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Waking the Dead
By Annie Sewell-Jennings

Sequel to The Waiting Season

SUMMARY: As old friends return to Sunnydale and life begins to move on, a new adversary comes to town and shows Buffy more about herself than she ever wanted to know. B/S

RATING: NC-17

SPOILERS: Through "Grave"

DISCLAIMER: The characters within this story are the property of Mutant Enemy Productions, except for the ones that you don't recognize, because I made them up all by my lonesome. Aren't I cool? No? Shut up. You don't know me. Bitch. Music will be disclaimed as it is used, and it will be used occasionally. Like in this chapter. Really, it will.

AUTHOR'S NOTES: I have had this idea brewing in my head for what seems like an eternity, and only now is it finally coming together on paper. Or screen. Whatever. Anyway, the necromancy information is a combination of genuine research and Lovecraft's mythology, as well as some embellishments from yours truly. It may help if you read my The Waiting Season series of vignettes to help establish this story, and those are also on my site.

I'd just like to make a shout-out to my beta dawg, Devil Piglet. Big props to her mad grammar skillz. You know you a pimp.



Chapter One: If You're Going...

San Francisco, California

1968

*****

Come on, people now

Smile on your brother

Everybody get together

Try to love one another right now

The hippies were out on the corner again, just like they were every night. Girls sitting on the pavement Indian-style in their brightly colored peasant skirts and puffy blouses, weaving garlands of wildflowers and singing folk songs, boys with long hair and bellbottoms strumming guitars and passing joints. Which was stupid, if you thought about it, because the cops hated the hippies and they hated pothead hippies even more. Still, they were out there every night, passing out pamphlets about the "revolution" and handing out flowers to everyone who walked by and singing those stupid songs. Every fucking night.

Maya wouldn't miss them.

San Francisco was miserable this August. The city was gripped in the clutches of a vicious heat wave, sending stifling humidity and scorching temperatures across the Bay. Thunderheads loomed in the distance, pushing in slowly and ominously from the Pacific, and lightning crackled and sizzled over the dreary gray waters. It was a wonderful time for the flower children, those wacky free spirits who held protest rallies in Golden Gate Park and stripped down to next-to-nothing, singing about free love and smoking pot.

Shoving her hands in her heavy wool jacket, Maya sighed and ducked her head as she approached the dumb hippies on the corner, trying to avoid their eyes. Lucky bastards, all sitting around half-naked and weaving garlands like that was going to do a damned thing for their "brothers" in Vietnam. And here she was, the real warrior, stuck in some heavy overcoat because of the multitude of actual weapons she concealed beneath the billowing folds of fabric. Knives, swords, a crossbow, daggers... Maya was armed to the hilt, and preparing to fight the war that nobody knew about.

"Fuck," she muttered under her breath as one blonde-haired nymphet with a dopey grin stood up, holding out a string of lilacs and daisies.

"Hey there, sister," the blonde called, her eyes half-closed from drugs and peace. "Have some flowers, man. Embrace the revolution."

"Yeah, the revolution is upon us!" some scraggly-bearded kid poorly playing a sitar added, strumming on the strings. "This is the time, man, the time for love to ring through the mountains and shit, and we're going to stop all the tanks and the choppers in 'Nam with the power of peace, and..."

"And you're going to make the White House hover off the ground," Maya said flippantly, waving her hand dryly at the silly children playing at war. "Yeah, yeah. I've heard it all before, kids."

She tried to move on, but the blonde girl stepped in front of her with her bloodshot baby blues all hurt and wounded, pouting as she presented Maya with her lavender and white garland of flora. "All you need is love," the girl said sweetly, and for a moment, Maya faltered, blinking with a dull look on her face. She was so flabbergasted and struck by the girl's innocent phrase that she allowed the blonde to loop the flowers around her neck, and then stood there with a blank look on her face as the hippie kissed her cheek. "Go on, sister. Fight the good fight."

Weakly, Maya smiled, despair registering on her face. "Yeah," she whispered. "The good fight."

How many roads must a man walk down

Before they call him a man?

And how many seas must the white dove sail

Before he sleeps in the sand?

And how many times must the cannonballs fly

Before they're forever banned?

The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind

The answer is blowing in the wind

The hippies started their happy-go-lucky peace-out again, and before they could get to the bridge where they broke out in crappy imitation harmony, Maya quickly walked away, her hands shaking in her pockets and the necklace shedding petals behind her.

Once upon a time, she'd been one of them, living in a commune and weaving silly flower necklaces, smoking dope out of a copper chukka and preaching the wisdom of vegetarianism. Just a dumb little flower child who thought that the most important thing in the world was the Vietnam War and hating Johnson, until an Englishman pulled her away from her fellow hippies and drafted her in a war that only she could fight.

Slayer...

Shuddering, Maya stopped dead in her tracks and closed her eyes, hissing in a breath as she heard the voice murmur like velvet through her mind. Seductive, sweet-smelling, better than the cheap daisies and wildflowers laced around her neck. Begging for her. Beckoning her to come closer. Images of bloodied battles, triumphant singing, primal drums beating primal rhythms...

1, 2, 3, who are we fighting for?

Don't ask me, I don't give a damn

Next stop is Vietnam

Behind her, the hippies were dancing now, the two women bra-less and fancy-free, spinning circles with their wildly patterned skirts and breasts bouncing underneath loose blouses. Happy-go-lucky girls, thinking that all they needed was love and that would protect them from the monsters of war.

Maya wished that it was that easy, and maybe she could win this. She could go home tonight and get stoned, eat some tofu and weave some pretty necklaces, and then wake up in the morning and go sing with the flower kids on the corner. Add some Jefferson Airplane to their catalogue.

Yet Maya knew that tonight, she was going to die, and love wasn't going to save her in the end.

Blinking, she turned her head and paused, staring at her reflection in the window of a little antique shop. Coffee-colored skin, inherited from her Mexican mother, and dark hair streaming in rivulets straight down her back. Her mother once told her that they were descended from the Aztecs, great warriors and spiritual leaders, queens of their tribe. Turquoise earrings bound in silver glint in the window at her, and she reached up with her hand and touched her hair. Gray in it now, like salt and pepper.

She only started graying a week ago.

Slayer... Come to me. It's time.

The condemned building stood on the corner, rich with history, for on those grounds once stood a grand hotel destroyed in the turn-of-the-century earthquake. The Queen Anne had crumbled to the ground underneath the shock of the quake, burying hundreds of guests underneath tons of debris. An apartment complex was built in its place and was infested with poverty-stricken folks who couldn't afford better, and now the building sat empty and dead, haunted by the ghosts of New Years' revelers.

Slayer...

Cobwebs were draped across the narrow, dirty stairwell like lace curtains, and there was the skittering noise of insects and rodents scampering away as Maya began to ascend the stairs. She reached underneath her thick coat and withdrew her crossbow, carefully loading it with a wooden arrow and warily watching her steps as she walked upstairs to the lair. Dust and ash were sprinkled through the air, and something roared suddenly like a jungle cat.

Startled, Maya jumped back and then sighed when she realized that it was only the storm, just the thunder, approaching swiftly towards the city. It was just like Marcus said, that she would bring down the heavens and make earth into hell, paradise and pestilence meeting at the juncture of the Bay, while the streets steamed underneath pouring rain and blistering skies. So dramatic, Marcus always was. Take a fucking pill, dude. Toke on this for a minute. It'll loosen you up.

Now, of course, Marcus was gone, and she was Alone.

No more attempts to sway him over to the peace-loving side while he preached about the evils of communism, no more all-night talks about foreign policy and demon mythology. Just her and her crossbow, her and her shadow, stalking someone she should not have to hunt. All alone, in the end, just like she said. Just like that. It was how it always went.

A howl of wind suddenly swept through the crumbling foundation of the house, and Maya ducked, covering her head with her hands and shielding her face from the shattering windows. Glass sprayed over her in a sharp shower, and she gasped for air as it was sucked from her body, strangling her, suffocating her. Can't die like this, she thought to herself, desperately clinging to the railing of the staircase as the steps rumbled and quaked beneath her body. I just can't... Not without fighting.

And then the wind died down, and all she could hear was the music from the streets:

Don't it always seem to go

That you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot

"Oh," Maya whispered. "Oh, man." For a moment, she was tempted to run, to play cat-and-mouse for a little while longer, so that she could go home and listen to Joni Mitchell records all night and pretend that she was back at the commune again, with her brothers and sisters and their meaningless hippie names, like Moonbeam and Daffodil. She'd name herself Hyacinth and become a nudist. Hyacinth, the Nudist Slayer.

She really needed some weed right now.

Slayers were made of different stuff than mere mortals, though, and if that was one thing the bitch was right about, it was that. Stronger fiber ran through her bones, and she could pull herself together in a crisis like this and move. Gritting her teeth, Maya dragged herself to her feet and began ascending up the stairs again, her crossbow in hand, shards of sparkling glass tangled up in her black-and-gray hair.

At the top of the stairs was the penthouse suite, a joke to the previous occupants, because there was no such thing as a penthouse in the projects. Maya stopped in front of the door and her hand shook a little, just a little, and she felt the sudden urge to throw up. Images of Marcus's battered body, his severed legs still missing, and how nice he'd been to her when she'd first been called, so sweet and considerate, always telling her that she'd be okay and that he'd watch over her because that was what Watchers did until they died...

Come in, Slayer. I've got tea.

"Oh, good," Maya said in a shaky voice. "I was getting thirsty." And she opened up the door and...

On the streets, the dancing hippies did not hear the sound of a girl sobbing and then her final scream. They only heard the beat of revolution, fucking revolution, man, and the noise of the war machine growling forward in Vietnam and the earth, Mother Earth being raped like some kind of whore when she was everything, man. They spun around in circles and passed out flowers to strangers who didn't really want them, and then shrieked when the thunderstorm came and the streets were pounded with rain.

When the woman was gone, the rain departed, and the body was left upstairs in the suite for whoever to find her or ignore her death. As the moon came back out, the hippies on the street started dancing again, laughing and smoking pot and throwing flowers in the gutter, and this was the song they sang:

When the truth is found to be lies

And all the joy within you dies

Don't you want somebody to love?

Don't you need somebody to love?

Wouldn't you like somebody to love?

You'd better find somebody to love

*****

Jefferson, Louisiana

August 2002

*****

They buried her in the bayou, out in the swampy lands where everything was half-soaked in water and the boughs of the Spanish moss-laden trees dipped into the murky waters. Civilization was far away in this family cemetery, drowned out by the lush scenery. In the dimming light of day, it looked reserved and shy, a little hidden and not easy to seek out, and even though her father chose a crucifix for her headstone, the plot was the essence of Tara.

Licking her lips, Willow knelt at her lover's grave and looked longingly at the headstone, reading the epitaph. Modest and humble was all that they wrote underneath her name and dates, and it was all wrong because she had different memories. Memories of Tara giving her wickedly sly smiles and whispering nasty things in her ear that were shockingly sexual, arousing her with nothing more than words, and she had this way of looking up underneath her lashes that made Willow want to get on her hands and knees and beg...

Two years and four months. That was all in measurable time, by the standards of the modern world, but it had been so much longer than that, really. So much longer. Sometimes, when they lay in bed at night and murmured about nothing in the heady spill of afterglow and sweaty limbs, they'd say the same thing at the same time and she felt like she knew Tara forever. Even before her birth, when they were waiting to be placed in the womb, they were together somehow, and this physical knowledge of each other was merely icing on the metaphysical cake that was life.

And now she was gone.

Yet she wasn't really gone, not really. Oh, yes, her body rested underneath layers of this damp Louisiana soil, encased in a box and dressed in her Sunday best, but the essence of Tara... It was everywhere around Willow, sighing with the wind, strong like the oak tree with its voluminous boughs of rustling wisteria, and wise as the waters lapping against the shore. Tara existed in the worship of memory, in the shrine that was Willow's mind, and she would carry her there for the rest of her life, no matter what.

Willow had traveled far and long to come to this place, riding busses and taking trains, sleeping on the cars at night and experiencing dreams of extreme arousal and pleasure while remembering the way that Warren's eyes pleaded as she drove the bullet through his mortal flesh. You got off on it, she'd accused, and now she knew more about her own words than anyone. It wasn't the murder itself, not the death of another, but the fact that she had power over that person, enough power to take their life and make it hers. Control, power, force... That was what she was addicted to. Not the magic.

The power.

On the road, she mostly sat in the train car and meditated. Not literally, not all the time, just... Reflected. Remembered. Regretted. All of those things, and so much more. She pored over her sins and acknowledged that she had done wrong, not by God or by the law of man, but by her own laws and her own decree. She made herself her own judge and her own executioner, for nobody could really punish anyone else, not where it counted. Lock them in a jail, sentence them to death... But it all meant nothing if the person didn't know it. Didn't accept it.

She accepted a lot of things nowadays.

She still had not spoken since leaving Sunnydale. On her journey to Louisiana, she did not find it necessary to use her voice when she had all of the magic within her still. She could imbed her thoughts into the other's mind just as easily as saying the words, because it was still too difficult to breach language, to use her voice and be heard. Besides, Willow was patiently waiting for the moment to be right, for her conversation to push past breakfast orders and train ticket purchases and towards philosophy and apology. Grappling with what she had been through was difficult enough at the moment.

Of course, she worried and wondered about what was happening at home, but her dreams often told her more than enough to suffice on. She had remarkable visions of Anya throwing white fabric from her window and laughing, of Dawn wielding a sword with startling ease and expertise, and of Buffy fingering a black leather coat and smiling secretively to herself. Sometimes, she dialed Xander's number to hear his voice or his answering machine message, though she always hung up when he started asking her name or when it was time to leave an actual message.

She would come home in due time. She just needed to say goodbye, first.

Licking her lips, Willow opened up the purple suede satchel at her side and withdrew a dozen white candles, silently thinking the incantations and blessing the wick before arranging them in a circle around Tara's grave and herself. She stuck a stick of incense into the ground and pulled out the blue sweater, the bloodstain dark and fatal on the left breast. Tara’s blood, her life blood, blossoming so deadly on the shirt.

Gently, lovingly, she laid the shirt on the ground before her and closed her eyes, placing her palms on the fine, knit threads and concentrating on the blood. The memory of the murder burned dim within her mind, but as the smell of the blessed candles filled her nostrils, she started to regress further back, pushing through time until she reached that moment. The moment where they were smiling at each other, so in love, and then the bullet shattering glass and spraying hot, startling blood over...

“Your shirt...” Tara says in surprise, blinking her eyelashes at her, and then she falls forward and into Willow’s arms. But this time, she does not rage against the dying light, because memory cannot change anything. As the blood pours from Tara’s body, Willow feels nothing but this empty, harrowing regret and sadness, and she holds her lover’s warm, dying form in her lap, pressing her palm into the wound and letting the blood cover her hand.

When Tara is dead, she bends down and kisses her lover’s forehead, passing her fingers over her face and gently closing her eyes. She carefully lays her body on the ground and then smears Tara’s blood over her own face, the markings similar to the ones she made from fawn’s blood in the tragic resurrection that should not have been.

Willow is not trying to raise the dead; she has learned her lesson on that account. Death is permanent and necessary, and she cannot take from the dead without destroying the living. It is not her place to decide who lives and who dies, and she must simply accept what fate hands her, even if she hates it. She is merely communing, merely placing her hands in the sands and saying her last farewell.

Time pulls back into the chronology of dreaming, and she finds herself back in their dormitory room, underneath the strings of funky Christmas lights winding around the ceiling. Feisty kitty playing on the floor, rolling and tumbling with a ball of string, her needling claws tearing into the threads of time. “I miss her,” Willow says with a pang in her heart, looking down at the little black-and-white ball of fur. “Whatever happened to her?”

“She ran away, remember?” Tara says in sotto voice, her back turned to Willow, naked canvas etched with ancient lettering. Strands of wispy hair are getting in the way of Willow’s paintbrush, and she resumes the lettering out of habit. “Not so long after this dream.”

“Oh, yeah,” Willow says. “I remember. She was ours, you know, and it makes me sad that we don’t have her anymore.”

Tara shrugs a graceful shoulder, eyes downcast, staring at the blankets that they lay on. “Sometimes people run away,” she murmurs, and Willow frowns.

“Did... Did you run away from me?” she asks, and Tara shakes her head swiftly, without a moment of hesitation.

“No,” she says, and her face is so calm, so tranquil, but sorrowfully dead. “I didn’t want to leave you. I had big plans for that night, you know. There was a bottle of champagne in the refrigerator, and we were going to have a picnic under the stars. Like we used to, remember?”

Willow smiles. Of course she remembers. “That’s very sweet of you,” she says, and Tara winks over her shoulder, so beautiful, just the way that they were two years ago. Everything was so much better than, before they got twisted and torn, all used up until they were just sad ghosts of who they were. “It’s hard without you.”

“I know,” Tara says, bowing her head as Willow writes on her back. “But it gets easier, Willow. Life is like that, I think. It gets easier after the hard stuff passes. You’re strong, too. So strong... You’ll make it through. But you have to go home, where you’re needed and where they miss you. They’ve been waiting for you.”

Willow knows this, knows it through her dreams of insight, seeing the note tacked magnetically to the refrigerator and the people who smile at it whenever they pass it by. They’re waiting for her to come home and be strong with them again, and she misses her friends and her town. Yet she cannot leave yet, not when she feels that there is unfinished business for them both. “Will you wait for me?” she asks, and Tara smiles.

“Of course,” she says. “I’ll always be waiting for you. You’re my Willow. That doesn’t ever change. See, that’s the thing, I guess. No matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, you’re always going to be Willow underneath it all. Cut your hair, dye it black, it doesn’t change you. I fell in love with the Willowness of Willow. Not the magic. Not the spiffy wardrobe. Just the... The Willow.”

It makes her smile, remembering who she used to be. The shy, slightly goofy girl from high school, the one that Giles adored and the confidant of Buffy and Xander. She wants to mend the broken bridges, to be forgiven for what she has done, and she wants to take who she was and combine it with what she is now. She wants to be Willow again, and not some thing drunk on power and control.

“But what about the magic?” she asks Tara, and Tara arches her wheat-colored eyebrow, mouth curved and eyes sleepy. Bedroom eyes, her Tara, and she misses her so. Misses her so.

“What about it? It’s something within you, not something that you can control. That was always the thing. You can’t control magic like that. You can’t put a leash on it and make it do tricks. Just let it go, Willow. Let it be, and you’ll do fine.” A spark enters her eyes, and she grins. “Besides, it wasn’t the magic that made me love you. You’re not nothing without it, and you’re not special with it. Remember, the Willow-ness.”

Right. The Willow-ness, that which makes her Willow. That is what is special, and that is what is good. Not the extraneous stuff, but the real deal, the persona and the spirit within. She bends down and kisses Tara soft on the mouth, and then she sadly looks at her lover’s back. “The poem is finished,” she says, and Tara smiles at her.

“I love you.”

When she came to on the grass, Willow began to sob, weeping for the woman that she’d abandoned in dreams for a waking reality that was uncertain at every step. She fell forward onto the cursed blue sweater, bunching up the fabric by her nose in the hopes of inhaling the last remnants of Tara’s hydrangea perfume, and let herself sob like that first morning. She wept for all of the grief that she would undoubtedly experience, for all of the sorrow of the others, and for all the pain that accompanied loss.

After the weeping, she quietly wiped her eyes and packed up her belongings, extinguishing the white candles and burying the spent incense in the ground. She neatly folded up the blue sweater and replaced it in her satchel, and then paused for a moment before the great stone crucifix that marked Tara’s grave. Mutely, Willow bowed her head and then pressed her fingertips to her lips, transferring a kiss to the hard stone with a gentle brush of her hand.

It was a startlingly beautiful day in the bayou, filled with a million different noises and sounds, and as Willow made her way up the beaten path, she found herself in awe of the world around her. Great winged herons swooped into the murky waters, and the wild flora of the swamp was in full bloom, exploding with color all around. The heat was sticky and invasive, but not so unpleasant, because it reminded her of the singular, joyful fact that she was alive.

The simple, sturdy pine house sat at the edge of the water on stilts, a long dock stretching out into the swamp and a worn pick-up truck parked awkwardly in the driveway. There was an old tire swing rigged up in the boughs of the sprawling oak tree in the front yard, and an image of Tara spinning around on that swing, laughing, came to her mind. It made her smile.

She was not nervous when she rapped her knuckles politely on the front door, not even when Tara’s father opened the door and glowered down at her. He narrowed his eyes with recognition and disdain, and his cold, antiseptic voice sneered at her. “Can I help you with something, young lady?” he asked, and Willow said her first words in almost five months.

“Yes,” she said in a clear, gentle voice. “I’d like to tell you about your daughter.”

She told him all of the wonderful things that Tara was. The way that she laughed. The way her nose crinkled up and her face flushed red when she was embarrassed. The smart, complex jokes that she told. The way that she was always graceful, always kind, and always loved.

She told him the things that she thought her father should know, and when it was all said and done, Tara’s father was in tears, and Willow knew it was time to go home.

*****

(end part one)

*****



SUMMARY: As old friends return to Sunnydale and life begins to move on, a new adversary comes to town and shows Buffy more about herself than she ever wanted to know. B/S

RATING: NC-17

SPOILERS: Through "Grave"

DISCLAIMER: The characters within this story are the property of Mutant Enemy Productions, except for the ones that you don't recognize, because I made them up all by my lonesome. Aren't I cool? No? Shut up. You don't know me. Bitch. Music will be disclaimed as it is used, and it will be used occasionally. Like in this chapter. Really, it will.

AUTHOR'S NOTES: I have had this idea brewing in my head for what seems like an eternity, and only now is it finally coming together on paper. Or screen. Whatever. Anyway, the necromancy information is a combination of genuine research and Lovecraft's mythology, as well as some embellishments from yours truly. It may help if you read my The Waiting Season series of vignettes to help establish this story, and those are also on my site.

I'd just like to make a shout-out to my beta dawg, Devil Piglet. Big props to her mad grammar skillz. You know you a pimp.



Chapter Two: Cruel Summer

After the others went to bed, she sat out on the roof and smoked.

Just one a night, not enough to do any real damage. She did not even inhale, not all the time, mostly just letting it burn between her fingertips and breathing in the scent. That was all that was important. Not the nicotine rush, but the fragrance, because it was better when it was fresh. It allowed her to pretend for a moment, just a little moment, that everything was right as rain and he was still around.

Buffy only smoked Spike’s brand.

Her lips pursed and closed around the filter, and she inhaled briefly, a little drag here and there, and exhaled misty, dreamy spirals of spent tobacco into the humid August night. It was so hot in the summertime, smoldering and sweltering, and the air conditioning unit was broken in the house right now, so they had to rely upon ceiling fans and margaritas to combat the outrageous temperatures until Xander could fix the A/C.

Beads of sweat sluiced down her nose, and Buffy irritably swiped at the salty moisture, wishing for him again. He knew what to do when she got so hot that she couldn’t breathe, when the fire overtook her and all of the pain and rage burned her from the inside out. All that he had to do was hold her, surround her in his lukewarm embrace, cool skin touching fevered flesh, and...

It was not the same to hold the ice to the nape of her neck herself, not the same at all, but it was all that she had. Sighing, Buffy relaxed against the side of the house, looking down at her cigarette and smiling a little. The smoking started with the half-empty pack of cigarettes forgotten in his coat pocket, but after only six days, she had to start buying them. The others would be upset if they saw, which was why she did it in secret, deciding that some things were best left unsaid and unmentioned. They would know soon enough.

A hot, humid breeze rustled by, and Buffy groaned, shifting miserably underneath the heavy heat of summer. It was that time of year where clothing was too tight and constrictive, and she preferred to wear as little as possible. Just a tank top and denim shorts tonight, exposing too much leg as she stretched and shifted restlessly. There were noises all around her, the cicadas singing and the crickets chirping, and while it was a very pretty night, she just wanted to be cool again.

Alas, she could not control the weather, and so Buffy took another drag from the cigarette and then carefully balanced the filter on the edge of a chipped saucer, looking down at the manila folder by her side. The contents were the fruits of her recent hard labor, her photographs, developed in the makeshift darkroom she’d created in the basement with Xander’s help.

Photography was her obsession now. She'd discovered a battered Nikon in the attic after Anya ordered a round of belated spring cleaning. It had belonged to her mother, and Giles suggested that she take it and use it as her own to document her experiences and add a sense of permanence and history to her life. Neither one of them mentioned it, but for a girl who had died twice by the age of twenty-one, it was not a bad idea to preserve what little life she would ever possess.

Buffy was dependent upon the camera, always carrying it around her neck by its leather strap while on patrol and often utilizing it as a weapon when necessary. She had an itchy trigger finger, snapping off several rolls of film a day, and then studiously and carefully developing her shots in the basement. But this roll was special, because her friends finally allowed her to take their pictures. They were all in black and white because while she was dying to start shooting in color, she was infatuated with the ability to process and develop her own photographs. Buffy was enamored of the dark room, spending so much time in the red lamps that she flinched against the rays of the sun.

