All About Spike - Print Version
[Back to Main Site] [Back to Story Page]

Haunt of the House
By Jericho TGF

Disclaimer: The storyline is the only thing I can claim, mores the pity. The rest belong to Joss and anyone that has anything to do with the Buffy universe.
Spoilers: All of it - the whole kit and caboodle. Every single one of the 100 episodes is fair game.
Distribution: I'm thinking yeah...as long as I know where it's going beforehand and my name is on it.
Summery: A weekend away from Sunnydale becomes more than expected. B/S...of course.
Rated: R
Dedications: Originally, when I started this fic, it was dedicated to my best friend, Kelly. I don't think she would mind if, in light of the horrendous tragedy that occurred on September 11, 2001, I take that original dedication and alter it. For the lost souls, for the families and loved ones suffering unspeakable loss, for Americans, for America, my country. The reed may be bent but shall never be broken. Friendship will guide us, unity will bind us, freedom will define us, love will save us.



Chapter One

"You have got to be bleedin' kiddin' me."

One very irritated vampire got out of his car and stared at the house in front of him. Scorn and disdain set in his expression as he examined the all-too-cheery yellow exterior of a large, three-story house with its white, gingerbread molding and sweeping front porch. Soft light poured from the windows, giving off a welcoming glow and lighting up the grounds. His lip curled in a sneer when he noticed the perfectly manicured lawn, perfectly trimmed hedges, and perfectly placed stone walkway. It was all so...perfect.

He whirled on the petite young woman who was even now removing her small suitcase and his ragged duffle bag from the cavernous trunk of the Desoto.

"This is your idea of a weekend getaway? It's Barbie's bloody Dream House! Tell me, pet, what is it about me bein' a vampire that you just don't understand?"

Setting the luggage down and slamming the trunk, Buffy grinned at the uncomfortable fiend. "Spike, shut up. You made your bed, you'll just have to lie in it." She sent him a saucy grin and sidled up to him with an impish gleam in her eyes. "Of course, the fact that you won't be in that bed alone should be enough to keep the complaints down to a minimum for the next two days."

Completely forgetting his irritation as soon as she pressed her body up against him, he growled low in his throat in response to the heat that flared between them. The scorn and disdain slipped from his face, giving way to desire and need.

They had been together for four months and still, every single time he touched her - or she touched him - his body responded with deep craving. It could have been four years, forty years; he knew he'd still feel the same level of passion and love for this woman.

She was right, though, it was his own fault he was here. Little did he know that the run-in with that Bovleaur demon they came across two days ago would result in this little jaunt into Norman Rockwell hell. They'd been patrolling together, just like they had done almost every night since Buffy came back from the land of the not alive seven months ago, when the rather boring evening took a nasty turn.

Bovleaur demons aren't large - the tallest are just over five and a half feet tall - but they're vicious and strong. Plus, there's that whole scaly body armor thing. Makes them a touch difficult to kill. Buffy's trusty stake had been completely ineffective, bouncing off the creature harmlessly. Spike had gotten behind it but had been knocked back...and out, when his head got up close and personal with a large, marble headstone.

Maybe it was the non-stop patrolling. Maybe it was the increase in evil baddies that had poured into Sunnydale when the dark forces had found out about her death - they were slower on the uptake about her return than they had been about her demise. Maybe it was just one of those rare, off nights for the Slayer.

Whatever it was, Buffy hadn't been in top form when the Bovleaur attacked. Spike came to in the nick of time, just as the demon was getting ready to take a bite of Slayer sandwich. He snuck up on the bastard and snapped its neck before it got a chance to inflict a fatal injury.

As well as it had ended - one dead evil creature, two alive 'white hats'...well, one 'white hat', one 'kind of gray hat' - the encounter had been a warning. Spike loved Buffy enough to heed that warning. He couldn't lose her again. Especially since she'd finally given in and admitted she had feelings for him so recently.

A Slayer and a vampire sans soul made for an unconventional couple, but it worked for them. Spike would do just about anything to guarantee that it continued to work. So he'd suggested...in a rather frantically demanding way...that Buffy take some time off, get away from Sunnydale for a while. Let the Scoobies handle the patrols so they could slip away in the night for a weekend. He'd even taken it upon himself to set up the Slayer's off-time with Giles.

His plans hit a snag, though, when Buffy refused to go. For some reason she didn't think that a vampire's idea of a weekend away would be quite what she needed for unwind time.

He'd been offended. Sure, he had been planning on taking her to San Diego for some partying and fun - wanting to avoid Los Angeles for obvious reasons - but still.

The fact remained, if he wanted her to go, he would have to let her plan her idea of a nice getaway. Either let Buffy choose when and where, or no dice. So that's why he was stuck here, in front of this sickeningly sweet looking Bed and Breakfast in a town called Three Rivers. The name was enough to give a vampire a case of the shudders. And he'd actually driven almost five hours to get there.

His only consolation was that Buffy was with him for a whole weekend without any of those irritating distractions that the Scoobies provided. Probably get stuck in bed for the duration of their stay, though. Spike doubted there was much else to do in the one-pub town.

Come to think of it...that was one hell of a consolation. The vampire grinned and pressed a quick, searing kiss to Buffy's lips.

"Right then," he said, when he finally lifted his head from her delectable mouth, "I guess I'll just have to suffer through it, won't I?"

"Mmm hmm, but somehow I think your monumental sacrifice will be worth it. Come on, let's go in and register. I'm tired and I need a shower."

Spike grinned at her slyly. "Shower, huh? Yeah, I think I could deal with a wash up myself."

Buffy swatted at him playfully before grabbing up her small suitcase and leading the way up the walkway.

Once inside, Buffy was pleased to see the welcoming exterior was matched by a quaint and warm interior. The entryway floor and walls were a finely polished, light-colored wood. Decorated in tasteful Americana, the artwork on the walls and the knickknacks around the reservation desk brought a down home feel to the place. Kind of like visiting your favorite grandparents during the holidays. She sent a swift mental "Thank you" to Willow, who'd found the adorable Bed and Breakfast advertised on the Internet. It was just what Buffy needed for some nice relaxing downtime.

Spike strode in behind Buffy, duffel over his shoulder and an arrogant swagger in his gait. He sniffed in derision at the décor and dinged the little bell on the desk in front of him. When no one appeared at the ring, he hit it harder.

Buffy thought she heard him mutter, "So its Barbie's parents bloody Dream House, then," under his breath. She rolled her eyes and shook her head. You can't dress him up and you can't take him anywhere, she thought drolly.

Bustling out of a room off to the right, a matronly woman in her fifties dressed surprisingly chic in a business suit hurried over to them. She beamed at the couple.

"Hello there! Welcome to The Carr House." Turning to address Buffy, she said, "You must be Miss Summers."

Buffy nodded and smiled, drawn in by the sweet woman with her infectiously happy personality. "I am, actually, but please, call me Buffy."

"And I'm Mrs. Heggan, but I would prefer you call me Ida. We're so informal here. It's more like a family, really, than a Bed & Breakfast." The woman smiled widely and patted the Slayer on the arm before slipping behind the desk. "I have your reservation, dear. For two nights, correct?" At the affirmation she continued. "We have you in the Dalton Suite, such a lovely room. I'm sure you and you're..." Ida, cast a quick, questioning glance to the ultra blonde vampire standing impatiently next to Buffy, "...friend will have a wonderful visit."

Grinning and thinking quickly, Buffy spoke before Spike could get a chance. "This is Ken...Ken Smith."

The surprised look he shot her almost made her giggle, but he did manage to control himself long enough to smile...well, grimace would be more accurate...at Mrs. Heggan. Buffy would pay for the indignity later. When he thought about just what he would do to make her pay, his grimace grew to a real smile.

"Pleased to make your acquaintance, mum. So, where's the room?"

"Oh my, you're English, then. I noticed the accent. I love accents. How wonderful!"

Spike had to struggle to prevent a deep sigh and an eye roll. "I'm English, yeah. Where's the room?" To distract himself from his growing impatience he grabbed Buffy around the waist and leaned down to nuzzle her neck. It was time to make her squirm a little.

Buffy was mortified at being pawed at so...deliciously...in front of the gentle and charming woman. There was a warning in her voice as she pushed Spike away, trying to hold on to her smile. "Ken, dear, please. Now's not the time." Under her breath, just loud enough for his vampire ears to pick up, she hissed, "Continue to embarrass me, Spike, and it won't be time ever again."

Ida completely missed, or was professional enough to ignore, the undercurrents between the pair. She just set out a form for Buffy to fill out and gave them a warm smile. "How adorable. You two make such a precious couple."

Spike grinned, unabashed, and tossed an arm over Buffy's shoulders. "Been tellin' her that for over a year, Ida, but she only just recently came 'round to my way o' thinkin'. Worked out okay, though, she's quite fond o' me now."

She was going to respond to the arrogant and thoroughly irritating vampire, but standing there, in the warm and cozy reception area, Buffy felt a chill go through her. A draft of icy cold air sluiced over her skin and she shuddered. Spike felt the change, felt her surprise, heard her quick intake of breath, and all manner of teasing fell away as he slid a concerned glance down at her.

"What is it, pet?"

Once it passed, Buffy was left feeling mildly foolish. It was just cold air, after all. No need to go all wiggy girl. She smiled up at Spike and shook her head dismissively. "Just a draft. Got a chill there for a second. Sorry."

"Oh, I know," said Ida, "large house like this, we get some drafts occasionally. Seems like no matter what we do, there's a cold shaft of air popping up every once in a while. I like to look on the bright side, though, it saves on cooling costs in the summer."

To cover her lingering embarrassment, Buffy leaned over the desk and quickly filled out the necessary forms and accepted the proffered key to their room.

"Now," Ida explained cheerily, "breakfast is served starting at 7 am, and it's covered in the cost of your stay. We eat in the dining room at the end of the hall. Lunch and dinner are served as well, though that is an extra charge. We also provide room service, if you prefer to eat in private."

Spike liked that idea quite a lot. "Hey now, that sounds like a plan. Like the sound of that. How do we get that set up, then?"

Ida gave a merry chuckle at his enthusiasm. "Just call down to the kitchen any time after 6:30 am. The number is on the phone in your room. I'll let you two go get settled in, now. I'm sure you must be tired, it's so late."

It was, in fact. Close to midnight, actually, as Spike and Buffy had to wait until the sun set to leave Sunnydale.

"Yes, we had to get a late start," explained Buffy, "and a shower and a bed sound just about like my idea of heaven right now."

Grinning lasciviously, Spike whispered in the Slayer's ear, "Sounds bloody good to me, too, luv - as long as you're with me...and naked."

A sharp elbow in his ribs, a quick good night to Ida, and the vampire and the Slayer were carrying their bags up to the third floor of the house, heading for the Dalton Suite.

Ida watched the obviously tired pair climb the stairs, a friendly smile on her face. Such nice people, she thought, and so cute when they're bickering like an old married couple.

As soon as they were out of earshot, Spike started in on the young woman walking in front of him. "Ken...Smith? What the bloody hell was that all about, then? Could have done a good bit better than a nancy-boy poof of a name like Ken, you know."

Buffy grinned with a touch of mischief in her eyes but she didn't bother turning around on the stairs to let him see it. "It's your own fault, fang face. Can't have a Barbie Dream House without Ken."

The last flight was climbed with one disgruntled vampire grumbling and complaining behind her. She couldn't see the intense concentration he was giving to her rear end swaying sexily in front of his face as she led the way to their room.

~*~*~*~*~*~

"Wow. Talk about picture perfect." Buffy was impressed. It was huge, truly a suite, with a bathroom off the right and a huge four-poster bed in its own room on the left. The main area in front of them was set up like cozy living quarters. Television, couch, armchair, and several beautiful, antique-looking floor lamps were grouped in a charming array.

"Now this is a bed!" Spike went straight into the small bedroom and tossed his duffle bag on the monstrosity that took up most of the floor space. "This here's the kind of bed you climb aboard and get lost in. What say we hop up and spend some time finding...each other?"

Buffy peaked into the room and sighed dramatically at the one-track mind of the vampire. The bed was beautiful, though, and Spike wasn't wrong about the need to climb into it. The mattress was about four feet off the floor, well over waist level for her and just at waist level for Spike.

"I have an idea, Spike. Why don't you get lost? I'll call home and let them know we got here, check in with Dawn, then jump in the shower. If I'm in the mood, and you're very lucky, I'll find you later."

Grabbing a pack of blood out of the bag before tossing it in the corner, Spike shed his duster and threw it over one of the banisters of the bed. Buffy just stared in mild reproach as he leapt off the ground, landed in the middle of the bed, and sunk in comfortably.

"Oh yeah. This is what I'm talkin' 'bout. True comfort. Beats that lumpy thing you call a mattress all to hell, lemme tell you."

"This from a vampire who does sleepy time on a cement slab in a crypt. And there's nothing wrong with my mattress, thank you very much!"

Spike grinned at Buffy's mock irritation. He was just pulling her chain and she knew it, just as he knew she wasn't truly upset with him or his prurient suggestions for passing time. They were used to each other, and it was doubtful anything remotely resembling a relationship between the two of them could be sustained if it wasn't for the sniping and the teasing they did. It was too much of a habit to even think about giving it up.

"Go on, luv, call the Watcher and the rest. Tell Little Bit good night for me. I'm just gonna lay here and enjoy a pint, then catch some telly. Look," he pointed out the large armoire against the wall and the television sitting on top of it, "remote control and everythin'. Maybe this place inn't so bad after all."

Buffy smiled wryly. "Such a renaissance man. Give him a television and a bed and he goes all soft and malleable-like."

"You do the responsibility gig. Let me know before you head in for the froth and bubble, you'll find out just how malleable I can be."

Laughing at his persistence, she left the room with a dismissive wave, name calling over her shoulder. "Beast."

"Shrew."

"Monster."

"Harpy."

The Slayer heard his rumbling chuckle follow her out into the other room before the TV switched on. He loved getting the last word. Occasionally she let him have it. He just got lucky that this time was one of those times. She was preoccupied with wanting to touch base with her sister before it got any later.

Walking over to the small table next to the couch, she bent down to pick up the phone when she felt another draft of frigid cold pour over her. It froze her in her tracks. There was something...creepy about it. For the briefest of seconds, she thought she saw her breath as she exhaled, so icy was the surrounding air.

Then, just as quick as it had come, it was gone. The temperature rose and it was once again comfortably warm.

"Okay," she mumbled under her breath, "someone really needs to take a serious look at the heating in this place, 'cuz penguin Buffy? Not a good."

Shaking off a mild case of the wiggins, she picked up the phone and did an ET. She phoned home.

With her back to the door, Buffy didn't notice the glimmer of movement hovering just off the floor in the far corner behind her. Nothing but the faintest shadow of color, really, but it hung for a minute or two before drifting towards the bedroom. Flying up towards the ceiling, it seemed to pause long enough to check out the suite's other occupant.

Spike was in full vamp face, draining one of the many bags of blood he brought with him on the trip. So absorbed with whatever he was watching on television, he didn't notice the intrusion.

It glowed a hot, angry red and shot up through the ceiling before anyone noticed its presence. In a flash it was gone, and the Slayer and the vampire had the suite to themselves for the first time.

The conversation with Dawn and the gang had taken longer than she had anticipated. Forty-five minutes after picking up the phone she laid it back onto the cradle, still smiling in gentle amusement at the antics Dawn had regaled her with. Gone five hours and already Xander had gotten himself in some sort of trouble, trying to humor Dawn by learning some dance steps to the latest all-the-rage boy band's newest video on MTV. Apparently, Grand Master Xan wasn't nearly as coordinated as he'd like to think.

Drafts of icy badness completely forgotten, Buffy headed toward the bedroom with a wide smile on her face. Time to collect Spike for a little showery fun. Speaking to her family had reinvigorated her and the weariness from the trip was nothing but a memory.

"Okay, I'm finished. You want to join-"

Buffy was brought up short by the site that greeted her eyes when she made it into the room. Sprawled out on the bed, fast asleep, was Spike. She noticed the empty bag of blood on the nightstand and the boots casually discarded at the foot of the bed. Crossing her arms over her chest, she couldn't help the tender smile that tugged at the corners of her mouth.

And here I thought vampires were supposed to be creatures of the night, she thought, more amused than irritated. Buffy was well aware that Spike had been up most of the day. Instead of sleeping in preparation of the coming trip, he'd spent a couple of hours holed up with Dawn in the training room at the shop.

He had taken it upon himself lately to work out with her, teaching her some basic self defense moves that would serve her well if she ever had the misfortune of coming up against one of his kind at night. Not that she was ever allowed to be unchaperoned at night in Sunnydale, but Spike knew that fifteen year olds usually find a way to get into trouble. He told Buffy he wanted to make sure Dawn could handle herself if that ever happened.

Buffy didn't have the heart to tell him no, he'd been so adorable when he asked for permission. And it had been so uncharacteristic of him to ask first. That he understood the importance of discussing any activity having to do with her sister told Buffy that he was well aware of just how much Dawn meant to her. There was comfort in that. And confidence that he would never let anything happen to Dawnie. That went a long way with her.

Backing quietly out of the room, wanting to let him get some sleep, she headed toward the bathroom. She could always wake him up after he got a bit of rest, and she really wanted that shower.

Charmed by the antique, claw-footed tub and matching sink, Buffy disrobed in the bathroom, shivering slightly as the cool air slid over her bare skin. She pulled the shower curtain closed and turned on the water, testing it until it was just hot enough to give a pleasant bite, not scalding enough to burn. She liked long, hot showers that filled the bathroom with steam.

As she climbed into the tub, she couldn't help think back to the events four months ago that brought her and Spike together after a year spent pushing him away. She had even died in the interim, but when she came back, the vampire was still there. He'd been helping out her friends and protecting her sister in her absence. Then, when she started patrolling again, he'd just picked up where he left off, following her around. Except this time, because of everything he did and everything he'd given up to help her, she'd let him patrol with her.

He'd been so happy when she came back. She saw it. She ignored it, honestly. And he never pushed. He never told her. Nor did he make any reference to loving her. The last indication that he gave her that he still felt for her had been the night before she died, back at her house. But even without saying the words, or stalking her like he had for so long, she knew it. She knew he loved her. It was just...well...he was a vampire. And as grateful as she was for his help, that was an obstacle that she just couldn't seem to get past. No matter how good looking and dependable said vampire turned out to be.

Funny, though, spending almost every night together for three months, patrolling, fighting together, bickering back and forth, watching each other's back, she started to see the vampire less and less and the man more and more. He would talk to her; tell her stories about his past. Not the horrible ones, but the 'this is who I am' stories you tell to let someone into your world. On the nights when patrolling didn't turn up anything more serious than a wayward raccoon, they could end up talking for hours. She learned a lot about the vampire that had been an enemy for so long.

And when you start knowing someone, really knowing someone, you can't help but see them in a different light than you ever did before. She started liking that new light. Plus, she'd found out that in a lot of ways, they were more alike than she'd ever thought. It was easy to forget that he was an evil killer once. One thing she was certain of, he wasn't that same evil killer any more. And it had nothing to do with the chip in his head, either.

Buffy had a theory. Once Spike started to spend some 'quality time' with his 'happy meals on legs', he had a harder and harder time of seeing them as a food source. It was kinda hard to eat your friends.

That's why the night they had been patrolling four months ago had been such a big surprise. They found three vampires in the cemetery and Buffy waded right in with her stake, fully expecting Spike to do what he'd done every other night, wade in right next to her and get with the dusting and busting. But he hadn't. In fact, he'd hopped up on top of a headstone and watched the show, calmly smoking a cigarette as she fought for her life.

Buffy managed to stake the first vampire, but one of the other two had picked her up and tossed her at Spike's feet. She had glared up at his nonchalant expression even as she was jumping back to her feet.

"Spike, what the hell are you doing?"

The vampire just smiled at her and took another drag. "Enjoyin' the dance, pet."

Buffy was furious but didn't have time to give him the good being killed that he deserved. She had her hands full as it was. She snarled at him as she ducked under one of the attacking vampire's swings. "Think you might want to lend a hand, here?"

"Why? Looks like you're doin' just fine on your own."

The Slayer growled in frustration and pushed her stake home in vampire number two. He dusted in a shower of fine powder.

The last vampire was a big son of a gun, and he and Buffy went a good five rounds before she finally sent him to the same hell she'd sent the other two. Chest heaving, exhausted, as angry as she'd ever been, she spun around to Spike. He was still sitting where he'd been since the beginning.

Tawny eyes flashed fire as she stalked over to him. The fact that he was just smiling at her in genuine amusement did nothing to lighten her mood.

"You want to explain to me just what the hell that was all about?" It was a vicious snarl of a question that lashed out at him.

One casual shrug and a, "Dinn't feel much like fightin'," was enough to push her over the edge and she popped him hard enough to send him flying off his perch.

"Hey now!" Spike popped up, clutching his abused nose. "None of that."

"You're lucky I used my fist instead of my stake, Spike. Don't push your luck. What's with you? There some new 'kick back and relax while Buffy's in trouble' plan I'm not aware of?"

"Oh, please. You weren't in trouble, woman, and you bloody well know it. If you had been, I'd a joined in. You know that, too. I wanted to watch you fight, so I did." When she looked like she might just go for that stake after all, he rushed to explain further. "Listen, pet. You don't need me to protect you. Sure, I watch your back, help you when you need it, but you didn't need it tonight. You know it and I know it. If there'd been four, I woulda been right in there with you. Three you can handle. I like your moves, Summers, felt like watchin' you use 'em. No reason to stake me for it."

Buffy had been completely thrown and totally confused. "Wait. So you're telling me that you didn't fight because you knew I could handle myself."

"Well...yeah. You're the bloody Slayer, aren't you? You can handle yourself just fine."

She was the Slayer, all right, but she'd never had anyone sit back and watch her fight just because he knew she could handle herself. With Riley it had been against his upbringing or something, letting her take care of herself. And Angel...well...no need to go there. This was new. Really new. A guy that trusted her enough to let her fight her own battles, even though he loved her enough to want to make sure she didn't get hurt. Wow.

That was...nice.

That's when it clicked for her. That's the minute she knew she had feelings for Spike. And she surprised the hell out of him when she stormed over to him. He dropped back in a protective stance until she grabbed him by the duster and pulled him into a hot, heavy kiss that left her panting and him weak in the knees.

After the passionate lip-lock, she turned her huge eyes up to his stunned blue ones and smiled. "Thank you."

He'd tried to come up with something to say, but the words just tumbled out of his mouth in garbled disarray. She'd had to silence him with another kiss. When he finally started to get the message...and realized that things had just changed drastically for both of them...he was able to get in a few good kisses of his own.

After that night, they'd spent a lot of time together - not all of it patrolling.

Buffy climbed out of the shower and wrapped a towel around her body. The flood of memories had her grinning like a cat warming itself in a sunbeam. She hadn't told Spike, but there was a very good reason she'd wanted a nice quiet place away from everything this weekend. She wanted to tell him something. She was finally going to tell him that she loved him.

A dance club in San Diego just didn't have the right atmosphere for such a dramatic and momentous announcement.

Grabbing a hand towel off the towel rack next to the sink, Buffy wiped it across the mirror in front of her. She gasped in surprised horror when she saw the figure standing behind her in the mirror's reflection.

Heart pounding, Buffy spun around. She was alone. Oh God. In the mirror...she could have sworn. She thought she saw...

Goosebumps were prickling her skin and she shivered. Slowly turning back to the mirror, almost afraid of what she would see, Buffy finally looked at the reflection.

Blood. Everywhere. Dripping down her throat from a wound on her neck. Saturating her towel. Her eyes flew wide, she tried to breathe, but the waterlogged air couldn't get into her lungs fast enough. Pale. She was so pale. She looked...she looked dead. He's going to kill you. That's what he does. The words popped into her brain and hung there, like the mist in the room, before slowly dissipating. She was so cold. Icy cold. Kill you like he killed me. Evil. He's evil. Devil's spawn.

Buffy's last thought was an automatic denial to the perversity of the images and the words in her head before her eyes rolled back and she collapsed in a heap on the ceramic tile of the bathroom floor.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Spike jolted awake. Something wasn't right. His predator senses were on full alert and his game face emerged. Flicking a quick glance at the clock, he noted that he'd been asleep for almost two hours. Going on pure instinct, he leapt from the bed and landed in a fight-ready crouch. Gold eyes scanned the room but came up empty.

Where was Buffy?

That's when he noticed it. The scent. Blood. Slayer's blood. He could tell, there was no mistaking it. Panic clutched at his stomach as he followed his senses out of the bedroom and across to the closed bathroom door. Not bothering to knock, he burst into the room and started in surprise.

Buffy lay in a heap on the floor, towel wrapped around her, blood pooling on the tile from a wound on her forehead. Noticing the smudge of red on the sink, he figured she must have fallen and slammed her head hard enough to knock herself out.

He knelt at her side, worried and confused. He could hear her heart beating, slow and strong, and he turned her over on her back.

"Buffy, wake up, girl." He shook her gently. When she didn't respond right away, he leapt up and grabbed a washcloth off the rack and ran some cool water over it. Pressing it to the gash at her hairline, he tried again.

"Buffy, come on now. Time to rise and shine, pet!"

Her eyelids fluttered and finally opened, but she almost screamed when she looked up at him. It made him jump, and then he realized he still had the bumpy forehead and fang thing going on. Shaking it off, he tried to comfort her.

"Shh now, luv. It's just me. Good ole Spike. You know I won't hurt you. Couldn't even if I wanted to, what with being neutered and all."

Buffy sat up so fast her head spun and she reached frantically for her neck. Spike watched in confusion as she pulled herself to her feet and stared hard into the mirror. She looked like she was checking out her throat for wounds, but it was her head that was bleeding. It didn't make sense.

When the girl sunk down on the toilet in relief, he cautiously got off his knees and crossed to her. She was shaking. Trembling so violently her teeth were chattering together. One huge tear dropped from her eye and traced its way down her right cheek. He moved to intercept its path and gently wiped it away.

"Here now, are you alright?"

Looking up at him with frightened eyes she said, "No, Spike. Alright is nowhere near where I am right now. Something is wrong with this place. There's something here, in the house, and I'm not talking cold drafts. It...I don't know what it did...attacked me, I think."

Spike could see she was serious and scared. He didn't know what had happened...yet...but he believed her.

"Well, we won't be givin' it a second chance. Come on," he lifted her into his arms and carried her toward the bedroom, "lets get you into some clothes, then you can tell me what happened."

So much for the bloody vacation, he thought, and then he grew very grim. Whatever it is, its got one mightily pissed off vampire to deal with now. And deal with me it will.

His arms closed possessively around the young woman in his arms. They'd beat it together, just like they did everything else.



Chapter Two

Spike set the Slayer down on the bed gently and leaned over to grab her suitcase. He laid it next to her and she opened it, moving woodenly, still stunned and horrified by her experience in the bathroom. As she pulled out a comfortable pair of sweats and a tee shirt, he got the first aid kit out of his duffle bag.

There was more to not having an extensive wardrobe than just convenience; it also left a lot of room for other stuff in your luggage. Things that Buffy shouldn't go anywhere without, like her stake, some other small weapons, and the means to fix up the smaller cuts and bruises that were bound to pop up when a person had a sacred duty that included the nightly killing of demons and such. Just because they were supposed to be on vacation didn't mean that Spike didn't want to be prepared for any contingency. And it was good he was, as Buffy's suitcase was stuffed to the gills with nothing more dangerous than an eyebrow pencil.

Women, he thought. Could live for a bleedin' month with what she's got in that bag o' hers...except for one small thing. The Slayer wouldn't last five minutes without what I brought along. Good thing she's got me lookin' out for her. Always knew we'd make one hell of a team. Literally.

Lowering himself on the bed, he started to fix up the gash at her hairline. "Wanna tell me what happened in there, Buffy?"

Wincing at the sting of the alcohol he was dabbing on her forehead, Buffy said, "I just finished with my shower. I grabbed a towel and wiped down the mirror, that's when I saw her. A woman...standing behind me. I spun around, but there was nobody there. When I turned back to the mirror, I saw...blood. It was all over me, draining from a wound at my neck." As if checking again, making sure it wasn't real, her hand came up to massage her throat. "Next thing I knew, I woke up and you were there. Oh, and earlier, when I was using the phone, I felt another one of those cold drafts like in the lobby. Really not thinking it has anything to do with the heating."

Spike finished cleaning the gash and stuck a small Band-Aid over it to keep it clean while her Slayer healing took care of the rest. He looked into her eyes and saw her fear. It wasn't something he was used to seeing.

"You said it attacked you?"

Buffy frowned, thinking back. "Well, no, not exactly. I said I think it attacked me. I don't actually remember anything between seeing myself in the mirror and when you shook me awake."

Spike nodded a bit and a small smile tugged at one corner of his mouth. "Uh huh."

When Buffy told Spike what had happened, she expected some sort of reaction. Something Spike-like, maybe 'lets go kill her dead' or 'bint's gonna be wishin' she hadn't messed with us'. She was vaguely disappointed and more than a little confused at his decided lack of affronted anger. It irritated her.

"That's it? That's all you can say? 'Uh huh'? Spike, I just told you-"

There's the girl I love, he thought as he interrupted her, glad to see her spark come flooding back. "It's just a ghost, pet. Not surprisin' really, this...affront to architecture is a hundred and a half if it's a day."

Irritation turned to full blown astonished frustration. Buffy leapt down from the bed and started to pace in front of the now amused and relieved vampire.

"Just a ghost?" she asked, livid. "Are you kidding me? You do remember the last time we had a visit from the ghostly masses, right? Frat house, ground shaking, vines growing out of the floor. Ring any bells?"

"Actually, pet, if you remember, those weren't ghosts. They were apparitions. Whole other ball of wax, that."

"And this is so much better because?" She paused in her pacing just long enough to toss him an aggravated glare. She wasn't thrilled by his attitude, even less by his smile. "Well?"

"Well, because contrary to superstition - and the occasional crackpot loon - ghosts can't hurt you."

Buffy threw up her hands. "Hello? I was knocked out in there. I'd say that theory of your needs some work, Spike."

"You weren't knocked out, pet. You knocked yourself out. Saw the smear of red stuff on the sink, myself. I'm guessin' you saw what the ghost wanted you to see and panicked, passed out, fell, and beaned yourself. Ghosts can't hurt you. They're a sad lot, ya know. Pathetic really. Parlor tricks, luv, that's all it was. They play with your head, but they can't hurt you...unless you do the girlie girl routine and faint your way into a concussion."

Mouth hanging open at the slight, she just stared at the vampire for a second in complete disbelief. She finally shook her head to clear it and tried to focus on the matter at hand.

"Okay. So it's a ghost that can't hurt me. Doesn't mean I want to be spending my only off time in like...forever...shacking up with Casper's less-than-pleasant relative. I don't happen to enjoy sharing space with dead people."

Spike raised an eyebrow and gave her a look. She waved a hand dismissively, saying, "You don't count. You're undead. And as we both know, I spent way too much time with the undead."

Smiling widely, sensing that she had finally started to calm down, he reached out and pulled her toward him. Wrapping his arms around her waist, he inhaled her scent. It thrilled him. Tantalized him. That Buffy allowed the contact, allowed him to share her life with him, humbled him as little else in the world ever had. He rested his forehead against her chest, content in her nearness.

"Fortunate thing that is, too, luv. Just think about how much you'd be missin' without me to spice up your life. Not to mention, you've been much easier to live with now that you've finally got some monster in your man."

She tried to be mad, she really did, but his tongue started to do very interesting things with her collarbone and she just didn't have the resistance for his special brand of affection. Plus, she knew what he just did. Spike saw she'd been freaked by what happened and had stirred her anger to get her over it. The fiend.

"We still have a - mmmm." Buffy moaned when his cool mouth moved up her neck to the spot behind her right ear. "That feels good." She twined her fingers in his hair, forgetting for a second what she was going to say. His chest vibrated with a rumbling chuckle.

Pulling his lips away for a second, he asked, "Still have a what, pet?" His hands roamed up her sides to cup her breasts as he waited for her answer.

"Huh? Oh, right. Spike, let go." To focus her mind she had to push him away and take a step back. She hated to, but it had to be done. And he was just too adorable when he sulked at the hand slap. "Problem. We still have a problem."

Spike sighed for appearance sake but let go of her grudgingly. "And just what would that problem be, exactly? Besides the fact that your standin' way over there and I'm here on this nice, comfortable bed all alone."

"Focus, fang face. Remember our less than alive but all too lively visitor? Well there's the problem. I'm the Slayer. I kill demons, I don't do dead people."

"Happy to hear it. Not as happy about your apparent reluctance to do undead people." Spike lay back on the bed and wriggled his hips suggestively. "Come on, baby. Why don't you get over here and do me?"

She fisted her hands at her hips and glared at him. "Shut up, Spike. I need to know what to do to get rid of our spectral friend. Am I going to have to pull a Bill Murray/Dan Ackroyd on it or what? 'Cuz I'm really not prepared for that kind of thing."

He looked at her blankly, blinking once, and she rolled her eyes. "What is it about vampires? Do none of you keep up with pop-culture? Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd...Ghostbusters? Catchers of the ghosts?" She shrugged and gave up when his expression didn't change. "Never mind. It's not like I have those cool power packs or containment thingies anyway."

"Buffy, there's not much you can do. Not tonight anyway. You could call the Watcher tomorrow, see what he's got stashed in those moldy books of his. Ye old ex-librarian is probably just dyin' for a chance to wow you with his intellect and usefulness. Most likely got some kind of cleansin' ritual tucked away in a corner somewhere."

She stared at him, mulling it over in her head. If he was right about the ghost, there wasn't a pressing need to take care of it right away, as long as it stayed out of her way, anyway. Pouting, she grumbled at him. "Don't like ghosts. They're creepy."

He barked out a laugh. "That from the mighty Slayer that strikes fear in the hearts of all my kind and the legions of hell besides. How...un-Slayerly of you, luv. Now haul ass over here and lemme have a nibble of that lip o' yours. You know how I love it when you're all pouty. Makes me feel manly."

Buffy smiled and walked into his embrace. Kissing him deeply, she tried to figure out why she hadn't told him everything. She had kept silent about the thoughts that had infiltrated her mind when she saw herself in the mirror. 'Kill you like he killed me.' That's what she had thought. That and more. But they weren't her thoughts; they had felt foreign and wrong in her head. For the life of her, she couldn't understand why she didn't tell Spike about it. When she'd tried, in fact, she had felt...fear. A clutching and choking fear. It had kept her silent.

The problem with fear is that it gives enemies a weapon to use against you. And enemies have enough weapons without adding to them. She pulled back from a mind blowing kiss and looked into his questioning gaze.

"Spike, have you ever been here before? To this house, I mean."

"Yeah, right," he laughed. "Don't think so, pet. And if I didn't love you so bloody much I wouldn't be here now. Flounce and frill inn't exactly my bag. Why'd you ask?"

Buffy's heart was in her throat and her stomach fluttered - and it had absolutely nothing to do with ghosts or phantom thoughts. It was the first time since she'd been chained up in his crypt with his demonic ex looking on that Spike had told her that he loved her. And while unforgettable, that particular memory didn't exactly fill her with warm fuzzies. This time, though, it was amazing.

"Buffy?" She was staring at him like she'd never seen him before and she hadn't answered his question. "You still in there, pet?"

Starting slightly when he shook her gently she asked, "Huh? What?"

"I asked you why you wanted to know if I'd ever been here before. You sure you dinn't whack that head of yours harder than you thought?"

Still dazed, she just gave him a goofy smile and shook her head. "No, Spike, my head is fine." What was it he had said about the ghost? Mind games and parlor tricks. That's all it was. It was nothing. Of course he hadn't been here before. And, please, was she really going to listen to some strange voices in her head? Not hardly. Not when she had fantastic, real words to listen to.

"You love me. You just said you love me."

"That's it." Spike pushed himself off the bed and swooped her up in his arms. She was so surprised she just let out a small squeal and gripped his shoulders instinctively.

When he spun and laid her back against the pillows on the bed she questioned him. "Wh-what are you doing?"

"You're gonna rest. You're actin' off, Buffy, and I don't want it said that I can't take care of my woman."

"Okay, hold it right there. First, your woman? What is this, the nineteenth century? Don't think so, pal. Second, I'm not acting weird. Spike, you just told me you love me. That gives me a happy. A big happy."

"Are you daft woman? You know I love you. Hell, you've always known."

Buffy traced a hand down one chiseled cheekbone and smiled tenderly. "Knowing and hearing...way different. And hearing? Better. Much better."

Spike turned away from her and rubbed the back of his neck. Suddenly somber, he muttered, "Wouldn't bloody know about that, now, would I?"

Staring at his back, Buffy's heart broke a little when she saw the proud vampire...proud man with his shoulders slumped. "You're right. You wouldn't."

He didn't want to hear it. Whatever platitude she was going to offer, he just couldn't listen to it. He'd been patient. Hadn't pushed. Hadn't made any other sweeping declarations or tried to prove himself to her. All he'd done was be there. It went against everything he was, but what he was would always take a back seat to the force of nature that was Buffy Summers.

Jumping off the bed as if he'd been scalded, he moved to leave the room. Her hail was the only thing that stopped him. He hated that she had that kind of power over him. She called; he jumped into action...or, as in this case, stopped his actions. It was humiliating. Whirling back to her, he was going to snarl out his frustration. Until he saw her expression, he was going to take her head off for torturing him like she did.

Her expression stopped him.

It was so strange seeing her uncertain, confused, and a little scared. He also thought he saw something else but didn't know what it was. It was new, that much he was sure of. Almost like resignation...but happier.

Buffy took a deep breath and plunged in. "You ruined my plans, you know. There was going to be dinner. A good dinner. I wanted it to be special. Perfect." She snorted derisively. "Shoulda known. Perfect non-slaying related activities are not to be allowed in Buffy-world. Now I have a ghost that wants to play with my head and a vampire that wants to play with everything but my head. Only one of those two is a good thing. Spike, come sit down."

Moving cautiously, unsure of where this monologue was heading, Spike returned to the bed and slowly lowered himself on it. Buffy's large eyes pinned him and the force in her gaze wrapped a steel band around his chest and squeezed.

"I wanted to come here for a reason. I wanted a nice quiet place, maybe some romance, so I could tell you...I love you."

As soon as she said the words, it was her turn to stare in amazed fascination at the expression on Spike's face. She had never seen anything like it. First there was the surprise, which quickly fell to the largest smile she'd ever seen. And his eyes, first wide in disbelief, now glowed bright with pleasure. She started to squirm under the intensity of his gaze as he searched her face and saw truth there.

"Um...say something. Please."

In a low voice husky with emotion, he said, "Again. Say it again."

Smiling, she reached out for his hand and repeated herself. "I love you."

That's all Spike needed to hear. No other words were necessary. He moved so fast he was just a blur to Buffy's eyes. Before she could blink, he had wrapped his arms around her and was lowering his mouth to hers. He mumbled, "I love you," over and over, not even aware that he was speaking until the drone of words stopped when his lips touched hers.

Sinking back into the soft mattress, all thoughts of ghosts long gone, the Slayer and her vampire showed each other without words what they had told each other with them.

In a dark corner of the bedroom, unseen to the two lovers, a shadowy glimmer of energy hovered malevolently in the shadows between the wall and armoire. Glowing with fury, it undulated and pulsed eerily as it watched the abomination.

It was not to be borne. The defiler would pay, and now, too, would his whore.

*~*~*~*~ *~

Slipping out of the bed, careful not to disturb the sleeping Buffy, Spike reached into the pocket of his duster and pulled out his cigarettes. He couldn't sleep - doubted he'd be able to for quite some time given the astounding turn of events he had been gifted with. He paused just long enough to close the bedroom door partway before going to sit on the couch in the living area.

As he lit a smoke and stared out the large window next to his seat, his thoughts went around and around on the whole Buffy's in love with him bit. He couldn't help grinning like a poof every time he saw her in his head, admitting that to him. What a night.

They had made good use of that bed afterwards, too, until Buffy had finally drifted off, exhausted and spent, after a couple of hours. Spike was glad he'd gotten that nap earlier, or he wouldn't have been able to keep up with her. As it was, she showed him muscles he never knew she had...and it had been amazing. It's not like they hadn't had sex before, they'd been going at it like wild things for four months, but this was different. It was the first time he really felt like she was letting him in...when she was letting him in.

Even after everything, and denying all physical laws, he hardened at the thought.

The ghost, though, that hadn't been pleasant. He didn't like seeing Buffy scared. It was wrong, like against the natural order of things. But he'd tried to explain that as inconvenient and irritating as ghosts were, they were harmless. It was true. They were.

He just hadn't told her that it was possible...improbable but possible...that it hadn't been a ghost.

The Slayer could deal with whatever it was in the morning. And if, in the unlikely event that it was something more, Spike would stay awake and keep watch, make sure nothing nasty popped up for a taste of his woman. And that's what she was. As much as Buffy didn't like the label, she was his woman. Just like he was her man. It wasn't old-fashioned or sexist. It was elemental, basic and pure. She belonged to him. He belonged to her. Eventually, he'd explain that to her. Just so there was no misunderstanding about what he was to her, he'd explain.

For now though, he played sentry. And he replayed the scenes in his head over and over. In his heart, the cold, dead heart of a vampire, he felt warmth.

~*~*~*~*~*~

It was dark, so dark. The lights from the house drew her in, pulled her forward. She was holding something heavy and Buffy looked down in surprise, seeing the shovel that was clutched in one filthy hand. She wondered how she got outside the house. She wondered why she was dressed so oddly. And what was with the shovel?

Fear, she felt fear. It was pushing her, driving her forward to the sanctity of the house. Picking up her voluminous skirt in her free hand, Buffy ran. She ran and she didn't know why. Was she running towards something? Away from something? What the hell was going on? It didn't matter, though, she ran as if her life depended on it.

There was an inhuman howl that rent the air and Buffy spun around, eyes blindly searching the darkness behind her. She saw nothing but knew, without a doubt, that whatever it was that had made that scream of anguish would be coming after her. She didn't know why or how she knew, but it was truth.

So close to safety. She had to keep moving. Dropping the shovel to ease her flight, Buffy gathered up her skirt in both hands, cursed the odd shoes she was wearing - small boots of some kind that pinched her toes unmercifully - and raced toward the welcoming beacon of her home.

Again that vicious snarl tore into the night, but this time there was less anguish and more unadulterated rage. Pure and hot it hung heavy on the air. Buffy's heart skipped a beat even as her steps sped. Almost there, almost there. It became her mantra as she ran.

Finally, blessedly, she made it to safety and slid the bolt home on the back door of the house. Chest heaving, breathing labored, she leaned against it weakly. She was safe. The doorway was a barrier to this creature that hunted her. Somehow she knew that. It calmed her fear and straightened her spine.

Pulling herself together, Buffy walked calmly down the long hallway, passing the kitchen on her right, heading toward the living room. She came to an abrupt halt when she passed in front of a mirror hanging on the wall. Staring at her reflection, Buffy was stunned. This wasn't...her mind was telling her...she didn't remember the face that was reflected back at her. It was only familiar in the vaguest of senses and she couldn't figure out where she'd seen it before. It wasn't her face; that much was sure.

Miranda.

The name floated into her brain. It seemed right somehow. The woman she was looking at, the woman that was standing where her reflection should be was named Miranda.

Buffy turned away in a daze of confusion and continued down the hall, accepting the absurdity of everything without question. She slipped into the water room behind the stairs, wanting to clean the dirt and grit from her hands. It wasn't proper for a lady to have such deplorable hands. Cleanliness was so very, very important.

Frowning at the archaic thoughts, Buffy poured water into a ceramic pot on the small counter and dipped her hands in. Grabbing a coarse and unpleasant block of what she believed was soap, she scrubbed and scrubbed until her hands were finally clean.

Drying her hands on a hanging towel, she made her way to the living room. As if nothing unusual had happened, as if she hadn't just fled from some unknown evil stalking her, she picked up her embroidery ring. Without conscious thought, her hand started to work the needle through delicate fabric and dainty flowers appeared as she stitched.

It was so surreal, so natural but not, as if she was walking through memories that weren't hers, but were. Buffy didn't question it; she just did it. She was stuck. Knowing something wasn't right, knowing she was misplaced somehow but completely unable to do anything about it, she just acted out the scene.

There was no warning. No prickly sense of impending doom. One minute she was sitting on a settee, calmly stitching, the next she had leapt to her feet when the large picture window in the living room exploded inwards, tinkling glass shattering and flying everywhere.

Terror clutched at her throat as she stared in horror and confusion at the creature that had burst through the window. It was a vampire in full game face, snarling and vicious and completely intent on his quarry. There was recognition, a painful and shocking recognition. Spike. The vampire was Spike.

"H-how?" The voice wasn't hers, neither were the words, but she spoke them. "Y-you should not be able...you were not invited. Devil's spawn. What evil is this that you can come here into my home?"

The vampire tilted his head and stalked closer. Predator hunted prey. "Foolish woman. In this house, I need no invitation. Your time has come, Miranda. Plans have changed. Your own actions dictate the course I take. It could have been...no. I shall not give thought to roads not traveled. You will die."

He was on her instantly, fangs descending with evil intent toward her throat. Her struggles were as ineffective as a moth's in a spider's web. Soon she felt the stabbing pain, felt her blood well and drain from her neck. The monster was not gentle. Ripping at her throat, flesh tore and mangled under his sharp incisors.

It was beyond pain, beyond torture. She was beyond fear.

Dying, she felt herself dying. He was draining her, and revulsion turned her stomach when she heard his thirsty drinking. He was in ecstasy, a painful yet naked yearning. It disgusted her, even as she died. Still there was no fear, only rage. Fury at this demon, this child of Satan, this thing. This was not supposed to be the way it happened. She was not to be food for the dark one. It could not be.

It was.

The last thought she had before breathing her last was an oath. He would pay. Upon her last dying breath, she swore the vampire would pay the ultimate price. And demons will tremble at her wrath.

Opening her eyes to the dark ceiling above her, she lay there, getting her bearings. He wasn't beside her; she could sense it. When she smelled the burning tobacco on the air, she knew he had gone into the living area to smoke.

Slipping silently from the bed, she padded on bare feet to the bag in the corner. Power and energy coursed through her veins. Reaching into the duffle bag without looking, her hand closed on the weapon she needed. Standing, hiding her arm behind her back, she went in search for Spike.

He was standing at the large bay window in the room, his back to her. She smiled to herself. This would be easier than she had thought. Moving quietly, she walked up behind him, her hand tightening on the weapon behind her.

A whisper of sound had Spike spinning, ready to throw on his game face if danger threatened. He breathed a quick sigh of relief when he saw Buffy standing there, moonlight from the window caressing her skin like glowing silk. He smiled.

"Startled me, pet. What are you doing..."

His words trailed off when he looked into her eyes. Her large brown eyes.

"What the bloody-"

"Abomination." It was Buffy's voice, but it was not Buffy. "Devil's spawn. You will finally pay. Now is the time for you to feel my wrath."

Her hand shot out, stake moving towards his heart. Spike was too shocked to do anything to defend himself.

As he watched in surprised horror, knowing he was going to die but unable to stop it, something happened. A glowing blue orb of light flared between him and the girl in front of him. It slammed into her and sent her flying, tossing her several feet away.

Her body collided forcefully with the door to the suite and she seemed to hang there for a second, confusion and disbelief in deranged brown eyes - eyes that should be tawny and light and pure - before she dropped, unconscious, to the floor.

Reaction to what he just witnessed had his chest heaving in breaths he didn't need. His eyes were wide in fear and surprise as he crossed the room to where Buffy lay, knocked out, in a heap by the door. Dread pooled in the pit of his stomach when he realized that his worst dreams had just been realized.

A flash of color caught his eye and he stood there, staring at the door, as blood red letters appeared before him. It was a message for him and he didn't like what it was telling him. Staring at it with a harsh expression of absolute determination, he read what was being written.

"You will die, Vampire. You and your whore will taste my fury. I'm coming for you both."

Bending down, not taking his eyes away from the door, Spike lifted Buffy and cradled her to his chest. Whatever had taken over her body had been cast out. He was sure of that. Just as sure as he was that it wasn't a ghost. Rage not at the threat to him, but at the threat to Buffy, brought the demon inside him forward and he snarled low in his throat in warning.

"You don't need to come for us, bitch, because I'm coming for you. And your fury is nothing compared to what I'm gonna do to you if you harm a hair on this girl's head."

The words faded under his gaze but still he stood for long minutes, until he was sure that that thing was gone. Shaking off his visage, he glanced down at Buffy, tenderness and fierce protective caring in his eyes. He strode over to the phone with her in his arms and sat down in the chair next to it.

Not willing to let go of her yet, he shifted her slightly to free his arm before grabbing up the phone and dialing. When he heard the person on the other end pick up and mumble a sleepy, "Hello?" he spoke in a serious and intense voice.

"Giles, we have a problem."

"S-spike? Do you have any idea what time it is?"

Spike ignored the question. "It's in the house, Rupert. A haunt. And it's not happy about my presence."

Still foggy from sleep, Giles hadn't quite caught on to the meaning behind the vampire's somber words. "Yes, well, so few of us are."

"Watcher, listen to me! Now's not the time for petty slights. It's a haunt and it's pissed. And it took over Buffy's body to try to kill me."

"Wh-what? A haunt? Are you sure?" Giles had popped up in bed and grabbed his glasses off the end table next to the bed.

"Seein' as I had a front row seat to my attempted dustin', yeah, I'm sure. We need you here. As soon as possible. And you might want to bring Red, we could use her talents as well."

"Yes, of course. We'll come right away. Spike, can you get out of the house until we get there? It would be best if you could leave until we arrive."

"Doubtful. I don't know the bleedin' area and the sun will be up soon. I'd rather not do the haunt any favors by gettin' dusty searchin' for a safe house."

"Good point. Where is Buffy now?"

"Right here, unconscious. And that leads me to the next problem. There's somethin' else here, Giles. I'm not sure what. Could be another haunt, could be somethin' completely different. It...well, it stopped the haunt from killin' me, but I have no idea why or even if it could do it again."

Giles sighed deeply at the news. "Oh for the days when you were our biggest foe. Listen, Spike, haunts can be particularly unpleasant and they're not concerned with causing trouble only at night. Be careful. Be very careful. We'll be there as soon as we can."

"Right then. Be quick about it."

Spike hung up the phone and leaned back in the chair, wrapping his arms around Buffy. He would need to wake her up soon and explain, but he wanted to hold her for a second first. He brushed a strand of hair off her forehead and stared down at her face. Bathed in moonlight, she was ephemeral in her beauty.

