All About Spike - Print Version
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Giving In
By ColdCoffeeEyes25

Chapter One

Spike found himself frequently accused of many things. Being contemplative wasn’t often one of them.

Why that was, he wasn’t sure. Possibly it was his haircut. Or his accent. Or the fact that surviving as an undead antihero for over a century required you to be more agile than your garden-variety philosopher.

Then again, maybe it was just the leather coat.

In any case, here he was, having another conversation with himself. This was a habit he’d had ever since his bad-poetry days; he’d square the two sides of his brain off in opposite corners, lob in the question at hand, and send his head into a silent ping-pong match. The effort involved in this internal debate made him look faintly befuddled. Dru, bless her black heart, had referred to the process as “monkey chatter.” Spike preferred to think of it as his own method of scientific inquiry.

Presently he was sitting cross-legged on the top of his crypt. Passions was on, but he wasn’t watching. He had Things On His Mind.

Buffy again, mostly.

“A man can change,” he’d told her, and wanted to believe it himself, even though the moment the words were out of his mouth he’d braced himself for her smackdown. The fact that he’d seen it coming hadn’t lessened the sting. Then again, considering the events of the past seventy-two hours, maybe he had to start taking those insults of hers with a grain of salt.

If he was, in fact, an “evil, disgusting thing,” she hadn’t been running the other way. She’d looked the monster full in the face … and everywhere else … and hadn’t so much as flinched.

What did that make her? That’s what Spike wanted to know. He hadn’t given it much thought until now – he’d been too intent on his chosen battle, on stepping on her heels until she couldn’t walk away anymore and forcing her to show her hand. And he’d got what he wanted, hadn’t he?

He’d gotten in at least one good lick of his own, to pay her back for that “thing” comment. You came back wrong. He’d expected her rage. He’d gotten horror instead, horror and a kind of big-eyed hopelessness. He hadn’t meant it, really, not that way, but she’d believed him. All he’d done was put words to her deepest fears. “You’re wrong,” she’d said, over and over, but her face was full of despair.

That had panicked him. He’d wanted her angry, not sad. He’d hit her again to snap her out of that wounded empty place, and then she’d set her little jaw and started whaling on him in earnest. That was good. He liked fighting with her.

Honestly, he thought it would end there, like it usually did – they’d hold each other off for a while, eventually she’d get pissed and he’d drop his guard and she’d kick his ass, and she’d stomp off in righteous fury, trailing Slayer pheromones behind her that he could smell in his sleep. He’d gotten lucky with that comment. He’d hit a nerve.

You haven’t come close to hurting me, she’d spat.

Afraid to give me the chance? Afraid I’m gonna –

And then, the Plot Twist, the Big Shocker.

He’d kissed a bunch of different Buffys before. Sad Buffy. Pissed-off Buffy. Engaged Under-a-Spell Buffy. Singing Buffy. He’d never tasted Desperate-to-Shut-Him-Up Buffy before, however, and she was a whole new Slayer.

For a minute, he just basked in the memory of the kiss, the memory of her plastered against him, diving into him. Shoving him away, sending him careening across the room hard enough to crack plaster when he hit the opposite wall. Up against him the next second, on his mouth and in his brain and using her knees around his hips to literally crawl up his body. Never in a million years would he have imagined it happening like that, and yet there she went, a little blonde Roman candle of a girl, bottled-up repression walking around on two legs until he, the lucky idiot, finally said the one thing to pop her cork and set her free.

He couldn’t remember how his pants came down, how her skirt came apart. But he could still see her face as she came down on him, and it gave him chills – an open-mouthed, dropped-jaw, glazed-eyes look of sheer disbelief and awe.

The moment he’d never thought would happen. And the funny thing, the best thing, the thing he was sure Little Miss Summers hadn’t thought to consider in the three days she’d been avoiding him: she’d offered him her neck, and he’d never shifted into game face.

All that blood, beating so near to the surface, rising and falling under the satin skin like the leaping river of life itself. Calling to him, to the monster in him: taste me, take me. Spike, the slayer of Slayers, had waged a brief mental war with William the Bloody Awful Poet, who’d never won so much as a game of chess in his brief, doomed life.

And William had triumphed. Amazing. Bloody terrifying. He’d taken his disdainful Cecily in his arms and fallen through the floor with her, strong enough to kiss that silky neck from ear to pulse to collarbone and bury himself in the Slayer’s velvet crossroads without venturing so much as a pointy tooth in her direction.

Did that mean he was more man than monster? Spike had no idea.

But it wasn’t himself he was worried about. He was what he was. The question of the day, again, was: what was she?

And why did he feel so bad for her?

He watched her for two days and discovered the following: nobody in that house ate anything but peanut butter and ramen noodles, the washing machine was broken, Willow was apparently under house arrest. Dawn was using the broken wrist as an excuse to skip school and spent the better part of her days on the deck, looking sulky and doodling aimlessly on an art pad with her good hand and a red pen. Buffy herself went grocery shopping, hauled clothes to and from the Laundromat, went into a cleaning frenzy that made Spike tired just watching, and spent a lot of time being grim and silent. Tara arrived with chicken soup and teen magazines for Dawn, but couldn’t be coaxed inside. Small sisterly arguments about sweater ownership and bathroom rights were conducted periodically. Dawn, the more vehement of the two, generally won.

Buffy had rows and rows of braided garlic hung inside her windows. That made him laugh. She’d be better off cooking with it. Smelly vegetables weren’t going to keep him out of her life, not if he wanted to be there.

And he did – oh, he did. But he wasn’t making the first move, not again. She could bloody well come to him.

She missed Giles. He could tell. Whether she missed him or not, he couldn’t say.

Amy Madison showed up late on the third day, asking for Willow. Buffy didn’t let her in. There was a brief altercation, consisting of magical threats on Amy’s part and mild physical violence on Buffy’s. The witch didn’t look good, Spike thought. Thinner than she’d been – drawn and strung-out looking, with lank hair and shaking hands. Another one of Rack’s specials. Willow was lucky she had real friends.

Spike saw her at the window during Amy’s argument with Buffy, small and white-faced. Poor Red. Hard not to feel for her, even considering the circumstances … until he looked at the cast on the Niblet’s wrist. Then he had to wonder why Buffy hadn’t thrown her into the street. Not like she and Willow were all snug like they used to be. Probably that wide, wide streak of Slayerly duty shining through. They all had it, Slayers, but Buffy’d gotten more than her fair share.

Duty. Valor. Honor. Three of the best things about her. If he was honest with himself, he’d admit that he didn’t want anything to be wrong with Buffy.

He wanted her to love him. But he wanted her.

**

She showed up at the crypt early that evening, looking as sullen and imperious and ready for a fight as she ever had. Spike could think of four or five snarky things to say, but he kept them in reserve and merely shot her a questioning eyebrow. She wouldn’t meet his eyes.

“I need a favor,” she said, rather sulkily if you asked him. “There’s Chinese food in it for you.”

Spike, enjoying himself, elevated his other eyebrow and said nothing. Buffy scowled.

“Dawn and Tara are going to the movies tonight,” she said. “I have to patrol. And Willow …”

“Is home alone,” Spike supplied. “You want me to witch-sit?”

“It’s not like you’ll have to do anything,” she said. “Mostly she’s been in her room. Normally I wouldn’t even ask, but –“

“Afraid that Rat Girl might come back?” he said, then mentally kicked himself. Her eyes sharpened.

“Spy much?”

“Can’t help what I see when I’m passing through,” he shot back. “You want me to keep an eye on Red or not? Where’re the Butt Monkey and his demon bride, anyway? Too busy picking out flowers to baby-sit?”

“I’m asking you, not them.” That temper was sparking, he could tell. “But now that you mention it …”

“Don’t get your knickers in a twist,” he said lazily, and watched her eyes flash. “I’ll play a few rounds of gin with the witchlet, I don’t mind. General Gau and I have had a good thing going for a long time now.” Deliberately, he turned his back on her and started for the door. “Don’t stay out all night, pet. I’d hate to be stuck at your place all day with the sun up.”

Was that sound he heard as he closed the door behind him Buffy grinding her teeth? Oh, he hoped so.

“Hey, Red,” he called up the stairs, but didn’t get a response. Shrugging, he headed for the cartons on the kitchen counter. No blood in the fridge, naturally. No booze, either. He should have brought his own. Next time, he’d remember.

Forty-five minutes later, he remained unconvinced that anyone was in the house with him. He headed up the stairs and paused at the landing. “Willow?”

She was in her room, but she didn’t answer him. “Hey there,” he said. She turned around and flicked him a glance. She looked awful.

“Spike,” she said, and turned away again.

“There’s food downstairs.”

“Not hungry.”

He gave her thin frame a quick glance. “How long since you ate?”

“What do you care?”

“I don’t, much,” he said. “Just curious. Not filling out that sweater like you used to.” Did that get a smile from her? Her face was in shadow, and he couldn’t tell.

“I haven’t been eating,” she said finally, after a long silence. “I haven’t wanted to. Haven’t needed to.”

He didn’t say anything. After another long pause, she spoke again.

“I can’t taste anything,” she said. “I can’t smell anything. I can’t feel hot and cold.”

“That magic,” he said awkwardly. “Rough stuff.”

“It’s the best thing.” Her voice was dreamy. “Makes everything so much brighter. Warmer. Better.”

“Until you look like your friend the rat,” Spike said. “See her this afternoon? She’s a wreck. Runny nose, shaky hands, dirty clothes. Used to be a pretty girl.” She didn’t answer him, and finally he backed out of the doorway. “Chinese food downstairs if you want to say hello to the General,” he said, and closed the door behind him.

Buffy’s door was ajar. Glancing back to make sure Willow wasn’t watching, he slipped in and flicked on the bedside table lamp.

His Slayer was a tidy soul at heart, he decided, scanning the spare, pale little room. Or maybe she just wasn’t into decorating these days. He seemed to remember more stuff, more pillows and teddy bears and clutter, back in the Time of Riley. Now, there was just the bed, its linens in military order, with a framed print behind the headboard and a couple of Joyce’s floppy straw hats on another wall. He’d bet cold hard cash that the witchlets had decorated this room, and that Buffy hadn’t changed a thing since Resurrection Day. Another indication that things were way wrong … was no one seeing this but him?

There were photographs tacked up all over a bulletin board by the desk. He walked over to study them, mostly snaps of a happier, younger Buffy and Co. You’d be hard-pressed to recognize the finely drawn bundle of angst she was now as one and the same with the smiling, apple-cheeked innocent in the photos.

Without wanting to, he thought of that first post-Resurrection night. Haunted eyes and bloody hands. He’d had nightmares about his coffin for more than twenty years – the stuffy space, the darkness, the smell of death, the poisoned air. Was Buffy still waking up underground? No wonder Xander and Willow couldn’t look her in the face.

His gaze fell to the open notebook on the desk. The sheet was blank but scored with heavy grooves from whatever she’d written on the previous page. Curious, Spike fished a ball of paper out of the wastebasket by the desk and smoothed it out.

Dear Mom, Buffy had written.

When you and Dad split up, you told Dawn and me that you didn’t love each other any more, but you still loved us. Then you stayed and Dad left. I used to lie awake and wonder: if he really did love us, why wouldn’t he stick around?

But then Angel left for L.A., and I started to think maybe Dad was telling the truth after all. After Riley, I was sure of it – that men can love you and leave you in the same breath, and mean both things just as much.

I miss you so much. I need you so much. You’re gone and Giles is gone and I’ve got this big question I can’t ask anyone that’s driving me crazy: What do you do when you think it’s wrong but you hope it’s right, and you can’t just put it off because he’s throwing around that word you associate with leaving, but he isn’t going anywhere?

I don’t know what I’m going to do. No matter what, it feels like the wrong thing, and I’m so lonely I could die. Sometimes I think even the wrong thing is better than feeling so goddamned cold all the time.

Most of the time, I just wish they’d left me in the ground. One of the only things that keeps me going is knowing that you must be in that place I left. No more migraines, ever.

I used to wish I could bring you back. Now I just hope you’re watching over me.

Love always, Buffy


Spike started to crumple the paper up again, then stopped himself, folding it neatly and tucking it into an inside pocket of his jacket. For a second or two he just stood there, staring at the happy photos of that earlier Buffy. Then he jammed his hands grimly into his pockets and started downstairs.

He and the Slayer had to talk.

**

He was on his fourth cup of hot chocolate when Buffy finally came through the door, hollow-eyed with fatigue. There was a smear of something blue and slimy on the front of her skirt. He handed her a paper towel and pulled out a chair. “Cocoa?”

She took the cup he handed her but set it down without drinking. “Thanks.”

“Rough night?” He gestured to the blue smear, and she rubbed absently at it with the paper towel.

“Don’t know what it was. Horns. Crusty eyes. It killed easy.”

“Good to know.” He nudged the cocoa a little closer to her. “Drink up, pet.”

“What’s in it?” She sniffed it suspiciously. He sighed and rolled his eyes.

“Cynical little bit, aren’t you? Here.” He took a gulp and handed her back the cup. “Satisfied?”

“You’re still in the house, aren’t you?”

That was better, just part of her standard nastiness, something she’d said without thinking. Spike bit back the retort he was dying to sling at her. “Buffy,” he said. “Why haven’t you been to see me? I’ve missed you.”

She looked up, startled. Being straightforward wasn’t part of his standard MO. “Why would I willingly seek you out, Spike? Didn’t we already have this discussion? Like, a million times?”

He didn’t drop his gaze. “Can we drop the usual bullshit, please? I’m trying to say something here.”

She blinked. Pass up two golden opportunities to bite back at her? This wasn’t the Spike she knew and … well, anyway. “Okay,” she said. “Say it, then. But hurry up. I’m tired.”

“I know you don’t love me,” he said. “That’s old territory. But I do love you, and I’m worried about you. You aren’t taking care of yourself. You’re not happy.”

She stared at him, suddenly glassy-eyed. More rattled than he’d care to admit, Spike plowed ahead.

“You’re not talking to anyone,” he said. “Not Xander, not Willow, not Anya, not Dawn. They’re all part of the problem you can’t discuss. And you’re not talking to me anymore, either.”

She was still frozen. He figured he’d better hurry up and say his piece before she went for his liver. “Listen,” he said urgently. “You don’t have to promise me anything. You don’t owe me anything. But I want to take you to bed again.” That got her attention, he thought with savage satisfaction as her eyes jerked up to his. “Even if it’s only to take your mind off everything else,” he said. “Even if you really do hate me. I don’t want you to be alone.”

She stiffened, swept her hair out of her face, glared at him. “Are you offering to fuck me out of pity, Spike? Because you know what you can do with that kind of … generosity.”

“That’s not what I’m saying,” he said, quietly enough that she had to lean forward to hear him. He was looking straight into her eyes. “I want to be with you. Not out of pity, not out of sympathy, but out of the love I have to give. That’s all.”

They sat and stared at each other across the little table for a long time, neither one moving, the cocoa congealing in the cups between them. Buffy’s stubborn little chin was high, her eyes flinty. But then her lip trembled – once, twice – and the stone set of her face began to crumple. “Oh, God,” she managed to gasp, and then the tears came.

Once before, he’d held the Slayer while she cried, folding her little body into his and absorbing into himself the hot salt of her grief. The first time, he’d been angry, angry enough to kill her, and she’d completely disarmed him. Now, he picked her up – she was so small! – and carried her into the quiet dark living room, over to the recliner where he used to sit and drink tea with Joyce. The chair swallowed them both into its soft dark womb. He gathered Buffy closer and smoothed the hair back from her face. “You’re so beautiful,” he whispered. “You’re so bloody strong. You cry for everybody else but you. You break my heart.”

She pulled back from him for a minute, studied him with those big liquid eyes, shook her head. “William,” she said shakily. “Just when I think I’ve got you figured, you break out the poetry. What am I going to do about you?”

He touched her mouth with his. Soft, soft, so soft, like snowflakes melting over cinders, one by one by cool silent one. Brush, brush, brush, sip. No pressure. Okay, well, maybe a little.

She was moist and flushed from weeping, and the vampire part of his brain couldn’t help but think – blood, blood, blood. The rest of him was marveling at her heat against him, a human coal against the body he had to warm with borrowed life. It was as if the tears had melted her a little, as if she were not a solid form at all but some slow-moving liquid like glass. Not glass, though. Bloody stainless steel, more like.

He smoothed her up and down with his hands, as if sculpting her. She burned against his palms. Holy Christ, she was hot. Dru had been cool … Harmony, too. Until Buffy, he’d never been this close to a human woman. He ran his hands up under her shirt and took her gasp with his mouth.

“Upstairs,” she said. “Upstairs. Hurry.”

He squeezed everything he could reach, one last time, and scooped her up. He could have floated up the stairs.

“Quick,” she ordered once they were on the bed. “Quick, come here, hurry …”

“Hurry?” He grinned down at her. “Not a chance.”

**

Oh, God, it was happening again. Thirty minutes ago, anyone who insinuated to Buffy that she’d be shagging Spike again tonight would have gotten either laughed at or pounded on. Wasn’t going to happen, EVER again, no way, no how, and certainly not because he’d offered her cocoa and told her she looked unhappy.

And. Yet. Here they were, in the bedroom she’d slept in since moving to Sunnydale, sprawled over the top of one of Grandma Summers’ knitted afghans. The afghan had some stories to tell, Buffy reflected. It had probably seen more action than Grandma herself.

If tonight was anything like her last sexcapade with Spike, the afghan would be pretty damn shocked. As Buffy herself had been. Her night with Angel had been pretty touchy-feely; not what Buffy would call exactly kinky. And it was a sure thing that Riley had never done any of that stuff.

Congratulations, Buffy Summers, she thought to herself. Somewhere along the line, you’ve acquired a sexual imagination. And then Spike put his hand between her legs, and she didn’t think any more after that.

He felt so good, like the cool side of the pillow in the middle of a bad dream. One muscled arm was under her neck; his leg was thrown over one of hers, and he was studying her with a thoughtful little half-frown as he touched her, as if he’d never seen a woman quite like her before. His long artist’s fingers were slow and sure and felt as if he’d just dipped them in cool water. Against them, she could feel her own heat lapping and building and sucking at itself. A big part of her wanted to grab him and take him and get the waiting over with. Another big part of her liked the wait.

He kept touching her, his fingers like salve soothing away a burn that keeps coming back stronger. His lips were traveling over her forehead, her cheeks, her eyelids. He bent his head and licked the perspiration from her neck. “God, you’re burning up,” he muttered. “I can feel you – there’s a furnace beneath your skin. How can you live with so much heat?”

“Please,” she gasped, because it was too much – the burn between her thighs, the soft sexy words, the all-too-experienced nibbling just beneath her ear. “Just do it, okay?”

He laughed against her skin. “Patience, Slayer,” he said, and slid two fingers inside her. “We never stopped for breath the other night. I want to take my time now.”

“What are you talking about?” she snapped irritably, arching into his hand. “You don’t breathe, you idiot. And are you forgetting that it took all night?”

“More than one road to Rome, princess,” he said, and drove another finger into her. “Why start the trip all over again, when you can just keep driving instead?”

She snarled at him, but her heart wasn’t in it. She was almost there, almost to the top of the hill, and if he kept doing that … thing … with his thumb …

“Oh, God,” she said, and took the jump with her eyes open, staring straight into his. “Oh, Jesus, Spike.”

“Keep going,” he urged her, and before she could blink he’d dragged her up the hard muscled length of him and slid her effortlessly onto his lap, replacing his fingers with his cock before she’d registered the loss. His hands clamped around her hips, lifting and settling her until she took up the rhythm herself. “There you go. Oh, bloody hell.”

It’s not size with a vampire, she thought fuzzily, still in free fall and only dimly aware of his hands on her breasts. It’s … endurance. Oh, Christ.

“There you go,” he was murmuring. “There you go, Buffy, there you go. You’re going to cut me in half, you’re so bloody tight. Oh, fuck. Fuckin’ A.”

“Kiss me,” she gasped. “Kiss me again. Please?” And then she was underneath him, and everybody stopped talking in favor of the Big Body Slam, the brutal strain and yearn and grind of raw elemental sex that didn’t change the fact that his lips on hers were unbearably tender.

Eventually, he shifted his weight to one side, for which she was grateful – even if he didn’t need to breathe, she did. Buffy reached down and flipped Grandma’s afghan over the two of them, and they lay companionably for a few minutes, listening to the light rain that had started sometime in the middle of their own personal storm. Finally, Spike broke the silence.

“Willow’s in the house,” he said. “Might be hard to explain in the morning. Do you want me to leave?”

Silence hung heavy in the room. Buffy felt him shift, as if he were about to get up. Oh, for God’s sake, Buffy, have some balls about this, she thought, suddenly irritable with herself, and grabbed his arm.

“No, of course not,” she said, and kept hanging on even though it was hard to meet his eyes. “Stay. Please. I want you to.”

“Right, then,” he said, and swept her back against him. In seconds, she was dreaming.



Chapter Two

In her dreams, she was patrolling through Sunnydale, walking soft through the cul-de-sacs and alleyways and stepping carefully around the puddles on the ground from the recent rain. Shouldn’t have worn suede shoes on a night like this, Sleeping-Buffy told Dream-Buffy, and the two of them grimaced together over the issue of footwear upkeep.

Footsteps behind her, big clumsy careless stomp-stomp-shuffle-stomps. The demon from Willow’s hallucination, snarling at her like a mad Ewok. She kicked him hard in the face, and instead of falling backwards he turned into a man. The man had wild eyes and dreadlocks and what looked like massive acne scars. He was smiling.

Go ahead and fight, little girl. You can’t keep her.

I can’t keep who? Dream-Buffy scowled, making Sleeping-Buffy murmur angrily to herself. Talk sense, Pustule Boy, or get out of my nightmare. Make room for something that can really put up a fight.

You can’t keep her, Pustule Boy repeated, and began to laugh. Because she doesn’t want to stay. His eyes dilated, and his features changed. Dream- Buffy’s eyes narrowed.

Willow?

Willow was flickering. Even with big black alien pupils, she looked sad. Buffy, listen. You aren’t like me. He’s not like this.

Dream-Buffy frowned. Willow was fading around the edges. The dreadlocks were coming back. Willow, don’t go. Don’t go, Willow.

Pustule Boy grinned at her. Mine, he said, and as Dream-Buffy started for him, hawked up a gob of something purple and sticky and spat it at her. It landed on her shoes.

Asshole, Sleeping-Buffy commiserated. Not like they’ll wash, either. You couldn’t have worn the Reeboks tonight?

By the time they looked up, the alley was empty.

Buffy sat up in bed and looked at the clock. Three a.m. Not exactly the witching hour, but close enough. She swung her feet out of bed.

“Going somewhere, love?”

She glanced back over her shoulder at Spike. Trust him not to be sleeping when he should be. “Go back to sleep,” she said. “It’s nothing.”

“Can’t sleep,” he said cheerfully. “It’s the garlic. Gives me insomnia.”

She wrinkled her nose at him. “That’s all it does? What a waste of twelve bucks.”