The photographs taken were from the Fourth of July barbecue she’d spontaneously decided to hold at the house, and the first photographs were of Dawn. She struck poses in the backyard hinting at swordplay, wielding a sparkler like a scimitar, body curved into a fencing stance while her eyes flashed mischief at her imaginary opponent. As Buffy smiled at the shot, she took careful notice that her sister’s positioning was exquisite and flawless, relaxed and poised for battle.

Over the summer, Giles oversaw the girl’s training, giving her lessons in how to throw daggers blindfolded, how to fire a crossbow, and how to kill a vampire in less than three moves. Oftentimes, he remarked on how much more studious and disciplined Dawn was compared to Buffy at the age of sixteen, and she just made faces and reminded Giles who the Slayer was around here. Still, there was a glow of pride inside of her whenever she watched her sister in training, so skilled and smooth, and as a result of her success, she had grown up.

It was not surprising; Dawn was at that age where it was typical for teenagers to go to bed as girls and wake up as women. Instead of an overnight change, her transformation had occurred in the bright, blossoming morning after the near-destruction of the world, when she gripped that sword in her hands and took charge of her destiny for the very first time. Afterwards, she seemed to glow with the aloof, cool radiance of a woman who knew her purpose, and whenever she walked down the street, boys stared at her in awe.

The next series of photographs were of Anya, and Buffy was startled by the way that the film captured the vengeance demon. She was stunning, absolutely heartbreaking, but not with that wistful youth that Dawn possessed. No, Anya was as striking as a dagger, sharply cutting into the picture with her trim, perfectly tailored linen suit and sandals. She’d dyed her hair again, trading in blonde for brunette, and the deep chestnut shade she chose was flattering and sophisticated, bobbed around her angular, proud jaw.

Ever since she’d tossed out her wedding dress and abandoned the girlish hierarchy of fairy tale dreams, Anya had matured into her own vicious, cutthroat brand of businesswoman. The master bedroom was shifted from a girly haven of incense and candlelight into a spartan affair, the closet stuffed full of Donna Karan suits and couture clothing, the origins of which Buffy did not question out of fear of knowing the answer.

Xander was featured next, looking better than he had in years, if not a little haunted and harrowed from his emotional battles over the last year. Buffy tilted her head and frowned at the way that he sat so quiet and still on the picnic bench, a beer half-drunk in his hand, a wistful, longing smile on his face as he stared out into space. The disappearance of Willow had taken its toll on him and taken it hard, a destructive force that ripped him apart and made him feel responsible for her absence.

The only spark in his life at the moment was Anya. Buffy knew that Xander was still in love with her, that she was probably the greatest love of his life, but the abandoned bride was still unattainable to him. They’d spent a good portion of the summer together while repairing the battered Magic Box, but rebuilding the ruins of their relationship proved to be much more difficult. Anya was discovering herself, coming into her own for the first time, and her independence had made her doubtful of reentering a romance with him.

She smiled as she came across the series of Giles playing the guitar, surrounded by Tiki torches and fireflies, face thoughtful and strained as he sang classic American rock songs, all on request from Buffy and Xander. She still remembered the sound of his voice, the resonance and quality of it, and the way that he could make shivers roll down her spine from the passion he placed into his music. When he sang "Hotel California", Buffy had wanted to crawl up in his lap and never let him go, if only because she understood the suffering in his voice.

Yet he stayed on, her mentor and Watcher, returning to the small apartment with its lovely veranda and desert blossoms dangling in the window. No more gallanting off to London; he was here to stay, and Buffy was glad. She did not need him as a shield anymore, not as her handler or her personal auto-pilot, but as a friend and as a father. He seemed both older and younger than she last remembered him, as though what he had experienced in his absence had scarred him somewhat, but taught him a strength and wisdom that she craved to benefit from.

After Giles, there was only one more study in photography, and that was her. The others had insisted that if she was going to take photographs of them, then she had to take one of herself. Buffy decided to be austere, setting up her camera on a tripod and then standing in front of a blank wall of the training room, letting herself be surrounded by light. In the black and white photograph, she came out in shades of ash and shadow, smiling brightly, hair twisting around her face in soft waves of burnished white.

Curiously, Buffy tilted her head and examined the photograph. She had several shots, all of them slowly coming to life around her, but this was the one that she thought she might like best. The pose worked, with her fingers covering her embarrassed giggling, head thrown back. She smiled, remembering that at the time, Xander was trying to be Dawn’s opponent and was squeaking out terror as she jabbed playfully at his midsection with a wooden practice sword.

Everything had changed so rapidly in the months following her epiphany, and the change was all Good. She needed these things, needed to put her stand-still life into motion, and that was what she was doing. Giles had bought her a bicycle and gave her the wise advice to “see and explore the world”. She zipped everywhere on her candy-apple bike, complete with cheerful silver bell, which Dawn claimed was embarrassing and only fueled her decision to ring it incessantly in front of the teen’s friends.

Yet in spite of all of this happiness, all of these Very Good Things, Buffy still knew that there were pictures missing from her collection. She badly wanted one of Tara, the soft, wonderful girl who had been her confidante and confessor, ethereal and tangible all at once, but there would never photographs to commemorate her, not taken by Buffy’s hand. The ghost of Tara still seemed to haunt the walls of the house; Buffy dreamed about her sometimes, just the way that she smiled and nothing else.

They were still waiting for Willow, patiently passing by her note magnetically pinioned to the refrigerator every morning on the way to the coffeepot and finding some strange sort of solace in her farewell message. The aftermath of her disappearance had been almost nuclear, with Xander firing warheads into the atmosphere every five minutes, railing against her irresponsibility until Buffy quieted him.

Abandonment had been an issue with her for a long time, hating those who refused to stick it out with her, hating herself for driving those who dared to love her into exile. Her deadbeat dad, her first vampire lover, her soldier boy with the heart too good for the likes of her, and her Watcher... But she understood the necessity of leaving. She’d done it herself once, after that dreaded dawn before the altar of Acathla. Sometimes, there was too much pain in familiarity to breathe, and she knew that Willow would return when she was ready.

Just like Spike would.

Her fingers itched for the cigarette, but when Buffy picked it up from the makeshift ashtray, she was disappointed to discover that it had burned down to the filter in a long cylinder of ash. Sighing, she flicked the ash away, flakes of gray drifting towards that cherry under which Spike often stood in the first days of his obsession, watching her window and chain-smoking his lonely heart away.

She wondered when the piles of cigarette butts stopped being scary and became reassuring.

Wondering, wondering. She spent half of her time nowadays lost in her own thoughts, and the photograph of herself showed it. There was a little bit of dreaminess in her sleepy-eyed gaze, like she was star-struck and thunder-shook. Good old head-in-the-clouds Buffy making another lovesick appearance. She was distant lately, but not numb and hollowed out like she had been after her resurrection. Epiphanies and revelations seemed to occur to her on a regular basis, illuminating paths that were once dark and unfathomable.

I love the way that the muscles in his back tighten under my hands right before he comes...

The way that he says my name when he's astonished, when he's loving and tender...

My God, I drove him mad...

The last thought was the one that upset her, the one that made her fingers quiver and her lip tremble. Had she driven Spike mad? Had her mind-games and careless beatings thrown him off that precarious edge between sanity and total lunacy? Buffy remembered the way that his eyes had glazed over when he forced her to the floor, all of that desperation and utter brokenness, and she worried now that she'd shattered him before she'd ever thought of loving him. Another Riley, another mistake. Another notch on the belt of Buffy's ruined men.

No amount of sudden joie de vivre could permanently assuage the sorrow and pain of regret. Buffy was not invulnerable to sudden seizures of sadness, and she found that these attacks of anguish preyed on her whenever she thought of him. Once upon a time, after she crawled out of her grave with scraped knuckles and an all-consuming emptiness churning inside of her, she had been plagued by dreams of heaven and tormented by her stale, meaningless reality. Now, she dreamed of another paradise lost. The potential for paradise, at least.

She'd fallen in love with Spike, and now Buffy feared that it was too late.

There was a sound by the window suddenly, and Buffy whipped her head around, fingers scampering to conceal the pack of cigarettes and chipped saucer still resting on the shingled roof. It was Dawn, her eyes bright and alert, face slightly shimmering with summer sweat. She quirked her mouth at Buffy, cocking her head to the side. "Can't sleep either, huh?" she said, and then she wrinkled her nose. "What's that smell?"

Shit. The cigarette. Trying to make sure that all of the color did not drain from her face, Buffy furrowed her brow and tried her best to lie, something that she was terrible at in the first place. "It smells like cigarettes," she said, figuring that whoever smelt it, dealt it. Immature, perhaps, but it was all that she was riding on at the moment.

Suspicion filled Dawn's body as she looked at her older sister, sitting out on the roof scantily-clad and sticky with sweat, holding some of her cherished photographs in her lap. Another good sniff, and then a glance underneath her sister's carefully folded legs.

"So your leg's taken up smoking?" she said coyly, and Buffy widened her eyes, glancing down at her lap. The Slayer then squealed and shoved the chipped saucer-cum-ashtray out onto the roof, swatting at sparks that flew on the mild breeze. As she stubbed out the cigarette, Dawn crossed her arms over her chest and gave Buffy an amused but smug look. She never caught her sister doing anything wrong, nothing that she could really call her on, and now she was armed with the proper ammunition to do battle.

Flustered and trapped, Buffy opened up her mouth a few times like a flounder ensnared in a lucky fisherman's net until she finally sighed and shrugged her shoulders. "Okay, you caught me," she said. "It's not a big. Just every now and then..." She lowered her voice and pouted. "Besides, I thought that was out."

Snorting, Dawn settled herself down on the roof beside her sister, nudging Buffy with her shoulder. "Buffy, don't freak," she said. "Like you said, no big. Hey, they're your lungs for you to get all black and gross. Though I am kind of wondering about the why, because yucky. Smoking is nasty."

Buffy nodded her head. "That's right," she said enthusiastically. "Smoking is very nasty, and you shouldn't follow in your big sister's icky footsteps. Bad Buffy. But..."

"You miss him."

The words fell between them with a deafening silence, hanging there with the tension that always arose between the two of them when they happened to stumble across a memory of the blond vampire. No, not even that. It was when Buffy found something of his, or when she got that faraway look in her eyes that screamed of angst, and Dawn ached over it. Spike had been her confidant, her compatriot once upon a time, spending the long nights of the summer Without watching television or teaching her how to cheat at poker.

He sits on the porch steps behind her, his hands running through her hair and twisting the fine locks into braids and knots, all the while puffing on his cigarette. She provides the jabbering conversation, nothing of real importance, just the comfort of being touched and the knowledge that someone wants to share.

It killed her when he betrayed her.

“I do,” Buffy said in a hushed voice, and Dawn flinched. “You hate him, don’t you.” It wasn’t a question, because her expressive little sister left very little to ponder. It was all in the taut, careful body language, the way that she almost assumed a defensive stance, like a coil ready to spring into battle.

A muscle near Dawn’s jaw twitched, and she shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said in a low, uncertain voice. “It makes my head hurt to think of all of it. You couldn’t have tried to be in a non-confusing relationship, could you?”

A ghost of a smile crossed her face, and Buffy shrugged her shoulders. “I was confused when it happened,” she said plainly, and Dawn cocked her head to the side, curious and startled by her sister’s honesty.

Her sisterhood with Buffy had always been a contradiction. They would die for each other, sacrifice to save the other’s life, but when it came to where Dawn got that nifty leather skirt from or who was Buffy sleeping with, everything was all hush-hush secrecy. Their recent honesty with each other was still tenuous and fragile, and there were still some secrets between the two of them that needed to be exhumed and exposed.

Furrowing her brow, Buffy shifted uneasily, wiping sweat and melted ice from the back of her neck. Her fingers were itching for another cigarette, and her mouth was dry and thirsty. “When I came back, it was really... It was really bad. Like, end of the world bad. I didn’t understand it, and everything felt so...”

“Disappointing?” Dawn asked softly, unable to keep the hurt out of her voice, and Buffy grimaced, sighing.

“No,” she said. “Not disappointing. It was just... Everything was hard. Hard to breathe, hard to see, hard to move. I felt like I was all hollowed out, like I was running on empty. And he was there for me.”

As memory kindled those comforting sparks, the wistful nights of sitting on her back porch while he chain-smoked and she talked resurfacing, a smile crossed her face and she felt an aching inside of her for that rapport that had been lost in their great, disastrous affair. “We used to do all this talking,” she said. “Just talking. About everything. But I mucked it all up.”

“You had the sex,” Dawn said wisely, and Buffy nodded her head. “The sex complicates everything.” At Buffy’s wary look, Dawn laughed a little. “Real World marathon.”

All was explained. Relieved, Buffy sighed and played with her fingernails before furrowing her brow and glancing uncomfortably at her younger sister. “Is this awkward?” she asked. “I mean, you, me, the sex with Spike talk...”

But Dawn casually shrugged her shoulders. “I’m sixteen,” she said. “I know about the birds and the bees, and how babies don’t come from the cabbage patch. Plus, living with Anya.”

Buffy nodded her head. “Right. So, the sex. And then the badness. But not him. He was... Well, he was Spike, but God, the things I put him through. I was so miserable, Dawnie, and I treated him like he was...”

“Like he was a thing,” she said. She knew exactly how her sister had always treated Spike, like he was some sort of disgusting, repulsive object without any feelings of his own. She once defended him, preached about his feelings and the depth of his heart, until she saw the pain on her sister’s face. “But what he did to you... Weren’t you right...”

“No,” Buffy said swiftly, sternly. “I wasn’t.” Wincing, she ran her hands over her face, feeling too hot and too humiliated by what she had done to him. The bruises on his face from her ramming her fists into him, the way that he tried to be tender and she only tortured him further, how she demanded that he declare his love for her only to defile it with her taunts. I drove him mad. “He loves me. I didn’t want to believe it, but it doesn’t change what he feels. And... It doesn’t change what I feel, either.”

Startled, Dawn whipped her head around to Buffy, and all of the puzzle pieces started to fall into perfect, obvious order. Buffy standing on the back porch, scanning the darkness for someone who was not there. The leather coat still remaining in their closet. The way that she sometimes looked off into the distance and smiled without knowing it, and then blushed feverishly like a schoolgirl. “You’re in love with him,” Dawn said quietly, and Buffy covered her pink cheeks with her hands, cupping her palm over her mouth to hide a smile. “Oh, my God. You’re so in love with him. Even after...”

“I know,” Buffy whispered, her eyes bright and glittering as she looked off into the late night sky. The moon was full and hanging low in the sky, so heavy with light that it brought the stars closer to the earth, and she thought that she might understand how celestial gravity felt. There was something inside of her own heart that made the heavens seem more tangible, like paradise could be brought down to man. She’d had glimpses of her garden of Eden in Spike’s bed, but she’d eaten the forbidden fruit and forced him to take a bite in the process.

Confused and troubled, Dawn furrowed her brow and tried to follow her sister’s eyes, tried to see what Buffy saw in the sky that made her have that breathless look on her mouth. All that she saw was darkness stretching ahead of her, and she wondered if that was what love was like. Unpredictable and dark, impenetrably dark. Was love something that a person could become lost in? Was it something that swallowed someone whole, consumed them and ripped them apart, until they were nothing but scraps of silver hung in the heavens?

“Is all love like that?” Dawn asked softly, and Buffy blinked her eyes, startled and then pained by what her sister asked.

Urgently, Buffy put her hands on her sister’s slender, freckled shoulders, forcing her to look her in the eyes and not into the night. “No,” she said firmly. “What Spike and I had... It wasn’t love. Not then. I wouldn’t let myself love him, and he couldn’t stop himself from loving me. It was wrong of me to use him the way I did, and it was wrong of him to do what he... To hurt me. We fucked up, plain and simple.”

Sighing, Buffy released her sister and then slumped against the window, wearily pulling out the pack of Marlboro Reds and bringing the filter to her lips. Astonished, Dawn watched as the Slayer pulled out a sterling silver Zippo lighter and lit the end, exhaling a mist of whorls and shadows.

Weary, tired eyes turned in Dawn’s direction, and a sad, regretful smile tugged at Buffy’s mouth. “Do you know why I do this?” she asked, and Dawn frowned. “It’s because I miss his mouth. Just... The way that he kissed me, when we weren’t being angry or mean. He’d kiss me and try to make me live, and all that I wanted was to die.”

“You didn’t destroy him,” Dawn said then, and Buffy sighed, because her sister understood. She threw the barely-smoked cigarette out into the yard, and then they embraced, not caring about the sticky heat or the smelly sweat, because sisterhood transcended summer heat waves and broken air conditioning units. It was comfort and familiarity, and simple knowledge.

When Buffy released Dawn from her arms, the two sisters sighed in tandem, leaning against the wall and staring up at the pregnant moon. “I miss Willow,” Dawn said then, and Buffy was both surprised and relieved. The younger girl hadn’t spoken of the absentee witch during the entire summer, too hurt by her threats and her disappearance. Tears were in Dawn’s voice as she spoke. “What she did... It doesn’t matter. I love her, and I want her to come home.”

Nodding her head, Buffy draped an arm around her sister’s shoulder and nodded. “So do I,” she said softly.

Dawn sniffled against her sister's neck, and when she spoke, her voice was small and nasal, like she was crying. "Buffy?"

Gently, Buffy soothed her, rubbing her back with small circles. "Yes, Dawnie?"

"Do you really miss Spike?"

Like nothing else in the world. Like I miss Mom, only worse, because there's no excuse for him to be gone.

"Yeah, I do."

Another sniffle, and then a sigh. "Well, don't, because he's standing on our sidewalk."

*****

(end part two)

*****



SUMMARY: As old friends return to Sunnydale and life begins to move on, a new adversary comes to town and shows Buffy more about herself than she ever wanted to know. B/S

RATING: NC-17

SPOILERS: Through "Grave"

DISCLAIMER: The characters within this story are the property of Mutant Enemy Productions, except for the ones that you don't recognize, because I made them up all by my lonesome. Aren't I cool? No? Shut up. You don't know me. Bitch. Music will be disclaimed as it is used, and it will be used occasionally. Like in this chapter. Really, it will.

AUTHOR'S NOTES: I have had this idea brewing in my head for what seems like an eternity, and only now is it finally coming together on paper. Or screen. Whatever. Anyway, the necromancy information is a combination of genuine research and Lovecraft's mythology, as well as some embellishments from yours truly. It may help if you read my The Waiting Season series of vignettes to help establish this story, and those are also on my site.

I'd just like to make a shout-out to my beta dawg, Devil Piglet. Big props to her mad grammar skillz. You know you a pimp.



Chapter Three: Crossing the Threshold

There were moments in time that she kept locked up in the back of her mind, frozen perfectly, like snapshots that were more precious than gold. The moment that she killed Angel, sliced that sword inside of his stomach and delivered him to hell. The sight of her mother's dead body draped out on the couch, the time on the clock, the way her skirt twisted around her exposed thighs. The way that the sun rose in the sky on the day she threw herself off of the tower and into merciful oblivion.

This was another one of those moments.

Spike stood at the edge of her sidewalk, his head tilted as he stared up at her, draped in shadows and cut out of moonlight. There was an expression of absolute wonder on his face, that lovestruck sigh frozen on his lips, all of his danger and defenses stripped away by the bone-shaking depths of his love. His face was absolutely naked, and every emotion was etched into his eyes like scars. Regret, passion, anguish, fury... It was the first time she had seen him since she knew, and it stole her breath away.

Through the veil of leaves and branches, Spike could see the slender shape of her outlined by the lamps and candles in her bedroom. He smelled the scent of her, that lemon balm that was so tartly tantalizing, the ginger and cinnamon of winter Buffy replaced by citrus sweetness. Tangerines. She smelled of tangerines and orange peel. For the first time in over a hundred years, he wanted to write again.

This was not a good sign.

Ever since that morning on the beach, the poet within was trying to escape. Life was suddenly filled with rhyming couplets and iambic pentameter, from the oppressive madness of the heat to the way that the young girls looked in their bathing suits. Yet nothing was as inspirational or deadly as the way that Buffy Summers looked on top of her roof. The curve of her belly. The twist of her ankle. The sweat sheen on her collarbone and pretty, slender neck. She was a sonnet waiting to be written, patient and sweet.

Spike almost turned around and ran away.

Clutching the robe to her breasts, fingers shaking from fury and fright, her eyes devoid of any emotion other than disgust. "Ask me again why I could never love you," she spits at him, and every inch of her body screams betrayal, bloody betrayal. And he doesn't have to ask, because even if she might have loved him before, it is all over now.

Even as he walked up to her front door, feet heavy and reluctant, Spike was terrified of what she was going to do. This scenario had been played out in his head a thousand times on the ride home. What was she going to do when she saw him again? Frankly, he wouldn't be surprised if she dug the stake into his chest without blinking. He'd deserve it. He expected her to give the ice princess routine again, all dull-eyed and hateful, spitting his unworthiness at him and throwing him on his ass for even stepping onto her precious property after that. She was a skilled warrior with words, throwing bitterness and spite at him like knives, never missing her target. Then again, he never did much to conceal his weak spot with her. He wore his heart on his sleeve, begging her to rip it to shreds.

He did not expect what he got.

Laughter, heady and mirthful, trickled down from the roof and onto the grass, and she jumped off of the roof in a smooth, fluid plunge. Gracefully, Buffy landed on her feet in the plush greenery of her front yard, and then ran up to him with her hands behind her back, eyes twinkling and smile stretched across her pretty face. She looked almost elfin in the bright spill of moonlight, wearing nothing but a pair of sleep shorts that revealed far too much for her own good, a flimsy camisole and acres of golden skin. Radiant, that was what she was. Absolutely radiant.

Effulgent.

A bright flash of light suddenly blinded him, and Spike scowled, raising his arm to shield his eyes from the hot whiteness that had invaded his eyes. When he lowered it, he saw that Buffy was standing there with an impish expression on her face, holding a battered camera between her tiny hands. "Sorry," she apologized. "Had to get a shot of you, all gobsmacked and wigged. It's a good look for you."

Well, this isn't quite the way I thought this would turn out. Still, Spike supposed that it was preferable to an afterlife in an ashtray. He'd been wondering if she was hiding a stake behind her back when she pranced up to him, but he warily worried that the camera might be worse. Permanence troubled him. His mouth twitched into a semblance of a smile, a whisper of his old, cocky smirk. "I'm not wigged," he protested, and she snorted.

"You're wigged beyond belief," she teased, arching her eyebrow and poking him in the chest with her finger, an imitation of slaying. "What, you thought I'd kill you on sight? Thought that you were dust just waiting to happen? Think again."

This was the way that she wanted him back. No more angst, no more pain, no more anguish and bitter, bitter hate. She wanted him back on her front porch, platinum hair glinting underneath too much moonlight, eyes so dark that she could almost forget that they were blue and not black. No fighting, no screaming, no low, snarling hits of fury. Just back, solid and real, where she could have her photographs of him and capture him on celluloid for forever and a day.

There was a moment of awkward silence hanging in the air, and Buffy inwardly flinched when she realized that it was that... Thing. That thing that had happened between them. They would have to actually talk about it, something that she had been dreading all summer. The lazy, cowardly part of her wanted to just bury it in her big old sandbox of taboos and never bring it up again, but she didn't want the rest of her life with Spike to be uncomfortable.

Sighing, she gestured to the door. "We're going to have to talk now," she said, and Spike instantly felt that twinge of wussy William's fears tear through him. Oh, God, she's going to make me say it. And I'm going to have to apologize, because I'm a total nance who can't read the obituaries and laugh anymore. Remorse was a pain in the ass.

Spike tried humor to deflect her. It was one of his best defenses, except that it rarely worked. "What, you've been taking bluntness lessons from Anya all summer?" he said, laughing weakly, and she rolled her eyes, shoving him on the back towards her front door.

The Summers house, the scene of a thousand unspeakable crimes. It brought back far too many memories, standing before her staircase and letting his gaze drink in the sensible décor and the eccentric African-influenced crap-art that Joyce used to gush over. A thousand ghosts seemed to haunt this plain, terribly suburban house, all upper-middle-class taste mixed with unholy horrors. Whispers and trickles of girlish giggling flooded his ear, reminding him of the way that Dawn laughed when she was prone to childish antics as opposed to teenaged posturing. Fuck, he could almost smell that terrible Chai tea that Joyce always used to brew at nights, permeating through the walls and mixing with his stalking smokes.

God, it was almost enough to bring him to his knees.

Worry rumpled her brow as she frowned at Spike, looking so stunned and almost anguished at the threshold. Something had changed in him, like a part of that wild temper and love of brawling had been tamed and precariously caged. Still primal, still devilish, though. The saunter was still in his stride as he'd swaggered up her sidewalk, but it was more subtle than it had been before. She wondered if this was what Willow would be like when she returned home -- dampened.

