnant?" Xander said. "And the dad was...?"

"I wonder if this is a trend." Anya wondered. "I could stock magical birth control."

"Angel." Buffy directed her remark at Xander. "It was Angel."

"So Connor's really yours?" Xander suddenly went white again. "Is he a vampire?"

"No, he's human."

"Does he look like you?"

"Oh, yes." This time it was Wes who spoke. "I don't believe you saw the pictures." He dug out his wallet, and flipped it open to the pictures. "There's a distinct resemblance there. Look, there's Lorne, making faces."

"Yeah, well, his lungs put mine to shame, let me tell you." Lorne said sourly. "The kid's going to sing at the Met."

"He's, ah, cute." Xander said. "So, ah, could I just mention, again, that my family now looks normal, and I'm not sure I like that at all? I mean, considering it takes two vampires...well, I'm just not comfortable any more."

"Oh, Xander, wait till you see my relatives." Anya said. "Then you can start worrying."

Xander blinked up at her. "Nice to know my family's place at the top of the podium won't be vacant long."

"Well, good," Buffy said. "Then everybody can keep busy and leave me alone."

"Buffy..."Xander said.

"What?"

"Do you really want me to...leave you alone?"

"Did I ever bug you about Anya? Huh? Did I?"

"No, not really."

"What do you mean, not really?"

Wes looked from Buffy to Xander, then down at his watch. He caught Lorne's eye, nodding at the debris on the table. Lorne stared back blankly until Wes tapped at his watch, then quietly shifted to his feet and picked up a couple of the dishes scattered around the Monopoly game and carried them to the kitchen. D'Hoffryn, only his eyes moving, hunched down further on the couch and watched them leave. Hallie blinked as Wes got up and left, and quietly got to her feet and followed after them. At the door she turned and gestured at Anya. Come tell me about your dress, she mouthed, but Anya gestured at Xander, propped weakly on couch pillows on the floor. Halllie stepped forward, nodding at both Xander and Buffy before grabbing Anya's hand. Reluctantly, she rose to her feet before she could be hoisted up. After a moment's thought, she held out a hand to D'Hoffryn who she yanked up and dragged after her, like a boat towing a reluctant dinghy.

Angel, Spike, Buffy and Xander remained. Spike and Angel stared at each other, till Spike sniffed. "I'm not leaving. That's your job."

"No, your job is to disappoint everybody and then never finish anything."

"At least I'm persistent. You never hang around long to disappoint anybody."

Buffy and Xander both looked up and after a moment's glaring, both vampires thought better of fighting in front of witnesses. They left, one heading for the kitchen, the other for the street.

"So.." Xander said.

"So..." Buffy repeated.

"We have to talk, right?"

"I think we already talked, didn't we? Do we need to go all over it again?" She looked into his eyes. "You know, my dad took off and Angel took off, but you're still here. I want you to always be here, okay? But I want Spike, too. Maybe he'll take off, too, but I don't know. I can't tell anymore. I just want...you not to."

"But it's Spike, Buffy..."

"You were right, Xander. People don't change. But...he did." She struggled with words, her throat closing. "He changed for me, Xander. And for Dawn. The whole time I was gone... He deserves credit for that."

"Seems like he's already getting it." Xander muttered, but Buffy raised both eyebrows at him, and he looked abashed for a moment.

"Did Anya ever say she was sorry?"

"What?"

"Did Anya ever say she was sorry?"

He shook his head at her, bewildered by the question. "For what?"

Buffy stared at him for a moment. For eleven centuries. "It just seems like you...hold Spike's past against him---which you should----but not Anya's."

"That's different."

"Why?"

"She's human."

"Why is that? Was she like the Little Mermaid? Did she change because of you? You were just as pissed at Angel a minute ago, over Darla."

"Well..." She watched his face as he thought it over, his eyes clouding over, a frown gradually accumulating on his face. "You know...you're just confusing me now."

She got to her feet, dusting herself off. "Xander, you have to think about it, okay? And I mean, really think about it. I just...I expect better from you, okay?"

For a moment, he looked so young that she couldn't help but remember how long it had been, how much they had gone through together. "Buffy..."

"No buts, okay. If you disapprove of Angel, of me, then you have to disapprove of yourself, too."

His jaw dropped. She watched him for a moment, to see if he was going to keel over again, but he didn't. She got up and left him to find Spike.



Chapter 45

Pounding. Bangbangbangbangbang.

Noise.

"Huh...what? What the hell?"