Not her best comeback, but he rewarded it with one of those sexy little half-laughs that never quite made it out of his throat. “Dracula’s allergic,” he said. “But he was allergic when he was human, too. Doesn’t affect me one way or the other ... except that the smell’s a little strong in here. I keep thinking about Italian food.” He yawned. “You’ve been tossing and turning a bit, too. Bad dream?”

Buffy sighed and swung her feet back into bed. Just her luck – he was in the mood to talk. “Weird dream,” she confirmed. “Willow. And the Ewok demon. And some guy with really bad skin.”

“That’d be Rack.” She looked at him sharply, and he shrugged. “Funny he made it into your head, but then that’s sort of his thing.”

“Meaning --?” Buffy didn’t like the sound of this.

Spike pushed himself up on some pillows and crossed his ankles under the covers. “Odd sort of wanker, Rack,” he said. “Been at the black magic so long that he’s sort of burned himself out from the inside. Got a lot of power, not much else. Soul is damaged, emotions aren’t working right, long- term memory is pretty much gone. That’s why he’s in the business. Reels in the magical dilettante crowd, the wannabes, and deals them a little bit of temporary power for a chunk of their insides. Figure he got lucky with Willow – she’s the real deal. Probably got your name from her head.”

Buffy hugged her knees. “You mean he has a chunk of Willow?” Spike nodded.

“Had, anyway. He’s probably burned his way through most of it by now. He’s as big a junkie as anyone he deals to.”

“So part of her is ... just ... gone?”

“Mm. I figure he took her olfactories, this last trip,” Spike said. “Can’t smell, can’t taste, can’t detect hot or cold.” At Buffy’s aghast look, he shrugged. “She’ll get them back, at least partially. Those kind of things have a certain ability to regenerate. As long as she doesn’t go back.”

“What’ll happen if she does?”

Spike laced his fingers behind his head and leaned back against the wall. “For a while, he’ll just nip away at her,” he said. “Memories, emotions, goals, morals. That sort of thing. Sort of clean her out from the inside, bit by bit. Then, when there’s nothing else left of value, he’ll start on the brain. Sooner or later, he’ll take something crucial ... and after that, no more Teen Witch.”

Buffy shuddered. “Can I kick his ass?”

“Probably. Wanna get some more sleep first?”

She sighed and lay back down. “I guess.” He was still watching her, she could tell. The light from the window silhouetted one sharp cheekbone and made him look all film-noir, a sulky black-and-white James Dean. “Spit it out,” she said, and he half-laughed again.

“Just wondering, Blondie,” he said. “How things are gonna play in the morning.” He half-turned so she couldn’t see his face anymore. “Not that it matters, really. But if you’re planning to pull another ‘what-was-I- ever-thinking’, why don’t you just tell me? That way I can split now and avoid the scene.”

Oh, God. Here we go. She flipped around and found herself facing his back. “What do you want, Spike? Hearts and flowers?”

“Nothing wrong with that if you can manage it.” He twisted back around and glowered down at her, somehow managing to look more weary than menacing. “But it’s not necessary. I’d be happy with a cease-fire.”

She snorted. “Who are you kidding? You love duking it out with me.”

“Pot. Kettle.” The covers had slipped down, and he could see one of her breasts, a sweet little handful of marzipan with a pale pink crown. He traced its outline with one finger and felt her shudder. “Truce, Slayer?”

She was melting. “I suppose.” His mouth replaced his hand, and she kicked the covers to the foot of the bed. “Spike?”

“Uh-huh.” His mouth was full, and he already had that glazed look in his eyes. She yanked him up by the hair for a second.

“She’s going to be okay, right? I mean, we can dust this Rack guy?”

His eyes went cobalt with intensity. “Since when has there ever been anything, or anyone, that you couldn’t handle?”

Her lip trembled. “She’s my best friend. There’s a lot on the line.”

He sighed, and slithered back up her body until they were eye to eye. “Ever read Matthew Arnold?”

“Um. Random much? No. Who’s he?”

He rolled onto his back, pulling her with him so she was sprawled over his body. “British poet. World War One era.” She scowled down at him.

“And your point?”

He grinned up at her, then sobered. “Ah, love/Let us be true to one another!” She rolled her eyes, but he kept going. “For the world, which seems/To lie before us like a land of dreams/So various, so beautiful, so new/Hath neither really joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude/Nor help for pain.

Her face had changed. She looked like she might cry. He finished softly. “And we are here as on a darkling plain/Swept by confused alarms of struggle and might/As ignorant armies clash by night.”

“That’s cheery,” she said, pretty brow furrowed. “What was he trying to say?”

“Basically that life sucks,” Spike said. “But at least you’ve got company. Can I kiss you now?”

“If you must,” Buffy said, and went liquid in his arms.

**

When she woke up, dawn was just beginning to filter through her curtains. There was a dent in the pillow that smelled faintly like cigarettes, but Spike was gone.

For the best, Buffy thought, tamping down the Jell-O part of her that had gone all wiggly during last night’s Poetry Jam and had been looking forward to waking up with him. Shower, dress, go figure out how to kill Rack. Have a Pop-Tart.

She had intended to wear the suede shoes from last night’s dream, but she couldn’t find them. Padding downstairs in her bare feet, she threw some cinnamon bread into the toaster and was buttering her second slice when Tara and Dawn came through the door.

“Hi, guys. How was the flick?”

“Grooving,” Dawn said, deadpan, and snatched the toast from Buffy’s hand with a quick leggo-my-eggo flick of her wrist perfected by years of experience. Buffy shot her an evil look, pondered getting the bread out again, and decided to settle for OJ.

“Tara? Juice?” She brandished the carton at Tara, who backed away nervously.

“N-no. I should be going. Really.” She shot a sideways glance up the stairs.

“She hasn’t been out of her room for a week.” Dawn rolled her eyes. “Good thing, too.”

“Dawn!”

“Well, hell-ooo. It’s not her with a lame-o cast, is it? It’s not her who’s going to have to audition for Bianca on Monday with only one good arm.”

“You?” Buffy started to laugh. “You’re auditioning for Bianca?”

Dawn put on her best prim-little-girl face. “I’m the good sister,” she said from around the last bite of cinnamon toast, and flounced away toward the stairs. “Bye, Tara.”

“Bye, Dawnie.” Tara gave Buffy an apologetic smile and turned toward the door. Then she stopped. “Buffy?”

“Yeah?”

“What exactly did you kill last night? There’s stuff all over your shoes.”

“My shoes?” Buffy drained her juice and frowned. “I don’t remember getting anything ... hey, hang on. Is it purple?”

Tara nodded. “And ... sort of ... yucky ..”

“That does it,” Buffy said grimly. “Research time. I paid a fortune for those.”

**

The Magic Box was overrun with customers – the Saturday Crowd, Anya called them smugly – and she was in her element. Buffy, remembering her own disastrous brush with the world of retail, flopped into a chair at the research table and eyed her wonderingly.

“Set a date, Xander?” she asked.

“Um. Merciful Zeus. No.” Xander turned pasty underneath his construction- worker tan. “Don’t talk so loud.”

Buffy shrugged and propped her elbows on the table. “Whatever. So. Rack. Mad Ewok demon. Purple goo. Willow, looking all witchy. That was the dream.”

Tara nodded earnestly. “But you never actually saw Rack while you were on patrol?”

“Right. Nor,” Buffy said frowning, “was I wearing those particular shoes. I would never wear suede shoes patrolling. That was the first weird thing about the dream.” She sighed. “So. The Ewok turns into Rack, turns into Willow, turns back into Rack. Who spits purple gunk on my shoes, in the dream, and says I can’t have her back, because she doesn’t want to be here.”

“Weird.” Xander munched his donut thoughtfully. “Did Willow say anything?”

“Yeah. She said ... um ... let me think ... okay. ‘You’re not like me. He’s not like this.’ Then she got all dreadlocky again.”

“You’re not like me.” Tara tucked her hair behind her ears. “That’s easy enough. You, Buffy, aren’t like me, Willow. And ‘this’ must be her addiction. The witchcraft. But who’s ‘he’?”

“Um. Dunno. Rack, maybe?” Buffy pretended sudden interest in the nearest book cover.

Xander shook his head. “Mmmph,” he said, swallowing the last of the donut. “No. That doesn’t make sense. Rack’s the cause of the addiction, so he’s gotta be linked, right? The ‘he’ must have something to do with Buffy, not Willow.”

Tara picked up the goo-covered shoe, which held pride of place in the middle of the table, and studied it gingerly. “Did the dream wake you up, Buffy?”

“Mm. Yeah. I was going to go check on Willow. And then ... I ... well, and then I didn’t.” Buffy bit her lip. Don’t panic. Don’t panic. “Back in a minute. Bathroom,” she said, and bolted for the back of the shop.

“Wow.” Dawn had wandered over and was perched on the edge of the table. “My big sister. Queen of the Weirdos.”

Xander, still studying the pointy end of his cruller, looked up. “Yeah,” he said. “What’s up with that?”

By the time Buffy came back, Xander had been drafted to cash-register duty by a harassed-looking Anya, Dawn was fingering something sparkly on the crystals table, and Tara was scraping the purple goo from the shoe into a little jar, using a disposable plastic glove and what looked like a chopstick. “I’ve got a friend in the university chemistry lab,” she said to Buffy. “I’ll have her run an analysis on it. I mean, the dream and everything kinda points to magic, but it could just be a prank, too. Maybe. And I’ll look in my books at home.”

“Sounds good.” Buffy surveyed the ruined shoes sadly. “Thanks, Tara.”

“Sure, anytime. Hey, Buffy?”

“Yeah.”

“Thanks for taking care of Willow.” She looked troubled. “If there’s anything I can do, let me know. I just can’t ... be there ... right now. That’s all.”

“Yeah.” On a sudden impulse, Buffy squeezed Tara’s shoulder. “I understand.”

Home again, minus Dawn, who was helping Anya wrap peacock skulls in tissue paper and had finagled a lunch-and-mini-golf invitation from Xander. Buffy peeked into Willow’s room, saw her friend curled up with her back to the door, and tiptoed out again. She hadn’t made her bed yet. She’d do that, then maybe catch a quick nap. Hot sex during the midnight hours was hell on the old Slayer stamina.

Under her pillow was a book she hadn’t noticed earlier that morning, an old, peeling little paperback. Duino Elegies. Had to be one of Spike’s specials. One page was folded down; a glance at her desk told her that he’d highlighted the passage with her own marker. She closed her eyes for a moment, undecided, then opened the book. The page was worn, and old underlines scored the words he’d highlighted:

Of course it is odd to live no more on the earth/
To abandon customs you’ve just begun to get used to/
Not to give meaning to roses and other such/
Promising things in terms of a human future/
To be held no more by hands that can never relax/
For fear they will drop you and even to put your name to one side/
Like a broken toy. Strange to wish wishes no longer./
Strange to see things that seemed to/
Belong together floating in every direction./
It’s very hard to be dead, and you try to make up for lost time/
Till slowly you start to get whiffs of eternity./
But the living are wrong in the sharp distinctions they make./
Angels, it seems, don’t always know if they’re moving among/
The living or the dead. The drift of eternity drags all the ages of man/
Through both of those spheres and its sound rises over them both./
Those who have died young finally need us no longer – you can be weaned/
From things of this world as gently as a child outgrows its mother’s breast./
But we who have need of those huge mysteries, we who can sometimes/
Draw up from wellsprings of sadness rejoicing and progress/
How could we exist without them? Is the old tale pointless/
That tells how music began in the midst of the mourning for Linos/
Piercing the arid numbness and, in that stunned/
Space, where an almost godlike youth/
Had suddenly stopped existing, made emptiness vibrate in ways/
That thrill us, comfort us, help us now?

Huh, Buffy thought, and turned the little book over and over in her hands. Too tired to think about that one. But it’s pretty.

This time, when she slept, she didn’t dream.

When she woke up, there was a message from Tara on the machine. Hi, Buffy, Dawn. Um, Willow. Buffy, can you call me when you get a chance?

Buffy dialed the number. Three rings, no answer. Four. She was just about to hang up when –

“Hello?”

“Oh, hi. Tara?”

“No, sorry. She’s not in right now.” The voice was young and female and a little too perky to suit Buffy’s present mood. “She said something about going over to the university. Um, the lab, maybe?”

“OK. Thanks.” Buffy replaced the receiver and considered her options.

She could patrol over to the university and see if she ran into Tara. She could wait until tomorrow and call her then.

Or she could get a ride from Spike.

Jell-O Sex Addict Buffy was feeling very good about the prospect of Spike. Cynic Buffy was less convinced, and a bit weirded out about the poetry thing. I mean, who could even tell what he meant by it? Wellsprings of sadness? Whiffs of eternity? Angels?

Color her stupid, but they hadn’t covered all this imagery stuff in Western Lit I. And what exactly did he expect from her now? Was he hoping to discuss it? Would there be a quiz or something?

The last thing she needed right now in her life was a boyfriend who was smarter than her. Leaving out the whole Evil Dead thing, of course. And the fact that somehow, some way, he could hit her and not send himself into Migraine Land.

The fact that there weren’t human Happy Meal wrappers strewn around Sunnydale made her think that he must have been right. God, she hated those words in his voice. You came back wrong.

Well, of course she had. She’d known it before he said it. Known it the minute her eyes popped open in the coffin. Something was gone, and it wasn’t just the Heaven thing, either. For weeks, she’d felt like a too-full closet behind a flimsy door, just waiting to explode. And yet it hadn’t happened.

Giles had left. She’d let him. Her friends had yet to really, truly apologize for the whole Resurrection thing. She’d let it slide. Willow, overnight, had turned into an addict, crashed a stolen car running from some magic junkie demon she’d summoned herself, and nearly killed Dawn, and what had Buffy done about it? Patted her head and tucked her into bed.

Nothing was getting through. Except for maybe Spike. Hitting him felt good. Fucking him felt better. The whole Evil Dead thing was about to be a non-issue, because she didn’t care anymore. Screw the railroad spikes, screw the centuries of mayhem, screw the fact that he was still an evil killer. When he was around, she had nerve endings again.

Not a good sign, Buff. You’re supposed to be a White Hat. No room for shades of grey in the Slayer Universe.

Oh, bugger off.

Jesus. She even sounded like him.

She started off walking toward UC Sunnydale, but she ended up at the crypt. It wasn’t yet sunset, but she could hear music as she rapped at his door and slipped inside. Very un-Spike-like it was, too. Sweet, sweepy piano and a soprano voice clear and lush enough to bring the hair up on Buffy’s arms.

Sure on this shining night/With star-made shadows round/
Kindness must watch for me/This side the ground./
The late year lies down the north./All is healed, all is health./
High summer holds the earth. Hearts all whole./

He turned and saw her, and they stood staring at each other as the piano pounded away at some heartfelt chords and the soprano started up again wistfully.

Sure on this shining night/I weep for wonder/
Wandering far alone/With shadows on the stars.


“Y’know,” she said as the piano died away into nothingness. “I had you more pegged as a ‘Hits Of The ‘80’s’ guy. What is this stuff?”

“Samuel Barber,” he said. “British poof. Dead for thirty years, at least. I must be going all period these days.”

“Wild.” Buffy took two steps toward him, then decided not to get too close just yet. “Tell me something: how much work does the whole Sid Vicious thing really take to hang together? William?”

He laughed unpleasantly. “Don’t fool yourself, precious. Just because I got laid and started feeling poetic doesn’t mean I’m not a badass.” He showed her his fangs, and looked disgruntled when she only laughed.

“What?” he snapped. “Hello, dead for two hundred years, right? I’m going to acquire some layers. Not like I walked around without opinions until the Disco Age hit full flower. Give me some credit.”

“Point.” Buffy put her hands in her pockets. “I’m going over to the chemistry lab to meet Tara. Wanna come?”

He studied her under lowered brows for a moment, as if expecting a trick. “Yeah, all right,” he said finally. “If we can stop at the morgue on the way. I’m all out of B positive.”

“A world of ‘Ew’,” Buffy said, but didn’t protest when he took her arm.

They headed out into a Sunnydale night. Together.



Chapter Three

Another night in Sunnydale. The Trio sank a little deeper into their ergonomically correct, black leather office chairs and gazed into the depths of the stolen blue diamond. The theme song from “Deep Space Nine” swirled mystically from an unwatched DVD behind them. Sleek halogen torchières cast soft yellow light throughout a room resplendent with technology, a den of software pirates, the wet dream of every little boy who’d ever owned a chemistry set in elementary school and gone out for chess instead of soccer.

No woman had ever set foot in this shiny black-and-silver lair, and at the rate they were going, no woman ever would. On a certain level, the Trio were depressed by this. On another, they were relieved ... it implied that the Slayer wasn’t going to come kick their asses anytime soon.

“Okay, Jonathan,” Warren said, finally breaking the silence without taking his eyes off the diamond. “You’re the one who researched this whole thing. What are we supposed to do with it again?”

Jonathan frowned. “I’ve explained it before. Weren’t you paying attention?”

“It’s confusing,” Warren said, and Andrew nodded agreement. “I mean, the whole history bit and all. I can’t keep track of anything that predates Windows 95.” Jonathan rolled his eyes.

“First of all, this is no ordinary diamond,” he said. “It has great historical significance.” His eyebrows raised pointedly. Andrew squirmed. “It first appeared in England in 1895, fully faceted and polished. Historians so far haven’t been able to trace it back to its origins, but I ...” – he puffed up his chest beneath its striped rugby shirt – “I have a very reliable source who says that it’s part of a famous lost diamond known as the Blue Tavernier.”

Warren and Andrew looked blank. “So, yeah, I get that,” Warren said. “But what’s the big deal?”

“The deal,” Jonathan snapped, “is that the Blue Tavernier belonged to Louis Quatorze. It was stolen in 1792, along with a bunch of other jewelry, smack in the middle of the French Revolution. But it was a lot bigger then; that’s why no one recognized it when it turned up in England a hundred years later.” He cracked his neck thoughtfully. “They think that the Tavernier was cut down into what’s known as the Hope Diamond,” he said. “But the Hope Diamond is only half of the original Tavernier, according to my source. The rest of it –“ he indicated the cool blue gem on the table – “is this.”

“Okay. Rewind.” Andrew ran his hands through his hair. “Why would they cut it in half?”

“Remind me,” Jonathan said through his teeth, “never to tell you guys anything important, EVER AGAIN, during Enterprise reruns. Honestly.” He sighed for dramatic effect. “OK. This is the story I got from my source.”

“Who is – who again?”

Jonathan glared at Warren. “Hello? Magical world? Not your area?”

“Sor-ree.” Warren curled his lip. “So you found it out from some creepy magic demon dude. Excuse me.”

“Can I continue?”

Warren rolled his eyes. “Okay, whatever. Yeah.”

Jonathan cleared his throat. “According to my source, the Blue Tavernier was stolen from Louis the Sixteenth by a French political group called the Commune of Paris. Which is how it fell into the hands of Maximilien Robespierre. Who, if you remember anything I tell you, ever, is the sorcerer that we’re trying to resurrect. Got it?”

The Duo nodded vacantly at him. Jonathan sighed and went on.

“The gem carried – carries – a lot of power, but also a lot of bad luck,” he said. “Robespierre thought he was powerful enough to control it, and for a while he was. Reign of Terror and all that. Really made the heads roll.”

“You mean, like Marie Antoinette,” Andrew volunteered.

“Among others,” Jonathan said wearily. “Anyway. Robespierre lost control of the gem, and it turned on him. He died on the guillotine in 1794, and no one saw the Blue Tavernier intact after that. My source says it was magically divided into two pieces in an attempt to diminish its power. Half of it showed up in 1830 – that’s the half that they call the Hope Diamond – and it’s brought nothing but financial ruin and death to anyone who’s owned it. In a museum now.” He beamed at the diamond on the table. “This is the other half – the half we’re going to use to bring back Robespierre.”

“But, Jonathan.” Warren’s eyebrows were so close together they looked like a caterpillar on his forehead. “Robespierre’s not a demon, right? He’s a sorcerer.”

“Right.”

“So, he’s dead. He died, like, a million years ago. Got his head chopped off.”

“Yeah,” Jonathan said. “But.” He gave the diamond another fond glance. “The Blue Tavernier is an Indian diamond originally. You know, reincarnation, don’t step on ants, you can’t eat food with a soul?” He didn’t wait for a response. “The Indians believed that human souls could inhabit gemstones,” he said, and looked expectantly at the Duo for a response. They stared back at him.

“Don’t you get it? When Robespierre died, his soul went into the diamond,” he said. “According to what I’ve been told, whoever cut the diamond up made one big mistake – they performed the spell before Robespierre went to the guillotine. So instead of half of him being in the Smithsonian and half here, we’ve got all of him. All we have to do is bring him back.”

“Hello, evil madman?” Andrew’s lip was curled skeptically. “Plus, even if his soul’s in that – that thing –“ he regarded the diamond with caution – “he still doesn’t have a body, right?” He perked up suddenly. “Is that your plan? Is Warren supposed to build him a body?”

Jonathan looked beatific. “He’s not gonna have to,” he said. “We’ve got a couple of possibilities walking around town already. Who do we know who’s really, really strong and really, really fast?”

“Well, duh. Buffy.”

“Yeah. Who else?”

Andrew shot a worried glance at the Boba Fett figurine. “Well, there’s always Spike.”

Jonathan beamed. “Now you’re catching on,” he said. “Plan A and Plan B. Either way, one seriously kick-butt evil henchman. And then....” He paused for effect. “Sunnydale’s as good as ours.”

**

The Slayer, completely unaware that the Hellmouth was being potentially threatened from beyond the grave by an overzealous French republican by way of a nerd triumverate, was strolling arm-in-arm through her friendly local cemetery with a Way Sexy Guy Who Just Happened To Be Dead And Evil. And trying not to examine it too much. She had just finished telling the purple goo story, leaving out Willow’s cryptic little you’re-not-like-me statement. Spike looked annoyed. In Buffy’s experience, that meant he was thinking.

“That’s bleeding strange,” he said finally. “I mean, weird things happen in dreams in this town, God knows, but Rack shouldn’t have been able to do that. And even if he could, he wouldn’t waste the energy on you.”

Buffy bristled. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Compliment, luv.” Spike removed his arm from hers to unlock the passenger door of the DeSoto. “You’re too bloody strong. Wank you off, you’ll just break into his little haunt, guns blazing, and shut him down. Make more sense if he went after the witchlet herself. Or her friend Glinda.” He turned the key, and the DeSoto roared to life.

“You mean Tara?”

Spike shrugged. “Pretty powerful in her own right, our little White Witch. But then, he’d really have to work at it to get his hands on her, and that just doesn’t fly. He’s a loser. Running on empty. Not gonna waste energy or power harassing the Slayer or a witch who doesn’t want anything to do with him.” He manouevered the big car into a parking space in front of the science building, shut off the motor, and frowned over at Buffy. “He goes for the easy sell,” he said. “And the two of you are anything but that. So why would he bother?”

“Good question,” Buffy said. “But the goo on the shoes doesn’t lie. I’m still bitter about that.”

“I like you better barefoot.”

“Pardon?” Her head swiveled sharply in his direction. Spike grinned at her.