Clearing her throat, Buffy walked past him and into the kitchen, ducking her head and letting her hair hide her face as she padded barefoot onto the tiling. "Um, we don't have very much right now, Anya still has to go the grocery tomorrow," Buffy said, frowning at her barren refrigerator. "And I don't have any blood on me, except the stuff that's in me, and hey -- off-limits here." She craned her neck around to flirt with him with her eyes, but it did not seem to raise his spirits or his mocking, maudlin humor. Okay, then. No more funny girl. She tried for sympathetic. "I think Mom still has hot cocoa around..."

An impatient sigh fell from his lips, tired and almost weary. "Fuck the hot cocoa," he said. "Got any booze?"

Ah, there he was. That was her alcoholic vampire, the one who always reeked a little bit of last night's cheap bourbon and liked his red wine "loaded". Smiling, Buffy stood on her tiptoes and tried to reach for the tall cabinet, but with her petite stature, it did not work out very well. Quickly, Spike came to her rescue, reaching up and rustling through the cabinet.

Close proximity achieved. She was met with the cool radiation of spent cigarettes and distant lands, of history and open roads. Closing her eyes, Buffy drank in the scent of him, of all of his lovelorn days and murdering nights, and it was everything that his left-behind cigarettes could not deliver to her. Her bones seemed to melt underneath her hot skin, and she wanted nothing more than to just sag against his lithe, supple body and let his sinews and scent give her solace.

"Here," he murmured, and she blushed a little, giving him a shy smile before turning away with a bottle of Jim Beam in her hand. She was hotter than the desert, more moist and sparkling than the African coasts in her sweat and shorts, and Spike watched her with a little bit of amazement as she (again, on tiptoes) reached up to the cabinet and pulled down a tumbler to fix his drink.

Buffy looked ravishing, more beautiful than he'd ever seen her. Even at first sight in the Bronze, even in that pivotal moment when enemy turned into inspiration, she paled to this new version of herself. Hair a bit longer, more curl to it, sun-soaked from long summer days outdoors. She'd put on a bit more weight, not so fragile like she used to be, and more pink and curvaceous. More... Alive. Happier. Healthier. All of this accomplished after he left.

"You've gained weight," Spike said bluntly, and then he winced, covering his face with his hand. "And that was a completely stupid thing to say."

Instead of glaring at him with dagger-eyes, she just laughed airily, patting the luscious curve of her belly with her hand. "I'm always hungry lately," she confessed. "I think I just like the feeling of being... Full. It's of the weird, but hey, I don't have to shop in the Limited Too anymore." Her eyes flashed teasingly at him as she swept past him, graceful and almost floating above the ground with the precise, pretty movements she made. "Come on, sit down. Let's make with the talking before the sun comes up and everyone gets up. Lots to catch up on, right?"

Purposeful. That was the word that he was struggling for. Buffy looked like she'd discovered something wonderful, like she'd woken up one morning and found the Secret of Life in her box of Froot Loops. Confident, serene, enlightened. Almost sagely, but in a sexy way. That was why she'd never looked so beautiful before. Buffy had come into her own, and there was nothing more intoxicating than a woman who knew what she wanted in life.

All done in his absence.

"Should I have even come back?"

Oh, fuck. He'd said that out loud, and it came out sounding bitter as vinegar. Stunned by his own outburst, Spike sat there like a ponce, hating the fact that he could no longer say what he wanted without nancy William whispering about propriety and politeness in his head. Couldn't that demon have given him another soul? One with a backbone and a good toss of punk would've been brilliant.

"Of course," Buffy said, mildly taken aback as she sat down across from him. "Duh."

Duh. That was her answer. He couldn't take it anymore. Snarling, Spike shoved his drink away from him so violently that it fell off the table, exploding in a mass of shattered glass and spilled liquor, ice cubes slipping and sliding on the kitchen tiling. The chair fell out from under him as he leapt to his feet in a dramatic sweep of black, face tense and eyes desperate.

"What the fuck is this?" he raged, throwing his arms out and begging her to give him answers. Always begging. "Where's the hating, and the fighting, and the steely eyes and the threats? Aren't you going to beat the snot out of me and tell me to stay out of your life? Tell me how I'm a violent, murdering bastard, and, and, kick me in the bloody balls and throw me into the fucking street!"

In a furious flash, he was on his knees in front of her, thrusting his chest at her and giving her a look that just dared her to do it. "I tried to rape you," Spike said in a dark, terribly serious voice. "Would've done it, too, if you hadn't remembered you were a big Slayer and pushed me off. Ever think of that? Ever think that I was dead fucking serious about it? Would've torn that ugly little robe off of you and had my way with you until you were dead in the ground. Would've..."

She silenced him with a kiss.

Not one of their patented fucking-as-kissing types, but one of those flimsy, wisps of a kiss that left him shuddering and shaken to the core. A whisper of lips against his, barest brush of a palm against his cheek, and this feeling of deep, aching longing that he'd never felt before. Not in her, not in any woman when kissing him. No wars lay there, but just the ashes and ruins of what they'd once had together, and the promise of gentleness in the future.

When she pulled away, Buffy looked down at him with this glance of absolute, heartbreaking emotion, raw and yet soft all at once, too real to come from the glass doll he'd left behind, broken and bruised in her own bathroom. She smiled at him, inches away from his face, and he stared at her in awe as she crooked a finger and traced the sharp incline of his cheek. "It's okay," she murmured. "Everything is going to be okay, Spike. It's over."

It was over. Not them, not their fiery, disastrous parody of a romance, but that urgent, hateful spite that bubbled between them since the beginning. That loathing and disgust that she threw in the face of his stupid, naïve love, all exonerated and finished. "It can't be," he said, still protesting, always happy to look a gift horse in the mouth. "You didn't..."

"What, have my revenge?" Buffy said, arching her eyebrow. "What do you want me to do, Spike? Go wake up Anya and wish for some boils on the penis? I'm sure she'd be more than happy to accommodate me, but if you want the truth, I'm tired of being bitter. It's not of the fun. So stop asking me to punish you, because I'm not going to do it. Sorry."

Spike was flabbergasted. This was not the welcome he'd expected to receive, not at all. He had spent the last two weeks hiding in his crypt, trying to prepare himself for the beating of his lifetime, and instead he got a girl who joked with her eyes at him and strung kisses out like promises she intended on keeping. Most puzzling damned thing in the world, and he honestly did not think that he was equipped for gentleness. Rough and tumble. Fight it out. Take it to the streets and throw sticks and stones at each other until the cows came home. That was more familiar.

Disappointed and disgruntled, Spike slumped against the counter and put his face in his hands. "Oh, bugger all," he grumbled in exhaustion, and Buffy ran her hand through his hair, trying to tease the rumpled curls out of that stupid hair gel that he used (and he thought that Angel used too much of it -- please).

"I know," she said in mock sympathy. "It's so terrible of me not to beat you to a pulp and leave you for dead." Startled, Spike looked up, and saw the hollow wrinkles of regret forming around her eyes. "Yeah, you heard me. I fucked up, too. That's why I'm saying that you need to get over what happened in the bathroom, Spike. You say that you would've done it, you would've raped me if I hadn't fought back. Well, guess what? I did do it. That night in the alley..."

Screaming at him, tears in her voice and falling from her eyes like acid rain, and her fists are a fury of black-knit anger as she pounds them into his face, rearranging his sculpted features like putty. Hatred and disgust are thick in her voice, thick like his swelling skin, and she's a vial of spite in red leather and sorrow. There is regret and horror on her face as she realizes what she has done, but he opens his big mouth and she's done with him. Even as he pleads, as he whimpers her name, she is moving and he's too tired, too hurt to go after her...

"Not the same," Spike said quietly, looking down at his hands. "Didn't try to... To violate you."

Wincing, Buffy gritted her teeth and clenched a fist, frustrated at his sudden guilty remorse. "God, Spike," she said, an edge of bitterness tinting her musical voice to a sour note. "It's not like what I did to you was much better. I mean, come on. I used you, like a vibrator, like a thing. And that's... That's inexcusable. Unforgivable. But you know what? It's over. It's done with. I can't go back and change what I did, and neither can you. We can sit here all night playing whose-fault-is-it, but it's not going to make a difference. We. Fucked. Up."

She had gone over this a thousand times in her head, lying in her bed at night when everyone else was asleep and content, aching for the arms that she didn't know she wanted until it was too late. Until he was gone. Looking back and realizing that she loved him, not understanding the why and the how after what he'd done to her, and then finally noticing that he wasn't the one who'd done the shitty things. She was. Her fault, half of it, more than half, but what could she do?

She could change.

Her eyes wandered away from the slouched, sad vampire leaning against her kitchen counter to the refrigerator and its magnet note. Don't worry. Everything will be fine. Wait for me. The last words of Willow, the only words of Willow, pasted on her refrigerator like a memorandum. It was what kept her going, that promise of better days, that knowledge that there were good things and good people in her future, even after the sorrow and despair of the past year.

"Things got so horrible," Buffy sighed, her hands till absently toying with the loosening curls of his hair, petting him and soothing him like a pained kitten. Of course, Spike did not protest. She'd never been tender with him before, and there was nothing more soothing to his new, aching soul than the touch of her fingers against his scalp. "Tara's gone, Spike. She's dead. Warren killed her in my mother's bedroom, and Dawn was with the body for hours alone."

Tara.

The wild, alcohol-induced dream before he'd returned to good old Sunnydale resurged in his mind. The witch dressed in white, sitting before him and telling him his fortune, and then the bloodstain on her dark sweater when she whispered to him in an aching voice. She'd been nothing more than a ghost, a faded memory moving towards the light, and he felt tears spring to her eyes. Spike had never realized it before, but he loved the girl. She was sweet and kind, gentle and honest, and he'd loved her from the moment he'd seen her in tears before her parents in the Magic Box.

"God," he whispered, his voice strained, and Buffy kept talking, her fingers methodic and hypnotic in his hair.

"More than that," she said, her voice faint and sad. "Willow went mad. She tried to destroy the world, and then she disappeared when Xander saved us. She's gone, Spike, and she says that she'll be back, but she was just so... Empty. I don't want to be like that." She dropped her voice. "Not anymore."

Cocking his head to the side, Spike looked up at her with a sense of wonderment, and when Buffy looked down at his face, she fell in love again. It was one of those moments where her heart spun towards the moon and then plummeted back to earth. Spike looked at her without barriers, without his snarls and taunting, and gave her that plain, undressed look of naked love. The depth of his love for her was earth-shaking. It spoke of destroying armies sent to slaughter her, of suffering and sacrifice, and of a passion so rich and delicious that her hands started to shake in his hair.

"I'm drowning in you, Summers."

Before he could react, Buffy reached up on the counter and took his picture, no flash, because the shadows would only complement him. Spike blinked in surprise, and then the moment was gone as his star-struck gaze was replaced with a scowl. "Are you going to be doing that all the time now?" he said, and she flashed her eyes at him.

"Get used to it," she said, replacing the camera on the countertop. Sighing, Buffy stood up and stretched her back, looking tiredly at the spilled Jim Beam and the broken glass on the floor. "Do you always have to make a mess wherever you go? I'm totally not picking that up."

Flustered and thrown by her mercurial moods, Spike scrambled to his feet and tore off a couple of paper towels, quickly attending to the broken glass and liquor. "Oh, right," he said. "Terribly sorry."

As he hunched over the spill, Buffy stood frozen behind him, eyes wide with shock, feet planted firmly to the floor. He'd apologized. It wasn't like it was the first time, or even the first sincere time, but there was something different about this one. There was an almost embarrassed, clumsy manner to him as he cleaned, something completely different from every action he'd ever made before. Spike was usually liquid, moving smooth and catlike, oil personified. He'd never scrambled like this, and the way that he spoke...

"Where were you all summer?"

He stilled over the pile of glass, and she thought that she saw his shoulders slump. "Africa," he said, and she was startled.

"Wow," she said, clearly floored. "Africa. That's... Weird."

Spike barked out a laugh that was loaded with irony. "Yeah," he said bitterly. "Weird's a good way to describe it."

Buffy swallowed, crossed her arms over her chest. "What did you do there?" she asked, and he wondered what to tell her. How to tell her what he'd done. The penance that he was paying, the nightmares that he was suffering through in the stupid, trite name of unrequited love. He wished that he was martyring himself for something more original than a woman.

Fortunately, the itching at the back of his neck gave him an escape, and Spike stood up, holding damp paper towels and shards of glass in his hands. "Sun's coming up," he muttered, and he dumped the broken glass in her waste basket, trying to ignore the troubled look on her face as he made his way to the door. "Appreciate the attempt at a drink, pet, but time's up for me."

As he walked out of the door, Buffy leaned in the threshold, staring after him as he started to walk down the sidewalk. Not a touch, not a whisper, not a confession. Her heart sank as she saw the stiff, guarded way that he'd walked, and she thought for a moment to run to the closet and grab his coat for him. But she thought better of it as she looked at the way that he walked, so different and changed from the saunter and swagger of the vampire she'd known before. The duster wouldn't look right, and she wondered when that came to pass.

"Spike," she called, her voice drifting dreamily through the last moments of total darkness before the sky lightened and the sun made its presence known. He turned around, seeing her slender figure holding up the doorway, the summer breeze pushing and tugging at her loose hair. "When will I see you again?"

Buffy had to stop doing this. Had to stop asking for him, stop touching him, stop reaching out to him with both hands open, because he'd only end up shitting in her palms. Just the way that his luck ran. Couldn't have it all, could he now? She'd changed over the summer, discovered some sort of radiant happiness that made her glow and shimmer, and he didn't want to sully it with his talk of joining the shadows and engaging in the dance.

Furiously, she shoves him away from her, throwing him to the ground in a sprawl of black leather and bad intentions. "It'll never be you, Spike," she snarls, throwing a spray of confetti dollars onto him before that self-righteous, knowing look condemns him, and her words are his executioner. "You're beneath me."

"When you develop those pictures," he said, his voice dark and tired, like death frozen over. Hard, determined, distraught. A twinge of regret touched his eyes briefly, and then as her heart broke, he turned and walked away, disappearing into the shadows.

Silently, Buffy raised her camera and took another shot of him fading into the dark, where he belonged, letting the sunlight banish him from her world as always.

As she swung the door shut behind her, Buffy sighed and buried her face in her hands, her heart aching and her body dejected and tired. He had not come back the same as he'd been before, and she wondered what exactly had happened in Africa to make him this changed, distraught shell of Spike. She remembered the devilish smirking, the honey-coated taunts and teases, all directed at her with utter sincerity behind them.

Before she could stop herself, she was pulling the coat out of the closet and inhaling the scent deeply, drinking in his lost cigarettes, his sourly spilled alcohol, and all of the ashes and dust still clinging to the tiny imperfections in the leather. She wanted to smell that scent again, to taste that darkness and brilliance on his skin, and yet buried beneath his burned and charred smell was the fragrance of kiwi and lime. It was her smell, clinging to his coat from spending too much time crushed together with her denim jackets and winter shawls.

She'd buried him beneath her, and the thought was absolutely heartbreaking.

A knock sounded suddenly and tentatively at the door, and Buffy whipped her head around, her heart leaping into her throat. He came back, he came back for me, and...

When she opened the door, Willow stood there on the front steps, older and thinner than she'd last seen her. In the darkness, her hair was a shade more tarnished and rusted than its former glory, and there were fine dryness lines beating the path around the corners of her eyes. Too many tears spent, too many roads traveled, and yet a tired serenity clung to her and offered solace in repair for all of the ruin she'd left in her wake.

"Hi," Willow said in a meek, uncertain voice, and Buffy embraced her, welcoming her home.

*****

(end part three)

*****



SUMMARY: As old friends return to Sunnydale and life begins to move on, a new adversary comes to town and shows Buffy more about herself than she ever wanted to know. B/S

RATING: NC-17

SPOILERS: Through "Grave"

DISCLAIMER: The characters within this story are the property of Mutant Enemy Productions, except for the ones that you don't recognize, because I made them up all by my lonesome. Aren't I cool? No? Shut up. You don't know me. Bitch. Music will be disclaimed as it is used, and it will be used occasionally. Like in this chapter. Really, it will.

AUTHOR'S NOTES: I have had this idea brewing in my head for what seems like an eternity, and only now is it finally coming together on paper. Or screen. Whatever. Anyway, the necromancy information is a combination of genuine research and Lovecraft's mythology, as well as some embellishments from yours truly. It may help if you read my The Waiting Season series of vignettes to help establish this story, and those are also on my site.

I'd just like to make a shout-out to my beta dawg, Devil Piglet. Big props to her mad grammar skillz. You know you a pimp.



Chapter Four: Forget-Me-Not

Warsaw, Poland

1943

*****

It was snowing in August again.

Flakes of white flying through the sky, and the children were all standing on the sidewalks, laughing and skipping rope, sticking their tongues out to catch the scraps of ivory raining from the skies. Elegant women with diamond jewelry and mink wraps hid under the shade of umbrellas, only worried about protecting their expensive coifs from the strange weather. The streets were covered in layers of it, and it piled up on the sidewalks so that the youths of the city could lay down and make angels in the snow.

Elsa thought that she was going to be sick.

I could say bella, bella

Even say "vunderfal"

Each language only lets me tell you

How great you are

The record shop was bustling with swing kids, saddle shoes polished and gleaming, girls walking around with polka-dotted dresses snapping with the shaking of their hips. Trumpets sounded in the background with flair and oomph, and the boys were nodding their heads and looking at secret jazz records, black music, music banned by the Nazis. Oh, how dangerous and daring they all were, with their defiantly tight dresses and the boys with their messy outfits.

They're all going to die pretty soon.

Numbly, her fingers flipped through the stacks and rows of records, ears distantly hearing the tinny sound of big band swing rolling through the cramped store. Outside, the ashes were still falling freely from the sky, a harsh contrast to the cheerful bop of the trumpet and crooning. Giggling children ran past the store, throwing balls of the black and gray ash at each other, and Elsa sucked in a shaky breath.

The crematoriums were working overtime today.

It was not an uncommon sight nowadays, the children frolicking in the streets while the soldiers marched by in their straight, jerky motions, flakes of ashen bodies raining down on the streets from the nearby death camps. This was what life during wartime was like. Depraved, deprived, distraught.

Sometimes, Elsa wondered if the people just claimed blissful ignorance when they marveled at the miraculous snowfall. They had to know. They could smell it, couldn't they? The charred odor, the stench of burning things overpowering the flowers in the windows or the bread in the bakery. They could look at the way that the ashes left streaks of dark gray death on their clothing and tell, right?

Would it be worse if they knew and just didn't care?

More soldiers marched down the street in their roaring fashion, stomping heels and strict, sharp movements, the swastika blazing from their jackets. She shivered as she saw them, ducking behind the listening booth with a copy of Ella Fitzgerald in her hot, sweating palms. The swing kids noticed, too, turning their heads to stare dully at the invading army, and she could not take it anymore.

When she finally found the strength to flee from the shop, night had fallen and the ashes were still raining down on the streets, on the sidewalks, on everything. This was her home, the place where she had grown up, and now it was coated with the remnants of dead things. No, no, don't think like that. Don't think like they do. Those were men and women, innocents and children, all of these lives and...

She could not do it anymore.

Furiously, Elsa pulled the wooden stake out from underneath the sleeve of her dress and flung it to the ground, satisfied when it splintered into pieces from the force of her throw. "No," she said in a clear, harsh voice. "I will not do it anymore. Never again. I quit, you hear me? I quit. It's done. Finished. Over."

No one answered her, and the splinters rolled around on the street.

Exhausted, she slumped against the brick side of the building, covering her face with her hands as ashes and cinders rained down on her, catching in her honey hair, staining her red dress. Another gown ruined, another life lost. It didn't matter. The Nazis were taking people away faster than she could save them. And that brought her to the conundrum, to the part of her battle that she could no longer understand.

Why?

She remembered the before time, the nice period of quietude before the Nazi beast invaded her country and overtook her streets, littering the sidewalks with broken glass from Jewish stores and stealing away the "unworthy", hiding them away in ghettos and camps. When she was called, told her destiny, given the stake and the skill, Elsa believed in it wholeheartedly. The fight, the fury, the evil to be extinguished...

But the evil was humanity itself now. There were no vampires or demons underneath those crisp uniforms, wielding the machine guns and barking orders in German. Those were men, destroying other men with an exactitude and precision that the demon underworld admired and adored. Was this the world that she was saving? Monsters in men's skins, shooting people in the streets because of yellow stars and pink triangles... Were those the lives she was supposed to save?

What kind of world was Elsa fighting for?

Screams and the frightful noise of machine gun ammunition firing, and Elsa ducked down, wrapping her arms around her legs and covering her face with her hands until there was nothing but silence. Another life lost, and nothing that she could do about it. It did not matter that she knew how to fight, knew how to wage war, but not this. Not against her fellow men.

Not even if they were slowly changing from men to monsters.

Tired. She was so tired. Every part of her body ached, begging for rest, and she was all alone in this world. Nobody could help her, nobody could lay her arms down and comfort her. There was nothing for her but the fight, and now... God, what was she supposed to do? She could not liberate the whole of Poland, could not destroy the Third Reich, and what was the use in protecting the innocent when they would suffer at the hands of Hitler in the end?

"Too much," she whispered. "It's all too much."

I know.

The voice came from nowhere, and she lifted her head, looking around the dingy, grimy alley for the owner of the sleek, cool voice filling her head with water and dreams. "Hello?" she called, but there was only the scurrying of rats. "Who..."

I'm the only one who knows what it is like to live this kind of life, poor little Slayer.

Blinking tears out of her eyes, Elsa stood up and walked waveringly to the corner, looking down the streets. Rush of traffic, soldiers laughing drunkenly, the distant sound of gunfire coming from the Krakow ghettos. Lightning in the sky, from either thunderstorms or war. It was all the same in the end.

It's all right, Elsa. There is nothing that you can do to save them now. Just come to me, and we'll rest together.

Frightened, she walked down the street, her shoes clicking on the pavement, eyes scanning the storefronts until she stopped, stunned before a windowpane. With a shaking hand, Elsa reached out and traced her own reflection in the mirror, seeing the Aryan features that kept her alive, the blond curls, the blue eyes. But...

"My God," she whispered, picking up a lock of hair, bits of ash still clinging to her tresses.

Half of her hair had gone gray.

*****

The pink flamingo was planted firmly into the plush green yard, its salmon-colored brilliance breathtaking against the healthy sprawl of kelly-colored grass, plastic wings folded and beak proudly lifted, waiting to do battle. It was the protector of the lawn, the mascot of the house, and the key element in the battle of the Neighborhood Association versus the Summers Household.

Haughtily, Buffy wrapped a hand around the flamingo's neck, clenching her jaw and staring defiantly at the elderly man staring at her from across the street. Chuck Kellogg, who had appointed himself the Fuhrer of Revello Drive, and therefore become her newest arch-nemesis. The retiree had nothing better to do than stare out of his windows and think of ways to annoy her and her unconventional family, which he did in spades.

She couldn't help it if she didn't have the time to sit around memorizing every minute bylaw in the Neighborhood Association Code of Conduct; she had more important matters to attend to, like saving the world and getting Dawn to school on time. Hell, Buffy hadn't even known that there was such a thing as a Neighborhood Association until Chuck started dropping little notes and letters on her doorstep two weeks ago.

No parking on the street.

All parties should disperse around 11:00.

No unidentifiable fluids are allowed in the lawn of the homeowner, or in the neighboring lawns.

Ms. Summers, if I have to tell you one more time to stop slamming furniture around in the middle of the night...

Buffy was extremely proud of the fact that she was the first homeowner in the history of the Neighborhood Association to receive her very own copy of the Kinko's-bound bylaws, every violation and infraction incurred by her highlighted in the pages.

The flamingos were Dawn's idea, after the bylaws were left on the doorstep with a threat to start issuing fines and increasing her monthly fees (which Buffy was refusing to pay anyway, upon discovering that failure to pay the neighborhood fees could not legally result in eviction). The best retaliation in suburbia was to abide by the laws of tackiness. Flamingos were valuable arsenal in a war of witlessness.

Frowning, Buffy looked out at the spare lawn décor. The sprinkler chucking water over the wet blades of grass, the gently singing wind chimes dangling from the branch of the cherry tree, the cheerfully obnoxious pink flamingo. "I don't know," she said discerningly, bringing the Nikon up to her eye to look through the lens. "It's missing a certain... Clutter. Yeah, clutter."

Dawn frowned from the sidewalk, where she was stretched out in her cherry-print bikini, slurping happily on a virgin strawberry daiquiri. "We could get some lawn gnomes," she suggested. "Lawn gnomes are the ugliest things ever made."

"Too ugly," Anya said, shaking her head from her own towel. "I suggest more flamingos. A flock, perhaps."

Buffy nodded her head as she carefully zoomed in on the lone flamingo, his bright pink plastic shining in the sunlight. Whap! The picture was taken, stored on film for later development. More flamingos. It was a good suggestion, and they were on sale at Wal-Mart. Besides, lawn gnomes gave her the creeps, especially after the last one they'd somehow acquired held a video camera in its round, merry little belly. "Flamingos it is. Besides, I think that Frederigo is lonely."