Willow sat up abruptly, wondering how she had gotten from Africa to her own bedroom. Oh. Dream. Damn. It's always the good ones that get interrupted. Nobody ever interrupted that dream about her failing test scores being posted on the front page after she'd been arrested for public nudity. She shook her head to clear it and looked around. Tara's apartment. Good---familiar. Tara. She glanced down at her fondly, but she was still asleep for the moment. Then the pounding started again, and she thought: Uh. Oh. Unfamiliar.

She slipped carefully from under the covers, grabbing a throw from the foot of the bed and wrapping it around her shoulders as she tiptoed from the room. The heat of the dream's setting had departed, leaving her feeling chilled.

She paused in the living room door to get her bearings, shaking her head to clear the dregs of sleep from it. There was no noise from the other bedroom, which meant that either the girls were sleeping through it, or they'd absconded through the window.

"Willow!"

Xander? She hurried to the door, bracing herself against whatever it was now. Why couldn't emergencies happen during the day when she was rested, and awake? It was bad enough getting woken up, but then you had to deal with getting acclimated to the shock of whatever was going on. That never got easy. She sighed and unlocked the door. At least I have my fuzzy blanket, she thought. Grasping at straws always helps.

She opened the door to find Xander knocking on it so ferociously that he didn't stop until a couple knocks had almost hit her. She frowned at him, scanning him for wounds, extra body parts, or sudden excess body hair. She relaxed slightly as she realized that he was upset, not in an Apocalypse kind of way, but in a Xander kind of way. Nothing looked different, but he was wild-eyed. "Xander?" she asked mildly. "What's wrong?"

"Sit down, Will, I have bad news."

"What? Tell me! What's wrong?"

"It's Buffy. She-" He gulped and looked around. "Is Dawn in bed?" He asked softly. "I don't think she should hear this."

"What?!" Willow grabbed his arm and yanked him inside. "Is she okay?"

"Oh, she's okay," he muttered, striding across the room with his hands in his hair. "She's just fine, physcially, but mentally, she's all----"

"Is it a spell or something?"

"It must be." He'd been dreading this moment for quite some time, he realized. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he'd dreaded it ever since he'd found Spike weeping outside of Buffy's house after she came back. "She's sleeping with Spike."

Willow blinked at him and waited.

"See? I know! I was in shock, too, it's disgusting, it's---"

"It's---Is that it?"

"What do you, mean, Will, is that it? She's sleeping with Spike, he's Spike, he's---"

"Uh....Xander...."

He flopped down in a chair, running his hands through his hair repeatedly and rocking back and forth. Willow looked down on him for a moment, then sighed, and sat down next to him. "Xander?"

"Yeah?"

"I knew that."

"You...? You...!"

"Buffy told me during the slumber party. It was kind of obvious."

He was struck dumb, staring at her with something like betrayal in his eyes. "Why didn't you tell me?"

She sighed and looked into space. "For the same reason I didn't tell you about Tara at first. I had to figure it out myself first. Then I told you."

"This is different."

"Do you think it's okay, me and Tara?"

"Well, yeah, it's...it's....What do you mean?"

"What if you didn't?"

"What if I didn't? Will, you've never dated anybody stupid. I mean, you've never done anything stupid like that."

"But what if I did?"

"Huh? I don't....I don't get it."

"If I was dating somebody you didn't like, what would you do?"

"Well..." he shrugged. She leaned against him, sighing deeply. "I don't know. Why would I disapprove?"

"Well, somebody you just didn't like. You know, that fat guy you work with who smells? What if I decided to date him and you didn't like it?"

"Oh, hey, hey...I see what you're doing." He jumped to his feet, leaving her lurching sideways on the couch. "This is different! Spike is evil, Spike is---is----" He sputtered helplessly, looking for a word. "He's...He's...Spike! It's disgusting! He's tried to kill us a lot of times."

"Well, we get that a lot," Willow said. "But, Xander...You know, you're dating a demon. A lot of people wouldn't understand that."

"Did you guys compare notes or something? Ex-demon, ex-demon! She doesn't do that stuff anymore!"

"Sure, Xander. Like she doesn't miss it or anything."

"Will? Did Buffy just call or something? Do you get your game plan together?"

She rolled her eyes, but her voice was mild. "Why?"

"Buffy was----" He stopped pacing and stared at her. "She said some of the same stuff. She said Anya was a demon for centuries..."

Willow, startled, considered it. How on earth had she overlooked this particular little weapon in the arsenal of Anya-dislike? "Well, yeah, Xander, it's not as if Anya---" She stiffened at his bewildered anger, and subsided back. This is me, she thought. This is how I reacted to Anya and Xander. "Xander, are you jealous?"