Nothing, certainly not some dead bint bearing a grudge, was going to threaten her and continue to exist. No how, no way. Pressing a kiss to her forehead, he sat and thought about their next move.



Chapter Three

Regaining consciousness with a nifty, mind-shattering headache for the second time in the same night wasn't exactly in the norm, even for the Slayer, whose life was way beyond anything remotely resembling 'the norm' to begin with. With complete disregard to the constraints of normalcy, however, Buffy's aching head and body dragged her mind out of the dark recesses of numb oblivion once again and she slowly became aware of her surroundings, even before she cracked open her eyes and peered around.

She knew without looking, for example, that unlike the incident earlier, she wasn't lying on the icy, tiled floor in the bathroom. She was being held in strong, familiar arms, pressing into a hard, muscled chest. Essentially snuggled up on Spike's lap. She also knew where she was, in a general sense anyway. The scent of lavender was familiar; she'd noticed it when she first entered the Dalton Suite hours ago. Buffy didn't know...nor did she particularly care...if she was in the bedroom or living area. Her head hurt badly and her body felt too bruised to bother with wondering.

She was plagued by memories of a dream that had seemed all too real and tormented by a reality that seemed anything but real. In the dream she'd had her throat viciously ripped out by a monster bearing the countenance of the vampire she had so recently pledged her love for. Reality was worse. She had watched from inside herself as she stalked Spike and tried to stake him, completely helpless to prevent it from happening. Then, to add to the wonder that was her wicked fun 'vacation', something else - something less than pleasant - blasted her across the room. All in all, Buffy wasn't having the best time.

She lay there, feeling confused and guilty and a little scared, and just tried to get her head to stop spinning.

Spike, who had been unable to let go of her after calling Giles, knew the minute she had started to regain consciousness but kept silent, offering nothing but the support of his embrace. Hearing her heartbeat quicken and breathing alter slightly, he could tell she was awake, if not completely aware. She'd been...not possessed really...inhabited...and she'd want answers eventually. Spike had very few to give her.

One of the differences between the vampire and the Slayer was simply that where Buffy would demand reasons and understanding, Spike simply wanted retribution. He couldn't care less why the haunt was targeting them. He couldn't care less about identifying what that thing was that saved him. He wanted payback. He wanted Buffy safe. Not necessarily in that order.

When she finally felt coherent enough to attempt speech, her voice came out in a dry, ragged whisper of sound.

"So," she murmured, keeping her eyes closed for the time being, "I'm thinking either we need to revisit the issue of you working on that 'ghosts can't hurt you' theory...or really not ghosts we're dealing with."

"Not ghosts," he told her with a resigned sigh. He would have preferred to slide into the subject slowly but he should have known she'd be straight to business. Perhaps he was being a bit over protective, but he was concerned about that last smack to the head she had taken, and he wanted to make sure she was okay before she hopped back into that cavalry saddle of hers. "How's the noggin', pet?"

Snorting in sarcastic amusement was out of the question with as much pain she was in, so she settled for cracking her eyes open and glaring at him balefully. "Attached. If they're not ghosts, what are they?"

"At least one of them is a haunt. Don't know 'bout the other, the one that introduced you to the door in flyin' fashion." Buffy rolled her eyes at his colorful commentary and a corner of Spike's mouth quirked in response before he continued. "Short of divine intervention, which I'm thinkin' bloody unlikely, your guess is as good as mine. Nothin's scrambled in there, is it? You're okay?"

"Not ghosts. A haunt. Kind of a fine line there, isn't it? Like the nonexistent kind?"

"Not really, luv. More than just semantics, trust me. How bad are you hurtin'?"

It was an odd cadence of conversation, but he couldn't be dissuaded from his concern for her. Ever since she had come back - had been brought back from the dead - his entire existence revolved around guaranteeing that she stayed back. Well, that and that nothing happened to Nibblet, or any of the Scoobies for that matter. Unfortunately, she wasn't one for easy dissuasion, either.

"Damn it, Spike!" There was irritation and frustration in her voice. "Let me worry about my head. I'm fine, okay? It's sore, but I'll live. Which is more than I can say for you if you don't tell me about the damn haunt."

As soon as she said it, she regretted it. She wanted to call the words back, swallow them whole, but it doesn't work like that. For all the times she'd threatened to stake him - empty threats and posturing, but a habit - this was the first time she felt guilty about it. Even though she was no more serious now than she had been in the past, the events earlier had changed the rules, altered their relationship, even though it hadn't been her, really, that had been responsible.

Buffy's wide-eyed and guilty expression answered any questions he might have had about just how much she would remember while the haunt had been in control of her. She remembered almost staking him. If it were under any other circumstances, he would have been greatly amused by the amazingly accurate 'landed fish' look she had going on. As it was, he was too bothered by the idea that the careless banter and empty threats between them that he enjoyed so much had been tainted by the malicious entity in the house.

No way he was going to let a dead bint with an attitude problem have that much influence on the relationship he had with Buffy.

Burying his concern behind a sardonic sneer, he raised a brow and grinned at her. "Haven't been able to off me in the past, pet. Hell, you even had some assistance from our non-living annoyance du jour, and yet here I sit. Still undead and lovin' it. So you'll have to forgive me if your ever-amusin', if oft repeated, threat and swagger routine doesn't exactly leave me tremblin' in my knickers. Now, once more for the slow learners, how do you feel?"

To say she was surprised by his nonchalant dismissal of what had happened would have been an understatement. No. That's not quite right. Spike had a tendency to be very dismissive of things related to his own well being, it was only when it came to things that could put a crimp in her or her family's aliveness that he dropped the sarcasm and derision and got straight to business. It was one of the things she loved about him. It still surprised her that he was so...forgiving...about almost getting staked. By her. More or less.

She was left feeling oddly put in her place, like he had just given her a 'take care of yourself before you take care of business' lecture. But strangely enough, she was also relieved. Things were still okay between them. Haunt or no haunt, things were still 'same old, same old' between her and the vampire she loved to tease and taunt. That was good. As long as she didn't think about that dream she had, things were good.

She tried to wiggle out of his grip, he held her firm. She could have used her Slayer strength if she felt like it - she didn't. Finally, she just sighed dramatically and rolled her eyes again, playing along with the fiend that cared so much about her. "I'm a little sore, and can't say that ghostly...or, er, haunt possession is tops on my list of things to try ever again, but super healing powers should have me good to go in no time at all."

He just smirked at her, pleased that she had given in so quickly, and pressed a quick kiss to her forehead before letting her finally wriggle away from his embrace.

Sitting next to him, a much better position for focusing on the matter at hand, she said, "Okay. Lets leave the unknown knock-Buffy-across-the-room thing out of it for now; we'll deal with that later. Haunt versus ghost. Give me the skinny. Or...whatever you give a person that's all about the information. Spill it. What do you know?"

"Told you before about ghosts, haunts are different. Both dead people - or what's left of dead people - but where ghosts are harmless and pathetic, haunts aren't. They're nasty buggers, often with right big chips on their shoulders about some such rot that happened when they were alive." He paused and sighed, trying to figure the best way to describe the difference.

"See, pet, most ghosts don't even realize they've become members of the see-thru club. Those that do are too busy trying to find a way to move on to cause harm, they try to interact with the livin' world and all manner of interestin' things can happen - like the mind tricks and stuff I told you 'bout. They're perfectly harmless, sometimes even playful - if more than a little annoyin'."

"Playful, right. Doubt many of the people they 'play' with would see it that way, but okay. And haunts? Not big on the play, I'm guessing."

"Not hardly. Basic difference between the two, haunts know they're dead. They know it and they're mightily pissed off. They don't want to move on. They want to punish the livin' for their...condition. Or, in this case, apparently, the unlivin'. And they can. Don't really know why they're able to do what they do, but you've seen a small piece of it."

"So, they're like...what? Poltergeists with purpose?"

Spike chuckled despite the seriousness of the situation. "Yeah. I s'pose you could say that. A not so pleasant purpose, but yeah. And they're powerful. Right nasty to deal with, lemme tell you. Anger management issues and what not. Don't rightly know why this one's all hot and bothered over little ol' me, but I seem to be the focus of its fury."

"And ya know? Surprisingly easy to imagine you could bother the dead just as effortlessly as you bother the living."

She was teasing him. Good sign. He liked that.

"Hey now! No pickin' on the vampire, thank you very much! Bint's bearing a grudge against yours truly and I've no idea why."

Buffy stared off into space for a minute, trying to decide if she should tell him about her dream. She didn't really want to think about it. It had been horrible. But if she was right, and it wasn't so much a dream as it was a view into the past, than she had the answer to why. He deserved knowing.

"I might know why. I think she was killed by a vampire."

Raising a brow, he turned his head to stare into her serious eyes. That was not good news. "Bloody hell. Do I want to know how you know that, pet?"

"Probably not, but you need to. I had a dream, except I don't think it was just a dream. And, ya know...Slayer dreams - big on symbolism, small on warm fuzziness. This one was particularly not happy. I was in this house, downstairs in fact, sitting in the front room. A vampire crashed through the window and killed me, except it wasn't me. I think it was a woman named Miranda, who, thanks to the wonders of the supernatural and some serious rage issues, is currently working the haunt gig in this house."

She could have stopped there. She almost did. Just thinking about the rest, the true horror of her experience, sent wave after wave of nausea rolling over her. In the end, it was the desire to get it out, to tell the one person who would really understand, that kept her talking. "I felt him bite me, like I was part of her. He ripped at my throat; drained me."

Buffy had no idea that shudders were wracking her slight frame, making her tremble. The viscous memories, the pain, the sounds of her flesh tearing under sharp teeth, the smell of her blood flowing freely out of the wounds, all had her struggling with her composure. Still, she spoke. "When I woke up, I watched from inside myself, saw me...her...walking up behind you with a stake in my hand. I knew what she was going to do. I couldn't stop her. I felt her rage, her hatred of you, and all I could do was watch. She was...happy...about the idea of staking you. She felt justified and redeemed. It was sick. It was awful. And then she...well, you know. Spike, there's something else. The vampire that crashed through the window...it was you I saw in my dream. You killed me - her."

She was staring at her clasped hands. There was no way she could meet his eyes right now, not after that. Buffy knew she'd upset him, heard his quick intake of surprised breath. Considering that he didn't need to breathe, it told her just how much he was affected by what she said. She was completely unprepared, however, for his response.

His game face surged forward and he leapt to his feet, growling ferociously. "I BLOODY WELL DID NOT! That...bitch! I had nothin' to do with her death, Buffy, I swear it to you. I told you I'd never been here before. I meant it!"

His mind was spinning and he was struggling to keep a lock on his rage. It wasn't working. He wanted nothing more than to rip the room apart, tear and bash and smash everything that had anything to do with this place.

The haunt had gotten into Buffy's head, made her see things that weren't true, made her live through something that he never wanted her to experience - a first hand glimpse at the demon in him, the demon in all vampires. He saw the effect it had on her. It clawed at him, adding fuel to his fury. Not to mention the haunt almost staked him. Bad in and of itself, but inconsequential compared to Buffy's trauma. He was as enraged as he'd ever been.

The worst part, he had no idea how to convince her that he had nothing to do with this Miranda person's death. And he couldn't believe Buffy could go through what she went through and still look at him without staking him on her own.

Buffy watched him stalking cagily in front of her. Back and forth, back and forth, pacing angrily. He was full into the bumpy forehead and fang look, and it surprised her just how not bothered by it she was. This was the man she loved. Still loved. Sure, he was a vampire. He was even soulless. But he had an amazing capacity for love, and he understood kindness and loyalty. When he had fallen in love with her it had changed him forever, and now, well...maybe he wasn't like any other vampire that had ever existed before. He was still evil; just...he had redirected the evil towards other evil things. And good done by evil is still good.

Buffy herself was a shade of gray that was unique to humans, was it any wonder that she could accept Spike as a shade of gray unique to vampires? Was it any wonder she loved him?

"I know you didn't, Spike. I never thought you did. Well...okay, so I more than wigged to the tenth degree when I first saw you crashing through that window, but in my mind I knew it wasn't really you."

That got his attention. Gold eyes flashed with feral intensity and hope as his head snapped around and pinned her with questioning fire. "What? You knew? Not that I'm complainin', luv, but how? Sounds like the bint did a wicked head job on you."

She smiled at him and stood up, walking up to him and wrapping her arms around his waist. He was trembling, she could feel it. Whether in rage or fear of her response, she didn't know.

"She tried to. Apparently not wicked enough. I'm the Slayer. A Slayer that's been dead not just once, but twice. The mind games and parlor tricks are so not a good, but I'm not that easily manipulated by the unseen masses...or, well...mass. And, hello? Not just pretty, here. Smart, too. I know something that she obviously doesn't. William the Bloody didn't come to this country until the 1960's. Miranda was killed in this house in the late 1800's, if the clothing was any indication. I'm not even sure you were a vampire when she was killed. The dream was very not good, but I know it wasn't you. No more than it was really me that tried to stake you."

Wrapping his arms around her, he felt the band that had been painfully squeezing his chest let go. He shook off his game face and pulled her body into a tight embrace, resting his chin on the top of her head. "Well, well. Look at the little scholar, rememberin' her history and what all. I'm impressed, pet. Maybe you're not a natural blonde after all."

Pulling back just enough to give her arm room, she punched him in the stomach and grinned mischievously before pressing a quick kiss to his smiling mouth. "What can I say? Giles taught me well. I did all kinds of ultra fun research on the evil you back when you were actually a scary vampire." Sighing dramatically she said, "Of course, now you're hardly more threatening than a fuzzy little kitty cat."

Neat thing about vampires, they have that cool growl thing. Spike made good use of it, rumbling in her ear, heat and desire pooling between his legs, hardening him. Thoughts of ghosts and haunts faded away as their teasing stimulated him. It had always been like that for him. When it came to Buffy, their verbal sparring had always been the sweetest foreplay. "Better watch yourself, luv," he snarled playfully, "even the fuzziest kitty has claws. And I know just how and where to use mine."

So saying, he pressed his spread fingertips into her stomach, under her shirt, and flexed his hands. She felt the blunt edges of his nails pressing into her flesh and she gasped in surprise and hunger as he dragged them up to her breasts slowly and seductively. Cool fingers danced gently over her nipples and she swallowed convulsively, but he drew back and stepped away from her, the passion in his gaze being replaced by purpose.

"Better not start that just yet, as I don't fancy another of those soddin' Buffy impersonations the haunt is so bleedin' good at without bein' prepared a bit better than we are right now."

Practically panting at just the simple touch, Buffy shook her head to clear it, then grew grim as duty intruded on her moment. "Right. Hey, can the haunt do to you what she did to me? I think I should know if I'm going to turn around and find a pissed off you-looking haunt with a yen for making you dusty. She could have you stake yourself - and I have no intention of taking you home in a baggy."

"Your concern is touchin', but no. Vampires are immune. She can't get into my head. It's a soul thing, I think. How haunts make a connection. They don't seem to be able to affect creatures without souls. Not like that, anyway. Good thing, too, as I'm not the only one she's after. According to the thoughtful head's up she provided, she's got her sights set on both of us now."

When she questioned him, Spike told her about the message on the door. Then rolled his eyes when she was more upset at being called a whore than being targeted by the haunt.

"Oh, this bitch is so gonna pay. She has the nerve to call me a whore? Don't think so. It's not my fault she was all alive and stuff in the Victorian prudish age of high collars and long dresses. Not like she hasn't been around for the changing times. Well into a new millennium here, buy a clue. People my age have sex - rings and ceremonies not withstanding. It's not a bad. Sure, the vampire thing is a bit unusual...but still. I am in no way a whore."

"Of course you're not, luv, but I think you're missing the point."

"I really don't think I am, Spike. Got the whole 'she's coming for us' bit just fine. Let her. I can take her. And now, she's gonna get taken and get payback. I'm nobody's whore."

"Actually, Buffy, that's the problem. You can't take her. She can't be taken. Not by us, anyway."

Buffy stopped ranting and looked at him, curiosity and concern etched on her face. "What do you mean?"

"You said it yourself, woman. You don't do dead people. There's a very good reason for that. No body to be done. Haunts are dead. We don't have the proper tools. Best we can do is stay outta her way. And as she's targetin' us, even that's gonna be a bitch."

"Okay, so we leave. Pack up and go. If it's you that has her all upset and stuff, we leave, she goes back to being nothing more than a cold draft in a big house, right?"

"Love to, can't. Sun's gonna be up in a little while, and we don't know the area. I don't remember seein' many protect-the-vampire-from-spontaneous-combustion places on our way here. I'm stuck."

"No. You're not. We are. We're a team, Spike. And it's not just because she's after both of us. We're a team. We fight together, we stand together. That's just how it is."

Walking quickly over to the phone, she didn't notice his expression. She didn't see how her words, spoken so casually and with so much honest conviction, affected him. He quickly reached up and swiped at his surprisingly moist eyes, not wanting her to see how her belief in him, in them, made him go all poof-like.

"If you're thinkin' 'bout putting in a call to the Watcher, don't bother, pet. Did it already. Him and Will are on their way."

She was surprised. Very surprised. "Oh. You did? Oh."

"Yeah. 'Bout and hour ago, now. I figured it would be a good idea. Called him while you were doin' the knocked unconscious nap time. Giles has all those books, may as well put them to good use. Also figured Willow might come in handy, powerful little witch that she is."

"No, Spike, that's fine. That's good. I'm just surprised, is all. You're not exactly known for calling in the cavalry, even when you need help."

Shrugging in embarrassment, he said, "Yeah, well, it's not just me that needs help, now, is it? Don't take risks when it comes to your safety, luv. Makes me a team player, even if it is against my nature. You White Hats are good for the rushin' to the rescue, may as well make use of it when we need it."

"It'll take them a while to get here. How much trouble do you think we're in, in the meantime?"

Spike thought about it and frowned. "Well, it'll take a while for the haunt to come after us again. There are limits to its power. We may get lucky, too, it may not be as strong the next time around. It has to recharge, so to speak, or it won't be able to do much more than give you a shiver."

Buffy, curious, interrupted him. "Can't you feel the cold drafts?"

"Well, yeah. I mean, I'm a vampire so temperature doesn't really affect me, but I can feel changes in it. It's just, those icy drafts are the haunt - or ghost, they do it too - trying to make contact with you. Touchin' you, so to speak. Feelin' you out. She won't bother tryin' that with me, she knows I'm a vampire. Knows there's nothin' she can do to affect me."

Under her breath, she muttered, "Good. Don't have to worry about a haunt getting her hands on my man. Good to know."

Spike raised a brow and slid a sly grin her way, not commenting on the 'her man' part. He doubted she had any idea of what she was really saying. It was instinct, but it was a nice instinct. Gave him hope that one day he could explain that whole 'belonging to each other' thing without worrying about her staking him for it.

"So, this thing has to recharge," her voice interrupted his thoughts. "That's good. That gives us time. We can do something with that."

Now that was something he didn't like the sound of, Buffy going all intense and thoughtful. "What's goin' on in that head o' yours, woman?"

Playing it off with a wide-eyed look of pure innocence, almost making Spike laugh in the bargain, she just smiled slightly and said, "Well, there's breakfast. It's almost 6:30, and there's that nifty room service. I'm hungry."

"And you're not tellin' me everythin'." Narrowing his eyes, he searched her face, trying to guess at what was going on behind the tawny eyes he loved so much.

"Well...lets just say, we have a haunt that we know is trying get us up close and personal with the flip side of that life coin, right? But there's something else here, too. Something that had a vested interest in making sure you didn't get all dusty. Something powerful enough to send me crashing into a door several feet away. Normally that would be one of those 'not boding well for Buffy' things, but I wasn't myself at the time and it kept you from getting staked, so I think I can forgive whatever it was."

At his suspicious and vaguely concerned look, she rolled her eyes and spelled it out for him. "Something protected you, Spike. We need to find out what. We need to find out why. We need to find out if they can do it again. There's something going on here, and it's more than we've seen so far. I can feel it."

"Oh, bloody hell. You can 'feel it'? Great. You get a cramp; suddenly we're both on poltergeist patrol. Fan-fuckin'-tastic. And just how do you expect to do...whatever it is your suggestin' that I know I'm not gonna like? You have heard the term 'borrowin' trouble', right, luv? Well, it sounds to me that that is exactly what you're dabblin' in here. Sure, somethin' plowed into the haunt. Saved my ass, it did. Doesn't mean I want to invite it in for tea, find out what its ulterior motives are. Could be worse than what we've got on hand already."

Shaking her head emphatically, she thought about the possibilities. "I don't think so. I think it's something that might just be able to help us." Thinking back to her dream, she remembered something else that had bothered her at the time.

"He was punishing her."

Coming completely out of left field, Spike could only stare at Buffy after that comment.

"I completely forgot. The vampire. I...she was outside of the house at night. She had a shovel in her hand. I heard, behind me, it was him; I'm sure of it. I heard him howl. There was...pain in it. Anguish. Something is off, Spike. Don't you see? When he killed her, when he came into the house, she was surprised that he could get into the house, but she wasn't surprised at him. She knew him. Not only did she know what he was, she knew who he was. She had done something, Spike. Something that made him come after her. He said something to her - I can't remember what. But I know it's important. It may be the key to everything. He didn't just kill her, he was punishing her for what she did."

"And this is important to us because..."

"What if Miranda isn't just a haunt because she's mad at vampires for killing her? What if it's something else entirely?"

"I'm not followin', luv. What difference does it make?"

"I'll tell you what difference. We have to deal with this thing on our own for the next several hours. That's a long time. We have no weapons, nothing useful to use to fight it off. It can get into my head; it can kill you. Ducks doing the sitting thing are cute and all; doesn't mean I want to be one. We can't leave. We can't just sit here and wait until it comes after us again. All we can do is find out what really happened when she died. We do that, maybe we'll have a chance to do something. I don't know what exactly, release her maybe. Or at least we'll know what's going on. In my experience, most humans don't think of vampires as anything more than Hollywood storytelling, or a metaphor for...metaphorical things. This woman - over a hundred years ago - she knew. And that's just not normal. I'm in no way keen on finding out if third time's the charm with Buffy deceasedness, and I'm certainly not letting her turn you into a demonstration for a vacuum cleaner infomercial. We need to find out what happened. We need to find out what that other thing is, too - the thing that stopped her from staking you. And we need to do it quickly."

Sighing he sunk down into the couch and leaned back, resting his head against the cushions and staring at the ceiling, which was even now growing lighter at the coming dawn.

"So your sayin' we find out what really happened, find out what that other thing in the house is, we may just live to see the sun set tonight. Right? That is what you're sayin', isn't it."

Plopping down with a significantly higher level of enthusiasm than he was showing, she leaned into him and nodded. "Exactly. I don't see any other way. Sorry, Spike, it's a part of the Slayer package. I was born to be a solver of impending death problems. I'll admit, this is a new one on me, as I'm dealing with the already dead, but I'm programmed to be Slayerly. Can't help it."

"Can't help it, she says."

Mumbling to himself, he knew he'd eventually give in. What choice did he have? The only plan he had was to wait for Giles and Willow to show up, but Buffy was right. They were sitting ducks. He knew that. It's just this whole information gathering thing wasn't what he was about. He was a fighter. A brawler. This was so...passive. He hated it. But he'd do it. He'd do it because it may just help him keep her alive. Give me a cemetery in good old Sunnyhell any day. Give me a good Bovleaur demon, or a Rohmlix, or a few dozen vampires. This...this is just bloody wrong. One thing's for sure, next time I get her to go away for a weekend, we're gonna be doin' it my way.

"You know," he finally said, "if you'd listened to me to begin with, we'd be in a nice motel in San Diego right now, recoverin' from a night of dancin' and debauchery. No haunts or mysterious glowin' blue orbs of power anywhere to be found."

"Yeah, yeah. And I'm never gonna hear the end of it, am I?"

"Not bloody likely. How do you figure on findin' out all this stuff, anyway? We've got nothin' right now."

"Well, we'll start with the breakfast, I really am hungry. Then, when it gets later, we're going to go and talk to Ida, see if she knows anything about the house. As old as it is, there's probably some historical information lying around. We'll take it from there, I guess. We'll figure it out as we go along."

Spike tossed an arm over her shoulders and pulled her to him, inhaling her scent and nuzzling her hair. She turned her head to kiss him gently before pulling back and staring into his eyes.

"I love you, Spike."

He melted. He was such a poof. In that moment, if she'd asked him to dive into a pool of holy water, he'd be stripping off his clothes and going for a dip. He'd do anything for her. He'd die for her. He lived for her. He belonged to her. Until the dusty end, his world was her world.

The haunt would rue the day that she made the mistake of threatening Buffy's safety. It didn't have to be like this. If she'd left them alone, none of this would have happened. Now, however, Spike was going to destroy her. He was going to strip away the last shred of existence from her, and do it gladly.

"I love you, too." Swooping down, he captured Buffy's mouth in a serious kiss. "Order me some bacon and eggs, would you, pet?"

"Sure." Getting up, she paused before picking up the phone and turned back to him, a curious expression on her face. "Spike, why is it you eat more than blood, anyway? You're the only vampire I've ever met that eats like a teenager, instead of eating the actual teenager. Of course, there's the chip, but still. You eat food. Why is that?"

Spike thought for a minute, smiling to himself. He didn't really know why, but he liked food. Always had. Used to drive Dru nuts. She never understood it. Even Angel, souled poofta that he was, never ate normal food. He was unique. In more ways than one. "Don't rightly know, pet. I just always have. Most vampires don't have a taste for the stuff, what with the difference in the taste buds and all, but that never really bothered me. I like food. It has...substance."

Buffy just shook her head and grinned playfully. "You really are one of a kind, fang face."

"You too, blondie."

"Peroxided pest."

"Fashion victim."

She laughed out loud at that one. "That from a man with a serious case of Billy Idol envy. Good one, Spike."

Blowing her a kiss with a sexy, devilish gleam in his eye, he watched her butt as she turned and picked up the phone.

Something flickered in the shadows of the room and he just barely caught it out of the corner of his peripheral vision. Turning his head with vampiric speed, he caught the glimmer of energy hovering in the darkness. It was small and dim, but he knew what it was. Without alerting Buffy, he vamped out and bared his fangs silently at it. It was a warning. A deadly serious warning.

The haunt apparently took the message, for the time being at least. Spike knew she would. She wouldn't be strong enough yet to do much of anything. Watching intently, the vampire saw it sink through the floor, leaving the room. Unfortunately, it looked as though the haunt was more powerful than he had thought. She shouldn't even be able to show herself so soon after the energy she expended tonight.

They didn't have as much time as Spike had originally thought. The haunt would be coming again. And soon. Bloody hell.



Chapter Four

After the haunt disappeared from the suite, Spike relaxed back against the couch cushions, listening to Buffy order their breakfast. They had time - not a lot, but they had it - and it was the first chance he'd had to relax since turning around and seeing the inhabited Buffy-looking haunt behind him. He was off duty, in a sense, at least for now. That's when he remembered that he never got that shower he'd wanted.

While vampires aren't subjected to sweating, which is one of the more beneficial attributes of his kind, they do get dirty, or - as Spike thought back on the bedtime romp he and Buffy had engaged in - down and dirty. He was one unclean fiend. In both body and mind. As the haunt was off eating her spectral Wheaties somewhere, gaining strength for the impending conflict, now would likely be the only time he would have a chance to neaten up a bit without running the risk of the deader-than-him bitch popping up to ruin what could be a very good time.

He waited until Buffy got off the phone, then said, "I'm gonna jump in the shower, pet. Care to join me?"

Turning around to look at him, Buffy was caught by his eyes and held motionless for a second, before breaking the gaze and roaming over his body with an appreciative stare. He really was beautiful. Predatory, almost feline, powerful, all kinetic energy and sensual delight. And he loved her with a passion that did more to control his demon than any government-stamped chip ever could.

Reality, however, had a tendency to intrude on the moment, a fact that had been driven home again and again to the Slayer. Grinning slightly to take the sting from what she knew he would take as a rejection, she shook her head slightly and told him, "Seeing as breakfast will be delivered in less than thirty minutes, and our 'showers' tend to be of the not short variety, I don't think that's the best idea. Not that the offer isn't appealing. But, hey...shower away. Wouldn't want to deprive you of your weekly cleaning ritual."

Spike sputtered in mock surprise at the teasing insult, surging to his feet and blustering at the unabashed and superior expression on Buffy's face. "Weekly? Weekly? Now you know for a fact that's a bloody lie. Hell, you and I go for the wet and wigglies at least three times a week, pet. You also know damn well I shower every day."

"Oh, I know you get wet every day. And I know you destroy the musical integrity of every singer whose songs you butcher when you get in there, as well. I have no actual proof that you use that new invention called soap."

Lunging forward, Spike bent over and grabbed Buffy around the knees, ignoring her surprised protests. When he straightened, he had her tossed over his shoulder, struggling futilely against his strong grip. His chip didn't activate, despite the jostling he gave her, mostly because he wasn't trying to hurt her. There was no intent. Just like he could spar with her if he didn't try to hit her.

"Spike," the Slayer choked out from her upside down - and rather degrading - position, "what the hell do you think you're doing?"

Several long strides later, he set the surprised and mildly irritated girl down in the bathroom, not bothering to answer her. He just smirked at her flush-faced glare and yanked the short, satin robe she was wearing off her body. Grabbing her bare shoulders, he leaned down and attacked her mouth, forcing her lips open with his tongue, thrusting inside her warmth.

Her hands reached up and twisted in his hair as she returned his kiss, tugging just enough to hurt the smallest bit, hurting just enough to inflame his senses, fire his desire, telling him that she wasn't upset. And she was willing to concede to his changing her plans of not showering with him. Seeing as she could easily kick his ass all the way back to Sunnydale if she was in any way truly angry with him, he knew she was warming up to the idea.

There were one or two other clues, too. Like the fact that Buffy was in no way a passive participant. In fact, she was quite active while divesting him of his clothes. She no more bothered with permission than he did. His tee shirt was stripped off before he even acknowledged he'd raised his head so she could yank it off of him. Similarly, she had his pants unbuttoned, stripping him naked, in just two of her heartbeats later.

One of them turned on the shower, one of them pulled the other into the tub, one of them yanked the shower curtain closed. Neither of them knew which one did any of it.

If there was desperation in their coupling, they didn't mention it. If they came together with the water pounding down on their shoulders, their heads, their slick, naked bodies, with a little more fervor than the situation would have normally warranted, they let it. If neither one of them vocalized the fact that they both knew Spike's underlying reason for being so adamant about Buffy joining him in his shower, they were okay with that.

They both knew, though, that it was fear. Fear that what was in the house would be coming again soon. Fear that they wouldn't be able to deal with it as they did the baddies in their own town. Fear that Giles and Willow were a long way away yet. Spike's fear, too, that if he let Buffy out of his sight, the haunt would sneak up on them again. And maybe next time, the haunt would do more than get in Buffy's mind. Maybe next time, it would hurt her in ways that didn't heal so quickly.

So the words went unspoken, that was okay. They both understood. And they tried not to let their mutual concern mar the experience for them. It was easy to do. For a little while it was very easy to do. But all good things must come to an end. Slayer's and their vampire lovers knew that better than most.

For them, the good things came to a screeching halt just after Buffy stepped out of the shower. She turned to Spike and kissed him quickly before climbing, weak-kneed and tingly, out of the tub. Reaching out a hand to the towel she'd placed on the counter, the breath flew out of her lungs with a surprised hiss as she caught sight of the mirror over the sink.

Hours ago, Buffy had passed out when the haunt had forced her to see her bloody image, throat ravaged and pale as a ghost herself, in that very same mirror. Now, what she saw - though much less...colorful - was equally chilling for its simplicity.

Vaguely, as if separated from her body, she felt Spike's hand close tightly around her upper arm. It was welcomed support. Turning her head, searching his face for just the barest flicker of time, she saw his expression, grim and foreboding, with just the slightest tinge of demon gold crackling in his eyes. His gaze was locked on the glassy surface.

Neither one of them knew quite what to make of what they saw.

The bathroom was warm, steamy from the shower, but wisps of cold fog danced across the surface of the now iced-over mirror. Thicker and whiter than the steam from the shower, it was unmistakable. Buffy and Spike watched silently as the coating of ice slowly melted, small chunks sliding down the slick surface, dropping with slushy splats on the counter. It was a uniquely surreal experience made more so by the message left by a haunting hand.

"Abomination."

That was it. One word. One chilling, chilly word. Of course, it was enough.

The towel Buffy was going to use to dry off was still clutched in a tight-fisted grasp. Slowly, purposefully, she stepped up to the bathroom counter. With one last, disgusted glare, she swiped the offending word away, erasing it.

"Okay," she said in a serious, all-Slayer voice, "This haunt is living in one really big glass house. It's time we start throwing some stones."

Turning to the soggy vampire behind her, she saw how pissed off he looked. Pissed off and resolved. Impressive in any vampire, but in Spike...well...he did pissed off and resolved especially well. It was second only to his sardonic sneer in the 'effective Spike looks' department. Only the Slayer would ever dare tangle with Spike when he looked like that, like he was about ready to break something. Like necks. Lots of them.

His jaw clenched and unclenched again and again as he tried to lock down his demon, tried to control the rolling fury that was surging through him. If he went with it, this bathroom would never look the same again...and Buffy would never forgive him. Besides, he was much more interested in destroying that...thing...that had the gall to come in here and threaten them, strip away that small bubble of peace that he had tried so hard to give Buffy.

It was malicious, evil, and pointless. She couldn't be strong enough to attack yet, but instead of leaving them alone long enough to let them share some time together, she had to let them know she was still there. Watching and waiting. If it hadn't been Buffy and him she was focusing her aggression on, he might have admired the tactic. As a card-carrying member of the evil undead, he could have admired the tactic.

As a man in love with the tiny woman in front of him, he was enraged that the haunt dared even try.

A small hand closed over his and he started slightly at the contact. He hadn't noticed she'd moved. That hand, so tiny, yet stronger than anyone but him could ever understand...and not just in the slaying and defending the world against the forces of darkness...she was strong inside, where it counted most. Quite possibly the most intense force of nature on the planet. He got that. And the fact that he got that about her, that he understood her in ways that even her Watcher, her sister, and her Scoobies didn't, made him feel pretty good about himself. It brought him back to her. It always would.

Entwining his fingers with hers, he pulled her hand up and kissed the knuckles that had done so much damage to him in the past. Unable to be suppressed for long, his natural tendency towards sarcasm came dripping out of him as he grinned down and focused on the last thing she said.

"Told you before, Slayer. You don't have the stones."

Buffy laughed, remembering that long-ago conversation and fell into her role. "Oh I've got the stones. I've got plenty of...stones."

He always did that. That was his gift. One of his many gifts. No matter how intense things got, no matter how close to destruction her and hers came, Spike was there to provide the comic relief. He used his sarcasm and abrasive personality to relieve the tension in any situation. For a long time, she hated that about him, but that was before she understood that he wasn't just being sarcastic and abrasive to be sarcastic and abrasive. Not that it hadn't taken - what? Almost four years? - to recognize the pattern. Eventually, though, it sunk in.

Spike went all Spike-like when Buffy was closest to drowning in fear, closest to giving in to the terrors that were her day-to-day existence, closest to dancing that last dance of death. Closest to wanting it. Not to try to push her over the edge like she had thought for so long, but to keep her from it. A brassed off Slayer fought twice as hard. A brassed off Slayer never gave up. Fortunately for her, no one could brass her off as quickly or as effectively as Spike. That was something that, despite her feelings for him, had never changed. He'd have hated it if it had. So would she.

Now that the thick tension in the room was gone, and Spike had control over the demon in him again, she could give serious thought to what she just said.

"Well," she conceded, "I don't have the stones just yet...but I will. We're going to get them. Both of us. Then we're going to crash them into her. She won't know what hit her."

"Bloody right, she won't," he agreed.

"Spike," her command face was on again, "go get dressed. Breakfast will be here any second. We eat, we research, we destroy. In that order."

The twinkling amusement in his cobalt eyes had her dropping her gaze to her own naked and dripping appearance.

"And that wasn't exactly commandery. Damn. Note to self: clothes first, command second. This is worse than my yummy sushi pajamas." At his raised brow and mildly questioning look, she waved a dismissive hand at him. "Don't ask. Long story. Long, unpleasant Buffy story."

"Is there any other kind, pet?"

Sighing, knowing there was more truth to his taunt that she'd care to admit, she rolled her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest, glaring at him.

Considering that he was more interested in appreciating the new and exquisitely flattering view of her naked breasts that she just offered up to him, he was in no way concerned with her glare.

The knock on the door saved him from any Slayer retribution.

~*~*~*~*~*~

The morning sun was up, shining brightly down on the cheery yellow exterior of a quaint Bed & Breakfast in Three Rivers, California. But for all the perfection of that particular picture, a dark and sinister presence was residing in the house. Evil.

As a matter of fact, he was finishing his bacon and eggs breakfast with a blood chaser, hiding behind thick curtains, avoiding the sun and its deadly rays. And as evil as he was...well...he knew the love of a woman. While music may soothe the savage beast, Buffy, and only Buffy, could...not tame, certainly...redefine, maybe...the monster in the man. She certainly had done something, as he was sitting, wracking his brain for any information that might prove useful in destroying the entity that was threatening the Slayer's existence instead of sitting back and watching with glee as it happened.

Funny how things change.

Unfortunately he had nothing. Over a century and a score of years, and he had absolutely nothing. Demons, yeah, he could help with that...he knew a lot of them, if not personally then by reputation. Haunts, though...well...vampires and haunts didn't exactly have much use for each other in normal circumstances. They just didn't belong in the same...social circles.

He had told Buffy everything he knew. One large, Spike-sized batch of nothing useful. It was as frustrating as hell. And where was the mighty cavalry? That crack team that foiled his every plan? Still at least three hours away, and that was if they were lucky and they had left within minutes of Spike's call.

Wasn't that just peachy?

Buffy emerged from the bedroom, dressed and ready to go, and leaned against the doorframe, studying the glum beast brooding over a cup of platelets. It was a good thing that there was none of the physical similarity to Angel as there had been with Riley, as this new morose attitude of the blonde fiend would make the two vampires too close in essence for Buffy's comfort.

She loved, truly and fully loved both vampires, though in very different ways. That was enough of a similarity for her.

Taking a minute, perhaps selfishly, Buffy gave serious thought to the man sitting across the room. Why did she love him? How could she love him? He wasn't Angel. He had no soul. He wasn't good in the classic sense of the word. How could she forgive him for his evil ways? If it was just the chip...well...how shallow is that?

Would Buffy be able to love Spike if he got de-chipped? How could she trust him?

Answers, so hard to pin down when in reference to questions about her feelings for Riley, for Angel even, were remarkably simple in reference to Spike. What a pleasant surprise. And they had been getting easier and easier ever since her return from the great beyond.

Why she loved him was the easiest of all of them. Quite simply, because he was tails to her heads, the flip side of her coin. Her equal, her opposite, her completion. They were alike, so alike in so many tiny ways. Strong, brave, loyal...not normally adjectives associated with vampires, but true, nonetheless. And...oh yeah...there. Always there. When Spike believed in something, when he wanted something, he never gave up. Even though it was selfish at times. Most times. But that's what love should be, shouldn't it? A little selfish. Wanting to be with that one person, no matter the cost? That was selfish. Buffy had more than her share of selfless boyfriends. Angel, the epitome of 'suffering for the greater good' and Riley, as well. Both gone.

Spike stuck. He stood up, saw that Buffy was the one he loved, admitted it to himself, admitted it to her - oh...wall chains...tied up ex-ho looking on...let's not go there - and then stuck around, suffered horrible treatment at her hands, her friends' hands, Glory's hands...lots of bad hands pushing him away, torturing him. But he stuck.

That wasn't why she loved him...that question has already been answered...that's how she can love him. She can love him because he was there to love. He accepted it, reveled in it, wanted it, would never give up on it. And neither would she.

As to the forgiving of his past. Well. 'Fighting a Hell God? Impending death and torture for me? Where do I sign up?' That's essentially what he said with his actions against Glory. "Always knew I'd go down fightin'." That's what he actually had said, as he had shouldered an axe in her living room the night she died. Didn't matter to him that he knew he probably wouldn't make it. Or...it mattered...just not enough to prevent him from helping. Not enough to make him run for cover. That evil past of his was pretty blurry in comparison to that. And it had nothing at all to do with that chip in his head.

What about that chip? What if it came out, or stopped working? What then?

Well...see...that's where Spike not being Angel was the most beneficial. The chip prevented him from hurting humans if he wanted to...Angel's soul prevented him from wanting to. But she'd seen Angelus. Known Angelus. Hated Angelus. A virtually unstoppable, unspeakable horror. A demon of the worst magnitude. Evil, cold, ruthless...and a little insane. Two very different beings in one body, but a flip of a switch...a happiness clause...and they were interchangeable. Spike was just Spike. No Spikelus...or whatever.

Sure, he couldn't feed on humans with the chip. But all that made him loveable, which gave her no choice but to fall for him after pushing him away for so long, would never change. Wouldn't disappear one night. And she knew that even if he had that chip taken out, there was nothing he would ever do to threaten her love for him. So humans...and general evil directed at her and her friends, her family, were off limits. He had made a choice to ally himself with her loved ones; he loved Dawn.

And now that she thought about it, he'd given indications that he had some warm fuzzy feelings for Willow and Tara, too. Even Anya, who he'd always had a weird 'you were a cool demon' connection with. Not to mention his respect for Giles, which had grown by leaps and bounds since that night with Glory, according to Will. Something about being a band of brothers...but she didn't quite get the reference.

As for Xander, well...it was doubtful that they would ever be best buds. Too much blood under the bridge for that, Buffy guessed, but they had reached an understanding. They taunted and goaded each other as often as possible, and then fought side by side when necessary, a decent team. It was a friendship of sorts, as long as they both played by the rules. No staking of the vampire, no eating of the human. It worked for them.

All of that worked for Buffy.

She pushed herself off the doorframe and walked over to him. It was important to her that he understand. That was why they'd come here...why she'd brought him here. So far, the events of the previous evening had prevented anything but the barest essentials. Telling him she loved him was all well and good, but it wasn't all of it. Buffy knew it wasn't all of it.

Sliding into a chair at the small table in the far corner of the room, where they'd eaten together before she went to get dressed, she looked at him. Despite the shadows in the room - shadows that kept him from going up like a roman candle - she could see his exhaustion. Her heart went out to him when his tired eyes found hers. In truth, he looked half dead. Oh. Wait. That's not...well...you know. Anyway...he had slept hardly at all the night before, or the day and night before that. It was catching up to him; she could see it.

"You ready, pet?" Spike didn't know why she was staring at him like that, but her eyes were normal, so it wasn't the haunt. Okay, mate, he thought, what's with the silent treatment? You do somethin' you shouldn't have...again? She was starting to make him a little nervous.

He'd known she was staring at him from across the room. He always knew when she was nearby, definitely if she was in the same room as him. It was a vampire/Slayer thing. Plus, he'd memorized the beat of her heart, in much the same way a person recognizes the sound of a particular voice on the phone. He would know her anywhere. What he didn't know was what was going on in that head of hers.

Wanting to say something meaningful to get her message across, she took a deep breath and reached out to rest her hand over his large one. "You...dusty...not good."

Great, Buffy. Good work. Not exactly waxing poetic there, are you? Geesh, you're supposed to tell him how you feel...that wasn't even close. What the hell is wrong with you?

"Don't happen to fancy that myself, pet." He didn't know what prompted that less than stellar declaration of concern, but he enjoyed that faint blush that was flooding her face. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor in this case, he didn't give in to the habit of a sarcastic rejoinder.

"I mean...well..." Tell him, damn it! Tell him what you feel. Don't chicken out like you always do. "You're important to me, Spike." Oh, that's good...having toilet paper in the house is important...you're crashing and burning here, Buffy. "You're family." Better...much better. Hell, he's looking at you like you just grew a second head. Try again. "A year ago you told me...I mean...you didn't know it was me...you thought I was the robot...and, ya know, still icked out on that one...but...um...so not the point. Anyway...you told me...it...me...that you knew that losing Dawn would destroy me." Taking a deep breath, burning hotly in embarrassment, she rushed through the next few words. "Losing you would destroy me."

It's eerie, the stillness of a vampire. No breath, no muscle movement, no heartbeat. Not even an eye twitch. When they wanted to, they could do a very convincing imitation of a statue. Spike was chiseled stone. Unmoving, not blinking, perfectly, utterly still. Spike was never still. It was giving her the wiggins. He didn't even smile like he had when she told him she loved him. She thought she'd done something wrong, said something wrong, and her embarrassed confusion had her leaping to her feet, defensive and prickly.

"Don't."

One word. One deep, gravelly-voiced, accented word stopped her before she blurted out something she shouldn't, before she turned and fled. Didn't mean she could meet his eyes, though, so she stared hard at her feet.

Spike watched her; all he wanted to do for the rest of eternity was watch her. Look at her. Love her. Worship her. Defend her. Stand beside her. Protect her while she did the same for him. Fight with her. Fight beside her.

Love had just been redefined for him. Five words. It had changed everything for him. More than love. The meaning behind what she told him was as clear to him as glass and it was more than love. She loved her sister, loved Harris, Will, the rest. She loved him - told him she loved him. And it was great, hearing that last night. But this. This was more. She may not realize what she had just done, but she just pledged herself to him. She admitted something pure, raw, and it was the first time he'd even dreamed that she could possibly love him as much as he loved her. Love had been redefined and with the force of nature that was Buffy, all he could do was let it wash over him. Healing his heart in places he hadn't even known were damaged.

His demon was silent.

"That night. When you died...when I saw you lyin' there...gone...my world crumbled. I crumbled." His voice, ragged and hoarse, scratched out of his throat with painful honesty. It was time she knew. He had to tell her. "I wanted to die. I would have welcomed the fires of hell...wouldn't have been nothin' compared to what I was feelin'."

Buffy, transfixed by the horror she saw in his face, slid bonelessly back into her chair and watched, mouth slightly agape. She could see that he was reliving it - saw the memories of her death rake across his mind and heart, leaving scorching, burning furrows of agony.

"I blamed myself. Of course I blamed myself. Why the bloody hell wouldn't I? I thought you would have, too. I failed. Shoulda known. Always failed when it came to you, dinn't I? I wanted to greet the sun that mornin'. Nearly bloody did. It was my bleedin' fault you died."

Shaking her head in denial, she told him, "No, Spike. You didn't - "

"You were DEAD!" he shouted, interrupting her. "It was supposed to BE ME! Not you. NEVER YOU!"

Struggling not to lose it, Spike ran a hand through his hair until he had the composure to continue. Buffy was watching him intently and he wouldn't stop until this was finally done, haunts and Slayers be damned.

"I'm not supposed to feel guilt, ya know. Remorse, either, when it comes to that. I felt both. I was drownin' in it, burnin' with it. The one thing...ONE thing that kept me from greetin' the sun every mornin' for the three months you were gone was my promise to you. Every day, every time that burnin' ball dragged itself out of the east, I had to force myself not to meet it. Had to think 'bout my promise. Even dead, you had the ultimate power over me. Bleedin' ironic, if you ask me.

"Nothin' was gonna hurt Dawn. Not on my watch. Nothin'. Little Bit was the one that bullied me into protectin' the rest of that screwy Scooby club of yours. Why? She was you. YOU. To me, she was all I had left of you. I love her. Nothin' will ever hurt her as long as I exist. Now, that goes for the rest of your motley crew, too. They didn't trust me, ya know. Even after everythin' I did. Only Nibblet.

"It was bad, Buffy. So bad when you were gone. We tried, but you weren't there. You just don't know. There are things...things that I'll never tell anyone - not even you. Bad, evil things that came to town. That I fought. Alone. Things too horrible for the Scoobies to get near. I didn't want to put them through that. I did things. Things I had to do to get rid of the nasties. If I'd had a soul, I would have sold it to keep them safe.

"Then you came back. That was almost worse. I don't know if you can understand, but it was almost worse. It nearly destroyed me. With you back, they dinn't need me anymore, and that need was the only thin' keeping me not breathin'. I still had that guilt, that remorse, and that feelin' I failed you. And with you back, I dinn't have any way to make up for it anymore. But...then I saw it. I watched you - lovin' you so much it was consumin' me - not bein' able to tell you, to show you - I watched you struggle with your bein' back. That's when I knew I could still help. You needed me - not that you'd ever admit it. That's why I started patrollin' with you every night. The more time I spent with you, tryin' to keep you wantin' to stay in this world, the more I wanted to stay in the world. Savin' you was savin' me.

"You did this to me. Made me like this. I was happy bein' a demon. Until you I was happy. You ruined everythin' and nothin' will ever be the same for me again. And...see...I don't want it to be. Never again. I love you more than I ever thought possible to love anythin'. I'm yours. And losin' you again...well...I don't think a promise would be able to keep me from greetin' the sun next time, Buffy. Not like before. Not now that I know...that I know what I'd truly lose."

He was across the room, with no earthly idea how he got there. He didn't remember getting up out of his chair while he was talking, pacing the room. He hadn't realized he had been stalking back and forth, the emotions in him running rampant; taking control of his body while his mind was locked down in the memories, the agonizing memories and truth.

Buffy was trembling. Shaking violently with the force of love she felt shimmering off of him in waves. She'd never heard Spike speak for that long at one time before, and his words...well...earth shattering comes to mind. It was like a homecoming. He was her home. Never had she given a thought to what he'd gone through when she died, and as for the rest...well...since she'd been back, she'd never talked about the time when she wasn't. It had been too painful to think about. But Spike, well...that's what Spike did. He was strong in ways that she could only envy. He felt things, deeply and honestly, and acted on them. He was man enough to admit them. God, she loved him.

Regaining her feet, standing on quivering legs, she stared at the tortured fiend in front of her. They stood that way, eye to eye, separated by the length of a room, and watched each other, waiting to see what the other would do, or say.

And then there was no longer a room between them. They came together. Threw themselves at each other, wrapping strong, warrior arms around the other. Not a hug, more than an embrace, it was possession. The spell had been cast, and they gave themselves to it.

But Buffy was human, for all her Slayerness, and she needed to breathe. Spike's arms were making it just a touch difficult to do that.

"Spike," she rasped out, not wanting to let go, but wanting to stay alive - for a very, very long time. "Slayer strength all well and good...need oxygen, though."

Happy in ways he'd never been before, he laughed - an actual, honest laugh, and eased up just a bit. Not that he'd even consider letting her go right then, but he didn't want her cold and blue...not good. "Bloody humans with all that breathin' rot. Sad weakness if you ask me."