From the shade of the front porch, Willow arched her flame-colored eyebrow underneath her wide-brimmed straw hat. Even though she had languished in the shadows all afternoon, her pale, delicate complexion was already turning as pink as the flamingo's plastic body. "Frederigo?" she asked. "When did we start naming our lawn animals?"

"When we acquired lawn animals," Buffy replied, snapping off a picture of the sunburned witch, complete with a strip of white sunblock down her straight, freckled nose. "He's Frederigo Flamingo, the latest addition to the Summers household, and the closest thing Dawn will ever have to a pet."

"Hey!" Dawn protested, pouting as she flipped pages in the ninjitsu manual that Giles had helpfully supplied her with, carefully concealed between the pages of Seventeen magazine. "You promised me a gerbil, remember?"

Anya wrinkled her nose, brushing stray grass from her mocha, polka-dotted bikini. "Gerbils are disgusting, filthy creatures," she said. "They're almost as bad as rabbits. Vermin."

Willow hid a smile as she bowed her head and absorbed the language of the book spread out across her Indian-style legs. She had too much studying to catch up on, as she'd skipped out of town before exams and had therefore delivered a highly unsatisfactory academic performance for her sophomore year. No more early graduation for Willow Rosenberg, no more dreams of valedictorian medals or special scholarships. Evil did not pay, especially not for master's degrees.

Yet she found it very difficult to concentrate on the development of western civilization while Buffy positioned plastic yard ornaments, Dawn babbled about ninja arts, and Anya complained about bunnies and gerbils (which was strange, because she'd never had a problem with Amy the rat). It was a fine balance, walking between academia and reacquainting herself with her lost and distant friends.

Two weeks had passed since the morning of her return, and she'd discovered that everything was different. Her friends had grown up in the meantime, changed for the better and left their problems behind, sunning during the day and making margaritas at night. Her bedroom at the Summers house was now crammed full of pressed and prim linen suits, and it smelled not of Tara and incense but of Anya and money. Fortunately, Xander was more than eager to take her in, and she thought that she understood why.

Preschool, kindergarten, high school, apocalypse. They were together throughout it all, and those were the kind of ties that could not be severed easily. Even when she'd screamed murder at him on the hillside, before the twisted temple, he had drawn her into his arms and given her his love. Xander the Courageous. The heart of their operation. She had a feeling that she might need that in the days to come.

Fourteen days. Funny, how she had thought that it would be easier than this. Silly, naïve little Willow, thinking that she could go home to find her friends all picking up the pieces, shattered like she was, and they would have that instant connection of recovery and sorrow. Life was not that simple. Her bedroom, her house, her friends...

The ease in which Buffy interacted with Anya. The sisterly pranks between the Slayer and Dawn. The yard art. All of these little, inconsequential things, and she felt like she was watching the world through Styrofoam, padded and secure, locked away from the harsher, sharper edges. Keep Willow away from all sharp objects; get the blunt-ended kiddie scissors from now on.

Yet she could not bring herself to be bitter about it. What she'd done... She deserved this exclusion, this forced isolation. No one had invited her to patrol, and even Giles watched her warily whenever she walked into the newly remodeled Magic Box unattended.

Nobody accepted the fact that she was still a witch.

Magic was not something that she could expel from her system. There were no rehabilitation centers for the magically-addicted, because magic was not addictive. It was the person who was, and that spoke volumes about her character (or lack thereof, ha-ha). Tara had been a witch for years, and she had never succumbed to the thrall of darker arts. Only Willow, with her constant need to be in the spotlight, in control of the situation, had needed that to validate her sorry, geeky existence.

A disgusted noise drifted over from Dawn's direction, and the gangly teenager flipped over onto her back, tossing the ninjitsu guide and the magazine aside for the moment. "I don't get why Chuck has this big vendetta against us," she grumbled. "I mean, it's not like we haven't been causing trouble for years now. Can't they just get used to all the death and the fighting? Jeez."

Buffy frowned across the street, where Chuck was watering his prize-winning begonias, glaring at the scantily-clad girls loitering on the lawn. "I don't know," she said. "I think he got mad at Xander's Fourth of July fireworks display."

Dawn turned her head around to Willow, pushing her sunglasses down her nose so that she could look over the rims, like a 1940's bathing beauty. "One of Xander's bottle rockets ended up going straight into Chuck's crepe myrtle," she explained. "The tree hasn't been the same since."

Ah. All was explained.

*****

The baby's head is hot and sweet smelling, cradled in his long fingers as the infant kicks and cries for his mother. Spike pulls the child close to his face, burying his nose in the fat folds of the baby's neck, inhaling the powdery smell of new life and new diapers. Pale, new skin, roseate with life and potential. Fragile little fontanel, vulnerable to the slightest pressure, and he can press his finger in the hollowed out bone and feel the baby's brain beneath his fingertip. Amazing, that people can create that kind of life, that they possess that miracle, and amazing that he has the power to take it away.

Screams turn to wails, wails turn to mewls, mewls turn to whimpers, and then silence.

When he woke, he was not very surprised by his evening erection.

Happened a lot; he was a potent man, a manly man, with needs and feelings that she didn't want to tend to, and he had all of these lovely memories that liked to dance around in his head, poisoning his thoughts and filling his heart with a numbed, terrible certainty.

Still wasn't good enough.

Groaning, Spike threw the thin cotton sheets off of his body and stretched languidly on top of the sarcophagus, muscles spreading and unfurling from the tension of nightmares and naughty dreams. Dusk had only graced the land a moment ago, still light vanishing from the horizon and receding into the pitch-black nothingness. New moon tonight, ruling the tides with an iron hand and pushing them towards the shore, and he closed his eyes, seeing the baby's red squall of a face, scrunched up with pain and confusion as he tore into the thick, ripe wrinkles of the infant's fat neck. Remembered how warm and new the blood was in his throat as he swallowed, coppery pennies fresh from Mother Nature's mint, warming his belly with the intoxicating richness of innocence wasted.

Weakly, Spike sighed and hated himself.

The stone floor of his crypt was a blessed relief to his feet, overheated by the soaring summer temperatures. Naturally, he'd have to return to Sunnydale in the height of a heat wave, when humidity reigned supreme. Grimacing, he made his way towards the makeshift kitchen, stepping over debris from his trashed crypt and carefully avoiding puddles of spilled blood and wine. A fine layer of cigarette ash seemed to coat most of the crypt with tiny flakes of gray, and he swiped at the counter before pulling out a cracked ceramic mug. "Really let yourself go, mate," Spike muttered under his breath, looking around at his home.

Disheveled honey hair, glazed green eyes, sheen of sweat covering silken, seawater-flavored skin. She looks magnificent and luscious when partially buried by cheap carpeting. "You know, this place is okay for a hole in the ground," she compliments, and he thinks that it's the first genuine compliment she's paid to him since this entire decadent disaster started.

It was why he'd destroyed the place.

Filmstrip reels flashing through his mind, showing his arms laying Drusilla down on the bed of bodies, her pale skin preternaturally luminous when displayed against the cold flesh of the dead and bloodless. Tattered remnants of photographs and tintypes of grieving mothers weeping over children's caskets, buried in the fog and mist of Europe while he spied on from the shadows, reveling in the glee of taking what was not his to take. Wet dreams about killing infants.

Buffy didn't need any of that.

Bones aching, Spike dropped himself into the comfortable, battered armchair, fingers curling around a mug of hog's blood while his other hand blindly patted the end table, searching for his smokes. Stupid him, thinking that she deserved him. That this soul would mean anything other than suffering. Should've kept going, past California, back across the Pacific Ocean towards the shores of China, where he could find that poor little Slayer's descendants and offer his pain as justice for her loss. But he shouldn't have come back here, not when she was so...

Stunning.

Gentle, sweet fingers stroking through his hair, tugging at the curls, winding white-gold locks around her fingertips. Smooth, collected, poised. Pleased. Satisfaction radiates off of her like light from a candle, and Spike knows that this is how she is meant to be, and he'll only ruin it if he stays.

Spike had not left the crypt in two weeks.

Fourteen days without company; he'd kicked Clem back out to his shoddy apartment in the demon district as soon as he returned, not wanting to be coddled by offers of fried food and weepy Sandra Bullock films. He had his own company to keep. The dead were all around him, rising from shadows to fill his heart with the memory of how good it felt to take their lives, to drink their blood, and then the crashing shock of morality destroying the revered high of murder. Wrong, wrong, all wrong.

Shouldn't have killed that little bathtub-gin-loving flapper, skinny legs doing the Charleston underneath beads of red fringe, eyelashes thick and false, strings of pearls scattering to the floor as he tore her necklaces off and ripped her throat out with his fangs.

Shouldn't have hunted the ghettos of Warsaw with Drusilla by his side, taking the damned little children wearing their cloth stars sewn onto their ratty garments into the alleys and draining them dry before the Germans could turn them into ash.

Shouldn't have pushed her to the floor and clawed greedily at her robe, pressing his knee into her thigh and prying her legs apart, intoxicated with the pulsing, hot smell of her screaming and squirming, reaching for what was never his.

Oh, his sins were great and should not have ever been forgotten. Gone soft, she had, laughing at him on the front lawn with her tender, bare feet sinking into blades of dew-drenched grass. Hugging him, teasing him, kissing him and promising better days. She should have clung to her memories of him, the evil thing throwing punches into her face and promising her bloody murder, because that demon never lied. The newer Spike had, giving her vows of undying love and never-will-there-be-pain, only to turn around and try to...

Buffy thought that he never would have gone through with it. She should know better by now.

Those were the worst dreams, the dreams where he did it. Where he ripped open the robe and found her shaking and frightened underneath the cloth, her sobs echoing throughout the poor acoustics of the bathroom while he roared at her and thrust inside of her. Feel it again, feel it again. I'll make you feel it again. Big hands bruising her small breasts, pumping into her so hard that a part of her heart broke off and was left blackened and charred on the tile flooring. Raped her and left her, spat in her face and strutted away.

The kicker was that every morning after one of those dreams, Spike woke up hard as a rock and panting for more.

Of course, this was why he'd locked himself in his crypt and refused to go out. Not to her, not around her. Not around anyone, because that bloodlust was still there. The desire to beat the snot out of some foul-mouthed little tosser who didn't know what he was dealing with. The aching for the sound of bone splintering underneath fists. The rush of ecstasy after taking a woman's virginity, and then her life's blood. Oh, yeah, he remembered how wonderful he felt when he committed his crimes. It was the worst punishment of all.

Remembering how much he enjoyed everything.

Dully, Spike looked down into the dark, burgundy contents of his mug, smelling the slaughtered hog beneath his nostrils. He'd always hated the stuff, the animal's blood stolen from veterinary clinics, occasionally taking the blood drained from corpses in funeral homes or knocking off Red Cross wagons for the good stuff. Humanity had a far more piquant flavor than that of animals. It was the spice of the soul.

Of course, he couldn't bear to think of taking it and drinking it now. Someone had died for that blood, someone would die if he took that blood, something awful would result from any minor action and maybe one of those something-awfuls would be the last straw. He was clinging to his sanity with desperate fingers, but with every nightmare, every memory, every moment, he felt it slipping.

"I'm a dangerous man," Spike said seriously to the cup of pig's blood, but it had nothing to comfort him with save for the taste of traif nourishment.

*****

Frederigo Flamingo sat in the front yard in all of his glorious kitsch beauty, colors drained by her achromatic photography, smirking at her through the picture hanging from the length of clothesline. I know what you're thinking, he teased. You're thinking that it's been two weeks and he doesn't love you anymore.

"Am not," Buffy retorted to the piece of lawn tack, frowning at the flamingo like it had actually spoken. "I'm thinking about that gorgeous autumn-colored leather skirt at The Limited, thank you very much. Stupid psychic flamingo."

But it had been two weeks and what if the flamingo was right?

Two weeks. She'd spent the majority of it in the darkroom, surrounded by the glow of dark red lights, developing photography with her bare hands and finding discomfort and tension in every shot. Every picture was a failure, completely dissatisfying, not reflective of the ease and comfort of her earlier attempts. It was difficult to find the glory in a brilliant summer sunset, or the majesty in the cliffs overlooking Miller's Beach. The edges around her world had darkened when Spike waltzed in and out of her life in one night, leaving her empty-handed and wondering:

Was it too late?

Spike had been right about one thing. She did not see him again until he was captured in the permanence of celluloid and reeking of developing chemicals. Achromatic photography served him well, his sharp and angular features bending and twisting the shadows to work for him. He looked at home in the grays and patches of black, eyes muted to a shade of clear smoke, hair blazingly white with darker spots at the roots. He needed to bleach his hair again. She missed it like she missed the taste of his mouth.

When she tried to smoke a cigarette last night, she found that it had gone stale against her lips.

Wincing, Buffy tapped her fingers impatiently on the table. New nervous habit, acquired especially for the stress of Spike over the past two weeks. She had a few of those, like the smoking and the redecorating whims.

The Hellmouth was slower than molasses, the monsters and demons apparently as worn out by the heat as she was, which gave her extra time to throw herself into battle against the evil tyranny of Chuck Kellogg and his perfect begonias. What an asshole. He so needed to get a life, and what was up with his constant watering? Really, could his grass get any wetter at this point? She'd started photographing it, and was seriously considering creating a multimedia presentation displaying Chuck's obvious obsessive-compulsive disorder, and...

Buffy really, really needed to get laid.

The red lights of the darkroom flooded down on her with its deep, vivid hues, and she felt like a poor, doomed chicken in a rotisserie oven, spinning around and around, basting in her own juices. "This is all Spike's fault," Buffy declared, because it really was. Why had he even bothered to come back if he was just going to avoid her? Weren't they supposed to be doing the whole maturity thing, growing up and out of their violent, immature sex-fling? She'd tried to reach him, tried to touch him, and...

"Terribly sorry," he says in a deep, serious voice, bending over the jagged glass and liquor, shoulders hunched and hands neat and slow, careful. Not like Spike at all, and she wants him to sneer in her face and tell her to clean it up herself, not his house, not his booze, not his broken glass. She wants him to be proud and passionate, with just a touch of sweetness that says he doesn't really mean it, and he's just...

As always, her eyes went back to the photograph. The first one, the one where he first saw her, standing on her sidewalk in a battered black shirt that clung to all of his sinuous lines and musculature. The hair was disheveled, which was unlike his usual blade-sharp appearance, but she preferred it mussed and tumbled anyway. She liked her Spike skewered.

What bothered her was the expression on his face. Mouth slightly open, head tilted to the side in classic Spike fashion, blue eyes half-hidden by long, pretty lashes. He was only cotton soft when he kissed her afterwards, when she was too tired to make him fight for it, when she was too lost in the ecstasy of orgasm to slap him and tell him not to love her. It was too open, revealing too much, wonder and worship evident on his face.

She'd never seen him look that way before, not even when she came back from the dead.

He stands at the foot of the stairs, mouth open and eyes wide, wonderfully blue, and she feels like she's in a dream, but the dream is reality.

"Buffy?"

She dropped the picture like it was developed in acid, burning the skin off of her palms. It drifted to the floor as she spun around, and she paled when she saw the expression on Giles's face as he looked down at the ground, drinking in the image of Spike enraptured from the ground. "I..." she said, but she could not bring herself to finish her sentence as Giles bent down to the ground, carefully rescuing her photograph from the dust. "I... I know I forgot about... Training, but..."

Tiredly, Giles turned away from her, not wanting to listen to her stammer out excuses, instead focusing on the photograph. Spike sans duster and cigarettes, standing there on the obvious plush greenery of Buffy's front yard, hope and love written across his face. He did not have to ask if this was a recent photograph; she had not bothered with capturing the beauty of the world before Spike left. "I see," he murmured, and Buffy closed her eyes, hurt.

"He came to me," she said defensively, like it would help. "I didn't... It's not like that, Giles. I took that picture two weeks ago, and I haven't seen him since then. Honest."

"Buffy, you've been seeing him for years."

Startled and stunned, Buffy widened her eyes and all the blood drained from her face as she stared at Giles. "What?" she asked in a breathless voice, and he sighed, carelessly tossing the photograph on the ground, not wanting to see that encompassing, brilliant love etched into Spike's murderous, arrogant features.

"Dawn has gone on patrol with Willow and Xander," he said in a calm, even tone. "I think that we need to talk."

This was the moment that she had been dreading ever since the debacle with Spike began, a moment put off for months by healing and simple denial. No one wanted to confront her about what had happened between the vampire and the Slayer, and now she was going to reap the consequences, in full.

Miserably, Buffy's shoulders sagged and her face fell. "Yes, sir," she mumbled, and readied herself for the worst.

*****

(end part four)

*****



SUMMARY: As old friends return to Sunnydale and life begins to move on, a new adversary comes to town and shows Buffy more about herself than she ever wanted to know. B/S

RATING: NC-17

SPOILERS: Through "Grave"

DISCLAIMER: The characters within this story are the property of Mutant Enemy Productions, except for the ones that you don't recognize, because I made them up all by my lonesome. Aren't I cool? No? Shut up. You don't know me. Bitch. Music will be disclaimed as it is used, and it will be used occasionally. Like in this chapter. Really, it will.

AUTHOR'S NOTES: I have had this idea brewing in my head for what seems like an eternity, and only now is it finally coming together on paper. Or screen. Whatever. Anyway, the necromancy information is a combination of genuine research and Lovecraft's mythology, as well as some embellishments from yours truly. It may help if you read my The Waiting Season series of vignettes to help establish this story, and those are also on my site.

I'd just like to make a shout-out to my beta dawg, Devil Piglet. Big props to her mad grammar skillz. You know you a pimp.



Chapter Five: Second Grace

The car ride was silent.

Not unbearably silent, just... There was no noise. No sound, except for the smooth transition of the gears as the dreaded automatic BMW purred down the streets, gracefully gliding over the pavement in the direction of the Magic Box. No radio, no conversation, only quietude and the barest thread of tension.

Giles was calm. Utterly calm, as a matter of fact, coolly watching the speedometer and occasionally glancing at the slender blonde sitting in the passenger seat. The convertible's top was down, and the twilight wind rustled through the blonde curls and tendrils of her summer-streaked hair. The daughter that he'd never had, the child that he'd given up to fight the Good Fight. She was the one that he adored above all others, the girl who'd wormed her way into her heart, despite her atrocious fashion decisions and her propensity towards falling for the undead.

It did not take much to tell that she was in love. No, not much at all; her face was always an open book for him to read, even after she'd returned from the dead, skin like spun glass, eyes hollowed out and mouth too thin and tired. Now, with her skin awash in the resplendent colors of raspberry and indigo dusk, head tipped back and camera dangling around her neck, Giles could see the way that her love radiated throughout the night. The love of a hero, meant for a monster.

Obscene. Abominable. Doomed from the start-up.

Yet as always, there was nothing that Giles could deny her, even this strange and twisted romance.

"You know that he's a monster," he said quietly, and Buffy closed her eyes, bowing her head and turning away from the summer night that rolled past her window. "He's not a man, Buffy, no matter what he might tell you, or what he might lead you to believe."

"I know," she murmured, feeling her hands twist and turn in her lap. She feared his disapproval, his disappointment, but she could never lie to Giles with much success. It only served to fuck things up in the end, and their relationship was too deep and unfathomable for those bonds to be broken. Watcher and Slayer, father and daughter, man and woman. They were connected by destiny, and she could not bear to look at him and see that crushing sadness that her failures always brought.

The deep onyx of his pinky ring flashed as a car zoomed past them, and she saw the Magic Box coming up on their right. Surprisingly, Giles passed it by, choosing instead to continue down the main strip, giving her a measured look. "I thought we might just drive for a bit," he said. "Is that all right with you?"

"Sure," she said, blinking at him. "Where are we going?"

A smile curled on Giles' lips, and he shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know, really," he admitted, "but we'll find out when we get there."

Never one to argue with illogical rationalizations, Buffy nodded her head and turned her face out to the stars again.

His tidy hands reached towards the radio, and he turned on the CD player, the enchanted nighttime giving him the strange urge to listen to Nick Drake. Damn that Volkswagen commercial; it had cheapened the meaning of a deep, beautiful song about suicide and now gave Giles the urge to listen to "Pink Moon" whenever riding down the road with the top of the Beemer down. Dreamy guitars, wistful voice, enigmatic lyrics and humid blooms of oleander scattered across the roads... "It's a beautiful night," Giles murmured, and she hummed in reply.

"It's been a beautiful summer," she said, and then she turned back to him, brow knitted with worry. "Are you going to yell at me soon?"

A chuckle, and then he shook his head. "Why should I yell at you?" he asked. "You can't help what you feel, Buffy. I may not be precisely thrilled with your decision on the matter, but that doesn't change anything, does it?"

No, she supposed not. She'd tried to fall out of love with him after she first found out, tried to make herself think of the many bad and awful things that Spike had done to her in the past. All of the times he'd tried to kill her. Selling her secrets and friends out to Adam in the hopes of becoming a homicidal maniac again. Chaining her up in his crypt and trying to force her heart to tell him what he wanted to hear. The robot; God, that stupid robot. And then, oh, the bathroom. It always came back to the bathroom.

"I can't help it," she whispered, knotting her fingers in her lap. "I've tried to leave him, but I keep going back. And it's not like the whole magic addiction thing, not at all..."

"Of course not," Giles agreed, and then he arched his eyebrow, turning his face in her direction. "You know that Willow wasn't addicted to the magic, don't you?"

Startled, she blinked her eyelashes and then held up a hand. "Whoa. Changing subjects awful fast there, Giles."

"Not really," he said, turning away from the strip and towards the outer boroughs of Sunnydale, the expensive houses and the gardens undoubtedly filled with colorful scraps of blossoms. "After Willow came home, we sat down and had a long talk about what happened before she left, and why it happened. She knows the truth, and that's what has allowed her to come home. You see, Buffy, she was never addicted to the magic. It was the power. The control. That's what made her go mad, and that is what made her lash out against all of us."

Dark, cold Willow standing in front of her, black hair severe and shot through and through with shades of former copper, smiling like a sharp blade, hands on her hips and veins crackling through her face. "Now I get to be the Slayer."

"Oh."

Succinct as always, and Giles hid a smile, fighting the urge to touch her hair. It was disheveled and rustling in the open air of the convertible, tossed about the wind while the moonless night streaked her through and through with cerulean. "What I'm trying to say is that you were not addicted to... Him."

Buffy frowned. "I was hooked on power? I don't get it."

Giles shook his head. "No. What I'm trying to tell you is that not everything is an addiction, Buffy. Life does not work that way." He lowered his voice. "You've been in love with him for quite a long time, haven't you?"

Wincing, she sucked in her cheeks and then sighed. "I don't know," she said truthfully. "It's strange. Weird. I know that I haven't treated him like I should have, and not just talking about the constant beating him up for information."

She meant that she should have staked him years ago, should have killed him from the beginning, but the world had always seemed less interesting and vibrant without Spike in it. Life would not have been the same if he was exorcised from the planet, and so she kept him around because he was vivacious. Funny, how a dead guy could love life that much.

Thoughtfully, Giles nodded, and the car plunged into momentary silence while he contemplated this new, odd development. After he'd returned from London, he'd known that he should never have left; things had taken a disastrous turn and everybody in Sunnydale was in shambles. Now, as he looked over to Buffy, he thought that perhaps things might have a chance of working out. "There's no sin in your being happy."

Cocking her head to the side, Buffy parted her lips and looked at him in wonder. "What..." Her voice trailed off when she saw the way that he was smiling at her, felt his warm, comforting hand close over her small fingers and grip them tightly. It was true. She was happier than she had been in ages. She could smile, laugh, sing, dance, and all without the aid of demonic choreography. It was not just him, not just this love for Spike, but the notion that she could love again. The sight of Anya yelling at MSNBC when the stocks went down. Dawn throwing quips and daggers like a pro. Hardhat askew, Xander leaning in her doorframe and offering chocolate milkshakes after work. Willow's sunblock-coated nose, and Frederigo's pink, plastic feathers.

The way that Giles was humming along with the radio.

Her smile faltered briefly, and she sighed, furrowing her brow and looking at Giles with worry. "I think I messed it up, Giles," she said softly, and he snorted.

"Don't be silly," he said. "I highly doubt that Spike has managed to somehow fall out of love with you. The little blighter's had a yen for you ever since he set foot in Sunnydale, much to my disliking."

But Buffy shook her head, looking down at her lap and biting on her lip. "Things got really bad at the end, Giles," she said. "I mean, yeah, we weren't exactly the picture-perfect happy couple, but still. We weren't like... Like we were in the end." Like we were in the bathroom, when he tackled me to the ground and tore the robe from my body, and it hurt when he put his knee on my thigh even though nothing hurt like the sound of his voice saying all of those awful... "I just wonder if it's too late. And then it makes me crazy because I thought that everything was over. You know?"