“You heard me,” he said. “Come on, let’s go find Tara.”

According to the T.A. on duty in the chemistry lab, someone who looked a lot like Tara had left ten minutes prior. Buffy sighed in exasperation.

“Can’t we look her up at home?”

Buffy shook her head. “Never gave me her address,” she said. “It’s okay – I can call her in the morning.” She glanced at Spike. “We could always go break into Rack’s place and beat him up.”

“Or we could pay a call on Rat Girl.” Spike leaned against a telephone pole and studied his fingernails. “Much faster. Find her, shake her down for clues, and still have an hour or two to make the Beast With Two Backs, back at my place.” He sent Buffy a sultry look from under his lashes. “I mean, your bed’s more comfortable, I’ll give you that. But I’ve got more privacy ... you can scream all you want, without bringing the Scoobies and Little Sis running to the rescue.”

Buffy rolled her eyes. “You are so taking the Sex Thing for granted.” Spike grunted.

“Not at all, luv. You want to scurry back to your chaste little princess room and your lonely little dreams, you go right ahead. You want to sleep alone, feel free. I’m just making sure you know about your ... alternatives.” He vaulted over the DeSoto’s hood and leered at her. “How about it, Slayer? We gonna talk all night, or do you wanna go kick Miss Mousie’s ass?”

Gritting her teeth, Buffy got into the car. She hated it when he made sense.

**

They caught Amy a block from her house, walking fast towards downtown and keeping to the shadows. She looked even more wrecked than she had the day before: pasty skin, chattering teeth, darting beady eyes that reminded Buffy of nothing so much as the rat she’d been. When she saw them step out in front of her, she started to shake.

“Amy,” Buffy said flatly. “We need to talk.”

“N-not now. I c-c-c-can’t. I have to be somewhere.”

“Not anymore you don’t.”

“Buffy, I’m s-s-serious.” Amy widened her eyes in an effort to look pleading. “I h-have to meet someone. Like, five minutes ago.”

“You’re not going anywhere until you talk to us.” Buffy’s hand clamped down on her shoulder, and Amy started to twist and struggle.

“You don’t understand! I have an appointment!”

“Bet you do, luv,” Spike said, looking uncharacteristically humorless. Amy shrank back from him, terrified, and Buffy could see why. A muscle was jumping in his jaw, and his eyes were flinty. “But your little fix can wait. Best you tell the Slayer here what she wants to hear, then you can toddle on your merry way.” He jerked his head toward the DeSoto. “Or we can put her in the car.”

“No! No,” Amy repeated, and tried again, without success, to break Buffy’s grip on her arm. “I’m going to be l-late,” she said miserably, and started to cry. “He won’t see me if I’m late.” She was noticeably thinner than she’d been just days before, and shaking with fine tremors. Buffy would have felt sorry for her, if she hadn’t been responsible for most of this mess. She steered Amy firmly toward the DeSoto and pushed her into the front seat, sliding in after her.

“We need to talk,” she said again. “We won’t keep you long.”

“Wh-what do you want to know?” Amy sniffled and wiped at her eyes. Buffy shot a meaningful look at Spike that said, Do something – I didn’t think this far ahead. Spike smirked at her.

“Been a while since I talked to old Rack,” he said. “Bet he’s wondering where Red’s been, eh? Imagine he doesn’t see something like her waltz in every day.” He knew he was on the right track when Amy’s eyes lit with resentment.

“He keeps asking about her,” she muttered. “Willow this, Willow that, where’s Willow, why didn’t I bring Willow?” Her gaze darted around the car. “I’m supposed to bring her. I’m not supposed to c-come back without her.”

Buffy’s fists clenched, but Spike didn’t seem fazed. “Red had a little accident,” he said smoothly. “Wasn’t thinking clearly for a day or so. Cracked up a car. Broke the Little Bit’s wrist. ‘Fraid she’s sworn off the old hocus-pocus. You might want to tell your dealer there to find himself a Simon and Garfunkel record and have a good cry, ‘cause she won’t be back to break his heart in person.” He dug a cigarette out of the inside pocket of his duster and lit it lazily. “Now, Blondie here and I” – he indicated Buffy with a sweep of his cigarette hand, causing Amy to shrink away from him – “we’re clearing up some of the witchlet’s affairs, while she’s having herself a little R and R. And, while I’m inclined to let bygones be bygones, the Slayer’s not feeling so generous. Seeing as it’s her little sis who’s walking around with a double fracture and all.” He nodded at Buffy, who grabbed Amy’s shoulder and swung her around.

“The monster,” she said, her nose an inch from Amy’s. “Tell us about that hairy gorilla thing. Do you have one? Is Willow’s still around? And why was it chasing Dawn?”

Amy shook her head wildly. “I can’t ... I can’t – I mean I don’t know ... Ow!” She grabbed the side of her face and bent double, weeping into her lap. Buffy glared at Spike.

“Was that really necessary?”

Spike flexed his fingers and shot Buffy a what-can-you-do look. His eyes were glittering yellow with barely-suppressed violence. “Little experiment,” he said. “She’s so far gone that she doesn’t activate the chip.” He grabbed a handful of lank hair and yanked Amy’s head up again. “Lucky break for me, Rat Face,” he snarled, and showed her his fangs. “You’ve let that wanker suck your soul right out of your body. You’ve still got your blood, though. You want to keep that, you’ll tell Buffy everything she wants to know, and fast.”

Amy gave him a last terrified glance, then turned her attention to Buffy. “It’s the Doorholder,” she said, lips trembling. “It opens the door to the Other World. But then it comes after you. Follows you. Rack says that’s the p-p-price of admission. Mine doesn’t look like Willow’s. It’s blue, and it has these teeth.” She swallowed hard. “First Rack brings it,” she said. “Then he keeps it away ... for a little while. I don’t know how to kill it. I don’t know if you can.” She was shaking visibly now. “I don’t know anything else, I swear to you.”

Buffy nodded to Spike, who let go of his handful of Amy’s hair and slid out of Game Face as easily as he’d put it on. “Don’t come near Willow again,” she warned. Amy nodded numbly.

“I won’t. I promise.” Buffy opened the car door, and Amy streaked past her, stumbling into the darkness of quiet residential Sunnydale. Buffy slid back into the car, and for a moment neither she nor Spike said anything. Finally she turned to look at him.

“My place,” she said softly. “If Rack wants her that badly, he’s going to have to come through us first.”

**

They made a quick stop at the hospital; Spike slunk through the back door to the morgue while Buffy stayed in the car, and was back in a matter of moments, carrying a plastic grocery bag and looking self-satisfied. “Any Weetabix at your place?” he asked. Buffy shook her head.

“We have graham crackers, though,” she guaranteed. “And Triscuits. Triscuits would work, wouldn’t they? God. I can’t believe I’m talking about this.”

“Any relationship is an adjustment. Dr. Ruth says so.”

Buffy ground her teeth. “Normal people adjust to things like ... like different tastes in music. Or decorating. Or where you squeeze the toothpaste. Not what kind of crackers your ... um, lover ... likes to crumble into his stolen blood! Yuck!”

“I’m willing to try the Triscuits,” Spike said reasonably. “I’m flexible.” He shot her a sly glance. “Very flexible, as a matter of fact.”

“Just. Stop. Talking,” she said. “I’m already having to have a serious word with my digestive system.”

He smiled to himself and kept driving. She’d called him her lover.

There was an empty can and a dirty bowl and spoon on the kitchen counter when they walked in; someone had made herself tomato soup, and Buffy was guessing it wasn’t Dawn, who threatened to projectile-vomit every time it appeared on the table. Willow’d had dinner. Good sign. She found the box of Triscuits in the cupboard and pressed it into Spike’s hands. “Knock yourself out,” she said. “This is one culinary experiment I’m determined to miss. I’m going to go talk to Willow.”

He was already rummaging for a coffee mug. “Take your time.” Buffy heard the microwave switch on and shuddered.

Willow’s light was on, for a change. Buffy knocked and cracked the door open. “Will? You up?”

“Sort of.” Willow was sitting cross-legged in the middle of the bed, looking shaky but still more alive than Buffy’d seen her in days. “Come on in,” she invited. “Have a seat. What’s up?”

“We sort of need to talk,” Buffy said, and there was an awkward silence. God, she hated this. Missed the days when she and Willow could have dove headfirst into any topic at all and come up hugging. “I need to ask you a question.”

Willow looked wary. “Okay, shoot.”

“We ran into Amy tonight,” Buffy said. “She doesn’t look good.”

Willow dropped her eyes. “And?”

“She told us about the Doorkeeper.” Buffy scooted a little closer to Willow on the bed. “Will, I need to know. Has it come after you again?”

Willow shook her head. “Why do you think I haven’t left the house?” Her eyes shot up to Buffy’s again. “It’s outside – I saw it the other night out my window. Oh, God, Buffy, I’m so scared for Dawnie. The way it looked at her ...” Big tears shimmered just below the surface. “I totally fucked up. I’m such a loser.”

“Shh.” Buffy slung her arm around Willow’s shoulder, surprised at how thin her friend felt. “It’s you the thing’s after, not Dawn. Amy said so.” She turned Willow’s head gently to face her own. “Will, tell me how to kill it.”

“I’m not sure. He said that he’s the only one who can stop it.”

“But that’s not true,” Buffy said. “You made the thing dissolve. I saw you. Is it gone for good?”

Willow shook her head. “I don’t know.”

“Okay.” Buffy raked her hair back behind her ears. “So, research time then. At the Magic Box? Tomorrow?” Willow nodded, sniffled one more time, reached for a Kleenex.

“I need to apologize to Dawnie,” she said quietly. “Is she around?”

Buffy shook her head. “Mini-golf with Xander this afternoon. Not back yet. She’s not much into me these days, either.”

“Is she still mad at me?”

God. Willow looked so miserable. Buffy hesitated. “Yeah,” she said finally. “But she’ll get over it. Hey, get this,” she said brightly. “The Sunnydale High drama club is putting on Taming of the Shrew this year. And Dawn’s trying out for Bianca.”

Willow chuckled weakly. “Every casting director’s nightmare.”

That’s my girl, Buffy thought. “Will, there’s one other thing,” she said. “I mean, I ... well, I ... I’ve met someone,” she finished lamely. “I mean, I’ve known him for a while, it’s just, well ...”

Willow, sensing non-addiction-related gossip, perked up a little. “Is this a sex thing? Do I know him?” Buffy groaned inwardly.

“Um, yeah. Listen ... I don’t know how to tell you this, but the fact is ...”

“Buffy?” Spike poked his head around the doorjamb. There were Triscuit crumbs on the front of his shirt. “Anya called. Niblet’s staying with them tonight. Hey, Red,” he said. Willow’s eyes went wide.

“Spike,” she said, then turned to Buffy. “Spike?” Buffy nodded. Time for a mental forehead smack.

“I – oh. Okay. And this is a good thing?”

“Apparently,” Buffy said drily. “Look, I just thought you should know, in case you guys run into each other in the bathroom or something. He may be over now and again.”

“Uh-huh. Sure.” Willow was still wide-eyed. “Does Dawnie know?”

“Not yet. You’re the first.”

“Oh.” She cleared her throat. “Well. Um, congratulations.” There was an awkward pause, then, “Well, I was gonna see if you wanted to pop in a video, but I can see you’re busy, so ...”

“What video?” Spike asked. Willow shot him a startled look.

“Um, it doesn’t matter. I hadn’t really decided.” She frowned at him. “You want to?”

“Anything but sodding science fiction,” Spike said, and half-turned into the hallway again. “Slayer, you pick. I’ll fetch the popcorn.”

“Wow,” Willow said, staring open-mouthed at his departing back. “Wow, Buffy. Spike? How did that happen?”

“Long story,” Buffy said, and started to sort through the stack of videocassettes on Willow’s nightstand. “Let’s just say that I’m full up on romantic comedy these days, and go for something nice and straightforward, okay?”

“Sure,” Willow said. “Like what?”

By the time Spike was back with the popcorn, they had vetoed every movie in the house and were stretched out on their stomachs on Willow’s bed, watching a National Geographic special entitled “America’s House Cats”. Spike rolled his eyes, then set the popcorn down in front of Willow and kicked off his shoes. “Join you ladies?”

Buffy crossed her legs behind her, dug into the popcorn, and felt better than she had in ages. Willow was cooing over the kittens and matching her handful-for-handful with the salt and cholesterol. Spike had shed his leather duster and attitude and was stretched out beside her like a cool, solid boulder, his chin resting on his crossed forearms. She hadn’t felt this safe since ... oh, God.

She closed her eyes, hard. She hadn’t felt this safe since the night before Angel woke up Angelus.

She could still remember that night, if she let herself think about it. Rain and wet and running, then arms and sheets and lips and bed and love. Everything so new. Her whole life, balled up into a big knot of trust and adoration that he was unraveling with his fingers, inch by slippery inch.

The trouble was that she couldn’t stop the clock with the nice parts – her thoughts always bled over into the morning after. And the night after that. And the night after that. Stalkings. And dead goldfish. And the blank, destroyed look on Giles’ face in the police lights. Kissing Angel at the same time she drew back her arm for the killing blow. The strange ease with which the sword had slid into him; the look on his face while he reached out for her. No, nothing good about those memories.

She’d say this for Spike. She’d slept with him twice now and he hadn’t gone psycho, dumped her, hired a hooker to bite him, killed her Watcher’s girlfriend, or left town. In her experience, those were a handful of big red smiley faces in the Plus column.

It was too hard to open her eyes again. In the Slayer’s book, safety usually meant sleep.



Chapter Four

She was asleep.

Which was both a very good and a very awkward thing, because it meant he and Red were the only conscious people in the room. They’d long since stopped pretending to watch TV, and were lying on either side of Buffy, staring straight ahead. Spike decided to let her break the silence.

“Do you love her?” Willow asked finally.

He tilted his chin sideways. “Red, you know the answer to that. It’s been a long time since I didn’t.”

“Yeah.” More silence, then, “I believe you.”

“Big of you.” He smiled a little, to take away the sting of the sarcasm. She rolled her eyes apologetically.

“Sorry. It’s just that, well, you know. Love isn’t my thing these days.” She took a deep breath. “People say they ... love ... other people, and then ‘poof’! They’re gone.” She threw out a hand to illustrate her point; they both stared at the brief shower of gold sparks that trailed out of her fingers. “Sorry,” she said again, and tucked her hand beneath her.

Spike jerked his chin again. “No need.” He paused to formulate words; what he was about to say was a hell of a lot more important than any poem he’d ever write. “Willow. I’ve loved two other women in my life. One was a soulless demon, and the other one ...” He tried to find a phrase that fit Cecily. “Well, the other one was, too. Just hadn’t stopped breathing yet.” He laughed humorlessly. “Doesn’t quite equip me to deal with the Slayer, now, does it? I’m a bit at sea.”

Willow studied him intently. There was a bit of the old perceptive sweetness in her gaze. “Tell me this, Spike,” she said. “If there was no chip in your head, what would you do?”

“Are you asking me if I’m a White Hat, Red?” He closed his eyes. “’Cause I don’t know.”

“No,” she said. “It’s not that. I just want to know ... what you feel for Buffy. Is it the electricity talking? Or is this forever?”

“Bloody hell.” He shook his head at her in frustration. “How am I supposed to figure that out? This is all I know: every day she was dead was hell for me. And I’ll bloody well stake myself before I’ll swan off to L.A., or jump a sodding helicopter to bleedin’ Brazil, just because she doesn’t love me back. She’s in my arms, and I’m gonna run with that. I’m not going anywhere.” He blinked at Willow. There were tears in her eyes. “Oh, come on, Red,” he said. “Don’t get weepy on me, now.”

“I miss Tara.” Just saying the words made Willow well up again. “Spike?”

“Yeah.”

“Did you ever feel like you’d screwed up your whole life for good?”

He raised his eyebrows. “Come on, witchlet. Look who you’re talking to. Have you ever been tied up in Rupert Giles’ bathtub, forced to drink pig blood through a straw?” He snorted. “You’ve got a ways to go before you hit bottom.”

“Doesn’t feel like it.”

“Yeah.” He thought for a minute. “But it’s amazing how much you can fix, just by wanting to.”

Buffy didn’t budge as he carted her off to her own room and tipped her carefully onto the bed. “Come on, luv,” he murmured, and shook her gently. “Gotta get you out of the leather pants, at least to sleep.”

“Mm. What time is it?”

“Time to sit up and let me peel this off you,” he said. “Blondie, how do you move in this stuff?”

“Bitch, moan,” she said sleepily, and obligingly tilted her hips so he could slide the pants down and off. “Like you’re complaining. You’ve been checking out my ass for years.”

“Slayer occupational hazard, luv.” He shrugged her out of her jacket, keeping her torso upright with one arm around her waist. “Can’t blame the evil undead for getting their jollies off a fresh little morsel like you.” He hooked a fingernail accidentally in the fabric of her tank top and swore under his breath. “’Specially when they’ve got so little time to enjoy the view. Generally speaking.” He let her go, and she sank back onto the bed with a little sigh of pleasure that went straight to his gut. Bloody hell, he had it bad. He sat down beside her and started to unlace his boots.

“Spike?” She couldn’t believe she was about to ask this, but there it was. “You really loved Dru, right?” Yep, she’d really opened a can of worms now – the minute his shirt was off, he did a Linda Blair in her direction.

“Yeah. So?” He stepped out of his jeans.

She swallowed hard, glad the room was dark. Personal questions were easier to ask when you couldn’t see the other naked person and they couldn’t see you. “So – tell me about her,” she said. “I’ve only seen the evil psycho bits. Why did you love her?”

“There’s a question,” Spike said, and flopped down next to her on his back. “Well, first of all she turned me, and so there was a sort of Mum thing going on. Knew a lot more than I did. Older, wiser, that whole bit. And then, she was always sort of ... breakable. Or seemed it, anyway. Moody. A bit off.” He paused. “’Course, she was evil,” he said, trying for matter- of-fact. “We all were. But she could be sweet, too. And like a little girl. Easy to please.”

“When she wasn’t killing people, you mean.”

“Well, yeah. And the bipolar thing kept things fresh, I guess.”

She rolled to face him, looking absurdly young and open in the faint light from the window. “You keep saying you love me,” she said. “Why do you, Spike?”

“What is this, a whole night of sodding Twenty Questions?”

“I’m just asking, that’s all.”

He sighed. “Well, then.” He put his hand over his eyes, then, because it seemed like an evasion not to look at her, brought it back to his side. “This is hard to explain. When I was a man, I was just a man. Not good, not evil. Decent sort, but not particularly strong or noble. But if I’d chosen those things, I could have become them. With me so far?”

“Mm-hmm.” There was a faint crease between her eyebrows. He wanted to smooth it away, but he didn’t dare move .

“Then I became a monster,” he said. “A process I didn’t ask for, or understand, or even really want at first, but it’s not like you can say ‘Stop, don’t, go back’ once it’s done, right?” He shook his head. “And once you’re not a man any more, there’s suddenly a whole list of adjectives that can never apply to you. ‘Noble’ and ‘good’ are pretty much at the top of that list.”

“So. Why did I start to love you?” His lips curled sardonically. “Maybe because you were what I couldn’t be anymore. Had friends I could never have. A family I wasn’t supposed to want. So bloody heroic and beautiful and ... blessed ... that when you’re something like me, it hurts to look at you.” His hand started toward hers, then paused on the comforter between them. “But now,” he said. “Now, it’s a million times worse. You went away, I thought forever, and you don’t know how many times I thought about just walking out into the next sunrise and leaving bloody California for the vultures to pick over. And now you’re back, and the gilding’s off your armor, Blondie. Something dark behind those pretty eyes that goes straight to my gut.” He looked suddenly angry. “Who the fuck knows what makes a connection, anyway? Half the time I want to beat your head against the wall.” He smirked at her, but his eyes were bleak and intense. “There it is, Goldilocks. Take away the poetry, and I don’t even have words for what I feel for you.”

It was so quiet in the room that Buffy could hear the next-door-neighbor’s radio. Tuned to light rock, as always, currently playing Chris DeBergh’s solitary, long-ago Top Ten single. I have never had such a feeling/Such a feeling of complete and utter love/As I do tonight./Lady in red/Is dancing with me/Cheek to cheek ...

“What is it about 80’s pop?” she said aloud. “You were alive in 1880 – was it the same? Kinda syrupy, too dressed-up, but sweet anyway?”

He looked surprised, then smiled at her. Flash of William. “The Victorian Age was all about sweet, pet,” he said. “Skirts on the piano legs, corsets, the kind of rhyme-y metered poetry I was no good at. The people, though – that’s another story. Mean as poison under all those ruffles. Every smile you saw could cut you in half.”

“Hm.” His hand was still lying between them, and Buffy laced her fingers through his without knowing quite why. “You were wrong about one thing,” she said quietly.

“What’s that, pet?” Lazy tone, a sneer playing at the corner of his mouth. Ready to be tough at a moment’s notice. Buffy felt something tear loose in the middle of her chest.

“You said a vampire couldn’t be noble,” she said. “And I know one who is.”

“Well, yeah. Bloody Angel. Soul and all that. He’s kind of an exception, luv.”

“I’m not talking about Angel.”

He tried to yank his hand free. “What the sod are you talking about, then?”

She wouldn’t let him go. “You protected my sister with your life,” she said. “You stood up to Glory. You patrolled with my friends all summer. You saved me.”

“From Sweet?” He wouldn’t meet her eyes. “Someone else would have, if I hadn’t.”

“No one else tried. You did.”

His senses were screaming, Danger, danger! So much on the line here – this night, this room, this bed – the three inches of space between their bodies like a fault line. Would it shift together, or apart? Depended on what he said, what he did. The big monster part of him wanted to fight. The man wanted to run. He closed his eyes, then opened them again. She was looking straight at him, seeing right through him. He squeezed her hand helplessly.

“I don’t want your gratitude,” he said.

“Too bad. You’ve got it.” She inched closer to him. He recoiled.

“And I don’t want sympathy from you. You think I feel regret? You think I’m toothless?” The air was electric enough to make his hair stand on end. If she came any closer, he might start to cry.

“Spike.” She seized his forearms, hiked herself across that last two inches of empty space. “I can’t give you words like you give me, okay? There’s only one poet on this bed.”

“Then what are you doing here?”

“Taking what I want,” she said, and crushed her mouth over his.

Their first night together had been wild and mad. Their second had been slow and sweet. Now, here they were on the Tilt-a-Whirl again, using up their third ticket, and Spike felt his world drop out from beneath him.

He’d had no idea what the Slayer was capable of. Until now.

She rolled him onto his back and pinned him with his arms over his head. “Don’t move,” she warned, and set her mouth on the inside of his elbow. He felt her hot little tongue, the silky sweep of her hair all around, and groaned as she raked up his arm to his shoulder. “You like my neck, right?” she demanded. “Give me yours.” Those blunt, even little teeth – every orthodontist’s dream – dug in just below his ear. If her hand hadn’t come up to cover his mouth, he would have howled.