Chuckling, liking the way he lightened the atmosphere with his natural - or...well, as natural as vampires can be - personality. "Yeah, I know. So weak, I'm a weakling. Poor, poor Slayer. All weak and able to kick your ass to hell and back. Pity me. I need to be pitied."

"Oh, I see." He drew back just enough to meet her dancing eyes with the tickling delight in his own. "Gonna go there now, are we, pet? Why don't you - "

Spike never got a chance to finish his suggestion. The scream that rent the air stopped him cold, wiped all trace of amusement off his face. Serious and battle-ready, his game face surged forward and he whirled, letting go of Buffy, who had matched his expression...sans ridges and fangs...and dropped into a fighting stance.

It was everywhere, the scream. A howl of ultimate fury, unrestrained and un-abating. Buffy and Spike slid into their fighting habit, stood back to back, circling around, watching each other's blind side.

It was Spike that saw it first, saw her first, he was facing the window and he saw her materialize in front of it. The haunt had come.

"Buffy," he called, "here."

The Slayer spun from her spot behind Spike and watched as the haunt solidified ten feet from where the warriors stood.

The scream faded as the haunt became more and more visible. In short seconds, the figure of the woman, petite, wearing a long dress with a high collar, chestnut hair piled high in a bun at the top of her head, glared at them with righteous fury. Large, brown eyes flashed hateful fire and the scream was gone, replaced by a snarl of indignation.

Buffy, always one to take the initiative, surged forward, ready to engage the bitch that had ruined the best moment in her life.

Miranda didn't let her get close enough to try anything. Holding up a hand, a wave of energy leapt from her palm and blasted into the Slayer, not knocking her back, but holding her still - as if she was a fly in a spider web. Struggling, trying to break free from the unknown energy, Buffy was caught. She couldn't move.

Spike snarled low in his throat, eyes burning with a deadly intensity and he launched himself at the haunt. If he could break her concentration...

He didn't get the chance. Miranda flicked him a dismissive glance and whirled, evil triumph in her malicious chuckle, and raised her hands to the curtains.

Unable to do anything but watch in growing horror, knowing Spike was too enraged to grasp just what the haunt was doing, Buffy tried to call out to him. To warn him.

The curtains were torn away from the windows before she got a word past her lips.

And Spike was howling...not in rage - but in pain.

Smoking, smoldering, he thought quickly, flipping the table next to him on its side, huddling down into the saving shadows. A rapid flow of curses escaped his lips as he tried to pat out the various parts of himself - his bare arms, especially, that were burning.

"Buffy!"

"I can't move! I can't - "

The haunt disappeared in a blink and Buffy fell to the floor in a graceless heap. The energy wall slipped away as soon as the haunt had. With a roll she was up, running to the discarded curtains. She grabbed them both, rushed over to Spike, and wrapped them around him. Hiding him from the sun, from the light that was flooding the room with it's glorious but deadly fire.

"How bad?" In her Slayer mode, the question was short and to the point.

"Bad enough." He was assessing the damage, but under the cloaked covers it was hard to tell. "Bloody hell that hurts!"

"Bedroom. Now. Together."

Protecting him as much as she could, holding the curtains in place, Buffy helped him into the soothing cover of darkness in the bedroom.

Once there, the curtains fell away and Spike stood up, shaking off his demon visage and checking out his arms. They were red, but no open sores, nothing oozing or bleeding. That was good. He was still smoking a bit, but all in all, the damage wasn't too bad. Hurt like a mother, but that would pass. If I'd a had my duster on, he thought wryly, I wouldn't be sportin' this less than fashionable sunburn.

Buffy reached into his duffle and came out with two blood bags. She tossed them to him, told him to hold on, and jogged out to the other room to pick up the mug from where it had fallen when he'd turned over the table.

In the few seconds she'd been gone, he'd managed to down one bag on his own. Not exactly Miss Manners, she thought as she watched his re-emerged fangs puncture the second bag as she joined him again, but you gotta love a guy that can take care of himself.

"So," she said, dangling the mug by a finger, "guess you won't be needing this after all."

The second bag fell, empty, to the floor, next to the first.

He pushed the fangs and forehead back and looked at her almost sheepishly. "Didn't feel up to excercisin' my table manners, what with havin' to hide behind one and all." The slightly guilty expression faded away, replaced by a business-like seriousness. "We've got a problem."

Setting the mug down on the end table by the bed, Buffy shot him a dry smile. "Just one? Aren't we the lucky ones? I'd have figured at least a dozen."

"Good point. More than one. First, that bitch shouldn't be able to do what she just did. Singeing me - yeah, materializin' like that - yeah, but whatever that shit was she did to you...never heard o' that before. Not to mention, that kind o' energy..."

He let his voice trail off, not needing to finish the thought.

"We're in real trouble here, pet. And there's one other tasty bonus for us White Hats to deal with. I'm almost out o' blood. Didn't exactly pack for act of haunt."

"And you call yourself a vampire. All manner of weapons, first aide kit, what you call clothes and you didn't bring enough blood? Color me astounded." She was teasing him, trying to mask her fear of the situation behind humor.

Even now the blood he drank sped up his healing, the angry red marks on his arms and face disappearing under her watchful gaze. She dropped the humor and spoke seriously. "We'll just have to make sure she doesn't get another chance to damage you."

Stripping the bedspread off the bed in one swipe, Buffy went into the other room to cover the window. Once done, Spike joined her in the living area.

"Come on, Ken, we've got a haunt to research...and destroy."

Spike rolled his eyes at the name. "Bloody hell. Call me Spike. This place inn't exactly my idea of any kind of dream house right now."

Seriously, with just a touch of darkness in her voice, she spoke over her shoulder as she yanked the door to the suite open. "Sure it is, Spike. It's the dream house from hell."

Following her out the door, he just shook his head and sighed.



Chapter Five

Trailing behind the Slayer as she stormed down the hallway on her way to the stairs, Spike avoided a few rays of sun pouring through a hall window by skirting around a potted tree and using his duster to shield his still-tender flesh. He wasn't thrilled with the idea of prancing around in a house graced with several large windows, providing more opportunities to ride down that crispy vamp highway to hell, but he certainly wasn't going to stay in the room and wait like some prat. Not to mention he was more likely to stick a hot poker in his eye then let Buffy go toddling around in the house by herself.

Between the second and third floor, Buffy whirled around and pinned him with an intense stare.

"Say nothing. I need to charm...there may be cajoling. If you start in on your 'I'm an annoying vampire that runs off at the mouth' routine, we run the risk of getting tossed out of here. Unless you brought along any SPF three million sun block, not the way to go."

Smirking at her all-business attitude, not offended in the least, he shoved his hands in his pockets. "I feel compelled to mention, pet, when it comes to charm, well...you're less than gifted in that area."

Buffy felt a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth but she forced her face to remain impassive. "Spike, every time your lips move you prove my point." He raised a brow and grinned knowingly. Rolling her eyes, she pointedly ignored his unspoken indication that she just proved his point. "Just...try not to be too...you."

The sound of a door closing and people moving down the hallway of the floor below them prevented their conversation from degrading to the 'I'm way cooler than you are' stage. It didn't stop Spike from leaning in towards Buffy and whispering, "If memory serves, that's a different song than you were singin' last night, luv."

"Uh huh. Right. And was that before or after we were dealing with the psychotically deceased?"

Tingles danced down the flesh at her neck when she heard his husky laugh and an almost non-existent, "Both," before he slid around her and continued his descent down the stairs.

Ida Heggan was standing almost exactly where they'd left her the night before, the only indication that she hadn't been there all night was the change in her clothing. Though she did look equally professional in another trendy business suit, apparently the favored code of dress for the contemporary woman.

Buffy took a deep breath and pasted a large smile on her face, wrapping a hand around Spike's not only to complete the happy couple image, but to be able to have some inconspicuous way of communicating - even if it was only the occasional hand squeeze. They had gotten to the point of knowing each other so well, working together so extensively, that the slightest pressure could transmit a myriad of messages. It wasn't romantic; it was practical.

"Good morning, Mrs. Heggan," Buffy chirped pleasantly as she pulled the rather reluctant Spike up to the reservation desk.

The middle-aged woman looked up from the paperwork spread around her and beamed at the attractive couple, her professionalism preventing her from commenting on the fact that the pair looked less rested this morning than they had last night, the slightly wicked sense of fun she kept hidden from all but her husband allowing her to make assumptions on what they would have been up to during the night hours that would have prevented sleep. "Good morning, dear. But please, call me Ida. Really. Formality is so formal. I hope you enjoyed your first night at Carr House."

Buffy squeezed Spike's hand, just in case he felt a sarcastic rejoinder coming on, and beamed back at the kind-hearted woman. "We did, thank you for asking." Her efforts to keep Spike as silent as possible were for naught when Ida directed her attention to the vampire.

Ida addressed Spike with a happy twinkle in her eyes. "Good morning, Ken. Was the Dalton Suite satisfactory?"

He clenched his jaw at the offensive nomenclature, but decided it was just about time to show Buffy just how charming he could be. Not to mention he had the accent, and in his experience, his north London drawl easily swayed American woman - regardless of age.

Flashing a smirk filled with sexual heat and sardonic humor, he stepped forward and reached over the desk, clasping the woman's hand in a gallant show of chivalry. Bringing it to his mouth, he kissed the back of it before straightening up and winking at her conspiratorially. "It was very impressive, mum. I, for one, was especially taken with that monster of a bed you have up there. Sunk right in, we did. Got a bit lost for a while, but the little woman here made sure we found our way out." He caught Buffy's warning glare out of the corner of his eye and decided there was no reason not to enjoy himself as much as the situation would allow. Draping a casual arm around her shoulders and giving her a squeeze, he chuckled at her embarrassed squirm.

Buffy was desperately wishing a hole would open up in the floor and swallow her, but this wasn't Sunnydale, so Hellmouth activity of that sort couldn't be counted on. What a shame. She was left with little choice but to grin and bear it, damning Spike to hell in the meantime and definitely making a mental note to torture him later. She just didn't understand how he could think acting like a sex-fiend-type pig equated with being charming.

And for the life of her, she couldn't figure out why it always worked so damn well.

Ida, though, was proof that it did, because she tittered almost coyly at the vampire's words. The Slayer tried to steer the conversation back to a safe and hopefully more informational path.

"Ken and I are very impressed with the whole house, Ida. It's beautiful. Way old, too, I bet."

Spike winced inwardly, shaking his mental head at Buffy's blunt and less than subtle prompt for information. He caught the slight frown that clouded Ida's face and he rushed in to smooth out the rough edges of Buffy's words.

"Now, pet," he said chidingly, in a similar tone Xander used when warning Anya whenever she's being...well, Anya. "Historical is not the same as old and this house is definitely historical."

Spike flashed an engaging smile to Ida, ignoring the sparks that flared in Buffy's eyes at his purposefully condescending tone. "See, this house is what, one hundred and fifty years? In my country, that's little more than a blip on the timeline, but here..." Spike paused; glad to see Ida was listening intently, the slight offense taken at Buffy's words forgotten, "...well, here this house has to be one of the oldest in the surrounding area. Where else but in the States can you find something so old and so young at the same time? That's one of the many great things about this country."

Buffy had to struggle not to laugh out loud. What's with all the 'ode to America' stuff? Not that she could argue it was working. There was also the amusement about the 'so old and so young at the same time' thing. From a vampire. From a vampire that looked to be in his late twenties, but was actually closer to his late one hundred and twenties. Ironic much?

Ida smiled, completely enchanted with Spike. "You know, we're featured on California's list of historical landmarks."

"Impressive, mum. Not many can boast that honor, I wager."

"Very true. And it's more than just the age of the house, which is actually closer to one hundred and thirty years old, but because it's in its original condition. There has been no structural renovation done, as is so often the case with houses as the passage of time takes its toll."

Buffy was encouraged. It sounded like Ida was more than just casually informed on the house, so more in-depth information was well within the realm of possibility.

"Wow, Ida," she said, trying to take back some small measure of control, not that she wasn't duly impressed with Spike's rather ingenuous ploy. "It sounds like you know a lot about the history of the Carr House."

Ida chuckled merrily. "Oh, I should, dear. I am, after all, a Carr."

Buffy and Spike exchanged a glance, sharing the thought that they just hit the mother load. That one quick look set the stage for the next round of information gathering - and Buffy slipped into the 'dumber than she really is' blonde routine.

Frowning prettily, as if trying to work out the logic, she questioned the older woman. "You're a Carr? As in the Carr House? So...your not a Heggan?"

Reaching out and patting the young girl's arm in a friendly gesture, Ida said, "I'm both, dear. Heggan is my married name, and in truth, Lockley is my maiden name, but my Great-grandmother was a Carr. I was raised in this house. After my parents died, my husband and I were left ownership. It seemed natural to make use of it. Lived in it until my husband and I decided to try our hand at inn keeping. Once the children moved out - I have three boys...all about your age - the house was too large for Fred and I. Fred is my husband, of course. Now we share a smaller cottage next door, though still on the Carr House grounds."

Everything was going according to plan, better than the Slayer had even hoped. They had established a congenial rapport, information was flowing freely...if a little longwindedly...and Buffy was getting ready to ask another 'I'm a little dim, could you clarify?' question. Snags, though, have a tendency to pop up when least expected. Snags in the form of a family - father, mother, and small child of the sticky-faced, male, five-year-old variety - that came bundling and bungling down the stairs. Loud, laughing, playful, a couple in their early thirties held their son between them, carrying him as if he was doing some odd sort of impression of a dribbling, squealing airplane.

"Zachary!" Ida called to the giggling bundle of energy in his parents' arms. "Look at you! You're flying! Aren't you the lucky one?"

It took all of three seconds. The contemporary businesswoman, chic and respectable, turned into a pseudo-grandmother, all earth-mother wisdom and 'lives through the children' exuberance. Buffy and Spike may as well have no longer been present, though they did get an introduction to Roxanne and Dylan Kaplan, visiting from Salt Lake City, Utah, with their already identified son, Zachary.

Now, just how well did you think that went over with the less than patient pair?

Dylan Kaplan, a walking advertisement for the self-made Internet-loving generation X'er, all Land's End and Gucci, slapped Spike on the shoulder - once he'd set the wriggling mass of son down - in gregarious congeniality. Some kind of male bonding thing.

For the first time in longer than the vampire could remember, he was completely out of his depth and more interested in just munching on the whole lot of the noisy bunch than spending one more nanosecond in their company.

It was fortunate that a couple of parents with a precocious and hungry child had little time for pleasantries when the breakfast bells were tolling, because the three moved off to find some food after fifteen minutes of the mindless gab.

Which in Spike's mind was about twenty minutes too late.

Especially as Ida's next ten minutes were dedicated to informing Buffy and Spike all the known details of the Kaplan's lives. By the time Ida had started to wind down and Buffy and Spike could finally get a word in, both of their patience levels had been stretched to the breaking point.

Without words, without even realizing they were doing it, the Slayer and the vampire leaned into each other, Spike wrapping his arms around Buffy and pulling her back against his chest. It was calming, and it saved both of them from going boom - but it was a near thing.

"So," Ida had returned most of her attention to the paperwork in front of her, not that she thought the guests at the Carr House were distracting - but in her experience, paperwork knew no social necessities, "what do you two have planned for today?"

What a good question, Buffy thought. A little haunt bashing, a little making sure Spike and I don't get dead, a little investigation into the mysterious spectral nasty. The usual. "No plans," she said as she rested her head back against Spike's chest. "We came here more for the resty time, less for the touristy time."

Already lost to her work, Ida just nodded vaguely. "That's good dear, I'm sure you'll find your stay completely relaxing."

Little late for any hope of that, Buffy thought, and the soft huff of derision she heard from Spike expressed his opinion quite plainly.

And the truth was, there just wasn't time to ring around that rosy any more. Charming wasn't cutting it. They needed information. Ida was the one that had it. No way she could live in the house as long as she had and not have it. Time for the Slayer to come out and play.

"Actually, Ida," she started slowly. Spike heard the change in her tone of voice and tightened his grip on her in support of the 'lets up it a notch' plan. "There's something about that relaxing thing I wanted to ask you about."

Spike wasn't the only one who caught the change in tone, and though she didn't understand the reason behind it, it did pull Ida away from her ledgers. "Of course, dear. Anything I can help you with, I will. Ask away."

"Who was Miranda?"

If Spike was surprised that the 'up it a notch' plan turned out to be more of a 'lay it all out there' plan, it was nothing compared to the reaction Ida Heggan had. She started as if she'd just touched a live wire, then paled considerably. Buffy stepped away from Spike and cocked her head at the obviously surprised woman, arms crossed and serious.

"I see we're all on the same page. Good to know."

Staring hard at Buffy, the innkeeper's surprise turned quickly to offense. With her mouth set in a firm line - the first time the Slayer had seen her unsmiling - she motioned to the two of them to follow her and stepped from behind the desk. Briskly, efficiently, she crossed the hallway and disappeared into the room she'd come bustling out of the night before.

Spike and Buffy had little choice but to follow her.

It was a small office filled with filing cabinets and furniture, a desk, a lamp, a computer and computer desk...things like that. Ida was bent over the coffee machine, pouring herself a cup, her back to the door. When she turned with the mug in one shaking hand, she wasted no time cutting to the chase.

"Who do you work for?"

Frowning, a little thrown, Buffy glanced at Spike in confusion before saying anything. "I-I'm sorry?"

"Is it that 'Scariest Places on Earth' group? Did they send you here? I told you people that I wanted nothing to do with having this house turned into some kind of supernatural theme park. This is my home. My family home. And it's my business. You're money will be refunded for tonight's stay. I want both of you to leave."

Backpedaling quickly, trying to get control of the situation, Buffy was quick to reply. "Whoa. Wait. We're not working for anybody, Mrs. Heggan. I promise you."

"Really." Ida was by no means swayed by Buffy's attempt. "Then how do you know anything about Miranda?"

Buffy and Spike looked at each other for a long second before deciding to answer the question with the truth. More or less.

"We saw her, mum. Last night. Had a slight difference of opinion with her, so to speak."

Glaring at them warily, sizing them up, Ida frowned. "If you're suggesting that a woman who has been dead for over a century popped into your room and introduced herself, I think you've more than outstayed your welcome. Get out. Whoever you are, just leave."

"Mrs. Heggan," Buffy said, worried that things were getting totally messed up. "How would we know the name if we weren't telling you the truth. Miranda is haunting this house. You have to trust us."

Moving around the desk, setting her coffee cup down with enough force to slosh the liquid over the rim, Ida laid her hands on the tabletop and addressed both of them. "I don't have to do anything of the sort, young lady, and let me tell you why. There are very few people who know Miranda's story. I don't care if you heard it and came here out of some morbid curiosity or were sent to research the house and her story for those dreadful television people. Either way, I want nothing to do with having you here."

"Listen," Buffy tried again, "I understand you're skeptical, I do. But we are telling you the truth. And we can help you. We can get rid of her, I promise. But we need information from you first."

Ida was indignant. She scoffed at the Slayer, "Help me get rid of her? You're not serious. I don't need your help and I have no desire to get rid of her. She's my Great-great-aunt, for goodness sake. She's family."

Spike's head reared back in surprise, a move closely matched by the Slayer's. "You know," he accused. "You know she's here. In the house. You've always known."

"Of course I know. I told you I've lived here most of my life. How could I not know?"

Sputtering, confused, Spike said, "So havin' an evil nasty floatin' around, terrifyin' your visitors is what? The premium package? All's right and proper because she's family."

"Excuse me," Ida replied, the epitome of offended affront, "I will not have you referring to that poor woman in such a manner. She's no more evil than you are." Buffy shot Spike a look at that particular comment. A look that he pointedly ignored. "What's more, she's never terrified anyone. She exists in this house, yes, but she's harmless. I don't know where you got your information, Ken, but it is obviously flawed."

Fed up, still agitated by everything that had been going on since he stepped into this nightmare of a house, furious, Spike stalked to the desk and spoke with deadly intensity through clenched teeth. "That's it. I'm done playin'. First, the name's Spike. Second, Buffy and I spent the better part of the evenin' doin' the bloody duck and cover from this thing - so don't play that long-lost relative rot with us. Trust us or not, Auntie dearest has started a game she won't get to finish."

"Okay, enough." Buffy turned to the vampire and laid a comforting hand on his arm. "This isn't the way, Spike." Glancing at the stricken expression on Ida's face, she pushed him back a step and placed herself between him and the desk, right in front of the innkeeper. Speaking calmly, smoothly, she took control. "Ida, we don't mean to trash your relative, but Spike's right. Miranda is nowhere near harmless. She is dangerous - you have to trust us on this. I'm..." Buffy broke off, not sure how to explain without going into the 'I'm the Vampire Slayer and I say so' deal. Tact and discretion were needed.

"When I was fifteen, something happened to me. I was given a...calling...of sorts. This calling lets me see the world differently than most people. And I deal with things...things that other people can't deal with. But because of that, those things - mostly not so nice things - have a way of finding me. Spike and I came here for a vacation away from that - but we've had that 'nowhere to run, nowhere to hide' lesson driven home. Really driven home.

"We're not here to turn your house into the top draw on the Tour of Homes from Hell, and we don't work for a television show. We came here for rest. We got Miranda instead."

Falling silent, the only sound in the room was a low hum coming from the computer on the table. Buffy watched Ida for a reaction, waiting, hoping that what she said was enough to keep from getting tossed out on their collective ear. Finally, after what seemed like minutes, Ida sighed and sunk down into the leather chair behind her.

"She's not evil. You're wrong."

Not exactly promising, but at least she wasn't throwing them out...yet. Buffy walked around the desk and kneeled down next to Ida's chair, looking up at her earnestly. "We need to know what you know, Ida. Maybe you're right. Maybe we are wrong. But we need to know."

Doubt and indecision marred Ida's features, and for a long time she remained silent. Then, as if coming to an internal decision, she sighed deeply again and spoke. Her eyes were trained on her clasped hands lying on the table. "My grandmother would tell me about Miranda when I was a very little girl. Long before I knew she was still here. I remember thinking how romantic it was, but so sad. So tragic. I would pester her to hear it over and over, though I could have recited it verbatim."

Ida met Buffy's eyes and gave her a tentative smile. Spike leaned back against the doorframe, getting settled, impressed as hell with Buffy. Looked like she saved the day...again.

Leaning back against a filing cabinet, the Slayer got comfortable for what may be a long story. From across the room, she felt Spike staring at her and she met his gaze. Relief teased her mouth into a smile. His lone nod and wink were recognition of her accomplishment.

"Miranda was fifteen when she met Jacob Morgan. He was older, ten years older, but she fell in love with him and he with her. He was a good man, the son of a banker. The Morgans were one of the richest families in the area - mostly because of the business Jacob's father William did during the California gold rush. Jacob himself was a simple man, a man of less exclusive tastes. Instead of going into banking and following his father's dictates, he chose to become a minister. Once he'd been ordained, he chose Three Rivers to start his ministry. Miranda saw and fell in love with him at the church's very first picnic.

The age difference was a problem for Jacob, though, and he tried to stay away from her. He didn't think she was old enough to really know whom she loved, but Miranda was persistent. Finally, he couldn't deny his love for her any longer. On her sixteenth birthday, Jacob asked her to marry him. I know that sounds young - but it was a different time, girls were women at sixteen. And true love, that kind of deep and abiding love, knows no age barrier. She said yes."

Buffy could see the faraway look in Ida's eyes as she told the story, and Buffy knew she was reliving fond memories of hearing the story from her grandmother when she was young.

"They were married for just over a year when Miranda gave birth to Nathan. Jacob was thrilled and so very, very happy. They both were. You can't understand just how much that man loved his wife and son - it was a beautiful thing to see, according to my grandmother - as her mother, Miranda's younger sister, told her. He would have moved mountains for them, died for them. There's nothing he wouldn't have done.

"When Nathan was eight, Jacob started building this house. He dedicated it to Miranda, named it the Carr House in her honor. But..." Ida frowned, lost in her memories. It was a story oft told at family gatherings, oft repeated between family members, but for Ida, it had never lost its power.

"Just days before they had planned to move into the Carr house, it happened. Jacob went to the church one morning to prepare a sermon for the next day's service. He never came home. The next day his horse was found grazing by the road less than a mile from his house, scratched up and injured, but alive. They found Jacob's body later that day, several yards from the road, just inside the nearby woods. It looked like an animal, probably a cougar that came down from the Rockies, had taken him.

"My grandmother told me that Miranda was never the same after they buried her husband. She moved into the Carr House with Nathan. There were too many memories for her in the house she'd shared with Jacob. It was too painful for her to stay there. She became withdrawn, staying in this house with only her son for company. There would be days - weeks that would go by without her family ever seeing her.

"It was a dark time for the whole town. In the year after Jacob's death, several women and children were also taken - found days after they'd disappeared, all attacked by an animal, left just inside the woods. The town leaders were convinced they had a man-eater on the loose and put all of its admittedly limited resources into trying to find and destroy it. Nothing they did stopped the killing."

Buffy was numb. Ida had been right; this was not a warm and fuzzy story. But it was worse for the Slayer, because Buffy had more than a sneaking suspicion about just what kind of creature was really responsible for the death of Jacob and the other people of the town. It was a predator, all right, but it wasn't the four-legged kind. And she had a funny feeling that the story was going to get worse before it got better. If it ever got better.

"Nathan Morgan, Miranda's son, was the twenty-third victim, almost exactly one year after his father's death."

Man, I hate it when I'm right, Buffy thought, a maelstrom of emotions churned painfully in her stomach. She didn't need to look at Spike. There was no doubt in her mind that he was thinking exactly what she was thinking. A vampire had killed the townspeople.

"He'd stayed out late at a friend's house - past dark, even though he knew he wasn't supposed to. He was always supposed to be in the house before the sun set. Miranda was extremely protective. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough. Nathan was the only victim whose body was never found. His disappearance destroyed what was left of a once vibrant and happy woman.

"For a week they searched for Nathan, just about every man and boy over the age of ten that lived in Three Rivers searched for him. One morning, just before sunrise, my grandmother says, several members of the search team headed here to update Miranda on where they'd be looking that day. They found her on the front porch. Dead. The window in the living room had been broken in, and the same thing that killed her husband and son had apparently attacked her. Miranda was its last victim. They never found the animal that killed all those people and they never found Nathan. The killings stopped - they just...stopped." Coming back to the present, the innkeeper studied the blonde couple in turn. "Those are the facts of Miranda's story as I've been told, but the part that always struck me as the most poignant, is the legend."

"Legend?" Buffy prompted, enthralled and aching for Miranda, despite herself. "What legend?"

"Well...its been said that when those five men from town crested the hill and saw the house, just warming up to greet the morning sun, that they saw Jacob Morgan standing on the porch, holding Miranda in his arms, facing east. They say they saw him sit down on the porch steps, never letting go of her. And they say, when the sun first bathed the house in all its glory, that he burst into flames and disappeared. When they got to the porch, all that was left was the body of Miranda, laid gently and with great care on the porches' top step. Nothing but a pile of ashes next to her, around her, covering her. Perhaps the ashes of the husband that had been dead for just over a year, the husband that had loved his wife so much that upon her death, had left heaven to find her, to bring her home - for the final time."

Spike was staring hard at Buffy, not liking the stricken expression on her face. He knew she was feeling sympathy for Miranda. He knew it. But he was a vampire. It was beyond his ability to feel sympathy for a woman dead over a century ago, a woman who had done what she had done to Buffy. To him. The haunt may have gotten the raw deal in life, but that didn't mean Spike was going to stop trying to destroy her for what she'd done in death. He was just afraid that Buffy may no longer want to, might even try to stop him. Not that she could.

He wasn't happy about it, though. Fear that the actions he knew he had to take would drive a rift - perhaps an unbridgeable rift - between him and the woman he loved had him grimacing and miserable. The haunt may have succeeded in doing something worse than killing him, and without even being here to do it. She may have just made him and the Slayer adversaries again.

And that royally pissed him off.

"Nice story," he drawled sarcastically, " 'specially that legend part. It's complete rot, but then, you know that."

"What?" Ida was looking at him in confusion. She didn't understand his demeanor, and looking at him, seeing a dangerous glint in his eyes, she felt a slight twinge of fear. Hostility was shimmering off him in waves; she could feel it. But she had no idea why he would be so hostile.

"Spike." There was warning in Buffy's voice and she frowned. She recognized that look, knew it spelled trouble. She needed to get him out of there, out of the office, before he did or said something that they would both regret.

"Oh, come on, mum. You have to know that last part's a soddin' fairy tale. Else we wouldn't have the hauntin' Auntie to deal with now, would we? Think 'bout it. If hubby dropped down from the great beyond to take his chit home, she wouldn't still be here."

Speaking slowly, thinking about what Ken...Spike said, she conceded, "Well...no. I suppose you're right about that."

"Spike!" The warning became a demand, and Buffy got to her feet. She really didn't like that look in his eyes, that look that told her he was about ready to put his fist through something.

He ignored her. Never took his eyes of Ida. Couldn't look at Buffy's face and see the disgust for his kind there. He wasn't that strong. His heart was breaking and he just wasn't strong enough. It was a familiar feeling.

"So why's she still here, mum. Tell me. What's that bint still doin' here if her business was finished?"

The young man was across the room, but Ida felt pinned under the intensity in those feral blue eyes of his. Eyes that had been so clear earlier were now clouded with anger and...pain. None of it made any sense. Why would he have taken the story so personally? It just didn't make any sense.

"I-I d-don't know," she stammered, "m-maybe she's here because she never found her son." As she thought about it, she became stronger in her convictions. "Miranda has appeared to several people - mostly family. She only appears in the south side of the house, in front of windows in any of the rooms she goes to. It's like she's standing, watching, staring out the window, a sorrowful expression on her face. Maybe she's looking for her son. Waiting - still waiting - for him to come home from his friend's house."

Spike, enraged, pushed himself off the doorframe and stepped dangerously closer. Buffy was across the room in a heartbeat, not letting him go any further, shoving a Slayer-strength hand into his chest. She flipped her head around and flashed what she hoped would be a conciliatory smile at Ida. "Could you excuse us for a minute, Mrs. Heggan? I need to talk to Spike."

She didn't wait for the vague and surprised, "O-Of course." Buffy yanked the mightily pissed off fiend out of the room before the damage became irreparable.

Dragging him across the hall, past the reservation desk, into the living room, she finally let go and whirled on him.

"What the hell is your problem?" she hissed, trying to keep her voice down low enough not to be overheard by everyone in the house. "Would you care to explain that rampage you were on in there?"

Sullen and aching, Spike didn't meet her eyes. He turned away from her and paced off his excess energy. "Listen, Slayer," he answered hotly, "I'm sure you're all weepy and forgivin' of that bitch and what she did to us now, but I'm still gettin' rid of her. Let me save you from havin' to do the 'you're a bad, bad man' routine. I'm a monster; I know it. But I'm a monster that's makin' that bint pay for what she did to you. Don't rightly care how bad she had it in life. Hate me, I'm used to that. Stake me, even. But get the hell out of this soddin' house."

Realization dawned, lightening Buffy's expression and making her smile. He was scared. Spike was afraid that hearing Miranda's story, how bad it was, would make her change her mind about taking the haunt down. And if she did, she'd be against Spike, enemies again, and he was terrified of that happening. He thought he'd lost her, that she wouldn't love him anymore. That explained the defensive and prickly act in the other room. Geesh. Save me from insecure vampires, she thought, amused.

Still pacing, still not able to look at her without his heart breaking in two, Spike didn't notice Buffy's expression.

"Spike," she said casually, "what part of 'losing you would destroy me' did you not understand?"

Stopping abruptly, his back to her, she watched as he swiveled his head around slowly, confusion and hope etched hauntingly on his face. His body followed his head and he faced her, looking into her love-filled face for the first time. It soothed him, chased away his temper. He loved Buffy so much, his chest hurt sometimes. Just looking at her made him happy. And he hadn't lost her. He grinned at the knowledge that she loved him - still.

"Now, about Miranda - who we are so getting rid of. Sure, I feel bad about her life, but she's dangerous. Besides, I still have that 'whore' score to settle with her. We are both thinking Jacob was a vampire, right?"

Long strides carried him back to her side and he dropped his mouth to her smiling lips. Her hands came up and wrapped themselves in his hair, pulling him down, deepening the kiss. Wrapping his arms around her waist, he lifted her off the ground a bit, hugging her strongly. When they finally broke apart, Buffy was panting and Spike's eyes were gleaming again. With pleasure and relief.

"Spike." Buffy frowned, thinking about what Ida had told them - about the legend. "Did you notice anything odd about Miranda's story?"

Nuzzling her neck, he mumbled in her ear. "What do you mean, luv?"

"Well...Jacob gets turned. Got that. Spends a year feeding on the town. Got that. Finally kills his son and his wife. Got that - especially the wife part. Had a front row seat to that one, thanks to Slayer dreams - and that explains why he could get into the house, too. This was his house, he wouldn't need an invitation. But why does he only feed on women and children? That strike you as unusual? This town would have been one long smorgasbord, so why only the women and children? And if you're a vampire, large with a thirst for life - and blood - why did he dust himself after killing what was left of his mortal family?"

She pulled away from Spike slowly, her mind going a mile a minute. He watched her walk over to the large window in the room - the window that had been broken in almost a hundred and thirty years ago. Under her breath, lost in thought, she muttered, "What was she running from that night?"

That's when it hit her. Like a ton of bricks it hit her. She remembered what Jacob had told Miranda when he crashed through the window. "Your own actions dictate the course I take," he'd said. Then he didn't just kill her; he punished her with death.

"Oh God." The words were ripped from her throat in a hoarse whisper.

Spike heard her and panicked, but was held back from rushing to her side by the sun coming through the windows. Stuck in the shadows, cursing his helplessness, he called out to her. "What is it? Buffy? What's wrong?"

She didn't answer him, couldn't answer him. The thoughts in her head were too horrible to express. It couldn't be...

"Buffy! Talk to me damn it!"

Backing away from the window, she stepped back into the shadows and he was on her in a minute. Holding her shaking body, he searched her face, confusion and worry gnawing at his stomach. She raised her eyes and he sucked in an unneeded breath at the dead expression in them.

"I think I was wrong, Spike. I don't think you're as one-of-a-kind as I thought you were. He loved her. Not just before he was turned - but after. He was a demon and he still loved her. Whatever she did...it was so horrible that he killed her for it. And I think I know what it was."

Tears trickled down her face. She wasn't sure how she could be so sure, but it was there - like a cancer that wouldn't go away.

"She killed her own son. She killed Nathan."

They had no warning. One minute they were standing, alone, in the quiet living room. The next, an explosion of sound was ripping through the house, shaking it on its foundation. Glass shattered, blown in by some unseen force, from every window on every floor. Buffy and Spike ducked down behind a couch to escape the deadly flying projectiles.

"You know nothing, whore!" The shrieking sound of inhuman fury came from behind them and Spike and Buffy spun around, still crouched behind the couch, prepared for anything.

Anything, that is, except what they saw.



Chapter Six

Occasionally, people see things that are so out of the ordinary - so bizarre or obscene or...wrong...that the mind doesn't quite allow them to process what it is they're seeing.

Sometimes that's a blessing. Sometimes, just sometimes, it's better not to be able to process the unbelievable. But the Slayer and the vampire were both, themselves, unbelievable. And they did unbelievable things. Fought unbelievable things. Dealt with the unspeakable, the horrible, the worst of the worst. They didn't have the luxury of not being able to process what their eyes were telling them. Buffy, for one, wished she did.

Ida Heggan, the sweet and friendly innkeeper of the Carr House, hung inches off the floor, suspended in mid-air. The right side of her face dripped blood, her entire right side down to her waist was covered in lacerations, her trendy business suit a mess of sliced fabric. A few large, glass shards stuck grotesquely out of several wounds. Visible energy coursed over and through the matronly woman; flickering, hot energy that glowed angry and red, then vile and green. Hair, once professionally coiffed and neat, snapped and flipped and twisted as if alive, snakelike. Wide, brown eyes flashed insanity and crazed intent. A mouth known for smiles and kindness was twisted into a macabre but silent howl of unrestrained rage.

And she was no longer Ida. The haunt had come...with a vengeance.

Slayer and vampire had little time to react before a hostile hand shot up - palm out - and a ball of energy erupted from it with malevolent intent. An instinct for survival and the inherent speed of their reflexes were the only thing that saved them as they leapt over the back of the couch in complete synchronicity. Spike reached an arm out as he went, tipping the couch with them, giving them marginal protection from above as well as in front as they crouched behind it.

The ball of energy slammed into their barrier. Buffy and Spike flinched at the sound of cracking wood and ripping fabric.

"We can't stay here," Spike ground out, feeling the couch pushing into him with each blow it took.

Buffy, kneeling next to him, a hand up over her head supporting the back of the couch, rolled her eyes at the glaringly obvious statement, wincing each time she felt the couch giving under the weight of spectral fury.

"Infidels! Interlopers! Feel me! Feel my wrath!"

It was superhuman sound, unimaginably loud and completely beyond comprehension that it could issue forth from any human throat.

"Demon, can you feel it?! Do you and your whore have any idea of what I am capable?"

Buffy's head snapped up and fire crackled in her eyes. "That's it!" she shouted, startling Spike, who jerked his head around and glared at her. "That's it. I'm done."

"Buffy," he hissed in warning, not liking her sound of voice at all, "you're not think - "

She didn't give him a chance to finish. As soon as she felt another energy bolt plow into the couch, she used all her Slayer strength to push it up and away. She was so pissed, she'd put more into it than she'd intended and it flipped through the air - before crashing into the wall across the room.

Miranda, slightly surprised by the Slayer's show of brute strength, paused her attack. Perhaps a tactical error, but the girl she'd thought as no more than a bug to be squashed under her booted heel stood and crossed her arms over her chest and glared at her defiantly - and absolutely without fear. It was...unexpected.

Buffy didn't pause long. She charged, taking the haunt by complete surprise, and slammed her fist into Ida's face. And it was Buffy's turn to be completely surprised when it did nothing but bounce off ineffectually.

The haunt was unaffected.

Pinning Buffy with a superior smile, Miranda gathered her energy and flexed her fingers. Spike saw it and panicked. He bellowed in rage and fear and leapt into action, tackling Buffy and bringing her to the ground mere seconds before a blast of power slammed out of Ida's body and hurtled towards them. It passed over Spike's back with enough heat to smolder his leather duster.

His quick thinking and quicker actions had probably just saved the Slayer's life, but it also drew the haunt's attention to the original focus of her retribution.

He didn't know quite what to think when he felt himself lifted off the Slayer. Buffy rolled to her back and sat up, thinking Spike had just gotten off of her, but her eyes flew wide when she saw him hurled into the wall next to the couch.

"Spike!"

The vampire landed with a thud and slumped to the floor, slightly dazed by the harsh impact. Before he could recover, before Buffy could do anything to help him, he was picked up in an invisible grip yet again and thrown to the other side of the living room.

He grunted in pain when he crashed into an end table and lamp with such force that they crumbled under the impact. A shard of debris sliced into his back and he gasped reflexively.

"MIRANDA!"

Ida's body spun at the hail. The Slayer stood there, fierce and furious, with an antique floor lamp held in her hands like a staff.

"Leave. Him. Alone." Buffy drew back to swing, but she was hit by what felt like a tree trunk and tossed out of the living room, crashing into the reservation desk fifteen feet away.

Spike was just barely conscious, his eyes heavy and sight blurry. Dazed and confused, he caught movement out of the corner of his eye and turned his head to try to get a better look at what caught his attention. A little blue light pulsed just inches from his face. Something about it was familiar, but he just couldn't get his mind to wrap around what it was.

There was no mistaking the fact that it appeared to be looking him over, however, and he could only hope that it wasn't something keen on making him dusty. Somehow, he didn't think it was.

Surprised when the little blue ball danced away from him, expanding as it went, his eyes followed it with vague curiosity as it floated over to the dangling body of the inhabited innkeeper. Her back was turned, she was focused on something over by the reservation desk but Spike couldn't see what it was. As long as the bitch wasn't tossing him about like a rag doll, he couldn't really care what it was. He needed to get to Buffy.

Raising his head gently, he cased the room. She was nowhere to be seen. Not exactly comforting. He sat up gingerly, wincing at the sharp pain in his back, and could finally see what Miranda was so intent on. And he almost died again at what he saw.

Miranda's arm was outstretched, her hand in a claw as if she was trying to wring the life out of the very air. Crumpled by the reservation desk, clutching her throat and turning a dangerous shade of red, was Buffy. Miranda was choking her. From several feet away she was choking the life out of her.

All thought of his own pain and little blue balls of energy fled on hellish wings.

Leaping to his feet, his game face surged forward and he snarled. "NO!"

Miranda's head swung around, but she didn't release her stranglehold on Buffy's throat. In a glance she sized up the impotent vampire charging towards her and she flicked up her unoccupied hand, sending out the same kind of wall that held Buffy in place back in their room. Spike was stuck. He struggled against the invisible but indissoluble wall but could move no closer.

"Buffy! No!!"

One arched eyebrow raised as the haunt studied the fiend in front of her. "Tell me, vampire," she rasped, "do you love her enough to sacrifice everything for her? Give up everything for her? Can you comprehend that kind of love? No. Of course you can't. It's not in you, is it? You are an abomination. Evil. That's what you are. Have you deceived yourself into believing this...thing...between you can last? You would have killed her. It's what you do. Just like he killed me. Of course, now you don't have to. I'll do it for you."

The struggle was ferocious and feral and wild. Spike railed against his constraints, screaming Buffy's name again and again, hearing the haunt's words as little more than an irritating buzz in the back of his mind.

Buffy was dying. He could feel it. Hear it. In her faltering heartbeat and her wide, terrified eyes. He was watching the life ebb from her and there was absolutely nothing he could do to stop it. His mind screamed against it, howled against having to lose her again. And again he had only himself to blame.

Spike didn't see the blue energy slide into haunt's line of sight. He didn't notice Miranda's attention shift away from him or hear her waspish tirade cut off abruptly. Nor was he witness to the coalescing form in that blue energy, or the look of fear that flashed across the haunt's appropriated face.

The vampire was completely unaware that there was another battle being waged in that room, a battle of wills. There was nothing for him but Buffy's dying form, several feet away. So close, yet miles and miles too far. He didn't see two energies clash together, was oblivious to the sparks that snapped and crackled as a result.

All Spike knew was that he was suddenly free from the restraining wall of energy and he crashed into the floor at the suddenness of its release. Not that he stayed down for long. In a blink he'd rolled and leapt to his feet, charging to Buffy's side. The relief in seeing her taking in a huge unrestricted lungful of air made him weak-kneed and he dropped to the floor by her side. Trembling violently, he pulled her up into a sitting position.

Buffy buried her head in his shoulder but he yanked her away to stare at her. He needed to have the reassurance of that glorious natural color of hers rushing back into her face. She pouted a little at being set away from him, but he lowered his head to plunder her mouth for a brief but powerful kiss, which in her oxygen-deprived brain was more than consolation.

He didn't even realize that he still had his game face on. Buffy did. And she couldn't have possibly cared less. When they finally pulled apart, Buffy ran a trembling hand across his ridged forehead, smiling slightly.

"Been a while since I've seen the 'grrr' look on you," she said in a voice scratchy and dry from the abuse her throat had taken.

As soon as she said it, he remembered the reason he'd gone bumpy in the first place and he spun around, kneeling in front of her, ready to act as an undead shield to keep the haunt from doing any more damage to his girl.

He needn't have bothered. All that was left of the haunt's presence was the unconscious and supine body of Ida Heggan and the general destruction of the house itself. A hand on his shoulder made him jump, but it was only Buffy.

Only Buffy. He chuckled ruefully at that thought. Two words that should never be used in the same sentence, 'only' and 'Buffy'.

"She's gone, Spike. I saw...I don't know what I saw, but she's gone. I don't think it's for good, though."

"No," he drawled, shaking off his demon visage and turning back to her. "We don't have that kinda luck, pet. No doubt 'bout that."

Feeling less lightheaded, Buffy got to her feet and stood on shaky legs, holding on to the reservation desk for support. "What the hell was that, anyway? Spike, she was so strong."

Frowning, the vampire brushed a strand of hair off her forehead, feeling frustrated that he couldn't provide any answers.

Buffy moved to Ida's side, afraid of what she would find, but was relieved when a quick check revealed that she was still alive. "Check out the bathroom under the stairs. See if you can find any towels or anything. We need to stop this bleeding."

Spike moved to do her bidding while Buffy gently removed the three shards of glass still embedded in Ida's right arm. They weren't too deep and didn't bleed too badly when they were taken out.

Ducking his head back into the living room, the vampire called out to her. "Sorry, pet. No dice on the towels - I'm gonna check out the kitchen."

She nodded in response, letting him know she heard him, but didn't take her attention away from the fallen women. Thoughts were chasing around in her head, a huge, jumbled mass of them that made absolutely no sense. She felt like she was trying to put a puzzle together with several key pieces missing.

A dishtowel flew threw the air and landed on Ida's arm, startling Buffy enough to make her jump. Spinning around, she frowned at Spike.

"Don't do that!"

Spike raised a brow and smirked. "Dinn't realize you'd be so jumpy."

"Yeah...well...oddly enough, I get a little jumpy when dead bitches almost choke the life out of me, right after they try to fry me into oblivion."

Frowning at the memory of how close he came to losing her again, he bobbed his head in apology. "Think I may finally have an answer to one of those questions you asked, luv."

Turning back to Ida, using the dishtowel Spike threw, as well as the one he handed her to stop the blood, she said, "Answers would be nice. What'd you find?"

"Judgin' by what I saw in the dining room, that Kaplan lot we met earlier, two older birds, and what I'm assumin' to be the cook, all unconscious - unhurt, mind, but sleepin' like babes, all - I'd say Miranda decided to drain the batteries on the lot of them. Figure that's how she juiced up her power, did what she did."

"Great," Buffy mumbled under her breath, "couldn't have just gone with Duracell, could she?"

Once the towels were wrapped around the worst of Ida's wounds and the blood had stopped flowing from the rest, Buffy leaned back on her haunches and shot a serious look at Spike.

"We need to get everyone out of the house, but I'm not leaving you in here alone."

"Normally, I'd be offended by your lack of confidence in my abilities. Course, nothin' normal about this bloody situation." He raised his chin in her direction. "What's on your mind, then."

"We wake up the sleeping beauties, run the basic cover story - gas leak, small boomy thing blew out the windows, yadda yadda - you know, the usual. They can take Ida to her house; she said it was on the grounds. From there, they can get her to a hospital."

"Are you out of your bleedin' mind? That'll never work. More holes in that story than a soddin' block of Swiss."

Buffy rolled her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest. "Spike. You remember your little raid on the high school way back when? Do you know what principal Snyder came up with as a cover story? Gang on PCP. Trust me, this'll fly. I've had a lot of experience with the fact that people believe what they want to believe. Besides, it'll work a lot better than 'scary haunt is using you as a coppertop, run away, run away'."

He smirked at the expression on her face and conceded her point.

Facing him, she saw something drop from his hand and she glanced at the floor next to his feet. "Damn."

Following her gaze, curious at her frown, he noticed the small puddle of blood next to him. "Oh, bloody hell."

"Spike, you're hurt!"

"Yeah, looks like. Dinn't even notice I was leakin'."

Buffy got up and went to him, grabbing his hand carefully and looking at it. She didn't see any cuts or wounds. "Take off your coat."

"Can't"

"What? Why?"

Spike turned his shoulders so Buffy could see his back. She gasped when she saw the eight-inch piece of wood embedded deep into the flesh just under his right shoulder blade. It was sticking out of him at an angle, holding his duster firmly in place.

"Oh my God, Spike, why didn't you tell me?"

"You were a bit busy at the time, luv, what with bein' choked to death and all...after that, I just forgot about it."

Buffy threw up her hands, completely frustrated. "Who forgets a large block of wood stuck in their back? Are you trying to get dusty? Suicidal tendencies aside, I think I need to know when you're hurt." She reached behind him and yanked the shard out, slapping it into his palm before spinning off in a huff.

Too surprised to do any more than gasp in shock when the wood came out, he looked down at his hand, now filled with a rather large and bloody stick. Grinning, he squared his shoulders and turned his head to catch her retreating back as she headed for the dining room.

"Don't think I'll ever get tired of seein' just how much that chit loves me."

Movement from the floor caught his attention and he turned in time to see Ida slowly waking up. "Um...Buffy," he called out to her, "may want to come take a look here. This one's comin' 'round."

Buffy hurried back into the room and dropped to Ida's side. The innkeeper was, in fact, slowly regaining consciousness, moaning once as her eyes fluttered open.

"Mrs. Heggan?" Buffy smoothed the woman's hair a bit as she tried to help her back into awareness as gently as possible. "You've been hurt, Mrs. Heggan. I need you to lie still. We're going to get you some help."

Ida's lips moved and a raspy whisper of sound slipped past her lips, but Buffy couldn't hear what she was saying. She leaned in closer when Ida's eyes finally focused enough to meet hers.

"I told you before, dear," the soft sound could finally be understood, "call me Ida."

Buffy sat up and smiled warmly at the woman. "Right. Sorry. Ida." She glanced over her shoulder at Spike. "She's going to be fine."

Turning back to the injured woman when she felt a hand wrap around her arm, she looked down and saw that Ida was frowning.

"Not...Miranda." The innkeeper struggled to speak loud enough to be heard and the concentration to do so was taking a noticeable toll. Sweat broke out on her forehead and Buffy could feel the woman's hand tremble on her forearm. "That wasn't Miranda. That...thing...was not my Great-great-aunt. It couldn't be. That thing was...awful. Hateful. It's not Miranda."

"Shhh," Buffy said, trying to calm the woman's growing distress, "don't speak. Not yet. We need to - "

"It was not Miranda."

"It's okay, Ida," Buffy conceded. Anything to get her to calm down. "We know. That wasn't your relative. It's fine."

"Get rid of it. Please. Get that thing out of my house."

Buffy covered Ida's hand with her own and stared at her seriously. "We will. I promise you."

There was no arguing with the Slayer when she was in her all-business mode and Ida drew comfort and peace from the strength she sensed beneath the small exterior. She finally relaxed and her eyes drifted closed again. Slipping back into unconsciousness, she didn't see the frown that Spike gave Buffy, didn't see Buffy's mouth flatten in a hard line, didn't see the determination that was mirrored on the Slayer's and vampire's faces. She was blessedly oblivious, but oddly secure in the knowledge that of all people, these two would be able to deal with the entity that had done what it had done to her.