"Jealous?!" He made a snorting noise. Then he stopped pacing and looked into her eyes. "Do you think I'm jealous? I'm worried about her. He could hurt her."

Willow looked at him carefully, considering. She wondered just how much honesty he could take. "You know, Xander, we were the ones who pulled her out of heaven."

"Yeah, so?"

"I think he loves her, Xander. I really do. He looks at her the way Tara looks at me. Maybe Buffy finally noticed." She waited a second, but his shocked expression didn't abate, although his jaw slowly fell open. "There's lots of people who think that Tara and I are wrong, who would think that you and Anya are wrong. But..I think love makes you feel alive. Buffy needs that now, more than ever."

"That...that..." He shook his head at her, no longer angry, but sad. He looked at her as if he'd never seen her before. "That's..."

"Are you happy, Xander?"

"Me?" He looked at her cautiously. "Why?"

"It's just a question, Xander. Are you happy?"

"Yeah." He shrugged. "Yeah, I'm happy."

"Well, don't you want Buffy to be happy?"

"Not with Spike! She can't be happy with Spike!"

"I think she is, Xander. And I want her to be happy. I screwed that up, and we screwed up. But he didn't, not that at least. He loves her. I mean, Xander, remember how he helped us while she was dead? He was there the whole time, even when he thought she was dead. He remembered her, Xander. He loves her, the way Anya loves you." A memory came to her, then; Spike in the Bronze, muttering something about Buffy being more likely to hurt him than vice versa. "I just don't think you throw love away like that."

Xander stared down at her, eyeing her rather dreamy expression with suspicion. "It's that whole bad boy thing, isn't it? The leather coat, the accent, the---the----You're gay! You're supposed to be cynical about men."

Willow stared at him, then got to her feet. "I didn't choose to be this way, Xander, I just am. Like you and Anya. Maybe you can sort of not fall in love, but sometimes it surprises you. I'm just not going to...to...whatever because you don't like Spike. You didn't stop dating Anya because we, sort of, had some tension, you know."

"Tension?"

"You know she and I don't get along all the time."

"I---I----"

"It's gotta be the same for everybody, Xander. If Buffy can't date Spike, then I can't date Tara, and you can't date Anya. How would you feel?"

He sighed and looked at his feet, and she stood up, pulling her fuzzy blanket around her like armor. "That wasn't a rhetorical question, Xander. How would you feel if you couldn't date Anya?"

He finally looked up at her. "Answer me," she ordered.

"I can't imagine."

"Well, what if the Initiative were still around, Xander? What do you think they'd do to her?"

He gasped at that, freezing as he actually considered it. Anya in the hands of people who would cage her like an animal? She wasn't human enough yet to understand why, and she'd be confused and very likely terrified. She'd miss him terribly....Unwillingly, he remembered that summer. It was more than unwilling, it was almost as if the summer was forcing its way into his brain, demanding that he look at the memory. It was Spike, turning away from him every time he brought up Buffy's name, flinching away even from looking at pictures of her. He'd caught the vampire staring off into the distance from the back porch more than once, just staring off as if there were vast spaces in front of him instead of the Summers' small back yard. He'd get that look on his face, that thousand-mile stare he had when he was thinking about Buffy, and you'd actually have to touch him to get him to notice you.

He avoided Willow's eyes. "Look, Xander, I'm not asking that you two start skipping hand in hand through fields of wildflowers, but is it too much for you to just leave them alone? As long as you're dating Anya, at least. As long as I'm dating Tara."

"If he hurts her.."

She looked at him sadly, and that was his last excuse. "I'm going home," he muttered. "You can form the Spike fan club on your own."

Willow went to the door and held it open. "Get some sleep, Xander. And think it over. Maybe think about how come you didn't let Anya tell us you were engaged, too."

She closed the door on his freshly-dropped jaw, pulled her blanket about her tighter, and wondered if she could somehow find her way back into that puzzling, intriguing dream. In the hallway, Xander squared his shoulders and walked slowly away, but as he got closer to the car, his step picked up. Anya. Home. Bed. No frogs. No vampires. Sleep, he thought.

Dawn rolled over on her back and caught Janice's eye. Janice was frowning in puzzlement. "What was that about?"

"It was about me getting a paper route," she said with great satisfaction, before drifting off to sleep with dreams of actually buying cds dancing through her head. The thought surfaced briefly just before she slept, and Spike will have to be there all the time, too.