“Yeah, go ahead and struggle,” she said into his ear. “I like that. Big, bad vampire with his big, bad cock. I’m going to take you for a ride. Don’t you dare move your hands, goddamnit,” she snapped, and sank her teeth into his earlobe. “You wanna know what I feel like doing? What I want? What I’ve been thinking about for the last year and a half? Well, sit back and enjoy the show.” She was straddling him, squeezing him, the only barrier between them a pair of high-rise white cotton bikini briefs. “Fuck this,” she said, and ripped them off. The next second, he was inside her.

“God,” she said, pulling herself up to her knees and rolling her head around on her neck. “Oh, God, you feel so good going in.” Her eyes were glittering, her hair a mess around her face. She collapsed back over him, kissed him hard, rubbed her little belly and breasts over his, kept that stripper rhythm going with her hips. “I remember,” she whispered. “The summer the A/C went off. I was fourteen. Used to sneak ice cubes out of the freezer.” She jackknifed up again and let her body bend back toward her ankles, graceful as a calla lily. “Ran them all over my body. Felt so good. You make me feel like that, like there ought to be steam coming up between us.” Back down on top of him again, running her fingers lightly from his wrists to his shoulders, teasing his sides, twisting his nipples. Back into the backbend, her hair brushing the soles of his feet, her hands gripping his knees as she rode him. She felt so long and wet and tight that he thought he’d pass out There were sounds coming out of him that he didn’t recognize, sounds he’d never heard before.

She sank even further into her bend, grabbing at his ankles to steady herself. The moonlight illuminated her from thighs to pussy to flatly- stretched abdomen, throwing her upper body into shadow. He could see her body grasping at his, rolling him around, squirming and arching and opening and clutching. He couldn’t keep still. It was all he could do to keep his fangs sheathed.

She came up for air, panting, wild-eyed, drawing great shuddering breaths that he could feel in his cock. Their eyes met. Time stopped.

“Okay,” she whispered after what seemed like a very long time. “Okay.” His sex machine was melting around him like ice cream in August, Spike thought. Even her insides seemed softer. “You can let go now.”

They met kneeling on the center of the bed, without ever having come apart. He could have tucked the top of her head under his chin, but he tipped her head back so he could keep looking at her. “Shh,” he whispered, and they sank into slow motion.

So soft. So slow. So quiet. Buffy could hardly breathe. Were they moving? Did they need to? She couldn’t look away from those blue eyes, so quietly electric. In thrall. He’s got you in thrall.

“Here,” she breathed, and tipped her head to the side. Blonde hair shimmered over her right shoulder. Beneath the bare skin she offered him, the most powerful life force he’d ever known tried to hammer its way out. She smiled at him. “Go ahead.” Her eyes fluttered closed.

Bloody, fucking hell. Spike stared at that porcelain neck as if it itself had grown fangs. What the fuck do I do now?

The air was heavy and silent. Buffy’s nightstand clock seemed barely to tick. Her fingers were linked behind his neck, her body continued its lazy, barely-perceptible suction against his, and that bare length of throat gleamed out of the darkness like an invitation that had come to the wrong address.

The monster inside him was jubilant. He could feel his eyes flickering yellow. Even William was tempted – if you looked closely enough, there were two tiny pearl-colored imperfections, about an inch apart, already marring her skin. Dracula. No, Angel. How easy it’d be to obliterate that hated brand with his own. And he was so hard he was in physical pain.

He bent toward her. Brushed his lips over her pulse. “Easy,” he whispered. “Not tonight. Easy now.”

He closed his eyes and fell over the edge with her, feeling more like a human man than he had in centuries. The last thing he felt was Buffy’s fingers linked with his.



Chapter Five

Sunday morning. The Magic Box, blessedly customer-free. The Scoobies, looking mostly hung over, slumped around the research table, eyeing the box of donuts Xander had brought as if they were explosives.

Tara had gone pale at the sight of Willow, but hadn’t said anything. The two of them were carefully arranged at exact opposite sides of the table, heads buried in books. Xander was reading the paper. Anya was looking at fabric swatches. Dawn had a suspiciously nice-looking leather-bound volume of Taming of the Shrew open in front of her, most likely liberated from Giles’ stash of readables. Buffy didn’t say anything. She had literary worries of her own.

She’d woken up to another poem, this one written out in Spike’s nineteenth- century copperplate. Leaves of Grass. She dug the scrap of paper out of her jacket pocket and studied it blearily.

All goes onward and outward ... and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.
I pass death with the dying, and birth with the new-washed babe.
....and am not contained between my hat and my boots,
And peruse manifold objects, no two alike, and every one good,
The earth good, and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good.
...Who need be afraid of the merge?
Undrape ... you are not guilty to me, nor stale nor discarded,
I see through the broadcloth and the gingham whether or no,
And am around, tenacious, acquisitive, tireless ... and can never be shaken away.

Well, he had that right, Buffy thought. Tenacious, acquisitive, tireless. The top three words on her list of Adjectives Describing Spike.

It was bizarre, though. Not really love poetry at all. It sounded more like he was trying to ... explain himself. Her hand went unconsciously to the side of her neck.

“Huh. Wouldja look at that.” Xander’s voice teleported her back to reality, and she stuffed the poem back into her pocket. “That’s weird.”

“What?”

Xander tapped the newspaper. “They’ve released some details from that frozen-guy case. At the museum.”

“Really?” Tara’s head came out of her book. “What does it say?”

Xander’s forefinger found a line of text. “They ran a couple of chemical tests on the display case that held the diamond. Looks like somebody used a methane torch to cut the hole.” He scanned down to the next paragraph. “Plus, they left behind some equipment. One of those cool James Bond harness thingies that comes down from the ceiling.”

Buffy frowned. “What about the frozen guy?”

“That’s the weird thing,” Xander said. “Apparently he’s conscious now – told the police that there were three men, and that one of them shot him with a freeze-ray gun.”

“Doesn’t sound very monster-y, does it?”

Anya stopped comparing the silk brocade with the iridescent taffeta and looked up. “Could be vampires,” she said. “They can look human.”

“But –“ Tara and Willow started at the same time, then broke off. “Go ahead,” Willow said, and Tara shook her head, directing her eyes at the table.

“No, you.”

“Um .. okay. Thanks.” Willow looked rattled. “The thing is, a vampire would just bite the guard, right? Or any other demon too. Why would they go to all the trouble to sneak in? Why wouldn’t they just kill the guard at the front entrance, waltz in, and smash the case?”

“Good point,” Buffy said. “So. Humans. Next question: who do we know that could build a freeze-ray gun?”

Spike materialized out of the shadows. “I bet I know,” he said, and grinned at her. “Morning, all. Hey, Niblet.”

**

Buffy gaped at him. He’d seen her reading his poem. Shit. “How long have you been standing there? Didn’t anyone ever tell you you shouldn’t sneak up on people?”

His smile didn’t falter. “Someone got up on the wrong side of the bed, didn’t they? My, my, my.” He spun a chair around and straddled it, tilting his head as if to show off the violent patch of purple underneath his left ear. Damn that English skin of his. “Anyone going to eat that chocolate cruller?” Anya wordlessly passed him the box. “Thanks, pet.”

“Well, don’t keep us hanging, Bleach Boy,” Xander snapped. “In your estimable opinion. Was it Professor Plum, in the library, with the rope? Spit it out, already.”

“Temper, temper.” Spike finished off the cruller, took his time chewing, and smirked at the upturned circle of faces swiveled toward him. “Y’ask me, it’s those three geeks hanging out over at Robot Guy’s place. You know, what’s-his-name. Warren.”

They all stared at each other. “Warren,” Xander and Willow said together, and for the first time since the accident, shared a look full of the old connection.

“Warren,” Willow repeated. “Spike, you’re a genius.”

“Who’s with him, I wonder?” Buffy mused. “Well, wouldn’t hurt to swing by and take a look. Trekkies sleep just about as late as demons.” She glanced at Spike. “You know the address, I presume?”

“Same place he was before,” Spike said. His attention shifted to Dawn. “Shakespeare, Niblet? What happened to The Unauthorized Biography of the Backstreet Boys?”

“Um.” Dawn turned red. “School play. Auditions Monday. I’m trying out for,” she shot a look of pure evil Buffy’s way, “Bianca.”

“Made for you,” Spike said cheerfully. “Bet you’ve been the nice one all your life, haven’t you, luv?”

Buffy would have scowled at that, if Dawn hadn’t looked so happy.

“Tell you what,” Spike went on. “Why don’t you and me hang out here and practice your lines, while your big sis takes the Scoobies off to play Nancy Drew?” He shot a sideways look at Buffy. “I’ll get the report ... later.”

“Hey,” Xander said. “Since when did he start giving orders?” Buffy shrugged.

“A plan’s a plan,” she said. “Who’s with me?”

“Um ...” Tara bit her lip. “I think I may be onto something here with the ... um ... with the Doorkeeper demon. Maybe I should stay behind and keep going on that?”

“I’ll stay with you,” Willow said. “My problem, I should help figure it out. If it’s okay with you, that is.”

“S-sure. Fine.” The witches exchanged an uneasy moment of eye contact, then dived back into their books.

“I’d better keep an eye on the shop,” Anya said, not looking up from her swatches.

“Right.” Xander pushed off from the table. “You and me, Buff. Let’s go get ‘em.”

**

Across town, the Trio were already awake and plotting.

“So, you’re saying it can’t be Spike after all,” Warren said, frowning. Jonathan nodded.

“Right. You can’t transfer an existing soul into a body that doesn’t already have one. You have to have this Orb thing and know, like, Hungarian or something.” He shrugged. “But that’s O.K. Buffy’s a better pick for a henchman anyway, because she can pick up crosses and go out in sunlight and stuff.”

“Plus, she’s hot,” Andrew said.

“Well, duh.” Jonathan studied his notes. “It’s really simple, actually. I’m the one who performed the spell, so I’m immune. All I have to do is pick up the diamond and give it to her.”

“That’s all?”

“Yeah. And I quote: ‘The first souled being to touch the stone, after the spell is cast, shall be imbued with its essence’.” Jonathan looked up. “Here’s the important part, guys. After she touches it, we have to get it back. Whoever has the diamond, controls Robespierre. Got it?”

“Dude.” Warren had been looking out the window. “Did you say you had everything ready?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“Because, dude. It’s like ... serendipity or something. She’s coming down the street.”

It played like a Three Stooges outtake. Buffy dropped the door from its hinges with a well-placed kick, bringing up her hand to catch something blue and shiny that came whizzing toward her head a second later. “What the hell?” she said. “You’re trying to take me out with the diamond? What a loser.” She tossed the stone to Xander. “Here. Hold onto this while I kick his ass.”

Andrew and Warren scattered as she advanced on Jonathan. He made a satisfying squishy sound as she pushed him up against the wall. “You,” she said, shook him once, hard, and let him fall. “Haven’t you caused enough trouble in this town?”

“Um, Jonathan ...” Warren was staring at Xander. Buffy made a threatening gesture in his direction, and he shut up. She turned back to Jonathan, hauled him up by the arm, and poked a finger into his chest.

“What’s wrong with you? Didn’t I save your suicidal ass in high school? Didn’t we rescue you from your pathetic delusions of grandeur and kill that monster thingy you created? Didn’t I buy your stupid autobiography? Why the fuck would you team up with these ... these losers ... and try to pull off another lame stunt like this?” She strode back across the kitchen, dragging the cringing Jonathan with her, and tapped Xander, who had slumped into one of the leather chairs, on the shoulder. “Give me the diamond,” she demanded. “I’m going to beat him over the head with it.”

She took the Blue Tavernier out of his unresisting hand, then bent to look a little closer, barely noticing when Jonathan tugged himself free and escaped to the far side of the room. “Xander? You okay? I didn’t throw it too hard, did I?”

“Jonathan,” Warren hissed. “This is not good, dude. Buffy is still Buffy. And this other guy is looking kinda funny.”

Jonathan finally found his voice. “You,” he accused Buffy. “You don’t have a soul, do you?”

Xander’s head came off the table. “Alors,” he croaked. “La loi est l’expression libre et solennelle de la volonte du peuple. La loi doit être égale pour tous.

Buffy stared at him, horrified. Xander still looked like Xander. Except for the weird fanatical gleam in his eyes, maybe. “You took Spanish in high school, Xan,” she said. “Come on. You don’t even like French toast.” She turned on Andrew, who was closest. “Get me the phone.”

Andrew hesitated. “Jonathan ...”

“Get me the fucking phone, I said!”

“She never used to swear this much,” Warren murmured to Jonathan. Jonathan was still in shock.

“She’s the Slayer,” he said numbly. “She’s supposed to have a soul. This should have worked.” Warren rolled his eyes.

“Anya,” Buffy said into the telephone. “Send Tara and Willow over here, wouldja? We’ve got a little problem.” She paused. “Yeah. Thanks. We’re fine. I just need a translator. Xander picked up the diamond and now he’s speaking French.” Another long pause; Buffy held the receiver slightly away from her ear. “Okay, you come too. Good. See you then.”

**

Dawn frowned. “I don’t get it. This is supposed to be funny?”

“Yeah, well, it was four hundred years before my time, too,” Spike said. “With Shakespeare, though, it’s all rhythm and word emphasis. You can’t just read it off the page like it’s a nursery rhyme.”

“Okay. Gotcha. But I don’t understand this part.” Dawn bit her lower lip. “I mean, the part with Katharina in the beginning, that’s easy. She wants to know who I like, and I’m being all nicey-nice but not telling her.”

“Right.”

“I mean, because she’s such a total bitch and all.”

“Right.”

“But this part with the two guys – I don’t get it.”

“Okay. So let’s decode it a little.” Spike scanned the page. “Right. So these two are fighting over her, right? Hortensio and Lucentio.”

“I got that far,” Dawn said sulkily. Spike sent her a sideways look. “Oh. Sorry. Go on.”

“So they’re both there to ‘tutor’ her in something. One in Latin, one in music. Except that they’re not really her tutors, but these blokes who want to marry her. Fighting over who gets to go first. And she breaks up the fight, right here. See?” He stabbed at the page with his forefinger. “’Why, gentlemen, you do me double wrong, To strive for that which resteth in my choice: I am no breeching scholar in the schools; I'll not be tied to hours nor 'pointed times, But learn my lessons as I please myself. And, to cut off all strife, here sit we down: Take you your instrument, play you the whiles; His lecture will be done ere you have tuned.’”

“I get it,” Dawn said. “It’s, like, a smackdown. She’s telling them to back off. But in a nice way.”

“Right.”

“Okay.” She kept reading. “So the Latin guy gets to go first, right? While the other guy is tuning his lute. Which is like, what, a guitar?”

“Close enough.”

“Cool. Do you know how to pronounce Latin?”

“Had to learn it in school,” Spike said. “We’ll get to that later. Just get the English bits for now.”

“Hah!” Dawn smirked happily. “This is awesome. ‘In time I may believe, yet I mistrust.’ She’s, like, all suspicious and stuff.” She snapped the book shut and tossed it on the table. “Love triangles are totally fascinating.”

Be very afraid of where this conversation is headed. “Wouldn’t know, pet. Kind of a one-woman vampire myself.”

She just narrowed her eyes at him. Gleefully. “Where’d you get the hickey, Spike?”

“Um. Well, you see. The thing is. That may look like a hickey, but ...”

“You and Buffy are totally doing it, aren’t you?”

Bloody hell. “Slayer, vampire. Not gonna happen, luv.”

“Oh, like it never did before,” she snarked. “Hello, Angel? I am so not ten years old anymore, Spike. Are you boinking my sister, or not?”

He closed his eyes. Some battles were over before they began. Like any conversation he’d ever had with any one of the three Summers women. “Sort of.”

“Cool.” She grinned at him. “Did she bite you anywhere else? Can I see?”

Teenagers, thought Spike. Who bloody knew?

**

The Trio were tied up and duct-taped together against the wall. Anya was pacing the kitchen. Buffy, Willow and Tara were grouped around Xander worriedly.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” he muttered resentfully, and shot them a baleful glance. “Qui êtes-vous? Que voulez-vous?” Everyone looked at Tara expectantly.

“Um,” she said. “’Liberty, equality, brotherhood.’ That’s the first part. Then he said, ‘Who are you, and what do you want?’”

“Oh, that’s a bad sign,” Willow said. “Political slogans and non- recognition. Trés foreboding.”

Tara looked like she wanted to laugh, but just swallowed hard. “Vos amis,” she said to Xander, indicating the cluster of faces around the table, then pointed at Anya. “Votre fiancée.” She looked quickly at Buffy. “Should I ask him who he is?”

Buffy nodded, and Tara turned back to Xander. “Et vous, monsieur? Quel est votre nom?”

Xander glared at her. “Maximilien Robespierre. Ils m'appellent 'l'Incorruptible '.”

Tara opened her mouth, then shut it again and shook her head. “What?” Buffy asked. “What?”

Willow sat down hard. “No need to translate,” she said. “I remember that name from Western Civ class.” She rubbed a hand over her eyes. “He says his name is Robespierre, and he’s known as ‘The Incorruptible.’ Which would make him a kind of scary populist dictator guy who sent, like, twenty thousand people to the guillotine, and who’s been dead for two hundred years.”

“Oh, for God’s sake,” Buffy said, and fingered the diamond in her pocket. “Whoever he is, can’t he just speak English?”

Xander’s head snapped toward her, and she noticed that his eyes had changed from their normal puppy-dog brown to an eerie light gray-blue. Creepy. “Désolé, comrade,” he said. “ Je ne parle pas anglais.”

“That’s odd,” Tara said. “He just said he didn’t speak English. But if that’s the case, how did he understand you?”

Buffy brought the diamond out into the light. It drew Anya over to the table like a homing device. “Here’s what I think,” she said. “Jonathan threw me the diamond first, and I tossed it to Xander. Somehow, the diamond must have been holding Robespierre inside, and Xander touching it caused a transfer.”

“So Xander has this French guy’s soul?” Anya was less than pleased. “Where did Xander’s soul go? Is it inside the diamond?”

“Not sure,” Buffy said. Anya rounded on her.

“And why didn’t this Robes .. Robes .. this person, why didn’t he take your soul instead, if you were the first one to touch the diamond?”

Buffy stared down into the sea-blue mysteries of the diamond, then looked up at the circle of questioning faces around her. “Well, because,” she said heavily. “I don’t think I have one anymore. But that’s kind of beside the point.” She tapped the diamond meaningfully. “I think that whoever’s holding this is sort of in control of the soul. That’s why he responded to me.”

“Wait, wait. Rewind,” Willow said. “You don’t have a soul?”

Xander struggled to his feet. “Sit down,” Buffy said, and obediently he sank back into his chair, muttering. “Le droit de propriété est borné comme tous les autres par l'obligation de respecter les droits d'autrui,” he snapped. “Tout trafic qui viole ce principe est essentiellement illicite et immoral.”

Tara, looking shaken, translated. “The right of ownership is limited, like all the others, by the obligation to respect the rights of others. Any traffic which violates this principle is primarily illicit and immoral.” She frowned. “That sounds so familiar.”

Rights of Man?” Willow suggested.

“Something like that, yeah. It’d make sense, anyway.”

“Know what I think?” Buffy said. “I think it’s time to call Giles.”



Chapter Six

“So, what do we do with these guys?”

They were back at the Magic Box. Jonathan, Andrew and Warren had been tied more securely, transferred in the back seat of the DeSoto under cover of darkness, and were now propped like packages against the back wall of the training room. XandePierre, as Willow was calling him, was perched glumly on a stool, surveying the people and things around him with thinly veiled hostility.

J'espère que c'est seulement un cauchemar,” he muttered to himself, and Tara looked sympathetic.

“Poor thing. He thinks he’s having a nightmare.” She patted him kindly on the shoulder. “Avez-vous faim, monsieur?” she queried. “Voulez-vous du thé?”

XandePierre scowled. “Je mourrais de faim avant que je vous laisse m'empoisonner.” He shot the Magic Box another look of distaste. “Dites- moi: où suis-je? Et quel est ce pays, si pas la France?

Willow cocked an eyebrow. “Translation?” she requested, and Tara spread her hands helplessly.

“I asked him if he wanted something to eat, or some tea, and he said he’d rather starve than let me poison him. He wants to know where he is. What country.”

“Look,” said Anya irritably. “Let me handle this, okay?” She nudged Tara out of the way and glared at XandePierre. “C'est l'Amérique. Vous êtes à l'avenir. Dans quelqu'un corps d'autre. Vous avez été mort pour pendant quelque temps. Nous nous marions , et je dois savoir si vous préféreriez une rose ou une tulipe pour votre boutonnière. Comprenez?

“Didn’t catch that,” Buffy murmured into Tara’s ear. Tara grimaced.

“She told him he’s in America, in the future, in someone else’s body, that he’s been dead awhile, and that they’re getting married. Then she asked him if he’d rather have a rose or a tulip in his buttonhole.”

XandePierre was looking alarmed. “Excusez-moi, damoiselle,” he sputtered, sounding apologetic and incensed in equal parts. “Mais je ne veux pas une épouse. Je suis marié à la révolution.” He paused, then added as an afterthought, “Et les fleurs me rendent malade.”

Cochon!” Anya hissed, and slapped him, hard, across the face. “Je souhaite que nous non jamais réuni!" She wheeled, stalked across the shop, and disappeared down the stairs into the stockroom. Buffy cast her eyes to the side, trying not to stare after her, and caught Spike’s gaze.

“Did you understand that?” she whispered. Spike grinned.

“Bloody entertaining, this,” he whispered back. “He said that he doesn’t want a wife, that he’s married to the Revolution, and that flowers make him sneeze. She called him a pig and said she wishes they’d never met.”

“Oh, good,” Buffy said. “Just what we need to spice things up – a lovers’ quarrel.”

Dawn, who had been watching the whole thing from a safe distance, finally spoke up. “Buff, are you and me the only two here who don’t speak French?”

“Oh, I don’t speak French,” Willow said quickly. “And neither does ... did ... Xander.” They all looked at XandePierre, who was still staring in the direction Anya had gone. He looked both put out and intrigued.

“Gross,” Dawn said. “He’s some creepy dead French guy with Xander’s face, and he’s into girls who hit him. How disgusting is that?”

“New. Topic,” Buffy said firmly. “We’re not going to get to the bottom of this until Giles gets here, and that’ll be late tomorrow. I’m thinking that the Three Musketeers can stay locked in the training room tonight; if we take out the weapons, they won’t be able to do any damage even if they manage to get themselves untied. Everybody okay with that?” She scanned the group. “Fine. Now. We need to figure out what we’re going to do with D’Artagnan here.” She indicated XandePierre with a jerk of her head. “Dawn, go get Anya, would you? Tell her we need her input on something.”

“I’m here,” Anya said sullenly, emerging from the root cellar. She’d been crying. “What do you want to know? If I’ll take this ... this imposter home with me tonight?” She shot XandePierre a poisonous glance. “The answer’s no. He’s not the man I’m going to marry. I don’t want him sleeping in Xander’s bed.”

“Fine,” Buffy said. “Then he comes home with us. Unless someone has a better idea.”