Gently removing Ida's now limp hand from her arm, Buffy carefully laid it across the woman's chest before getting to her feet and heading back towards the dining room. Spike's hand shot out, pausing her in her tracks before she could pass by him.

"You do know that was Miranda, right?" He wanted to make sure they were still on the same wavelength.

Buffy sighed and looked at him, nodding once. "Oh yeah. That was Miranda, alright."

"Then what's with the little white lie, Miss Pure as the bloody Driven Snow?"

Rolling her eyes at Spike's penchant for dramatics, she huffed, "First off, a Slayer in love with the not-so-evil undead isn't exactly large with the pureness. Second, I'd have told her it was the ghost of Christmas past if it made her feel better." She glanced back at the injured woman. "Look at her, Spike. Like it or not, this is our fault. If we hadn't come here..."

She trailed off, the all-too-familiar feeling of guilt gnawing at her belly.

He hated to see her like this, taking the weight of responsibility so hard. She always did that. Pulling her into a supportive hug, he felt good that he was allowed to share her burdens instead of just watching her shoulder them on her own like she had for so long. Too long.

"If we hadn't come here, pet, it would have been somethin' or someone else. This house was a powder keg. It woulda gone boom eventually. Better us White Hats deal with it now."

With her face buried in the leather of his duster, Buffy smiled and tried to choke back a chuckle. "Us White Hats? Wait...lemme guess...I'm Buffy Cassidy and you're the Sundown Vamp."

"Hey," he rumbled in mock offense. "Butch and Sundance weren't exactly good guys, luv. Shameful of you not to know your classics."

Pulling out of his embrace, she was grateful to him for being the aggravating vampire that he was. It was impossible to feel guilty and amused at the same time. And Spike, thanks to his unbelievably annoying personality, was always amusing. She loved that about him.

"I'll have you know I am well versed in the classics. I'm with you, aren't I?"

"That you are, luv, that you are." He leaned in to kiss her but stopped when he caught a very suspicious gleam in her eyes. Realization dawned...albeit a little late. "Hey! Did...did you just call me old?"

She laughed outright at his sputtering surprise.

Buffy spun away from him, her balance restored, and headed into the other room to wake up the other residents of the house. It didn't stop her from getting the last word, though, and she called out, "And the vamp gets it in one," over her shoulder.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Thirty minutes later, the Slayer and the vampire were the only occupants of the Carr House. As predicted, the gas leak story had gone over without question and Ida was on her way to the hospital. She'd come back around just before the residents fled to 'safety' and let Buffy know she had no intention of contradicting a cover story that would keep those "presumptuous and persistent" television people from sniffing around the house. Buffy had sent her, weak and shaky but standing, with the Kaplans, who assisted her to her home.

Up in the Dalton suite, Spike was sitting on the couch, draining the last of his stash of blood while Buffy paced back and forth in front of him. When done, he tossed the bag away and just watched her for a while. She was thinking, planning, he could tell. He just wasn't sure exactly what she was thinking and planning.

That tended to make him nervous.

"Not to say anything that'll bring that shriekin' bitch back down on our heads, but I'm wonderin' how you got two and two to add up to Miranda offin' her son."

Buffy didn't pause in her pacing, didn't even notice Spike had spoken at first, but finally it dawned on her that she'd heard him say something. "Hmm? What was that?"

Spike rolled his eyes, wondering if there was enough space in the room with both of them and Buffy's thoughts. "Miranda's son? Nathan? How'd you know she shucked him of his mortal coil?"

"Oh. That."

"Yeah that. You make that startlin' declaration, we're suddenly duckin' for cover from the sweet sound of explodin' glass. Sharp shards of haunt fury tend to make me believe you're right, but how'd you know?"

"The dream. That glimpse of the past I got. Miranda knew Jacob was a vampire. She wasn't surprised to see him, just surprised that he was in the house. He was so angry, but it was more than that. He was...destroyed. Devastated. And I remember what he said to her. 'Your actions dictate the course I take.' There was more...something about how it could have been different, but I'm not sure what he meant."

"Okay...still not seeing how that led you to the stunningly left field conclusion that she killed her son. In my experience, a lioness is awful protective of her cub - a fact I am more than casually acquainted with, thanks to an axe upside the head and a furious Joyce tellin' me to stay the hell away from you."

Buffy smiled slightly at the memory of her mom giving Spike what-for, then sighed deeply, not totally sure, herself, why she was so sure Miranda killed Nathan. But she was. She sank down on the couch next to Spike and drew her knees up to her chest, thinking about it.

"She was outside the house the night she died. Not exactly the brightest of moves when you know there's a husband-looking demon grocery shopping in your town. She had to have a reason. A reason that required a shovel and dirty hands. I think she killed him, and a week later, buried him in the woods behind the house."

Spike, frowning, tried to pick up on the logic. And failed miserably. "But why call in the search team? Why let them know at all? And back then, it couldn't have been pleasant, keepin' a corpse on site until she buried it. Why wait a week?"

"I have no idea, but I'm thinking the whole 'she was off her rocker' idea may have merit."

Spike rested his elbows on his knees and stared at his clasped hands. "I don't want to bring up bad memories, pet, and you know how much I like mentionin' the grandsire at all, but are you thinkin' this Jacob bloke may have done an Angelus on the bint? Messin' with her head, lettin' her know he was comin' for her and her offspring?"

Buffy didn't respond right away. She walked over to the glassless but still bedspread-covered window and pulled it open a bit. Looking out, smelling the clean smells of the forest just yards away, the flowers in neat rows alongside the house three stories below, the freshly cut grass - all mixing together to make up the unmistakable scents of day - she gave serious thought to Spike's unpleasant reminder of her own history.

"Honestly? That's the first thing I thought of when Ida was telling her story. Like...maybe she killed Nathan to save him from his father. Maybe she thought he was going to turn him. Not exactly cause for her to get the Mother of the Year Award, but understandable...I guess. Now I'm not so sure."

Spike stared at her silhouette in the light of the window, relieved that mentioning the poof hadn't turned Buffy all 'Angel wonky'. As much as he knew she loved him, it was so recent...so new to him, this total love thing she'd expressed just...well...hours ago, that he still had concerns about the bond between Angel and Buffy. And he admitted to himself that wasn't likely to change any time soon. He'd seen what they'd had together. Hell, he'd done more than see it. He'd eaten, slept, and plotted against it. But she hadn't gone all wonky. She'd just thought about his suggestion and worked through it in her head. It gave him a confidence in her - in them - that a thousand 'Angel's in my past' discussions couldn't.

"Miranda wasn't upset."

Spike was jolted back into the conversation at Buffy's sudden announcement. Not quite following her train of thought, all he could come up with was the less than intelligent, "Huh?"

Buffy didn't turn away from the window but he could tell from her voice that she'd just fit another piece into the macabre puzzle they were working on.

"Miranda wasn't upset. That night. Assuming she killed Nathan out of some twisted sense of protection, she would still have felt some remorse, sorrow maybe, or...or regret. Something. She didn't. In fact, when I was riding down that memory lane from hell, I didn't feel anything from her but fear when she was outside the house. Understandable, I guess, with Jacob after her. Except..."

"Except what, pet?"

Buffy tried to think of how to explain what was little more than a jumbled mess of fragmented thoughts. "Except when she'd made it inside and the fear was gone...there was nothing. Relief, sure. But she was more concerned with clean hands. There was no feeling at all for her son. Nothing."

Spike got up and crossed the room to stand in the shadows next to her. He couldn't touch her, as much as he wanted to wrap his arms around her, she was bathed in the light from the partially open window covering.

"She killed him. I'm sure of it. But I don't know why." In a quiet voice she admitted, "I'm not sure I want to know why."

"We'll figure this out, Buffy. We will. And the cavalry is comin'. We'll deal with all of this together."

Buffy closed the makeshift curtain and turned shadowed eyes, full of torment and horror at the knowledge that a mother had killed her son, and looked at the exhausted vampire. As soon as the deadly rays were once again blocked from the room he emerged from the corner and wrapped his arms around her.

"I know," she whispered huskily, "but I like hearing it."

She inhaled deeply and tried to quiet her thoughts long enough to just enjoy the sensory pleasures of being in his arms. He smelled good - familiar - a unique blend of male and leather and cigarettes. It soothed her frazzled nerves. Sometimes it really sucked that the Slayer never got a vacation from horror. Other times it was worse. And this was one of those other times.

"Jacob loved her, Spike. He really loved her. It...um...it wasn't like Angelus. I know it. I...felt it...when he bit me - her. But that's what is screwing me all up. We don't have all the pieces yet."

Spike and Buffy were standing directly in front of the blanketed window. And they were completely engrossed in each other - and the problems they were facing. They hadn't been paying attention to their surroundings. They should have been. Neither one of them noticed when a small orb of red energy descended from the ceiling and hovered just feet away, glittering evilly in the corner by the couch. They didn't notice it move closer after listening to most of their conversation.

They didn't notice it at all when it rushed them.

They did, however, notice it a whole hell of a lot when it plowed into them with solid force. And they noticed it when they were pushed back. And they noticed it when the force of the impact brought them up against the open but covered window...and knocked them out of it.

The vampire and the Slayer were pushed with brutal force out of their shadowy retreat, into the blinding light of day, and there was nothing they could do but notice...and remember that they had been on the third floor of the house as they plummeted to the pavement beneath them.

A swirling mass of malevolent force coalesced in the space vacated by the pair and gained form. When fully visible, it stared out into the forest behind the house, not even bothering to inspect the result of her actions. Miranda grinned as she stared into the woods, content.

"You didn't have all the pieces, whore," she said to the air, "and now you never will."



Chapter Seven

Too fast. Too much to take in all at once. Not enough time to figure out what was happening. To be ripped away from the small comfort of Spike's support and thrust savagely out of the house from three stories up was just the last in a long stretch of bad breaks. Grossly misplaced humor - macabre as it was - had Buffy choking back maniacal giggles at the thought that when her body hit the paved path beneath the window, she was in for the baddest of the bad breaks. And as finely tuned a machine as her body was, she could do nothing but freeze, her body locking down completely. She fell like a stone.

Hands tightened on her waist, she felt the squeeze. There was a tug, a yank, and a twist, but she saw only darkness, which in her mind seemed wrong. There was the feeling of falling, along with confusion at why she couldn't see what should be the shiny day in all its glory. Fatal glory for the vampire she loved - and her thoughts were for him as she plummeted to the earth. For Spike, for Dawn, Giles, and the rest of her friends, as well. For the life that she had such a hard time getting reacquainted with but had finally embraced. And this plunge, unlike the last, gave no comfort at all. Before, there was acceptance and peace - and the knowledge that she was doing what needed doing to save the world as well as her sister. This time there was only failure and loss.

Buffy tried to call out, but there was something over her mouth, covering it. And still there was darkness.

And then the dull thud and pain and darkness of a different color altogether.

But it wasn't long, that darkness. Though it seemed like an eternity. And when the world lightened for Buffy once again, it wasn't as bright as she thought it should be. In fact, it was suspiciously like night...but stuffier. And a little smoky.

Coughing, gasping for air against the constraints of fabric and acrid smoke, Buffy shot back into awareness with every single part of her body hurting in ways she hadn't known were possible. Struggling for clean air, she instinctively clamored toward an unknown surface, pulling and tearing at the offending material over her head.

It took a minute, but she finally got free, sucking in deep breaths. The light was back, painfully back, and Buffy had to squint against the glare as she looked around in frantic confusion.

Smoke...what the? Reality came crashing back down on the addled Buffy with blinding clarity. Shit! Spike!

One leg, one long, jean-clad leg was exposed to the sun and smoking dangerously. Buffy scrambled to cover the smoldering appendage with the un-life saving comforter that had wrapped around them when they were so abruptly removed from their suite. It was the comforter, Buffy realized, that had been responsible for the darkness when they were falling. It was that very same comforter that saved Spike from going poof. She almost felt thankful to Miranda for ripping those curtains away from the window earlier - almost - because curtains would have been insufficient to keep Spike blanketed from the morning sun during their fall.

It wasn't until the panic over the no-longer-smoldering Spike lessened a notch that Buffy gave a thought as to why she was still alive - not that she was complaining. Two facts hit her like a sledgehammer. The only reason she wasn't road-kill...or, path-kill, so to speak...was that Spike had twisted their bodies during the fall - which explained the tug on her waist - and took the full impact of his own body and hers on the pavement. She'd landed on him, not the cement. And now, Spike wasn't moving.

But he wasn't fertilizer either, and that was a good thing.

She couldn't check him out until she got him under cover. The blanket would have to stay securely wrapped around him. Her concerns were large, though. He'd been in a wheelchair for months after an organ had dropped on him. Well, okay, so after she'd dropped an organ on him, but that was so long ago, why quibble over details. The point was he could be hurt very, very badly if she moved him - if he wasn't already.

If she didn't move him, the blanket would eventually not be enough to keep him from combusting - not against the full light of early morning. She'd seen many of Spike's fiery blankets as he'd romped around in the sun back in Sunnydale - though his fascination with what should be his sleepy hours was forever a mystery to the Slayer. Spike was nothing if not an unconventional creature of the night. Bottom line, however, he didn't have long, maybe fifteen minutes at most before there would be a toasty vampire barbeque in the garden.

In the past, when confronted with a rock of inaction and a hard place of action, Buffy chose action every time. This time was no different.

Ignoring the screaming agony of her abused body, she leaned down and grabbed him up, tossing the bundle of Spike and comforter over her shoulder as gently as she could and carrying him toward the front of the house. As much as she hated the thought, they needed to get back inside.

Finally back on the porch, Buffy reached for the door handle and turned it, thinking, Come on Giles, where are you? I need you. A lot.

Bumping her shoulder against the closed door, Buffy winced as one of her more prominent bruises made itself known. She frowned. She'd turned the handle of the door but it hadn't opened.

Trying again, twisting the handle and throwing some weight into it in case the damage to the house earlier had jammed the door, she had nothing to show for her renewed efforts but a groan and another bruise. It wouldn't budge.

And the hits just keep on coming, she thought, as she shifted Spike on her shoulder a little and turned toward the large, glassless window that lead to the living room. She lifted a leg over the frame...and almost toppled over backwards when it didn't go through the window like it should, but hit an unseen barrier.

Off balance and scrambling for footing, Buffy stared in surprise at the seemingly open window. She raised her free hand and reached out, feeling the solid but invisible wall that sealed off the house from outside intrusion.

"You have got to be kidding me."

The harsh and frustrated oath that slipped past the Slayer's lips was anything but ladylike, and she groaned when she realized that she and Spike had not only been kicked out of the house, they'd been banished.

Buffy stood on the porch of the Bed & Breakfast and tried to collect herself. They couldn't stay there. It was too exposed. If someone drove up and saw her tending to an injured vampire, saw her own state of bruised, scraped, and a little bloody dishevelment, it would raise more questions than she had tolerance to answer. So what could she do? Where could she take Spike safely?

There was really only one answer. The woods. Behind the house, there was still a dense and thick forest. It may be a little smaller than it was a hundred and thirty years ago - with California development, it would have to be - but to make up for it, if the glimpse she had from the suite was any indication, it was more fully foliaged than it had been that night so many, many years ago.

And it was the only place left to go.

The Slayer, with an injured and ominously silent bundle of vampire over her shoulder, slipped around the side of the house that provided the most shade and moved as quickly as her sore body would allow across the yard. In minutes she slid into the cool, shadowy dampness of the forest.

She had to go about fifty feet into the woods to find enough large-growth trees to guarantee that no nasty little shafts of light would interrupt her examination. Once it was dark and shady, with no dappling making it down to the forest floor, she stopped and lowered Spike to the ground. Propping his back against a large pine tree, she pulled the comforter away from his head and body to take her first look at him.

Oh God, was all she could think when the extent of the vampire's injuries grew with each body part she probed. At least three broken ribs, a cracked collarbone, a dislocated shoulder, a dislocated hip...possibly a broken pelvis, she wasn't quite sure, and a seriously scorched leg were among the damage. His spine seemed intact, which was lucky - the only luck he had going for him, actually - but the back of his head was split and oozing blood. It was a good guess that he had a concussion, if not an actual skull fracture. She couldn't tell through the bloody, matted hair how bad it really was.

He had trails of dried blood at both ears as well as his nose, which would have boded serious ill for a human. For a vampire, she just didn't know.

The one thing she did know, it was bad. And right now, his unconsciousness was a blessing. With feigned detachment, Buffy grabbed his left arm, braced a foot against a section of unbroken ribs, and yanked swiftly. She grimaced and fought back a wave of nausea when she heard the grinding sound, followed by a loud pop as Spike's joint slipped back into place. She quickly followed it up with similar treatment on his hip.

A few strips of the large bedspread served as bindings for the vampire's ribs and a sling to support the cracked collarbone, as well as a bandage around his head.

When finished, when Buffy had done everything she could think to do, the Slayer stood on weak legs, sore and defeated, and backed away from the broken body on the forest floor. Slipping around a tree, she sank to her knees and pressed the palms of her hands into her face.

Muffled, hidden, alone, she sobbed out her horror and sorrow to the surrounding nature.

At first, when a light breeze rustled through the branches of the canopy far above Buffy's head, she paid it no mind. It wasn't until the breeze filtered through the trees around her and teased her hair away from her face that she came back into herself and dashed the tears from her eyes.

Standing, she hurried back to Spike to make sure he wasn't at risk of sunburn.

"Spike! You're awake!"

Without a doubt, the vampire was awake. But he didn't respond to Buffy's excited hail, nor did he look at her. Something had his full attention and he stared intently off to his left, deeper into the forest. And he was in full game face.

"Spike?" Buffy stepped closer, but he held up a hand to halt her progress.

"We're being watched," he finally ground out past his pain.

Spike didn't take his eyes off of the area where he'd heard motion just moments ago. That wasn't what woke him so abruptly, though. It was her sobs. He'd heard them and it had dragged his mind back from oblivion. He'd been sitting, listening to her cry for several minutes. It ate at him, burned his heart like corrosive acid, but he'd been unable to go to her. So he'd sat and endured the torture and fear he'd heard in each snuffled gasp - hurting him more than all of his many and varied injuries combined.

But his attention had shifted when his predatory senses went into full alert. The telltale sound of a stick snapping under an unseen weight, the whisper of branches and leaves rustling when no breeze was there to toss them. The ridges and fangs had made an appearance on their own volition - an instinct for survival ages old.

"Watched?" Buffy questioned his words, not his instincts and she whirled to face the direction he was looking, placing herself between whatever it was and the vampire she'd protect with her life.

"Slayer," he snarled, "get behind me."

It would have been laughable, the idea that Buffy the Vampire Slayer needed to hide behind someone who was not only a vampire, but a vampire so hurt he couldn't stand. It would have been laughable - should have been - but when she heard the sounds of movement and a deep rumbling huff of...something...she didn't take the time to laugh. Instead, she turned to the tree and snapped off a dead branch just above shoulder level, heaving it like a club.

"Can't say I really feel like hiding behind your skirts, Spike, not that I don't appreciate the offer." Nothing else was going to get a chance to add to Spike's injuries. Not while she was still standing.

She was angry, there was rage in her voice. Not at him, though, and he knew it. It's the only thing that prevented a sarcastic retort - so he settled for rolling his demon-gold eyes at her stubborn hardheadedness...and the snarky 'skirts' comment. But he'd be damned if he faced whatever was heading their way lounging on his ass while she did the superchit protecto gig. He was too proud for that.

Silently, with a grace that belied the severity of his injuries, he got to his feet and prepared for whatever that bitch fate had up her well-stocked sleeve for him and his woman.

The tension mounted as the two battered warriors stood their ground against the approaching danger...only to be completely broken when a Tinkerbell-sized blue light whizzed past the startled pair and plunged into the foliage in front of them.

They heard a crackle of electrical energy and a roar of frustration...the warriors glanced at each other with wide-eyed surprise when they placed that roar. It was a bear. No mistaking it. Buffy and Spike remembered the last bear they'd dealt with. Okay, so Buffy dealt with it, Spike had been tied to a chair with arrows poking out of his chest at the time. It was Thanksgiving a couple of years ago, and a spirit guy from the Shumash tribe had added a bit of 'Slayer-style' festivity to the holiday.

Didn't sound like this bear was going to be adding any kind of festivity, judging by the hasty - and noisy - retreat it was making. Whatever that blue light thing had done, it changed the bear's mind about its interest in the Slayer and vampire. When all sounds of its scramble away from them were gone, Buffy and Spike finally relaxed. Buffy dropped her arms, and her club, and Spike collapsed against the trunk of the tree. The relief was second only to their confusion.

"What the bloody hell is that thing, Slayer?"

He meant the light, she knew. Unfortunately she didn't have the slightest clue. "It's saved your life, our lives, more than once. Whatever it is, I'm thinking it's on our side."

Spike, suspicious by nature, raised a brow at Buffy's troubled musings. "Be careful 'bout those assumptions, pet. 'The enemy of our enemy' rot doesn't mean it's not something that'll try to kill us."

Fed up, exhausted, more sore than she could ever remember being, Buffy's temper bubbled up dangerously near the surface. She slid a glance over to Spike and looked at him for a long moment before finally telling him, "Yeah, I know. I've learned that lesson already, but thanks for the refresher course."

He stared back at her, not needing the reminder of their checkered history. He knew she was thinking of their truce four years ago, thinking of Angelus and that whole Acathla business. Spike had been her enemy then, but had gone to her to help her get rid of his grand-sire. Purely selfish reasons, of course. She was right. He would have killed her if he could have - even tried to kill her after that. But all of that was a lifetime ago and much had changed. He'd changed.

"Don't," he warned, not wanting a ride on the particular train of thought she had on track.

"Don't what, Spike?" Buffy was tired. Her words were tired. And more than that, they were sad and small. "Tell the truth? Remind you of our past? Why not? It's the truth. I know it, you know it."

Bloody hell, he thought, she's slipped into one of those never-amusin' 'poor me' moods. Not what we soddin' need right now.

He pushed himself off the tree, almost biting through his tongue to keep from groaning in pain, and managed to limp only a little as he crossed to her. "Funny thing, truth." Standing in front of her, not touching her - though the need to do so was overpowering - he shook off his demon visage and smirked at her. "One of 'em pops up, rears its ugly little mug, 'nother one's just a turned corner away. You just have to know which bend to focus on, luv. We were enemies. Now we're not. Up to you which one of those you want to rattle around on. Be sure to let me know which one you choose. I've a mind to get the bloody hell out of this backwater, and I'd prefer to do it after we deal with the hauntin' Auntie."

Buffy mouth dropped open at Spike's casually spoken...truth. And that's what it was. It was the truth. The past was gone. She had a new life - literally - and it wasn't fair to either of them to sink back into the depressing and bloody history they shared. Nor was it fair to wallow in self-pity over the depressing and bloody present. It wasn't just depressing and bloody. There was also love and companionship and trust. It's just which truth you want to look at. Spike was right. Of course, she thought wryly, he usually is. Damn him.

Sighing, letting go of her frustration and anger - misplaced hostility, all of it - she closed the gap between them and raised a hand to his cheek. Caressing his jaw with a whisper of a touch, she smiled tenderly into his waiting blue eyes. "I love you."

His smirk grew to a smile and he huffed out a chuckle. "Good to hear you remember that, pet. Doubt I have it in me right now to do the 'me Tarzan, you Jane' act to jog your memory. Besides, loincloth's not my style."

Buffy shook her head, trying to hide her mirth as she leaned into him gently. "Style? Is that what the kids are calling it these days? Cuz I'm really thinking you're way over-generous with that particular label."

Finally unable to deny his need any longer, he wrapped his good arm around her petite body and hugged her to him. "That's not all I'm overly generous with...though we may need to wait a day or two before I can grace you with my attentions."

Pressing her face into the leather at his chest, she grinned. "You're a pig, Spike."

"Well lookee lookee, we've turned the dial to the golden oldies. How stunningly unoriginal, pet."

"That's not unoriginal, it's a classic. And I know how you are about me knowing my classics."

Spike had to bark out a laugh at that one.

Her grin grew to silent chuckles that shook her shoulders. "Okay, I'll give you original. I love you. How's that for original?"

"Not very, sorry to say." He feigned bored disinterest. "Heard that one before. Though, unlike the last tune, this one's got a beat you can dance to."

She pulled back in mock affront, struggling to keep her face straight. "You think we're dancing?"

He lowered his head, feeling the bands of love tighten in his chest, and stared seriously into her eyes. "It's all we've ever done. Told you that once before. But this time, we got the song right. I love you, Buffy. And that's a dance I plan to share with you for a bloody long time."

She managed, "I think I can live with that," before he dropped his head and captured her lips, effectively cutting off any other comments.

The kiss was powerful and tender, searing and soothing. Taking, giving, receiving, they poured their hearts into the dance. And it swept them away.

Spike's hands traced their way up Buffy's arms to her shoulders and neck before diving into her hair to tangle there, pulling her closer and closer still. Buffy grabbed at his duster, but it wasn't enough - never enough - and she slid them around his waist and up his back. Pressed together, plundering and reveling in fiery touches that flamed the senses and sealed their promise to each other, the only sounds were of satisfaction and bliss. It was a heady mix of intoxicating eroticism.

He broke away from her mouth - but only to give her a chance to breathe. Resting his forehead against hers, brushing his lips against the corner of her mouth, he whispered endearments to her that she echoed back in a breathless tumble.

"One of these days, Summers, you're going to kill me with that fiery passion of yours. And I promise not to complain a lick."

"You? Not complain? I'd like to see that."

That was enough of a breather for Buffy and she rejoined the fray yet again, demanding satisfaction as she gave it. Their tongues touched; swirled together in an exotic ballet, burning them both with need and want and love.

They damned their circumstances as well as their surroundings. It was neither the time nor the place to give in to their mutual desire. Spike wasn't even sure he was physically capable of giving in to his desire.

Regretfully, they pulled apart, eyes glowing with suppressed emotion.

Shaky, trembling in reaction to a kiss that touched her heart to the core, Buffy ran a hand through her hair and stared at the man she loved. He was trembling, too. She could see it. She just wished she could be sure it was the kiss, and not the damage that he had endured for her.

"You seem to have picked up an interesting habit, Spike."

Her voice was husky and throaty. It was a bedroom voice and he reveled in the knowledge that this thing between them was real. Wonderful and real and for good - if he had anything to say about it...and he did. His mouth quirked at the thought that this time, he really did have a say in the matter.

"What habit is that, Slayer?" It was a sardonic and self-satisfied drawl.

"Seems like every time I turn around, lately, you're doing something that saves my life. You really should see about getting that checked out. I'm sure it's bad for your image, a vampire saving a Slayer and all."

She was teasing him, he knew it. But one thing he couldn't tease about - didn't have it in him to tease about - was her life. His face lost all trace of humor.

"No. I don't think that's a habit I'm gonna to do a soddin' thing about."

If she was surprised at the lightning fast change of his mood, she hid it well. Instead, she matched it. "Thank you. Again. If you hadn't - "

He swung away from her, cutting her off abruptly. "I did. 'Nough said, I imagine. Rather not pick it apart."

Opening her mouth to speak again, his rush of words didn't give her a chance. She had no choice but to stare at his back while he spoke low and intensely.

"Lost you once, Buffy. Told you what it did to me. Almost lost you again today. If there's anythin' I can do to make sure it never happens again, I'll do it. Don't want to talk about it, don't want a bleedin' medal for it. Just is. That's a truth you'd better get used to. You fight your own battles, I know. I'm not sayin' I'm gonna be turnin' into some git that wants to deny you your place in the world. I'm sayin' I'm gonna be the bloke that makes sure you stay in the world."

She followed him and laid a hand on his back, understanding his need to protect her - sharing it - and loving him that much more for his words.

"I'm not going to lose you, either, Spike. You've got my back? I've got yours. Don't forget it. But I'm still thankful that you did what you did."

He grinned, but didn't turn to let her see it. "Stubborn chit. Always wantin' the last word."

"See, another thing you shouldn't forget. We're making real progress here."

Serious-talk time over, Spike limped over to a tree and tried to look cool as he leaned on it for support. When he'd sort of settled himself, he finally raised his eyes to Buffy, who stood watching him, concern in her eyes.

"Stop lookin' at me like that, Slayer. I'll be fine. Once those mates of yours get here, we'll be okay. Think I'll enjoy sendin' the mighty Watcher on a blood run, right enough."

Frowning, Buffy thought about Giles and Willow. "Shouldn't they be here by now, Spike? I mean it's only a five-hour drive. Feels like we've been going at it with Miranda for a lot longer than that."

"Just feels that way, luv. Of course, you wore a watch, we wouldn't have to wonder."

"I can't wear a watch. It screws up the fighty stuff. Plus, it'd just get broken. Or worse, it wouldn't break, and I'd have my hand yanked off. One handed Slayers don't quite strike the fear into the hearts of the demons like they should."

Spike rolled his eyes at her. "The point is they'll be here when they get here. Won't make it any quicker with you doin' the 'are they here yet' diatribe every thirty seconds."

"You're right. I know you're ri - "

He'd looked down as he searched for his pack of cigarettes. Pulling the pack out of his coat pocket, he glanced up to see why she'd cut off so suddenly. She was looking at him, or so he thought, but her eyes were wide and surprised.

Finally he figured out that she wasn't looking at him; she was looking just over his shoulder. And that was not a happy Slayer face she was sporting.

His game face surged forward once again and he tested the air for bears - or anything else that he could smell or hear. But there wasn't anything. Turning his head slowly, he looked over his shoulder and followed Buffy's line of sight.

"Bloody hell!"

Scrambling backwards, he put some distance between himself and the large orb of blue energy that had been materializing right behind him. Side by side, the Slayer and the vampire watched in a mix of trepidation and awe as a form solidified in the swirling mass of light. The more form it took, the less glowy it was, and eventually there was nothing left of the light at all.

Eventually, all that was left was a very solid-looking little boy.

And around them, the sounds of the forest fell silent as death. Spike and Buffy exchanged a look that was...difficult to explain. Searching for answers, for reason, for proof that what they were seeing was real in each other's eyes, there was only silence and confusion. And a touch of fear.

But answers - answers to life's most difficult and harried questions - are often found in only one place. In the in-betweens. In the silence.

Buffy stepped forward slowly, staring in wonder and fascination at the young child in front of her. He stared back and Buffy could swear, in the large, dark brown eyes that were familiar to her by now, there was humor there - as well as a cloak of peace and resignation. Eyes a century old. Wise eyes. Eyes that had not seen enough of life, but far, far too much of death. The eyes of...

"Nathan Morgan." It wasn't a question, and Buffy didn't need the nod of confirmation, but the entity in front of her gave it anyway. "It was you. In the house. You saved Spike when Miranda was in me. You saved me when Miranda was choking me."

Spike was floored, stunned beyond speech as the lad nodded again. It...he...was a small boy, brown hair, in wool trousers with suspenders over a crisp, white shirt rolled up at the sleeves. Clothes common for children back when a vampire named Spike was a human named William. One thing was certain; he didn't like surprises of this magnitude.

"Buffy, get away from him."

"What? Why? Spike, he helped us. You can't still think - "

"I'll tell you what I bloody well think, Slayer. I think little Lord Fauntleroy here," he nodded in the boy's direction, not bothering to shuck his game face, "isn't a ghost, and it's not a haunt." He pinned the entity with a dangerous glare, growling slightly. "Which begs the question, just what the soddin' hell are you?"

Lightning flashed in the child's eyes, even as he grinned at the vampire's expression. Before Spike could register that the entity had moved, Nathan was in front of him, with a hand on his chest, right over his dead heart. Spike only had time to gasp reflexively before warmth flooded his body, warmth that he'd never known as a vampire. Warmth he wasn't sure he'd ever known as a human. He heard Buffy's panicked, "Hey!" under a roar of colorful noise, before he toppled over and the connection was broken.

Buffy rushed to Spike's side, whirling on the entity standing there, smiling at her...laughing at her with his ancient eyes. "What did you do?! Tell me, damn it! What did you do to him?!" There was betrayal and disillusionment in her gaze.

A strong hand closed over her arm and she automatically let Spike use her to pull himself upright. She didn't take her gaze off of what was left of Nathan Morgan, and her mind spun with things she would do to him to make him pay for hurting Spike.

"Um...Buffy?"

She stared down the child; anger and strength coursing through her body, making her forget her own piddly aches and pains.

"Buffy?"

Still she spun on how to protect Spike from another attack. Buffy hadn't even heard him.

"Slayer!"

That got her attention and she jerked her head around to look at Spike in surprise at the hail. And her jaw dropped open in a very unflattering 'lets catch some flies' way.

"I think he fixed me."

It was true; there was no denying it. Spike was standing, slipping the splint off his arm and testing it for pain. There wasn't any. He ran a hand through his hair; removing the makeshift bandage Buffy had put on, and tested his head. It was tender, and there was still a slight lump, but the blood was gone and the flesh was closed. His ribs felt better, too, and he ripped the tight dressings off his chest while Buffy just gaped at him.

"He fixed me."

She could do nothing but nod, dazed at the odd turn of events, before realizing that an apology for almost ripping the child's head off his body may be appropriate. Guilt marred her features as she looked down at the still smiling boy.

He didn't give her a chance to say anything.

"I'm not a ghost. The vampire is correct. Nor am I a haunt, like my mother. Obviously, I'm not a boy, either. What I am, however, is even less important than who I was. And there is little enough time without wasting precious seconds on pointless explanations. Even now she's gathering her strength. She'll be coming for you again, even here you are not safe."

"Wait a second," Spike said, "just...slow down, nipper. What did you do to me? Why am I all ready to rumble all of a sudden?"

"Energy. You're a vampire, basically animated flesh. The damage to your body was repaired by an influx of electrical energy, mixed with a chemical energy I was uniquely qualified to provide. I gave you as much energy as I could spare."

"You did a Dr. Frankenstein on me, I get it."

"I...don't understand that reference."

"Not important. Appreciate the fix up."

Nathan bobbed his head in acknowledgement.

"Nathan," said Buffy, "what did you mean when you said we're not safe here. Miranda is a haunt. Don't they have to...well...stay in the places they haunt?"

"Yes, actually, though I don't think you understand. Miranda doesn't just haunt the house. She haunts this whole area - the original grounds of the house."

"Oh, well that's just bloody wonderful news. We're outta that soddin' house and we're still buggered. Perfect."

"Can you help us?" Buffy asked Nathan, nervous and a little shocked by the modulated and well-spoken words of what appeared to be an eight-year-old boy but was obviously something much different.

"Not in the way you think. My power is limited. It is insufficient to wage the battle necessary to rid the house and grounds of her presence. What I've done so far has been possible simply because she was distracted. She...fears me. I am a reminder of a truth she doesn't wish to face, and therein lays your power. If you make her admit her transgressions, you will defeat her. Her righteous fury is her power; it's why she's so strong. Remove that, and she will be beaten."

"You wouldn't happen to know what those bleedin' transgressions are, would you? I'm gonna take a stab in the dark and say it's more than what she did to you." Spike pulled out a cigarette - he needed it - and lit it, staring through the smoke and waiting for some answers. The sorrow that flashed across the child's face almost made Spike feel true guilt for the less than tactful way he'd worded his question.

"I don't know why she's still here. I can tell you it has less to do with me and much more to do with what you are. That much is as obvious as her hatred of you and your wife."

"My...wife?" Spike sputtered in surprise, hearing a snickering giggle bubble forth from Buffy's mouth. It confused the little boy - or whatever it was.

"Are you two not married?"

"No," said Buffy emphatically, a little too emphatically for Spike, actually, "we're so not married."

"But...I don't understand. You are together; you love one another. I've seen it. You bicker with love in your eyes and hearts. You share a room and a bed, are you sure you're not married?"

Embarrassed by the clinical description of their relationship, mostly because a child - more or less - recited it, Buffy didn't answer.

"We're different, Buffy and I. Our...we're not like that." Spike didn't bother mentioning that the bare facts of his statement made him...less than happy.

She was about to explain the 'boyfriend' concept to Nathan, she really was. But when Buffy opened her mouth to speak, the words wouldn't come. Spike wasn't her boyfriend. She thought about it and realized that he really wasn't. The label didn't fit. But then, what label did when referring to Spike? Other than 'obnoxious pain in the ass that she had mysteriously but truly fallen in love with', of course. And somehow, that just didn't seem appropriate to blurt out.

So if he wasn't a 'boyfriend', what was he? What exactly was Spike to her?

It came to her in a flash of insight and she knelt down next to the boy to meet him eye to eye. She didn't notice Spike's wary and interested glance in her direction, had no way of knowing he was very curious as to what she was about to say.

"Spike and I can't be legally married, Nathan." Buffy spoke slowly, as much to help him understand as to put it into the correct words. "He's not my husband, he's my...he's a bigger part of me than that. See, Nathan, along with my sister, Spike is a very large part of my everything. He's my...well, he's just mine. And I'm his. We belong to each other, with each other. Understand?"

One very surprised vampire almost toppled over in shock and pleasure at Buffy's words. He didn't...couldn't...say a word as he replayed the words she'd spoken over and over in his head.

And suddenly, he was really ready to kick a little haunt ass.

"I do understand, actually," Nathan told her with a wise smile. "I am heartened to know that you finally understand, as well."

That knocked Buffy for a bit of a loop. "What?"

The wind picked up and howled through the trees, tossing the leaves of the canopy about in a frenzy and allowing sunlight to shoot down from above. A startled yelp from Spike when a ray of light grazed across his cheek preceded a 'duck and run for the comforter' move.

Nathan stared up into the trees above while Buffy made sure Spike was safe. "She's coming," he called out to the couple. "You have not yet seen, and we're running out of time. There is a place we can go that she dare not follow. It is close, but you will need to follow me."

He didn't give Spike and Buffy time to argue, or even comment, before he 'orbed' - for lack of a better word - and slipped away from them. Buffy and Spike were left with little choice but to run after the glittering blue ball of light.

Struggling through the underbrush, cursing as he went, Spike had a difficult time keeping up. The comforter kept snagging on twigs and brambles, almost getting ripped out of his grasp more than once. Buffy, feet in front of him and moving fast, heard several 'bloody hell' and 'soddin' woods' oaths as they sped after Nathan.

A few minutes of mad dashing through the forest brought the Slayer and vampire into small, shaded area free of the ground clutter that had hampered Spike's progress. Unlike the woods around them, no wind penetrated the spot and the trees were, oddly enough, not swaying in the breeze - there was no breeze at all.

It was safe to toss aside the comforter, which Spike did, but he had no clue as to the why.

Nathan re-materialized and waited patiently for Buffy to catch her breath. "There isn't much time left. I won't be able to hold this form for much longer and you need to see before you face mother again."

"See...what exactly?" asked Buffy.

"Just curious, mind," interrupted Spike as he looked around at the calm and peaceful oasis in the center of a growing fury of wind that was the rest of the woods, "but why inn't this place doin' the big blow about like...well...everythin' else?"

Buffy noticed the eerie calm of the place for the first time and turned a questioning gaze to the child. She saw him look at one of the nearby trees; saw his chin quiver slightly. For all his wisdom and the age of his eyes, it really hit her for the first time that there was still much of the little boy left in him. A little boy that had been killed by his mother. That's when she knew why this place was untouched by the spectral reach of haunting arms.

"This is where you were buried. Oh God, she buried you here."

A tiny fist came up to wipe a tear away from his eyes. Small but proud shoulders squared with a child's sigh. "Yes."

"I'm so sorry, Nathan."

He turned and looked at her and Buffy's heart broke a little at the sad eyes - eyes so like his mother's, but without the hatred and insanity.

"What's done is done. And long done, at that. But she must not be allowed to hurt anyone else. She's been stirred, awoken from her complacency. Even were you to leave this instant and never return, I do not believe it would quell her thirst for vengeance. I will show you what I can. It won't be enough, but it may light your way."

"Um...sorry to interrupt, but before you open up with the showin' and the tellin', could you just give us a straight answer about one thing?"

Nathan nodded once. "If I can. Ask your question, vampire."

"Your mum, why'd she off..." Spike caught Buffy's warning glare and quickly adjusted his dialogue. "...I mean, why'd she do what she did to you?"

Nathan didn't say anything right away; he just measured Spike with a serious stare. Finally, his silence relented and he spoke with a child's voice and just a touch of a child's hope. "I will show you what my mother did to me, you will see it first hand. As for the why..." his gaze returned to the ground in front of the tree that Buffy knew he was buried beneath. "Maybe you will be able to explain that to me."

That was quite possibly the saddest thing Buffy had ever heard and nothing she could say would ever take away the pain and confusion of a small boy long dead.

"We'll stop her, Nathan. Show us what we need to see, and we'll stop her."

Nathan smiled a small, tragic little smile and reached out his hands. Meeting first Buffy's eyes, then Spike's, he waited for them to make the necessary connection.

Buffy clasped the fragile hand, a little surprised by the warmth she felt and she met Spike's wary gaze with a tremulous smile. The vampire sighed for effect, but didn't grumble...too much...before completing the odd triangle.

"Now," explained Nathan, "close your eyes and you will see."

Three pairs of eyes closed to the light of day and two pairs of eyes opened to the 'light' of night...over a century in the past.



Chapter Eight

It's not everyday that you close your eyes in the middle of a forest and open them...in the middle of a forest. Well, okay, so that's not large with the unusualness until you factor in the tiny details that make it particularly interesting. Details like where once was day, now was night. Or where a copse of large, centuries-old trees towered high into the air, there were now younger, smaller trees that were less with the towering, more with the 'hurry up and grow'.

Silence, too. A complete and utter silence that anyone familiar with the age of technology, traffic, and over-population cannot even comprehend.

It was that, more than anything else, which struck a chord in the Slayer's heart, letting her know that the where wasn't what was important. It was the when. And this time - unlike the last - she was seeing it, feeling it on her own. Not through the eyes of Miranda. Not in a dream. This was real. Well, as real as it could be, Buffy supposed.

Spike, a little confused, spun in a tight arc and took in the new scenery. Or more rightly put, the very old scenery.

For him, the night was nowhere near silent. It was screaming at him, echoing in his head in a way he'd never known it could - because when you live with noise every day, exist in it, you don't hear it. And Spike had lived with this particular silent noise before. He'd been human at the time, then not. But it had been so long ago - over a century, really, that it was slamming into his head with all the subtlety of heavy artillery.

A mile away, a cougar screamed out in victory over a fresh kill.

Just over his shoulder, a creepy-crawly crept and crawled.

The worms turned in the earth. The predators flexed talon and teeth. The circle of life was loud, large with vitality, and in full charge of this reality. Not like in their own time, when life - real nature-type life - was held at bay in designated areas or held back from their destinies by cages and walls and people. The difference was startling and severe. And oddly tragic. For when Spike was barraged by the call of the wild, a call that was as temping as a siren for the vampire, he knew a sense of homecoming that almost brought him to his knees.

And it had nothing at all to do with the demon in him.

There he was. In that shrieking, loud silence. Home. Sure, a continent and an ocean away from where he was born, but home in a way that time, being what it is, never allows. And it was the man in him that ached deeply in response. The tragedy in that? Well, it's not like he could just blurt out how intense the pleasure was. Or why he was fighting back the sting of tears. Or how having Buffy next to him, experiencing with him an age that existed before he was even aware that monsters were real, a time before he was one, made him feel...blessed.

No. Spike - Mr. 'Kick some bloody ass now, ask questions never' William the Bloody - couldn't say that to anyone. Not even to Buffy. Hell, he hadn't even known he was capable of that level of poof-ness.

He hated it. And he was moved by it. But he was Spike, so he went with indignant and pissed.

"Well, well. Fascinated with all the seein' we're doin'. Be better if there was actually somethin' to see." Sighing in aggravated frustration to show just how put out he was by the whole deal, he turned to Buffy. "No more guidin' lights of boy-sized energy, either. Looks like we're on our own. So. What's next on the need to view?"

The Slayer shook her head and frowned, perplexed and just as let down at the absence of 'show' in their little 'show and tell' as Spike was. "I have no idea." She motioned in the direction they'd come almost one hundred and thirty years in the future. "Let's head back to towards the house. Maybe we'll find...something."

Unable to think of a better plan, Spike just huffed at her and followed her lead through the forest.

The going wasn't as easy, that much was sure. More ground clutter to impede their progress. As they trudged along, silent and lost in their own thoughts, they came across a well-worn path that looked like it headed straight towards the Carr House. It was a path that didn't exist in their own time, but they took advantage of it, regardless.

Just after they turned to walk down the path more traveled, the proverbial other shoe dropped with an ominous thud.

Spike heard it first, thanks to vampire hearing, and he reached out to lay a hand on the Slayer's shoulder to halt her progress. She shot him a questioning glance but didn't say anything when she saw the serious expression on his face. A few moments later, she heard what had caught Spike's attention and locked eyes with the vampire.

Wordlessly, they slid off the trail and melted into the comforting arms of shadowy darkness as the sound of fast-approaching footfalls drew closer. Side by side, they were tense and ready for just about anything, almost hoping for something tangible to pummel to release some of their pent up frustration. They waited to see what would hopefully aid them on the 'get rid of Miranda forever' campaign.

The ready for anything bit went out the window when a small and remarkably familiar figure dashed down the trail in front of them, out of sight before either Buffy or Spike realized that it was none other than a very alive Nathan Morgan that had stirred up all their fighting instincts.

A Vampire Slayer and a vampire exchanged an almost disappointed expression.

"Well," drawled Spike laconically, "that was certainly..."

"Anti-climatic?"

Unable to hide the smirk at the double entendre, Spike arched a brow and nodded at her.

She ignored him. Glancing down the path that Nathan had taken, she said, "We may as well follow him."

There was no way a dashing child could match their supernatural speed, so it didn't take long before Nathan was back in sight. Buffy called out to him. "Nathan! Stop!"

The child didn't even break stride, apparently not hearing her hail.

After listening to her holler out to the lad a few more times, Spike finally spoke up. "Won't work, luv. We're not really here, remember? It feels real, smells real, but at the end, it's just a memory we're playin' at."

He could almost feel her roll her eyes as she sprinted in front of him. Her response, spoken under her breath, floated back to him as he ran.

"I mention the ghost of Christmas past one time and poof. We're neck deep in Dickens."

The sound of an unseen creature thrashing in the underbrush just off the trail in front of them and to their right echoed through the woods. One lone, keening bleat of misery rang out, silencing the nightlife and bringing the three on the path to a screeching halt.

Slayer and Vampire recognized it as the sound of death and slipped back into the woods to investigate. For the moment, they completely forgot about Nathan.

Ten feet from the path lay a deer, its head twisted at an impossible angle, kicking weakened limbs reflexively as it died. But there was nothing natural about this death. Attached to its neck, feeding hungrily, was a shadowy figure with dark hair. A vampire.

He held the deer in an almost reverent embrace as he drained the large animal dry. Spike and Buffy looked on in grim fascination. Buffy couldn't help but watch, as much as she would prefer not to. There was something so visceral...primal...about it. It was the first time she'd ever seen a vampire feeding on something that wasn't her duty to protect. Still, there was nothing at all pleasant about watching a creature of the night - her sworn enemy - munching down on Bambi.

But still she watched.

And when the vampire raised his head and shook off the demon visage, Buffy sucked in a surprised breath at the pain she saw in shadowed, hazel eyes. Her own mixed emotions about what she'd just witnessed paled in comparison to the combination of self-hatred and yearning completion she saw there.

Before she could puzzle out reasons or explanations, a horrible, tormented expression darkened his features and with nothing but a whisper of air to mark his passing, he leapt up and fled into the woods like the hounds of hell were after him.

And a disbelieving, confused, lost and heartbroken voice disturbed the silence with one word.

"Papa?!" The wail was long and haunting in the dark and lonely night.

Spike and Buffy spun at the tragic sound. A small boy stood in a shaft of moonlight. Shocked and trembling, an iridescent tear dropped from one wide eye and trailed a devastated path down a pale cheek. Able to do nothing but stare, Buffy's heart was in pieces. Spike cursed the circumstances that had transpired. They finally realized what Nathan was starting to show them and it was no longer a matter to be taken lightly.

Jacob Morgan.

They'd been right about one thing. Nathan's father - Miranda's husband - was a vampire.

After a long minute, Nathan turned away and headed back towards the house, leaving Buffy and Spike in the dark.

"Do you think he saw...?" Buffy's voice trailed off as she focused on the now-empty spot the little boy had stood.

"His father feedin'?"

She just couldn't force an affirmative from her throat so she nodded slowly.

In a serious, low voice, Spike answered. "Don't know. Doubt it matters. He saw enough."

"More than."

"Yeah."

Buffy looked over her shoulder and searched out Spike's eyes in the darkness. "This vacation sucks."

"Yeah."

She sighed deeply, the weight of a child's pain dragging her down. Lifting a foot to take a step after the boy, it came down not in the forest, but in a dimly lit hallway. Without so much as by your leave or a buzz of warning the woods were gone and in its place were the familiar walls of the Carr House.

Buffy jumped in surprise when Spike snarled angrily behind her.

"What the bloody hell?"

It was a good question. One for which she had no answer. After a brief moment to acclimate to the new surroundings, Buffy walked cautiously down the hall, half expecting something to jump out at her. Nothing did, but she gasped reflexively when she passed in front of a mirror hanging against the dark paneled wood that in their time is light and polished. In that mirror was not the reflection of Miranda as it had been during Buffy's dream, but the reflection of...the matching dark paneled wall behind her.

"Geesh," she hissed out in surprise, flashing a glance at Spike - who was staring at her with a lone brow arched in question. "No reflection. Creepy."

A smirk tugged at Spike's lips and he dropped his voice down into a sexy drawl. "You get used to it, pet."

One trademarked eye roll later, Buffy resumed her trek down the hall. Sounds of habitation were coming from the dining room and they moved to check it out. When they entered, Buffy noticed how similar it was to the one in their own time. The walls were whitewashed instead of papered in the attractive mauve color they were in the present, and the lamps lighting the area were less with the electricity and more with the gas, but the table was the same - as well as the ornately carved chairs, a serving curio cabinet against one wall, and a small table in the far corner.

The troubled boy sitting at the table - pushing food around on his plate and lost in thought - was new...or old, depending on how you look at it. As was his mother perched stiff-backed at the head of the table, eating delicately.

Spike snarled deep in his throat when he saw Miranda sitting there, calmly and primly dining. Buffy felt rage just looking at her. But in this time, Miranda was alive and they were insubstantial. They were no more equipped to deal with her than they'd been in their own time. Buffy laid a hand on Spike's arm and squeezed gently. It drew his attention back to her and he tamped down on his demon just enough to be able to smile tenderly at the woman he loved, letting her know he was in control of himself.