Giles said nothing; he merely steered the car over to the side of the road, right by the Starbucks parking lot in the expensive Garden Heights district. There was a small gravel road, and the wheels crunched over the rocks as he drove the car down the unbeaten path, towards reeds and cattails, the darkness concealing what lay beyond the tall grasses. Willow trees were hunched over, weeping over the small, moonlit pond in the back of the lot, and it was here that Giles stopped the car and sighed.

"Life isn't a wound that you can heal," he said. "It's constantly changing. Some parts hurt, and other parts don't. That's simply the way that it works. But there are choices that you can make to prevent that suffering, and there are mistakes that we make in trying to figure out how to go about it properly. Life's a lesson, Buffy."

He pursed his lips then, and gave her the serious look, the one that meant "I'm cutting all the bullshit now and telling you what I want to say". "For the record, I can't say that I don't question the object of your affection. Spike's still a vampire, and a soulless vampire at that. He has the capacity to do great evil, Buffy, and I don't want to see you hurt again." Giles did not have to mention Angel's name. She understood him implicitly.

"I won't," Buffy promised. "Giles, I'm not going to go into this all doe-eyed and innocent. Trust me, that is one thing that is not a part of the Buffy/Spike relationship." And I've got the handcuffs to prove it.

"I know," Giles replied. "Because after we leave here, we're going to go back to the Magic Box, and I'm going to give you every single piece of documentation that I have on Spike. You're going to learn exactly what he has done and why he has done it. It's the only condition that I'm placing on this nightmare, and you must admit, that's terribly open-minded of me."

Buffy flashed her eyes at him, cracking a smile that was wicked and wonderful. "That's cool," she said. "Do you want me to give you all of the documentation that I have on Spike?"

Giles paled.

*****

The only thing better than chocolate was Xander.

"So I said to Joe, I said, 'Joe, you've got some serious issues there, buddy,' and Joe said 'Yeah, tell me about it -- I'm in love with the foreman's daughter,' and I said, 'No, Joe, I was talking about your B.O.' and he got really mad and wouldn't talk to me for a week," Xander said, taking a long lick from his double cone of cherry fudge ripple. "But he started wearing stronger deodorant, so I guess that's a plus."

The cemetery was deadly quiet in the sleepiness that it possessed every summer, when it was too hot for the vampires to scheme up apocalypses and the student body dispersed for its better, much safer locations. Dawn, Willow and Xander strolled easily down the main path, Dawn swinging her battle axe while taking liberal sips of her caramel milkshake while Xander told stories about his coworkers. Not a vampire in sight, and with the stars twinkling in the night sky, Willow felt at ease.

It was difficult to keep away from Xander, difficult to spend moments outside of him, because there was something warm and easy about the way that he treated her. The others tended to handle her with kid gloves, like she was made of glass and if she broke, there would be hell to pay. But not Xander. He bought her ice cream and led her into the nostalgia of their past, telling old stories and reviving old memories, giving her their history and letting her heal. When she woke up in the morning, he made her omelets and read the newspaper with her.

He was the only one who knew about the magic.

She sits in the middle of her makeshift bedroom, surrounded by a circle of white candles, legs crossed Indian-style and head tipped back, lost in the trance. Xander sits on the bed, flipping through comic books, occasionally turning his glance to her and smiling.

Frowning, Dawn took a long sip of thick, sweet milkshake and sighed, heavy with disappointment. "This is so not fair," she groused. "I have to go back to school in six days, and that means no more late-night patrolling. You'd think that the vampires could at least come out and let me have a little bit of fun."

Sympathetically, Willow shook her head. "Those spoilsport vamps," she said. "Never wanting to kill anything anymore. It's a crying shame."

But Dawn had already tuned her out, looking around at the scenery, at the stone and marble marking the places where the dead rested. The axe was heavy in her arms, caramel ice cream sweetening her mouth, and she was content. Distantly, she listened to the laughter of Willow as Xander told dirty jokes, saw his sticky, messy fingers touch the back of his best friend's neck, and wondered what the future held in store for her.

When Tara was still alive, she'd read Dawn's palm for her. Smooth, warm fingers caressing the creases in her hand, telling her stories about the lines and giving her insights into destiny. Candles had burned in the bedroom, and there was the faintest whisper of black rose incense burning, magic undulating throughout the air. She'd told her fortune, spoke about how deep and ancient her life was, tracing her fingertip down the heavy fold of skin circling her thumb.

"You'll have children one day," Tara had foretold, counting the little nicks and marks near her pinky. "And you're going to meet a boy and fall madly in love with him, and this line here says that he's going to be an artist. You'll do beautiful things together, but even better, you'll do beautiful things on your own."

For the first time, Dawn believed it. This summer had been incredible, teaching her things about herself that she'd never conceived of before. She could make stunning violence out of swords, dance like mad at the Bronze, and then go home to dream about hopes and wishes, safe in her bed while her sister slumbered next door. It felt like the world had somehow shifted in her favor, and she could look at the other gossiping, self-absorbed kids around her and smile, like she possessed knowledge that they had not yet uncovered.

Life is short, life is bitter, but sometimes, life can be so sweet.

"Help! Oh, God, please, somebody help me!"

And sometimes, life can be really, really fun.

The three broke into a stride, carelessly disregarding the environment by scattering the remnants of ice cream cones and non-biodegradable Styrofoam cups in their wake. Dawn raised the battle axe, clenching her jaw and racing towards the sound of the victim's voice, long legs carrying her faster than Xander or Willow could manage.

She arrived underneath the oak tree first, where a newly-risen vampire was throwing a young, dark-skinned boy against a tree. The vampire's dark blue dress was slit down the back, revealing preternaturally pale skin, her snarls and hungry growls sending chills and shivers down Dawn's spine. "Hey!" she called out, tossing her hair out of her eyes and giving the vampire the best cheerful smile she could muster. The vampire snorted in irritation, turning around to glower at the teenaged girl. "I think you've got a tear on your dress."

Blinking in surprise, the vampire changed out of game face and wrapped her hands around her back, frowning. "Really?" she asked, and Dawn took that moment to throw the battle axe at neck, efficiently beheading the newborn monster.

There was nothing but ash as she ran forward, towards the boy who was slumped against the tree, eyes wide and terrified in his strong, well-defined face. Blood ran down the front of his yellow tee shirt, crusting over the links of his gold necklace, and Dawn knelt down in front of him, pressing her hand to the gashes in his neck. His pulse was still strong, and she felt it flutter when she touched him. "You okay?" she asked with concern, and the boy nodded his head.

"Yeah," he croaked, and she picked up his large, warm hand, guiding it to the wound on his throat.

"Press down on this," she instructed, "and get yourself to the hospital, okay?"

Panting, Willow and Xander showed up behind her, and yet the boy did not look away from her. For a moment, Dawn felt like she was going to drown in the warm, melted chocolate of his eyes, and she swallowed hard as he licked his lips. "I... I don't know where the hospital is," he confessed. "I just moved here, and some guys from that club knew this shortcut..."

Ah, yes, the famous path through the cemetery, where so many kids met their fates. It was becoming an initiation ritual in the classes, to run through Shady Rest after dark and see who could outrun the boogie men hiding through the tombstones. Dawn knew it well; Spike often liked scaring the foolish teenagers when he was bored. "Well, here's some advice from the Welcome Wagon," she said. "It's not a nice town after dark."

Xander smiled a little sympathetically, offering a hand to the boy and pulling him to his shaking feet. "Come on," he said. "I'll take you to the hospital. It's not far."

Licking her lips, Dawn put her hand on Willow's shoulder. "Why don't you go with them?" she said, and Willow frowned.

"I can't leave you all by yourself, Dawnie," she said, and Dawn gave her a reassuring smile.

"Please," she said. "I've killed like, so many vampires. I just want to make sure that there aren't any other kids around, maybe grab a mocha on my way home. Don't worry."

Willow still had a wary look on her face. "I don't know," she said, and Dawn restrained the urge to roll her eyes.

"Look, I've got my cell phone on me. I'll call you when I get home, and if it takes me longer than a half an hour, you can call Buffy and she can make my life miserable. Deal?"

Reluctantly, Willow nodded her head, and then put her hand on Dawn's cheek. "Just be careful," she warned, and Dawn flashed her a smile.

"Of course."

*****

Dawn had a dream.

It was a beautiful vision, one that gave her great pleasure while she slept, of storming into Spike's crypt upon his inevitable return, armed to the hilt with a giant cache of weaponry. Swords, axes, throwing stars, daggers, maybe even Riley's leftover tazer just for that little something personal. In her fantasy, she kicked his ass six ways to Sunday and left him crying and whimpering in the corner, all sad like a kicked puppy dog.

Of course, her plans never panned out like they should have.

The crypt was a mess. A total, absolute disaster area. Spike was no Martha Stewart with fangs, but he had always tended to his home, tried to make it somewhat cozy, so that she used to curl up in the big, spacious recliner and eat Jelly Bellies from a jar while he channel surfed. Now, candle wax was streaked across the walls along with blood, and there were torn fragments of plastic baggies discarded carelessly on the floor. Her favorite chair was overturned, and the neat bookshelf filled with eclectic, ancient volumes was torn away from the wall, books and papers scattered, ripped from their bindings.

She found him sitting atop the sarcophagus, sullen and smoking, tearing pages out of Shakespearean plays and tossing them hopelessly to the wind, his drunken voice slurring out sonnets.

"'Now is the winter of our discontent

Made glorious summer by this sun of York;

And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house

In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.'"

"It's not winter," Dawn said, her voice cutting through the hazy fog of his inebriation. Squinting, Spike stared across the room at her, bright and pissed in the middle of ruined literature, one hand on her hip and the other loosely gripping a stake. Pretty little bit, all dressed up in dark blue jeans and glittery camisole. Taking a lesson from big sister's skimpy slut-wear.

"Nope," he agreed. "It's Shakespeare. Richard III, to be precise. You like the Bard, sweetbreads?"

Warily, Dawn stepped a little closer, trying to play nonchalant when she was actually growing nervous and scared of him. She'd seen the bruises on her sister's body, heard the stories, and knew that a drunk, Shakespeare-quoting Spike was probably not exactly safe. "Yeah," she said. "We read Romeo and Juliet freshman year. I got to be Juliet."

A high, tittering giggle, the kind that he only elicited when he was really good and smashed. His clawed, white hands tore down the side of the leather-bound volume, pulling out a handful of pages and throwing them into the air, where they flew and glided on the wind like paper cranes. "Would've pegged you as an Ophelia, myself," he said, and he shrugged. "But then again, what the hell do I know? I'm Richard, you see."

"No, you're drunk."

The sound of his wild, nervous laughter was like nails on a chalkboard, and hackles rose on Dawn's skin. "That I am, pet," he agreed, pointing at her like she'd just invented cold fusion. "Smart little snack, you are." A deep, heavy sigh fell from his chest, and Spike looked down at the book in his hands. "It's all meaningless, you know. They're just words, strung together all pretty. No way to live a life, by a bloody book."

Dawn snorted. "Spike, you're the last person on this planet who'd ever live by the book."

This seemed to crack him up; he doubled over from his perch on the sarcophagus, and then lost his precarious, uncertain balance and fell onto the floor in a heap of black denim and indigo silk. Funny, the little details that she noticed, but his shirt was buttoned all crooked. Like he hadn't even cared enough to sober up and try. When Dawn turned her head and looked around, she could see the dozens of empty liquor bottles distributed among the crypt's trash and paper, and she wondered how long he'd been drunk.

Dawn stalked across the room in long paces, skirting broken glass and puddles of blood and ashes from long-dead cigarettes. "You're revolting," she declared, putting her hands on her hips and looking down her sweetly freckled nose at him. She delicately sniffed the air, and then wrinkled her nose. "And you smell like a dead wino."

"I am a dead wino," Spike said with all seriousness, and she rolled her eyes, flipping her hair over her shoulder.

"Whatever."

When she bent down to try and help him up, Spike snarled and jerked away from her, arms lifted protectively, eyes briefly sparking gold. "Don't touch me," he said. "I'm dirty."

"Duh," she said, lip curling at the smell and look of him. "You really need a shower, like, yesterday."

No, no, silly little flighty thing. Didn't understand. Maybe all of her sweet-smelling, shiny hair got in the way of her brain. Sighing, Spike rested his head on the cold, smelly floor and looked up at the cobwebs and grime coating the ceiling of the crypt. "No, I'm dirty," he said. "Unclean. Impure as the driven yellow snow." He dissolved again into laughter at that, and Dawn stood above him numbly.

Oh. That kind of dirty. The soiled, tainted feeling that she got whenever she heard the words "Key" or "Glory". The feeling that crawled over her and rested rotting in her belly after she lifted earrings from Anya or stole jewelry from Afterthoughts. Guilt twisting, regret and pain, and the feeling that she was a Very Bad Girl for doing the things that she did. "Oh," she said faintly, and she swallowed hard, kneeling down next to him. "Is it... What happened? Between you and Buffy?" Her voice was little more than a whisper. "In the bathroom?"

In the bathroom.

His face crumpled, and he covered his face with his hands, clumsy and uncertain. Dawn knew, the one person in the world who might've accepted him, and now she'd throw him out like the trash littering his crypt.

Spike was not surprised when she punched him.

Her fist landed sure and strong in his face, smashing across his cheek, and he rolled with the punch, took what she dished out, because he deserved it. Oh, he'd earned this blow tenfold, and Spike lay there, staring off at the broken glass and crumpled paper, all of the lovely language of his literary heroes strewn across the floor like garbage. "Stupid vampire," Dawn said, hurt. "You left us when we needed you."

"Yeah," he muttered through thick, dull lips. "Sure did, pet. Can't expect much better from the likes of me, remember? Bad old Spike, chasing skirts right out of town, even when little Red Riding Witch decides to go all homicidal, even when sweet little Tara..."

"Stop," Dawn said, grabbing his shoulders and shaking them, desperation evident in her big brown-green eyes. Chameleon eyes, always changing, like her moods. "Just stop it. God, what's wrong with you? You're acting all freaky."

"I am freaky," he insisted. "Fucking freak of nature, right? That's what she thought, and now she wants to trot around doling out kisses and pretend everything's all peachy keen. Like she doesn't even care, like she doesn't even remember, but I do." He remembered every screaming, blinding moment, the way that the shower curtain snapped from its rings and the sound of tearing fabric. How soft and fragile her skull was, pressed between his crushing palms.

"But you're sorry, right?" she asked, all of her hopes riding on that one question. He had to be sorry, because even if he didn't have a soul, he still loved Buffy enough to regret it. He had to, or else nothing he'd ever said to her mattered. If he could do that to her sister, that violent, awful act, and then not even feel a twinge of regret...

Spike snorted, his long fingers splayed out as he tried to pull himself up. "Course I'm sorry," he muttered, a headache starting to split through his head. Looked like the sobriety train was pulling up, toot toot, and he had a ticket to Hangoverville. "Lot of good that it does. Sorry's nothing but a word, Dawnie dear, and it don't mean a hill of beans when you put it up with everything else."

Confused, she frowned. He was taking her on a loopy trip of Spike-logic, and she thought that she might be a little more suited for the ride if she were as wasted as he obviously was. "I don't get it," she said. "You're sorry for what happened. You apologized, she forgave you. So what's the big deal?"

Wincing, Spike pressed a palm to his aching head and rested against the wall. Blindly, he reached for a half-empty bottle of Grand Marnier, but Dawn swiftly took the liquor away from him. Little prig. "Big deal is that I can't tell her that I won't do it again," he muttered. "Thought I'd solved it. Thought I'd fixed it right and proper, came back to Sunnydale all sad and guilty, and turns out that you can put the man in the monster, but you can't take the monster out of the man."

Cold, navy-colored eyes turned up and grabbed her gaze, fixing his eyes on her until she couldn't move. "I'm a bastard, Dawn," he muttered, self-loathing thick in his dark growl of a voice. "A rotten-to-the-core, selfish, violent bugger who shouldn't have ever been allowed to crawl out of his mum's womb."

Dawn grimaced. "Nice visual, Spike," she said.

His long, elegant fingers suddenly latched onto her slim shoulders like spiders, crawling over her skin with cool, feral grace. "Listen, girl," he snarled. "You'd be best to stay the hell away from me. I don't bring nothing but pain."

"That's such fucking bullshit," Dawn said harshly, and she jerked away from him, shoving him against the wall, her manicured nails wrapped around his neck. "Listen to me, boy. I don't know if you've ever noticed it or not, but I love you. Really, I do. It's the only reason I stopped by here tonight. Well, that and to kick your ass, but you seem to be doing a good enough job of it already. What the hell happened to you? You're all gloomy and doomy, like Angel was, and believe me, that act gets old really fast."

Her needy fingers wrapped around his collar, and Dawn jerked him to his stumbling, drunken feet, bringing his face so close to hers that she could smell the cheap booze on his tongue. "You want some advice, Spike-o?" she asked. "Get a grip. Yeah, you fucked up. So what? Everybody does. And yeah, you might fuck up again, but everybody makes mistakes. So move on. Get with the now. Because I need you. God, Spike, you're my best friend."

You're my best friend.

Nobody had ever claimed that about him. Oh, certainly, he'd had his share of lovers, and he'd had his share of acquaintances and chums, but not like this. Not with a girl like Dawn, so sweet and untouched, untarnished and innocent. Spike ached for acceptance, longed for it like blood, but all that he saw when he looked at her open, heart-shaped face was Buffy, pleading and begging for him to stop.

Sadly, he shook his head at her, his hand hovering over her head like he yearned to touch her, but would break her if he did. "Sorry, bit," he said, "but you've got lousy taste in friends."

Heartbroken, she stood up, trying not to cry. Not in front of him, not after what he'd just done to her. "Fine," she spat, fighting to keep the tremor out of her voice, replacing it with venom instead. "Sit here and die in your hellhole. See if I care."

With that, Dawn stormed out of the crypt, refusing to cry until she got far enough away that he could not hear her.

Dully, Spike silently picked up the bottle of Grand Marnier and drank it until it was as empty as he was.

*****

Clapping a hand over her mouth, Buffy stumbled off of her bed and ran blindly for the bathroom, barely making it to the toilet before she threw up.

In 1973, the Council came across a rash of murders in Munich which fit William the Bloody and Drusilla's modus operandi. Seventeen young women ranging from the ages of 14 to 19, all preparing to take the holy vows and become sisters of the Church of Holy Reunion. They were raped and mutilated, as shown in Illustration 19.4., displaying a crime scene photograph of victim Greta Jenson, age 16.

Long, dark hair streaming down across her shoulders, the tips soaked in blood from the gaping wound in her chest. Bits of rust stained her skin from the railroad spike resting snugly in her navel, her torso split open and ribs cracked apart like a watermelon, heart scooped out like useless seeds and replaced with the fine beads of a rosary.

Little Greta Jenson could have been Dawn.

Her shaking hand flushed the toilet, and she felt her legs giving out from underneath her. "Oh, God," Buffy whispered, her skin coated with sweat, eyes blurring as she slumped down on the cold tiles of the bathroom floor, pressing her forehead against the seat of the toilet. "Oh, fuck... Fucking God..." She couldn't take it, the thought of it all, the horrendous acts and murders that he had committed, and all so perfectly documented for her love-blind eyes to see.

Thousands of people. Men, women, little children, all dead at his hands. The hands that had stroked her body, had fluttered so gently through her hair when she tried to catch sleep in his bed. That mouth had bruised unwilling women's lips, his mouth so sweet and tender, breathing passion in paths down her neck and towards her belly.

She'd taken his history for granted, like some distant fairy tale that was completely unrelated to the version of Spike she knew today, shady snippets and scraps that reminded her of his evils and atrocities. But Buffy had never read it in black and white, with terrible, stark illustrations and photography documenting the full extent of his darkness. His cruelty. His inhumanity, absolute.

Buffy released a sigh and stood up, her shaking fingers pressed to her throbbing temples, and she almost tumbled back onto the floor when she realized where she was standing. Her bathroom. The scene of his last great crime.

That night, she sits sobbing and aching on the edge of the bathtub, the water running behind her to mask the sound of her hitching crying. Her body hurts, bones aching and bruises exploding over her skin, and stray beads of cold water hit her naked back. Oh, how Spike has left his mark on her, his harsh handprints rising into purple and blue, scorching her like tattoos. All that she can think of is the way that he looked, the way that he touched her...

Abruptly, she stops crying and steps into the shower, engulfing herself in the icy spray of water. It's better this way, this terrible ending, because this way she does not have to feel anything about him ever again. Erase him. Forget him. He is nothing, and now, so is she.

Everything spun around her for a moment, the world tilting on its axis, and Buffy clung to the edge of the sink for support as she felt the walls of the bathroom closing in on her like a prison. You're sick, they told her. You're depraved and disturbed for this. Don't you remember what he tried to do here? What he almost did to you?

"Yes," Buffy whispered. "I remember."

When she walked out of the bathroom, she found Giles sitting on her bed, surrounded by the books and papers he'd given her. His tie was loose around his neck, his suit rumpled, glasses in his hands. "Do you still love him?" he asked quietly.

Buffy gave him a tired, pained smile. "Why else would I be throwing up?"

It was not what he had done that made her ill, though God, there were some images she'd never wanted to see in her lifetime. It was the fact that she could know with all certainty the extent of his crimes, and still ache for him. Still burn for him. Her hands begged to crawl down the column of his spine, and all that she could hear was the sound of his voice purring his love for her into her ear. Spike was a monster, and yet her heart was still his.

Sighing, Giles scooted over on the bed, patting the empty space beside him. Obediently, Buffy sat down, and instantly rested her head on his shoulder, tired and still sick to her stomach. "I read them all," she said through numbed lips. "Every last page. All of those people, those victims, those innocent lives and he killed them. And I can't make myself hate him."

His warm hand rubbed gentle circles on her shoulders, soothing her, comforting her. "It's all right, Buffy," he murmured, and she shook her head.

"No, it's not," she whispered fiercely. "I'm supposed to be the Slayer. The hero. The good guy. It's not... I shouldn't love him, but I do. And I know what he's done, what he could do again. He's evil, Giles, but God, there are these moments, when he'll just look at me or say something and all that I can see in him is the good. And there is good in him. I believe it."

"I believe it, too," he said quietly, and she pulled away, frowning at him. "Of course I do. He's done some remarkable things in the past. What he did for Dawn, being tortured by Glory, helping us last summer. People change."

"But he's not a person, is he," she said, and then she shook her head, standing up abruptly, her motions jerky and wild. She was pacing now, back and forth, walking that damned line again, never knowing which way was right and which was wrong. "No. No, no way. I can't do that to him, not again. He's not a thing." Pleadingly, Buffy looked at Giles, begging him to understand her. "He loves me. He really does. He loves me so much that it kills me reading about these things. It breaks my heart."

Giles knelt down in front of her, gathering her hands in his, smiling at her gently. "I love you," he said, and Buffy blinked at him, startled. He'd never said it before, though she'd always known it. It was part of what kept her alive. "You're the most astounding girl I've ever seen. No matter who you love, or why you love him, nothing can change that about you."

Riley touches her hair, sadly, with a bit of longing, and she wishes that things had been different between them.

Torn, Buffy turned away from him, biting her lip. "But I still don't understand," she said, and Giles nodded.

"Then perhaps you'd best talk to him," he suggested, and she frowned, surprised. He wasn't really encouraging this, was he? Giles, pushing her into the arms of Spike? Not in a million years. The look on her face must have told him something, because he chuckled and shook his head. "Believe me, I wish that you had fallen in love with the mailman rather than... Spike." He spat out the vampire's name, like it tasted bitter on his tongue.

Buffy arched her eyebrow, digging up the last shreds of her sense of humor. "The mailman?" she asked. "Giles, in case you haven't noticed, those aren't exactly the safest guys either nowadays."

He gave her that look that told her that he was Not Amused. "You have a good heart," he said, compassionately but firmly. "Follow it, but not blindly."

Heaving a great sigh, Buffy laid the papers down on the bed and ran her hands through her hair, a smile tugging at her mouth when one photograph caught her eye. Occasional pictures of Spike popped up in the reports and documents, and this one in particular tugged at her heartstrings.

The photographer had caught him off guard, alone in a dirty diner in New York City, late 1970's, probably around the time he had slaughtered his second Slayer in the dirty subway. He was surrounded by crumpled pieces of paper, steam from a cheap cup of coffee swirling around his unusual face, luscious mouth chewing irritably on the end of a ballpoint pen. One hand was in his wild, untamed white-blonde hair, and his eyes were laden with mascara and eyeliner, dark and dangerous, her deadly beast.

His ratty CBGB tee shirt was streaked with dried blood.

*****

(end part five)

*****



SUMMARY: As old friends return to Sunnydale and life begins to move on, a new adversary comes to town and shows Buffy more about herself than she ever wanted to know. B/S

RATING: NC-17

SPOILERS: Through "Grave"

DISCLAIMER: The characters within this story are the property of Mutant Enemy Productions, except for the ones that you don't recognize, because I made them up all by my lonesome. Aren't I cool? No? Shut up. You don't know me. Bitch. Music will be disclaimed as it is used, and it will be used occasionally. Like in this chapter. Really, it will.