It was a somewhat subdued group that Buffy bid adieu to at the front door. Angel had been waiting out in front ever since she'd had her talk with Xander, and she never actually got to say good bye to him. Fine. Be that way, she thought. You might have forever to carry a grudge, but I don't. Anya was still perky despite the fact that Hallie appeared to have abandoned her once again for Wes' company, once the need to get Anya out of the room had passed. Wes looked both perturbed and intrigued at that, and she found herself wondering what exactly had happened to the twitchy little Englishman she remembered. How come Angel had a good effect on him? The rest was a blur, and she was left closing the door on them with such relief that she felt almost but not quite guilty over. She actually leaned against the door for a moment, pressing her face to the wood. Then she turned and leaned her back against it, reaching out with one hand to jiggle the knob to make sure it was locked.

Angel stared for a long moment at the doorknob from the yard, then turned to look back at the group silently regarding him. Lorne waited a second, and then jammed his hands into his pockets with a sigh. When Angel didn't move, Lorne stepped forward and held out a hand. "C'mon Kemosabe. I think we need to get drunk." This was greeted with silence. "Okay, we need to get Wesley drunk and watch him try to sing."

"I heard that." Wes muttered.

"See? Wes is willing to take one for the team." So what are you willing to do, you big sour puss? He thought. He looked at Angel thoughtfully, wondering if Angel was capable of putting aside his problems just once, so the rest of them could have some fun. "C'mon, big guy, let's go get wasted." Lorne glanced around the group for support. "We'll drink, we'll exchange confidences, we'll talk about women." He glanced somewhat nervously at D'Hoffryn. "Or...demons." Or whatever, he noted to himself. Sheep? Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase 'dinner and a movie.' "Say..." he eyed D'Hoffryn. "Not telepathic, are you? Good.....So.... We'll get drunk, we'll get tattoos, we'll listen to country music. Maybe some of us will wind up sleeping with inappropriate people. C'mon, all we need to have fun is you."

Angel looked down, considering. Suddenly, he was just terribly worn out. Nothing had turned out the way he had planned, the way he'd hoped, and all he wanted was sleep. No thinking, no drinking, no friends. He shrugged at them all, and they began to drift toward the car. With their backs to him, none of them saw the way he paused under the tree, looking at the door, looking at the porch. How had everything changed, that he was the one standing outside the house, while Spike was inside?

Buffy braced herself against the door, flinching slightly at the sound of the car doors slamming outside. There they go, she thought. She ached all over with weariness and tension, and though a lot of it was leaving with them, some of it simply felt...unfinished. Is it bad that I want something....else? What that might be, she wasn't sure, but it nagged at her. Shouldn't be, she thought, but still....the argument felt unfinished. They think they're going to ignore this till it goes away, she thought grimly. It's not going to go away. She lifted her eyes to Spike's, and looked at him as he shuffled slowly from the living room. As she watched, he ran his hands through his already-rumpled hair, and cautiously looked up at her. He looked so much like a guilty schoolboy that she had to smile involuntarily, and his shoulders slumped suddenly.

Spike gave a sigh and sank down onto the steps in front of her, stretching his arms out as they were stiff from being crossed sullenly in front of him for the whole evening. He gave her a rueful look composed of two parts irony and one part exhaustion that had once been exasperation. As she continued to stare, the irony melted away until she was looking at the genuine thing, the unadorned character. It was at moments like this that she saw the man he might become if he had the chance. It was also at moments like this that she wondered if that chance was...her. No pressure there. Oh, boy, she thought. What did I say tonight? What did I do? It seemed somehow appropriate that she had gone from having sex with Spike to actually admitting having sex with Spike. One more stage, though, she thought. One more thing. How many more things are there? They looked at each other, Spike slowly blinking those lashes as if he were considering something deep and serious, and she trying to fathom what that something might be. A clock ticked somewhere, but it occurred to her how seldom it was that they got uninterrupted watching time out of bed. She'd watched him in passion, in abandon, but when there were clothes between them, she'd always felt the need to glance at him only surreptitiously. Now I don't have to bother, she thought. I can look at him any time I want to. So she did, studying him with a seriousness that made him first glance down curiously, then meet her eyes uncomfortably, not certain what or why she was looking at. "What?" he asked.

"Nothing." Damn. She could feel herself flushing again. Damn that feeling, that sudden rush of blood, that abrupt leap in her pulse. She didn't stop looking at him, though. He responded to the scrutiny by ducking his head and running his hands through his hair again, leaving it in messy curls. It was such a nervous gesture, so boyish, that she had to smile, something that Spike caught instantly.