"Bleedin' ironic if you ask me," he said.

"What is?"

"House is still haunted." Spike nodded his head at the two occupants at the table. "Just, now they're the real ones and we're the ghosts."

Buffy grimaced at the thought while they moved further into the room, watching past events unfold before them.

"I've had quite enough of your sullen behavior, young man." Miranda's voice was stern as she stared down the table at her somber son. "You may either eat your dinner or leave the table, but we do not play with our food and glower."

Nathan made an effort to sit up straight and he looked at his mother with sadness swirling in his eyes. "I'm sorry, Mother."

"As well you should be. You know how important it is to be in by sunset, but you willfully disobeyed me. I will not allow you to ruin my meal because you are upset with your punishment."

The little boy stared down at his plate guiltily.

Watching him, Buffy could see him wrestle with his thoughts. She wished there was something she could do to comfort him. Glaring at the imperial Miranda, she silently vowed to a long-dead child to do whatever was in her power to make sure Miranda didn't hurt anyone else. It was the best she could do.

But it would never be anywhere near good enough.

"Mama," Nathan's voice intruded on Buffy's thoughts and she glanced at him. He was staring intently at his food and his voice was little more than a mumbled whisper. "I saw someone in the forest on my way home."

Spike had been watching Miranda when Nathan spoke and he saw the quick stiffening of her shoulders and the almost imperceptible tightening of her mouth. His eyes narrowed and he stalked to her side, listening for and hearing her quickened pulse and fast breath. Under his scrutiny, she paled visibly.

"I saw Papa, Mama. He's not dead."

"That's ridiculous, Nathan," the woman scoffed with forced dismissal. "You are well aware that your father, may he rest in peace, passed on almost a year ago."

Large brown eyes so like his mother's lifted and met hers across the table. The ragged edge of hope was prominent in them, enlarging them, begging for a truth that would never come.

"Are...are you sure, Mama? That Papa died, I mean. Maybe you were wrong. Maybe he was just hurt and couldn't come home to us. Maybe - "

"That's enough, Nathan!" Miranda pushed herself away from the table and stood up quickly, visibly shaken. She gripped the table until her knuckles turned white. "He died, Nathan. He died and we buried him. I will not listen to this...this...fantasy you've concocted. Are you trying to hurt me?"

"No!" the boy vehemently denied, obviously upset and growing more and more so as he tried to convince his mother of what he saw. "No, Mama. I would never...I saw him, Mama. I did. But he ran away. I called to him but he ran away."

Miranda was flustered and frantic. "You were confused. You don't know what you saw. You couldn't... No. It was dark. I've told you not to stay out after dark. You saw a stranger. It was not your father. It couldn't be."

"It was, Mama. I saw him. But..."

"But what, Nathan?" The boy didn't speak right away and Miranda asked again, her voice bordering on hysterical. "But what, Nathan?"

"Well...at first...I thought I saw...." He took a deep breath and finished in a rush of confusion. "There was something wrong with his face. It was...bumpy. But it went away so I thought it was the shadows. It was dark. But it was Papa, Mama. He's alive!"

An eerie calm descended on Miranda as she stared at her son. Her face expressionless, she just stood and stared. Then she calmly stepped around the table and went to her son. She ran a hand over his head in a gentle caress but Spike saw it. Buffy saw it.

There was cold deadness in her eyes.

As if the conversation had not taken place, Miranda reached for Nathan's almost empty glass on the table. "I'll get you some more milk, dear."

"But...Mama?"

Miranda didn't turn back to her child. She disappeared through the doorway that led to the kitchen.

Separated by a table, the Slayer and vampire locked eyes for a long minute. A sense of impending doom weighed heavily in the room and as insubstantial as they were, they weren't exempt from feeling its suffocating presence.

"This is not good on a large scale, Spike. Did you see her face? Man, I hate this!" The frustration was eating at her, as was the sinking feeling of helplessness. She was a doer. A fighter. A righter of wrongs and protector of the innocent. But in this she was only spectator. The deed had already been done, the battle lost, the wrong wrung, the innocent...dead. And it hurt her more than she could ever say, seeing him sitting there, a lonely, confused little boy. Time had not yet run out on him in this time. But it would. It had.

There was absolutely nothing Buffy could do to change that.

Miranda reentered the room with a full glass of milk in her hand. A wasteland of glacial ice chilled her eyes. It was the coldest thing Buffy had ever seen.

Laying the glass down next to Nathan's half-full plate, she told him, "Drink your milk, dear."

Miserable and anxious to please, he picked up the full glass and took a long drink. By the time he'd set the glass back down, his mother had reclaimed her seat at the head of the table. He took a breath to plead his case once again but Miranda spoke first, overriding him.

"I'm going to tell you a secret, Nathan. It is something I had hoped to wait to tell you until you were much older, but obviously your actions this evening have left me with little choice. I did not lie to you. Your father did die one year ago."

Nathan shook his head and tried to interrupt, but she didn't let him.

"He died. It's true. But you were not mistaken. It was your father you saw in the woods. And it wasn't. Your father is a vampire, Nathan."

Buffy and Spike were stunned. The casual disregard with which she spoke was bad enough, but to just...blurt it out like that to a child that had no hope of comprehending the meaning of it all. It was beyond cruel. But Nathan didn't look upset. He looked surprised and confused, but he also looked...tired. He had an elbow on the table, probably something that wasn't allowed in this strict household, but Miranda didn't correct him. And when he rested his head in his tiny palm and stared at his mother, she just kept coldly relating the facts.

She may as well have been reciting a dissertation on the proper procedure for baking bread with as much emotion was in her voice.

"He is undead, Nathan, a demon in a man's body. The demon is evil. Devil's spawn. An abomination. But your father is there too. His memories. His personality. His mind. They are all there and they are in control of the demon. Most of the time. Your father drinks blood, you see. That is how he survives. That blood is what keeps the demon in check. With it, he is able to be the man that I fell in love with. That is paramount. His love for me and mine for him. That has not changed. And he speaks of you, Nathan, every time I go to him. He loves you."

Buffy was beyond worried. Something was wrong. Not only with Nathan, who was falling asleep at the table, but with her. She felt...odd. Off. Dreamy and floating but at the same time so very, very sleepy. Something was terribly, terribly wrong. Mostly because it felt so good. She raised a hand, reaching out to Spike, but stopped when it seemed to float prettily in front of her. So she stared at it for a while. Stared and floated and listened to the drone of Miranda's words. Pretty music in the swishing background.

"You saw the demon. The bumpy forehead you mentioned was the face of the demon. When he doesn't feed regularly he loses control over it and has to hunt. It drives him. The hunger is so intense. He feeds on the creatures of the forest. I try to help. It's my duty as his wife to do what I can. The blood is the key. With the blood he is your father. The man I married. Without it...he is nothing that can be understood. He needs the blood."

Spike was mesmerized by the story Miranda was telling. She was speaking of his kind. And she was so totally off her bird it was laughable. So he laughed. And he tried to share the joke with Buffy, but when he turned his head to look at her - and...why was the room spinning? - she wasn't there. Nathan had collapsed on the table. That couldn't be good, he thought, but he couldn't remember why. Staggering a little, he backed away from the table. Oh...there she is. Why is she on the floor? Why is she sleeping?

"Buffy?" His words were slurred and he snorted at the funny sound of her name on his lips. "Bu...ffy. C'mon, Slayer.... Huh.... Slay-er. Slay her. Wanna slay her, Slayer? What's wrong with you? Your all...lyin' down."

"I can see now, Nathan, that I have been remiss in more than just my handling of you. It's so clear. There is no other way."

By the end, there was no one to hear Miranda's precisely and coldly spoken words. Nathan was unconscious at the table. Buffy was unconscious next to the table. And after one last, shuffled step, Spike crashed to the floor, one hand outstretched towards his Slayer.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Her head was pounding. Her mouth felt like a whole field of cotton had sprouted in it. She was freezing - wherever she was, it was cold. And she was blind. It wasn't darkness; it was the absolute absence of light. A whole different thing altogether. Her body felt strange. Disconnected. Combined with the lack of sensory input from her eyes, it robbed her of the ability to determine if she was standing or lying down...or flipped upside down hanging from the ceiling, for that matter. An agonized moan slipped past her lips - but she heard it. As confused and disoriented as she was, adding to the fear over the sudden lack of sight, just hearing her own moan was a good thing.

"Buffy, luv, you there?" Spike's voice was hoarse and scratchy, like pieces of sandpaper rubbing together.

"Um...yeah. Think so, anyway. Spike...I can't see." The admission was hard. It was a weakness that she didn't think she could afford to have.

"You too, then. Right." There was relief in his voice. Waking up just minutes ago, he'd been shocked by the darkness. It affected him more than he could ever have guessed. He was a vampire, a creature of the night. His sight was hyper sensitive. Twilight was like day to vampires. Shadows were his home. But this was different. There was just...nothing. And it bothered him on an elemental level.

But Buffy was having the same problem, so he hadn't been blinded. Unless they'd both been blinded...but there was no reason to rush to that horrible conclusion.

"What happened?" Buffy asked. "I remember listening to Miranda, then it gets foggy."

"Yeah. Tends to happen when you're drugged."

"Drugged? What? Spike, that's not possible. Christmas past ghosty stuff, remember? We're not really here."

"That may be, but we were drugged. Laudanum I'd wager. Was the drug of choice back then. Used on everything from headaches to saw jobs. Opiate based. Right nasty stuff, but effective."

"The what's what in the history of narcotics is nice, Spike, but it doesn't explain how or why we were affected. Or where we are. Can you see anything at all?"

"If I could, you think I'd be lyin' here? Woulda gotten us outta here already."

"Right. Sight gone, ego intact. Good to know."

Her sarcastic drawl amused him. It served to buoy his confidence. "May not be able to see, but I can tell we're underground. Can smell the earth and damp. No mistakin' it."

"Well that's just great. You're feeling right at home, then. I'm happy for you. Do you think we can get out of here now? I'm cold." She moved to rise from the floor. And couldn't. Thinking it was just a side effect from the drugs in her system, she tried again, concentrating hard this time. With the same effect. It felt almost like something was holding her down. "Damn it. Spike, I can't move."

The vampire tried to roll over, tried to get to her side, but had no more luck in getting his arms and legs to work than she had. "Oh, bloody hell."

Sighing deeply, trying not to give into the tendrils of panic that were threading through her, she tried again. But she couldn't do so much as twitch a finger. "Is this an effect of the latinum?"

"Laudanum, pet, and no. If it's worn off enough for us to rise and not shine, it wouldn't be keepin' us kissin' the dirt. This is somethin' else." A weak moan echoed back to him and he frowned. "You alright, Buffy? Are you hurtin'?"

Horror reared its ugly and ever-present head and Buffy squeezed her eyes tightly shut. Unfortunately, closing your eyes on unmitigated darkness to block the sounds echoing in your head is never a successful course of action. "That wasn't me, Spike." The admission was ripped from the tortured girl's throat. "Oh, God. It wasn't me."

Realization dawned and Spike could only stare at the black around him, cursing the Carr House and all of its ugly secrets.

"Mama?" It was a whisper of sound in silence. The barest scratch of a twig on a wintry window.

"Mama? Are you there? What's happening, Mama?"

Buffy agonized over the tiny voice of the scared little boy. Nathan was trapped in a black hole, and though not currently alone, he had been during the live version of this sadistic scenario. And nothing Buffy could do would ever make that not true.

They were living it. There was nothing they could do to deny it or make it not be true.

"Mama? I'm scared. Please, Mama, what's happening? Where am I? I can't see, Mama. It's dark. I'm cold, Mama! Help me! Mama!"

Buffy couldn't speak. Spike was also silent. They couldn't comfort the child. They couldn't silence his fears. They couldn't speak of their own understanding that it would never get better. They couldn't talk over the desperation of a child, not even to recognize that it would only get worse. For all their combined strength, they couldn't even draw comfort from one another, almost didn't want to. If a nine-year-old boy were to suffer the unspeakable torture of being utterly alone in this dank hole, they would listen and pay attention to what Nathan was showing them. What they needed to see.

"Mama? Where are you? I don't understand? What did I do wrong, Mama? MAMA?!"

The hysteria was rising in Nathan's voice, the fear palpable in the room. Spike could hear it, taste it in the air. The little boy's heart was pounding, he was crying, then whimpering, then screaming, then whimpering, then sobbing, then sleeping, then waking, then crying, then whimpering all over again. Spike didn't know how long it went on. Time meant less than nothing. He didn't know how long Buffy had been crying along with Nathan.

But she was.

Spike didn't know what was worse, listening to the wails of the child or the almost silent sobs of the woman that meant more to him than his own unlife. But another sound was filtering through to his consciousness. A familiar sound. A sound that he'd heard on and off for over a hundred years but never, not once in all that time, had he had this particular perspective on it. It was so grossly out of place that he almost didn't credit it as fact. But after several long minutes, he could ignore the stark truth no longer.

His heart was beating.

More than beating, it was pounding in his dead chest like a freight train pounded down the tracks. Faster and faster and louder and louder, Spike tried to shake his head to clear it of what obviously nothing more than an illusion...or hallucination...or something. It had to be, because vampire hearts do not beat. Ever.

But his did. And it was. And it scared the hell out of him.

"Buffy," he whispered to the dark, "I...there's somethin' wrong."

The laugh that ricocheted off of the earthen walls was ugly and harsh. "Something wrong?" There was hysteria in her shrill voice. "You're kidding, right? Because I thought being trapped in this hole, unable to do anything but listen to a little boy being tortured, knowing what's coming next and not being able to stop it, was already pretty large with the wrongness. But hey, you're a vampire, so it's possible my idea of wrong and yours are on totally different planes of existence. So tell me, Spike, what else? What's wrong now?"

A sharp pain tightened on his chest. He tried not to let her callous words bother him, but he was glad she couldn't see his face. He wouldn't have been able to hide the hurt he knew was in his eyes. It wasn't fair, her hostility towards him. But he understood the reasons behind it. Not that it was any easier or less painful with the understanding, but it allowed him to answer her.

"My heart, Slayer. It's beatin'."

For a long minute the only sounds in the room were the haunting whimpers of the boy. Finally, incredulously, Buffy spoke. "Your heart is beating? Did you just say your heart is beating? Are you sure?"

He rolled his eyes and his frustration slipped into his voice. "Am I sure?" he sniped. "A loud thump-thump throbbing in a chest that's supposed to be cold and quiet inn't exactly somethin' easy to mistake. Yeah, I'm bleedin' sure."

"What the hell is going on here? I don't understand. We're not really here, but we get drugged, pass out, wake up here, and now your heart is beating? What the hell is going on?"

"You figure it out, you let me know. Because I have no soddin' idea."

A creak of a door was the only warning they had before a warm draft of air slid over them and the smell of lilac tickled their nostrils. The dark was relentless, but the new presence in the room was easily felt. And not just by the Slayer and Vampire.

"Mama! You've come! Help me, Mama. Please? I don't understand. What did I do? Tell me what I did. Why can't I see, Mama? What's happening?"

The silence that echoed back at the frantic questions and pleas was doubly tragic because the woman that should be her son's staunchest supporter and fiercest defender was responsible for it all. And Miranda said not one word.

"Mama?" The voice was no longer loud and pleading, but soft and small. Almost non-existent. "Help me. Please? I'll be good. I promise. I'll be good from now on."

The loudest silence Buffy had ever heard was in the aftermath of that little boy's final promise to a mother who had no intention of being merciful. But the silence was not a long one. And hell descended on a pitch-black room.

Nathan Morgan shrieked in pain. Buffy and Spike jumped at the shrill sound and sucked in quick, surprised gasps at their own pain. A slicing hot pain that stabbed into both of them.

"Spike! My leg!"

"Buffy! Bloody hell, what the fuck? You feelin' it too? Left leg, inside thigh? Shit!"

"Yes," she hissed, trying to lock down her fear at the sharp pain in her left leg that was even now abating to a hot ache. Her arms and legs started tingling - and it was spreading. Like she'd been sitting wrong and her extremities had fallen asleep. She started feeling lightheaded, too, and thoughts were harder to make sense of. Nauseated, cold, trembling, Buffy closed her eyes in an effort to will herself better. Not knowing exactly what was wrong, but knowing it was very, very bad.

Spike's newly beating heart raced, tripped, and thudded painfully in his chest. And he, just like Buffy, felt the tingling, stinging feeling in his arms and legs, felt the floating feeling in his head. But he, unlike Buffy, knew exactly what was happening to him. To them. And when he figured it out, everything else fell into place as well.

Spike was bleeding to death.

He should know. He'd done it before. And the feeling was exactly the same. The smack of irony was less painful than the cut on his leg, but he felt it, regardless. Listening to his heart slow gradually, sputter a bit and throb on some more, he was completely robbed of even the will to struggle. And it was all so tragically clear to him.

They were dying. He, Buffy, and Nathan were all dying. Together.

"First hand." The will to speak was strong but his words were weak. He didn't even know if Buffy heard them. But he had to say them. "He said we'd see it first hand. Bleedin' blue ball of energy told us. Said...first hand...said we'd see...Miranda...she.....Buffy...love......"

His words trailed off into a whisper of nothing as he passed out. The last thing he heard was a final beat of his dead heart. And with nothing more - not even a sigh - Spike died. Again.

Buffy was weak and dying when she felt him go. She felt him leave her. A lone tear slipped past closed lids. She'd heard him. At the end, she'd heard him. Her heart broke even as it slowed to a stop. But she couldn't force words from her throat, no matter how hard she tried to tell him she loved him. All that she had were fragmented thoughts and distorted guilt. Nathan, why? You're killing us. Spike. Love...you.

Nathan Morgan died in a cold, black room. He died in darkness. Alone. Confused. Terrified. The one person who was supposed to protect him from everything had betrayed him in the worst way imaginable. The person that had given him life had murdered him.

He showed Buffy and Spike exactly what had happened, how it happened. Let them see. And it killed them all.



Chapter Nine

Deep in the recesses of a thick forest, a place where moonbeams dance to the ground in just the thinnest of shimmering threads, an owl perched on a high branch, surveying his kingdom, his home. He was alert and watchful, and a little hungry, so he used extraordinary ears to listen intently for the sound of the softest rustle of a leaf along the littered floor beneath him. Just the faintest squeak would tell him where his next meal was.

For all his attention, he neither saw nor heard the two figures blink into existence far below. The first, with shocking blonde hair contrasting a jet-black wardrobe, appeared mere seconds before the smaller, female figure. As if conjured out of thin air and with not even a whisper of a breeze to announce their arrival, the pair stood on a ribbon of bare earth and stared hard at their new surroundings.

Good old Mr. Owl had no idea they were there. To him, they were insubstantial. When his patience was finally rewarded and his prey had been targeted, he dropped from the branch and spread silent wings to catch the air. He swooped past the newly arrived couple with no idea that he wasn't alone, no idea that a vampire and a Vampire Slayer saw the movement of his wings out of the corner of their eyes and had turned their heads to watch him fly away. Even if they'd spoken, shouted at the top of their lungs, he wouldn't have heard them.

They were anachronisms. Misplaced in time. To him, they didn't exist.

Spike watched the owl soar silently into the darkness, feeling Buffy's presence a few feet behind him. He felt her but couldn't look at her, not because he couldn't bear to see her pain and torment, but because he couldn't let her see his. But he needed to do something, so he reached into a pocket of his duster and pulled out his pack of smokes. His hands trembled but she wouldn't see them. It was better that way.

That hellish hole, or wherever they had been during that bint-orchestrated sadistic romp was gone. He'd heard his heart stop beating...again...then everything went black. Then the scenery changed.

The forest was back, surrounding them. It was still dark - or dark again, he wasn't sure which - and he saw thin shafts of moonlight dapple the forest floor. That he could see at all was a good thing, reassuring, but he didn't recognize the surrounding foliage. They weren't where they had been before. They were still in the past, still being led around by a dead boy, but he had no clue exactly where they were.

Not that he cared, really. They were alive. More or less. One thing he did know, the next time some nappied nipper tells him he was going to be shown events of the past first hand, he'd demand sloppy seconds instead.

He felt her. Still he didn't turn.

It was within the realm of possibility that he could speak, say something, but for once the vampire that always had some quip or sarcastic rejoinder or pearly bit of wisdom had absolutely nothing to say. So he stood in a forest that he'd never seen before and stared off into the darkness, trying to collect himself, trying to incorporate something he'd learned when he'd been...dying.

He felt her. The tears he'd been struggling to contain mocked him, sliding past his lids to trickle down his cold cheeks. And he thought about what he'd realized just a heartbeat ago. Literally.

After she'd leapt to her death and saved the world, after he'd lived one hundred and forty-seven days without her, after she'd come back to the world she'd saved, finally came to him, he decided that before she got a chance to slip the constraints of mortality again, he'd die first - the dusty kind of death. He'd decided that being selfish in this, in not wanting to continue un-living with the loss of her again, was an acceptable course of action for a vampire without a soul. But now he realized that there was something infinitely worse than existing with her loss.

Dying, slipping away, knowing that her death would be cold and lonely with no one to tell her that it would be alright, to calm her fears or dry her tears, that was worse. Going first was worse. Now he knew.

She may die in battle, probably would, but she may live to a ripe old age. Didn't matter. Spike would never let her go alone. He'd be there. He'd cope with her loss again. He'd curse life, real living and dying life, and he'd hide those curses behind his love for her while he held her hand, brushed a strand of hair off her forehead, and kissed her goodbye.

Then he'd stake himself. Or greet the sun. But he would wage war on hell itself before he let her die alone.

He felt her. Then he heard her move. Slowly at first, stepping carefully towards him. A branch cracked under her foot. A dried up leaf disintegrated upon contact. He heard it. And he dashed away the tears on his cheeks and sucked in a breath, struggling to find that part of himself that could deal with anything with a wink or a show of fang.

"Where are we?"

Her voice was soft, barely above a whisper. But the lack of volume didn't hide the horror she'd experienced. Nor did it mask the resolve and determination. She was the Slayer. In everything, she was the Slayer.

He didn't turn to look at her; he just shook his head and shrugged.

"When are we?"

That was the question of the day...or night...or whatever. He managed to rumble out a low, "Still in the past."

"I know, but when? Why? What else could Nathan show us? He's..."

"Dead." He finished her sentence, taking that burden as his own.

"Yeah. But I don't want to talk about that right now. I...can't."

There was nothing to say to that. He'd never agreed with her more.

"So why are we still here?" she asked. It was a rhetorical question. They had been brought back to see what happened to Nathan. What else could there possibly be to see after he'd been mur...after he'd died?

She forced her mind to other things. "Is...? Your heart...is it still beating?"

Her small hand rested on his back and he sighed at the pleasure of it. And suddenly he was nearly bowled over with the need to see her standing in front of him. He turned, and fell in love with her all over again.

"No," he said, forcing a wry smile to his face. Tapping his chest, he said, "Quiet as a tomb, pet. But see, what I find really interestin', is that yours inn't either."

Buffy didn't question how he knew or if he was teasing her, she could see that he wasn't. His eyes were grave. Her hands flew to her throat in search of a non-existent pulse and her eyes flew wide in surprise. "Oh, God. I'm...it's...I'm..."

"I think 'dead' is the word you're lookin' for."

For such a momentous declaration, Spike seemed remarkably unaffected by it, amused even, but he was more than vaguely familiar with deadness. Not that that did anything to calm Buffy's distress, in fact, his cavalier attitude ticked her off. On top of the major wiggins over her non-beating heart, she wasn't feeling terribly gracious.

"I'm glad you're taking it so well, Spike. Somehow I can't seem to be all, 'Dead again? Oh well, third time's the charm.' Now, if you have anything resembling useful information, feel free to wow me with your insight, if not, just shut the hell up!"

She tried to spin away and storm off, but two vice-like hands gripped her shoulders and prevented her escape. His voice was low and rough, and unlike before, fierce with emotion. "You're not dead, woman! You think I'd be standin' here, chattin' you up like nothin' was botherin' me if you were? You bloody well know better. You didn't die in that soddin' hole. I didn't die. Nathan died."

He sighed deeply and loosened his grip on her arms...a little...when she winced slightly. His voice was more composed when he continued. "Think, Buffy. He told us we'd see what happened to him first hand. Woulda been nice if he'd been more bleedin' specific, as we seem to be more than seein' it; we're living and dying it, but there it is. That's why we had that wicked trip to laudanum land, that's why we...in the dark..." He trailed off, not wanting to say something that would bring her back to the horror. Instead he explained, "That heartbeat of mine wasn't mine, it was his - so was yours at the time, I expect, but you're used to havin' the chug-a-lug in your chest so it didn't seem different to you. Now the shoe's in the other ribcage, so to speak." His jaw snapped shut and she could see the muscles in his cheeks ripple at the pressure. "Point is, we're still bein' shown. My guess is, when he's done with us, you'll get that blood pressure of yours back."

Buffy stared at the vampire holding her. She didn't say anything right away, just watched him watch her. She was still upset, but for a different reason than before. The peroxide pest had actually wowed her with his insight. Sometimes that habit of his, the one where he had a tendency to see straight through to the heart of a matter, or to understand the way things were before she did really bothered her. Come on, she was the Slayer. She was the one that was supposed to figure out all the big nasties. But often, he was just the smallest step ahead of her - not to mention the times he was more than small steps ahead. It was...frustrating. Right up until she remembered that they were a team, it was downright annoying. But they were a team, and they worked well together. And to be fair, since they'd been together, he had never lorded his abilities over her head. Much. When he did, it was usually to goad her into a response that inevitably ended...satisfactorily for both of them.

Her irritation melted away, concern over the lack of a pulse lessening a notch.

"And, ya know? Imitation death...even less fun than the real thing." Her dry sarcasm tugged the corners of his mouth into a brief smile and he released his grip on her shoulders. As he turned to scope out the area, she said, "Just so you know...if you're wrong, I'm going to haunt you for the rest of your un-life."

Spike stopped in his tracks and looked back at her. She was teasing him. He managed to muster up a sexually charged smirk and quirked an eyebrow. "I know I'm irresistible, pet, but I appreciate the reminder that you can't stay away from me."

She rolled her eyes at him. The normalcy of their banter went a long way in allowing her to pull herself back together. To heal a bit from the tragedy they'd experienced.

Minutes later, they were walking through the woods. Staying in one place rarely accomplished anything, so Buffy suggested they start working the area, moving in an ever-widening circle so they didn't miss whatever Nathan wanted them to see next. So far, he'd popped them into scenes either close to or directly in the area of what he wanted to show them, she was working on the assumption that this time would follow the same pattern.

When she caught a flicker of light through the trees, she knew she'd been right. Pointing it out to Spike, they moved to intercept it.

It wasn't a little blue ball of energy, it wasn't a malevolent haunt, it was...a lantern. An old fashioned, gas lantern. And it was in Miranda's hand as she made her way through the forest. For the first time in her life, Buffy looked at a human being and sincerely thought that some people did deserve to be eaten.

The irony of having a vampire on hand more than willing but unable to do the job was not lost on her. Not to mention the fact that Miranda had, in fact, been eaten. Though far, far too late to do her son any good.

Neither Spike nor Buffy made any comment, snarl, or growl when they saw her. Sometimes emotions were just too deep seeded, too raw and jagged to express out loud. They seethed, but they did it quietly. Perhaps they just wanted to get through with whatever other horrors there were to be seen as quickly as possible, perhaps they didn't want to waste even one more syllable on the contemptible woman. Perhaps they were just tired.

Whatever it was, they followed her quietly, resigned to it. She had the lantern in one hand and a satchel over her shoulder. Miranda walked quickly and surely through the woods, like she knew exactly where she was going. Every once in awhile she'd pause and look around, check out her surroundings, and then continue along.

Somehow, when she reached a gaping hole in the earth - the mouth of a cave - and slipped inside, neither vampire nor Slayer was terribly surprised. Miranda had, after all, been walking with purpose and had an obvious destination in mind. And they had seen too much to be surprised by anything.

Or so they thought.

Following her into the darkness and moving further into the bowels of the earth, Buffy and Spike saw light up ahead. Ducking and weaving around low-hanging rock, they finally reached the end and stepped into a large cavern just behind Miranda.

Several candles were lit, a chair and a bed were against one wall and dozens of books were piled high on the other side of the cave. One table next to the books had a gas lamp glowing softly on top of it. A gentle drip and plunk of water falling somewhere echoed in the room and Buffy noticed that there was another opening in the rock against the back. Another tunnel. The cavern was damp and cold, but curiously homey. And even more appropriate for a vampire's lair then Spike's crypt.

Pacing the length of the cavern, walking back and forth and back, was Jacob Morgan. He must have noticed the presence of his wife, but hadn't so much as flicked a glance in her direction. He looked...concerned.

"Jacob," Miranda's soft voice bounced off the walls as she hailed her husband.

"He saw me."

Buffy and Spike watched the scene unfold. Grim and disgusted, they hoped for something - anything - to make sense of everything they'd seen so far.

"Yes," Miranda answered him, crossing the cavern and setting her lantern down on a small table next to the chair. She shrugged the satchel off her shoulder and set it carefully down next to the chair. "He told me about it at dinner last night."

"He wasn't supposed to be there, my love. I wouldn't have..." Jacob slid a tortured glance to his wife. "I would have stayed away from the house had I known. Did he...? What did he see, exactly?"

Miranda crossed the room and laid a gentle hand on her husbands' forehead. The emotion in her eyes was unmistakable. It turned Buffy's stomach. There had been none for her son.

"He saw the demon, my love. He told me. I was able to convince him that he was mistaken. It was dark. He admitted as much. I explained that the night played tricks on his eyes. You were dead. Had been for a year."

Jacob looked so guilty, so torn up about what his son had been through. "And he believed you?"

"It took awhile, but yes. He believed me."

"Perhaps it is time to tell him the truth. Perhaps we were wrong in keeping it from - "

"No." Miranda's voice brooked no argument. "He is but a child, my beloved. He would not understand and could not keep the secret even if he did. When he left for school this morning, he was content in the knowledge that he had been mistaken about your identity and I am certain that he will not break the rule about being in the house before the sun sets ever again."

Buffy glanced at Spike and noticed he was staring at her. She knew her face was twisted in revulsion over the combination of sick lies and macabre truths that fell carelessly from the bitch's lips. There had been no school for Nathan that day, or any day after, for that matter. As for the rule of being in before dark...

Miranda's certainty was wretchedly justified.

"He must have seen this," she whispered to him - though why she bothered to speak softly was beyond her. "He was here, after he'd died. He saw this and didn't understand."

Spike didn't confirm her statement, but the agreement was in his eyes. For them to be there, Nathan must have seen it, in whatever form he had become. "He had school the day after. Today. That's why she called out the search team. Bint dinn't want to answer questions 'bout why he wasn't in school."

"Well," she said on a sigh, "at least now we know why she did what she did to him. She didn't want to risk him telling anyone about his father. The bitch."

Spike wasn't looking at her anymore, he was watching Miranda walk back to the discarded satchel and pull out a corked bottle. The contents inside were hidden from view behind the green glass, but he had a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach when he saw it. A feeling that he hoped to hell was wrong. He mumbled a non-committal, "Yeah," as he studied Miranda.

"You should have told me that the bloodlust was growing, Jacob," Miranda was saying as she uncovered the bottle and removed it from the bag. "The demon hunted last night. You could have told me, come to me. I could have helped. I want to help."

Jacob stared into the flame of one of the candles on the small table next to the bed. His back was to his wife, so she didn't see his features twist in emotional pain. Didn't see him close his eyes against her words. Buffy and Spike saw it. Their eyes narrowed as they watched the vampire's feelings play across his face. Something danced at the edge of Buffy's mind, something that bothered her, but she couldn't grasp what it was. It was just a nebulous tugging feeling, telling her that she was missing something important. But Jacob spoke and she gave up trying to pin down the feeling to follow his words.

"I saw searchers in the forest tonight. There's been another, hasn't there?"

Miranda stiffened. "Yes. Sometime last night. I heard the news in town today. They have been searching all day. But I don't want to talk about that, beloved. I know how it upsets you."

She met her husband in the middle of the room after setting the bottle down and lifted a hand to the worried frown marring his features. Smoothing away the lines, she kissed his lips and wrapped her arms around him. He embraced her, resting his chin on the top of her head, but his eyes remained troubled.

"It is upsetting, darling," Jacob murmured. "There is a blight on the town. This last is the twenty-third victim in a year." He eased away from his wife's arms, clearly agitated, and resumed his pacing. "I've searched, Miranda. I've tried to find the creature responsible. I felt it was my duty. I was smote by this...condition...but it is not without its meager compensations. It should be child's play, tracking a mindless beast, but I have had no success!"

"Please, husband, do not work yourself into a frenzy. You know what happens when you do." Miranda's placating voice was calm and rational.

His hazel eyes were tortured when he glanced at his wife. "Do not concern yourself overly, dearest. I am in complete control of myself."

Something dangerous flared briefly in Miranda's eyes and there was a new firmness in her voice as she contradicted him. "That...demon is not you, Jacob. Do not talk as if you were one. You know how it bothers me to hear you speak so."

Jacob looked as if he was going to say something, but he stopped. Spike, as a fellow member of the 'undead man walking' club, had a sneaking suspicion Jacob was going to correct his wife's erroneous assumptions about the true nature of vampires, but changed his mind before he began.

"I have seen the tracks, my love," Jacob said instead, "surrounding the area where each body has been found. I caught the scent. I've even followed the creature into the mountains on more than one occasion, but the ground is rock and the cat is wily. I loose both track and scent before I can find her den. Still she feeds on the town when her stomach rumbles. It makes no sense! There is plenty of wildlife in these woods. She should have no need to taste the flesh of humans! She should fear them."

The Slayer's jaw dropped open at the pack of smoothly spoken lies, so carefully and concisely laid out there. It was a joke, a horrible, tragic, and by no means funny joke.

"Oh, please!" Buffy's irritated voice rose in anger and covered Miranda's response. She just couldn't stay silent any longer. "He's lying!" She spun on Spike and tossed a hand up, motioning to Jacob. "Can you believe this? He's blaming a cougar for the people that he killed! And that bitch," she pointed an accusing finger at Miranda, "don't even get me started! Nathan was the twenty-third victim, Spike, remember? Ida told us he was. Couldn't help but notice Miranda conveniently failed to mention the name of the person the search team was looking for! Between the two of them, this was one fucked up family."

Spike didn't say anything; he was staring at Jacob intently, watching all of his responses, cataloguing even the barest flicker of expression or tightening of muscle. He was bothered by what he was seeing, but not for the same reasons Buffy was. Still...he wasn't sure...

"Miranda, I do not want you to come to me any longer. It is not safe, darling, and I could not bear the thought of anything happening to either you or our son."

The woman's eyes went wide at her husband's words. She shook her head vehemently. "Do not speak so, Jacob. I can assure you nothing will happen to me. I pray you not ask me to stay away from you, my heart."

The vampire broke away from her clinging arms and his temper - temper born from concern - burst forth. "Damn it, wife, I can not lose you! You will heed me!"

She gasped in horror at the misshapen features on her husband's face. In his heightened state of emotion, his game face had emerged. Miranda rushed to the table and grabbed up the bottle she'd brought along with her.

Drawing herself up, she glared at Jacob recklessly. Gone was the tenderness in her eyes. Once again Buffy and Spike caught a glimpse of the cold and calculating woman who had destroyed her son's life.

"Be gone, Devil's spawn," she hissed angrily. "You have no sway here. Take this," she held the bottle out to him, "and drink. You are an abomination. Take the blood you crave and return my husband to me!"

Demon-gold eyes pinned the small woman, then dropped to the bottle in her hand. Miranda trembled only slightly in fear as she uncorked the bottle and brought it closer to Jacob. The scent of blood permeated the room and Spike breathed it in, his own hunger stirring in response.

That's when he knew his fears had been justified.

Jacob took the bottle out of his wife's hand and brought the mouth to his lips. He drank thirstily but with gentility, then turned to set it down next to him. When he faced his wife again, the fangs and ridges were gone. Almost embarrassed, his eyes begged her for forgiveness.

She granted it by stepping into his arms.

"You are too kind to me, my love," he muttered, burying his face in her hair. "You do not need to bring me this cursed sustenance, but you do. I know it must be difficult for you to obtain it."

"It is not kindness, beloved. It is duty. As your wife, it is my job to see to your needs. And the difficulties are minimal. Fortunately, our neighbors, the Hanson's, have a healthy herd of cattle. They feel minimal pain and are none the worse for the small amounts I take from them now and again."

Spike's stomach pitched and fell sharply. His jaw dropped open. His eyes grew wide in disbelief. He watched in stunned amazement as Jacob accepted his wife's words at face value and pressed a caring kiss to her willing lips. Then he spun and - without a word to Buffy - stalked out of the cave.

Buffy, frowning and confused, watched him go. That feeling of being just a touch out of the loop was back again. She stared hard at Jacob, then at Miranda. Something wasn't...

Oh, God.

The Slayer ran after the vampire.

He was just outside the cave, stalking back and forth. Buffy almost barreled into him as she emerged from the tunnel. When he turned away from her, wouldn't look at her, she knew she was right. She finally recognized what had been bothering her and it sickened her.

"No." She denied the unspoken truth vehemently, senselessly. "She didn't. You're wrong."

Spike didn't turn to her, didn't say a word, just kept moving cagily back and forth.

Buffy felt the hysteria rising. Felt her grasp on rationale slip. "We're wrong. We're missing something. It's not possible!"

It was the 'we' that stopped him in his tracks. She had been a step behind him in figuring it out, but once she did, it was so horrible that she tried to deny it. Tried to, but the truth was already there. A part of her had already accepted it. And it was tearing her up inside.

Slowly, knowing full well what he was doing, he turned and faced her. He saw the tears in her eyes, tears that had not yet had the chance to fall. She was being eaten alive by the horror of it all. There was only one thing he could do for her now.

He brought his game face forward and grinned coldly at her. "Of course it's possible, Slayer. Makes sense, too. Waste not, want not, I always say."

She hit him. He knew she was going to. She had to get rid of it, the rage, the pain. It was the only way. So he set himself up for it, knowing all along that she'd lash out at the only thing...person she could. Him.

Advancing dangerously, she swung again. "Damn you! It's not true!"

Spike's head flew back and he winced at the force of the blow. He managed to duck under the spin kick that was aimed at his head, but caught the uppercut and fell back into a tree. He shook his head, then rolled away before she could lunge for him.

"What's the matter, Slayer? Forget what he is? What I am? Of course it's true."

He goaded her, taunted her, and she fought him hard. A kick to the head he didn't see coming sent him reeling. An elbow in the gut when he grabbed her from behind lifted him off his feet. A flurry of jabs bled his nose and his lip.

"You son of a bitch! I can't do it! I won't do it!"

The tears coursed down her cheeks and still she kept coming. Her chest heaved in gasps of air as she grew tired and winded but she continued to throw punches and kicks. Some he blocked, most he didn't.

That was his gift to her. The only one he had to offer. The only one she needed right then.

Finally, it came out. She had worked herself hard, had bruised and bloodied him, and finally it slipped past her lips.

"I can't tell that little boy that his mother killed him to feed his blood to his father!"

Everything stopped. Eerily, as if time itself was too horrified by the truth to continue on, the night around them grew silent. No crickets chirped, no frogs croaked, no creepy crawlies crept and crawled. Predators paused their hunt, the stars dimmed, the moon hid.

And deep in her chest, Buffy's heart started beating again. So it could shatter.

She sunk to her knees, tired hands covering her face, smothering the wracking sobs that were shaking her body. Spike watched her with somber blue eyes. The demon visage had served its purpose and he'd shed it quickly, gladly, when he saw she'd reached the breaking point. Understanding her as no one else, he'd known she needed to pummel something. Her release was in the physical, it always would be. Now he had to give her space to let it all out and that, more than the vicious hits he took, cut him deeply and made him bleed.

Buffy Summers accepted comfort like she did everything else. On her own terms. Vampire feelings be damned. He knew and accepted that about her. While he waited, he straightened his disheveled clothing and wiped the blood from his face. Christ, he hurt. And he'd do it all again if she needed it.

Exhausted and drained, Buffy finally cried herself out. It felt like she'd been sobbing for days, but she knew better. Her hands hurt, her arms hurt, her heart hurt. She remembered punishing Spike for...well, for being there. For being a vampire. She knew he'd let her do it. He had even pushed her into it.

As shamed as she was in her behavior, she knew he would never hold it against her, knew he'd never even mention it. That was Spike.

Dragging shuddering breaths into her raw lungs, she wiped the tears from her face. It seemed like a good idea to stare intently at the ground, so she did. Her emotions were spent, and when she finally managed to find her voice again, her words were cold and arid.

"She bled him and gave the blood to Jacob. She lied to him. She told him it was cow's blood. And he didn't know the difference, did he?"

"No."

Buffy nodded, turning over the meaning of that in her head. "He didn't know human blood when he tasted it."

"No." It was hard for Spike, just waiting for Buffy to work it all out and put it into words. He could have explained, could have told her everything he figured out as he'd watched Jacob in the cave, but some of it was so absurd, so out there, that unless she came to it on her own, she'd never believe any of it. So he answered her when prompted and watched her carefully.

"He didn't kill the people from town. He couldn't have. He would have known the difference in the blood."

Buffy glanced up at him and he could see the hope that she was wrong still clinging tenaciously in her eyes. He had to destroy that hope. He nodded gravely.

She looked away, her mind spinning crazily as pieces of that notorious puzzle fell into place. Getting to her feet, she rubbed her damp palms on her pants. "Jacob didn't kill them. He honestly thought it was a cougar. There probably was one, but it was attracted to the...to the bodies."

"Wouldn't be too surprisin', Buffy. You see what this place was like. Big cats are everywhere in this time."

Slowly, she started walking back and forth in front of him, watching the ground intently again as she thought it all out. "I knew it, too. The minute I saw his face after he fed on the deer, I knew he couldn't have killed those people. It bugged me, but everything was moving so fast, I didn't get a chance to figure out what was wrong."

To that, Spike said nothing.

"Twenty-three women and children were killed. That's what Ida said. Women and children. That's why there weren't any men killed. They would have been too heavy to move. We were so wrong. Miranda didn't just kill Nathan. She killed all of them. She killed them - to feed him."

She stopped and raised her head. Eyes that had seen too many horrors, too many unexplainable things, and had still managed to shine were now dull and ancient at this atrocity. Sighing deeply, she set her mouth in a thin, hard line and squared her shoulders.

"Miranda was human. There isn't a name for the kind of monster she was. Jacob Morgan was a vampire. He felt love, he felt guilt, he felt sorrow and pain. Why? How? Did he have a soul?"

Spike stepped out of the shadows and joined his woman in the moonlight. She had acclimated. Still hurting, but able now to function as the Slayer, she'd forced herself to continue on.

"That I don't know," he admitted. "Watchin' the poor sod, all I know was he wasn't like any other of my kind I've ever seen, except..."

"Angel."

The name hung in the air between them. Spike studied her intently, waiting to see what she would do with it. She raised her chin and met his eyes squarely, showing him her heart - battered and bruised, but still his. He saw it. The relief was overwhelming.

"We're going to destroy her, Spike."

The certainty with which she spoke brought the first smile in a good long while to Spike's mouth. "Bloody right we are."

As if waiting for them to make that decision, the scenery changed around them. Staring at each other, they didn't even flinch at the suddenness of it, nor did they break eye contact. Whatever else Nathan was to show them, it would have to wait for a minute. There was something else vitally important that the Slayer and her vampire needed to do.

Coming together, closing the distance between them, each took one step forward. Their bodies fit together perfectly as they stared deeply into each other's eyes. Spike dipped his head a bit; Buffy raised her chin a bit. Each compromised slightly in who they were and what they were. To be together it was necessary.

And neither one saw it as a sacrifice.

Their lips touched softly at first, then deeper, harder. It didn't matter any more that it wasn't a good time or a good place. The truth of the matter was, it never really did. If you loved someone, you loved him. And a vampire and a Slayer weren't likely to get many 'perfect' places or 'right' times. They had to make their own.

Their hands entwined at their sides; their bodies pressed closer. Their tongues touched and they sought solace and comfort and love and passion - and found it all. They found themselves in the kiss. They gave themselves in the kiss. Time stopped for them because they demanded it.

When they broke apart, finally, they had laid their ghosts to rest. All that was left was a haunt. And 'rest' wasn't what they had in mind for her.

The night had given way to day and the blessed sounds of cars and trucks rumbling down a nearby road filtered through the trees around them. They were back in the clearing where Nathan had been buried, back in their own time.

Buffy and Spike glanced around, both relieved that the scenic tour was over. Tall trees shaded the area and beyond them the forest was no longer being blown and tossed about by a furious dead bitch with a monster of an attitude problem.

"Home sweet home," Spike drawled sarcastically.

"Oh yeah. Now all that's left is the making a dead woman deader bit."

He grinned at her evilly. "Sounds like a plan, luv."

Buffy frowned a little. "Well...that's more of a priority of a plan. I'm a little planless at the moment, actually. Sure, we got the not-so-guided tour of the past, and now we know all those nifty 'transgressions' Nathan referred to. Pretty sure the Mistress of Denial won't be too quick to fess up to the deeds, though."

"Hmm. Good point. Bint had a body, we could beat it out of her. I miss baddies with bodies."

Turning to look at Spike in surprise, seeing his wistful expression, Buffy tried to choke back a snort of amusement. It seemed inappropriate after everything they'd seen. But the problem was Spike looked so damn earnest. Earnest and a little pouty that they couldn't just chop off Miranda's head or break her neck or something.

"Baddies with bodies?" she questioned him slowly, struggling not to give into the laughter that was threatening to burst forth.

"Well...yeah. Somethin' to sink a little teeth into. You know."

Spike was staring at her like she'd fallen off her rocker. She probably had. She was grinning like a buffoon, after all.

"Oh come on, Slayer," he grumbled, "don't tell me you wouldn't rather be back in Sunnyhell, increasin' the town's dust population or dealin' with demon remains. I know better."

She just shook her head at him, amused and more hopeful than she'd been in a good long while. They'd figure something out, they always did. "Cheer up, Ken," she teased, "if all else fails, we may just have to burn Barbie's Dreamhouse to the ground to get rid of our sadistic specter."

The vampire perked up and sent a hopeful look in her direction. "Really? You're not just sayin' that?"

Rolling her eyes, she leaned over and picked up the comforter, tossing it to him. "Come on. I want to check out the house before the trade winds start blowing again. Miranda sealed off the place before; I'm hoping she's running too low on energy to keep us out by now."

"Great," Spike complained as she walked away. "You are familiar with the fryin' pan and fire analogy, aren't you, pet?"

Buffy didn't bother acknowledging his gloom and doomness. She had a haunt to destroy. And the one thing of which the Slayer was certain, Miranda would be destroyed. By whatever means necessary.



Chapter Ten

Making a right hand turn into the pristine, white stone drive of The Carr House, Giles breathed a relieved sigh. He checked the time. Again. Exactly five hours and eight minutes had passed since the ringing phone had jarred him out of a peaceful sleep. Since Spike's voice and thoroughly unpleasant message had slapped him awake like a cold, wet hand.

He been choking on concern and worry ever since.

That was probably why a drive that should normally have taken five hours took only four hours and fifteen minutes. Less than an hour had been spent frantically searching the Magic Box shelves for information on haunts, then alerting and collecting his traveling companion. It was Willow that made the rest of the gang aware of the situation after Giles woke her up. She had wasted no time in getting ready and putting Xander in charge of keeping an eye on Dawn while they were gone.

No one dared call it babysitting. Dawn would have been highly offended.

As Giles pulled his sporty red convertible to a halt next to the monstrosity that Spike called a car, he smiled wanly at Willow. "We've made it."

They sat in silence for a long minute and stared out the windshield, just taking in the three-story house and grounds. It was a sunny day; the few clouds in the sky were fluffy and white. Even the temperature was pleasant and warm. Taken with the picturesque surroundings, it was as close to perfect as any place could be.

Giles finally shook off his musings and reached for the door handle. His actions spurred Willow out of her reverie. Once out of the car, she raised a hand to shield her eyes from the sun and looked at the house again.

"It looks so peaceful. Like nothing could ever go wrong here. Like...like a place you'd want to settle and raise a family."

Giles grimaced wryly as he popped open the trunk of the car. "Yes, by all means," he drawled sarcastically. "Yet one vampire visits and you have Amityville Horror. Leave it to Spike to bring out the worst of even the most pleasant of places."

Willow frowned. "Giles, I'm sure it's not Spike's fault. He would never do anything to put Buffy in danger."

Biting back an even less complimentary comment about Spike - a comment that was motivated not by any true animosity towards the vampire, but by fear for Buffy's safety - Giles sighed. "I'm sure he wouldn't, Willow. Not purposely, anyway. I'm just..."

"Worried about Buffy," Willow supplied after Giles' voice had trailed off. Understanding softened her features and she placed a comforting hand on his arm - an arm heavy laden with the books he'd retrieved from the trunk. "I'm sure she's fine. They're both fine."

She lessened his burden by taking several tomes off the top of his pile and turned to walk up the path to the house. It wasn't until she'd reached the porch that she noticed something odd.

"Giles," she called behind her as she stood and stared, dread pooling in her stomach, "the window."

He hadn't made it to the porch yet and when he heard her, he followed her gaze to the jagged hole where a large bay window next to the door should have been. Slowly, with trepidation, he raised his head and checked out the other windows on the front of the house.

Each one was open to the warm breeze - and not in a natural 'raise the sill' way, either. He could see glass shards still stuck in their panes, noticed several curtains flutter in the breeze, sliced from their contact with the sharp edges as the air stirred them.

Anxiety and concern gave way to fear.

Without thinking, he hurried up the steps and dumped the books on a white whicker rocking chair. Willow followed suit. Together, they burst in to the entryway of the Bed & Breakfast.

"Buffy?" Giles called.

"Buffy! Spike!"

They spread out and started casing the rooms on the first floor.

Panic kicked Giles in the gut when he entered the living room. A couch, fabric torn and frame cracked, was upside down against the wall, a table and lamp had been decimated, another lamp - a floor lamp - was on its side, stained-glass shade shattered. It was the scene of one hell of a fight. "Willow! Here!"

The redhead hurried into the room and gasped at the destruction. "Oh, God."

"Did you find anything?" he asked, dread deepening the lines on his face.

Her large green eyes told him she hadn't even before she opened her mouth to speak.