AUTHOR'S NOTES: I have had this idea brewing in my head for what seems like an eternity, and only now is it finally coming together on paper. Or screen. Whatever. Anyway, the necromancy information is a combination of genuine research and Lovecraft's mythology, as well as some embellishments from yours truly. It may help if you read my The Waiting Season series of vignettes to help establish this story, and those are also on my site.

I'd just like to make a shout-out to my beta dawg, Devil Piglet. Big props to her mad grammar skillz. You know you a pimp.

Also, special props to my girl, wisteria, who helped me so very much with this chapter, and for being one of the coolest chicks ever. Seriously.



Chapter Six: Glory Box

I'm so tired of playing

Playing with this bow and arrow

Gonna give my heart away

Leave it for the other girls to play

For I've been a temptress too long

Give me a reason to love you

Give me a reason to be a woman

I just want to be a woman

--Portishead, "Glory Box"

*****

The night was still, calm, without a trace of motion. No wind blew through the heavy boughs of the willow trees, and the lake by Miller's Point was still, without ripples, a perfect liquid mirror. Only starlight illuminated the tranquil scenery, and the heat beat down onto the town even in the dark hours between sundown and sunup.

Buffy destroyed the mood completely.

Blindly, she stumbled through the cemetery, shedding crumpled papers as she walked. Her fist was balled up, knuckles white and grasping documents, photographs, letters and printouts. Evidence of all of his crimes, accusations waiting to spring from her lips.

Of course, she had no one to accuse but herself.

All of those names. All of those people. They did not matter to Spike, the soulless, unrepentant vampire with the heart of fool's gold. But they mattered to her. They were the proof that there was something wrong with her own heart, that it could cry out for him, after all of the terrible things that he had done. Giles could tell her to follow her heart, to trust in her instincts, but all that Buffy owned was a single, potentially damning question:

Why him?

She could not do this anymore, this constant wondering about who he really was underneath all of the sinful sinews. Photography taught her nothing, displaying all of his finery and mystery, and the documentation Giles had given her just offered more doubts. Absence had only made her heart grow weary, and now she was going to demand the truth from him. He would tell her who he was, what he was, and if nothing was going to furnish her the answers, then she was going to take them.

Who were you before you were turned?

Why do you love me?

What happened to you in Africa?

Why don't you want to see me anymore?

But then she saw him, and all of her uncertainty fell silent.

Underneath a stone fountain of an angel weeping, Spike stood naked, head tipped back, his brilliant body fully exposed. Moonlight gave his white skin an indigo tint, his startling lightning hair wet and clinging to his forehead in drooping curls. Long, tapering fingers ran through the rakish mess of blond, eyes closed, charcoal lashes dipping onto his angular cheekbones.

He was all angles, her beloved Spike, spare and economical, thin and lean like a panther compared to her other, more ursine lovers. The protrusion of his hipbones, the cradle of his pelvis, his cock flaccid but thick between his legs, stark against the thatch of dark hair. Her eyes crawled all over him like her hands craved to do, touching every joint, every bone, every muscle.

The papers scattered around her along with her inhibitions, and Buffy lifted the camera hanging around her neck, mindful to turn the flash off, and began to snap pictures. Details, the minor keys, the etching between the lines of his savage beauty.

The nape of his neck, covered with beads of water.

Flat male nipple, dark and dusky against the chalk of his skin.

Water turning his hair darker, like tarnished silver.

But she made a fatal mistake; she lowered her camera and looked down at the ground, at the photographs and documents scattered around her. The wide eyes of a woman, pregnant, her great stomach ripped open and the umbilical cord streaming out of it, insides exposed. They never found the fetus. Something dark -- bloody and bitter -- rolled in her own stomach, and when she looked back up at him, she saw nothing but death.

"Carmen Lawton."

Blinking, Spike looked up, water pouring over his shoulders, cleansing him, washing all of his wrongs from his skin. He had not even noticed her standing there, surrounded by papers and pictures, her camera around her neck as always. Fists balled up, signifying that she was in furious hellcat mode, ready to slash at him with her lavender-polished claws.

"What?" he asked, confused, and Buffy leaned down, picking up a piece of paper. She marched up to him, not mindful of his nudity, but then again, neither was he.

"Carmen Lawton!" she hissed, gritting her teeth. "1952. Chicago. What, you don’t remember her? Just one of many in your sick line of fucked-up victims? Is it all a big blur to you, Spike? Everything that you did?"

Fear and guilt started to creep up inside of his mind, crawling through his veins, insinuating itself into the very core of his being. Dread. This was the way that dread felt, magnified by his newfound conscience. Fuck, he didn't know if he could do this with her. Play this game, join this dance, when he didn't know the rules or the steps anymore. Spike was never one for boundaries, but they might have come in handy in this situation. All that he knew how to do was aggravate her.

Spike moved out from underneath the fountain's gentle rain and into her raging cyclone, grabbing a ratty towel and wrapping it around his hips.

"You're babbling, Slayer," he said, his voice rough like gravel. Sloe-eyed, he shot her a smirk. "Not that it doesn't look good on you, but--"

The photograph exploded into full color horror in front of his eyes, blood and skin, dead eyes staring blankly at nothing. Red blood swimming down and staining the sterile sheets, massive stomach ripped apart so that innards spilled out, exposing reproductive organs torn to shreds and an empty cellar where a baby should live.

"No, please, don't," she whispers, hands cupping her distended belly protectively. She's a fragile beam of light in the dark alleyway, all long blonde hair and saddle shoes, her tummy swollen and ripe for the picking. Frantically, she reaches for her purse, offering it to him with shaking fingers. "Take it. You can have whatever you want. Just please, please, don't hurt me."

Beside him, Drusilla is giggling, clapping her hands delightedly, her dark hair rolled into big curls and her striped dress billowing around slender legs. "We can have whatever we want," she says excitedly, and then her fingers tug insistently on his sleeve, like a child begging for candy. "Let's have a baby, Spike. You can be the wicked daddy, and I'll be its mummy, and we'll spoil it rotten."

Harshly, he grabs the back of her skull and crushes her mouth to his, tasting blood and bone in her cold, cruel mouth. Anything for her. Anything she wants.

"Never be more rotten than you are, princess," he mutters into her ear, and then the woman starts to scream.

Stumbling, Spike jerked away from the photograph, flinching from the pain of remembering and realizing. "Yeah," he muttered, wiping a damp hand across his face. Sweat or water? Didn't know. Didn't matter. He stole a glance at her, standing there with her body stern and strict, sheets of paper laid to waste at her feet, trailing back from whence she came. Wincing, he gestured at the littered ground. "See you've done your homework."

"I had to," she said, her voice unflinching. "I had to know what you've done."

What he had done. Stupid fucking girl, thinking that she could learn the magnitude of his evil from reading some sodding scraps of paper, looking at nasty photos, reading dull Watcher data. The pregnant woman and her poor, lost little baby wasn't nearly the beginning. Men, women, children, animals... Oh, he'd done some reprehensible deeds in his extended lifetime, and nothing, nothing, could quantify it into words. He'd tried.  Wrote a dozen apologies -- poems, graffiti on walls, etched into his forearms with ballpoint pens -- but each time he would tear them to shreds with his mind.  A sequence of letters couldn't even begin to do it sick justice.

The scars on his arms faded away.  His crimes never would.

"You want to know what I've done?" Spike asked in a deadly, eerily calm voice, and Buffy felt herself shrink up inside, forced back in time to the upstairs bathroom. The sound of running water from the stone fountain was not helping.

He chuckled a bit, and she caught the faint scent of fresh grass clinging to his skin as he bent down and picked up another photograph, squinting his eyes and tilting it in a couple of different directions. "Oh, yeah. I remember this girl. Little snip of a thing, couldn't have been much older than the bit. Most extraordinary eyes, she had. Big and blue. 'Course, you can't tell in the picture, since I ate them out of the sockets."

Nausea bubbled and churned in her stomach, and Buffy licked her suddenly dry lips, dully watching as he picked up the papers and photographs surrounding her. As he started to describe what he'd done to every victim, every nameless face, every missing appendage or stolen innocence, she started to feel the numbing cold settle into her body again. It was the same feeling she'd had after returning from the dead.

Paradise, lost.

"...And this one, he was a good-looking fellow, sold bathtub gin back in Prohibition," he continued, thoughtfully putting his thumb up under his chin. "Nasty little bugger. Dru used to say that he wore a toupee, but she was wrong. Found that out after we scalped him."

"Stop it," she whispered, and Spike threw the papers at her, the sharp edge of one cutting her cheek. Blood rose up to the cut, but it did not sting worse than his words. How casual he sounded, all in that rippling velveteen voice that used to croon out admissions of love to her.

He was all steel and metal now, jaw tense and eyes throwing hatred into her face, harder and blacker than hematite. "No," he said, his voice barely restrained. "You wanted to know, didn't you now? Got your Watcher to give you all the goods on me. Afraid I went to Africa and got my hardware upgraded?"

A slow, devastating smirk crawled over his lips, and even in the middle of all of this evil, his grotesque photographs scattered all around them in glossy details of gore, Buffy felt her knees go weak. His posture liquefied, easing into that serpentine grace that only Spike possessed, and in his near nudity, it was too much for her to handle. The towel crept lower down his hips, threatening to unfurl completely, and she wanted to kiss that leer right off of his mouth. Oh, God. I'll have to kill him one day.

He got so close to her that she could smell him, that fresh water scent combining with the pungent odor of alcoholism and nicotine addiction, and she closed her eyes, lips parting in spite of herself as he sneered in her face. "See, the thing that I don't get is why the paperwork was really all that necessary," he murmured, his voice rippling through her veins. "Knew what I was before you came here, didn't you. Or did you manage to forget that night in all your happy denial?"

Oh, yes, this was familiar. Just like riding a bike. Slip into the old demeanor, the lecherous leering and the arrogant posturing. Whisper naughties into her ear and make her squirm, make her feel terrible and dirty, just like him. Throw all of his worries into the wind, all for the sake of making Buffy remember exactly who William the Bloody was. A monster. Nothing but a monster. He looked at her from under his lashes, waiting to see the boiling hatred, the revulsion of what he was, laid out on the grass to confront her.

Randomly, he picked up a piece of paper and thrust it at her. Little Greta, the raped girl with a rosary where her heart should have been stared out at her. The one who looked like Dawn. "This is what I am," he hissed. "Look at it. See her? That's me. Don't fool yourself into thinking that there's anymore to me than what you've read, cause there isn't."

Buffy shoved him away from her, knocking the piece of paper out of his hands, desperation and fear filling her empty, numbed body. "Stop it!" she cried. "Stop saying those things! There has to be more to you, there has to be, more than these fucking pictures and stories and, God!" Her voice was rising to a fever-pitch, and she started to pick up his papers, throwing them at him. "Just give me a reason, Spike! Give me one goddamn reason for this!"

"Why?" he shouted back, shoving her with equal force, his fists raging for the chance to fight her. Needed a good brawl, needed a good fucking fight. "I've given you plenty of reasons to hate me over the last couple of years. Why do you have to do this, bring these bloody pictures and papers and shove them in my goddamn face?"

"Because I need a reason to love you!"

Her scream stilled everything, the heat unbearable, sweat beading on her forehead as she started to cry in spite of herself, falling to her knees in front of Spike like a devotee begging for a prayer to be answered. Buffy put her head in her hands, sobs wracking her slender body, all messy blonde hair and berry-brown skin, and it was then that the weight of her words sank in.

She loves me.

Shocked, Spike stared down at her, the woman he'd abused and tried to murder, tried to rape in the comforts of her own home, rocking back and forth on her knees with her face in her hands, telling him that she loved him. It was everything he had ever wanted, all of his hopes and dreams exploding like the Fourth of bloody July fireworks, and it was destroying her.

"I'm in love with you," she confessed, her voice fractured, her eyes pleading as she looked up at him. "I don't know how long, I don't know how at all, but God, Spike, I love you, and I don't get it! I've been trying to figure it out, and I don't understand, and you won't tell me anything but how bad you are."

Desperately, she looked up at him with watery eyes, grabby fingers snatching at the unraveling hem of his towel. "Please," she begged, "please just help me. Give me a reason to feel this way."

He thought of a thousand things that he would have said a year ago. All of those promises that he was hers, that he would die for her, that he would reverse his gravity if it pleased her, filled his head and swam over his vision. Buffy chained up in the depths of the catacomb, grimacing as he begged her for shreds of affection, and the resigned, hollow look on her face as she revoked his invitation. Her fists ramming into his face, little grenades of pain going off in his head as she called him filth, nothing, dead and heartless.

Tender, warm little hands started to brush at his knees, and then he groaned when he felt the heat of her soft, tearstained cheek press against his thigh. Buffy looked up at him, lips parted and eyes liquid in the dark, the very essence of innocence. "Come down to me," she whispered.

Oh, fuck, he could never resist her.

Helplessly, Spike fell to his knees, and her fingers started to travel all over his face, touching every feature, caressing and blessing with her tiny hands. Her lava-hot lips brushed the cliff of his cheekbone, careening down towards his jaw, and Spike realized that it was hopeless to try and fight her. He would destroy everything wonderful and good within her, kill her and leave her disemboweled and discarded, like those many scraps of paper. Another piece of his dark, gutted history.

But God help him, he couldn't leave her.

Slow, gauzy arousal started to film over her as Spike lowered his mouth to her neck, tongue dancing over his favorite place, the beat her heart pressed against his lips and teeth. Cool fingertips slithered under her shirt, thumb orbiting her navel in ragged, trembling circles, shaking fingers traveling upwards to the rise of her breasts. Buffy uttered a moan, her hands descending down the column of his spine, fingernails digging little moon-shaped crescents into his fine, pearly skin.

"I missed you," she rasped into his ear, and she heard him laugh desperately, pressing his forehead in the crook between her neck and shoulder. She began to kiss the side of his throat, mouth ascending towards his earlobe. "I can't stop thinking about you. I know... I know that I messed things up between us, that I did you wrong, that I used you and hurt you--"

Frantically, he shut her up with a kiss, silencing her and stopping her from apologizing to him anymore. He was the monster, not her, and he crushed his mouth to hers, dying for the taste of her. Milk and honey, touch of sour lemon, rainwater and toothpaste. His girl, this was his girl.

When he kissed her, all that Buffy could think of was the cigarettes she'd smoked as a sore substitute for him this summer, wrapping her lips around the filter and inhaling shallow echoes of Spike. Stupid, so stupid to smoke, not just because of the cancerous consequences, but because it wasn't him. She'd forgotten about the bouquet of booze and blood, the heady rush of history, the cool, conflicting frost and fire.

She would never touch another cigarette again.

Her body arched towards his, the denim-clad cradle of her hips pressing against his erection, breasts firm and nipples hard, raking across his chest. Her fingers scrambled through his hair, and she felt fire twisting and gnarling inside of her belly, pressing low and urgent. Want him, need him, love him so much. When his hand closed over her breast, thumb brushing her taut, aching nipple, she cried out and dug her nails into his neck, breaking the kiss and burying her face in his neck.

"I smoked for you," she gasped, all of these words pouring out of her while he touched her, driving her mad with his hands, the caresses and rhythms pulsing through her in a dance that she had missed. "I stole your cigarettes and smoked them, because I missed your mouth." He moaned, and she struggled to undo the buttons of her shirt. Too many barriers, no matter how filmy the shirt was. "I sat in your crypt when Clem was gone. I... Oh, God, Spike..."

The frothy blouse slipped away from her, landing in a pile of navy fabric on the ground, and Spike felt arousal and desire surge through him like a bolt of lightning. Round, curvaceous, slender and strong, breasts encased in plum-colored silk, belly a little rounder, ribs no longer showing. Healthy, strong, proud Buffy, and he should turn her away, make her run, but he couldn't. Wasn't that strong, wasn't that much of a martyr.

Spike couldn't give up the only thing in the world that mattered.

He surrendered to her hands, to her demands, fingers tearing at the satin bra, feeling everything so hot that when he looked at her, he expected steam to rise from her skin. Her hands were everywhere, scouring his skin, scorching and leaving little hot handprints all over his torso. Metallic fingernails tweaked his nipple, and the sensation traveled with the speed of light down to his cock. Hissing in her ear, he wrapped his fingers around her fragile wrist, guiding her palm south, shuddering when her nails skittered across the sensitive skin of his belly.

She stopped then, and he tensed as she grabbed his face in between her hands, urgency in her eyes. "Don't leave me again," she whispered. "And don't avoid me anymore. I can't stand it, not being with you. Start over with me." She briefly brushed her mouth against his. "Tell me, Spike. I haven't heard you say it in forever."

Sighing, he lowered his head and muttered out the words.

"Love you forever, Summers."

Wildly, Buffy pulled away from him, standing up and above him, unbuttoning her shorts and shoving them down her thighs, moonlight streaking her skin. She was a composition of violets and blues. Skin stained azure and china, sharply contrasted by the rich indigo of her underwear. Starlight Slayer, head thrown back in a cloud of curls, her tidy hands reaching back and unfastening her bra.

When she was naked, sky-clad underneath the witching stars, Spike swallowed hard and looked at her, really looked. She seemed to glow in the darkness, a lithe candle burning itself down to the wick. "I never should have hurt you," she whispered, lowering herself to his level and crawling her hands over his bare skin. "Will you forgive me, Spike?" One golden thigh brushed against his skin, and she rubbed her nose against one nipple, making him twitch and groan beneath her.

"Don't ask me to do that," he muttered, his voice ragged. He sounded like he was being torn apart. "I can't... Not after..."

Another kiss, this one bruising and blistering with desperation. "It doesn't matter," she whispered, and she meant it, really meant it. None of it mattered, not the scraps of paper pointing out his wrongs, not the torn shower curtain that she'd had to throw away. Love softened all of those blows to her system, made her throat tighten and her chest constrict whenever he just looked at her. In spite of it all, their sordid history, she could look at him and see everything that she needed. Everything that she wanted. "I'm in love with you, so in love--"

Ask me again why I could never love you.

Gently, carefully, she rolled him over on top of her, fluidly pushing the towel away from his hips, gasping when his prick brushed against the aching heat between her thighs, and she opened her legs, winding them around his waist, coaxing him inside of her. "Need you," she whispered. "Love you so much... Want you... Oh, God... Want you inside..."

I know you felt it... When I was inside you...

Wet grass was blurring with images of cold tile, melding frenetically inside of his mind as he latched a mouth onto her breast, his hand stroking her inner thigh, surrounded by her heat and drowning in the beating of her heart. His fingertip brushed her swollen quim, and she gasped for breath, cried out--

Don't... Please, please Spike, please don't do this, please don't do this...

Flawless, she was, stretched out underneath him, her skin gold and untouched, covered in sweat and blades of grass. Dusky nipples tasting of salt and sugar, her swollen genitalia brushing against his cock, the smell of her arousal bringing him back to the drunken dance on the beach. Her hands reached around and cupped his neck, coaxing him--

You'll feel it again.

Gasping, Spike scrambled off of her, memory rushing back and painting bruises all over her copper skin, blood in her hair, throat torn out and blood gushing between her legs from where he would have taken her. Could see it all playing out in his mind, the entire scene, a glimpse at what could have been, and he couldn't do that to her. Not again, not ever again, and Spike clawed at his face, pressing the heels of his hands against his eyes, trying to squeeze out the images.

"No, no, no, stop..."

Shock and hurt began to replace arousal and desire, and Buffy sat up in the grass, looking at him as he started to rock back and forth, hiding his face behind his elegant hands. His long legs seemed to fold in towards himself, and she reached out a hand to touch him. "Spike..."

Sharply, he jerked away from her touch, moving back inches, and Buffy felt all of her confidence, all of her rapture, just slipping away, soaking into the earth like the bloody photographs. Embarrassment possessed her, and she felt her lower lip start to tremble, her vision blurring once again. Not going to cry, just because he...

Buffy licked her lips nervously, and then picked up his discarded towel, covering herself. She'd had no problems with nudity earlier, all dressed up in love. Without him, she felt too exposed, too raw, and slightly ashamed. Worried, she leaned in closer to him, wanting to touch his hair, stroke his back, but not knowing how without him pushing her away. "Spike? Are you... Okay?" Her voice dropped. "Is it something I did?"

A mad, despairing laugh met her ears, and it sent hackles down her spine. "Not quite," he said, his voice strangled and tight. "Something I did."

Within an instant, she understood, and her shoulders sagged. "Oh." She tried to reason with him. "Spike, it's okay. I'm over it. It was a mistake, and I know that you're sorry--"

"Sorry doesn't matter," he said through clenched teeth. Couldn't believe his luck, having to explain this so many times tonight, the dense little Summers girls, so fucking naïve. "Doesn't amount to a hill of bloody beans, when I--" He couldn't say the rest of it, too overwhelmed by the intensity of his own rottenness.

"Shh," she murmured, her fingertips grazing over his brow, so fragile, so small, and she didn't know how easily he could break her wrist. How easily he could break all of her bones, how easily he could bruise her fair skin. "Spike, it's okay. It's all right. We'll... We'll work through it. I just wish that..." She shook her head. "Just let me touch you. Please, just let me..."

When the sobs came, Buffy embraced him, wrapping her arms around him, pressing her cheek against her breast and tucking his bright blond head beneath her chin. "It's all right," she murmured. "It's all right."

*****

Spike did not remember her taking him to her house.

Yet that was where he found himself when the shuddering subsided, tucked into her bed, naked as a jay bird while Buffy stood in front of the full-length mirror, wearing nothing but a pair of panties and a jade camisole. It was easy to watch her here, while she was unaware, so stunning when he wasn't in the picture.

She loved him. Absolutely incredible, that she loved him after everything they'd been through. After everything he'd put her through. All that he'd ever wanted, standing there in scanty scraps of cloth, running a brush through her damp hair, a sad smile clinging to her lips. Buffy in love. Buffy in love with him. A monster. A madman. A killer.

Slowly, she turned around, and she smiled tenderly as she gazed at him. "Feeling better?" she asked softly, and Spike did not say a word. He felt like shit, but now wasn't the time to give her more trouble. Sighing, Buffy crawled onto the bed, and he moved away from her, off to the side, where he wouldn't hurt her. She put a hand on his shoulder, stilling him. "Spike. It's okay. Just... Relax. Get some sleep. It's almost dawn."

Dawn, sleeping in the next room, dressed in her cutesy pajamas. The ones with the stars scattered across them, perhaps, or maybe the rainbows and butterflies. Innocent, unknowing of the evil next door. "Should go home," he muttered gruffly, but she was pushing him back into the pillows, wrapping her palm around the base of his neck and lowering him onto her skin.

"Stay," she urged. "You've had a long night. You can stay here until it's dark again."

Silly girl. It's dark enough already.

No artificial illumination for them tonight, tangled up underneath her sheets, limbs sliding over skin, and she slithered underneath the weight of his body, pressing his cheek once again to her breast. Warm arms surrounded him in a cocoon of roseate skin, and she pressed her lips to his disheveled, unruly curls. "Do you still love me, Spike?" she asked, and Spike sighed helplessly.

"You know I do," he muttered. "Doesn't matter what I want, pet, cause I'll kill you in the end."

Chills broke down her spine, traveling throughout her body, but she did not shudder. Buffy couldn't let him see that, now when he was so despondent. "So what?" she asked, and then she sighed, shaking her head against the pillows. "I know I'm not going to make it to retirement age, Spike. It's not a shocker. And if I die... Well, I'd rather it be by your hand. We'll kill each other, but we'll have this before then. We'll love each other until the end."

Until the bitter end.

Spike shuddered, and she sighed, smoothing his hair out with her fingertips, his Slayer, his queen, his forever victim. "We'll take it slow," she murmured into his hair. "We'll work through this together. I'll wait for you, Spike, because I--"

But he shook his head against her skin. "Don't say it. Hurts to hear you say it."

That made her chin tremble, her heart ache, because she'd destroyed him to the point where her falling in love with him did nothing but bring him misery. "Okay," she whispered. "But I do, you know. I really, really do. Now get some sleep. Everything's going to be all right."

She repeated it until he dissolved into dreaming.

*****

So don't you stop being a man

Just take a little look from our side if you can

Sow a little tenderness

No matter if you cry

Give me a reason to love you

Give me a reason to be a woman

It's all I want to be is all woman

This is the beginning of forever and ever"

--Portishead, "Glory Box"

*****

"...Tonight on MS-NBC, a report live from Ashleigh Banfield in Kabul..."

"...Exclusive interview with Ariel Sharon, in which he discusses the most recent string of suicide bombings in the West Bank, conducted by CBS's own..."

"...Flooding in Prague causing massive destruction, particularly to the Czech capital's historic downtown district, where waters are cresting to record levels over the past..."

"...Join us tomorrow, when we'll have former Attorney General Janet Reno and rapper Eminem live..."

"...God! Holy shit! Oh, holy shit! A plane just hit the World..."

There was no greater modern invention than the television.