“What about Spike’s crypt?” Willow offered. “Since he’s not ... um ...” Off Buffy’s cue, she went into a fit of coughing. Tara frowned and patted her on the back.

“Spike’s not what?”

He and Buffy shared glances. What the hell, Buffy thought. This day’s been the ultimate in surreal, anyway. Why not come clean? She slung her arm around his waist, and felt a tremor of surprise snake through his lean body. “Spike’s not using his crypt these days,” she said flatly. “He’s staying with me.”

“Oh!” Anya nodded brightly. “You mean you’re having sex.”

“That’s the one,” Buffy said. “Just to clear things up for anyone who hadn’t figured it out yet: Spike and I are having sex. And plan to continue. Therefore, his crypt is currently empty.”

“Thing is,” Spike interjected, “Crypt’s right on the sewer line. His soul may be French,” he nodded toward XandePierre, “but his body still belongs to Harris. If something nasty were to crawl through, middle of the night, might not be much left of your honey in the morning,” he said to Anya. “Even if we do get his soul back.” Anya paled.

“You okay there, Tara? ‘Cause you look a little shell-shocked.” Willow patted her on the arm. Tara jumped.

“Um. Yeah. Lots of information at once.” She sent XandePierre a considering look. “I guess the best thing to do is to send him home with you guys.” She paused. “I can put a binding spell on the training room door, just for tonight.”

“Is that necessary, do you think?” Buffy asked. Tara frowned.

“Well, they must know something about magic. One of them, at least. It would have taken a spell to activate the diamond.” She made a face. “If they got loose in the Magic Box, they’d have a lot of ... supplies ... at their disposal. Maybe it’s not such a good idea to keep them here ...”

Buffy rubbed her eyes wearily. “Okay, how’s this? We put them in my basement for the night. We’ve got some old camping equipment down there – army blankets and stuff. Xander can sleep on the couch downstairs, I guess.”

Willow and Tara had been whispering to each other. Willow cleared her throat. “Why don’t you ... um, why don’t you put him in my room for the night, Buffy? You’ll be able to keep a closer eye on him.”

“Your room? But then, where would you ...” Buffy swallowed hard. “Oh. Okay.”

“No, you’ve got the wrong idea,” Tara said quickly. “We were just thinking that I’d stay over and that the two of us would sleep downstairs in the living room. So we’d hear anything coming from the basement, and also hear Xander if he tried to go outside.”

“Oh. Okay.” Buffy tried not to look at Dawn, who was radiating happiness.

“So I’m the only one that’s going home by myself?” Anya, who hadn’t been what you’d call happy for about six hours, had clearly been doing some heavy thinking since her last outburst. “My future husband has just been body-snatched by a dead guy! And one that doesn’t even believe in capitalism! I don’t want to be alone right now.”

“So come home with us,” Dawn said. “But you’ll have to sleep with Xander – Willow’s room has the only other double bed in the house.”

Anya thought for a minute. “I can live with that.”

Buffy sighed. “Guess we’d better order pizza.”

**

Buffy remembered her father’s old camping equipment as being outdated and motheaten. A closer inspection proved it to be waterlogged and moldy as well. As annoyed as she was with Jonathan and the pair of jokers he was hanging with, she couldn’t wish that on them.

Willow was even more softhearted – Jonathan, after all, had been a fellow outcast back in high school. So they were on the living room floor, outfitted with spare blankets and some musty old pillows Dawn had found in the back of the linen closet. They were still tied up, but Tara had fixed them each a plate and stuck plastic straws in their soda cans. Lined up against the coffee table, they looked like condemned prisoners eating their last meal.

XandePierre was looking wary but less mournful, and had tucked into the cheese-and-pepperoni without so much as a sniff of Gallic distaste. “Guess they didn’t feed him much in the Bastille,” Willow commented, watching him wolf down a third slice. He wasn’t so happy about the Coca-Cola Tara offered him; one cautious sip and he’d spat it, wide-eyed and grimacing, back into the glass.

“Can’t blame the poor bloke for that one,” Spike said. “How you Yanks can drink that stuff is more than I can suss out.” He’d cracked another bag of B positive, drunk it swiftly and in private, and was now sprawled on the couch with a bottle of beer, Buffy curled up beside him.

If you thought about it, it was kind of cozy. Warm house, soft couch, all her friends around her, cheek pillowed on her ... um, boyfriend’s, six-pack of abs. Even if you factored in a little soul displacement and a few tied- up loser villains on the floor, it was still a pretty good night.

Tara and Willow were having a low-voiced conversation in the kitchen; from where she was sitting, Buffy could see Willow’s red cap of hair tossing as she spoke and the occasional graceful white flash of Tara’s hands, gesturing. “Okay,” Willow said finally, and poked her head into the living room. “Buffy? Got a sec?”

“What’s up?”

“Well, we were thinking,” Tara said, frowning. “And I think that whoever did the spell on the diamond – one of them,” this with a wave toward the living room, “has the best chance of reversing it. So maybe we should ... question them?”

“Good plan,” Buffy said, and fixed the Trio with an evil glare. “Okay. Who’s responsible for the mojo?”

Sullen silence. Buffy cracked her knuckles threateningly and tried again.

“Look. Tell me how to undo this, the worst that can happen to you is jail. Dick me around, and I really will throw you into my basement.” She dropped to her knees and wrapped her hand around Jonathan’s throat. “You really don’t want to piss me off, Jonathan, any more than you already have. This whole mess has your name written all over it.”

Jonathan’s face was slowly going from red to purple. “Okay,” he gasped. “Okay! It was me, okay?” Buffy loosened her grip, but didn’t let him go altogether.

“Can you reverse it?”

He nodded emphatically. “It’s easy. You gotta untie me, though.”

Buffy jerked him to his feet and dragged him into the kitchen. “Here’s our wizard. Sit down, Gandalf,” she snapped, and threw him into a chair. “If it’s so easy, why can’t you do it hands-free?”

His eyes darted sideways and back; obviously he didn’t have a good answer for this. The look on his face gave him an eerie resemblance to Mr. Whiskers, Buffy’s third-grade class guinea pig. “I have to touch the diamond,” he said finally. “The spell won’t work otherwise.”

“Touching the diamond controls the spirit,” Tara said quickly. “I don’t think ...” Willow nodded agreement. Buffy scowled at Jonathan. He bit his lip.

“Okay, okay,” he said. “I don’t really need the diamond. But it’s hard for me to concentrate when I’m all tied up.” He gave the living room a worried glance. “What am I gonna do, honestly? You’re, like, a million times stronger than me, and Spike’s sitting right out there.”

Buffy hesitated. “Any funny stuff, you won’t wake up until Tuesday. Got it?”

“Got it. I swear.”

XandePierre wandered into the kitchen. He had pizza grease on his chin, and looked embarrassed. “J'ai besoin...” he began, then trailed off and began again. “Où est...” He closed his eyes, clearly humiliated. “La salle de bains,” he said grimly. “Où est-elle?

“Oh!” Tara looked startled for a minute, then sympathetic. “Bathroom,” she explained to Buffy and Willow, who were looking blank, and pointed down the hall. “Spike, you’d better go with him. I don’t imagine he’s seen a flush toilet before.”

Anya, who had been upstairs with Dawn, appeared at the top of the staircase. “I’ll do it.”

“Thank God,” Spike said, and drained the rest of his beer. “A man’s got his limits, and showing Harris how to take a piss is way beyond mine.”

Surreal. Buffy fought back a laugh and turned her attention back to Jonathan. “Okay,” she said, and began to fumble with the knot around his ankles. “I just want you to know this is WAY against my better judgment.”

“I’m not going to do anything, I swear.”

“Hmph.” Buffy unwound the rope and had just started on the knots holding his wrists when the toilet flushed down the hall. They heard Xander yelp in surprise, just before the door crashed open and he came plunging wild- eyed into the hall, pants around his ankles. He was screaming in French. Anya was hanging onto his arm.

“What’s he saying?” Willow was biting her lip, eyes dancing. Tara grinned.

“Nothing nice.”

Buffy grabbed the diamond from the table. “Calm down, Xander!” she yelled, and immediately his eyes flashed that creepy gray-blue again, and he stopped in his tracks. “That’s better,” she said, and turned back to Jonathan. “What the –“

He wasn’t there.

Their eyes all shot to the front door. It was ajar. Buffy flung it open and raced out onto the sidewalk, the others at her heels. Jonathan was fleeing down the street, hands still tied in front of him. “Shit,” Buffy muttered, then clamped down on Willow’s shoulder, hard. “Oh, Jesus. Is that ...”

Fast on Jonathan’s heels was a hairy, shambling silhouette. As they watched in horrified silence, it took him down by the ankles. Man and monster disappeared into the shadow of a parked car, and they heard Jonathan cry out.

“Quick,” Spike said, already running for the street. “Red, get back in the house!”

Even before they got there, Buffy knew they were too late. There wasn’t so much as a grease spot on the pavement. No Jonathan, no Doorkeeper. Nothing. She closed her eyes hard and let Spike take her arm. “Come on, love,” he murmured. “Let’s get you inside. Nothing we can do now.”



Chapter Seven

“Is he ... is he dead?” Anya, as usual, said what everyone else was thinking. No one looked at her.

They were all in the living room, except for Dawn, who’d been upstairs studying for her audition and who was presumably now asleep. Willow was visibly shaken; Tara looked concerned and helpless. Buffy herself wanted nothing more than to close her eyes – they were gritty with fatigue, and she was pretty sure that Spike’s arm was the only thing holding her up. XandePierre had picked up on the tension, too, and was pacing the kitchen, muttering angrily to himself. Warren and Andrew were beyond indignation at being tied up and well on their way to full-fledged panic. Just another Sunday night in Sunnydale, Buffy thought with resignation, and dug into her eye sockets with the heels of her hands.

“Um, maybe. But maybe not.” Tara was digging in her bag. “I brought the books with me? The research books on the Doorkeeper?” She opened one and scanned the page intently. “Okay. You want the long story or the short one?”

“Better give us the rundown,” Spike said, and Tara nodded.

“Okay. Well, it looks like Amy told you guys the truth,” she said. “The Doorkeeper isn’t a certain kind of demon, it’s more like a job title. Those psychedelic trips Rack’s sending people on? They’re really like these ...um, astral visits to other dimensions. Whatever goes through, whether it’s your body or just your brain, has to pass through a little window in the space/time continuum. Just like Amy said, the Doorkeeper opens the window.” She swallowed uneasily. “As payment, it gets to come through itself, and ... well, I guess the human dimension is kind of like a demon snack bar. More or less.”

They all shuddered. Andrew looked ready to dry-heave; Buffy felt almost sympathetic. Willow’s eyes were shining with tears.

“Poor Jonathan,” she murmured. Buffy nodded.

“He’s a pain in the ass, but I didn’t really want him ending up a demon Twinkie.” She frowned. “But you said maybe he wasn’t ...?”

Tara brightened. “Oh! Yeah.” She flipped a page. “Okay, this is an icky metaphor, but I’m going with it anyway. According to the book, a human with no magical ability is the equivalent of a candy bar to this demon. Just a couple of bites. But if the human is a witch or a warlock, or –“ here she glanced at Buffy – “a Slayer, someone with special power or gifts, then they’re worth a little more in demon currency. So it’s actually a good thing that we didn’t find Jonathan’s body ... it means that instead of just eating him and leaving his ...um, wrapper, behind, the Doorkeeper took him back home to save for a couple of days.” She closed the book. “The demon won’t kill him until he’s been drained of magical power.”

Willow shook her head. “Then we don’t have long to get him back, do we?”

Buffy stood up. “Okay. It’s past midnight, and I’ve got to get Dawn off to school tomorrow. I’m declaring bedtime.” She glanced toward the kitchen, then at Anya. “The diamond’s on the kitchen table,” she said. “If you’re holding that, he’ll do anything you say. Have fun. Willow, Tara, you guys gonna be okay down here?” They nodded.

“Good. Warren and Andrew can sleep on the floor. The sofa folds out.” Just once, her lips trembled; then she was steady again. “I think we can skip patrol just this one night. If there’s trouble in Sunnydale tonight, it’s already come home with us.”

“You’re dead on your feet,” Spike said, and took her elbow. “Come on, luv. Let’s get you horizontal.”

**

They ascended the stairs, cleared the threshold of the bedroom, closed the door behind them, and undressed in silence. The bed felt like heaven. God, what a day.

Buffy heard Spike chuckle in the darkness and turned her head to face him. “What?”

“You, Goldilocks,” he said, and laughed low in his throat again. “You’ve been reminding me of someone, and I just figured out who, just now, downstairs.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Elizabeth,” he said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “Even the name fits. You’re Elizabeth I.”

Buffy shot him a sideways glance. “I hope that’s a compliment,” she said. “Hitting you seems like way too much effort right now.”

“Oh, it is. A compliment, I mean.” He stretched his arms over his head and sighed in satisfaction. “Your bed’s a lot more comfortable than mine. Think I’ve mentioned that before.”

“Mm. I’ll say.” She frowned at him in the dark. “So, quit trying to change the subject, and tell me why I’m like Elizabeth the First.”

He shifted, and she felt his arm slide under her shoulders. Nice. “Smart. One tough cookie. Knew her own power. Wouldn’t let anybody take it away from her. Had to make decisions, and she made them. Had to disagree with people, and she did it. Tended to get violent when crossed.” He smoothed her hair back. “You’re just like her. Especially now. You listen, and you judge, and you decide, and when you speak, they all jump.”

“Huh. Well, so far so good, I guess.” Buffy was silent for a minute. “I miss Giles,” she said. “I don’t really like being the one in charge.”

Spike shrugged. “Isn’t up to you, love,” he said. “No matter where you go, you’re the strongest one in the room.”

“Flatterer,” Buffy murmured, and closed her eyes. “So, how’d you know Liz?”

He smothered a laugh. “Books, luv. She was dead three hundred years before I was born. Had a crush on her, though.”

“Was she a hottie?”

“Gorgeous – in her pictures at least. Red hair. Pale as milk. Long white fingers. They called her the Virgin Queen,” Spike mused, and laughed as her eyes popped open in horror. “Wasn’t a virgin, of course, not really. Just never married.” He pushed himself up on one elbow and met her eyes with his. “She had a lover, you know. Robert, Earl of Leicester. Never made it legal, though. Never acknowledged him.”

Buffy had a feeling she knew where this was going. “Good to know.” She faked an elaborate yawn. “Are all you British guys history nuts, or are you and Giles just weird that way?”

“Buffy.” He was suddenly very serious. “I never thought you’d tell them.”

“Oh. Well.” His steady regard made her nervous. “Not a big deal. Would have been a lot harder if Xander weren’t ... elsewhere ... right now.”

“Still.” He brushed his lips over hers. “It meant something to me. Thank you.”

“Fortune favors the brave,” Buffy said sleepily, and, oddly enough, didn’t think about Riley at all. “’Night, Spike.”

“’Night.”

**

She was walking through Sunnydale Memorial, making soft squeaky sounds on the waxy tiles. Nurse shoes. She was wearing nurse shoes. And opaque white tights. And one of those sensible, starchy white cotton-polyester dresses. Buffy patted her head wonderingly. No hat, at least. Thank God for that.

The corridor was dark, the lights at the reception desk dimmed. The solitary nurse at the duty station was slumped over her desk, snoring lightly. Buffy passed the station and turned left, pushing past the swinging double doors leading to the morgue.

There was a figure in front of her, dressed in surgical scrubs. “Hurry up,” it said, and pulled the face mask down to grin at her. Willow. “You’re late.”

Willow, a doctor? Buffy lengthened her stride to catch up and followed Willow into the morgue. Just like she remembered it. Chilly tile and metal. Stale air. Banks and banks of blank-faced drawers. Some of the tables held sheet-draped bodies. Willow was standing over the farthest table, regarding Buffy impatiently.

“Hurry,” she said again. “It’s your turn. You’ve got to start now.” She pressed a scalpel into Buffy’s hand and drew back the sheet.

Jonathan. Pale and still and looking more like Mr. Whiskers than ever. Buffy took a step back. “I can’t,” she told Willow. “You’re the doctor, not me. I haven’t even washed my hands!”

“You’ve got to do it,” Willow insisted. “Here. Here’s where you cut.” She traced a finger down Jonathan’s sternum. “Hurry, Buffy,” she urged. Buffy bit her lip, and cut.

There was no blood, where she’d expected blood. Just the clean edge of the cut. And then ... oh, God, and then. His skin started to bubble, near the edges, the skin rising and falling and making sizzling sounds like bacon. Oh God oh God oh God. Buffy watched in horror as the incision she’d made began to ooze purple, slowly at first and then faster and faster, until it was running out of him in thick, slimy rivers. “Willow,” she said weakly. “Willow, make it stop! Willow!”

“Too late,” Willow rasped, and when Buffy turned around, hands stained purple from trying to hold Jonathan’s skin together, it wasn’t Willow under the scrubs at all, but Rack.

“Too late,” he repeated, and started to laugh.

“No!” Buffy sat straight up in bed, clutching the blankets to her chest.

No Rack. No Willow. No rivers of purple goo. She looked at her hands. Clean. She looked at Spike. Still asleep.

“Wake up,” she whispered, but he didn’t stir. Her heart was beating so fast she thought she’d pass out. “Spike?”

Dead to the world. Buffy slowly sank down onto the bed again and stared blindly at the ceiling, willing her heartbeat to slow. Jesus. How scary was that?

Spike murmured in his sleep and flung one arm out. It landed on her chest. Buffy grabbed it and held on. God, he felt good. Cool and solid and reassuring and there, most of all, there right beside her in the middle of the nightmare. Something to wake up and touch. Something real.

She trailed her fingertips over the underside of his wrist, up to his elbow. Soft, soft skin. Must be true, what they said about sun damage ... his skin glowed like marble and felt like velvet. Her fingers ran up to his shoulder. He sighed in his sleep and brought his arm back in a balletic curve over his head.

She didn’t want to go back to sleep. She wanted to touch him some more.

She hiked herself up on one elbow and leaned over him. So pretty. Knife-edge cheekbones, eyelashes like mink, a mouth so soft it belonged on a girl. She sculpted the air around his face with her hands, grazing the downy white-blond hairs on his cheeks without really touching him.

Next. Shoulders. Jesus, look at the muscles. He wasn’t as built as Angel, maybe, or even Riley, but he was rock-solid and swimmer-lean. Buffy imagined him with a merman’s tail, streaking through jewel-blue waters, bursting up through the sunlit surface in a flash of white and gold. It wasn’t too much of a stretch. She trailed her hands down his chest, smiling as he hummed and pressed up against her.

Nice to know that somebody was having good dreams tonight.

She dragged the comforter down his hips and let it tangle around his knees. God, what a body. She laid her cheek on his thigh and breathed him in. Tobacco and night air and leather and rain. In a word, pure sex.

His cock was as pale as the rest of him, surrounded by silky light brown curls. When it was hard, it turned strawberry-gold, the color of sunrise, and made her weak in the knees. Now, she wanted to protect it, baby it. She brushed it with her cheek, shivering more at the intimacy than the satiny texture. Kissing him seemed only natural.

He twitched and thickened under her lips. She gave him a little tongue, by way of encouragement, and shook her head so that her hair pooled over his abdomen. He wanted a good dream? She’d give him one.

**

Drifting. Warm touch on his skin. Gold behind his eyes. Smell of vanilla and sunshine.

Was he William? No, no one touched William like that.

Spike? Not him either.

No blood, no pain, no dark. Just warm wet love and Roman candles in his brain.

For decades, he’d dreamed about sunlight. Great golden pools of it. Meadows, flowers, fields, moving by slow. Lapping water underneath him, eyes closed against the light. Floating downriver by inches, fingers trailing cool and wet. Sunburn starting, sweet tight itch across the cheekbones. Girl in the boat with him. Loving him.

Elizabeth. Queen Elizabeth.

Buffy.

Warm body, honey hair, fierce wet furnace of a mouth, over and on and around him. Strong hands, holding him sweetly. Body moving up, yesyesyes, up and over and down now, that’s right, slow. Don’t tip the boat.

Down the river, merrilymerrilymerrilymerrily. Rocking like a chair, like a lullaby.

Don’t open your eyes and the sun won’t burn you.

Don’t say anything and it’ll last forever.

Feels so good. OhGodohGodohGod.

She’s whispering – what is she whispering?

Don’t hope for the words. Don’t ever hope for those words from her.

As long as you don’t wake up, you can keep your sunshine.

As long as you sleep, you can believe she really said them.

Life is but a dream.


**

He was gone when she woke up. Seemed to be a pattern.

She looked for the note – there had to be one – and found it folded crisply and tucked under her pillow. Her morning poem. She was kind of looking forward to seeing what he’d come up with this time.

It was T.S. Eliot, the note informed her. She read it twice.

Elizabeth and Leicester/
Beating oars/
The stern was formed/
A gilded shell/
Red and gold/
The brisk swell/
Rippled both shores/
Southwest wind/
Carried downstream/
The peal of bells/
White towers/
Weialala leia/
Wallala leialala.


There was one sentence under the poem:

When you touch me, I remember what sunlight feels like.



Chapter Eight

Monday morning. Ten o’ clock.

Dawn was in school. Anya had dragged XandePierre, looking dazed but sated, off to the Magic Box, after calling him in sick. The two remaining captives had been given orange juice and Pop-Tarts, allowed to relieve themselves under heavy guard, and were once again tied hand and foot and propped against the sofa. One good thing about the Jonathan incident, Buffy reflected: Andrew and Warren weren’t putting up a fuss. She imagined they were feeling pretty lucky to be inside right now.

Spike was nowhere to be seen, but she figured she could find him if she wanted him. In the meantime, Tara and Willow had been hitting the books over fruit and coffee. Buffy pulled another chair up to the kitchen table, stole a slice of apple from Willow’s plate, and looked from one worried face to the next. “What’s the word?”

“Bad news,” Willow said gloomily.

“How bad?”

Tara looked grim. “While you were dropping Dawn at school? We went over to Warren’s.”

“And?”

“No spells anywhere,” Willow said. “Not a book, not a scrap of paper, not a diskette. We searched his hard drive – some interesting stuff there, believe me – but I can’t find a copy of the spell he used anywhere. And it doesn’t seem to be in any of our books.” She jerked a thumb at Andrew and Warren. “They don’t know anything, either. Figures.”

Tara raked her hair back from her face. “We can take a chance on Giles being able to locate it, but when I called him last night to tell him about … about Jonathan, he thought that was pretty slim. He’s gone through all the Council’s sources on mystical jewelry and historically significant gemstones, and there’s nothing but speculation about the Blue Tavernier.” She sipped her coffee, made a face, and took another, larger, slug. “So we’re thinking that Jonathan got his material from an underground source.”

“God.” Buffy tipped her chair back. “So, let’s recap. Basically, Jonathan’s the only one who can reverse the spell.”

“Basically.”

“And Jonathan’s presently in some demon dimension, waiting to be made into Loser McNuggets.”

“Yeah.”

“So, if we want Xander back in his body, we’re going to have to rescue Jonathan.”

“Uh-huh.”

Buffy blew her breath out through puffed cheeks. “Any idea how we’re gonna do that?”