"No. Giles, there's no one here. I don't like this."

He reached out to her. "I don't either." Turning his head to check out the chaotic scene, he repeated himself under his breath. "I don't either."

Willow saw the computer before he did. She tugged on his arm. "The reservation desk."

He nodded his head at her. "Find out which room they were assigned."

It was a basic operating system, hardly a challenge for the technologically savvy Willow. Within minutes she'd found out that Buffy and Spike were checked into the Dalton Suite on the third floor. According to the computer, two of the four other rooms in The Carr House were also occupied.

But where was everyone?

That was something that the computer couldn't tell them.

"So," Willow said, trying to mask her nerves, "anyone up for some stair action?"

"Yes, quite," was Giles' droll response.

The gold-plated, engraved plaque next to the door on the third floor identified the room for them. Giles stared at it for long seconds before twisting the knob and pushing the door open.

Empty.

Then again, they really weren't expecting anything else.

What they did find didn't exactly ease their anxiety. The table was turned on its side and dirty dishes were scattered on the floor. And that wasn't all.

"The curtains are gone."

"Why would they take down the curtains?" Willow asked, confused.

Giles just shook his head and turned to check out the bathroom. Willow took the bedroom. When they met back up in the living area, they had more questions and more concerns than they had before - no answers.

"The curtains are on the floor in the bedroom," Willow told him. "Their bags are still here. The comforter is gone and there are bandage wrappers on the table by the bed."

"I found a smudge of blood on the sink in there." Giles took off his glasses and wiped at his eyes before studiously cleaning the lenses. It was just another sign of how distressed he was.

Willow scouted out the room again, nervous and afraid. "Maybe they got rid of the haunt. I mean, we may be worrying for nothing, right?" Giles stayed silent, but Willow had latched onto hope and ran with it. "They could have gotten everyone out. Maybe they're somewhere nearby." Her voice was a little shrill. No matter how tightly she clung to optimism, the reality she was seeing scared her.

Giles placed his hands on her shoulders and looked into her eyes. "Willow, calm down. We'll figure this out."

"Right. Of course, you're right. We'll figure it out. That's what we do. We figure. We're the figurers. How will we figure?"

Taking care of Willow actually helped Giles get a grip on his own rising apprehension, and he smiled tenderly at her. "One step at a time, like we always do. Lets go back downstairs. If they did take the other residents out of here, they'll be back."

The Watcher's expression grew grim as he trailed behind the slender young woman on their way back down to the first floor. He didn't tell Willow that it was unlikely that Buffy and Spike would leave the house when they knew assistance was on its way. Not while the sun was up. Not unless they had absolutely no choice.

Fifteen minutes later, Giles and Willow had set up the dining room as a kind of study area. All the books they brought were laid out, open to various sections for quick access.

Buffy and Spike had yet to show up.

"According to this one, haunts are capable of manifestations, telekinetic activities, even...occupations? What are occupations?"

"Similar to possessions," Giles answered, not even looking up from the book he was reading. "However, in cases of occupations, the subject is aware of his or her surroundings and activities during the occupation. Some documented cases even describe the subject being able to communicate in some way with the haunt."

"Oh."

Minutes passed in silence as the pair skimmed through long passages, searching for ways to rid the house of its presence.

Thirsty, Willow got up and told Giles she was going to get a glass of water. He nodded, acknowledging he heard her, but when she asked if he wanted one, he declined. She searched through the cabinets in the kitchen until she found the glasses. Pulling one out, lost in thought, she went to the sink and filled it. Her mind was mulling over the information she'd read so far, ordering and neatening it.

Troubled and anxious for Buffy, she took one long drink, striving to puzzle out what had happened in the house. Were they too late? They couldn't be too late.

She filled the glass back up absently, mechanically turning off the faucet and heading back to the dining room. As if slick as ice, the glass she carried slipped out of her grasp and fell, shattering and splattering its contents all over the tiled floor. She couldn't prevent the yelp of surprise at the sudden - and silent - arrival of the young woman standing in front of her.

Giles heard the glass break, heard Willow's cry, and was through the door separating the rooms before the sound of her shriek had faded. He came to an abrupt halt when he saw the other occupant in the kitchen.

"I-I'm so sorry," Willow stuttered, feeling her pulse race and her heart pound. "I didn't hear you come in."

The woman didn't say anything. She just stared deeply into Willow's eyes. Giles studied the woman's appearance. Her hair was up in a bun with tendrils of chestnut hair brushing her cheek. Her high-necked burgundy gown was long-sleeved, trim at the waist, with few flounces and frills. A utilitarian gown, but obviously well made and of high quality. She was petite. In fact, Giles doubted the top of her head would reach his shoulder.

"I was unaware I had company." The woman's voice was cultured and polite when she finally spoke. Backing up a step, she nodded - to herself, apparently - and turned her attention to Giles. "I believe I startled your companion, sir. My apologies."

Brown eyes looked him over intensely. So intensely, in fact, that it set Giles' teeth on edge. Something about the woman bothered him. "Not at all. I'm sure we were just as startling for you."

She dropped her gaze to the ground, a smile that Giles didn't understand turning up her lips. "Yes. Quite."

A little flustered, Giles stepped forward and extended his hand. "I'm Rupert Giles," he explained, "and this is Willow Rosenberg."

A dainty hand reached out and the woman put her fingers in Giles' palm. For a second, the Watcher was unsure what to do, it was such an antiquated action, but then he fell into the role she apparently wanted to play and clasped her fingers, raising her knuckles to his lips for a brush of a kiss as gentlemen would do a century in the past.

"I am Miranda Morgan," the woman said. "Welcome to my home."

He smiled at the ceremony of it, then apologized for the amusement when she just stared at him curiously. "I apologize, madam, I was unaware that this was a period Bed and Breakfast."

Again the small woman smiled a personal smile that Giles didn't understand as she straightened her skirts. "Yes." Spinning away, she studied Willow. It was an examination the young witch wasn't the least bit comfortable with. When Miranda finally turned away, it was almost a dismissal. She looked at Giles. "I apologize for missing your arrival, sir, I was...resting."

As soon as she had been released from the woman's gaze, Willow inched closer to Giles until she stood right next to him. Miranda Morgan gave her the wiggins. She didn't like her at all. Though, for the life of her, she couldn't put her finger on what was so disturbing about her. "I'm sorry about the glass," she said, "I'll clean it up."

"No matter, dear. It was an accident."

"Ms. Morgan, I - "

Something cold and hard flashed in Miranda's eyes and she interrupted Giles. "Mrs. Morgan, Mr. Giles. It's Mrs. Morgan."

"I-I apologize. I meant no offense." Willow looked at him and he spared a glance for her. He could tell he wasn't the only one that felt vaguely uncomfortable with this person. "Mrs. Morgan, Willow and I are here to - "

Willow panicked. Something was very wrong with Miranda Morgan - very, very wrong - and though she couldn't explain it, or even identify what it was, she knew to the depths of her soul that telling this woman anything would be a grave mistake. She did the first thing that came to mind. She grabbed the surprised Giles' hand and leaned into him.

"To spend some alone time together," she said loudly, practically shouting over his words. Giles looked at her like she had just taken complete leave of her senses, but she smiled up at him, trying to send a 'just follow my lead' message with her eyes. "No need to hide it, love." Giles' mouth dropped open. Willow clung to him and raised a hand to caress his cheek, then traced his lips with her fingers. "Mrs. Morgan here is a professional, modern woman. You know...uh...despite her costume. I'm sure she's not the least close-minded about the age difference between us. Love, after all, knows no age barrier."

Befuddled, completely confused, Giles stood woodenly and stared at Willow, who tried to cover for him by snuggling into him and lifting his limp arm over her shoulders. She beamed at Miranda. "A love like ours is so very rare, you know."

Miranda's attitude had undergone a dramatic change during Willow's display. Her whole personality seemed to warm. "I completely understand, dear. My husband and I dealt with similar prejudices when we were courting. Many did not condone the age difference between us."

"Y-yes, that can be a b-bother," Giles said, just trying to keep up and gain some small measure of control of the conversation. "Willow saw The Carr House advertised and insisted we come for a visit. I could only fulfill her d-desires. I l-love her so."

Willow struggled to control the urge to roll her eyes at Giles. He would have sounded a little more convincing if he hadn't stuttered his way through...whatever that was. She squeezed his waist in warning, but with the condition he was in, it was doubtful he comprehended her message. Men.

"It's true," she tried to cover for him with her own enthusiasm. "Gi...Rupert would do anything for me. We were so concerned when we arrived, though, and saw the damage to the windows. We were afraid you weren't open for business and we've come such a long way."

Like that, the warmth was gone from Miranda's expression. "The damage is no concern to you." She straightened her spine and glared imperiously. "We had a...disturbance...earlier. Those responsible have been dealt with and shall not be causing any further problems. They've been...removed...from the house."

Giles finally caught up. And his stomach dropped to his knees even as Willow stiffened in his arms. They needed to get away from Miranda Morgan. Now.

"Well," he stated carefully, sharpening his gaze on the figure in front of them, "we are certainly...relieved to hear that. You're quite certain that there'll be no further...troubles?"

The artic was warmer than the look in Miranda's eyes at the question. Her lips barely moved and she practically hissed her response. "Yes."

"Right then." He tried hard not to shift uncomfortably under the weight of her gaze. Hugging Willow to him, he gave a tight smile. "Willow and I will just go get our luggage out of the car. We'll be right back."

Miranda nodded once, slowly, then turned and exited the kitchen from a door opposite the one to the dining room.

"Move," he whispered to Willow as he shoved her in the other direction. "We've got to get out of this house."

He clamped a hand down on her arm, almost lifting her off the ground as he pulled her with him. They made their way outside, trying not to draw undo attention to themselves by fleeing like rats from a drowning ship - though that's what they wanted to do. Giles collapsed against his car and Willow rubbed the arm that he'd gripped a little painfully.

"Okay," Willow started, "that was really, really terrifying. She's..."

Giles raised his head to look at her. "The haunt. Yes. I think we've established that quite effectively."

"But...how?"

He moved around to the trunk of the car and opened it, just in case they were being observed. He motioned for her to join him. With the trunk up, they were out of sight of the house. "I'll be honest, I have no idea. I've never seen anything like it. Haunts are capable of full manifestations, but the level of energy necessary for...for that... I touched her. She was quite solid. Nothing I've read indicated they were capable of maintaining physical human form at all, let alone for such an extended period of time."

Willow frowned worriedly. "Giles, she did something to Buffy and Spike."

"It would appear so, yes."

"What are we going to do?"

"Oh, dear lord."

Willow looked startled. "What? What now?"

Giles rolled his eyes, disgusted with himself. "The books. We left the books in the house."

"Oh, no. If she sees them..."

"She'll know we're not just a happy vacationing couple fleeing from society's prejudices." He answered drolly, raising a brow at her.

Squirming a little, she played with her hands - which she seemed to have taken great interest in. "I'm sorry! It was the first thing I could think of. I was getting some big heebie jeebie vibes off of her and I didn't think we should just blurt out what we were doing here."

"Yes, well, I can hardly complain, as it would seem your 'heebie jeebie' vibes were well justified."

"Oh yeah. In a 'she's gonna eat our eyeballs' kind of way. Oh! Oh! Haunts don't eat eyeballs, do they?"

"Willow, really. We have enough to deal with without attaching exaggerated melodrama to the equation."

"Right. Of course you're right. But what are we going to do, Giles?"

"We're going to have to go back in there, more prepared now that we have at least a shred of an idea of what we're dealing with, and we're going to try to find out exactly what happened to Buffy." At her look, he added, "And Spike."

"Problem. We don't have luggage."

Giles frowned at Willow's matter of fact expression. "What? Luggage? What does that...?"

"You told her we were going to get our luggage. If we don't go back in there with bags, she's going to know something's up."

"Yes, I did, didn't I? Damn. Can you...?" He paused, not wanting to put undo strain on her, now that she finally managed to kick what had essentially been an addiction to dark, powerful magicks. She had been so good, going cold turkey on it, but after months without it she had been trying to get back to where she was before she lost control. Now she used magicks only to help out - not for her own purposes - and she stayed away from all darker magicks. He didn't want to put too much on her shoulders. But they had little choice. "If it wouldn't be too much for you, can you get us some?"

"Magickally?"

"Yes, Willow, magickally. I certainly wouldn't be suggesting you run down to the local mall for a quick purchase."

She took a breath, ignoring his sarcasm. Willow had known, when Giles told her Spike suggested she come along, that she may be asked to work some of the more powerful spells. And if it would save Buffy and Spike - or themselves - she would do it gladly. It didn't mean she wasn't nervous about wielding her power, though. And that was something that she hoped she never lost again. Her nerves would keep her in check.

"I think I can do something."

Bending over the back of the car, she closed her eyes and whispered under her breath. Waving her hand over the empty trunk, she concentrated. And two small suitcases appeared in a blink. One dark green, the other black, they were simple and plain. Something you could buy at any generic chain store. She could have 'requisitioned' exquisite Gucci bags, or anything else for that matter, but part of the test of her control was doing just going as far as was needed to help, no further. Giles recognized her restraint and squeezed her shoulder in approval before picking up the two bags.

He was proud of her. That was her reward.

"Giles, what if she's seen the books?"

He didn't want to entertain that notion. In truth, if a haunt as powerful as Miranda appeared to be got it in her mind to exact a little vengeance for their lie, there wasn't much they could do about it. Except suffer the consequences, of course. "We'll just have to hope that she hasn't."

The house appeared to be just as empty as it was the first time they'd entered. Moving quickly, they headed back to the dining room. Willow kept an eye out while Giles loaded the books into the two suitcases.

Unfortunately, he was in such a hurry he didn't count the books he was haphazardly shoving away. If he had, he may have noticed there was one missing.

They were finished, walking back towards the reception desk, when Miranda reappeared. Not in any spectral, supernatural way, though - she walked out of the room Willow had checked earlier, the one that was set up as an office. Giles, despite his apprehension, couldn't help but admire the kind of power necessary for such a complete manifestation.

Her hands were clasped demurely in front of her and she was smiling.

"Mr. Giles, I don't believe you told me where you and your lovely lady are from."

The urge to lie was strong. They didn't want Miranda Morgan in their heads in any way. In the end, though, the truth was inconsequential - and easier to remember. "Sunnydale, actually," Giles answered.

"Hmm. I am not familiar with it. You mentioned a long drive, how long was your journey?"

Willow looked at Giles, then back to Miranda. She had a feeling they were being tested, but there was nothing in Miranda's demeanor that would suggest such a thing.

"It's a five hour drive, Mrs. Morgan, but we made good time." Giles bent to lower the suitcase - heavy with books - to the ground.

Miranda nodded. "I am...pleased to hear it."

Movement out of the corner of Willow's eye caught her attention and she turned her head. She had to blink to be sure she was seeing what she thought she was. A piece of paper - large and brown with age - was fluttering to the floor a few steps away, next to the reservation desk. Giles hadn't noticed anything out of the ordinary - he was facing Miranda head on. When a second sheet materialized right in front of her eyes, drifting down from the ceiling, Willow's jaw dropped open and she squeezed Giles' hand. She wasn't paying attention to their conversation.

"Mr. Giles," Miranda continued sweetly, "is Sunnydale a pleasant place to live?"

Giles took off his glasses. "Y-yes. It is." Remembering the role he was supposed to be playing, he squeezed Willow's shoulders in a show of affection.

Willow didn't notice. She was focused on the few dozen pages that were now fluttering in the air and lying on the floor right next to and behind them. Going for discretion, she tried to subtly attract Giles' attention. Her fear was rising and he seemed oblivious to her attempts.

"Giles," she whispered. He didn't notice.

"Would you say, Mr. Giles, that Sunnydale is a safe place to live, raise a family?"

His head reared a little in surprise at the odd question. When he did, he caught the slow rain of paper in his peripheral vision and his body stilled. Slowly, he raised his eyes to the ceiling. A flurry of sheets popped out of thin air and floated downward. Looking down, dread pooling in his stomach, he picked up one of the sheets, feeling as well as seeing the age of the paper. It was a title page. A title page he had seen before, very recently. Haunts, Specters, Ghosts, and Ghouls: An Introduction to Dead People.

"Oh...dear."

As if nothing unusual had happened, as if pages from a book mysteriously appeared and floated down from the ceiling every day, Miranda asked another question. "Tell me, Mr. Giles, are there many vampires in Sunnydale?"

The time for pretense was over - but the time for terror had just begun.

At first, the shaking was subtle enough to go unnoticed. Unfortunately that didn't last long. Wood creaked and groaned, pictures rattled on the wall, the sound of glasses falling in the kitchen mixed with the slamming of doors and rumbling growl of the ground as it shifted underneath their feet. And Miranda wasn't looking quite so human anymore.

Willow and Giles pitched and rolled along with the floor. Holding on to each other for support, they backed away from the pulsing and shimmering wall of red energy where the haunt had been standing. A severe jolt knocked Willow to her knees, and Giles gripped onto the reservation desk for support while he helped her to her feet.

Hell was breaking loose all around them.

No human voice was capable of the raging wail of fury that rent the air. The witch and the Watcher tried covering their ears, but the sound echoed in their skulls. There was no relief.

"We've got to get out of here!" Giles shouted. He doubted Willow heard him. He hadn't heard himself.

He grabbed her arm and pulled, motioning towards the door when she raised terrified eyes to his. She nodded in understanding and took a step forward.

A gale-force wind slammed into her and knocked her back. She grunted in pain when the corner of the desk jabbed into her ribs.

Miranda, unaffected by the phenomena, floated dangerously closer. Somewhere in the middle of the glowing orb there was a vague outline of the woman she used to be. Giles and Willow could only watch, transfixed, when she stretched her 'arms' towards them.

They never did see what happened next. Something plowed into Willow and she was thrown to the floor. Giles only caught a flash of black before he, too, was tackled. He crumpled next to her. The heat from the blast that erupted from Miranda singed the ozone and blew a hole in the desk behind them. The computer popped and crackled in protest before bursting into flames.

Changing direction, the wind tightened and whirled in a circle around the enraged haunt, blocking her form from their view. Electrical outlets blew, light bulbs popped and arcs of blue lightning searched for purchase. Willow was having a hard time breathing, something was over her head and there was weight pressing her into the polished boards beneath her. Giles had his own problems. He gasped in pain when the book-filled suitcases slammed down on his chest and legs. And he jumped in surprise when he heard a matching gasp right next to his ear.

The front door opened and closed and opened and closed - faster and faster and louder and louder. Chairs, tables, anything and everything not nailed down pounded on the wooden floor over and over.

And then...just when Willow and Giles thought they'd be shaken to pieces - or ripped to shreds by either blasts of energy or flying debris - it stopped.

Silence descended on the house at last.

The weight holding Willow down shifted and fell away from her. She could see what had slammed into her for the first time. Sitting up, wiping the hair out of her eyes, she blinked in surprise at the raised eyebrow, blue eyes, and sardonic smile of one arrogant vampire.

"Spike! You're not dust!"

"Pleased to hear it, Red, as it tends to put a crimp in a bloke's day."

"I...we...Miranda told us that she'd 'dealt' with you and Buffy - and what with it being day and all..."

"She tried, Will," Buffy said, sitting up and pushing the luggage off of her and Giles. "All kinda evil little points to her for the attempt."

Giles sat up, adjusting his glasses and taking in Buffy and Spike's appearance for the first time. "Dear Lord. Are you two alright?"

Dirty, scraped, and scratched, hair a mess, clothing ripped and more than a touch disheveled, they looked like war orphans.

"I wouldn't say we're ready to do back flips or anything, but we're alive - more or less," Buffy answered, looking at Spike for confirmation.

He grinned wryly at her and bobbed his head.

Brushing off their clothes, all four got to their feet and stared at the destruction around them.

"You saved us," Willow said reverently. "We were about ready to be toast of the extra crispy variety."

"Don't butter those slices yet, Will, we still might be. Giles, I can't even begin to tell you how glad you guys are here. Now you need to leave."

Giles bent down to pick up the second suitcase after handing one off to Spike...ignoring the vampire's snarky pack animal comment. "Yes, well, I do believe some strategic regrouping may be in order."

"I totally agree," Buffy nodded emphatically, "Spike and I will take whatever info you've brought and we'll get with the regrouping. We'll even do it strategically. You and Willow are going to be less with the fallback and more with the running away. Far away. Home away."

Willow frowned and before Giles could say anything she said, "No, we won't."

Buffy turned to her friend. "Willow, I'm not arguing about this and it isn't up for debate. You have no idea what this haunt is capable of and I'm not going to let you put yourself in danger."

"Gonna have to disagree with you there, Buffy. I think - after what we just saw - we're pretty aware of what Miranda is capable of. And we're not going to let you deal with it on your own. We came to help. We're going to, anyway we can."

Buffy and Spike exchanged surprised expressions.

"And you know the bint's name...how, exactly?" Spike asked.

Giles stepped forward, pressing two fingers to the bridge of his nose. "She...well...she introduced herself to us. Before she knew we were with you, anyway."

Putting her hands on her hips, she stared in disbelief at her Watcher. "She...introduced herself? Gonna need a little more information here, Giles. What do you mean, she introduced herself?"

"As odd as it sounds," He explained, "I mean just that. We got here and the house was empty. After setting up for some research in the dining room, Willow went into the kitchen. A very solid-bodied woman showed up and rather politely introduced herself as Miranda Morgan."

"Yeah," Willow huffed, still freaked by the circumstances, "pretty polite for a big scary dead person. Kinda gives new meaning to the term 'hospitality house'."

Spike stood by and listened to everyone prattle. He shook his head, amazed yet again that these people were so effective against all the baddies in Sunnydale. Sighing, he raised his voice to get everyone's attention...and to shut them all up.

"Bloody hell. All this wafflin' is getting' us exactly nowhere - which is somewhere I'd rather not dawdle. If we're gonna regroup, lets get on with it before the bitch gets it in her head to start shakin' us all about again." He'd long since set the suitcase Giles fobbed off on him back down and his hands came up to stroke Buffy's arms. "Luv, I know you're worried about Scooby Dee and Scooby Dum, but we'll be needin' them. No baddie body to bash, remember?"

The Slayer rolled her eyes and Giles and Willow exchanged disgruntled expressions at the less than complimentary labels.

Buffy was the first to give in, mostly because Spike was right - while doing it in the most annoying and confrontational way possible. She sighed dramatically and turned to her friends. "Fine. There's a place we can go - we'll be safe for a while."

The Slayer squared her shoulders and turned to lead the group down the hall and out the back door. Under her breath, unheard by all but a grinning vampire, Buffy muttered, "Next time I take a vacation, I'm gonna to do what every other self-respecting tourist does. I'm going to the beach."



Chapter Eleven

Reaching their little oasis in hell, Buffy sidestepped niceties and dove into the matter at hand with no fanfare and less explanation. She pinned her Watcher with an intense look. "How do I kill her, Giles?" Realizing her question was a bit ridiculous, all things considered, she amended. "Or...finish killing her...whatever."

Giles was still shaken by the rather close brush with immolation, not to mention the astounding manifestation with whom he'd had up close and personal contact. He lowered the book-filled suitcase to the forest floor and glanced at her before looking around at the woods in confusion. Finally, he returned his attention to his impatient Slayer. "Well...we need to...ah... Wh-why are we here, exactly?"

Waving a dismissive hand, she gave a hurried response. "She won't come after us here."

Spike dropped the tattered comforter that had shaded him from the sun's rays more than once and lounged nonchalantly against a tree in the haven that lay above and around the remains of Nathan Morgan; the only place the Doo crew was safe from Miranda's wrath. With indifference that belied the intensity with which he listened to the conversation buzzing around him, he reached into the pocket of his duster and pulled out his pack of smokes, grimacing at its crumpled appearance. Carefully removing a slightly bent cigarette, he put it to his lips and flicked open his lighter.

While he would have sooner cut out his own tongue than admit it, he was relieved that Giles and Willow had finally arrived. He and Buffy had been about as effective against Miranda as a rag doll in the jaws of a rottweiler. The cavalry currently looked more like a worried stuffed shirt and a fearful young co-ed, but Spike was uniquely qualified to acknowledge - to himself - that they were good at what they did...when they stopped yapping long enough to actually do it.

Squinting through the hazy smoke of his cigarette, he turned his attention to Buffy, studying her ramrod-straight posture, crossed arms, and serious face. Separated by mere feet, he could feel the Slayer's power as a subtle hot tension under his skin. It was a vampire thing. He could also hear the tremble in her voice when she spoke and saw the signs of exhaustion weighing on her. While that perception had nothing to do with his kind, apparently it didn't extend to the rest of the ragtag bunch. The witch and the Watcher seemed oblivious to the signs of strain and the air of desperation around her. Bloody fools, he thought.

Smirking slightly at the belligerent lift of her chin and confident tilt of her head, he knew she had been just a hairsbreadth away from complete meltdown not too long ago. It was he who had pulled her back from the edge, not them. That little gem of knowledge did wonders for his ego, and now that they were here, the Slayer would stay firmly entrenched in her 'defender of the meek and bookish' mode.

Willow and Giles were noticeably confused by Buffy's assurance that Miranda wouldn't come for them there. Carefully, Willow said, "Okay, question. Isn't she stuck in the house? The books said haunts are sort of doomed to an eternity in one place. Restricted to fixed locales."

An errant lock of tangled hair was pushed behind her ear as Buffy struggled to control her edginess. "Yeah, well, the Library of Dead People Do's and Don'ts must not provide a delivery service because no one told that to Miranda. This is the only place on the property she won't come. Well, that we know of, anyway."

Giles was dismayed and alarmed by the news. In all of his admittedly limited readings on haunts, nothing he'd seen or heard about this one conformed to the information he'd gathered. It worried him.

Willow looked back and forth between the two and frowned. She didn't like the expression on Giles' face, nor was she comforted by Buffy's words. Curiosity finally got the better of her. "Won't is good," she said. "Proud supporter of won't, here, but why won't she?"

Buffy glanced to her left. It was the barest flicker of movement, really, but her large hazel eyes were tortured before she tamped her emotions back in place and turned away from the unmarked grave of a little boy. Now was not the time for sentimentality. She didn't notice Spike staring at her intently, didn't know that he'd been the only one to see the black shade of sorrow beneath the depths of her resolve. In a toneless voice, she said, "This is where her son is buried."

Giles and Willow started in surprise, glancing around the shaded area with new interest.

Spike almost pushed off from the tree he was leaning against. He almost broke his façade of disinterest and crossed the clearing in two steps to swoop his woman into his arms and snarl at her friends for making Buffy revisit her pain. The desire to do just that was so strong that he could actually picture the expressions on Red and Rupert's faces with blinding clarity. Only one thing held him back.

When he and Buffy patrolled together or loved together, they were equals. When he nicked hot wings off her plate while they ate or she swatted playfully at his hands on her backside when they danced, they were equals. They were man and woman, both a little more and a little less than normal. Not in this. Never was the difference between he and Buffy as painfully pronounced as when the powwow of 'White Hats' was in full swing. In this, she was the epitome of a Slayer. And he was one of the things that go bump in the night. That's why he didn't go to her, wrap his arms around her.

Spike narrowed his gaze thoughtfully. He watched the scene playing out in front of him, familiar in its repetition of theme, if not content. But something was different. Something he hadn't thought about until just then. Things had changed since the last Scooby meeting he'd attended, lurking in the shadows until Buffy had pointed him in the direction of the beastie she wanted help offing. She loved him. The monster had been let in out of the cold.

He looked around a clearing that a haunt would not enter - not could not, would not - and recognized the uncomfortable if vague similarity in circumstance. For a more than a year he'd been on the fringes of the Scooby group, listening, watching, smirking in superiority every once in a while...sometimes feeling so left out that it choked him. He wanted in. She was there, and he wanted in. And the only one keeping him leaning against the tree, silent and speculative...alone...was himself.

No longer.

Straightening slowly, he sauntered over to the little circle in the center of the shaded clearing. Falling in beside and just behind Buffy, the message was clear to all who took the time to interpret it. He was her partner. Period. And damn anyone who tried to say different, even the Slayer herself.

When Buffy felt his presence behind her and leaned into him just a bit, he trembled. Of course, it had nothing to do with the surprised pleasure that surged through him as if his heart had started beating, flooding his body with warm blood. Evil vampires didn't get choked up over something so incredibly poof-like. He was still evil.

He was.

Inching closer and reaching his hands up to rest gently at her hips, he repeated that to himself as if it were a personal mantra...right up until she rested her back against his chest. Damn her. Spike dropped his chin to hide his pleased grin from her friends.

Giles ignored Spike, used to his presence and relationship with Buffy - despite the original discomfort over the whole affair. He was far too wrapped up in the issue at hand to puzzle out the ridiculous grin on the vampire's face or the reasons behind it. Removing his glasses, he pressed two fingers to the bridge of his nose. "Y-you've been able to find out about her origins, then?"

Buffy stiffened imperceptibly. Sensing her distress, Spike squeezed her hips supportively. "Oh yeah," she told her Watcher dryly. "We've been busy little beavers while trying to not get dead and deader. Been wowed and amazed by the horror that is Miranda's origins."

Giles frowned and pushed his glasses back into place, concerned by Buffy's tone of voice. If he had a choice, he wouldn't push her for more information right away, but time was of the essence. Cautiously, he asked, "Were you able to discover why she's haunting the...ah...area?"

Her stomach knotted painfully at the thought of telling Giles and Willow what she and Spike had survived, what they had experienced. She had hoped it wouldn't be necessary, hoped that they would show up and do a chant, maybe burn some incense, and everything would be over. So much for hoping. "Miranda," she began slowly and carefully, trying to keep as much emotion out of her voice as possible, "was killed by a vampire in the Carr House almost one hundred and thirty years ago."

Surprised by the news, Giles sputtered. "Wh-wha... Are you quite sure? A vampire?"

"We're bloody sure, mate," Spike spoke up for the first time. Standing behind Buffy, out of her line of sight, he pinned the Watcher with a meaningful glare. "And this tale will go a good deal quicker if it's not interrupted every soddin' sentence."

Any attempt to clue Giles in on the toll the story would take on Buffy was lost on the startled man. Whether he was incapable of grasping the signals Spike was sending or just didn't see them at all was immaterial. "I...don't understand. A vampire? That's... You're sure?"

Buffy was puzzled by Giles' attitude. She twisted her head, locking her gaze with Spike's. The confusion and frustration she felt were mirrored in his eyes. Turning back to her Watcher, irritation tinged her voice. "Giles, it was a vampire. No doubt about it. What's the big?"

Shaking his head, taken aback, he finally said, "I-It's...well...h-haunts are extremely rare. The emotional impetus necessary to arrest the transposition of ephemeral energy at the moment of death is unique to their...species. Unlike ghosts, poltergeists, and specters, a haunt is a fully conscious entity, cognizant of its circumstances and surroundings. N-not only that, but the specific range of intense feeling is, without fail, rage-based. Hence there have been no recorded hauntings perpetuated by a vampire attack."

His explanation was met with expressions of blank incomprehension on Buffy and Spike's faces. Willow's eyebrows arched in a mild reproof that was softened by the grin tugging the corners of her mouth. She shook her head at Giles indulgently and translated his message for him. "He means that haunts are tops of the non-demony dead people food chain. Essentially people without bodies. Ghosts and the rest, they're more like memories of people than actual people. On top of that, to become a haunt a person has to be really, really mad at the moment of death. Furious, even. That's probably why they're large with the attitude problems, though I haven't read any direct reference to that as a cause, which is odd really, when you consider it. You would think there would have been some concrete correlation before now. You know, it would be neat if we could..." She caught the pointed look Giles shot her out of the corner of her eye and realized she was getting a bit off course. "...stop babbling and get back to the topic. Sorry. Anyway, that's why you don't have vamp victim haunts." Her gaze darted to Spike before she met Buffy's eyes and continued. "Most vampires are pretty terror-inducing. The people they bite are scared, not mad, when they die."

Spike looked affronted. "Hey, now! Still scary here. Still a big, bad vampire who strikes fear in the hearts of - "

"Anyone who doesn't know that you're less a danger to them than an infected hangnail. Yes, quite," Giles interrupted him drolly. "That, however, is hardly the issue at hand, here, Spike. Save the inane chest-thumping for...well...never."

Spike's temper ignited at the prick of Giles' sardonic derision. Glaring at the Watcher, his jaw worked as he ground his teeth. In a voice ripe with tension, he snarled, "Oh, sod off you git. At least I can explain a nasty without needin' the human dictionary over there," he waved a hand in Willow's direction, "to get my point across. Long-winded prat."

"Hey!" Willow protested. "Not nice."

The men ignored her. Giles narrowed his eyes and spoke harshly. "It consistently amazes me, Spike, that you have unerringly avoided the burdens of intelligence and wisdom. Quite a feat, really, considering your lengthy sojourn on this planet."

Spike stepped forward, a tumult of emotion churning dangerously beneath a pale exterior. It had been too much; the night, the morning, the haunt, the...whatever Nathan was. Giles' pompous sarcasm pushed him just over the line.

"You know what amazes me, mate?" Icy, venom-tipped words slid from his tongue. "That despite that enormously squishy frontal lobe of yours, you haven't got the first clue 'bout what's goin' on here. Look around, Watcher. That title of yours is supposed to mean somethin', inn't it? So look at her." Chest to chest with the equally angry Giles, Spike motioned in Buffy's direction. "Still haven't noticed the wreck she is, have you? Haven't noticed 'cause you don't want to. She is the Slayer, after all. Set 'em up, she'll knock 'em down, right? More than a job, it's a sacred bloody birthright. Well she doesn't have anythin' to soddin' knock down this time!"

Agitated, frustrated, Spike couldn't stand still. With a sharp turn, he started pacing back and forth in front of the Watcher. Hyper in his anger, his duster billowed out behind him with each long stride. His hands moved expressively, cutting through the air as he ranted. "See, our Miranda wasn't your everyday pathetic victim. She killed her son. Nathan Morgan. Dear ole Mum drugged him to the gills, stuck him in a pitch-black hole, and did a slice and dice on a vein. Bled him to death, she did. Fed him to his father like she did twenty-two other folk of the women and children variety. Proud Papa wasn't your average vampire, though. Poor sod didn't have the stomach for the blood of the innocents, didn't even know it when he tasted it. When he finally found out 'bout his wife's penchant for slippin' him the mother of all mickeys, found out she'd offed his son and all those people to feed him, he punished her. Ripped out her throat while he drained her dry. Ironic, inn't it? Know what's even better? Buffy was there. Had better than front row center for both Nathan and Miranda's big send off."

Spike stopped suddenly and twisted his head around to glare balefully at the man who should, by all accounts, know Buffy well enough to see when she's hanging on by a thread - yet never did. Without dropping his gaze, he moved dangerously closer, stepping silently over the carpet of dry leaves and ground clutter like a predator stalking its prey. Once again face to face with Giles, he stood like death personified, a warrior of chaos and mayhem. In a voice gravelly with barely suppressed contempt and fury, he snarled, "She lived it and she soddin' died it, so shut your bloody gob unless you've got somethin' useful to say in the way of gettin' rid of that dead bint!"

"Enough."

It wasn't a loud demand; it was a soft request. Buffy stood with her arms wrapped tightly around her body, trembling and tired, physically and emotionally spent. She ached inside. Like a sore tooth that your tongue just won't leave alone, she throbbed with the pain. But oddly, she was glad for it. Embraced it. As she stood there with her head down, she tried to puzzle out why she wasn't angry at the testosterone-induced scene she just witnessed. When she put her finger on the reason, the pain ebbed noticeably and her head shot up. New confidence imbued her actions and she took in the picture before her.

Giles looked stricken. Spike's eyes bored into him with glacial ferocity until he broke the contact and dropped his gaze. Any satisfaction Spike felt at having won the round was short-lived. Buffy strode up to him and shoved him back and away with Slayer strength before taking over his position in front of Giles. Spike didn't protest the indignity; he just struggled to remain on his feet, straightening his duster around him.

Buffy was ready to take care of business and go home. Playing referee for the two most important men in her life while they ripped each other to shreds was not something she was in the mood for, even if they had time for it. Miranda may be held back from touching them here by her own neurosis, but even now she was gathering her strength for the next confrontation. For now, though, taking care of business meant clearing the air between the men in her life, no matter how stubborn, bull-headed, and idiotic they behaved.

"Giles," she said softly when it became clear he was too embarrassed to look at her.

"W-Was he... I-I mean... Is it true?" His stuttering question was equally as quiet.

"Yeah."

Giles' head shot up and he searched Buffy's face, hoping he would see signs that the vampire was way off base despite Buffy's bleak confirmation. Instead he saw the pain behind her eyes. His stomach dropped and he felt ill.

"But he left something out," she continued in barely a whisper of a voice. "He was there too. He saved me, Giles, more than once. No. That's not right. He did more than save me. He got me through it."

It was a reprimand of sorts, though a gentle one. For years, Buffy had taken for granted that Spike didn't deserve the same consideration of feelings that humans did because he had no soul. Felt no guilt. No remorse. Loving him had let her in on a little secret. Spike had feelings that could be hurt just as badly by neglect and abuse as anyone's with a pulse. She had hurt him badly, as had her friends.

Buffy didn't want him to hurt any longer.

"I-I'm so sorry, Buffy. I didn't realize how truly awful..." Giles' voice trailed off. Buffy blinked once and a melancholy smile drifted across her face. Giles reached up and placed his hands on her shoulders in a supportive gesture. "No," he said firmly. "I won't make excuses, only apologies. Please forgive my insensitivity."

She stepped into a warm hug, garnering strength from his unstinting affection. In a small voice that didn't carry, she whispered, "I'm not the only one who needs an apology, Giles." She found she still had the ability to grin in amusement when she felt him stiffen against her in surprise.

Gathering his English sense of propriety around him like a warm blanket on a bitter night, Giles drew away from Buffy and looked at the wary vampire.

Spike arched an eyebrow and waited for whatever Giles was going to say. He wasn't feeling terribly gracious at the moment, so the git had better choose his words carefully. That sickeningly sweet scene between surrogate father and daughter had left a bad taste in his mouth and he was still itching to spar. Had Spike been an introspective sort, he may have admitted that the noxious feeling eating away at his insides was jealousy. Giles got a hug and kind words. He'd probably end up with a glare and a cold shoulder. It wasn't fair.

Not that he'd ever been dealt a fair hand when it came to this lot. Sod it all.

Given where his black thoughts had roamed, when Giles extended a hand to him, Spike's jaw dropped in shock. Reflexively, his hand came out and clasped the one proffered without even realizing he'd done it.

"I owe you an apology, Spike."

Well, that was certainly new. And Spike bit back a snarky comment about the fact that Giles said he owed him an apology - he didn't actually give one. If the Watcher wanted to make peace, Spike was certainly man enough to accept it. For Buffy's sake, of course. It's not like he wanted Giles to respect him or anything. That wasn't happening this side of a closed hellmouth.

"Yeah, well...likewise." Where the bloody hell had that come from, he asked himself, stunned. Just because he had planned on accepting Giles' attempted apology didn't mean he had any intent to reciprocate it. So just what the hell had popped out of his mouth? Flustered, he gaped at the man when Giles' hand squeezed his firmly then dropped away. He turned away before Spike could figure out what had just happened.

Buffy strode up to him purposefully and crossed her arms over her chest. He wasn't so dazed by Giles' behavior that he deluded himself into thinking he was in for some snuggly cuddles. Opening his mouth to defend himself, the words died in his throat when she tilted her head and pursed her lips like she was getting ready to dissect him but was still trying to figure out where to stick the scalpel. So maybe blurting out the truth like he had wasn't the brightest thing he'd ever done.

Sighing deeply, he dropped his chin to his chest. "I'm sorry, luv."

"I know."

"Didn't mean to - "

"I know, Spike," she interrupted him gently. And she did know. Spike's diatribe wasn't meant to hurt her, or to give her a big hello to the pain of their experiences. It wasn't really about her at all. Spike, who was just as tired and beaten up as she was, had tried to defend himself against Giles' taunts. While it was true he went more than a little overboard, as the ugly truth may have been better said in a calm and less brutally raw manner, it was understandable to a point. What was also true is that he did what Buffy herself had shied away from doing. That's why she'd actually felt better after it was done instead of worse. Whether by accident or design, Spike had once again shouldered a painful burden of hers. He'd told Giles everything when she was neither able nor willing to do it herself. She didn't really care if that's what he'd consciously planned to do or not. It didn't matter. Spike's first instinct - even when defending himself - was to protect her. That's what mattered.

"I know what you were trying to do, Spike." His eyebrows rose in surprise and he raised his head just enough to glance at her with a hopeful smile. She was quick to correct any impression that she condoned his behavior - or Giles'. "Oh, don't get me wrong, if you two ever go at each other like that again I'll remind both of you why it's never a good idea to make a Slayer angry. I love you both. Get along." She reached up and smoothed the front of his tee shirt a bit. "And for the record, thank you."

The tender smile that warmed her face told him all he needed to know and he reached out, grabbing her shoulders and pulling her to him. He couldn't have cared less what the Watcher thought of the show of affection. Wrapping his arms around her tightly and gratefully, he rested his chin on the top of her head and closed his eyes in relief.

"Uh...guys?" Willow's hail drew the attention of the group and they all glanced over to her. She stood alone, wringing her hands and looking worried. "I...um...hate to bother anyone...but I have to go to the bathroom."

Looking chagrinned, Buffy, Spike, and Giles exchanged surprised glances. They had forgotten all about Willow. When Buffy thought about the picture that the three of them had probably made for the distressed redhead, two Englishman standing in the middle of a forest going at each other one minute, all three of them acting out a sickeningly sweet Hallmark moment the next, she grinned. Then came the chuckle. Tension drained away like rain on a hard-packed desert floor.

"Sorry, Will," she managed with a self-deprecating grin. "This isn't exactly the Plaza, but when in Rome..." She turned to the men. "I'll take her over to the bushes. We'll try to stay as close to the clearing as possible."

"Um...but close in a fully private way, right?" Willow asked nervously.

Buffy grinned. "Check. Bushes, heavy on the leafy." To Spike and Giles she said, "Don't leave the clearing, and keep your eyes peeled. Haunts tend to be really good at sneaking up unnoticed. I'm pretty sure it's the no body thing."

"Yes, quite," Giles replied, amused.

Spike frowned, definitely not seeing the funny of Buffy out there where vicious hands could reach her, but knowing that there was no chance in hell she - or Willow for that matter - would accept him as an escort. "Be careful, pet. And be quick about it."

Buffy and Willow rolled their eyes at each other. "Right, Spike," Willow drawled. "Because I've been just waiting for an opportunity to take my time enjoying all those posh accommodations of twigs, underbrush, and dirt."

With that parting shot, the two young women slipped out of sight and were quickly swallowed by the crowding foliage. Giles and Spike shared an uncomfortable moment of aloneness before the Watcher finally broke the relative silence.

"H-how bad has it been, exactly?"

Spike turned at Giles' earnest question. He didn't say anything right away, but his lack of response spoke volumes. Giles felt his stomach clench in anticipation before Spike finally admitted, "'Bout as bad as it gets, I wager." Nodding his head in the direction Buffy took he said, "She's been holdin' it together, right enough - but barely. Touch and go for a while. Not havin' somethin' to stick a stake into inn't helpin', either." Spike straightened his shoulders and looked Giles right in the eye. "You and Red better have somethin' good for us, mate, or we're all royally buggered."

"Well that's certainly...honest." Giles studied the vampire intently, pausing to really examine his bruised and battered face. He had thought it was all Miranda's doing when he had first seen Spike back at the house, but something in the vampire's words just now had struck a chord. With it came understanding. "You were there." He spoke to himself, really, but Spike heard it.

"Bloody right I was there. Through the whole of it, too. Your stunningly dull point bein'?"

Shaking his head absently, Giles said, "That's not what I meant. You mentioned that not having something tangible to fight has made it worse for Buffy, made it harder to cope with the emotions and pain to which she's been subjected."

Spike narrowed his gaze suspiciously. "What of it?"

"You were there."

Rolling his eyes in frustration, Spike's temper started to twitch again. "Right. I was there. Are we plannin' on movin' this gab fest forward in this unlifetime or should I reserve you the room in hell next to mine? Could probably put in a good word for you. Get the fire and brimstone buffet set up all right and proper."

Giles ignored the sarcasm and veiled hostility shimmering off the vampire. "Your face, Spike. Miranda didn't do that, did she?"

As still as a marble statue, Spike stared hard at Giles with no expression on his face. Giles met and held his gaze and in it, he saw the truth. "You...you goaded her into taking out her feelings of helplessness on you." The surprise at Spike's selflessness could be heard in his voice. At Spike's raised eyebrow Giles took off his glasses and cleaned them rapidly. While he gave his attention to the lenses he was polishing, Giles spoke once more. "She could very well have killed you, you know. That was rather noble of you, actually."

"Don't strain too hard on that compliment there, Watcher, you'll hurt yourself." Spike spun away, intending to leave it at that. Too much of the touchy feely stuff wasn't good for a bloke. Wasn't manly. There was one small thing he could bring Giles up to speed on without treading into some kind of truly revolting mushy man moment, though. And it would be fun. A sly grin slowly grew on his face and a wicked gleam sparkled in his eyes.

Calling out over his shoulder, he said, "You're wrong 'bout one thing, Giles. Buffy wouldn't have killed me. Knocked me blue, sure, with a bit of black thrown in for good measure, not kill me. She loves me." Giles head shot up and his jaw dropped open all in one move. Spike's smile was mercenary. "Told me herself just last night, she did. So, you see, I'm doubly interested in gettin' my woman out of here in one piece so we can spend some quality time together...Dad."

Giles groaned audibly, never doubting that Spike was telling the truth. He'd been afraid of that very thing for a while now, seeing it coming yet being unable to, in good conscience, try to do or say anything to prevent it. Not that he would have been able to. It's not that he begrudged Buffy any happiness she could find, but it was Spike. A different Spike than he had been previously, that much was certain, but still. It was Spike. And now it was likely Giles would be seeing a considerable bit more of the bleach-blonde pest than he ever had before. "Oh...dear."

Before Giles could fully recover from the rather depressing news that Spike was the vampire equivalent of a son-in-law, Buffy and Willow emerged from the woods and stepped into the clearing. The Slayer was back to business and took charge of the group, striding forward, purpose and intensity in her posture.

She had time to think while she'd guarded Willow. That wiggly feeling she got in the pit of her stomach when she knew something bad was going to happen grew more and more acute as the minutes passed, letting her know that their time was running short. "Guys," she said briskly, "we need to Jane Fonda Miranda from The Carr House and we need to do it soon."

A beleaguered Giles cast a confused look at Willow, who just shook her head and shrugged her shoulders. Even Spike looked like he hadn't quite caught that train of Buffy's thought as it left the station. Giles turned back to Buffy. "Pardon?"

Sighing deeply, Buffy replied. "Jane Fonda? Workout woman?" No one caught the reference. "She's the exercise guru. We have a haunt that needs exercising."

Realizing what she was trying to say, Giles pursed his lips. "I highly doubt lifting barbells or donning tight-fitting outfits to perspire to the classics would be very effective against this particular foe. Unfortunately, neither would an exorcism."

Buffy stared at him in frustrated surprise for a long second before responding. "Okay, first? Sarcasm is not our friend. Second, it's 'Sweating to the Oldies' - totally a Richard Simmons deal, not Jane Fonda. Third, what do you mean, we can't exorcise her?"

Giles sighed deeply. "Buffy, even if we had the necessary supplies and contrary to religious dogma, an exorcism is only effective when performed to cast out a demon from a live human host. Miranda isn't a demon."

"No," Buffy said darkly, "she's worse."

"That very well may be, but the fact remains, an exorcism just wouldn't be beneficial."

"So what do we do? There is something, right?"

"W-well yes, actually. There is a cleansing ritual that has been proven effective, according to my readings but..."

Buffy's eyebrows rose as Giles' voice trailed off. She was not even remotely happy by the troubled frown that creased his brow. " 'But' is never a word you want to hear when discussing how to get rid of a particularly nasty nasty, Giles. What's the problem?"

Giles ran a hand through his hair, trying to find a way to explain. "Unfortunately, from what I - what Willow and I witnessed, Miranda is not a typical haunt, if there is such a thing. She's evidencing a significantly higher level of energy and sustaining it for far longer than any other documented case. While it's true that we haven't had sufficient time to completely exhaust all - "

A higher level of energy. Sustaining it longer. A memory tugged at the corner of Buffy's mind. Realization, while slow in coming, hit her right between the eyes - followed quickly by the palm of her hand as she smacked her forehead when the light finally dawned. She interrupted Giles. "The Heggan's house!"

"Oh, bloody hell." Spike murmured, knowing what Buffy was saying and chagrinned that he hadn't thought of it sooner.

"What?" asked Willow nervously. "What's The Heggan House?" Giles looked back and forth between Buffy and Spike and waited for an explanation.

Rolling her eyes, disgusted with herself, Buffy grimly said, "Not The Heggan House, Will. The Heggan's house. The innkeeper and her husband's house. It's where we sent the other guests from the B & B when we figured out that Miranda had been using them to keep on going and going and going like that fuzzy pink bunny in the commercials. She did some kind of...something to them. Knocked them out. Used their combined energy. We figured that was how she got so strong. The problem is, Ida - Mrs. Heggan - told us this morning that their house was on the grounds of The Carr House."

"And therefore still within Miranda's purview," said Giles, following the thought to its conclusion. "Yes, that would explain a great deal about the level of power Miranda has displayed, as well as the duration she has been able to maintain it. I hadn't realized haunts were capable of subverting energies from live human hosts, though Miranda does seem to be quite keen on resetting the bar in that area."

"That's like seven people," added Willow, "according to the computer they had at the desk and including Mrs. and Mr. Heggan."

Buffy shook her head. "There was a cook, too, so there might be eight if Ida didn't make it to off the grounds before Miranda resumed control." At the questioning looks, she briefly explained. "Ida was hurt when Miranda blew the windows. She got cut up pretty badly, but we were able to get the bleeding stopped before we sent her home. I hope she made it to the hospital."

Spike smoothed her hair with his hand in a gentle caress before dropping an arm over her shoulders. "I'm sure she's fine, luv. She's one tough old broad. She'll be okay."

Willow was fascinated by the supportive gesture Spike gave Buffy and the way he tried to assuage her concerns. She'd never really seen the boyfriendy side of Spike before. It was kind of like that whole 'Softer Side of Sears' thing.