"What are you starin' at, Slayer?" But now he'd stopped being nervous, and was staring back. She stepped toward him, then, conscious of how odd it was to be glad her friends were gone and that Spike remained. She walked right between his arms and he wrapped them around her, bowing his head to her stomach. She used his hair for a pillow, smiling silently at the lack of gel. "They're gone," she muttered.

"Temporarily," he grumbled.

"They're still my friends."

"I think that says more about you than it does about your powers of persuasion, pet."

"Hey!" She pulled away and he loosened his arms, sliding his hands down the backs of her legs. Then she realized it was sort of a compliment. Oops. She was staring down into his eyes, arms loosely around his neck. "You know..."

"Hm?" He was already looking at her lips, she noticed.

Who are you? She thought. Who am I? I know who I used to be, and who you used to be and who my friends used to be, but not any more. I just chewed out my friends for you, and I think they're still my friends.

She scraped her fingers through his hair, tracing his face with her fingertips. I can do that, she thought. I can do that in front of my friends now. Probably better not actually do it, though. And then it hit her; Oh my God, I told them about Spike. No more secrets. I did the mature thing. I don't have any secrets.

Well, maybe one.

"C'mon," she said, pulling him to his feet.

"What?"

"C'mon."

After the tension of the evening, it just seemed to her suddenly that she couldn't bear any more pretense. She knew she wasn't ever going to be Exposition Girl, but now the last couple of days just crowded up around her. Confronting what had felt like the whole world's opinion of her was so much more difficult than confronting demons and vampires. When you staked them, they stayed staked. When you confronted your friends, they argued. No, she thought. When you confront your friends, they argued, and then they...stayed your friends. "Just...c'mon." And not to mention how irritating it was when your friends acted like they could date unsuitable people, but you couldn't.

Bemused, he let himself get led upstairs, and into her room. She turned around at the threshold, her finger pressed to his lips, pulling them away playfully when he tried to kiss them. She slipped his coat slowly down his arms, looking into his eyes the whole time. When his coat fell to the floor she still had her hands around his arms, sliding them down to his hands, and twining her fingers with his. They stared at each other, oddly peaceful. "Sorry," Buffy whispered.

"What?"

"I just want to...."

"Hm?"

"Look at you." She whispered. "Just want to look at you."

A slight quirk of the lips, and his eyes changed colors, darkening as he almost but not quite smiled. That was when she kissed him, gentle and unhurried. She leaned into his body, wrapping her arms around him, feeling his arms around her. With a tug, she pulled him toward the bed, and they walked backward, still kissing. At the bed's edge, she pulled back slightly, pulling his shirt away from his jeans, leaning back when he skinned off his tee shirt. She took off her own shirt and pants, then, and found him undressed when she turned back. She paused and looked into his eyes again, not sure of what she was looking for. Maybe just him. A slight breeze brushed over them as she reached up and kissed him again, tasting his lips as delicately as if she were savoring a new wine.

With the clothes gone, his skin became the only barrier, and she found herself tracing the muscles of his arms and backs as they kissed, murmuring into his mouth. This time he was the one who pulled away. "Hm?"

"C'mere." At that, he smiled. They were naked and pressed together, and she was telling him, 'c'mere.' He sat down on the bed, and she hovered at his knees, looking down at him with sleepy eyes. For a moment he had the typical male reaction to a naked female; a fraction of a second of shock that in fact there was a naked woman at his knees, and not only that, that it was Buffy. Then she leaned forward and they eased onto the covers, bodies twining together like string.

He had no idea whatsoever was in her mind. She kissed him the way he'd always wanted her to, slow and deep and supple, fingertips on his face, breathing, 'oh, oh,' into his mouth. Her warmth seeped into his skin, his bones, his fibers, and there seemed to be no separation between the two of them, not skin, not personality, not blood. She eased away slightly to look into his face. "What?" he muttered.

"What?" she repeated, amused. "A little tense?"

"What yourself. Want to see my ID or something?"

She cocked her head at him, then slowly glanced down his body, taking her time before her gaze reached his feet and she came back to his face. "What I really want to see is where you'd keep it."

He crossed his arms behind his head. "You're awfully feisty tonight."

She smacked his chest again, then looked at him consideringly and tried to tickle him. Spike just smiled patiently and batted away her hand. "Nice try. Vampires aren't ticklish."