Willow shook her head. “Not so far.” She grimaced. “Hence, the bad news.” She and Tara exchanged uneasy looks and went back to reading. Buffy fidgeted with the hem of her sweater.

“Willow,” she said suddenly. “How do you summon the Doorkeeper?” Willow looked startled.

“Um, you don’t. Well, I didn’t. H-he did. Rack.” She swallowed. “He’s got some kind of deal going with it. It comes when he calls it.”

“Well, then. He’s the one we should talk to, right?”

The sudden quiet at the table was laced with tension. Willow fiddled nervously with the lead of her automatic pencil until it snapped off in her fingers, then looked up and shrugged. “Yeah. I guess so.”

“Wait,” Tara said. “You shouldn’t go back there. One of us should go. Me, maybe.” Willow shook her head.

“Wouldn’t work. You’d get a different dimension, a different Doorkeeper.”

“Oh.” Tara hesitated, then set her jaw. “But I don’t like the idea of you going alone.”

“Why? Don’t you trust me?” Willow’s eyes flared. Tara shook her head.

“It’s not that. It’s just that it’s … dangerous. I’d worry.”

“You don’t have to worry.” Willow set her jaw. “You didn’t want to deal with this in the first place. Didn’t want to deal with me. So, don’t. Don’t deal. But don’t tell me what to do, either.”

Tara shoved her chair back. “That isn’t fair, Willow, and you know it. I didn’t abandon you! I didn’t just decide, oh, Willow, what a basket case, and walk out!” She wiped the back of her hand across her eyes. Her voice was full of pain. “I left because you broke a promise. Betrayed a trust.”

“Um, guys?” Buffy sighed. They were way beyond listening to her. Where was bloody Queen Elizabeth when you needed her?

“I’m promising now,” Willow said. Her eyes glittered with intensity. “Trust me to keep this one. If you can.”

They glared at each other across the table, Willow stolid in her chair, arms folded defiantly across her chest, Tara braced for flight. Buffy spread her hands placatingly.

“Whoa! Heavy!” She put a hand on Tara’s shoulder. “Calm down, both of you. This isn’t helping. Call truce, okay? You can pick this up when Xander’s Xander again.” She waited until Tara relaxed back into her chair, then flashed them her most reassuring smile. “Hear me out on this. I think I’ve got a plan.”

**

They both sat staring at her after she was finished. She frowned at them. “What?”

“Well, it plays to a certain point,” Willow said. “I mean, I’m pretty sure we could get in the door. If what Amy said was true, and he really wants to see me that badly. But I’m not sure that he’d buy the notion that you want to join his club. Y’know? Being the Slayer and all. White Hat, evil-fighter and all that.”

“Look.” Buffy studied her fingernails for a second. Yikes. Manicure needed, and yesterday. “He only has to buy it long enough for us to get in the door. Then, I’m gonna kick his ass.” Off Willow’s apprehensive look, she bristled. “What? Spike says he’s a loser, that he’s running on empty. Bound to have a vulnerable side, don’t you think?”

“Great,” Willow muttered. “Not only am I a pathetic junkie, but my dealer’s small-time. I can’t even make a splash when I rebel.”

“Get over yourself,” Tara snapped, and they both looked at her in astonishment. Her voice was so low it sounded almost vicious. “You’re not pathetic, you’re not a junkie, and you had us worried sick. You want to beat yourself up, do it on your own time.” She turned her attention to Buffy, leaving Willow open-mouthed in shock. “I think it’ll work,” she said. “Though I really wish I knew what that purple stuff was. Especially since you had that second dream about it.”

“No results from the chemistry lab?”

“According to my friend, it’s not a known substance. So, definitely mystical.”

“When does Giles get here?”

Tara bit her lip. “Late tonight. Buffy, Willow was right about Jonathan – he doesn’t have too much power in reserve. I’m afraid that if we wait for Giles, we’ll be too late.”

“Oh.” Buffy was grateful when the phone rang. “I’ll get it.”

“No, I’m closer.” Willow picked up the receiver. “Hello?”

“Giles,” she said, and Buffy could hear the relief in her voice. “We were just talking about you.” She laughed. “No, nothing bad. What’s up?”

Whatever he said, it wasn’t good. Willow paled and sank into her chair. “What?” She covered the receiver and mouthed, He’s not coming. Tara groaned. “No, I understand. Weather’s weather. Look, Tara needs to ask you some stuff. I’m going to put her on.” She passed the cordless phone to Tara, who tucked it between her shoulder and her ear and made a beeline for the books on the coffee table. “Freak snowstorm in London,” Willow said. “Twelve-hour delays at Heathrow.”

“Wonderful.” They sat in silence for a minute or two, watching Tara flip pages and murmur into the phone.

“Buffy?”

“Yeah.”

“This is all my fault, isn’t it?”

“Actually, it’s mostly Jonathan’s.” Buffy squeezed her hand. “We’ll get him back. Xander, I mean. One way or another.”

“Keep telling me that.”

Tara beeped the phone off and brought her notebook over to the table. “Okay. Here’s something interesting.” She sat down heavily and put her hands over her eyes. “Ready for some more bad news?”

“There’s no way to get him back?”

“Well, no.”

They all sighed in relief.

“The Apocalypse is coming?” Buffy asked.

“Not quite that bad.”

Willow perked up. “Xander’s real soul is stuck in a demon dimension populated by evil clowns?”

Tara laughed, then covered her mouth quickly with her hand. “No.” She sobered. “According to Giles, it’s possible to go through the door after Jonathan. He gave me the spell that opens the portal and summons the Doorkeeper. We don’t need Rack; we can do it ourselves. But only as many people can exit as enter.”

Buffy and Willow stared at her blankly. Tara sighed in exasperation.

“Don’t you get it? We can’t just waltz in and take him out of there. We’re going to have to make a trade.”

**

They sat quietly, staring at the table, for a long time. Buffy decided to break the silence.

“Why? The demon won’t let us back through otherwise? ‘Cause I could …” She trailed off as Tara shook her head.

“It’s not the Doorkeeper. It’s, like, some yin-yang thing, designed to keep balance between the two worlds. Like the portal itself is a sort of cosmic tollbooth.”

“But Jonathan had to go through that tollbooth, too,” Willow pointed out. “So, there’s your extra body, right?” They all winced at the word ‘body’.

“Not the same thing, I guess,” Tara said. “Jonathan went through the portal not as a human being, but as … well, groceries. We’d be going through on our own power.” She paused. “So … if we take him out, somebody has to stay.”

Another long silence. They didn’t look at each other.

“I’m the one who screwed up and summoned it,” Willow said softly. Her lips were trembling. “I’m the reason it was roaming Sunnydale, looking for a snack. I’m the one it’s wanted all along. The one it was supposed to get.” She swallowed hard. “If anyone stays, it should be me.” Buffy and Tara exchanged horrified glances.

“Will, we can’t let you do that,” Buffy said. Willow shot her a watery smile.

“See another alternative?”

Change the subject, Buffy thought. Quick. “Um. Tara. The purple goo. Did Giles know anything about that?”

“Oh! Yeah.” Tara consulted her notebook. “By-product of an energy transfer,” she read. “Mildly toxic to human beings. Harmless but useless to demons.” She looked at Willow, then quickly away. “Known to replace human blood, over extended period of magical misuse. Giles called it ‘kuumfas’. Whatever that means.”

Willow was looking decidedly green. “So, when Rack put his hands on me, he left this stuff behind in place of what he took.”

Tara nodded, started to say something, then closed her mouth again. Willow was ashen.

“Well, time for a science experiment,” she said, and picked up the paring knife she’d used to cut her apple with.

“Willow, no!” Tara grabbed for the knife handle, but it was too late. Willow pressed the tip of the knife to her wrist and bore down.

A few dark crimson beads welled up and spilled over. Willow, her expression unreadable, watched herself bleed for a few tense seconds. Then she shot Tara a triumphant look. She was dry-eyed but shaking.

“Red,” she said. “It’s still red.”

Then she passed out.



Chapter Nine

“God!” Willow was still in the recliner where Buffy had put her, looking pale and shaken. Tara, looming over her, had lost all trace of her innate diffidence and was in full Rant Mode. “Are you nuts? Are you out of your mind? Why the HELL would you do something so stupid?”

Two fat tears quivered on Willow’s lashes and slid down her cheeks. “I had to do it,” she whispered. “Had to prove it to you. I’m still h-human. Still me.”

Tara dropped to her knees, looking as if Willow had slapped her. “I know that,” she said, and looked as if she might cry herself. “Baby, I know that. Why do you think I’m still here?”

Willow’s face crumpled. Tara grabbed her hands. Andrew and Warren, who had been cringing on the sofa through the last twenty-five minutes of emotional trauma, felt their Sex-Detection Antennae zing and opened their eyes in cautious hope … being kidnapped and tied up on the Slayer’s couch might be worth it, if they got to see the lesbians make up. Or make out. Or both.

Buffy, who knew when she wasn’t needed, let herself out the back door and sank down on the patio steps.

Sundown, Tara had said. They’d do the spell at sundown.

That left her a couple of hours to think.

They needed a trade-in, and damned if she’d do it again, Heaven or no Heaven. Damned if she’d let Willow, either, though the Existence of the Hairy Ewok was mostly her fault. If Buffy had her way, no Scoobies would be Demon Chow today.

They did have two hostages, she thought. Who bore massive partial responsibility for their current situation. She didn’t have a soul anymore, right? What did she care if one of the losers bought it? Willow and Tara wouldn’t like the idea, but they wouldn’t fight her on it. Not if it meant saving Xander from having to wear a Trans-la-Tron for the rest of his natural life.

Buffy sighed. She couldn’t do it. Goddamn it, why couldn’t she be not- quite-human when it’d be useful, for once?

She pulled Spike’s note out of her jacket pocket and traced her forefinger over the elaborate script. When you touch me, I remember what sunlight feels like.

William the Poet. He had words for everything.

Maybe he’d have some for the Problem of the Week. It was worth a try, anyway.

Feeling a bit more cheerful, she tucked the note back in her pocket and headed for the cemetery.

**

Spike felt uneasy, and it had nothing to do with the Xander/Jonathan predicament. If you asked him, and it was pretty likely that no one would, it was a situation best left alone. Hamster Boy deserved to be a midnight snack, for pulling that stunt with the diamond, and Harris speaking French was definitely an improvement over Harris speaking English.

Plus, he’d always had a certain amount of sympathy for the world’s revolutionaries. Even crazy ones.

No, it wasn’t the current Scooby Crisis that had him repainting his nails in the middle of the afternoon, on a weekday no less (always a sure sign that deep thought of some sort was required). Nor was the Slayer twisting his knickers about anything … in a bad way, at least.

Maybe that was part of the problem. Things were going too well.

He’d never thought she’d give him a second tumble. By his count, they were on their fourth. He’d have laid down money that she’d never tell the Scoobies. As of last night, he’d have lost it.

He was pretty sure that she’d whispered those proverbial Three Little Words in his presumed-to-be-sleeping ear last night. Words that he’d given her a hundred times, and never thought he’d hear in return. So maybe the unfamiliar flutter in his chest was panic, and maybe it was hope.

Maybe it was just the memory of a heartbeat, pounding along in rhythm with hers. Sod if he knew.

He did know this. After last night, he couldn’t go back to where he’d been before.

He’d stake himself first.

The door opened upstairs, and he smelled her before he saw her. “Afternoon, princess,” he drawled, and carefully smudged the polish on his right pinkie with the opposite thumb. Perfection wasn’t exactly what he was after.

“Spike.” She stood at the top of the ladder, watching him with amusement. “What’s next on your agenda for the afternoon? Hot rollers? A pedicure?”

“Ritual shaving and a mud pack,” he said, not looking at her. “But if you’re in the mood to repeat last night’s performance, I’d send the concubines away and indulge you.”

“I bet you would.” She clattered down the steps and plopped down on his bed. “I need advice.”

Well, well, well. Would wonders never cease? He swiveled to face her. “Things a bit heavy back at the old homestead?”

She filled him in, and he rewarded her exposition with a low whistle. “Red okay?”

“Yeah. I think.”

He sucked his teeth thoughtfully. “Not sure I can offer much in the way of help here, luv. Unless you want to sacrifice one of the Jedi Knights –“

“Can’t.”

He gave her a swift sideways look of speculation. “Didn’t think so.”

“Yeah. And what the hell is up with that?” She kicked moodily at the rung of his chair. “I’m supposed to be all No-Soul Girl, right? One of those guys pisses me off, and the other one I don’t even know. Why am I even giving this a second thought?” She stuck out her lower lip. “Having a conscience sucks.”

“You’ve got a soul,” Spike said, and her mouth dropped open.

“I don’t. You said I didn’t.”

“Never said any such thing. I said you came back wrong. Not the same.”

She thought hard. “The diamond thing didn’t affect me,” she said triumphantly, wagging her little finger at him. “I caught it, and then I passed it to Xander, and it mojoed him, not me.”

Spike shrugged. “Don’t ask me.” He hiked his chair a little closer to her. “Slayer without a soul? Your little gal-pal Faith. Times ten. That’s not you, sweet pea. Not even close.” He tipped his head to the side. “If you didn’t have a soul, you wouldn’t even be trying to fix this. Dead French guy? Diamond? Junkie witch? None of your business, is it, pet? I mean, really?”

He wished he could tell what she was thinking. “Whatever,” she finally said, and frowned hard at her knee so she wouldn’t have to look at him. “Doesn’t matter why. Just matters that I can’t do it. I need a different solution.” She paused, then sent him a hopeful glance under her lashes. “This is your cue to tell me that there’s a way around this portal thing. That we can cheat the toll booth.”

“Not that I know of.” He slid onto the bed and slipped his arm around her. She tipped her head onto his shoulder. He could almost feel the wheels turning in her impatient little brain.

“If we don’t do the spell as scheduled, it’ll be too late,” she said finally. “Xander will never get his soul back. And that diamond’s supposed to be way unlucky. Cursed, or something. God knows what kind of damage hanging onto it will cause.” She paused. “But if we go ahead and do it, and we get through, it’ll be useless. Either Willow will stay, like she’s already said she would, or I will, to keep her from doing it.”

Her voice was muffled against his shoulder. “Can’t you guess the Hollywood ending, Spike? Can’t you see the headline?” She laughed bitterly. “‘Slayer Sacrifices Self for Friends.’ Isn’t that touching?”

He squeezed her tighter, not knowing what to say. She wasn’t making a sound, but he could tell she was crying.

“I don’t want to die again,” she managed. Her voice was a ragged whisper. “Goddamn you, Spike, this is your fault. A week ago I would have thrown myself into that portal and never looked back.”

There were no words in him to answer that, so he just kissed her instead. Salt and heat and a desperate kind of tenderness. She clutched at him, tore at him, bore him back on the bed, and he went with her until he couldn’t stand the buzzing in her brain anymore. “Stop,” he rasped. “Buffy. Stop it now.”

“I can’t,” she said, and the pretty tears were streaming down her cheeks like silver. “I have to. Don’t you understand? It’s the only thing that feels good anymore.”

He understood, and so he took her hands in his to still them. “Shhh,” he said, and kissed the shiny tracks all the way up to her eyes. “Hold on a second, will you? Let’s do this another way.”

Buffy let him guide her hands to her sides, let him roll her onto the bed and arrange her head on a pillow. Why fight? What good did it do?

He had shoved himself off the bed and was fiddling with a CD player in the far corner. Must run on batteries, Buffy thought. Or had he figured out how to steal electricity, too?

The track started up, and she blinked in surprise. Not the Sex Pistols. Not even that soprano and her wild, wistful piano. Buffy’d heard this before, a long, long time ago. In the car with her dad. On the radio or something. How old had she been? Six? Seven? She couldn’t remember.

Sweet, melancholy tenor voice and words that went straight to her tear ducts.

Who knows my secret broken bone?/
Who feels my flesh when I am gone?/
Who was a witness to the dream, who kissed my eyes and saw the scream?/
Nobody./

Spike was back on the bed now. Kissing her cheekbones, her jawline, the curve of her neck. Buffy let her head fall back, let him do it. Kept listening.

Who is my reason to begin?/
Who plows the earth, who breaks the skin?/
Who took my two hands and made them four?/
Who is my heart, who is my door?/
Nobody./

She let him ruck her sweater up and worship the skin under it. Spread her legs so he could pull down her jeans. Succumbed with an arch and a sigh to the thumbs that spread her open, the mouth that fastened on her like she was strawberries in season. At the taste of her, he groaned and drew back for a minute. Drenched hazel eyes met glittering gold ones for the electric instant before she pulled him closer and he dove back in.

Nobody but you, girl,/
Nobody but you./
Nobody in this whole wide world/
Nobody./

They were slow-dancing on the bed, she and he, in loose slow rhumba circles. Up, down, around. He had her spread out like peanut butter on toast and she was loving it, reveling in it, egging him on with gasps and grunts and fists in his hair so tight that if he didn’t hurry up and finish her he’d go bald. She tasted like pineapple, like fresh bread, like that little harbor bar in Boston where he and Dru had started with the oysters and finished up with the bartender. She screamed, she cursed, she prayed. He kept going.

Who makes the bed that can’t be made?/
Who is my mirror, who’s my blade?/
When I am rising like a flood, who feels the pounding in my blood?/
Nobody./

“I can’t,” she gasped. “Not again. I can’t.”

He ignored her. Gave her another rainbow. Pushed her off another cliff. She closed her eyes in wonder, and fell like a stone.

When she crashed, it took her a long time to resurface. But he was still there when she did.

“I have to tell you something,” she said. Paul Simon was still spinning that cool, effortless melody in the background, but she’d stopped hearing it. “Before tonight. Before I go. I have to tell you.”

“You don’t have to say it.”

“You already know?”

He nodded.

“Oh,” she said, feeling oddly deflated. “Well, okay then.”

**

They lay in companionable silence. At two-thirty, she sat up and reached for her clothes.

“I have to get Dawn from school.”

He nodded again.

“I’ll see you later,” she said.

“Yeah.”

“We’re going to start the spell at sundown. My place, not the Magic Box.”

“I’ll be there.”

“You don’t have to be.”

“I know.”

She was almost to the top of the ladder when she turned around. Their eyes met.

“Spike? I’m going to come back this time.”

“You’d better,” he said.



Chapter Ten

Four p.m. Revello Drive.

Buffy shot a speculative glance at XandePierre, who had apparently gotten over his eighteenth-century limitations long enough to embrace computer solitaire. As she watched, he moved the king of hearts to the first space and gloated in French under his breath. His eyes were maniacal. The tip of his tongue was clenched between his teeth and protruding slightly from his mouth. Andrew and Warren were watching him, wide-eyed, from their positions against the far wall.

“How long has he been doing that?”

Willow laughed. “Ever since lunch. If he gets fidgety, we’re gonna show him how to play Minesweeper.”

“Good thinking,” Buffy said. “Where’s Dawn?”

“She took the phone up to her room. I figure we’ll be done and over with this whole thing before she and Janice decide what they’re wearing tomorrow.”

“Did she get the part? Did she say?”

“She doesn’t know yet.”

“Oh.” Buffy nodded. “Okay. So. New research? Anything leap out at you from the shelves?”

“Not much,” Tara said, looking guilty. She and Willow were cozied up together on the couch. Buffy figured that research hadn’t been their first priority this afternoon. Not that she was anyone to talk. “I mean, we did find this one thing.” She glanced meaningfully at Willow.

“Web site,” Willow chimed in. “Written by a guy who claims to be descended from an Incan high priest. I forget his name. Something Ponce de Leon Something.” She rolled her head around on her neck. “Anyway, this is the deal. He’s a member of a group called the Solar Brotherhood. Sun worshippers. They claim that their society was begun by … don’t laugh … giant androgynous serpents from Venus, called the Kumaras.”

Buffy laughed. “You’re kidding. Right?”

“No,” Willow said earnestly. “I’m dead serious. Really. You should see this site. Intense.”

“Go on. I’m not buying it, but go on.”

“Okay. So supposedly, these Venusian serpent guys, the Kumaras, were in control of all these mystical power objects, and they came to earth and passed some of them on to the Inca guys, the Solar Brotherhood, to use in their sacred sun-worship rituals.”

“Missionary snakes,” Anya said helpfully from her chair in the corner. Buffy jumped. She hadn’t seen her sitting there.

“Uh-huh.”

Willow was on a roll. “So, um, these missionary Venusians. Known to the Incas as the Queztlcoatls. They passed on all this stuff, and about three hundred years ago some of it went missing. Stolen. There’s this one thing in particular that still has the Solar Brotherhood all steamed. They had a drawing of it on their web site.” She flipped through some computer printouts. “Yeah. Right here. It’s called the Sac of Amaru Muru, and …”

“Hold it.” Buffy rubbed her eyes. “Not that the mumbo-jumbo isn’t fascinating, Will, but can we locate a point? We’re kinda short on time.”

“Oh. Yeah. Sure. Sorry.” Willow passed her the papers. “The thing is, we saw this drawing, and kind of flipped out.”

Buffy stared at it. Little canvas sack. Dirty taupe-gray, if the color resolution on Willow’s printer could be believed. Funny little rune scrawled on one side, in what looked like black crayon. “Yeah, it’s thrilling, all right.”

“We’ve got it in the shop,” Anya said. “It came in about six months ago. By mistake. It was supposed to be a shipment of Mayan salt crystals.” Her lips tightened in disapproval. “We still haven’t gotten those. And they’re very trendy. Anyway,” she said more brightly, “since Giles and I didn’t know what it was, we stored it upstairs in the Adept section.”

“Okay.” Buffy took another look. “What does it do?”

“You won’t believe it,” Tara said, leaning forward. “We just tested it out. It’s amazing.” She took a deep breath. “It’s a spirit-matter bag,” she said. “I never thought I’d actually see one. Makes the intangible tangible.”

Buffy frowned. “Color me thrilled.”

“Buff.” Willow sounded amused. “You can’t believe this thing. It turns information into something you can touch. Like, information in your head.”

“I still don’t get it.”

“Too many orgasms lately,” Anya muttered. “That Spike. I’ll bet he’s got a ten-inch penis and screws with his eyes open.” She ignored the witches’ wide eyes and spun around to face Buffy. “You can think of a number,” she said fiercely. “Any number. One to infinity. You can think of a name, of a place, of a Swiss bank account, of a memory. Something you’ve never told anyone. Something you’ve never thought before. And if someone holding the bag touches you, that thought gets sucked right out of your head and into the bag. Open the bag, and it’s written down for the world to see.”

She paused. “Of course, it’s in hieroglyphics. Egypt led the world in written communication, back when this thing was made. But we can get around that. The point is. It’s a secret-stealer.”

“Oh.” Buffy shook her head, slightly dazed. “You guys had better keep talking. You’ve been thinking more than I have this afternoon.”

“Obviously,” Anya murmured. Willow shot her a dirty look.

“This isn’t perfect, Buffy, but it’s what we’ve come up with,” she said. “Last we heard, you weren’t sure you had a soul, right?”

Buffy frowned. “Yeah. Jury’s still out on that one, though.”