Since the relationship between Buffy and Spike had evolved into the more kiss less diss stage, they had always been very private in their affection. At first Willow had thought that Buffy was embarrassed, or maybe even ashamed of caring for the vampire, but after time passed with no change, despite the fact that her friends had grown accustomed to Spike's almost constant presence, Willow assumed it was more because Spike didn't really want to have anything to do with the rest of the Scoobies. He always kept himself on the fringes of their group, apart from everyone except Dawn. But Spike certainly wasn't holding himself apart anymore. It was kind of sweet, actually. Willow felt herself echoing the grateful smile that Buffy gave Spike. Anything that served to drive away the anxiety and guilt in her best friend's eyes was a good thing in her book.

"Will, can you do that spell you did on that demon ghosty thing that showed up after you brought me back last fall? You made it fightable. Fightable would be of the good here."

She was so absorbed in the surprised pleasure of watching the loving undercurrents in Buffy and Spike's words and actions, that she almost missed Buffy's question. "What?" she asked, trying to catch up. "Oh, from the thaumogenesis. Um...I don't think so. Tara and I gave form to a demon whose natural state was one of full embodiment. Its body was just stuck between realms. Miranda's body is dust. There's nothing to pull forward to force her into."

"Damn."

Giles cleared his throat. "If we could separate her from the source of her external power, cut her off from the people that she's preying on, we should be able to perform the cleansing ritual with success."

"How 'bout one of those energy barrier things?" asked Spike. "Set one up 'round the house, bitch won't be able to reach out and touch anyone."

Willow shook her head regretfully. "I could do it, but if she's drawing power from all those people, there's an existing connection between them and her. Cut that off abruptly, it may hurt or even kill all of them. Even if it doesn't, she could have drained them all to the point where they just have enough energy to enjoy a good long coma. Plus, there's always the chance that the energy barrier wouldn't contain Miranda at all. She is energy, she might be able to pass right through it."

"Balls," said Spike, disappointed.

The four fell silent, lost in thought. Buffy, arms crossed over her chest, stared pacing in a short line, trying to think. It wasn't easy to concentrate with the growing itch on the back of her neck and the tingly feeling down her spine. Often referred to as her Spidey sense, it was quite literally a physical reaction to approaching danger. Call it hormones, adrenaline, whatever, there were times when the feeling was so intense she felt like someone was standing behind her screaming at the top of their lungs, "Watch out!!"

Now was one of those times. It made her downright jumpy.

"Okay," she blurted, more to keep a lock on her rising anxiety than anything, "this is what we know. Miranda is using energy from people to do all that wacky stuff she does. We can get rid of her, but only after we cut her off from the source of her power. So we have to figure out how to do that. How do we do that?" Three blank faces stared back at her. Silent blank faces. "Come on, guys. There has to be some way to unplug her."

Spike looked down at the ground and shrugged his shoulder expressively. In a quiet voice, he said, "Nipper told us to get her to admit her transgressions."

"What?" asked Giles, confused. "Who? What about her transgressions?"

Buffy's eyes were wide as saucers when she met Spike's resigned gaze. Discussing Nathan was not something she wanted to do right then, especially considering where they were. Shaking off the surprise at his suggestion, she turned her head to Giles. "It's a long story...that I'll tell you much, much later. Lets just say we had some advice from an unexpected source and leave it at that. A really, really reliable source. We were told that the key to defeating Miranda was getting her to admit to what she'd done when she was alive."

"Yes! Yes, of course!" Giles said, excited. "If she is unable or unwilling to attempt to accost us here simply because this is where he son's body rests, she is obviously in complete denial of any wrongdoing on her part. Were she to face that unpleasant reality, she may be so affected by it that she'd let go of her victims."

"Right," said Spike, rubbing his shoulder absently. "Problem is, Mistress of the Self Righteous inn't exactly likely to own up to her dark deeds just because we ask her nicely. Last time we aired a piece of her dirty laundry, she almost choked Buffy to death from across a room and got a rib away from makin' me sweepable."

Giles frowned, thoughts racing. "Why is Miranda haunting the area?"

Spike rolled his eyes and huffed. "Senility. First sign of dodderage, mate. You asked us that already."

"Yeah," Buffy agreed - after shooting a warning look at Spike that he blatantly ignored. "Remember, Giles? Husband vamp bit wife psychopath, made a nice haunt for us all."

Arching an eyebrow, Giles reached up to remove his glasses. Apparently, sarcasm was only a friend of his Slayer's. "Quite," he said in clipped tones. "And that would explain why she's a haunt, not why she's haunting."

Buffy and Spike exchanged a look, clearly not grasping the distinction. Before either of them could ask for clarification, Willow spoke.

"See, haunts need a reason to stick around. Some kind of motivation. Usually it's something like revenge. Once the revenge is satisfied, their anger usually fades, and then so do they. Maybe Miranda is waiting around for a chance to sock it to Jacob. Spike, you were the first vampire to pop up since her death, so she's taking out her hostility on you...and us because we're with you."

"I don't believe that to be the case, actually," admitted Giles. "Though it would be easier if it were. The very fact that she has buried the truth of her past so deeply would seem to indicate a much more complex reason for her actions."

"Well," said Buffy, "Ida did tell us that whenever Miranda has shown herself to the less alive-challenged, she's always staring out one of the windows of the house. Um...south side, I think she said. She's apparently got a big mope-fest going on when she's doing it, too."

"And what is to the south of the house?" Giles asked.

Thinking for a minute, Buffy answered. "We are. Or...the forest is, anyway."

"Could she be pining for her son?" Willow asked. "That's kind of sad, actually. If she doesn't remember that she killed him, anyway. Then it's just ookey."

"Not her son," Spike said, pieces falling together in his head. "Her husband."

"But you said Jacob killed her."

"That's where you're wrong, Red. Beloved hubby couldn't kill her. He loved her. The demon inside him's responsible for the river of red flowin' from her neck. Least that's what the crazy bird thinks, anyway."

"Fascinating," said Giles, stepping closer. "Are you saying that Miranda viewed the vampire that was her husband as two completely separate entities sharing a body?"

"Oh, yeah." Buffy nodded and shuddered. "It was way creepy. Like Sybil with fangs. She thought feeding the demon let Jacob keep control of it."

"And he never told her...never explained the true nature of vampires?"

Spike shrugged, feeling uncomfortable about defending his kind. "Stuck out here in the boonies, like as not it took him awhile to figure it out for himself. Bugger, from what I saw, wouldn't surprise me if Jacob dusted the vampire that made him. See, a sire sticks around for the rise of his children. Whether it's to have a minion or a mate, there's a reason a particular human is changed over one that's just dinner. But our Jacob was filled with some ripe self-hatred for what he was; he probably caught his sire by surprise and killed him almost immediately after being turned."

Giles was astounded...and a little disturbed by Spike's colorful explanation. In all the years he had been a Watcher, all the research he had done on vampires, there had never been a record of one who reviled what he was. The only case Giles was aware of was...

Buffy placed a hand on his arm in understanding. "We know. Angel."

Willow looked at Spike, a guilty expression on her face. She knew he wasn't good with reminders of Buffy's first love. Surprisingly, there was a noticeable lack of expression on his face. He didn't look angry at the reminder of Buffy's past. Didn't look worried. He didn't look anything but reserved...which was unusual enough, really. She figured they had discussed this issue earlier, and while Spike wasn't thrilled by the connection, he was okay with it. That gave her the courage to speak.

"But Angel didn't keep his soul - it was returned to him. Is it even possible to keep a soul when you're turned?"

"I have never heard of anything of the sort happening before," said Giles thoughtfully. "I'm not sure how much importance can be attached to that fact, however. If you remember, there was never any information on Angel having a soul in the Watcher's records. We knew he'd shunned other vampires, but there was never any indication that he'd been returned his soul until he..." His words trailed off and he looked at Buffy nervously. Angel would always be the most sensitive of sensitive subjects.

"Until he came to Sunnydale and met me," Buffy finished in a matter of fact tone. She looked at Spike and smiled slightly, letting him know she was okay with the subject matter. He bobbed his head once at her in understanding.

"Yes, well, as it is, the issue is Jacob." Giles briskly brought the conversation back to their current predicament. "If what you believe is true, and Miranda is haunting the area out of some sense of loss of her husband...which would explain her response to me when I addressed her as Ms. Morgan, now that I think of it. She was quite emphatic in asserting that I was mistaken. It was Mrs. Morgan. Her motivation is most likely the desire to be with her husband again. Is that scenario even remotely possible, do you know?"

"Jacob dusted himself the morning after he killed Miranda," Buffy admitted. "He held her in his arms on the front porch of The Carr House and watched the sun rise. Big dusty pile of no on that scenario."

Mouth open in surprise, Giles stared at Buffy. Gathering himself slowly, he managed, "Truly remarkable."

"Listen, we'll have all the time in the world to go into Jacob's remarkableness later. Right now we need to deal with Miranda. Assuming she's hankering for a hunk of husband, how does that help us?"

"I-It doesn't, I'm afraid. I was hoping..." He shrugged and rubbed the back of his neck, trying to relieve the tension that had been growing there since the pre-dawn hours. Turning away, he strode to the edge of the protected area and stared out into the deceptively peaceful forest. He was at a loss.

"So we're right back where we started. Great." Buffy moved to Spike's side. He raised his arm to allow her to lean against him and wrapped it around her. For a long time no one spoke.

Willow frowned at Giles' back then glanced nervously at Buffy and Spike. So far, this hadn't been the most effective Scooby meeting on record. You would think getting rid of one pesky haunt would be easier than...oh...say destroying a Hell God, but that helpless and doomed feeling she had was remarkably familiar. Not that Miranda's continued existence was an end of the world kind of thing, thankfully.

"Ah...guys? What would happen if we just...um...left?" Three incredulous faces swiveled to look at her as if she'd just stripped down to her bra and panties and started dancing the Macarena. Her face burned hotly and she dropped her eyes to stare intently at her wringing hands. "I just thought...if Spike being here set her off and the rest of us just exacerbated the situation... I mean, she lived - existed here for over a hundred years without any major light shows or hostile power trips. If we left wouldn't things go back to the way they were?"

Buffy's face set into a hard, unrelenting expression and she pulled away from Spike. "I don't care if our leaving would turn her into a fluffy little lamb. When Miranda was human, she killed twenty-two women and children before she murdered her own son. She's not human anymore. Now she's in my jurisdiction."

Standing there in the shade was the Slayer. Proud, confident, experienced, this was a woman who had lived and died for her duty, only to live again. Willow straightened and raised her chin. "Okay," she said, solemnly.

The atmosphere changed subtly. Silence was charged with purpose in a way it had not been previously. But there was one other difference in the silence. It was absolute but for the distant hum of cars and trucks on nearby roads. In fact, every single sound that filtered through the trees was man-made. Considering they were in the middle of a lush and life-filled wooded area, that was more than curious, it was ominous.

Spike, with his hypersensitive hearing, was the first to be affected by the change. He frowned, unable to place what exactly was bothering him, and looked around warily. Something was wrong. Very, very wrong. He brought his game face forward to maximize his senses. Straining his ears, he tried to listen for any sound that signaled trouble. When he realized it was the lack of sound that was the problem, he spun around in concern. Buffy and Willow were fine, they were standing near the center of the safe haven, but Giles was dangerously close to the edge. Spike's instincts - instincts that had served to keep him alive for over a century - were screaming at him. He didn't question them.

Moving with preternatural speed and shouting to get Buffy's attention, he reached Giles, wrapped his arms around him, and twisted his body to take the man's weight as they fell.

Buffy turned quickly and dropped into a fighting stance, pushing Willow behind her when she heard Spike's urgent hail. Her eyes flew wide when she saw the vamped out blur barreling towards her Watcher. She scanned the woods intently, looking for a potential foe. Willow was less composed. When Spike shouted, her head had turned to follow the sound. She saw a vampire large with the fang and grrr charging her unprotected friend. It wasn't a conscious thought - had she the time to think, she would have known what Buffy never once questioned. Spike wasn't trying to hurt Giles; he was trying to protect him.

But Willow didn't have time to think, and it was second nature to defend the man who was just as much a surrogate father to her as he was to Buffy. Her hand came up, magickal energy coursing through her veins as she readied a strike. Just as she prepared to toss a ball of electricity from her fingers, her arm was hit hard and the shot was deflected, shearing off a branch from a tree ten feet deep into the woods. The branch crashed loudly but harmlessly to the forest floor.

"Willow! What the hell are you doing?" Buffy was breathing hard, her heart having almost stopped when she saw Willow preparing to blast Spike with her mojo.

Reason finally caught up with her and she had the presence of mind to blush in embarrassment. "I'm sorry!" she said. "I-I saw him charging Giles and I just...reacted. I'm sorry!"

"Spike would never - "

"Buffy!" Giles and Spike called out simultaneously, halting any explanation of what Spike would or wouldn't do.

Spinning to face whatever challenge awaited, she gasped in shock at the sight of a large cougar, at least eight feet long from nose to tail, just a yard away, snarling viciously. Its tail thrashed back and forth malevolently as it crouched to pounce on the two men lying as still as death on the forest floor. Spike still had his arms around Giles, who was sprawled out on top of him with a face white with fear, matching almost exactly the color of Spike's unnatural pallor. Had it not been for the one hundred and fifty pound predator with the sharp teeth and deadly claws threatening their lives, Buffy would have laughed at the picture the men made. As it was, she was too worried about their safety to find anything even a little funny.

Without thinking, she leapt into action. Two long strides and she plowed into the cougar's side. They went tumbling, the lithe body of the large cat twisting under her hands. A powerful paw raked down her right arm and she felt the deep slicing pain of its claws and the warmth of her blood as it welled up and seeped through her tattered shirt. She tried to hold on, but the cat was too fast. With a powerful push of its back legs, it lunged up and out of her grasp. It didn't flee, though, it circled, it's scream of thwarted fury sounding chillingly like a woman suffering horrible torture.

The sound jarred Buffy and set her teeth on edge. A matching scream rent the air - but it came from behind her. She didn't turn, didn't take her eyes off the cat stalking purposefully in front of her. Inching slowly to her left, she protected Spike and Giles as they scrambled to their feet in a mass of flailing limbs and curses. Once they were finally upright and disentangled, Spike took his place beside his Slayer, making sure Giles and Willow were safely behind them. His game face still in place, he snarled at the cougar. There was no sign that the large male was even remotely impressed.

"There's another," he told Buffy, never removing his gaze from the one in front of her.

"Yeah, I heard."

"Still a ways away, but comin'. Probably this one's mate."

"Never a dull moment," Buffy said, dryly.

A third scream from off to their left dripped icy terror down their spines. They couldn't take their eyes off the one in front of them, but they were in a situation fast approaching untenable. Buffy was chilled to the bone by the human-sounding wail.

"Giles, what the hell is going on here?!" she asked, quickly growing frantic.

"It must be Miranda," he yelled. "She's summoning them."

"Summoning them?" There was disbelief and incredulity in her voice. "Are you kidding me? She can do that?!"

"Given the situation and the fact that cougars are exceedingly rare this far down from the mountains, as well as being solitary creatures by nature, I'd say it's a reasonable assumption that the sudden appearance of three predatory felines is directly related to Miranda's actions. Somehow she communicated with them and got them here."

Rolling her eyes in disgust, Buffy sighed. "Of course she did. How silly of me. Because that was in the haunt handbook as possible offensive maneuvers. Oh, wait." Sarcasm dripped from her tongue.

"Buffy, here's the second one," cried Willow, obviously distressed.

With a move as fluid as the most well timed choreography, Spike separated from Buffy. He spun around with an economy of motion to prevent the cats from charging, and squared off with the newest arrival. This one was female, smaller than her male counterpart by a good foot, but heavier in the middle. Pregnant, he guessed, and mightily brassed off at the disturbance of whatever it was doing prior to being called there. Not that she would take it out on the rightful party. Oh, no. Miranda would get off scot-free for this one. But the four of them were going to pay dearly if the animal got a chance.

With one warrior crouched, defending against one cat and the other in a similar position defending against the second, the witch and Watcher were left with either a Vampire or a Slayer between them and a bunch of teeth. For awhile, they held the status quo, but they ran out of time when the third cat materialized as if conjured out of thin air, silently slipping into the clearing with the attitude that he belonged there. Unlike his predecessors, he was monstrously large and more compactly muscled. From his whiskers to the last hair on his stiffly held tail, he had to be over ten feet in length and well over two hundred and twenty pounds. Huge for a cougar. Huge for anything.

Keeping their backs to Giles and Willow, protecting them, Buffy and Spike moved in a tight circle. If they kept moving, the three cougars were less likely to feel comfortable enough to take an opportunity to lunge.

"Willow," Buffy called softly in a singsong voice. "One of those nice little zapping balls of energy or a barrier of some kind would be of the good right about now."

"I'm working on it," the young witch responded in the same lilting tones. There was a problem, though. Her magicks weren't as effective when she couldn't concentrate on them fully, and three snapping, muscular jaws filled with long, penetrating teeth had a tendency to split the concentration from any task.

Closing her eyes to block out the sight of the threat just gave her mind free roam to slap horrendously grisly scenes on the back of her eyelids. Scenes like everyone getting their throat ripped out, disemboweled, and eaten. Her eyes shot open and she tried to quell the urge to retch. Shaking her head to clear it, she tried again to summon her magicks.

Willow finally felt the familiar power sizzle through her veins. It was working. Confidence flooded back to her and she readied a strike. Eying the closest of the three cats, the smaller of the two males, she pointed a finger at him. "Fra min hånd til De!"

An arc of fiery lightning burst from Willow's finger and seared the air. It slammed into the cougar and picked him up, the force of the blast tossing him several feet before he plummeted to the earth and crashed into the bushes. He didn't rise again.

"Way to go, Will!" Buffy cheered.

Her congratulations were premature. The two remaining cats pounced as one. The female slipped past Buffy and pounced on Willow, dragging her to the ground. She screamed in terror, barely managing to get her arms up to protect her face and neck from the predator's jaws. A cougar the size of the female could easily snap the neck of a large buck; a slender Willow had no chance against her deadly power. She was in serious trouble.

Buffy reacted quickly, grabbing the cat by the throat and yanking back with all her strength. No match for the Slayer, the surprised feline released her prey and tried to shake free from the choking grip. She was lifted off her paws and thrown bodily away. Twisting in mid-air, she managed to land on her feet, snarling in rage even as she regrouped and paced more warily around the pair.

Rushing to Willow's side, Buffy knew she would never be able to forget the sight of her friend falling under the cougar's onslaught. Nor would she ever forgive herself for allowing it to happen. It was no small miracle that she wasn't seriously injured, just shaken and bruised with a couple of small scratches. Buffy pulled Willow to her feet, checking the severity of her wounds, deeply relieved that she seemed okay.

Once reassured that Willow still had all her digits in all the right places, she turned to see how Spike was faring. Her heart dropped and her stomach pitched sharply when she saw him. He was down. The huge male cat had him by the throat and shoulder, one gigantic mouthful of vampire, and was dragging him away. As he backed out of the clearing, tugging slowly but steadily, Giles attacked him again and again with a large branch he'd picked up off the ground. Beating at the huge, muscular wall of flesh, he tried to get the cat to release the vampire. It was having no affect.

Spike kicked futilely, wincing in pain as he was dragged over sticks and ruts and rocks. He was on his back, his hands scrambling for purchase, trying to get to the cougar's eyes, the nose, anything that would hurt him enough to get him to let go. The scent of blood - his blood, Buffy's blood, Willow's blood - was a thick coppery cloud that tickled his senses with a demon's hunger. The searing hot agony from the teeth penetrating his neck and shoulder did more than an adequate job of keeping his mind on survival, though. What really bugged him was that he didn't dare try to twist out of the beast's jaws. With his luck he'd end up decapitated and dusty. Jerking abruptly as he got dragged over a tree root, his roar of pain echoed through the woods.

"Proteja com parede!"

The break in Buffy's concentration had given the female cougar the opportunity she was waiting for. Dragging her attention back to the she-cat, the Slayer gasped in surprise when she saw her flying through the air, having leapt at them from at least twenty feet away. Just before she reached them, the feline plowed into an unseen barrier and fell, shaking her head in confusion and snarling wildly. Backing up, pawing at her ears, the cat suddenly stopped. As if not realizing what it was doing or how it got there, her head swiveled from side to side. Finally, she hissed once more and disappeared into the surrounding foliage, not trying to move quietly. Buffy heard her crash through the woods in her haste to be away.

Tossing a grateful smile to Willow for that barrier spell, she spun to help Spike and Giles. But Spike was nowhere to be seen and Giles stood with his back to her, the limb in his hand dangling limply, forgotten. Buffy rushed to his side.

"Where's Spike?" He didn't answer her, just stared in horror at the woods. "Giles! Where is Spike?"

Slowly, as if in a trance, Giles faced Buffy. Swallowing audibly, he stuttered, "H-he's gone. The c-cougar pulled him out of the clearing. I-I tried to stop him. I've never seen anything like it. A-After the cat got Spike out, he just dropped him like he was of no more interest, then turned and disappeared into the woods. I rushed to Spike's side, I did. When I reached down, something grabbed him. Something...else. He flew out of my grasp and was dragged through the trees." His shaking hand came up and he pointed. "That way. I-I couldn't...I didn't... He was just gone."

"Oh, God," Buffy whispered hoarsely. "Oh, God. Miranda. She was trying to get him out of the clearing."

"Wh-what's that way?" Willow asked, scared.

"The house. She's dragging him back to the house."

"But, Buffy, what about the yard? She's going to have to take him across the yard. In the sun."

Buffy's head shot up and horror dawned. She was wrong. Miranda wasn't trying to bring him home; she was trying to burn him up. Without another word, Buffy sped off in the direction of the house at a dead run, Willow and Giles following as fast as they could behind her.



Chapter Twelve

Legs pumped like straining pistons in a revving engine. Clenched hands swung on bent arms, propelling alternating limbs forward at maximum velocity. Chest ached, be it from the labor of breathing while maintaining the brutal pace or from raw fear and self-castigation. Lungs protested the torturous effort and reacted violently, sending lancing pain through the side of their vessel. The eons-old physical response to overexertion may as well have been a fleabite for all the attention the 'vessel' gave it.

Flying, no, rocketing through the woods, Buffy brought her considerable power to bear on running. Tearing through underbrush, smacking against small branches in her way, she didn't bother to duck or evade. That would take too much time. Time she was deathly afraid she didn't have.

As fast as her feet were carrying her through the dense forest, as quick and nimble as the Slayer was, her mind was locked in place. Sparing a smidgeon of her resources for contingency plans, she focused on two thoughts: how to stop Miranda from pulling Spike into the sun and what to do if she does. Having not the first clue on either did nothing to lighten that yoke of dread weighing on her.

In truth, she was also cursing herself for jetting out of their 'safe haven' - a macabre overestimation if there ever was one - without at the very least swiping the comforter that had been laying in a crumpled heap next to the tree that Spike leaned against just a short while ago. She'd made a mistake, possibly a fatal one, and her stomach churned and writhed painfully at the admittance of it.

If Spike died... No. That was one scenario she would not deign to entertain.

Neither as fleet of foot, nor as oblivious to the pulling and scratching of the surrounding foliage, Willow panted and struggled her way through the brush as she ran. When first Buffy went dashing out of the clearing, faster than the proverbial shooting bullet, the redhead had been just one step behind her. She was fast outpaced, at least physically. Willow's mind raced as swiftly as the Slayer's body far in front of her, though in much less of a straight line, darting down tangent trails of thought and back again after discarding notions as either absurd or unworkable.

Spike had specifically asked Giles to bring her. It wasn't for her inherent charm and grace. She knew that. He'd figured her magicks might be helpful. Guilt prodded her into wondering what he'd think now, given her glaring lack of assistance in keeping him from being taken. That failure wouldn't be going down in the record books as her shiniest moment ever. It was doubly important that she come up with something to help him now. Try as she might, though, she couldn't think of a suitable assist to get him back.

She might not be a haunt expert, but she knew magicks in ways that few could. Or dared. Not once had she ever heard of a spell that could be used as a weapon against the dead - the all the way, free-floating dead, anyway. With the haunt's ability to alter the composition of her physical manifestations, there was only an infinitesimal chance that a physical attack with magicks would work even if Willow zapped Miranda while she was fully formed. So, if Miranda couldn't be forced to stop dragging Spike to his immolation, what other options were there?

It was possible Willow could provide enough counter-pull to keep Spike in the woods.

Shaking her head as she ducked under a low-hanging branch, she quickly threw out the idea. Without knowing the extent of Miranda's strength, it was a questionable option at best. Saving him from doing a stunning impression of a charcoal briquette would be rather pointless if he ended up drawn and quartered in the process. Plus, the only hope there was of working the spell at all would be if she could catch up with him. Short of using spells she could never use again, however 'for the greater good' the reason seemed to be, there just wasn't time to get to him.

Breathing heavily, hurrying as fast as she could, Willow groaned at the appearance of a small tree trunk blocking her path. Not wanting to lose any time, she leapt over it. Unfortunately, she didn't possess the inherent agility of her best friend. Well, she did, just the wrong best friend. Her toe caught on the raised nub from a broken branch and she pitched forward, windmilling her arms and squeaking in surprise.

One hand slapped against a tree to the right of the path and she almost caught herself from falling. Almost. Her grip slipped and she careened into the underbrush headfirst.

She landed relatively softly on a mat of dead leaves and squishy stuff that she most definitely didn't care to examine too closely. Rising from her sprawled position, she spit what she desperately hoped was dirt and flecks of dried leaves from her mouth as she shook her head and rested on all fours for a moment. Lumbering crashes of sound were coming up behind her, and in the distance she could hear Buffy barreling ahead - not as loudly, as she was farther away, but with more speed.

"Willow!" Giles' wheezing breath gasped out her name as he drew up next to her. Leaning over to rest his hands on his knees, clutching Spike's comforter as if it were the lifeline to pure oxygen, he cursed every cigarette he'd ever smoked in his life, every scotch he'd ever drunk, and every day he chose to recline with his LPs instead of jog for his health. "Are you alright?" His question took awhile to force out of air-starved lungs, and even when it did, it was virtually unrecognizable.

Disgusted with herself for the odious display of clumsiness, she pushed herself up and knelt as she wiped her hands. "Yeah. Darn log."

"Dastardly..." Giles panted, "...trees. They can...get the...jump...on you...if you're not...careful."

Willow's chin snapped up defensively and she raised a scratched and sore hand to shield her eyes from the sun beating down on her while she prepared a retort. It was going to be a witty and sarcastic one, too, until all thoughts of repartee fled out of her head as she looked at the back of her hand.

Lowering it and her head slowly, she stared in weird fascination at the marks clearly visible on it. The sun was bright overhead, courtesy of a break in the thick canopy. No leaves or branches blocked the light from pouring down liquid gold rays, making her pale skin seem almost translucent.

There was a nasty gash on her palm, but she only vaguely noticed it when she flipped her hand over. Staring at the appendage with eyes sightless for all but the sunshine, her pulse sped up to a dizzying pace and she smiled.

"I have an idea."

Giles frowned. That was certainly good news, but Willow's vacant stare made him question the validity of her claim, as well as her mental acuity. She could have hit her head, after all.

Before he could temper her words with caution, her eyes snapped back into focus and she barked out a clipped command. "Giles, go! Follow Buffy. This might not work."

He wanted to ask what might not work, along with ten other highly important questions, but she had that look she got when she was really intent on something. Her resolve face, as she often referred to it. With the wisdom of age, he understood that occasionally a person just has to forge ahead without all the answers...no matter how much nicer it would be for that person to take a minute to let a few oxygen molecules return to his body. With only a nod to conserve energy and time, he turned to continue his trek after Buffy and Spike.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Blurry as a Renoir, the landscape slipped past the sprinting Slayer. Oblivious, she strained to hear the telling sounds in front of her. Sounds that would let her know exactly where Spike was and how close he was coming to the all-too-fast approaching break in the shady safety of the forest.

Bursting through a bush with explosive force, decimating the harmless greenery, she was finally rewarded with a glimpse of the not-yet-extra-crispy vampire. Not that she felt any particular victory in that. In fact, the sight was so horrendous, it froze her in her tracks and she gasped. She sized up the situation in less time than it took her heart to pound once in her throat.

Spike was obviously and, she thought, blessedly unconscious. One elbow jutted towards the sky where he was held in an invisible grip. His torso tilted back in a parody of jaunty reclining pose and his legs flopped bonelessly over the ground clutter across which he was being dragged. Any damage to his head was hidden from Buffy's horrified gaze. It lolled lifelessly against his back. His long neck was bared and bloody. The cougar bites oozed sticky redness that stained the skin around them without hiding the wicked puncture wounds. His clothes were ragged and torn and the flesh beneath was lacerated, scratched, and scorched.

It was blindingly obvious that his torturous trek through the woods hadn't been in the straightest of straight lines. Nor had he been spared the slices of deadly light that dappled the forest floor in places, if his slightly smoking body was any indication.

As she watched, Spike was pulled forward slowly, his body making a chilling rustling sound as it bounced and slid over the ground. Buffy felt a faint glimmer of hope when she noticed how slowly Miranda was dragging him. Hope that perhaps her seemingly endless energy was waning.

That hope was brutally extinguished when his upraised arm jerked suddenly and his body swung around, smashing into a small tree. The trunk shook on impact and a rain of leaves silently and gracefully floated down, a gruesome contradiction in its serene natural beauty.

Spike was a mouse in the clutches of a cat more vicious than the cougars they'd encountered had any hope of being and it was killing him - not quickly, as a foray into the sunny day would be - but by deadly degrees. Damage was Miranda's intent, damage and then death. A lot of damage.

That moment of clarity shook Buffy out of her horror-induced trance and she roared out her rage, her rejection of Miranda's insidious plan, and her own feelings of helplessness. She leapt forward, fury frothing and bubbling in her eyes.

Without a large array of options, Buffy did the only thing that sprang to mind. She launched herself in the air just steps from Spike and landed on him, grunting on impact. Thinking she might be able to jar him loose from Miranda's grip, she was sorely disappointed as she felt herself dragged along the forest floor on a Spike-sled. She may as well have not bothered.

That really ticked her off.

Rolling off of the vampire, she slid into his path and swung at the air, where Miranda's head would have been had she been visible. There was neither resistance nor response. In fact, she ended up back on that Spike-sled when his body hit her just below the knees, toppling her.

Collecting herself quickly, she grabbed for the wrist lying limply against Spike's side, wrapping her fingers around it in a bone-crushing grip. Her other hand caught a passing tree trunk and she prepared herself for the pull.

For a moment her efforts seemed to work. Spike's progress slowed as her grip tightened, then stopped momentarily. Buffy redoubled her efforts, willfully ignoring the screaming heat of her muscles as they bunched and flexed. Focused on her goal, she didn't notice the swirling color that was materializing next to her. She started in surprise and almost released her punishing grip on Spike when Miranda's voice broke the ominous silence.

"You are quite the persistent young lady," the deceptively petite woman drawled casually. "But then, 'lady' is a bit of a misnomer, is it not?" The question had an air of idle curiosity. Angry fire crackled in Buffy's eyes and she speared Miranda with a look that could melt steel. Pursing her lips as if put out by the unpleasantness in the tawny pools glaring at her with such hostility, the haunt waved a dainty hand dismissively. "I was merely referring to your unusual strength. Do not take offense."

Buffy rolled her eyes and refused to answer. Despite Miranda's appearance, the dragging force had not lessened on Spike's body and it was taking all her concentration to keep him stationary.

Feigning a deep sigh, the haunt cocked her head to the side and studied the red-faced, straining Slayer. "I suppose it matters little, as your remaining time is destined to be only marginally longer than the spawn of Satan's with whom you share your body."

Gritting her teeth, Buffy's head swiveled on a tense neck. Sarcastic, disdainful, enraged, she ground out, "You must have missed the memo. I don't do 'destined.' Too predictable."

"Yes, well, be that as it may..." Miranda's voice trailed off and her solidity wavered, but not before ripping Spike out of Buffy's grip with nothing more than a thought, tossing him away as effortlessly as she would wipe a speck of dust off a sleeve.

The Slayer was taken by surprise and fell backwards, landing hard on her rear end. If there were any lingering doubts about Miranda's power waning, they were laid to rest when she pointed at Buffy, smiled, and flicked her finger. Buffy felt a blow roughly akin to a semi truck plowing into her. The force of it picked her up and threw her several feet.

Struggling to her feet, she lunged after Spike's retreating body. She was neither close enough nor fast enough and he slipped past the last protective barrier of shaded ground.

Spike was dragged into the brilliant and deadly light of day.

Time seemed to stop, leaving Buffy with nothing but abject terror. Seconds crept by like hours, like days, as inch by flayed inch of Spike's body was brought forth into the sun. She was screaming a gut-wrenching wail that poured out the basest of all human emotions but she didn't hear it. She was running so fast that every cell in her body felt abused by the effort but she didn't feel it. Her heart was pounding, pumping blood as quickly as it could to sustain her, but for Buffy it was dying.

Smoke, pungent and acrid, burned her nostrils and watered her eyes. So much smoke. It hid Spike's body from her and she felt cheated at the loss, no matter how awful the sight of his broken, bleeding shell had been.

While her world was disintegrating right in front of her, some fragment of her mind took note of odd trivialities with eerie dispassion. Footfalls were coming closer. Giles was calling her name. He was coming to help. She knew that he would have the comforter with him. That's what Giles would do.

She also knew he would be too late.

~*~*~*~*~*~

A barefoot Willow stood on the sliver of sun-kissed earth near the edge of the forest with arms stretched wide. After picking herself up from where she'd fallen, she had quickly cleared a small area of debris. Proud of the fact that she'd only shuddered twice - okay, three times - at the ick factor as she brushed away the decaying foliage that blanketed the ground, she wriggled her toes into the cool, damp soil dark with nutrients. Once her feet were sufficiently buried, she grounded herself. Clearing her mind and releasing the connection to her internal magicks, she gave herself over to the most powerful force known to anyone. The power of the earth and its elements.

Willow took a good long look around the woods and thought about the magnitude of what she was going to try to do. And then she thought about the consequences should she not make the attempt.

Throwing back her hands, closing her eyes, Willow steadied herself and began.

"Sister Earth, I call to thee, beseeching with humility. Weigh my mind, my heart, my soul, to give you proof of noble goal. Protection is the pure intent, relieving one of his lament. Release your moisture, set it free, this alone my humble plea."

She wasn't invoking a spell, at least not in the classic sense. The natural world commanded an energy that was varied in scope and as ancient as the planet itself, but it wasn't the same type of energy that she had learned to bend to her will with her magicks. The type of energy she'd used. Abused. This new force was a power that could not be corrupted, couldn't be harnessed. It was completely pure and yet the most intricate and intense to handle. There was no invoking it, only asking - very, very nicely - to be allowed to nudge it a little.

Willow felt the intensity of that energy as soon as she started. Perhaps her history allowed her to better recognize what was happening to her, though the feeling wasn't even remotely similar to the effects of the spell casting she was used to. Her bare feet warmed, as if the soil beneath and around them was heating and expanding, spreading its warmth to her skin. Seeping into her muscles and bones, it comforted her in inexplicable ways even as she was studied and judged by an incomprehensible and age-old consciousness.

If she was found wanting, her attempt could be brought to a much more rapid conclusion than she would like. One that was significantly less pleasant than just burning out.

"Sister Air, your help I need to stir the wind and bend the reed. Earth's gift received into my hands, I beg you lift above the lands. Moisture rising ever high will crystallize in azure sky. A debt I'll owe for all boons gifted, ever thankful for nature shifted."

The purity of the force is what drew Willow to it after the tragic consequences of the dark forces that drove her internal magicks. During her rehabilitation, she'd spent long hours studying the true essence of magick and she'd stumbled across several theories on natural energy. She was fascinated by it, but never dared to imagine she would ever attempt to manipulate the unimaginable power. There was a very good reason for that, too. The catch. The type of energy that imbued the earth and its provinces and the type of energy that she could control just didn't mix. The best nature witches in recorded history, occasionally labeled erroneously as weather witches, were actually normal, if often a little eccentric, women. No power on their own. They simply had the ability to key into the power of nature and bend it to their will in small degrees.

That wasn't the case here, and as such, the inherent danger and risk involved were magnified.

As gentle breezes caressed her skin and lifted damp hair from her slightly sweaty face, danger and risk were the furthest things from Willow's mind. She felt welcomed. Accepted. Recognized as a sister of the elements, she was serenely comfortable in a way she'd never been before. It was a heady and joyous feeling. A natural high that had no side effects, no drawbacks, no darkness in it at all. She was herself. Not a powerful witch hiding from a history of geekiness. She was the nerd and the woman, the strength and the weakness, the good and the bad. Because of that, because she willingly embraced her own true nature and hid no part of it from that for which she reached, she was acknowledged by the energy. Acknowledged and loved.

Standing in what now felt like the most tropical rainforest during the wettest of wet seasons, air almost tangibly fluid and heavy sluiced over her flesh, dampened her clothes, embraced her. Then, on the wind, it lifted toward the heavens above.

"Sister Fire, elemental, assistance here is fundamental. I make to you an allocution, and ask your aid in resolution. Your essence, heat, is needed dearly to steer the course and see it clearly. Join with Air and Earth divine to speed the gift and help it climb."

Beyond the gratitude, the pleasure that her attempts were working, the relief, Willow felt purified. The intense pleasure didn't mask the importance of the task that precipitated her actions. Instead, it coursed through her and cleared her mind of all but the most vital thoughts. Triviality was just that. Trivial. And quickly discarded.

An agonized wail of torment echoed through the trees, ruthlessly jarring Willow out of an almost trance-like state as she was preparing to call to the fourth and final corner. Focus evaporated like a fine mist. Fear trickled in.

Looking around wildly, her mind made connections her heart couldn't accept. The cry was Buffy's. In it was loss and torturous failure. Spike had been pulled into the sun.

An instinct she wasn't even consciously aware of reached out to the magickal power she was most familiar with wielding. Instantly, as if she'd grabbed hold of a dozen live electrical wires, the shock of the dual forces brushing against one another shuddered through her. Shaking, jerking, almost epileptic tremors rocked her small body as they clashed together.

Eyes clouded with dark force, then cleared, only to cloud again. A sticky, black, and oily feeling clutched her heart and soul. With tempest-tossed frailty, she labored to sort out that which could never be consciously sorted. She had no choice. There was nothing she could do to save herself, to save Buffy, Spike, anyone. Willow's mind released its hold, tore itself away from the internal strife. Surrendered.

With no mind to guide the actions of the body, the soul was left to fend for itself. Often underestimated and occasionally discounted completely, it exists in every conscious being. Too many times the soul and what it is capable of are forgotten - in some cases not even recognized as being there - and it can't do the job it was meant to do. It is and has always been at the mercy of the dictates of the mind. When they disagree, mind and soul, mind wins. The soul can inspire discomfort with actions taken, but without the mind's agreement, can't affect those actions. It is often a silent voice of impotent disapproval. But when the mind is sleeping, or - as now - defeated...

Willow's soul repudiated the dark forces swirling malevolently inside her. It had tasted the sweet liquid purity of natural energy and chose to ally with it. Rising forcibly like a phoenix out of the ashes, it clawed at the darkness, tearing at it, rending it limb from proverbial limb. The soul battled with righteous fury, decimating and dispatching the cloying shadows, forcing it out of Willow's body for the final time.

When the distasteful job was done, the soul reached out for the colorful swirl of energy that was left, both embracing and immersing itself in the force of life. For the soul, it was a homecoming.

In combination, soul and energy assumed control of Willow's body. Her arms came up again, her fingers opened and straightened towards the sky. A voice, musical and serene, rose from her throat. The ritual continued.

"Sister Water, with no despair, your strength I hail in this repair. The gift now granted, lifted, sped, I give to thee for duties read. From clear, opaque, hide shining sun, from dry, rain down, quench vicious fun. Cloud the light and wet the land, to spare them death's most dark demand."

In an instant, the sun disappeared behind large, dark clouds and the gentle rains started to fall. The goal had been achieved, but at what cost? Had it been too late?

Empathy and a belief in what was right flooded Willow's body. Exhaustion was battered back, held at bay for the time being. With the wisdom of the ageless energy inside her and guided by her soul, Willow lifted her face to the crying sky and called out once more.

"Earth, Air, Fire, Water, join as one in me, your daughter. I give myself to sisters four; unite in me forever more. Turning back the revolution, rescind the price of persecution. For gifts bestowed, my fealty, as I will so mote it be."

Spent, changed utterly, Willow's arms dropped. The energy that had joined with her soul ebbed. Her soul was left in control of a body that had been taken to the limits of stamina and endurance, and beyond. Her damaged and fractured mind was silent.

Large, green eyes rolled back in her head as she crumpled. Unconscious before she hit the earth, a healing sleep pulled her deeper and deeper. Though unaware of it, the energy Willow embraced and channeled began working to heal her mind and restore her body.

With no one to take notice, a blue mist materialized around the girl. Obscuring her fallen body from potentially prying eyes, the mist provided protection and warmth, and then wafted over her skin, imbuing her with energy of its own.

~*~*~*~*~*~

There is only so much a person can take. When you're the Slayer, that bar is set significantly higher than the average person's. It has to be. That doesn't mean the bar doesn't exist or that it can't be reached. She'd been a hairsbreadth away from the breaking point more than once. Hell, she'd passed it more than once - when she had to kill Angel to save the world, when her mother died, when Glory had taken Dawn. When she'd been brought back from the dead.

People are unique, though. There's even an adage that sums it up nicely: that which doesn't kill us makes us stronger. Of course, there isn't exactly an adage that covers what does kill you, but Buffy had kind of figured it was like a double dose of strong.

Turned out she was wrong.

Watching Spike disappear behind a cloud of flesh-scented smoke ripped Buffy's heart out of her chest, gripped it in a cadaverous claw, and mashed into a quivering mass of pulsing, bloody gore. Strong wasn't on the same planet with how she felt.

Coughing, hacking, she tried to make her way to Spike's side. There was too much smoke. She couldn't find him. Tears she didn't feel poured down her cheeks as she called to him over and over, but he was beyond hearing. Couldn't respond. Might already be gone.

Panic seized her stomach and rammed it up through her ribcage and into her throat.

The first raindrop fell while she was stumbling through the thick, cloying blackness. Three steps later she was drenched. She didn't notice. When the breeze picked up and started to disperse the hazy screen, she was oblivious. Engrossed in her search, she had no time to take note of anything as mundane as the weather.

Then, as if born of the sulfurous smog, Spike's form emerged from the smoke.

Taken completely by surprise, she almost thought her eyes were playing tricks on her. She hadn't realized until she saw him lying supine in the yard, still smoldering, just how convinced she'd been that she wouldn't.

Spike was still alive...still undead, anyway.

The sweet relief that flooded Buffy's body left her weak-kneed and trembling. And a little miffed. She rushed to his side and collapsed next to him on the muddy grass. Touching him, running a gentle hand over his bleeding, swollen, seriously broken face, then down his lacerated and bruised chest, she tried to assure herself that she wasn't seeing things. Tried to assure herself that he really was still there.

When he was feeling better she was going to kick his ass all the way back to Sunnydale. How dare he get yanked all over creation by something with a major yen for using him as fireplace fodder? How could he have let himself get pulled out of that clearing? He knew better! Big arrogant idiot. Thinking he's all invincible and stuff. Stupid. Stupid.

His hideously abused face was the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen.

She was a tumult of emotion, ecstatic one minute and vibrating with anger the next. Then, as she calmed down slowly, as she became more and more assured by the fact that Spike had not been burned to cinders, the anger faded. It was just fear-based anyway, she wasn't really mad at him.

Big undead dummy.

Leaning over him, she brushed a tender kiss to his lips like he was the sleeping prince in a politically correct version of Snow White. The irony tugged at the corners of her mouth, knowing he'd loathe the comparison pulled them the rest of the way into a brief grin. He didn't move, but judging by appearance alone, that was probably for the best. He was not going to be all moonlight and roses when he came around.

The sound of someone breaking through the woods behind her spun Buffy on her haunches. When she saw the gasping and staggering Giles, she stood up and rushed to his side, throwing her arms around him.

"He's okay. Well, actually he's not even close to okay, but he will be. You brought the comforter. I knew you would. I should have grabbed it. I wasn't thinking. Giles..."

Letting her get out the rush of words, mostly so he could catch a breath, he encircled her in his arms and let her babble. He could feel the tremors that wracked her body. It told him more than words ever could just how bad it had been for her, almost losing another person that meant so much to her. It didn't even bother him - much - that it was Spike.

Maybe he was getting used to the idea. Maybe he was grateful to the annoying vampire for saving his life when the first cougar attacked. Maybe he trusted in Buffy's heart enough to know that if she loved Spike, there must be something redeeming in him after all.

Maybe he was just getting soft in his old...wait. Never mind.

When he could finally get a word out without sounding like an emphysema patient, he said, "How odd. It appears to be raining."

Buffy pulled back and turned her head to look at Spike, only in part to verify he was still there. She smiled slightly and chose not to let it slip that she hadn't noticed until just then. "And people wonder why you're called 'Watcher'," she teased, then grew serious. "That's what saved him, Giles. One minute it's all 'Sunshine on my Shoulder' and the next it's 'Who'll Stop the Rain'."

When she realized the importance of what she said, she looked up at the sky. Blinking against the deluge, she peered at the bluish-gray clouds and frowned. "Actually, that is pretty strange. Song stylings aside..." Her voice trailed off when she glanced at Giles and noticed him staring at her like she'd just spouted Shakespearean verse. "What?"

Giles shook his head quickly. "Oh, nothing. I'm just astounded that you're familiar with the works of John Denver and Credence Clearwater Revival."

Once the requisite long-suffering look had been delivered, and after pointedly ignoring his sarcasm, Buffy slid back into the focused Slayer role and returned to Spike's side. Giles, grinning a little while her back was to him, followed her.

The grin fell away when he got his first look at the battered vampire.

"Dear lord."

"He's hurt pretty bad, Giles. Miranda likes to play with her food. I tried to stop her, but she knocked me away like I was nothing." Meeting her eyes, Giles glimpsed the concern and fear, the anger and purpose, everything that made her a great Slayer and an even better human being shining brightly in their depths. "We have to move him. He can't stay here. I'm thinking a big hell no on heading back into the woods, so we'll have to get him into the house. He's going to need blood, too, but we're out. Maybe Willow..." Frowning, noticing the absence of her friend for the first time, she asked. "Where is Willow?"

Giles lay the comforter on the ground and motioned to Buffy to help him get Spike onto it. They would use the tattered fabric as a makeshift stretcher for the time being. "I passed her on my way to you. She assured me she had an idea." Eying the clouds, he drawled, "It would appear her assurances were well founded."

Nodding, she concurred. "Well founded, well irrigated, and well shaded. Our little Willow's got a hearty 'Way to go' coming to her." Worry flared briefly in the tawny pools of her eyes. "Unless it was a dark magicks thing. You don't think it was a dark magicks thing, do you? No end justifies that means."

"I agree, Buffy, but I wasn't exactly in a position - "

"Oh! Look! Here she comes." Buffy caught a glimpse of Willow slipping out of the forest behind Giles' shoulder. As the redhead drew closer, Buffy started slightly in surprise at the sight. "Giles," she whispered, "do you see what I see?"

Her Watcher turned his head. Yanking off his glasses, his eyebrows rose and his eyes widened. Willow was walking towards them, alright, and she looked relieved - tired, but relieved. She also looked really, really dry. With each step she took, the curtain of rain parted for her, then closed back up behind her. When she reached her friends she smiled an exhausted but happy smile.

"Hi, guys."

Neither Buffy nor Giles could figure out quite what to say. Waterlogged, rain pouring from them in warm rivulets, they just stared. Willow didn't seem to be offended by their dumbfounded silence, though. She didn't even seem to notice. She looked down at Spike, gasped at the sight of him, and raised her hands out from her side with her palms up, like a human scale of justice.

"Sisters four, a short request, healing hands to stand the test. What's done, undone, what's paid, now free. As I will, so mote it be."

She knelt next to him on a small patch of now-dry soil and slowly moved her hands over the length of Spike's body. In their wake, his flesh closed and healed, leaving only bruises and dried blood to mar his pale flesh. What bones were broken mended out of sight of human eyes, but mend they did. Buffy shot a confused and anxious look to Giles and spoke softly.

"There's rhyming? We're rhyming now?"

Just as confused as Buffy, Giles could only nod vaguely. "It would appear so."

Her task complete, Willow stood and grinned sheepishly at her soaked friends. "Guess we don't need the rain anymore." At her words, the rain cut off abruptly.

"Okay, Will, what's with the after-April showers and the wax on, wax off healing hands bit? Not that I don't appreciate it," Buffy dropped her eyes to the newly repaired but still unconscious Spike, "cuz, hey, I'm all about the thank you, but what's going on?"

With a Madonna-like serenity, Willow smiled gently. "I asked for help and I got it."

Trepidation had Buffy biting out, "Gee, think you could vague that up a bit? We might actually figure out what you're talking about in the next decade or so."

"It's okay, Buffy. You don't have to worry about me. I'm all right now."

Buffy was bothered by her friend's casual dismissal. Her stomach pitched sharply, the way a loved one of an alcoholic's would at the sight of a drink in his hand. "You did a spell, didn't you? Was it dark magicks, Will? Not going to judge, I promise, but gotta say I'm - "

"It wasn't a spell, Buffy. I promise. At least, not in the way that you think."

Buffy shook her head in disbelief and rolled her eyes. "Would someone care to explain to the magickally challenged just what is going on here?"

Giles spoke up, finally realizing what Willow was talking about but more confused than ever by how it was possible. "You invoked the corners."

Both Buffy's question and her rising frustration were ignored for the time being. Willow corrected Giles. "Not invoked. I couldn't do that before. I asked them for help. Giles, it was amazing. There's a lot that's fuzzy, I kinda lost control when I heard Buffy cry out. The energy I was handling touched the power I used normally and it knocked me loopy for awhile."

"Awhile?" Buffy's voice rose in agitation. "Giles said he passed you just minutes ago."

Pinching the bridge of his nose, he sighed. The day had been overwhelming at best, and this new information went a long way to straining his endurance. "If Willow is correct, and she now has the ability to invoke the corners, it's entirely possible that she was out for hours. At least to her perception. When the two different forces collided in her, there would have been rather significant damage." He looked at Willow intently. "Quite frankly, I'm surprised you survived the experience. They may very well have slowed down, even stopped linear time to aid in healing you. Willow, I can't say that I'm overly familiar with elemental energy, but I do know it's a very different force than you're used to. To attempt to call the corners with your history was very dangerous."