The wide-screen, high definition television set sat snugly in the lavish study, surrounded by high-end computer equipment, fax machines whirring and telephones ringing. Typical office chaos exploded around the blaring noise of the TV, secretaries in mild-mannered suits rushing back and forth with economic speed, attorneys pacing and barking out orders, and he was in the middle of it all, staring at the television and flipping channels.

"...In next time for another episode of Passions..."

"...Dude, you're getting a..."

"...Five easy payments of $19.99 a month, no money down, zero..."

"...Out the phrase 'under God' from our beloved Pledge, then you are effectively taking out all of the religion in this fine country during a time when we need it the most, and I think..."

Chuckling, he decided to leave it on The 700 Club, and he pointed at the screen. "You know, this is truly the most evil thing on TV," he said, shaking his head at the man expounding upon the virtues of fundamentalist Christianity. "For a while, I thought that it might be that show on MTV where all the kids are screaming, but I'd have to say that this tops it by a landslide."

Amused, the pudgy man in the rumpled suit and tie chuckled a moment, sliding his glasses up on his sweaty nose. "I still say that there is nothing more nefarious than Geraldo Rivera," he countered, and the slender, gray-haired man holding the remote control scoffed, waving his hand at him in a dismissive, elegant gesture.

"Philistine."

Sighing, the man circled the rosewood desk, relaxing into the Herman Miller mesh chair with a slow wriggle of comfortable lumbar support. "It's television," he said, proudly waving a manicured hand at the screen. "Television. Junk food for the brain, rotting away at people's brains. I just love it. Nobody is alone in the modern world; everybody is alone in the modern world. It's one of those great philosophical contradictions, an oxymoron with commercials. Who would have thought that people would get so smart as to broadcast all of this violence, and sell it out to advertisers for money? Brilliant."

One lawyer snarled into the cellular phone that seemed permanently glued to his ear, his eyes flashing gold for a moment as he forgot himself and vamped out. "Look, I told you already that Mr. Lucas wants a dozen subzero refrigerators, and he wanted them by today," the vampire said, slamming his fist on the wall. "Look, jackass, I don't care if these are your normal operating hours or not. If your drivers aren't there, then you can haul them over yourself." He paused. "Oh, what'll I do if you don't? Tell me, buddy, have you ever seen a crucifixion up close and personal?"

Arching one immaculate silver eyebrow, the gentleman behind the desk cleared his throat, and the immortal attorney turned around, fangs glistening in the light of the television screen. "Could you take that call elsewhere?" he asked, his voice smooth and refined. "I'm trying to watch TV."

"Yes, sir," the vampire stammered, and he quickly gestured to the other unholy secretaries and lawyers, ushering them out of the study.

The robust man in the wrinkled suit stood up as well, sighing and stretching, until Mr. Lucas shook his head. "Stay, Marty," he said. "They're rerunning The Osbournes soon. It's the one where Ozzy has the pet psychiatrist come by. Your favorite. Besides, we need to talk."

"Of course," Martin Glaze said, taking his seat and folding his hands in his lap.

Drake Lucas stood up, his tall figure cutting an impressive swath through the electric blue light of the television monitor, and he pressed the power button, turning the big screen off. To his right, there was a bank of twelve smaller sets, all of them receiving nothing but static, and he sighed.

"I know you didn't want to come here, Marty," he said conversationally, and before Glaze could protest, Lucas shook his head. "It's fine. You're entitled to your opinion. Besides, I agree with you. This place is a hellhole. Literally. But we must do what we must do, correct? We have to take what destiny offers." A wave of his pale, spidery fingers, and the static on the television sets began to clear up, fuzzy sprinkles of electricity calming and evening out into a singular image, stretched across the monitors.

A bedroom, calm and serene in the hour before morning, and a beautiful young woman sleeping with a man's white-blond head covering her naked breasts. Her hands were wrapped around his shoulder, one against his forehead, keeping him safe from the rays of the vicious sun preparing to rise and claim them.

Drake smiled.

"Hello, Buffy."

*****

(end part six)

*****



SUMMARY: As old friends return to Sunnydale and life begins to move on, a new adversary comes to town and shows Buffy more about herself than she ever wanted to know. B/S

RATING: NC-17

SPOILERS: Through "Grave"

DISCLAIMER: The characters within this story are the property of Mutant Enemy Productions, except for the ones that you don't recognize, because I made them up all by my lonesome. Aren't I cool? No? Shut up. You don't know me. Bitch. Music will be disclaimed as it is used, and it will be used occasionally. Like in this chapter. Really, it will.

AUTHOR'S NOTES: So, with this chapter, I am making a new, valiant effort to actually vary my author's notes. Are you proud of me? You totally should be. This chapter was written to the tunes of Mazzy Star and the "I Am Sam" soundtrack (beautiful music, crappy movie -- Sean Penn, why?), and encouraged and edited by the Piglet and wisteria. They are fabulous.



Chapter Seven: Minor Adjustments

Paris, France

1925

*****

She was a slink of red, a long, lanky colt hanging out of a scandalously short satin dress, all sloe-eyed and silky in the bedroom, her dark hair bobbed short around her face. A pearl cigarette holder was placed strategically between her fingers, and she chuckled, her voice as dark as bootleg whiskey.

"Did you miss me, cherie?"

Pain laced through Charlotte's body as she looked across the room at the temptress in vermilion, swinging a sultry string of black pearls around, crooking her knee and inviting her for everything. It was hell watching her like this, standing just outside of the bedroom, teasing her by staying on the proper side of the threshold. "Monique," she murmured, sagging against the wall with her heart twisted into pieces and her body filled with broken glass. "I've missed you every night since you died."

Three weeks since that night. Eighteen days since they lowered her body into the ground, covered it with soil and blessed the earth. It looked to Charlotte like their prayers had not been enough.

Chuckling, Monique exhaled a stream of fine, thin smoke, her long eyelashes closed and her skin paler than porcelain. She was stunning, the woman who used to laughingly suggest that they replace the Danube with champagne and get drunk off of bubbles and moonlight. She had different dreams now.

She crossed the room in long, slow movements, smelling of dark roses and upturned soil. Fresh from her grave. "I've been very busy," she said dismissively, waving her hand as though she were swatting a fly away. "There've been the most incredible parties, Charlie."

Charlie. Monique was the only one who ever called her that, murmuring it into her ear while her fingers crawled between her thighs, lacing pearls across her breasts. Charlie, darling Charlie... She remembered the nude beach in Cannes, when they laid in the surf and made love at sunrise, her tongue inside of Monique's searing, vital heat, fingers dancing across her own aching clit, and that was what she had called her. Charlie, I love you, my Charlie...

Charlotte closed her eyes and tried to keep herself sane. "Did you dance with anyone other than me?" she asked in a quiet, still voice, and Monique's laugh sang throughout the room like wind chimes as she threw herself onto the bed, lithe like a jaguar, sweet-smelling and poisonous.

"Oh, I danced with so many people," she sighed, putting her cigarette out on the wall with a hiss that made Charlotte wince. Coyly, Monique pouted her lips and then laughed low and hungry in her throat. "But I'll always save my last dance for you, cherie." The room was spinning around her as Monique took off her shoes, silk stockings falling away to show off marble legs, and the flame-colored dress was thrown away, leaving her lover naked and harder than ice on the bed.

It wasn't fair. God, it wasn't fair. They were so young, so full of stupid dreams and silly parties, illuminating the City of Lights. Monique the princess, Charlie the warrior. Dancing up a storm in fancy shoes and skimpy dresses, sunbathing nude, and God, the sex... They had everything. They were on the verge of having everything.

Everything just gets stripped away...

They kept a mirror over their bed, always foolishly reveling in the beauty of their couplings, and now, Charlotte looked up over it and saw nothing. Nothing but writhing sheets, her ghost of a lover, and the sinking feeling that this would never, ever end. There would always be something cutting her back, tearing strips of herself away, eating at her bone and marrow and taking everything that was good and decent. This was what it meant to be the Slayer.

It just keeps coming.

Monique's eyes flashed golden, hissing low and animalistic in her throat, reaching out with her clawing fingers. "Come on, Charlie," she murmured, beckoning her lover near, and Charlotte laughed helplessly, crawling into Monique's arms, surrounding herself with frost and ice where volcanoes once erupted. As the vampire began to pull off layers of peach fabric, she sighed and writhed on the bed, eyes always on the mirror, seeing herself and nothing else.

"He was right," she whispered, Monique's lips caressing her breast, laying kisses on bruised flesh, fingers curling through her graying locks of hair. "Oh, God, he was right..."

Death is my gift.

*****

Filtered light fell in through the heavily blanketed windows, spilling dimmed shades of blue and gray onto the two bodies intertwined on the bed. In the muted morning, it was difficult to distinguish one from the other, melding together in a mesh of ashen indigo. Hands wrapped around a slender, masculine back, painted fingernails and ringed fingers. A silver-white head linked over her shoulder, his face buried in pillows, and her face soft and lax, a soft intimation at a smile on her lips. The sheets covered all else, and her hand was loosely cupped around his neck, holding him into place, soothing and calm.

Giles did not want to see this.

She was buried beneath him, smothered by Spike, drowning underneath the weight of his body, and it made Giles ache. Crushed, he watched as she shifted slightly in her sleep, brow furrowing briefly, followed by a sigh. Was she dreaming about him? Her vampire lover who could kill her while she slumbered? No, no. Giles winced, removing his glasses, trying to turn the tableau in front of him into a blur. Spike couldn't. God, he couldn't. He loved her, he had to love her, or else she never would...

More shifting limbs, and when Giles replaced his glasses on his nose, he saw that Spike had turned his head, his nose now pressed against the hollow of Buffy's throat. It struck him suddenly that Spike looked very human in this setting, very vulnerable and almost tender, like a child. He snuffled for a moment into her skin, grunting, and then mumbled something almost inaudible and definitely nonsensical. "Mmm... Save the... Charlie..." And then he scowled, rubbing his cheek against her breast, and...

Silently, Giles closed the door, and then sagged against the wall, closing his eyes tiredly. He had waited for her to come home last night, ended up falling asleep on the living room sofa, and when he woke this morning he had been so terribly worried... Well, he supposed that he had nothing to worry about. She'd gotten what she wanted, right? Spike in her bed for a spot of murder in the morning. "Good Lord," he muttered under his breath.

He'd told her that he would not interfere. Gave her the books and the documents, everything necessary to point at Spike and righteously yell "killer", and let her make up her own mind. It was what he had to do. If he tried to exert absolute control over her life, then she would just revert back to her listless state of the previous year. Independence came with mistakes, but Christ, he just wanted to protect her. Just wanted to keep her safe.

Safety was not an option anymore. Giles realized this, listening to the buffered mutterings of Spike's sleep-talking wafting through her closed door. Hell, he'd realized it a long time ago, hadn't he? Even sang a song that fell on her deaf ears. Perhaps he had not really accepted it, acknowledged it, that his little Slayer was all grown up and sleeping with the undead. Again.

"Giles?"

Startled, he looked up to see Anya standing over him, her brow furrowed with confusion, body swathed in salmon-colored silk. "What are you doing here?" she asked bluntly, and Giles sighed.

"Good morning, Anya," he muttered, wincing as he pulled himself off of the floor. His back ached from the uncomfortable, scanty slumber he stole on the Summers' couch, and he decided that he was most definitely too old for sleepovers. "I was here late last night with Buffy, thought I might wait up for her after she made her rounds."

"And you fell asleep on the couch," Anya finished. At the moment, she looked rather like a mother hen, an expression of bemused affection resting on her mouth. "You're not the first. Xander often camps out there when he thinks that I might have sex with him again."

It was decidedly too early in the morning for Anya.

She was a flurry of activity in the kitchen, moving around at light speed, her motions and movements swift and efficient. Brew the coffee, fetch the paper, put a kettle on, slice up an orange, pour the coffee, pour the tea, and all the while yammering on in her strange, mechanical Anya-speak. Finances, world politics, pink flamingos, Dorax demons, Donna Karan. All the while, Giles sat befuddled and bleary-eyed, staring at her dumbly as she briskly performed her morning rituals.

"...Of course, Martha has very expensive lawyers, so I'm certain that she won't spend any time in an actual jail," she said, distributing various sections of the newspaper to different place settings. The TV section for Dawn, the financial report for Anya, and the obituaries for Buffy. She paused for a moment before passing him the front page. "Although I would love to see the designs she could come up with for a basic cell."

"Indeed," Giles murmured, flipping through the international report, and Anya frowned at him. He had not heard a single word to come out of her mouth after "how do you take your tea", and that hurt.

All throughout her stint as a human, Anya had struggled for words. Funny, because when she was a demon, she'd thought herself so articulate, so smart, adept at playing the part of trustworthy confidant, wreaking havoc with the knowledge that the scorned entrusted her with. The loss of her powers also meant the loss of her voice; she did not know what to say, how to be, and had spent the last two years struggling to figure everything out.

Everyone always corrected her. Anya, that's not proper. Anya, that's not appropriate. Anya, please, for the love of God, don't mention the sex anymore. Nobody understood that she had been thrown into this strange, complicated world without any guidelines or regulations, and told to behave like the natives without error or mistake. It always hurt her feelings when Xander stood beside her and hissed her name like a curse, when he corrected her or felt ashamed of her.

Anya knew what she was doing now. She understood what she was, what her purpose was, and that was to make the money and live her own dreams. No more reciting prepared statements, no more rehearsing catchphrases to make sure that she did not embarrass her boyfriend by accidentally mentioning the potency of his penis to the gang. Anya had her own opinions, her own sense of style, her own wants and needs, and the audacity to express them to whomever she pleased.

But Giles would not listen.

"I'm going off to Alaska in search of love and happiness via a nationally televised contest," she announced, putting her hands on her hips and nodding her head, injecting just enough chipper enthusiasm into her voice to make it seem valid.

"Ah, yes, very good," Giles muttered, frowning briefly at some article until she snatched the newspaper out of his hands. Startled, Giles blinked at her. "Er, yes?"

"Giles!" she exclaimed, stomping one tiny bare foot on the floor. "You haven't been listening to a word I've said!"

He shrank back in his seat a bit, warily watching the way that the fluorescent light glinted and shimmered off of her amulet. "I have," he said mildly. "You were talking about Martha Stewart and... Shoes. There were shoes involved." It was a good guess; Buffy had often talked about shoes in conversation.

Unfortunately, Anya did not seem convinced. A good, solid Englishwoman might have snapped something cold and cruel off to him and then mercifully left him alone, but not American girls. They were much more prone to flights of melodrama, flailing their arms around and using psychological terms like teenaged slang. Right now, Anya looked like an angry rattlesnake, tail coiling back and mouth filled with venom.

"You were ignoring me," she accused, one hand on her hip and the other jabbing in his direction. "I can't believe it. It's not fair, you know, to tune me out. I have opinions and statements to make, and they're very valid, because they're mine, and you should have to listen to them. It's not fair that I have to listen to you go on and on about demonology and the stupid English parliamentary system, but you can go into daydream-land when I want to talk about the stock market and shoes!"

Ah, good. He'd gotten the shoe bit right. Way to go, Rupert. He cleared his throat. "We talk," he protested, searching his memory for an example. "Ah... Oh! Yesterday. At the shop. We talked about the new display for the mummified gerbils." Pleased, he leaned back in his chair, reaching for his newspaper, until Anya's bony fingers snatched it away, narrow eyes glaring at him.

"We talk about the store," she said, and then she sighed, frustrated. "Is that what everybody thinks I am? Money girl? Big capitalist vengeance demon? Cause you know, I have layers. Like an onion, only without the repulsive smell." Annoyance quickly gave way to worry, and she bit her lip. "Don't I?"

Giles was confused. "Smell nice?" he asked, and she groaned, exasperated.

"No, have layers," she said, pounding her balled-up fist on the table for emphasis. "Layers. Like... I'm a Libertarian."

Surprised, Giles arched his eyebrow. "Really?" he said, and she nodded, proudly.

"That's right," she confirmed. "I am a proud, card-carrying member of the Libertarian party. And the NRA." Giles could not restrain a grimace; damned Charlton Heston, handing out guns to whoever wanted them. The thought of a vengeance demon with an artillery rifle gave him chest pains. "And I hate butterflies, and polka dots, and stupid-patterned shirts. I like clothes plain, simple, and preferably without copious amounts of glitter. And I like being a brunette. And... I like being Anya, whoever she may be."

An affectionate smile tugged at his mouth, and he reached over, placing his hand over hers. Something sharp and cold dug into his skin, and he lifted his palm to see the bright diamond engagement ring glittering under the kitchen light. Giles chuckled for a moment, remembering how she had adored that ring, showing it off to whoever crossed her path, desperately trying to keep a hold of it no matter what.

Anya furrowed her brow, confused. "What's so funny?" she asked, and he chuckled, shaking his head.

"Nothing," he said, flicking his fingers at her ring. "It's just that you're still wearing the ring."

Blinking, Anya looked down at the large diamond flashing and twinkling in the kitchen. "Oh," she said. "That. I don't know, I just can't seem to take it off yet. I feel like it's old Anya, but it's just..."

"Sentimental value?"

She shook her head. "No, more than that. It's like I've got all of these decisions that I have to make now, and I'm becoming this whole new Anya person with brown hair and much, much better accessories, but I'm still the old Anya. I'm two Anyas in a demon body, and now I'm not really sure what I want. I thought that I knew, but..." She shrugged, helplessly. "What's a girl to do?"

"Be yourself," Giles advised, and Anya smiled.

*****

Xander still kept a picture of her in his wallet.

Carnation pink dress, wild gold curls, bright and chipper smile, diamond glistening on her finger. Just Anya, standing behind the counter and posing by her beloved cash register. It smelled like her perfume, all sugary flowers and gingerbread, reminding him of long nights spent with her in his arms.

How quickly it all slipped away.

Impatiently, Xander drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, waiting for the light to turn green and all of the annoying drivers to get out of his way. This was supposed to be a one-horse town; how the hell did they get all of this traffic in the mornings? The line of cars lurched forward at an agonizingly slow pace, and he could feel himself sweating, even in the air conditioning of his snazzy new Honda.

The car in front of him suddenly put on the brakes, and Willow hissed in a breath beside him as hot coffee spilled onto one bare leg. "Oh, jeez, Will, I'm sorry," Xander muttered, dabbing at her scalded skin with the sleeve of his plaid work shirt. "It's this asshole in front of us who wants to brake for no apparent reason."

"There are many of those," Willow mumbled, staring down at the red splotch appearing on her leg. The coffee had left its mark, and she did not give two shits.

It was supposed to be easier than this.

Sitting on the half-empty bus on the way back to Sunnydale, she had felt so free, so certain that she had conquered the pain, destroyed the anger and the evil, rediscovered life in some sort of grand, rapturous manner. Look at the Willow, emerging triumphant from evil. No more dreams about the killing, the way that Rack had crumpled like a rag doll in his dirty hovel, the sight of Warren's gleaming flesh and muscle under the brightness of the moon.

You're a very stupid girl.

So stupid, thinking it was over, when she had woken up this morning gasping for air, gasping for power, gasping from orgasm. Erotica was confused now, tangled up with the memories of her murders, of the power of holding a man's life in her hands and taking it away.

Was she your big "o"?

She'd tried to meditate, scrambling for her candles with shaky hands, an ache between her legs from the ecstasy of that vivid, haunting dream, trying not to think about it. Trying not to remember that primal sort of rapture that had taken her over when she pressed her hand against Giles's chest and drawn out all of his power, and the sighing, whimpering bliss of it all, crawling, writhing, singing in her lungs...

Willow could never atone for that.

The bright pink flamingo sitting in Buffy's lawn seemed to mock her as they made their way up the sidewalk, carrying gourmet coffee like a peace offering. Hey, I know I tried to kill you and all, but do you want a mocha? But this was their ritual, their constant attempt at something helpful, something that was a little better than what they'd done before. We're sorry. Have caffeine.

The Anya who answered the door was not the Anya that Xander knew. It was a foreign woman with darker, more severe hair, exchanging cotton candy dresses for pinstriped slacks and linen blouses. No more scent of bubble gum and Christmas; she'd replaced it with jasmine and lemon Pledge. Calvin Klein's Obsession-Compulsion, he thought sadly, and weakly handed her a non-biodegradable cup of espresso.

Warily, Anya examined it with her sharpshooter's eyes, inspecting it for defects. "Did you put foam on it?" she asked warily, and Xander sighed.

"No, I remembered. No more foam."

Pleased, she accepted his offering and allowed them to come in, and the glance she gave to Willow was curious, almost suspicious. Like she knew what Willow had woken up to this morning, and it made her flush red as she followed Xander and Anya into the kitchen.

When Willow saw Giles sitting at the table, she wanted to run away. He was the one person in Sunnydale that she actively tried to avoid. The things that she had done to him... Taking the essence of his power and then leaving him for dead. Torturing him. Giles, the man who was their anchor, their constant, their steady. He was more than a father to just Buffy; he was a father to all of them, the ragtag group of misfits with their gaggle of deadbeat dads.

And Willow had tried to kill him.

"We come bearing coffee," Xander said in a booming voice, and Giles looked up from his paper to see Willow ducking her head, turning away, busying her suddenly clumsy hands with a bottle of juice. "Caffeine, nectar of the gods."

"Indeed," he murmured, his eyes on the witch. "How are you doing, Willow? You haven't been by the shop recently." As a matter of fact, she had only seen him once since her return, for a mumbling, faltering "hello" in the middle of rush hour at the Magic Box before tucking her tail between her legs and crawling away on her belly like a bad puppy.

She was afraid of him.

Nervously, Willow averted her eyes, smiling down at the bottle of grapefruit juice in her hands. "Sorry," she said. "It's just... I've been busy. With the school."

Giles arched an eyebrow. "Ah," he murmured, and then he frowned, turning to Anya. "Where did Xander go?"

Anya took a slug of espresso, slinging the hot Brazilian goodness back like it was water. "Upstairs," she said. "We got Buffy a caramel macchiato, so he went to go give it to her."

Giles clucked his tongue and shook his head. "If she keeps up eating sweets like that, she's going to end up in a diabetic coma before she--" All of a sudden, he paled.

"Oh, no."

*****

Xander stood in the doorway, his jaw dropped and his eyes wider than saucers, coffee spilt all over the formerly immaculate carpeting outside of his hero's door.

Spike. Buffy. Spooning.

Slumped, defeated. The way he never wanted to see her. Leaning weary and tired against the toilet on the floor, hair disheveled, robe gaping and skin exposed. Angry purple bruises popping up like rotting flowers on her delicate body. Head in hands, eyes closed, utterly destroyed, and the scent of anger and violence lingering in the air. The weight of the forgotten leather coat twisting in his hand.

The same girl who had looked so exhausted and bitter on the floor of her bathroom was now curled around her would-be rapist, a tangle of limbs and pretty skin, face relaxed and dreamy with the deep, undisturbed quietude of slumber. So happy. So at peace.

It's never going to stop.

Part of him saw red, rage filling his body, tightening his muscles, making him want to snap and bite and kill. Images of Spike's body broken and bloodied, exploding into dust, filled his head in a gleefully murderous slide show, and his hands tightened into fists. But God, he couldn't do it. Couldn't kill Spike.

Xander knew now that it would not do any good. No matter how bad he hurt her, no matter how many bruises he laid on her flesh or how many scars he added to her brutalized heart, Buffy would always go back to Spike. Even after that most heinous crime, trying to take from a woman what no man had any right to take, she had brought him back into her bed. It would never stop, not until she was dead, and nothing could stand in the way of her sexual suicide.

And this is the monster that Anya has fucked.

Footsteps sounded behind him, quick and urgent, followed by confused shuffling. "Oh, Xander, you spilled your--" Willow started to say, but her voice was cut off by the sight of the vampire and the Slayer entwined in the bed. Her fingers flew over her mouth, eyes wide with shocked, and she stumbled with embarrassment. "Oh. Oh, my. Wow."

Quickly, Giles stepped around the gawking group, silently shutting the door and giving them all tired but serious looks. "I think we'd best have a talk," he said, and Xander laughed mirthlessly.

"Oh, do you?" he said, and he glared at the door. "Don't you think that Buffy should be there for that?"

"Let her sleep," Giles said, trying to keep his voice calm, and then Xander clenched his jaw.

"Yeah, she looks pretty worn out to me," he said. "After all the crazy shagging, she should be. From what I hear, Spike's a pretty big sexual animal." There was a pointed glare at Anya, and she narrowed her hard little eyes, thin lips drawing up into a pinched expression. It was not a good idea to piss off a vengeance demon, Willow decided.

"Xander. Downstairs. Now," Anya said through gritted teeth, and Giles sighed.

It was going to be a very long day.

*****

(end part seven)

*****



SUMMARY: As old friends return to Sunnydale and life begins to move on, a new adversary comes to town and shows Buffy more about herself than she ever wanted to know. B/S

RATING: NC-17

SPOILERS: Through "Grave"

DISCLAIMER: The characters within this story are the property of Mutant Enemy Productions, except for the ones that you don't recognize, because I made them up all by my lonesome. Aren't I cool? No? Shut up. You don't know me. Bitch. Music will be disclaimed as it is used, and it will be used occasionally. Like in this chapter. Really, it will.