“Okay. Well, what we were thinking is this. Maybe this phantom tollbooth thing doesn’t count bodies, but souls. Maybe, if it doesn’t recognize you as a … well, as a human being,” – she winced – “we can open the portal and sneak Jonathan out of there with no one the wiser.”

“Or maybe not.”

“Well, yeah. That’s the thing. It might not work. It might be a body thing. In which case …”

“Oh.” Buffy’s eyes grew wide. “Oh. I get it now. You’re thinking that if we can’t take him out, we can at least suck his brain for the spell info, and carry it out in the bag.”

“Yeah.”

“Wow.” She considered her friend narrowly. “Damn, Willow. That’s heavy.”

Tara bit her lip. “I know it’s risky,” she said. “But it’s all we can think of.”

Buffy nodded. “Fair enough,” she said. “More than we had before.”

The door banged open, and Spike stalked in, tossing his smoldering blanket into the kitchen.

“Slayer. Scoobies.” He looked dangerous and unpredictable, with his firmly-in-place scowl and stray wisps of smoke rising from his clothing. Buffy felt her internal suspension begin to defibrillate. “You’ve got company.”

Christ. She’d been so wrapped up in his particular brand of Platinum Sex that she hadn’t noticed the girl he was dragging with him by the back of her shirt. He gave her a little shove, and she collapsed at the edge of the living-room carpet.

“Willow,” she croaked. “God, Willow, you’ve got to help me.”

Amy.

**

Buffy wasn’t a big Alice in Wonderland fan – she saw enough of the surreal every day; she didn’t need to go looking for it in her fiction. But she possessed a deep understanding of that phrase, “curiouser and curiouser.”

Today, for instance. Classic example. Why couldn’t it have begun and ended with the oral sex?

Things to ask the Powers that Be, if she was ever given the chance. She allowed herself one last sidelong glance at the way William the Bloody filled his 401s, and pulled herself reluctantly back to reality.

Amy, according to Spike, had been discovered lurking in the hydrangeas by the side of the house. Since her ignoble entrance, she had been plied with herbal tea and installed in one of the recliners, and was trembling so violently that the cup rattled in its saucer. Whether it was withdrawal or just a Spike-induced scare, Buffy couldn’t say. Regardless, she had the attention of the room. Every head was turned her way, with the exception of XandePierre.

If Microsoft had come out with desktop pinball in 1775, there’d never have been a Revolution.

“He shut me off,” Amy was quavering. “He said if I didn’t bring you with me, I couldn’t come back.”

Willow looked sympathetic, but guarded. “That’s why you were hanging around outside? To try to convince me to go back?”

“Yes. No.” Amy looked rattled. “Partly. But there’s the other thing, too.”

“What other thing?” Willow might be soft-hearted, but Buffy intended to be a hard-ass where Ms. Madison was concerned. Her voice came out louder than she’d intended, and Amy flinched.

“The Doorkeeper,” she said. “It’s chasing me. Mine, I mean, not Willow’s.” Her lip trembled. “For good this time, Willow. He won’t keep it away.”

“Why?”

Amy’s face crumpled. “He says I’m no use to him anymore,” she said, and despite herself Buffy felt a tug of sympathy. Beneath the wrecked shell, the twitching and the pasty skin and the paranoia, she still caught glimpses of the Amy she’d known and liked. Plucky. Wry. Lousy cheerleader, and proud of it.

God, she thought. What a mess this is.

“He says there’s nothing left for him,” Amy was sobbing. “That the Doorkeeper’s the only one who’ll ever want me.” Willow frowned.

“I wonder why that is?”

“Oh, I can tell you that,” Anya said brightly. “It’s the kuumfas.”

Four heads turned toward her in one motion. “You … know … about kuumfas?” Tara asked, puzzled.

“The question is, exactly WHAT do you know about kuumfas?”

Anya looked at Buffy, surprised.

“The stuff inside her,” she said, gesturing to Amy. “The purple stuff. You know.” Amy blanched. Buffy took a step closer to Anya.

“We know about the purple stuff,” she said. “But why does the demon want it?”

Anya gave her an aren’t-you-dim-today toss of the head. “Demon aphrodisiac,” she said. “Very powerful. Only one source.”

“W-wait,” Tara said urgently. “Giles never said anything about kuumfas being an aphrodisiac!”

Anya looked contemptuous. “Of course he didn’t,” she said. “How would he know?” She took in the roomful of dropped jaws and raised her eyebrows. “Well, honestly,” she said. “Why do you think those Doorkeeper positions are so prestigious? For the free parking?”

“Oh, God,” Amy moaned. Anya frowned at her.

“Cheer up,” she said. “It’s not like he wants to EAT you, after all. He’s in love.”

“Um, guys?” Tara scanned the room worriedly. “Maybe this isn’t the best time, but I think it’s kind of now or never. The sun’s been down for half an hour.”

Now or never, Buffy thought. The story of my life. She forced herself to smile.

“Okay,” she said. “Just tell me what to do.”



Chapter Eleven

“You’re going to have to go by yourself.”

Buffy felt the first premonition of Very Bad Things to Come nibble at the back of her neck. “Oh. Why?”

Willow’s eyes were downcast. “To cast the circle takes two people.” She didn’t look at Buffy. “I have to help Tara. I’m sorry.”

God. This is so, SO familiar.

“Hey, no big.” Buffy forced a smile. She didn’t dare look at Spike. “One- person job anyway, right?”

“Y-yeah. It’s pretty straightforward,” Tara said. She looked cautiously relieved. “Willow and I will open the portal, right about where the coffee table is. Giles said it’s going to look like a circle of light. He saw an engraving in one of his books.” She shrugged. “To move between dimensions, all you have to do is step into the circle.”

Buffy frowned. “Not that I’m complaining,” she said. “But this sounds way too easy. Why couldn’t Glory have used this last spring, to get where she was going?”

A moment of silence, during which Willow and Tara exchanged a number of meaningful glances. Finally, Willow bit her lip. “It’s only going to work because of me,” she said. “Because the Doorkeeper’s already been summoned.” Tara nodded.

“When Rack summoned the Doorkeeper for Willow, he threw off the balance between this dimension and the other one,” she said. “You’re going to find yourself not in the demon dimension itself, but in a kind of holding area. A pocket in time and space that was created by his spell. Limbo.” She paused. “We would have eventually done this spell anyway, Buffy,” she said. “It’s really intended to destroy the holding area, close the walkway from one world to the next so that the Doorkeeper can’t pass freely anymore.”

“Oh.” Buffy thought for a minute. “So, when I step into the circle, Jonathan will be right there? I won’t have to go looking for him?”

“Right.” Willow nodded eagerly. “The spell does two things – it opens the portal, and it’s also a summoning spell. He should be almost within touching distance, the minute you’re … well, um, there.”

Buffy briefly considered catatonia, then decided against it. “So. I step into this circle of light, I’m immediately transported to Demon Limbo, I brain-suck Jonathan, I try to leave with him. Right?”

“Uh-huh.” Tara leaned forward in her chair. “Probably the best thing to do is try to carry him out. If it doesn’t work, you know that the Tollbooth is only going to let one of you back through.” Her eyes clouded. “In which case, I guess you’ll have to leave him there. We won’t close the circle until you’re back.”

“What about the Ewok? He isn’t going to be happy about this, is he?”

Spike pushed away from the doorway where he’d been leaning, making an angry little sound in his throat that made all eyes snap his way. “This is bollocks,” he said. “You’re expecting her to just waltz into one of Hell’s holding cells and waltz out again? You’re all mad. Slayer or no Slayer, a little extra muscle can’t hurt.”

Buffy, startled and touched in equal parts, caught his eyes with hers. “You offering?”

A muscle jumped in his jaw. “You know it, baby.”

**

He was steaming mad. The Teen Witches couldn’t look him in the eye, and small wonder.

They were bustling around, getting ready to mumbo their jumbo. Buffy had retreated to the far side of the room. She was holding the Sac of Amaru Muru as if it were Mr. Gordo, and standing very straight and very still.

Almost as if she didn’t trust herself to move. Spike felt something twist inside his rib cage. He walked over to her.

“When we get there,” he said. “You get Jonathan. I’ll handle the demon. Hold him off for you, till you get through.”

“Okay.” She threaded her small, cold hand into his. “Spike?”

“Yeah.”

They might as well have been alone. Tara and Willow were holding hands, chanting, and a circular column of violet-white light was rising from the floor to the ceiling. Celestial dust bunnies. “Listen to me,” she said, soft but fierce, almost in his ear. “I should have told you this a long time ago.”

“I already told you, you don’t have –“

“Fuck that.” Her eyes were wet. “Once you know, you should never stop saying it. Mom taught me that.” She squeezed his hand, hard enough to crack bone. He never felt it. “I’m crazy in love with you.”

His mouth tightened. “This isn’t like last time,” he managed to croak. “This time, I’ll save you.”

The chanting was louder. His hand was cold but reassuring in hers. Buffy was blinded; she told herself it was the violet light. “Come on,” she said. “It’s time.”

They walked into the circle of light. And vanished.

**

After all that talk about pockets and holding cells, Buffy had expected a stone room. A dungeon. An oubliette.

What she saw was a starry night – miles and miles of prairie grass sloping away from her, and not one, but two full moons, hanging in space like a giant pair of fuzzy dice. The Tollbooth glimmered violet behind her. A hundred yards away, a stocky little figure lay like a broken doll. Buffy hurried over to it.

“Jonathan?”

The figure stirred feebly. “Jonathan!” she repeated, and shook him by the shoulder.

“Buffy,” he breathed. “How are you here?”

“Came to get you,” she said. “Feeling up to a trip?”

“We have to hurry,” he said fearfully. “It’ll be back for me. It said tonight was the night.” He clutched at her hands. “It’s been pulling things out of me, Buffy. It’s left a bunch of holes where there used to be stuff.”

That reminded her. The spell. “Jonathan, we’re going to get you out of here,” she promised, hating herself because it was possibly a lie. God, this whole thing felt bad. “But you’ve gotta tell me. What’s the spell you used on the diamond?”

She saw his face pause in remembrance, closed her hand around the bag in her pocket, and grabbed his arm, just below the sleeve of his T-shirt. They both shook with a quick, cold frisson of energy. Buffy felt the bag grow suddenly heavier. Creepy. Jonathan stared at her, puzzled, but didn’t shake her hand off. “What was that about?”

“I’ll tell you later,” she said. “Come on.”

She pulled him up, and they turned around. Against the white light of the Tollbooth, Spike and the Doorkeeper grappled. “Spike, go!” Buffy yelled. He shoved the demon back and risked a glance at her.

“Go yourself,” he ordered her. “Get him through, then go yourself. I’ll be right behind you.”

“No! He’s got to go last, don’t you remember? The Tollbooth –“ She broke off suddenly.

This was bad. This was VERY bad.

She’d taken her eyes off Jonathan for a moment, and now what she saw made her blood freeze. He’d glimpsed the Tollbooth and was sprinting for it.

“No,” she said softly, and went after him. But it was too late. He’d jumped.

Dizzy with foreboding, she turned back around, saw Spike still battling with the increasingly enraged Doorkeeper. She got into the mix, delivered a couple of good kicks of her own. The demon hit the ground hard and was still. Not dead, probably, but maybe it’d be under for a while.

They stepped away from it and stared at each other.

“Go,” she said, chin trembling, and he shook his head slowly. His eyes had never looked so blue.

“Not a chance, Blondie,” he said. “Ladies first.”

“You don’t understand,” she insisted. “You might not get back through. We don’t know.”

“You think I could live down there again, without you?” He brushed a strand of hair from her cheek. “You think I’d want to?”

“Spike …” Her eyes were wet. Why were her eyes wet?

“You go,” he said. “Go back to your friends, to your little sis, to your life. There’s nothing there for me, except for you, and I’ve had my day in the sun anyway.” She shook her head, and in desperation he shoved her away from him.

“I’ll be along if I can,” he said. “Don’t fight me on this, Buffy. This is the right thing. The right choice. You’ve got to let me make it.”

She stumbled forward again, and he couldn’t bring himself to back away. “I love you,” she said desperately.

“Knowing that,” he said, “makes this possible. Buffy, you’re my world.”

He closed his eyes and pushed her into the column of light.

**

Buffy opened her eyes. The living room. She was in the living room. On the couch.

The Tollbooth was still open. Thank God.

“Spike,” she said. “Where’s Spike?”

The look on Willow’s face told her everything she needed to know.

“Oh God,” she said, and the words sounded broken. “How long since I came through?”

“Ten minutes,” Tara said unhappily. “At least.”

Jonathan was tied up again, over by the wall. Buffy couldn’t look at him.

“What happened?” Anya asked. Buffy closed her eyes.

“He wouldn’t go,” she said. “Jonathan got through, and then I tried to make him go, and he … wouldn’t.” Her face crumpled. “How long does the Tollbooth stay open?”

“We’ve been keeping it open,” Willow said, and Buffy could see now the lines of strain on their faces. “But we’re getting tired, Buff. I don’t think it’ll last much longer.”

“And after it closes? There’s no way to …”

“I’m afraid not.”

Silence in the room. Buffy fought for composure. Failed.

“You guys should have told me,” she said finally. “What it felt like.”

Anya squeezed her hand. “What do you mean?”

Buffy shook her head dully. “It’s so much easier to jump yourself,” she said. “So much harder to be the one who’s left behind.”

More uneasy silence, as the column of light began to waver. “We have to stop,” Tara gasped finally, and Buffy, exhausted beyond tears, raised her head to nod.

“Wait.”

They all turned. Amy was standing at the end of the sofa. Holding the knife Willow had left on the kitchen table. She looked pale. Grim. Determined.

“Just one minute more,” she said, and raised the knife. Buffy saw a thin line of purple begin to snake down her arm.

“What are you doing?”

Amy smiled. Made a parallel cut on her other arm. Drew the knife across the neckline of her shirt. Purple flowers blossomed on the white of her chest.

“Finishing what I started,” she said. “You’re gonna go out, might as well be with a bang. Right?”

The kuumfas was running faster now. She was weakening. “I’m sorry, Willow,” she said. “Not a good friend, was I? But here’s a start, at least.” She wiped her eyes, leaving violet smudges on both cheeks. “Take care now.”

She took two uneasy steps and pitched forward into the wavering Tollbooth. A couple of seconds later, Spike thudded onto the living room floor.

The Tollbooth faded. Spike sat up. Looked around until he saw her.

“Hello, luv,” he said. “Miss me?”

The world swayed, seemed to right itself, then fell on its ass. Buffy felt her eyes roll up into her head, and surrendered herself gratefully to oblivion.

She hoped she slept for awhile.



Chapter Twelve

Holy Christ, that had been scary.

Spike had had a lot of bad moments in his day. Live for a hundred years, you’re bound to accumulate a couple of encounters you’d rather not relive.

Nothing was as bad as this.

Cecily’s rejection. The chip in his head. Getting hit by a flaming pipe organ. That fucking wheelchair.

Rubbish.

All the petty embarrassments and discomforts and inconveniences of a hundred and fifty years fell away from him, the moment he put his hand to that shimmering violet wall, and realized it wouldn’t yield to him.

She was lost to him, forever.

The Doorkeeper wasn’t happy with the trade he’d made; he’d been all set to snack on Hamster Boy, and instead he’d ended up with Spike, who put up a hell of a lot more fight and wasn’t nearly as edible. They’d done some snarling and posturing, but the demon’s heart wasn’t in it, and neither was Spike’s.

Ironic, he’d thought, but strangely fitting as well. After all the poetry he’d spouted, after he’d defied the fates and screamed his love to the skies, he’d finally gotten to put his money where his mouth was. Make a grand, glorious exit.

Be something more than the sum of his parts. Something more than a monster.

Not as satisfying as he’d thought it would be, though. Grand poetic gestures paled next to this ugly cast-iron fact: she loved him, and he’d lost her.

No way out of this place, this godforsaken ghost land.

Just him and the demon here, and that only for as long as the witches could hold on.

The outline of the Tollbooth started to flicker, taking his dreams along with it.

Stupid. He’d still been hoping, against hope, that she’d figure out a way to come back for him.

Stupid. Bloody idiotic.

Lost.

He turned away.

**

He couldn’t have said what caught his eyes. What made him turn back around.

She was here. Again.

Bloody hell.

Girl-shaped silhouette in the light, black shadow against sputtering lavender. Skin weeping, curling, peeling away. Hands clutched to the gouty purple fountain of her chest.

Oh, God, Spike thought. What did she do to herself? He wanted to go to her, but he couldn’t move. Might as well have sprouted bloody roots. Fat lot of good he was. He watched her, helpless to tear his eyes away.

She swayed. Hesitated. Stumbled out of the Tollbooth, falling to her knees on the prairie grass and doubling over an abdomen that wasn’t really there anymore. Spike’s chest lurched in shock and horror and, God help him, sweet singing relief.

Amy. Not Buffy.

“It’s closing,” she gasped. “You’ve only got a second.”

He only stared at her. Unbelieving. Shut down against wayward hope.

She’d done this for HIM?

Unthinkable. He frowned at her, mystified.

“Go!” she snapped, clenching her jaw against the weakness. Behind her, the Doorkeeper was advancing. “Do you want it to be for nothing?”

It was true. It was really true.

Spike felt the hard knot in his chest disappear, clench with a new emotion he was afraid to name.

He fell to his knees. Kissed her bloody hands, her white lips.

“Thank you,” he said, and dived for the portal.

He traveled through space with the last rays of the dying light.

Back to his love.

**

She was the first thing he saw. A quick three-sixty, a blurry scan of Things That Were Not Buffy, and then she swam into view. Pale. Hollow- eyed. Dazed and gaunt-looking and ten years older with grief.

He said something. Couldn’t remember what. Watched her face change, from that deep-etched sorrow to a sort of shocked, disbelieving joy.

Even as she reached for him, she was collapsing. He barely caught her before she hit the ground.

She fit into his arms like the last piece of a puzzle. He was probably holding her too tightly, but he couldn’t help it.

Arms went around him from behind. He stiffened in surprise. “Willow?”

“Thank God,” she said, and he heard the ragged edge of exhaustion in her voice. “We were so worried.”

“For me?” Keep it light, he told himself. “Red, I’m blushing. I didn’t know you cared.”

Tara, teary-eyed but laughing, tackled him from the other side. “You idiot. You have no idea.”

Funny little circus of four, Spike thought. The disheveled, the weary, the unconscious. The triumphant.

He’d never had a group hug before. It wasn’t bad.

Maybe, just maybe, he’d get used to it.

**

Things after that were a blur.

“The reversal spell?” he’d heard Anya ask, and Tara shook her head.

“Tomorrow.”

Dawn, at the top of the stairs, looking astonished, portable phone in hand.

“What happened? Did I miss something?” Quick, panicked glance to the unconscious girl in his arms. “Oh, my God. Is she okay?”

“Fine,” he said. He couldn’t seem to manage words of more than one syllable. “Just tired.”

“Did you do the spell? Did it work?”

He blinked fuzzily for a moment, then nodded. “Yeah. It worked.”

She ran her eyes up and down him again, suddenly seeming to notice that he was swaying on his feet. “You’re tired,” she said, and wrinkled her forehead in pretty concern. It was cute when the Little Bit played Mum, he thought. “You should sleep.”

“Right.” He managed to reach out long enough to rub his knuckles over her cheek. Such soft, new skin. And the trust in her eyes, like a hallucination.

Buffy wasn’t the only one he’d lost and gotten back again tonight.

He shot Dawn a tired smile and turned into Buffy’s room. The Slayer was dead weight in his arms. Good thing she was so little.

He tumbled her onto the bed and kicked off his boots. He was asleep almost before he lay down.



Chapter Thirteen

Buffy opened her eyes, shut them against the morning glare, and cracked them open again, more cautiously.

That’s funny. She could have sworn that Spike was still in bed with her.

Had to be a hallucination. She closed her eyes again, pinched herself surreptitiously on the leg, and sneaked another peek at the pillow next to hers.

Still occupied. What’s more, he was awake, and staring straight at her.

“Morning,” she started to say, but he shook his head. There was an odd look on his face, a look she’d never seen before.

Hope, and fear, and disbelief.

“Look,” he said, his eyes flicking to where his arm lay exposed on top of the sheets. Buffy followed his gaze.

“What?”

He seemed unable to move. “The sun,” he said. “Look.”

In his hurry to put her to bed, to sleep himself, he hadn’t closed the blinds. Now, the bed was striped with sunlight – the bed, and his lean, bare arm. Buffy’s eyes flew up to his, and saw the glimmer of unshed tears.

“It’s nine o’ clock,” he said, in that same hushed tone. “The sun’s been up for hours. I’ve been lying here, watching it move.”

She reached out and touched one of the bright warm bands on his forearm. “Does it hurt?”

He shook his head. “I’ve been waiting for you to wake up,” he said, after a pause. “I thought I was dreaming. Every so often, I have a dream like this.”

“No dream,” she said, and watched the first tear spill. He blinked it back. Pushed back the comforter. Stood up, naked and perfect as a Michelangelo nude, and crossed to the window.

“Spike –“ she started to say, not knowing if what would come out would be encouragement or warning. It didn’t matter. He wasn’t hearing her now.

He hesitated for a moment, then yanked up the blinds. Morning sun poured into the room. Defiantly, he stuck his hand into the shaft of golden light, then closed his eyes as if to deny his own recklessness.

Nothing happened.

He withdrew his hand back into the shadow, staring at it blindly, turning it over and over, drawing it across his face. Another moment of hesitation, then he stepped resolutely into the light.

Again, nothing.

“Oh, God,” he said without turning around. “Oh, God, Buffy.”

And then he was on her.

**

She’d never been kissed so thoroughly, so completely, with such simultaneous tenderness and force and sheer uncontained emotion. He ripped the comforter off her body, off the bed, dragged her up by the shoulders without breaking the kiss. Pulled her down on the floor in the pool of sunlight.

“I can’t describe it,” he gasped, in between kisses. “I can’t take it. It’s like having your body all over me.”

His hands went over her body in a way they never had before. Not smooth, not practiced, not calculated. Just hungry.

“I’m sorry,” he panted. “Can’t … have to … oh, GOD …”

He bore her down to the floor. The moment he was inside her, he began to weep.

She held him against her, cradled his hard body inside her own. Cuddled that bright blond head in the curve of her shoulder. Whispered and patted, rocked and soothed. “Shhh,” she whispered. “Shhhh, it’s okay.”

His eyes, that bright, drenched blue. His face, wet with tears and soft with wonder. His mouth, irresistible and trembling.

“I love you,” she said, and felt ready to cry herself as the words lit him from within.

“Buffy,” he said, brokenly, and they began to move together.

**

They had moved back to the bed. He had a big question in his eyes, but he hadn’t asked it yet. She stroked his shoulder and waited.

“Tell me the truth,” he said.

“Always.”

“Am I still a vampire?”

She bit her lip. “I don’t know. I think so.” She ran her hand down to his elbow. “Still strong, really strong. Still cool.” She frowned. “Are you hungry?”

He nodded.

“Can you vamp?”