Simmering with impatience, Buffy stepped between her friends. "I'm fascinated. Really. And I just can't wait to hear the entirety of this riveting tale, but we have more important things to deal with right now. Personally, I'd like to get Spike someplace with a little more cover than the wide open yard."

"Gonna have to vote with Goldilocks on that one, folks."

The weak voice rising from the ground brought any and all discussion to an abrupt halt. Buffy's head snapped around in time to see Spike tenderly push himself up on his elbows. The effort cost him and he winced, hissing out a sharp expletive.

Any concern that wasn't Spike-related fled from Buffy's mind. She dropped to his side and cautiously helped him sit up. "Shhh," she soothed gently, "everything is going to be fine."

A bark of dry laughter set him off on a coughing fit that paled his face beyond the norm and had him clutching his side for relief. Buffy was helpless to do anything but rub his back with sympathy. "Fine, she says," he finally wheezed. "That's bloody rich. Watch yourself, Slayer. The optimistic bent inn't exactly holdin' water right now."

Sympathy sizzled into a mild irritation at the dire hopelessness Spike spouted. Oddly enough, her mood brightened. That was just one of the interesting dynamics in their relationship. She grinned. "Whine, whine, whine. I swear, it boggles the mind that you made it past your centennial."

Arching his eyebrows and huffing, he made to get to his feet. When he twisted his torso, pain lanced into his side. Between gritted teeth, he ground out, "I bloody well hate that bint. I do. I really hate her." With Buffy's help, he made it to jelly-filled legs and tottered dangerously. Sliding under his arm and adding her strength to his weakness, Buffy helped him stand. It pinched a little, needing help like some swaddling babe, but the deep bruises and blood loss pinched more, so he tolerated the kid gloves. For now.

Looking himself over, assessing the damage, he was surprised it wasn't worse. His shirt and jeans were a write-off, no question, but his duster was just a little knocked up. It would survive. So would he. That was enough for the time being. Glancing up at the ominous black clouds that saved his unlife, he murmured, "Nice timin', Red. Appre - "

Dropping his gaze to the redhead, his head jerked in surprise. "What's with the glow, Will?"

Buffy, Giles, even Willow herself was taken aback by Spike's observation. Two heads turned to study her as she lifted her arm and looked at it. It was, in fact, giving off a faint bluish glow. "I-I don't know. I'm blue. Why am I blue? Giles?"

Crossing to her, Giles stared at Willow like she was a very interesting bug under a microscope. "Fascinating."

"No," Willow cried, distressed. Any serenity she had been feeling previously was gone like the smoke from Spike's body. "Not fascinating and really not normal! A-and Blue? Not a good look for me!" She was working herself up when a shudder wracked her body. It was almost like an internal wave went through her. The glow intensified even as her body stilled.

"Mother is sleeping." It was Willow's voice, but there was no Willow in the words. "She expended a large amount of energy, though she tried to mask the effects of your confrontation, Buffy."

Surprised beyond the telling of it, Buffy stepped forward. "Nathan?"

Brown eyes familiar for their tragic depths stared at her with warmth and patience. They were the same wise yet youthful orbs that she had first seen in a dead child's face. "Do not fear for your friend, Buffy. Willow is fine. She is, in fact, here with me. It was necessary to borrow her consciousness to contact you so I wouldn't attract Mother's attention. She now knows of my presence, and though she doesn't accept what or who I was, she fears me as a threat and guards herself."

Giving his attention to Spike, Willow's mouth smiled. "Your friend is humble, vampire. She would not tell you what she risked in beseeching those with the utmost authority for their assistance in saving you. The power she invoked made it possible for me to use her as a vessel. It cleansed her of the darkness that shadowed her heart and tormented her soul. She is free of it now, which is a benefit for her, but do not think that lessens the import of the trials she went through." Nathan broke off and chuckled. "Even now she's...disgruntled that I'm telling you this. She has a pure spirit and a good heart. A valued friend."

"B-buffy?" Giles stuttered on her name, too confused and stunned to do much more than that. "Wh-Who is this, and please forgive the glaring misnomer, person?"

Nathan, grinning with the precociousness of the average eight-year-old though he was far removed from an average anything, raised a hand to Giles and waved. "Hello, Mr. Giles. My name is Nathan. I was Miranda's son. What I am now is not important."

Spike snorted. "Nipper does that a lot. Big with the mysterious rot. You get used to it. Well...no, you don't, but he generally doesn't stick around long enough to bother much with it."

"Spike." There was impatience and warning in Giles' voice.

Not offended by the free-speaking vampire, Nathan said, "He's not wrong, Mr. Giles. Don't concern yourself."

"Nathan," Buffy asked, "what is it? Why are you here?"

Willow's body turned towards the Slayer. "I protected Willow as best I could when she was felled by the dueling forces inside her. Had Mother taken notice, she would have taken her over and used Willow's magicks against all of you. I blanketed her essence, keeping her from Mother's attention. Against those with power, Mother can only assume control if the person is unconscious. Willow was, unfortunately, an excellent candidate for inhabitation. Obviously. I have a gift to bestow her, and it is one that requires her awareness in combination with my presence in her mind. When she awoke, the pressing need to get to all of you drove her so I bided my time. Plus," he admitted with an angelically innocent smile, "I enjoyed our earlier contact and wanted to speak to you again."

Buffy gave the boy a beaming smile and struggled to control the urge to ruffle his hair affectionately. Willow's hair, anyway. Then, the memory of what Nathan had been through at his mother's hand came flooding back to her. She couldn't believe she'd allowed herself to forget - even briefly.

The pity and sorrow must have shown, because Nathan reached out and laid a hand on her small shoulder. Speaking softly to her alone, he said, "I didn't show you what happened to me for you to take the burden of it as your own. That particular weight is not for you to carry."

Buffy's shoulders squared. "It is now."

Nathan sighed knowingly and nodded. "Forgive me, I'd forgotten your strength of will and determination. I shouldn't have. It's what lifts you above your predecessors."

For the second time Nathan spoke as if he was more than casually familiar with Buffy and her unique personality. For the second time she felt a curious twinge at his comments. And, for the second time, Nathan changed the subject before she could pursue the issue.

"Willow is growing impatient, so I will provide her with my gift and take myself away from you now. Perhaps we will be able to talk again after..."

In his eyes was a combination of hope and despair. Miranda was, for all time and despite her gargantuan failings, still his mother. Buffy supposed some mixed feelings on the matter of destroying her was natural. She followed her heart and wrapped Nathan in a warm and caring embrace. "I look forward to it," she said sincerely.

"Um...Buffy?" Willow's voice was muffled by Buffy's hair. "Not that I don't appreciate the affection, but I'm me again."

Buffy smiled, but didn't let go right away. "And who else is as deserving of a hug? You saved Spike. I didn't thank you properly, or even understand fully what it took to do so. I do now. Thank you. I'm sorry for before. I was all suspicious girl."

"I understand. Really. You're forgiven."

Giles, quite for so long that his mouth felt dry, cleared his throat. "Willow, what was the gift Nathan was referring to?"

Finally released from the friendly and grateful embrace, Willow brushed her hair off her face and answered. "Nathan said something about opening my eyes, but I'm not sure what he meant."

"What's with that kid and seein' things?" Spike asked, mostly to himself. A good thing, seeing as his sardonic drawl was ignored.

When Buffy moved away to stand beside the vampire, Willow caught her first sight of the Carr House since Nathan's...visit. What she saw made her physically nauseated and almost dropped her where she stood. She swayed and clutched at her head and stomach, ill at heart as well as soul. Giles saw her going over and grabbed her before she had the chance to fall.

The urge to retch was strong.

Sick, twisted bolts of vile green energy pulsed malevolently around the exterior of the house like perpetual lightning from hell. A swirling vortex hung in midair above the roof. Looking at the B & B from the back, she could see tendrils of ill-looking color flowing into the vortex from a spot over the horizon, as well at least twenty thick strands coming up from what appeared to be storm cellar doors that were attached to the back of the house.

It was the most macabre and horrendous thing she'd ever seen and it took everything she had not to run screaming from the abomination.

"Willow!" Buffy cried out and rushed to her. Spike was just a step behind. Her three friends clustered around her, supportive and concerned, cutting off her view of the house and the manifestation of evil she saw there. It was a physical relief.

"What's wrong, Will?" Spike asked, scanning the area for potential danger.

"The house," she managed. Slowly her senses were stabilizing. "I think I know why getting rid of a haunt is called a cleansing."

"Really?" Giles asked, no more able to keep the interest and thirst for knowledge out of his voice than he would be of walking stark naked across a high wire over a stadium crowd. "I've been wondering about that, actually. It seemed an odd term, given the situation." Three pair of eyes pinned him and he shifted a little under the weight of the looks they gave him. Defensive, he snapped, "So sorry my desire for information is inconvenient for you."

Buffy sent a comforting grin to Giles before asking Willow, "What did you see?"

Serious and intent, Willow replied, "Trust me when I tell you that you don't want to know. But I know where we need to go."

"Where?"

Willow raised a still-shaky hand and pointed in the general direction of the storm cellar doors she saw so briefly, but will be forever etched in her mind as a part of an insidious whole. "There."



Chapter Thirteen

Giles, Spike, and Buffy followed Willow’s trembling finger to the rear of the house. Two large white doors were nestled against the outside wall, resting on a slightly graded stone support ten feet from the rear entrance. “The…ah…cellar?” asked a dubious Giles. The information was rather a denouement, all things considered. Regardless, he caught Willow’s slight nod of affirmation and his eyebrows rose. “I’m not certain dashing back into that house is our best course of action given the current circumstances.” He was quite pleased that he managed not to blurt out how, given the current circumstances, he’d rather not enter that house ever again.

Buffy met Giles’ eyes over the bent head of her friend. Shifting her body to support most of Willow’s weight, she said, “We can’t stay here for long. We’re too exposed.”

“I agree, but we may need to entertain another option.” Giles replied. As he currently didn’t have one, he let the matter drop for the time being. Serious and thoughtful, he asked Spike, “How are you faring?”

Spike arched an eyebrow at the Watcher. At least a dozen snarky comments popped into his head. How was he faring after almost being torched twice in the same day? After getting dragged, slammed, bit, pummeled, bruised, impaled, tossed out a window, killed – albeit in the memory of some unidentified entity, almost attacked by a bear, almost staked? And those were just the highlights.

He wasn’t faring too bloody well, that’s for sure.

Twice he’d needed healing by magicks, a fact that chaffed his pride and tended to make him…surly, but he wasn’t all better. He could feel the blood loss rousing his terrible thirst, could feel the deep bone bruises and contusions that Willow’s magicks either didn’t or couldn’t handle. Not to mention he was more exhausted than he ever remembered being, which, when you thought about it, was really saying something.

All in all, he felt like shit, looked worse, and still had no idea how they were going to take down the beastie du jour.

One glance at the concern softening Buffy’s features as she waited to hear his response, though, curbed his tongue. The rising frustration and simmering anger banked enough for him to be able to swallow each and every one of those snarky retorts rolling around in his mind. He tried, for Buffy’s sake, to plaster a wry grin on his face.

“‘Bout sixty percent in the green…Pops.” Okay, so he wasn’t above a little bit of snark. He was still Spike, after all.

Giles, being more mature and therefore better able to control the urge to bonk the impertinent little twit over the head – preferably with a very large stick – took the high road and refused the bait. “Willow,” he asked, his voice stiff and properly upper crusty, “the gift that Nathan referred to was true sight, was it not?”

Breathing deeply, trying to expel the lingering physical effects of her view of the house, Willow nodded. Strength was returning slowly and her stomach was settling. She smiled gratefully at Buffy for the support, stood on her own steam, and consciously turned her back on the evil-seeped edifice. “Really hoping he has a return policy, too. You can forget what I said about this place being good for raising a family. U-Unless…ya know…Manson family.”

“Invoking the corners left you open to the effects of what you were seeing,” he informed her. “If memory serves, you have the ability to prevent the same from happening again. Unfortunately, that’s currently the extent of my familiarity with natural energies.”

“I-It’s okay, Giles.” She looked down at her clasped hands. “I know what I need to do.” Giles recoiled in surprise but she was quick to reassure him. “I don’t know how I know, but I do. There’s just some…innate knowledge, I guess. I mean, I still have a lot to learn, but there’s some stuff that’s just there. If I’d had some warning with the sight thing instead of just…Whoosh…instant ickiness…” Her voice trailed off and she shrugged.

“Yeah, well,” Spike piped up, “the nipper inn’t exactly one for layin’ it all out there.”

“He really, really isn’t,” Buffy agreed.

“I assume he’s the reliable source you referenced earlier?” asked Giles, directing the leading question to his Slayer.

Buffy took a deep breath. The memory of what Nathan went through was still there, though muted in its intensity by the scare over Spike. “Nathan is pretty much the only reason Spike and I are still standing here. We wouldn’t have survived this morning without him.”

“Nothin’ like a helpin’ hand that knocks you down to help you out,” Spike mumbled under his breath.

She heard him. Gave him a look. “None of this has been easy. On any of us.”

“No,” Giles agreed wholeheartedly. “Nothing about this is easy.” Sighing, he took the lead and tried to steer things back on track. There was no benefit in standing around commiserating on that which could not be changed. “Willow, why the cellar?”

“The rest of the house is…closed. Covered. I’m not sure how to explain it.” The redhead grounded her power so she’d be able to look at the house without feeling more than slightly woozy. Not pleasant, but not debilitating, either. Dread trickled down her spine, but there was nothing she could do except ignore it and refuse to allow it to dictate her actions.

Steeling her mind, she turned slowly and took in the B & B once again. The manifestations weren’t as vibrant as before, but she could still see them. “It’s like there’s a blanket of energy over the whole house. Sick energy.”

“Sounds like what she did right after Spike and I were tossed out the first time,” Buffy offered. “It was kind of a slick, pulsing, invisible wall. As tactile sensations go, not one I’m pining away to repeat.” She shuddered slightly at the memory.

Willow nodded sympathetically before continuing in a matter-of-fact tone. “I can see strands of…something…being pulled into a black vortex over the roof. They’re coming from there.” Willow pointed to the left of the house, over the tree line, but as no one else could see what she was seeing, she may as well not have bothered. “There’s more of them coming from the basement. A lot more. And, guys, I don’t see anything covering the storm cellar doors. She isn’t blocking them. If you want in the house, that’s the way we go.”

“Sounds like a bloody trap to me,” said Spike. He wasn’t real keen on making it any easier than it had been for Miranda.

Buffy’s mind shifted into overdrive. “Why would she set a trap?” she asked rhetorically. “She hasn’t needed one so far. According to Her Uppitiness, we’re bugs in need of a good squashing. Keeping us out of her house makes sense, but giving us an in through the back door to lure us into a specific area? I don’t think so. It’s pretty clear that she can reach us wherever and mostly whenever she wants. No. There’s a reason that basement isn’t blocked.”

Spike arched an eyebrow. He loved how her mind worked, even when he wasn’t loving what he was hearing. “And that reason is…?”

Looking at the expectant faces around her, Buffy gave a nervous shrug. “Isn’t knowing there’s a reason enough?” she asked, hopefully.

“Note me ignoring you,” Giles said, his words dripping with derision. He fell silent and gave his mind over to the issue of the cellar and its apparent easy entry. Everyone else looked at each other and waited. Finally, just when they were ready to prod him just to make sure he hadn’t fallen asleep or something, he said, “I agree with Buffy.”

“Go me!” Buffy exclaimed, grinning. She quickly sobered when he gave her one of his patented Giles glares.

“As I was saying,” he said pointedly. “Miranda would have no reason to lay a trap. There may be no cloak over the cellar for reasons similar to those that keep her from entering the area where her son’s remains lie.” Looking at Buffy, he gentled his voice. “There may be something in that cellar that she refuses to acknowledge.”

His suggestion puzzled Buffy and her brow furrowed. What else could Miranda deny about her past? She was about to ask him when Spike uttered a sizzling oath under his breath. Her attention swung to the vampire.

Spike ran a hand through his hair, his agitation peaking. Hiding out in the area where Nathan had been buried was bad enough. He’d seen the marked toll it had taken on Buffy but it had been necessary to keep everyone out of Miranda’s clutches. That the ‘keep away’ hadn’t ended well wasn’t the point. He would sooner turn himself over to Miranda for another fun romp through the woods than make Buffy enter the room where Nathan was killed.

Spike’s mutinous expression is what finally tipped Buffy off. Her eyes grew wide and her lips parted. “Oh,” was the only response she could manage while she tried to calm her thundering heart.

“Listen, Watcher,” Spike said. His normally laconic drawl was laced with an uncharacteristic fervor. “You’re the one said we should entertain other options.” He was getting worked up, jabbing the air with a finger as he pointed almost accusingly at Giles. “I’ve got as much a say in this botched bru-ha as the next and I say that’s what we do. So, get on with it then. Entertain us.”

Fervor was quickly progressing to the edge of hysteria. The sight of Spike losing it was so astounding, so bizarre, that Buffy, Willow, and Giles could only gape in astonishment.

When Spike didn’t get the response he wanted, whatever that might have been, his tirade intensified. His voice rose and his words shot out with rapid-fire acidic cadence. “I’ll tell you this, then. And pay attention, as I won’t be repeatin’ myself. If I had a guarantee that goin’ in there would do a yank and bank on the chip in my skull, I’d sooner burrow into my brain with a corkscrew than get my digits and danglies anywhere near that soddin’ death hole. I’m not goin’!”

Any personal trepidation Buffy may have been feeling about descending into the cellar was ignored in favor of easing the crushing weight of Spike’s tumult. He was obviously more affected by what had happened to them then she’d thought, and it pained her that she hadn’t realized it sooner. She had to try to make up for her self-absorption – again. That was the only thing that mattered at the moment.

She wrapped her arms around his waist and hugged him gently, mindful of the fact that he was still battered and bruised. “It’s okay, Spike,” she assured softly. He was trebling slightly under her soothing hands. When she looked up into his face she saw his eyes squeezed tightly shut and his jaw working. Tension radiated through him. “Listen,” she started, trying to inflect a calm and positive tone in her voice, “if you don’t want to go in there, we won’t. We’ll find another way, do something else.”

Giles, never one for leaving his glasses alone when emotions ran high, reached up and yanked them off his face, studiously cleansing their lenses in an effort to conceal how bothered he was by Spike’s vituperation. He had been completely unprepared and caught unawares. Still, given what Willow had told them…

Cautiously, he suggested, “I-I know it will be difficult. For both of you. I don’t mean to lessen – ”

All business, Buffy speared him with a look, slicing off his words before he could finish. “We do something else.” Intensity gave way to pleading and her eyes implored him. “Please, Giles.”

There was nothing in him that could withstand the entreaty in those eyes. Giles sighed and swiped his face with his hand before slipping his glasses back on and pushing them into place. “I won’t lie to you, Buffy, the cellar may provide us our first opportunity to make an offensive maneuver against Miranda.” His voice was weary, the strain of the morning growing more and more evident. “However, we may be able to better prepare ourselves. In our haste, we left the research books in the area where Nathan’s remains lie. There may be something…”

His words trailed off and he dropped his gaze to the ground. He wouldn’t provide false hope. There may be something in the books that would allow for a dual attack, one from within and one from without. If there was, and if Spike remained adamant about not entering the cellar, he could serve as protection – as best he could in his weakened condition – for either he or Willow while Buffy accompanied the other into the cellar for protection on that front. Unfortunately, even that slim possibility was moot unless they retrieved those two suitcases.

“We need to get those books,” he concluded, resigned.

“No,” was Buffy’s clipped response. “There’re too many risks. A casual group stroll is a really bad idea. Miranda could call something worse than cougars next time. What then?”

“I’ll go.”

Buffy looked up at Spike, shocked that those words had come from him. “Boy, we just breezed right past bad ideas straight to the perverse,” she said cuttingly.

“Listen, Slayer, I’m faster than the Princess and the Pea over there.” Spike jerked a thumb at the surprised, and at least half offended, Willow and Giles. “You can get with the noble defenderin’ of the meek and doddery while I go do the dash and grab. Be back before your knickers get a chance to twist.”

Aghast, utterly at a loss, Buffy couldn’t believe what she was hearing. When the words really sunk in and she realized she hadn’t just imagined Spike’s obscene lack of sense, she pulled away from him. Because it seemed like a good idea given the detour to the absurd they’d taken, she exploded.

“Have you completely lost your mind? What, did Miranda bash your head into one tree too many? Because if not, I’m might just do it myself. May knock some sense into that decomposing lump you call a brain.”

Affront ignited Spike’s temper. “Bloody hell, woman. Sod off with the Mistress of the High and Mighty routine.”

She saw red. Funny, she’d always assumed that was a metaphor. It wasn’t. Through a blazing, hazy screen she narrowed her eyes and advanced on him, poking him in the chest. “Shut up, Spike,” she hissed venomously. “Miranda almost killed you, you arrogant oaf. Again! If it hadn’t been for Willow, I’d be sweeping you into a baggie for the trip home. Right now, I’m wondering why that would be a bad thing. You’re weak, you’re running on maybe a half tank of blood at best, and you are in no shape to go prancing through the woods like some kind of demented wood sprite.”

Spike’s hackles bristled. He stood toe to toe and chest to…well…chin with the spitting hellcat that Buffy had become. Giles and Willow, transfixed, watched the show. Their heads bobbed back and forth between the quarreling pair like they were perched on the net line at Wimbledon.

“Oh, I’m an oaf now, am I?!” the vampire roared. “That’s rich comin’ from the blond bimbette who thinks matchin’ her nail polish to her fashion accessories is second only to savin’ the world when it comes to important life choices! Listen, girlie, the Watcher says he needs those books and I’m damn well gonna get them for him.”

Buffy crossed her arms over her chest, spread her legs, and snarled, “Over my dead again body. Here’s how this is going to happen. You are going to stay here. I’m going to get the books. Face it, Spike, I’m faster and stronger than you are even on your best day, and in case you’ve forgotten, this has not been your best day.”

“Faster and stronger, eh?” he sneered. “Look who thinks she’s grown a pair. We’ll just have to see ‘bout that.” He growled low in his throat and dropped back into a fight stance.

Willow, growing more and more uncomfortable over the ugly scene, moved to intervene. Giles reached out and placed a restraining hand on her arm before she got more than a step. She looked up at him in surprise, but the Watcher didn’t meet her gaze. He just shook his head and remained curiously silent.

Spike threw the first and only punch. Buffy ducked under it without bothering to uncross her arms. With a cold, calculating curving of her lips, she smirked victoriously at him. Slowly, almost sensuously, she unwound her arms, took a step forward, and gave Spike a none-too-gentle shove.

Only using half of what she was truly capable of, might-wise, the push would have been a joke if Spike had been at full strength. He would have laughed it off, taunted her for more, and taken the next step in their dueling dance. But Spike wasn’t at full strength. Not even close to it.

Instead of laughing, he staggered, struggled to keep his balance, winced as muscles protested the motion, and fell hard on his backside.

Buffy stood over him, hands resting tauntingly on her hips. “I’m pretty sure this is the part where I go, ‘Enough said’.”

She dismissed him with a jaunty toss of her hair and stepped over his fallen body without another word. Walking over to Giles and Willow, she worked to regain her cool. Neither of her friends commented on the glint of thrilled triumph twinkling in Buffy’s eyes, mostly because of the larger portion of temper there as well.

“Can you protect him?” She lowered her voice, directing the question at Willow, but it wasn’t low enough to avoid being overheard by vampire ears.

Willow had a sneaking suspicion that was the point. She offered Spike a guilty glance before answering. “I-I think so.”

Buffy reached out and grabbed Willow’s arm. Temper gave way to sincerity and she whispered low enough not to be overheard, even by Spike. “I need you to do more than think so, Will.”

“O-Of course. I will, Buffy. Miranda won’t get to him. I promise.” Willow got a grateful smile and an arm squeeze before being released.

“Giles, can you watch him? Make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid?” Buffy’s voice was back up where Spike could hear her.

Hear her he did, too. He was picking himself up off the ground when that last crack rolled over him. He rolled his eyes and snarled. “Bitch.”

Buffy, oddly enough, smiled. Looking at Giles, she grinned widely and didn’t even blink at the not quite complimentary label. It knocked the Watcher a little off kilter, actually, but not as much as the good natured, “Demon,” she called out to Spike in response.

“Shrew.”

“Beast.” Without missing a beat, she tilted her head and asked Giles again, “Can you watch him?”

“Y-Yes, c-certainly,” Giles stuttered.

“I’ll be right back. Round trip, fifteen minutes, tops.” Buffy paused before heading off. She glanced once at the vampire she loved, then back to her friends. “I’m counting on both of you to protect him.” Grinning tenderly, she whispered, “Even from himself.”

It was said so softly that they had a hard time hearing her. There was no way Spike had.

Buffy spun on her heel and stalked past Spike before she stopped, backed up, and grabbed him by the lapels of his duster. She pulled him to her forcibly and slammed her mouth down on his. Quickly, almost savagely, she assaulted the cool lips and tongue, then nipped his bottom lip before releasing him abruptly. Staring deep into his surprise-widened blue eyes, she promised, “I’ll be right back.”

Refusing to be outdone, he reached out and imprisoned her arms in a grip just shy of bruising. Lowering his head slowly, teasingly, tauntingly, he captured her mouth. Where she had assaulted, he persuaded, where she had bowed him with her strength, he undid her with his tenderness. Savagery was answered with surrender, and the world trembled for both of them.

Drawing back slowly, sipping softly from her lips before withdrawing completely, his voice was a husky rumble of desire. “See that you are.”

He moved his hands up to her shoulders, caressing as he went, and spun her around to face the woods. Swatting her on her rear end after releasing her, he watched her take off at a run, quickly disappearing into the trees.

Buffy didn’t look back. Spike smirked. She wouldn’t.

After the last sounds of Buffy’s flight had faded on the breeze, Spike spun around. His duster flared out behind him as he sauntered towards Willow and Giles. They were still a little shell-shocked by the intense yet apparently quickly forgiven confrontation, and more than a little disturbed by the salacious tongue hockey they’d witnessed, so when he strode past them without stopping as if he wasn’t the least bit dented, they didn’t know what to think.

“C’mon, people. Let’s move.”

Spike’s command was hearty and filled with purpose. With eyebrows buried in their hairlines, Willow and Giles exchanged a look of utter surprise. As Spike didn’t pause, they were left with little choice but to trail after him.

“Wait, what?” Willow asked, suddenly very apprehensive. “No moving! This was definitely a non-moving plan.” Despite her words, she followed the retreating back of the vampire. As he didn’t deign to acknowledge her, there wasn’t much else she, or Giles for that matter, could do.

“Willow is right, Spike.” Giles called to the blonde head in front of him. “We should remain where we are until Buffy’s return. Y-You should be conserving your strength.” He was wasting his breath. Spike ignored him.

Willow tried again, louder. “O-Okay, so obviously there’s a new plan. I-I get that, Spike, but where are we going?”

The vampire stopped in his tracks. Willow and Giles watched as his shoulders rose and fell in a deep and long-suffering sigh that clearly illustrated his irritation. Slowly, he turned to them. “We’re goin’ into that bleedin’ cellar.” He spoke slowly, as if to small children for whom multi-syllabic words were a problem. “And as I’d like to get there before the sun rises on another fun-filled day at casa de la haunt, it would be greatly appreciated if you’d both sod the yammerin’ and try to keep up.”

He wasn’t nice, but then Spike had never been one to adhere to the social pleasantries of society, so neither Giles nor Willow was bothered by his caustic rudeness. They hardly noticed it. Besides, both of them were still hung up on the intended destination.

“Um…I’m confused,” Willow said. She didn’t want to tick Spike off by interrupting again, but she didn’t understand. “I thought you said you didn’t want to go in th – ”

Giles swore under his breath, cutting her off and, quite frankly, surprising her with his vehemence. “You ripe bastard, you manipulated her, didn’t you?” he asked Spike accusingly. “That petulant little rant of yours was for her benefit! You allowed Buffy to think you didn’t want to go down into the cellar, played on her emotions, and tricked her into taking off by herself.” Spike didn’t answer, didn’t nod, didn’t even blink. He gave no indication he’d even heard Giles’ accusation. “God, Spike, what were you thinking? She’s alone out there because of you.”

Outraged by the lack of response, the absence of regret, apology, any apparent caring at all, Giles grabbed the vampire and shook him. “So help me, Spike if anything happens to her…” He let his deadly glare and the vigorous shaking finish the thought for him.

Fed up with the fiend, Giles released him suddenly, disgusted by the thought of continued contact.

Spike backpedaled for balance but recovered quickly. He blinked bland eyes once, twice, then spoke softly, almost respectfully, definitely tiredly. “So you’d rather have her out there with the rest of us taggin’ along, splittin’ her concentration, spreadin’ herself too thin to make sure the lot of us don’t end up dead? You know, like the last time…because that was a banner plan. That’s what you’d prefer?”

Well, then. That was certainly another way of looking at it. One that Giles hadn’t considered, actually. “Ah…n-no, of course not, but – ”

“I see,” he continued, rolling right over Giles’ words. “So you’d rather have her go into that cellar where Nathan was killed, even knowin’ how it tore her up to stand on the soil where the pip was buried. Have her take on the room where Miranda drained him – and her though him – dry. Where she was cold. Blind. Tied down like a rabid dog. Where she listened to a little boy’s whimpers of fear, his beggin’ for mercy, his screams of pain. Where she was helpless to save him…or herself. You’d rather that, then?”

The emotions Giles had been searching for in Spike came home to him with a vengeance. It was he who felt guilt, regret, apology. He who was humbled. He who had been in the wrong. His throat was parched, tongue coated with gritty shame, but he owned his error in judgment. “No, Spike. I wouldn’t rather have that at all.”

Spike stared at him for a long moment, expressionless. Then, instead of claiming victory or rubbing Giles’ mistaken assumptions in his face, he just nodded his head once. In that nod were understanding, acceptance, and maybe even a little forgiveness.

If Giles lived to the ripest of old ages, he would never forget that instant. That exact moment when he looked upon Spike and for the first time saw not a vampire, but a man.

It was a revelation.

When he’d recovered a little from the unique experience, Giles said, “She won’t thank you for protecting her.” The statement was wry with the knowledge of just what, exactly, Buffy’s reaction would be.

Spike chuckled dryly, humorously, and shook his head. “Yeah, well, that’ll give me somethin’ to worry about if we live through this bloody vacation.” Raising one shoulder in a shrug, he dismissed the thought.

“He’s not really protecting her, Giles,” said Willow. She hadn’t been unaffected by the scene between Watcher and vampire. Quite the contrary. There was a totally new urge to defend Spike welling up inside her. “Going back into the woods alone isn’t exactly low on the personal risk meter. Spike just kinda nudged her into the less catatonia inducing of the two evils. That’s not really protection. That’s…you know…nudging.”

Giles shot her a look filled with sardonic derision. “What it is, Willow, is manipulation.” Locking eyes with Spike, he relented. “A means I’m quite familiar with when dealing with a proud and occasionally stubborn Slayer. When the end is justified, of course.”

Two men shared a moment of amused understanding.

Willow, feeling significantly better than she did just a short while ago, asked, “So what’s the grand cellar plan, anyway?”

Spike’s clear blue eyes focused on her. “Simple, Will,” he explained. “We check the place out. You work your mojo. Give Miranda a last call to the free-for-all energy she’s drawin’ on. Cut her off. Should rob her of enough power to keep her from mashin’ all our bones to dust in a fit of pique. Might bring down that barrier round the outside, too.”

A loud and heavy silence filled the air. If Spike had reached into the pocket of his duster, pulled out a pink tutu, wrapped it around his waist, and started pirouetting around the yard singing, “I feel pretty,” at the top of his lungs, Giles and Willow couldn’t have been more horrified.

Giles, looking a little green around the gills and a bit peaked, finally tried to say something, but his voice cracked. He had to clear his throat before he could try again. “A-Assuming that Willow and I were both profoundly stupid and decided to go along with that deranged scheme which would, undoubtedly, leave us all quite dead, what where you thinking we would do next? Perhaps find a tall building to leap from without aid of ropes or a parachute?”

The sarcasm rolled off Spike’s back with a shrug. “Figure we’ll take it from there. Never was one for master plans and plot driven storylines.”

“That,” Giles said, struggling to get the words past his appalled disbelief, “is blatantly obvious.”

Willow frowned. She didn’t want to make Spike feel bad, but his plan was really, really…well, it sucked. That didn’t mean she wanted to rub his nose in it. She was still feeling kind of soft and squishy towards him for what he did for Buffy. Not enough to sign on to his harebrained scheme, but still. “Spike, I-I don’t even know how to separate Miranda from her incoming power without risking the drainees. A-And we don’t even know if those strands I see are where the power is coming from. It just wouldn’t be a good – ”

“They are.”

There was such simple sincerity and assurance in his voice that it made her pause. “You’re sure?”

She had no idea why she asked the question. Even if he were correct, to go in and attempt what he was suggesting would be tantamount to suicide. Still, when Spike’s head dropped and he rubbed the back of his neck with a weary hand, Willow held her breath and waited.

“Drusilla had the sight.” Spike’s voice was far away, his mind in a memory. “Had it since birth, she did. ‘Course, back then it was called a curse by all the God-fearin’ zealots in her village. Rotters thought she was the devil’s whore. She wasn’t. She was pure…until the devil rode into their village wearing the face of an angel. He remade her and she arose a black queen. Still the sight remained, stronger than before. The zealots fell to her hunger, their fear of God replaced by fear of someone much worse.”

Spike used to love listening to Dru as she recounted that story over and over to her collection of dolls. She’d always tell the tale in third party verse, like the events happened to someone else, someone she knew and liked quite a lot.

Pausing and shaking off the reverie, he roused from the soft bed of fond memories. He wasn’t that Spike anymore, didn’t care to be, and he was a little irritated with himself that his story had sounded like he missed the good old days. When held up against the unlife he was living with Buffy, the past was nothing but an icy winter, only a shade compared to the warmth of spring. Enjoyed at the time, but gone.

His mind snapped back to the present and his voice returned to its normal clipped cadence. “We were in Bucharest in the forties, Dru and I, when we met up with a Ghafrok demon. Havin’ a good time durin’ the war, that one was. They’re energy drainers. Dru could see it – strands of swayin’ candy, she called them, sweet like peppermints, or some such rot. ‘Course, she was completely off her bird. Most of the time I ignored her when she went trippin’ on her bleedin’ mind benders. Anyway, what I did hear matches what you say you’re seein’, Will. Minus the loonies, of course. We already figured she was drainin’ the lot at the innkeeper’s place. Makes sense she’d be sippin’ from the home flask as well.”

“But whose…?” Giles asked, interested despite himself. “You think her victims are still there in some form, continuing to fuel her?”

“Why not?” Spike shrugged. “The dead seem to be more active ‘round these parts than the livin’.”

“Ghosts?” Willow squeaked. “You mean there’re ghosts down there?”

“Not necessarily,” Giles assured her. “There could be disembodied spirits, apparitions…any number of various phenomenon.”

“Oh, good.” Willow nodded facetiously. “‘Cause that’s so much better.”

Giles smiled sympathetically. “The point is, Willow, these particular strands of energy are from entities that are already dead, so severing their connection to Miranda won’t hurt them. It may, in fact, release them. Free them from their prison. Lessening Miranda’s power in the process.”

“I guess that means we’re basement bound.” Resigned – not thrilled, but resigned – she managed a weak smile. The Watcher laid a warm, supportive hand on the redhead’s shoulder, applying pressure and moving her along with him.

Spike reached the cellar doors first. After glancing back to make sure Giles and Willow were still behind him, he reached down and grabbed the handles, pulling the doors open with one heave. He might have been better served if he’d checked to see if they were locked before really putting his back into it, as they slipped out of his hands and slammed into the side of the house with a resounding crash.

Giles and Willow jumped.

A slightly sheepish Spike looked over his shoulder. “Sorry. You two may want to calm down, though. Those hearts of yours are makin’ enough racket to wake the dead.” Giles tightened his lips and arched an eyebrow; Willow crossed her arms over her chest and glared. Spike smirked at them. “Right then, let’s go.”

Ten steps later, Spike stood on the cool concrete floor of a cavernous cellar, a frown on his face. Looking around in consternation, he wasn’t seeing what he’d braced himself to see. In fact, what he was seeing was the B & B equivalent of the quintessential American basement. An oversized washer and dryer were off to the left, a line of floor to ceiling shelves packed and stacked with various sundry household miscellanies on the right. Boxes filled to overflowing with who knows what were piled in various stages of disarray along the floor. A clutch of Christmas decorations marked gaily with marker-drawn holly leaves and a cheery ‘Ho ho ho’ climbed towards the low-hanging ceiling in a neat column in the far corner. In short, there appeared to be nothing nefarious or macabre or even slightly out of the ordinary.

It wasn’t the room in which Nathan was killed.

“Balls,” he muttered. He was a little disgusted that he’d gone to all the trouble of keeping Buffy from being emotionally scarred for life, only to find out there was nothing down there to scar her. Unless she had some deep seeded aversion to the errant unstrung tennis racket or a couple of broken chairs. Somehow, he didn’t think so.

“Spike,” Giles asked when he heard the vampire’s quiet oath, “what is it? What do you see?” There was nervous tension in his voice.

Spike turned as Giles descended the final step into the cellar. “Look for yourself, Rupert,” he said, spreading his arms to encompass the room around him. Frustration was making him more short tempered than usual. “Bleedin’ box is just as mind numbin’ly normal as the rest of this soddin’ house, disregardin’ the dead bint with the attitude problem.”

“Yes, well, I’d love to look for myself, Spike,” Giles proclaimed aridly, “but as there’s no light down here, I’m having a rather rough go of it.”

Oh, right. No vampire vision. He’d forgotten. Rolling his eyes and smirking a little in superiority, Spike scanned the area for a light switch. Once found and flipped, two long rows of fluorescent lighting spanning the length of the ceiling flickered to life, bathing the room in cool white brilliance and chasing away the shadows.

“Bugger,” Spike exclaimed as he blinked against the brightness, waiting for his eyes to adjust.

Huffing impatiently, Giles asked, “What’s wrong now?”

“Bloody fluorescent lightin’ is what,” Spike complained. “Hate it. Makes a bloke look dead.”

Giles grew still and opened his mouth to comment, then snapped it shut again. Sometimes, it was just wiser to ignore Spike. Not that ignoring him ever made him go away. Unfortunately.

Spike, oblivious to Giles’ exasperation, glanced around the basement once again. “This inn’t right, Giles. It’s not where Miran – ” He broke off suddenly and spun around, his face flashing concern. “Where’s Willow?” he asked.

Giles thought she’d been right next to him. He hadn’t heard her slip away, but didn’t see her in the immediate vicinity. Panic clawed him in the gut. “Willow!” he called.

The cellar was ominously silent.

The two men shared a look and without another word, split up and started casing the large basement, Giles on one side, Spike on the other.

In a dark corner where light dared not penetrate, the slip of a woman stood with her hands pressed against a narrow door almost imperceptible in the gloom. Tears streamed unchecked from wide, sightless eyes, cascading in a sorrowful waterfall down her cheeks. Her lips were parted in a scream silent to the ear but deafening to the soul. Bone-jarring shudders wracked her slight frame, chattering her teeth.

That was Willow’s condition when Spike found her. He was taken aback by the sight and immediately alerted Giles even as he wrenched her away from her horrific vigil. Spinning her in his arms, he searched her abnormally dilated pupils, his fine tuned ear listened to the shallow sips of oxygen sliding in and out of her body and a pulse that was thready and erratic.

By the time Giles got to where Spike had gently lowered Willow to the ground, the vampire was already shaking the young woman and calling her name over and over.

“Dear Lord,” breathed Giles. “What happened?”

“Don’t know,” Spike answered, speaking quickly. “Found her in the corner, huggin’ the wall. She’s checked out, Giles. There’s nothin’ there.” He slid out of the way for the Watcher.

After kneeling next to the traumatized girl, Giles stunned Spike by hauling off and slapping her across the face, yelling, “Willow! Block it out!! Ground yourself, Willow! Willow!!”

He slapped her again, with only a little less force than before, but this time Willow blinked at the sharp contact. Giles continued his loud litany, shaking her as he shouted. Slowly, Willow’s eyes began to focus as she finally started to respond.

After what seemed like hours, she choked out a sob and buried her face in her hands, curling into a tight ball. Giles, exhausted, sank down next to her and rubbed her back soothingly, allowing her to regain a measure of composure. Soothing murmurs of support replaced shouts and commands.

“I-I’m sorry,” she hiccupped when she could find her voice. “I w-wasn’t ready. I s-saw the strands of energy and I r-ran my hand through them to see what w-would happen.” Moving stiffly, she sat up and pulled her knees to her chest, pushing tendrils of hair damp from her tears out of her face. She took a deep, steadying breath. “I saw…” Her throat tightened and her eyes welled up again, large iridescent drops of pain escaped their lashed corral and overflowed. “I saw…”

“It’s all right, Willow,” Giles assured. “Take your time. What did you see?”

Two huge orbs, aged beyond their years, pinned him. Before she opened her mouth, he knew he would regret the question.

“Death, Giles. I saw death.”

Sometimes being right was more of a burden than he could bear.

A shrieking crack exploded through the room, jerking a shocked squeal from Willow and causing Giles to clutch his chest to make sure his heart hadn’t burst. Searching wildly for the source of the sound, fear was replaced by a flash flood of temper.

“Spike!” Willow admonished, still trembling.

“Bloody hell, man!” Giles glared hostilely at the vampire and got to his feet. “What do you think you’re doing?!”

Spike reached into the pocket of his duster and pulled out a cigarette, lighting it and taking a drag. He leaned against the wall next to the door that Willow had been touching, but the door wasn’t in one piece anymore. One thick board with the doorknob in place still stood in the doorway, but the rest of the decimated wood creaked and groaned as it swung out slowly on rusted hinges.

“Door was locked,” he replied nonchalantly, as if that justified and explained everything.

“The door was…” Giles shook his head in disbelief, not sure why he was surprised. He should be used to Spike’s antics by now. Dismissing the vampire with a frustrated wave of his hand, he helped Willow to her feet, gently questioning her. “Are you certain you can go in there?”

“No,” she answered frankly. “But I have to, Giles.” In an effort to alleviate his concerns, as well as her own toothy monster-sized fears, she added lightly, “I’ll just stay away from the rainbow of energy next time. There’s definitely no pot of gold at the end of it.”

“Quite,” he agreed. Wrapping his arm around her shoulder, they walked over to the door together.

Pausing at the entry, Giles, Willow, and Spike shared cautiously expectant glances, bracing themselves. In the end, it was Spike who took the initiative, rolling off the wall and slipping into the dark hole that had seen the worst of human nature. With one last supportive squeeze, Giles released Willow and followed the vampire, dropping his head under the low frame. On a deep breath, Willow shuffled in after him.

The smell of decay and earth assailed and assaulted. Trying to gain any sense of bearing was impossible for Giles; he couldn’t see a thing. Even Spike, with his excellent night vision, could only make out shadows and…well…darker shadows.

Spike’s voice was oddly somber when he called out to Willow. “Hey, Will, can you spark us?”

Spark them? What she wanted to do was get everyone out and ignite an inferno, cleansing the claustrophobic room, caving it in, obliterating the scar from the earth forever. It’s not what she could see, she was as blind in the dark as Spike and Giles. No, it was what she was Seeing that was the problem. Faces. Women and children. Dozens and dozens of them. Uncountable, twisted, tormented faces. Hell was in that room. It terrified her. It enraged her. It was not to be borne.

Centered, grounded, she called, “Earth, Air, Water, Fire, help me, guide me, never tire. Dark surrounding shall be lighted; wrongs committed shall be righted. A circle I cast, protecting the meek, a circle I draw, defending the weak. No evil will pass; no harm shall come. Shelter and succor at my will be done. Sisters four, my power from thee, as I will so mote it be!”

The air crackled with electricity. Spike and Giles exchanged a wary glance when Willow slapped her hands together then cast out her arms. A wall of energy burst forth as if from Willow’s core, widening in a circle, passing over and through both men with a warm, tingling caress, then continuing on until most of the room was enclosed.

A peaceful calm whispered in the sheltering circle, stirred by a fragrant breeze. It was as if what was inside was separated and lifted above a black cloud of noxious evil being held back by Willow’s spell. Impressed, Giles and Spike looked around, as all inside the circle was bathed in a warm ambient glow.

“Gotta give her this much,” Spike drawled idly. “Girl knows how to light up a room.”

“Silence, William.”

Spike’s mouth slammed closed in shock. Giles’ mouth dropped open. Both stared, wide-eyed, at what had been Willow. Glowing with purity, the form turned its attention to the Watcher. He was caught and held in the seemingly endless expanse of twinkling lights in her – their? – eyes.

A blend of five voices spoke as before. “We have come to relieve the suffering of their burden.” Giles was sure that one thread of the blend was Willow’s, the rest…he couldn’t even begin to fathom. He found himself nodding as if he understood – which couldn’t be further from the truth – as the voices continued. “We will release them.” Eyes shifted to the captivated Spike. “You are familiar with this room, are you not, William?”

“Y-yes.” An economy of a response, though stuttered, seemed like the best idea.

“Terrible tragedies took place here, as you well know. We will set those to right, as beseeched by our daughter. The responsible party is not within our purview. Those named Buffy, Rupert, William, Willow, will they continue in their endeavor?”

Giles stepped forward hastily as the entity’s gaze shifted back to him. “Y-yes, Sisters. W-we will continue to the end and beyond. T-that is our p-purpose in the world.”

A beatific smile beamed brilliantly on the entity’s face. “This pleases us, Rupert. We will be watching. Our daughter is young yet, but she has great strength. Your wisdom will compliment that strength. We are satisfied by your influence.”

Struck with an urge to bow, Giles was humbled by their words.

The glow emanating from the figure intensified, and their head fell back. That was all Giles and Spike could make out before they had to shield their eyes. With a final flare, the light banked, returning to the ambient glow of before. The voices spoke again. “It is done.”

Addressing Giles one last time, they said, “Our daughter will be weak upon our departure, Rupert.”

Without giving him time to figure out what they meant by that, the Sisters retreated, giving Willow back her body. She blinked her green eyes once, a positively serene look on her face, and said in an awed whisper, “They’re free. All of them. And the barrier is down.” That was all she could manage before those green eyes fluttered and rolled back in her head. As it turned out, it was Spike who caught her before she fell.

Vampires tended to be fleeter of foot than ex-librarians, but given what Spike had just experienced, he just didn’t have it in him to call Giles on the jest. He didn’t say a word as he lifted the boneless Willow into his arms, cradling her head against his chest with his chin to keep it from flopping around gracelessly.

In the calm silence, Giles and Spike just looked at each other. And waited.

Neither one wanted to discuss what happened, so eventually they turned away from each other and cased the tiny room. Until Willow woke, they didn’t want to risk stepping out of her circle, but it wouldn’t be long before Buffy was back. The unspoken agreement was to allow Willow to sleep until then.

Giles moved to the edge of the circle and studied the remains of a small bed in the corner covered with a thick film of grime and partially reclaimed by the nature sprouting from dirt walls. Desiccated leather bands were at the four corners. Age had not erased the visible, bloody, clawed furrows in the wall, in the wooden posts above and below the leather, on the leather itself, where human victims had struggled in vain for their lives. He swallowed forcibly, revulsion turning his stomach.

“It was an ice closet,” he mumbled absently, speaking more to himself than to Spike.

The words drew Spike’s attention from what he was studying and he looked over his shoulder. When he saw the bed and the ancient signs of struggle, he cursed low under his breath. Resigned, he spoke, “You might want to take a look over here, Giles.”

Relieved to turn his back on the bed, Giles crossed to where Spike was standing, staring at a small square table filled with bottles of varying size. And it wasn’t just the table that was covered, either. Bottles with contents hidden behind dusky-hued glass and roughly carved cork stoppers lined the floor, set neatly and precisely in rows against the length of one wall. There were so many, Giles couldn’t even count them all.

Confused, Giles frowned. “I don’t understand.”

“I do,” Spike admitted reluctantly. “Dyin’ didn’t stop the killin’. The bottles are full – most of ‘em anyway.” He turned his head and met Giles’ eyes. “With blood.”

The horrific light of understanding dawned. Hoarsely, Giles said, “All these years…so many bottles…she’s still collecting – ”

His words broke off as a tremor shook the ground under their feet. Dirt and grime rained down on them from above and Giles leaned towards Spike, covering Willow’s head and chest with his own.

“Take her,” Spike commanded, sliding his arms out from under the still-sleeping girl as soon as Giles had her. He shucked his duster and draped it over Willow gently as a second tremor, stronger this time, rocked them both, almost knocking them off their feet.

As one, Giles and Spike looked up at the crumbling ceiling, squinting against falling debris. Spike spoke the words that neither wanted to admit. “Miranda’s awake.”

Motioning at Willow with his head, Giles said, “Down! Help me lie her down!” There was no longer any time to allow her to wake naturally.

On their knees on either side of her, they both called her name, shaking her gently, tapping her lightly on opposite cheeks. Again and again the earth shook with increasing magnitude and as each quake hit, they protected Willow with their bodies. She wasn’t responding – yet – and their situation was rapidly worsening.

“How unfortunate,” an airy voice spoke from the door.

Giles and Spike jolted in surprise and leapt up, standing side-by-side, keeping Willow behind them. Miranda was in the doorway. She wasn’t fully manifested, so they could see through her, but the vicious insanity burned feverishly in her eyes.

“It appears your friend isn’t feeling well. I’m so sorry.” The haunt’s words dripped saccharine insincerity.

“I’ll just bet you are, bitch,” Spike growled. His game face surged forward, capturing Miranda’s attention. Giles would later wonder if that was what Spike had intended, as it allowed him time to turn and pick Willow up and move her to the center of the circle she cast.

“You have proven difficult to dispatch, fiend,” Miranda hissed, dropping all pretense of polite conversation when she saw the ridges and fangs. “But difficult does not equal impossible. Perhaps it is time to see if you have any concept of sacrificing for those whom you proclaim to love.”

Hatred and naked contempt vibrated hotly in her voice, but when she brought her hand out from behind the wall, Spike stopped listening. He was too busy being overwhelmed by the heart-shredding roar of ultimate rage and terror that wrenched itself from his gut and tore from his throat. Dangling in the air, struggling in vain, battered and bloody, choking for breath, held by the neck in Miranda’s deceptively dainty hand, was Buffy.