"Oh, they're not?" Buffy demanded skeptically. She traced one fingertip down his neck to his nipple, circling it while keeping a thoughtful look on her face. Spike held his breath as she continued, shuddering suddenly till she triumphantly flattened her hand against his chest. "What was that, then?"

"That's different."

"Well, thank you, Doctor..." She cleared her throat. "Well, thank you, Doctor Spike.Doctor..Spike, get it? Doctor Spike?"

Spike groaned and let his head drop to the pillow. Buffy shook her head at him, and muttered, "Well, it's not like you're the one contributing witticisms to the conversation."

Conversation? He thought suddenly. He lifted his head to look at her. "Sorry. I've been remiss. Please go on and speculate as to where, precisely, I keep my green card."

"You know, I just don't think that's on my list of worries right now."

"You sure?"

She shook her head at him. "You're the one that's awfully frisky tonight." They looked at each other, then, and Spike reached out one finger and touched her cheek. He could feel the blush before he saw it, and he wondered if she was aware of it, that blush that was the sign of all those bottled emotions, struggling in her throat.

"Can't imagine why I'd feel...so..different tonight." He said quietly. "Can't imagine what it would be."

"Yeah, well," she muttered, embarrassed. "It's not like...I should have said something before. I'm not a liar or anything."

"You're not," he agreed soberly.

"It's just that I don't know what to say when I...don't know what to say." She frowned. "That sounded a lot more intelligent in my head."

"You told Angel."

Something struck her, then; the absolute certainty that he had not told Angel. The suspicion was certainly what had brought Angel to Sunnydale, but Spike was not the one who had said anything. The only thing better than killing a Slayer is f-- She looked at him with equal parts irritation and wonder. A God tortures him for an answer, and he doesn't give it, but he couldn't refrain from blurting out that comparison between offing Slayers, and, well, getting off with them. It made no sense at all. "And you didn't, did you?"

"What?" He shook his head, trying to follow her thoughts. "Oh? Oh. Oh. No, love, would you have wanted me to? Seems like it's your job to tell the ex about the...."He hesitated.

"About the new..." she hesitated. "Guy?" She paused again. "About the new....boyfriend?" She finished.

"Yes," he breathed. "Yes, that." He steadied himself. "Seems only fair."

"I guess. Which still doesn't explain why Angel never..." Buffy made a tsking noise to herself, scowling for a moment. "I will not think about that again."

"Will thinking about it make you get irritable with Angel? Because that I wouldn't object to."

"You think he's going to..." She rolled her eyes at herself. "Nope, not gonna go there. What's wrong with me?"

"Not enough shagging." Spike said seriously.

"No, it's not that," she muttered. "Just..." She traced a finger across his chest, then looked up searchingly into his face. "You know, I always worry about that...chip." Her voice dropped at the word, chip, as if it were something extremely profane. "Always." Hurt made his forehead furrow briefly before she continued. "But....I wasn't worried tonight. I was more worried about Angel."

"Think he'll come back and do your hair in your sleep or something?"

"I'm serious."

"Point taken. I, however, am naked."

"You are?!"

"Yeah, you're funny."

"Whereas you are funny-looking."

"Funny....looking, you...?"

"Me what? Go ahead, finish that sentence." She propped herself up on her elbows over his chest. He narrowed his eyes thoughtfully at her, his scrutiny not matching her mood. He cupped her face in one hand and her eyes got big and round, her lower lip sticking out. She pulled herself closer and pressed her hand over his, fitting his against her face, and laying her head on his chest. The gesture made his throat close up, and he buried his face in her hair. "So," he muttered. "Shouldn't we be planning for tomorrow, getting all ready?"

"Why?" Buffy demanded."Getting ready means making sure I'm not wearing underwear. And I know you're not."

"Which you've put to good advantage."

"Like I didn't have help..." Buffy said dryly. "So, okay, see how this sounds. This is tomorrow, right? I will fight demons, bad guys, and my friends. They will bitch and moan. Xander will sulk, probably. Tara will look all happy. Dawn will be really happy. Willow will make jokes. You and I, well, you and I, we'll, uh---"

"---Look for broom closets."

"Probably," Buffy said dryly. "Why do I think my friends will be following us around suspiciously?"

"Because they will. Especially Harris."

"But anyway, there will be fighing, probably some snarky remarks from Xander, and Angel might call. People will listen to me...or not. And you'll be here, all the time."

"All the time?"

"All the time." She raised her head and looked at him. "That's all I know for sure about tomorrow." She nudged her head under his chin again. "That's....all I need to know."


The End