He concentrated for a minute, then shifted into game face. A moment later, his human features were back, looking troubled. “I don’t understand,” he said.

“Is it a problem?”

He shook his head. “God, no. It’s a gift.”

**

By the time they’d eaten breakfast, the rest of the house was up.

Anya was clearly impatient. “Can we turn him back now?” she demanded, the moment her juice glass was empty. “The French guy’s a pig in bed. And his personal hygiene leaves a lot to be desired.”

XandePierre himself was looking gray and tired, as if he were used to getting more sleep. Buffy figured that two hundred years of hanging out in a diamond didn’t prepare you for three nights with an ex-vengeance demon.

She kinda felt for him.

The Sac of Amaru Muru was still lying on the living room floor, where it’d fallen out of Buffy’s pocket; Tara picked it up, muttered an incantation, and emptied it onto the coffee table. A handful of small flattish stones fell out. Willow picked one up curiously and studied the symbol on one side.

“These are the hieroglyphs?”

Tara nodded. “Runes, actually. It’s a tricky process,” she said. “Not only do we have to translate, but we also have to decode the message.” Buffy frowned.

“What do you mean? It’s just Jonathan’s thoughts, right?”

Willow shook her head. “Not that simple,” she said. “We questioned Jonathan last night, and he says the demon who gave him the original spell didn’t bother to give him the antidote. He never knew it in the first place.” She patted Buffy on the shoulder. “But we still might get an answer. That’s the good news.”

“How? I mean, if it’s just supposed to pull information out of his head, and it’s something he didn’t know?”

Tara was still examining the stones. “The Sac of Amaru Muru is a multi-use object,” she said. “Sort of like an ancient search engine. It’ll still give us an answer – it just won’t be the simple one that would have been inside Jonathan’s head. It’ll be more cryptic, like a riddle we have to figure out.”

“But we can do that, right?” Anya was hovering over Tara’s shoulder.

“Maybe. We’re gonna try, anyway.”

**

Spike was still sitting out on the deck, where he’d gone to drink his breakfast. Willow followed Buffy’s gaze and raised her eyebrows. Buffy shrugged.

“He woke up this morning, and the sun didn’t burn him,” she said. “We really don’t know why.”

“Wow.” Willow was quiet for a minute. “Something to do with the Tollbooth, maybe. Think we should call Giles?”

Buffy gave her a look. “And say what, exactly?”

Willow’s lips curved. “Something difficult but necessary,” she said. “Come on, Buffy. You’re not in the clear yet. It’s one thing to tell us girls about Spike. Dawn adores him. Anya’s too self-involved to care one way or the other, Tara doesn’t believe evil of anyone, and me …” She laughed. “I’m a sucker for a happy ending. But Giles and Xander …”

“Will be harder to convince.” Buffy groaned.

“Well, yeah. Giles has that whole father thing going, and Xan –“ Willow shrugged eloquently. “You know he’d probably rather have you than anybody else. Even now.”

She grinned. “But look on the bright side. No more flaming blankets, right?”

Buffy rubbed her hands over her eyes. “He would have stayed there, last night,” she said quietly. “He would have been trapped. Would have died. He wouldn’t let me do it again.” She blew out a pent-up breath. “Not even Angel ever went that far.”

“You saying you’re in love?”

Buffy nodded, sighed. “Yeah.”

She opened the door and went out to sit with him.

**

“Whatcha doing?” she asked. He slung an arm around her, but didn’t speak for a while. He was wearing a blue shirt, rolled up to his elbows, and his customary black jeans. His feet were bare.

“Thinking about the Gem of Amarra,” he said.

“What about it?”

He let out a little snort of a laugh. “I was just thinking,” he said. “That I owned that thing, and wore it, and was out in the sun for at least a couple of hours before I found you and fought you and you took it from me. And I never, in all that time, took a minute to sit down and feel the sun.”

She didn’t know what to say, so she just laced her fingers through his.

They sat there until Tara called them back in.

**

She’d translated the runes. They all crowded around the piece of notebook paper where she’d written down the translation in neat, schoolteacher script.

On the way you may want to look back, or not,
but if you can say "There's nothing ahead", there will be nothing there.
Stretch your arms and take hold the cloth of your clothes
with both hands. The cure for pain is in the pain.
Good and bad are mixed. If you don't have both, you don't belong with us.
When one of us gets lost, is not here, he must be inside us.
There's no place like that anywhere in the world.

“Huh,” Willow said. “That sounds so familiar …”

Spike leaned closer, frowned as he scanned the page again. “Yeah,” he said. “I’ve read this too. Translation of a poem. Can’t remember who.”

Willow dove for the laptop. A few moments later, they heard her whoop of triumph.

“Spike, you’re amazing,” she said. “It’s written by Rumí. Originally in Farsi.”

“Never mind who wrote it,” Anya snapped. “What the hell does it mean?”



Chapter Fourteen

Late afternoon had turned into evening. Dawn, jubilant about making callbacks for Bianca, had come home, dropped her books, and headed to Janice’s, throwing over her shoulder something about ‘practicing her lines’. Presumably, she’d return at some point. Tara had found some chicken breasts in the back of the freezer, hacked off the worst of the freezer burn, and was making dinner.

The three captive members of the Troika, now out of what they considered to be immediate danger, were beginning to show signs of dissatisfaction with their imprisonment. Warren, in particular, had been muttering words like ‘litigation’ and ‘personal injury’ since three o’ clock; in frustration, Buffy had finally gagged him with a pillowcase. Still, as Willow pointed out, they couldn’t keep them tied up against the living room wall forever.

They needed to break the code, and fast. The Troika weren’t their only complication – XandePierre was rapidly metamorphosing from a more-or-less-agreeable blank slate to someone much less benign. He’d shouted at Anya twice this afternoon, and once raised his hand as if to strike Tara, when she reached over to remove his not-quite-empty juice glass.

That had done it. Buffy had the Blue Tavernier in her pocket now, and XandePierre had his orders: sit, stay, and shut up.

He didn’t look happy, but so far it was working … should he show signs of restlessness, Buffy had only to curl her fingers around the smooth shiny lump in her pocket for him to lapse back into sullen, gray-eyed obedience.

Still. It was time to fix him for real.

Willow shook her head. “Some of this makes perfect sense,” she said. “And then some of it’s … well, it’s just very random.”

Buffy raised an eyebrow. “I was thinking it was ALL random.”

“Well, this seems pretty self-explanatory. ‘When one of us is lost, is not here, he must be inside us.’ The lost one has to be Xander, and we’re the ones who have the information; we just don’t know what it is.”

Willow stabbed at the page with her forefinger. “And ‘There’s no place like that anywhere in the world’ – I think that must mean that we don’t need to travel to any particular place, or have any particular equipment, for the reversal spell to work. We’ve got everything we need.”

“Some of it has to be metaphor, too,” Anya chimed in. “That business about not looking back – you see that a lot. You know. In those motivational business catalogs.” She didn’t appear to notice the rolled eyes that accompanied this statement, just looked thoughtful. “And this part, about being able to say ‘it’s nothing’ and have it really BE nothing – well, that’s just literature. Very Sartrian.”

Willow’s head came up like a napping cat who’s just heard the can opener. “Anya,” she said. “What did you say?”

“Sartre,” Anya said. “French existentialist writer. Very influential.” She sniffed. “Even vengeance demons read, you know.”

“You’re a genius,” Willow said, and pounded her forehead with the heel of her hand. “Why didn’t I see it before? It’s Sartre’s mirror theory. Has to be.”

Buffy looked at her blankly. “What?”

“I don’t know, Red,” Spike said. “Ol’ Jean-Paul came along about a hundred years too late for the French Revolution.” Willow shook her head.

“I don’t think it matters,” she said. “The idea was in the French school of thought long before he codified it. It’s worth a try, anyway.”

“Will.” Buffy rolled her eyes. “Could you please, PLEASE speak English?”

“Oh. Sorry.” Willow bit her lip. “I really don’t know where to start.”

“Let me,” Spike said, and ran his tongue over his teeth. “Okay. Basically, Sartre believed that one person’s reality is shaped by how other people view it.”

Buffy looked blank.

He tried again. “That you become what is reflected back to you by your society,” he said. “The people around you. Your mirror.”

Buffy frowned. “So we’re all just supposed to look at XandePierre and THINK him into turning back into Xander?”

“No,” Willow said. “I don’t think it’s meant literally here. It’s just a clue. We have to use a mirror for the spell.” She nodded emphatically. “It makes all kinds of sense, Buffy. A mirror’s a very powerful symbol of reversal.”

“Okay,” Buffy said. “But then, that leaves the parts about the cloth and the clothes and the pain. Which I’m assuming are pretty significant, too.”

Tara poked her head into the living room. “Dinner.”

They laid the papers aside, turned the lights out on the muffled protests of the Troika, and trooped into the dining room. Buffy was just about to dig into her rice pilaf when she heard a car drive up and stop.

“We expecting anyone?”

They all sat staring at each other. Had someone missed the Troika? Had they left a clue?

Were they about to get busted? Buffy fingered the diamond in her pocket and felt her heart sink.

Footsteps on the walk. A knock on the door. It opened.

“Hello?” Stamping feet on the mat. “Hello? Buffy? Willow? Anyone home?”

Giles.



Chapter Fifteen

"Good Lord," Giles said again. Buffy rolled her eyes.

Dinner was over, she'd taken Giles out onto the deck for a little Watcher-Slayer catch-up, and it had pretty much been a half hour of "Good Lord," interspersed with an occasional "Dear God" and a "Hmm" or two.

She stopped talking, and he raised his eyebrows at her.

"Is that everything?"

"Pretty much."

He took his glasses off, stared at them for a second, then put them back on. "Mind if I summarize?"

She shook her head.

"All right then." Giles put his index finger in the air. "Feel free to jump in and clarify any time here. You, feeling distanced from your friends and your sister, turn to Spike, a for-all-practical-intents-neutered-but-still-soulless demon, for ... ahem, comfort. Despite the fact that he tells you that you've been ... damaged ... by your own resurrection."

He added another finger. "The diamond thieves, who are not, as you had imagined, demons, but merely technologically advanced engineering-school dropouts with a comic book fetish, place a spell on the diamond. Intending to make you their evil ally, they instead manage to imbue Xander's body with the soul of Maximilien Robespierre. The benefit of which remains to be seen, either to them or to anyone else. Am I right so far?"

Buffy nodded tersely.

"Thirdly." Giles' ring finger shot up. "Willow manages to, through the irresponsible use of Dark magic, unleash a powerful demon on Sunnydale. This demon kidnaps one of the diamond thieves and escapes with him to another dimension. Then, having sworn OFF magic," - here Giles' voice began to shake slightly - "Willow joins with Tara in opening a portal and sending you and Spike through it for purposes of reconnaissance and capture. Which you do, somehow, despite all odds to the contrary."

"You gotta love me, Giles," Buffy murmured. "Always beating those odds."

"Yes, well." He looked tired. "In this case, you're fortunate. The research I did on the portal you call the Tollbooth indicates six known cases of successful opening. In the event that someone actually passed through, they did not manage to return."

"You don't have me to thank for it," Buffy said quietly. "I didn't ask Spike to come with me - he did that on his own. And he was prepared to stay, knowing what that would mean for him." She set her jaw. "I think you've got to take back that soulless-demon thing, Giles."

"Buffy -" he started, but she cut him off.

"No. Don't `Buffy' me." Her hands were fisted in her lap. "Don't even look at me that way, Giles. You don't have the right." She faced him down, eyes shimmering with tears she refused to shed. "You sit there and list off everything that's happened since you left," she said fiercely, "like we're some kind of stupid preschoolers. Like this is `Home Alone in Sunnydale', and aren't we cute and brainless and oh-so-lucky that things worked out. But it's not all our fault."

"No one's saying -"

"Just listen, goddammit," she snapped. "Spike was right. I did come back wrong. Sad, and bitter, and empty. And carrying around a big old death wish everywhere I went. It's not his fault that he's the only one who saw it." Her chin quivered. "You were my Watcher. You should have seen it too. But all you could think was that I wasn't strong enough on my own, adult enough. Damn it, I was broken! I was barely getting up in the morning!"

She gritted her teeth. "What do you call moving back to England, Giles? `Tough love'? Well, fuck you, if that's the case, and fuck you for telling me I've screwed this up. Since when did a Slayer live through high school? Since when did anyone, EVER, have to figure out the kind of stuff I've had to?"

She pushed herself to her feet. "They should have sprung Faith," she said, more quietly. "They shouldn't have brought me back. You were right about that. Because by the time I came back, they didn't really need me anymore."

"That's not true."

"Isn't it?" She whirled on him. "Explain, then. Explain the distance, the disconnection, the guilt. Explain to me why the first two months I was back, no one could look me in the eye, not even you. You knew I shouldn't be here." She dashed at her eyes with the back of her hand. "But I am, damn it. I'm here. And he saw that."

"Spike."

"Hole in one, Giles." She looked more fierce, more adult, more beautiful than he'd ever remembered seeing her. "This isn't Angel. No soul to lose. Not Riley. No weaknesses to excuse and pass over. This is the real thing, the Real McCoy. If I'm damaged, I'm damaged. If I'm not quite right, well, so be it. He's a little cracked himself. But I'm standing here and telling you that I know him, Giles, I KNOW him, and that there's a man there under all that black leather and bleach." She took a shuddering breath. "A good man."

"Now. This is how it is." Buffy gripped the wooden railing of the deck with white knuckles. "We still have half a problem left, because Xander needs his soul back. And we'd kind of like to know how Spike got his Get-Out-Of-The-Crypt-Free Card. He'd feel better knowing if it's temporary or permanent, in case he feels the urge to get a suntan tomorrow. If you can help us with that, we'll welcome your help." She shot him a tense, regal stare. "But if all you have to offer is criticism of our methods and suspicion toward my lover, you can just say your goodbyes now and get back in your rental car."

Please, please, let me say this without breaking down, she thought, and dug her fingers harder into the railing. "We've gotten this far on our own. We can do the rest, too."

His head was in his hands. "Oh, Buffy."

Her gaze softened. What was that in his eyes? Regret? Pain?

God, she loved him.

"I needed you," she whispered. "We all did. We still do."

He squared his shoulders, took off his glasses to clean them one more time. "I'm sorry I wasn't here for you," he said, so quietly she had to strain to hear him. "But I'm here now. Tell me what I can do."

**

Unseen in the shadows, Spike dropped his cigarette and jammed his hands in his pockets, his heart too full for words.

There's a man there, she'd said.

A good man.

He was sort of beginning to believe it himself.



Chapter Sixteen

He woke up before she did, just as usual, and lay propped up on pillows, looking around her tidy little bedroom, white and glowing like the inside of a seashell in the first pale glimmer of dawn.  Their clothes from the day before lay in a hastily-discarded tangle on the hooked rug next to the bed; Spike observed with an odd sort of detachment that one arm of Buffy’s pink sweater was flung outward, as if still inhabited by an invisible arm, and that the leg of his trousers lay possessively over the hem of her skirt.

Stretch out your arms and take hold of the cloth of your clothes in both hands.

Good and bad are mixed – if you don’t have both, you don’t belong with us.

The cure for pain is in the pain.

There were some things, Spike thought (not for the first time), that even a century of existence couldn’t begin to prepare you for.

He slid out of bed, careful not to wake Buffy, and patted through last night’s pockets for a pen.  Scribbling a hasty note on the corner of an envelope he’d found on her desk, he tucked it under her pillow and shrugged himself into the shirt and jeans that lay neatly folded on top of the chair by the door.  They smelt of fabric softener instead of cigarettes, a sure sign that someone – probably Tara – had sneaked them off the floor and put them through the laundry.

He couldn’t remember the last time someone had washed his clothes for him.  The baby-powder scent of talc rose to his nostrils, sweet and nostalgic and – as right as it seemed for this house of women – at the same time utterly, utterly bizarre.  For a moment, he pondered just taking them off again and getting back into what he’d worn yesterday – then he shrugged, found his wallet in the pocket of his duster, and looked back toward the sleeping Slayer, now sprawled unconscious over his side of the bed as well as her own.

“Back in a flash, luv,” he murmured.  “Got some things to take care of.”

She didn’t stir.

**

The house was quiet.

He’d supposed that no one else would be awake, but he’d forgotten that Giles was an early-morning man; the Watcher was sitting at the dining-room table as Spike came down the stairs, wearing something that he probably considered to be casual but still came off as stuffy, and writing industriously in a leather-bound book.  He looked up at Spike, opened his mouth as if to say something, then – evidently thinking better of it – resolutely shut it again and turned back to his writing.

“Morning,” Spike offered, and Giles grimaced.

“It is, rather, isn’t it?”

“Watcher’s journal?” Spike inquired, to break the tense silence that followed.  “Rather above and beyond the call of the duty at this point, isn’t it, now?”

Giles made another face.

“Truth be told, it’s hard to break the habit,” he admitted. 

Spike, who could have said any number of divinely ironic things at that point, most of them along the ‘living-on-the-wild-side-are-we-mate?’ lines, took another surreptitious look at the Watcher and decided to hold his peace.  Giles had the look of a man torn between tact and his better instincts.

Clearly, he had things he wanted to say, and just as clearly, was determined to keep them to himself.

Personally, Spike figured that a little clearing-of-the-air was probably for the best, given these particular circumstances.  He cleared his throat, and Giles looked up from his journal once again, forehead drawn into an annoyed little ‘v’.

“What?”

“Had your morning cuppa yet?”

Giles frowned.  “No.  No, I haven’t.”  Unspoken:  what’s it to you?  Spike, unfazed, jerked his thumb in the vague direction of the street.

“Thought I’d nip down to the corner,” he said; “pick up some Krispy Kremes for when the others wake up.”  He rolled his eyes toward the ceiling.  “French or not French, Harris can still put away the pastry; guess there are some things magic just can’t change.  And then, it’s still a bit of a trip for me, being out and about in broad daylight.”  He cut his eyes away, deliberately offhanded.  “Fancy a walk?”

“Why?”

“Dunno,” Spike said, casually cracking his neck.  “Thought maybe you could use the exercise.  And –“ this quickly, as the Watcher’s scowl deepened – “maybe that we could get a little man-to-man chat in before the Slayer gets her morning mojo on.”  He raised one eyebrow.  “How about it, then?”

Giles hesitated, then closed his book.

“Well,” he said slowly.  “It was quite a long plane ride, yesterday.”  His eyes flicked to Spike’s and held.  “And it’s not as if they have any proper tea in the house, after all.”

“There you have it, then.”

They set off for the corner.

**

There wasn’t any proper English tea at Sunnydale Doughnuts (Ask Us About Our Day!), either, as it turned out, which meant that Spike got to watch Giles fuss about and mutter over a Lipton tea bag … a more entertaining process than the telling of it would seem to suggest.  He himself opted for coffee, one of the ultra-sweet, elaborate bastardizations of the macchiato that Californians seemed so fond of.  This one boasted an inch of foam on the top of the cup, and enough cinnamon and cocoa powder over that to make Columbus want to discover America again.

Settling back in his trendy little white-pine Danish chair at the window table, he took a sip, felt the caffeine buzz into his system, closed his eyes against the buttery stream of sunlight pouring into the room, and waited for Giles to make the first move.

He didn’t have long to wait.

“It’s really true,” Giles said quietly.  “I thought Buffy must have been mistaken about the … the sunlight issue.  But it’s really true.”  His eyes seemed held against their will to the sight of Spike’s hand on the light-striped table.  “When did you first notice it?”

Spike shrugged and slurped some more foam off the top of his cappucino.  “The other morning,” he said guardedly.  “After – well, after it happened.  After we came back.  You know – I heard her tell you last night.”  He toyed with the empty sugar packet by his cup.  “Must have been tired,” he said.  “It was a long night.  I slept late.  And when I woke up, there I was.  Walking on sunshine and all that.”

“Incredible.”

“Isn’t it just?”  Spike’s eyes slid sideways to the gold-streaked street outside the window.  “Don’t suppose you’d have any theories about it.  Being Idea Man and all.”

“Not as such.  Though …”

“Though?”

Giles peered irritably at his tea, curled his lip, and pushed it away untouched.  “Well, there’s no hard evidence to support this,” he said; “it’s just a theory.  Not even a theory – I suppose if one were to categorise it, it’d fall more into the field of literature …”  He trailed off.  “Oh, all right.  It’s really only a hunch.  But it certainly seems as if you’ve been granted a … a cosmic forbearance, of a sort.”

“Once again,” Spike requested.  “In the Queen’s English, this time.”  Giles scowled, then sighed.

“A wish, all right?  Are those short enough words for you to understand?”

He made a production of capturing his sodden tea bag with his spoon, then wrapping the string round it like a parcel and squeezing out the excess water.  “It’s a very common theme in mythology, in … in fairy tales.  You performed a selfless, heroic act for the benefit of someone other than yourself, and in return you’re granted a … well, a gift.  A wish.  Your dearest desire.”

“I didn’t do it to be heroic.”

“No?”

“No.”  Spike swallowed hard, looked the Watcher in the eyes.  “I went up there with her because no one else would.  And I did what I did because if I hadn’t, she would have.  Again.”

An expression Spike couldn’t read swept Giles’ face.  He cut his eyes away.

“Ah,” he said finally.  “For love, then?”

“Would you believe me if I agreed with you?”  Spike took another slug of his cappucino.  “I’ve said it before, you know, and nobody broke out the tickertape.  Why should things change now?”

“Things always change.”  Giles hesitated.  “People too, I suppose.”

“Big of you, Rupert.”

“Look, this isn’t easy for me.”  Dragging his cup back toward him, Giles took a gulp of his tea, closed his eyes, and shuddered as if he’d just drunk battery acid.  “I’ve got a veritable library of examples when it comes to you being self-centred, unhealthily obsessed, and on the verge of becoming unhinged where Buffy is concerned.  I can’t think of too many instances where you acted selflessly.  To come back and find you painted the Hero of the Day is, frankly, a bit hard to swallow.”

“How do you think I feel?  My shirt smells like baby powder.”  Spike took a deep breath.  “Look,” he said.  “I may still not be a man, and I realise that.  There’s still a monster in there somewhere, and he’s probably always going to be there, despite the fact that I never asked for him.  But now I’ve got a chance, a chance to be what I could have been if it had never happened.  Understand?”

Giles’ eyes went sharp behind his spectacles.  “I think so,” he said slowly.

“I never expected this.”  Spike gestured toward the sunny street.  “I never expected her to look my way – not really.  But damned if I’m going to screw it up, now that I’ve got it.  And damned if I’m going to let her shoulder it alone, as long as I can be there too.  Suss that?”

Another piercing glance.  A slow nod.

“What you did in the Tollbooth,” Giles said after a moment of silence.  “I don’t know too many human men who would have done the same.”  He took another wincing sip of his tea, his eyes never leaving Spike’s.  “Whatever our differences, I must admit that.  And that you’ve earned your right to daylight.”

He hesitated, then offered Spike a tentative smile.  “William.”

William.

At peace with himself, Spike reached for his second doughnut.

“So,” he said with his mouth full.  “Think they’re up yet?”