AUTHOR'S NOTES: Soundtrack of this chapter? All Grant Lee Buffalo and Grant-Lee Phillips, for it is the music of the gods. So gorgeous.

Thanks again to the kick-ass beta efforts of Devil Piglet and wisteria, who made this story much, much better than it should be. Really. They are the bomb-diggity.



Chapter Eight: Exposures

Leaves once rose like an ocean we swam when we were boys
This one was all things a mansion a fortress
And as we matured it was shade for
The secrets that we passed along

--Grant Lee Buffalo, "Better For Us"

*****

Back in the secret season with Spike, when everything was too sacrilegious and abominable to be revealed to her friends, Buffy often had dreams about being on trial. Intimidating courtroom, crammed full with all of her high school classmates, staring at her in shock, appalled and disgusted. Xander dressed in suit and tie; Willow beside him in a severe black pantsuit, hair jerked away from her scrubbed, plain face. Prosecuting her for decisions that were spawned from their grievous error.

Is this really your life to live, Miss Summers?

Familiar faces, blank and empty, devoid of compassion, filling up the jury box. Riley in camouflage, destroyed and mauled. Parker smirking, triumphant at last. She understood his motivations now. Dawn detached, isolated and imperious. Her beloved Angel, no longer hers to keep. Anya, Oz, Drusilla, Darla, Cordelia, her mother so bereaved and ghostly.

Order! Order in the courtroom! Spike, if you do not exit the premises I will insist on having you gagged!

Fingers wrapped around her legs, grabbing onto her ankles, a dead weight dragging her down as she walked up to the witness box, all eyes on her. Buffy offered up her testimony, pleaded her case, and her black leather ball and chain hissed betrayal at her all the while. Willow pacing, Xander shouting, and the Honorable Rupert Giles banging his gavel while a whispery, ghostly Tara tried her best not to stammer while defending her, sobbing and screaming, but all they gave her was damnation.

We, the jury, find the defendant guilty and sentence her to live.

Now, as soon as Buffy saw them, she knew that they had a verdict.

They were gathered around her dining room table, bearing drawn faces and lukewarm coffee, the essence of sobriety. All eyes crawled across her as she descended the last couple of steps, heart rising in a crescendo of panic, smile frozen on her face. She understood how deer felt when captured in high beams. Swallowing the thick lump of fear in her throat, Buffy flicked a gaze at the front door and momentarily thought of running away.

"Buffy, I think we need to... Talk."

From across the room, Anya's heightened senses could smell the unusual, spicy Spike-scent that had wrapped her up in its potent embrace. All alcoholic and nicotine-saturated, dusty and ashen in all the wrong ways, but no sweet leather-musk, which was disappointing. And yet she could not smell the sex on Buffy, even though her embrace upstairs with Spike had been so intimate, so... Sensual. Not like her fumbling, punch-drunk encounter on the Magic Box table.

They're in love.

"Are we having another apocalypse?" Buffy asked hopefully from the stairs, and nobody replied, everyone averting their eyes except for curious Anya, who stared at her with a wistful smile tugging at her lips. Buffy sagged. "Oh. It's one of those talks."

"I saw you this morning. With him."

Widening her eyes, Buffy stared at Xander, who'd said the words like they killed him. Hollow dark eyes stared back at her, loaded with questions and queries, and his mouth was tight like he did not really want the answers. "Oh," she said quietly, slipping into an empty chair beside Anya. "I see."

Buffy did not want to have this conversation right now. Everything was all confused, messed-up, her former lover sleeping in her bed with his brow all furrowed like a little boy dreaming about bogeymen, muttering nonsense into a pile of pillows. She had been reluctant to leave his side; he'd smelled so good, like wet grass and rainwater.

Head tipped back, he raises his hands a little, almost like accepting baptism, holy rites underneath the likeness of sculpted angels. Water washes over every careful muscle, every artistic sinew...

Xander swallowed hard, choking on the angry accusations he wanted to throw at her. You're sleeping with a monster. You're fucking a dead thing. You're in love with your would-be rapist. That bruise on her thigh, the fingerprints that were smudged into her cheek in dark splotches, the destruction and the skewed robe...

"Giles told us that you're in love with him," Willow said gently, and Buffy whipped her head around to Giles, who was wearily hiding his face in his hands, glasses dangling between his fingers.

"That was private," Buffy hissed, and he sighed, moving his fingers slightly, like the slightest motion would kill him.

"It was the only way I could stop Xander from killing him."

Xander snorted. "Like it wasn't obvious anyway," he muttered. "There was spooning. Spoonage with Spike. One of those images I want removed from my brain one day. Preferably one day soon."

Feign innocence. That was a good tactic; Spike tried it out a lot and it always charmed her. Big, Precious Moments eyes and pouty lip, little-girl voice and shrinking posture. Everything in her Buffy bag-of-tricks. "We weren't spooning," she said mildly. "We were... Um... Fighting. In our sleep. Because--"

"Oh, for heaven's sake," Giles muttered, dropping his glasses onto the table. "Buffy, they know. Don't be coy." He lowered his voice. "We all saw you."

Buffy swallowed a wild, terrified laugh, thinking of the way that she had woken up this morning. Smothered in Spikiness, his cool, dry body wrapped around hers, chin hooked onto his shoulder, their limbs all tangled up in sheets and skin. Morning light kept at bay, dim and shadowed, and how her heart ached at the thought of leaving his side. Just the thought, the fucking thought, and it made her feel all tight and itchy, like her heart was suddenly too big for her body.

"When did he get back?" Anya asked, and Xander threw her a heavy stare, all the weight of his disapproval falling on her once again. Just like old times, when he would correct her for using the wrong word or let her know in no uncertain terms that what she was saying embarrassed him. In the past, she might have rephrased, backpedaled, but now she just fixed an icy glare on him and fingered her amulet until he shrank back.

"I saw him a couple of weeks ago," Buffy admitted.

Xander slammed his fist onto the table with a loud whack! and Buffy winced. "Fucking..." he growled, and then he took a deep breath. He had to calm down. Deal with this rationally. Don't let the temper run away with itself. "Why didn't you tell us?"

"It wasn't any of your business."

Gritted teeth, throbbing head. "Oh, you don't think so?"

"No. It was between him and me."

Xander wanted to punch something, wanted to break off a leg of the chair and run upstairs to show Spike his new pointy toy. "It's not just between you and him, Buff. He's dangerous, and you know that." Please, please tell me you know that. After what he did to you. How he ruined you.

Her voice was sad and wistful, filled with a longing for things to be different. "I know," she said softly, and Giles subtly reached over and put his hand over hers. He remembered her sticky, sweaty face, her clammy skin, the smell of spoiled hopes as she exited the bathroom, and all of those photographs. It had ravaged her to see what her heart loved, to see the things that Spike had done.

Suddenly, Giles turned his face towards Xander and glared at him. "We will not turn this discussion into a trial," he said, and Buffy blinked at him in awe. "This is Buffy's life, Xander. And it's her heart."

"Is it really?" Xander asked with an arched eyebrow, and the vicious look still had not cowered and run away, even under the blazing fire of Giles's gaze. "You don't know the things he's done. You weren't here last year for that."

Guilt cut through him like a scythe, and Buffy tightened her grip on his wrist. "I see," Giles said quietly. "No, I wasn't, Xander, and I deeply regret not being here for all of you. Last year... From what I've heard, it was disastrous."

"No kidding," Xander scoffed, and Anya then cut her eyes at him.

"Don't play the innocent bystander," she advised. "It doesn't suit you. Oh, and by the way, where were you on our wedding day? I remember Buffy being there, and Willow, and Tara, hell, even Spike--"

"Don't say his name," Xander said through his teeth, but she paid him no mind. Anya was on a roll, finally able to stand up in front of him and call him on all of his failures while he tried to point out everyone else's shortcomings and mistakes.

"--But I don't recall seeing you there," she said, eyes black and sparking. Giles watched her with fascination, catching whippets and flurries of red glowing within her amulet. The vengeance demon at work, abandoning wishes in favor of words. "You must have had something more important to do, like, oh, I don't know, wasting your life."

Furiously, Xander stood up, leaning towards her. "I'm wasting my life?" he said incredulously. "You've already thrown yours away to be the big vengeance-dispenser."

"Oh, right, bring it all back to the demon thing, Xander, because--"

As they snipped and yelled, throwing barbs like hand grenades, exploding and leaving emotional shrapnel, they did not even notice when the others withdrew to the kitchen, abandoning the former lovebirds to their wreckage and war.

Buffy sagged against the wall, closing her eyes and trying to filter out the commotion in the dining room. All of the bickering, the biting and scratching. Not literally, but Buffy was not sticking around to see it get physical. "God," she muttered to herself, "how did they not get married and still manage to act like a divorced couple?"

She felt the emptiness crawling at her skin, that hollow, haggard heaven-deprived state of mind that had consumed her in the months following her resurrection. It was her own damned fault though, for being so naïve as to think that all of the pieces were reassembled, that everything was fine again.

Nothing's ever fine.

Velvet, stripped and raw, murmuring over her brain, numbing her senses and crawling into her skin. So rich, so filled with empathy, like it knew just what she--

"They'll be fine."

Startled, Buffy opened her eyes and saw Willow, calm and pale at the stove, pouring herself a cup of tea. Cocking her head to the side, Buffy watched as her friend stirred lemon and honey into the cup, her motions so smooth, fingers nimble and graceful. Composed, calm, almost serene.

"They've got the big issues," Willow said wisely. "But he still loves her, you know. Every night before he goes to bed, he plays this one CD that she bought him a while back, and listens to this one song that they were going to play as their first dance at their wedding. He wears his wedding band on a chain around his neck. It's alternately cute and sad."

"The ring?" Buffy asked dumbly, and Willow chuckled, shaking her head.

"The Xander," she corrected, brushing errant strands of copper hair out of her eyes. Giles leaned against the refrigerator, noticing the awkward way that her hand shook when she passed him by, her tranquility momentarily breached by tension. Sighing, she practically sank into a chair, taking a measured sip of tea before she continued. "The last year's been hard on him. Not to say it hasn't been hard on all of us, because wow. Last year."

Buffy nodded. "It sucked."

There was a silent moment of companionship shared between them, like two war-hardened soldiers taking a breather between battles. Regrets and losses had scarred their young faces, beating fine lines around Buffy's eyes, tightening and pinching Willow's mouth, and Giles took in these changes with guilt. Could he have prevented these pains if he had stayed here this past year? Saved Buffy from her destroyed self, rescued Willow before she descended into the dark?

They were interrupted by the sound of breaking glass, and Buffy winced, wondering what else was broken in her house. "Good Lord," Giles muttered, and she sighed, trudging towards the dining room.

"I'll go deal with it," she said, shaking her head. "And collect payment for whatever they messed up. I swear, whenever those two get together, it's just bad news."

Buffy refused to linger on the irony of her own words.

Alone in the kitchen, they had no one but each other, and there was no one Willow wanted to avoid in the world more than Rupert Giles. Ducking her head, she tried to hide her face underneath her hair, tried to hide the eyes that had stared at him so deadly while draining the energy from him, but she could feel him watching her nonetheless. It made her feel small and vulnerable, made her feel worried and nervous.

Gently, Giles put a hand on her shoulder, warm fingers spreading over her shoulder, and she could almost smell the library in that moment. Cursed books, lingering scent of tea and tweed, knowledge and violence. Freshly cut wood. The memory was so vivid that her fingers curled, trying to grasp something intangible and lost. She remembered the Willow that she used to be, the girl in silly hats and sneakers, who always knew the answers and aced all of the tests, fingers flying in a flurry over the keyboard...

"It's all right, Willow," Giles murmured. "It's all right."

She did not even notice that she was crying.

*****

They'd broken her mother's picture.

Carefully, Buffy picked up shards of glass from the floor, delicately dropping them in the trash bag, while her mother's image stared up at her from a sea of beige carpeting and fractured frame. It was her mother's favorite frame, the one with the silver roses forming a wreath around the photograph. Trash now.

Just another part of the wreckage that was Anya and Xander.

When Buffy had entered the dining room, Xander was hunched over the picture, frantically gathering up the pieces, and his quickened breath and red, sweaty face told her who the culprit behind her broken picture was. She knew enough about the way men could shatter the most ordinary things when they lost their tempers. Anya had just stood there, looking down at him, her face utterly empty, and her words still echoed through Buffy's head. Call me when you've learned how to forgive.

Her house was blissfully quiet now; as soon as the impromptu fireworks session was over, all of the rubberneckers cleared out. Quiet, supportive Giles offering her a hug before driving Anya to work, Xander stumbling out with a wet-cheeked Willow mutely following. Dawn was still upstairs sleeping the sleep of the teenaged zombie (though, thankfully, not literally), while her controversial maybe-paramour hid behind his dreams from the sunlight.

All that Buffy wanted was the darkroom.

"Morning," Dawn grumped, fists grinding sleep out of her eyes as she trudged downstairs. Much to Buffy's surprise, her sister was not in pajamas, but rather fully dressed. Although with Dawn's skimpy summer wardrobe, calling her clothed was sort of stretching the truth.

Frowning, Buffy looked out the window. "Funny," she said, "but I don't see any pigs flying."

"Ha-ha," Dawn said, rolling her eyes as she reached for her purse. "I've got an errand to--" Her hand froze, hovering over the small, shiny silver object resting on the end table.

Spike's lighter.

The summer of empty, the summer of ache. The summer without Buffy.

"You know how long I've had this lighter?" he says, unlit cigarette bobbing between his teeth as he stares at the Zippo cupped in his hand. Dawn shakes her head, enthralled by him as she always is, eager to hear his gory, grisly stories and unusual instances of accidental heroism. "Had it since 1969. Woodstock. Yeah, pet, I was there. Got to see Jimi Hendrix and the introduction of granola, which isn't that bad if you soak it in blood, but that's beside the point. This lighter's stayed with me. It's loyal." Spike's voice breaks for a moment near the end, thinking undoubtedly of Buffy.

Dawn reaches over to him, takes his cool fingers in her small, hot hand, and tells him that she understands.

"I saw Spike," Dawn murmured, and Buffy sighed, exasperated.

"Great," she muttered. "Should I just put a big billboard over our house that says 'Spike is Here'?"

Dawn frowned. "Spike's here?"

Buffy rolled her eyes. "I'm going to end up with rope burns around my neck from all of this hanging myself." She wrapped an arm around her sister and guided her to the sofa, tucking her hair behind her ear. "So, where did you see him? On patrol, right?"

Dawn nodded. "Yeah," she said. "We found this boy... He was all bloodied up. But I killed the vampire, so that's a plus. Xander and Willow took him to the hospital, and I decided to go exploring."

"And exploring ended up at Spike's crypt," Buffy finished, and Dawn nodded again, still fingering the lighter, her warm fingertips passing over the cool, smooth metal and silver.

"Sort of," she admitted, and then she sighed. "I don't know what I was going to say to him, really. 'Hi, nice seeing you again, thanks for almost raping my sister and hightailing it out of town?'" Both sisters winced, and Buffy ran a hand through her hair.

"So what did you end up saying to him?" she asked, and Dawn sighed.

"I wanted to beat the shit out of him," she said, and Buffy snorted. That was her sister, a Summers girl through and through. She had the feeling that their mother would be proud. "But I couldn't. I got there and he was acting all... Weird."

Buffy frowned. "Weird how?" she asked, and Dawn shrugged, squirming a little, uncomfortable as she thought about it. The way that the vampire had sat smoking and sullen on the sarcophagus, ripping apart books and reeking of booze and too many cigarettes... Well, okay, so it wasn't exactly unusual for Spike to be drunk. Hell, he'd spent half of last summer in an alcoholic stupor, but it was the way that he'd acted that made him seem so...

"He broke his TV," Dawn finally said, and Buffy furrowed her brow. "I know, it's just television, but you know. Spike loves television. But he tore the entire crypt apart, and he was tearing pages out of books and quoting Shakespeare."

Gasping, hands outstretched and scrambling as he pushes himself away from her, mouth open in an 'o' of shock, and he's saying the things that victims say. "No, no, stop, I can't..." She does not understand, reaches out for him, but he's muttering about dirtiness and...

"What did he say?" Buffy asked, her voice hoarse and ragged to her own ears.

Dawn shook her head, face clouded with trouble and pinched with hurt. "He said... Stuff about how I shouldn't touch him because he was dirty, which was so true. He smelled like a bar had thrown up on him."

Water sliding down the sharp, angular planes of his face, trickling onto his shoulders, and wild white hair sticking up from his face in gorgeously disheveled damp curls, caught in the crosshairs of her camera.

"And then when I tried to confront him about... You know," Dawn said awkwardly, flashing a gaze at her sister, not wanting to bring up the dreaded word, "he just kind of... Freaked out even more. And he said something about how he'd thought he'd fixed it, how he was sorry for what he did to you, but how he couldn't change and I shouldn't..." Her lower lip quivered, and she turned her face away from Buffy, hiding her wounded eyes underneath a thick curtain of mahogany hair. "He was different."

"Don't say it," he begs, eyes petrified of what he might find in her eyes, in her words, in her proclamations and confessions of love. "Hurts to hear you say it."

 Frowning, Dawn tilted her head and looked at her, concern etched in her spaniel's eyes. Puppy dog eyes, Buffy thought dazedly. "Buffy?" she asked. "You okay? You look kind of... Wigged."

Quickly, Buffy flashed a smile, the dazzling "everything is fine" grin, a little dopey and goofy. "I'm all right," she said, averting her eyes and nervously tucking her hair behind her ears as she stood up, walking towards the door. "No big. Just spaced for a minute. Go run your errand, and I'll meet you at the Magic Box around five so that we can go school shopping."

Dawn perked right up at that, arching her eyebrows and grinning happily. "Oo, does this mean that we get to go spend more Watcher cash?" she asked excitedly, and Buffy beamed right back at her.

"Yup," she said. "Time to go blow more stuffy British bucks. I'm thinking that we should go to Beverly Hills for Labor Day weekend and clean out Prada."

Dawn shouldered her purse and slipped a pair of sunglasses on her nose, grinning mischievously at Buffy as she walked out the door. "In the meantime, we can spend it on more obnoxious yard art," she said, and Buffy snickered.

"Wal-Mart, here we come."

Before Dawn skipped out, a thought occurred to Buffy, and she called after her. "Dawnie!" she said, and her sister spun around, arching an eyebrow. "You said that Spike was quoting Shakespeare?"

Taken aback, Dawn stammered for a moment, surprised at the question. "Yeah," she said. "What about it?"

Buffy swallowed. "Which one was he quoting?"

Dawn bit her lip, trying to think back. "I can't remember," she said. "But there was something about a bad winter and he said that he was some Richard guy and I was Ophelia, even though I told him that I was Juliet. And can I go now?"

Buffy smiled, but it was a wavering, uncertain one, troubled and false. "Yeah," she said. "See you."

*****

Though the sun was shining bright in the sky, and the earth was filled with a perfumed haze of summertime languor, there was only one place on earth where Buffy wanted to be at the moment, and that was the darkroom.

Anxiously, she sat on the washing machine and stared at the wet photographs hanging from the clothesline stretched across the rafters of the basement, hugging her knees to her chest, back tensely propped against the wall, waiting for the pictures to develop. The egg timer was ticking like a death march, and her fingernails tapped out the beat on the tin lid of the machine. It was agonizing, this waiting period, and all that she could think of was Spike.

After Dawn is gone, she slips upstairs to the bedroom and holds the camera in her hand, snapping off pictures of him in the dim shadows of her bedroom. Hand slung across pillow, back arching a little, feet twitching in his sleep. But mostly, she wants pictures of his face, wants to capture the expression of barely restrained pain, the tension, and the helpless arch of his scarred eyebrow as he mutters nonsense that her film cannot record.

"No... I can't see... Nothing, all bollixed..."

There were the bare bones of a chronology constructed on the worn canvas of his leather coat, draped out over the dryer, her black and white photographs fanned out before her. Spike at her doorstep, Spike at her feet, Spike's hunched shoulders as he walked away from her. On the signature of a killer, she placed the three shots of him astonished, adoring, and defeated. All of them so open, so honest, so vibrant and intensely, deeply passionate. The things that she only caught and registered in glimpses before he left, and even then they were snippets marked to be shredded and destroyed because she could not handle their meaning.

Buffy wished that she had them all back.

Something... Something had happened to him. Something that made him hiss and recoil at her touch, something that stripped him of his usual sneer and swagger.

She worried that he might be broken.

Sighing, Buffy slumped against the brick wall and ran a hand over her eyes, wincing. Last night, he'd been so fragile, so unlike him, like all of his defenses were smashed to smithereens and he was left raw and bleeding. She had never seen him cry before, and it was an awful and terrible thing, like watching a building crumble to dust. Spike wept in the same manner with which he lived his unnatural life -- to the fullest. No holds barred.

What did he do in Africa?

"Good morning, pet."

To give her credit, she did not spin around in shocked surprise at his entrance, and Spike wasn't sure if he was grateful or disappointed that she did not pick up a stake and throw it at him out of sheer habit. Instead, Buffy just tossed a weak smile over her shoulder at him, almost fond and endearing, a sad reminder of the travesty he'd pushed her into.

Funny, how he could want this and nothing else for the last two years, and when he finally had her heart, he wanted to throw it back.

Ain't love grand, cherie?

Groaning, Spike stretched his lithe body underneath the dim weight of the basement lighting, looking sculpted out of fire beneath her red development lights. He looked remarkably good, delectably underdressed in nothing but the pair of black jeans she'd grabbed for him last night from the cemetery, his black tee shirt balled up in his fist. "Did you sleep well?" she asked softly, thinking of the way that his face had contorted and tensed while he dreamed.

A shrug, careless and effortless. "Well enough," he said. "Had some weird dreams. You and me, in France, 'cept that you weren't you and I wasn't me."

The corner of her mouth twitched into a teasing smile. "Was the sex good?" Buffy asked, and Spike gave her a leer that almost revived the old days of too much teasing and not enough of everything else.

"Can't remember," he said honestly, and she gave him a flirtatious smile that he once would have killed to see. Teasing green eyes, flashing hint at dimples, girlish coloring. The look of a girl who wasn't wearing any underwear and wanted him to come see for himself. Tempting thought, that, just walking over there to the dryer and slipping his hand down her loose white blouse, copping a good feel of her sweet-smelling, soapy-fresh skin, sliding her little cut-off shorts down her skinny thighs...

Ripping at the robe, clawing at the cloth...

"You seen my boots?" Spike said flatly, refusing to look at her, wary of the temptation that her body on a vibrating appliance provided. Fantasies of laying her down, of her giggling and laughing while he cranked up the dryer, squealing delightedly as he climbed atop her... Bad thoughts. Shouldn't go there, mate. Not anymore. "Need to get going before it gets too bright."

Buffy frowned at him, glancing up at the faint slits of light appearing through the tiny rectangular block windows of the basement. "It's already too bright," she said. "What’s the hurry, Spike? You know that you can stay here until it gets dark."

But he was already pulling on his shirt, shaking his head. "I'll make a run for it," he said. "Gotten rather good at that, if you can spare me a blanket to keep the sun out." Or don't. Doesn't really matter. Could make a dash across the street and burn up in a fiery blaze. Pull a Richard Pryor on Revello Drive, give the neighbors a good show of it.

It hurt, seeing how anxious he was to get away from her, like she was Typhoid Mary with a contagious heart. Bowing her head, Buffy fidgeted with the fraying hem of her shorts. "I see," she muttered, and Spike sighed.

"Look, it's nothing personal," he said. "Just... Things would probably be better if I wasn't here, you know? Before everyone gets a gawk at--"

"Too late," Buffy said, a wry smile turning up one side of her mouth. "It seems that everyone got tuned into the Buffy and Spike show this morning, leading to my extremely uncomfortable talk about the good and the bad of sleeping with vampires." She frowned. "Well, come to think of it, there wasn't much of the good discussed, which is a shame, because they really missed out on a lot of interesting facts to know and use." She tried to give him a grin, tried to light him up again, but he only winced.

"Bet they weren't too thrilled," he muttered, and Buffy gave him a dry smile that pretty much said it all. Spike would have paid a pretty penny to have been there for that conversation, the whole Scooby gang assembled to suss out the wicked-bad of their coupling, Harris sitting there flapping his gob like a pissed-off flounder while Giles cleaned his glasses like an obsessive-compulsive, all restrained and grossed-out.

"You'll have to get over it someday, you know."

Her voice was soft and flimsy, like origami. When he looked at her, her eyes were plain and meaningful, gentle mouth holding a sad smile, and her hair a cascade of gold. "It's over," she said, shrugging her shoulders. "I'm over it. You can't dwell on what happened between us for the rest of your life."

A short, sour laugh, and he turned his face away, fading into the shadows of her darkroom. "Sure you're over it," he muttered. "Can't even say what it was, can't even acknowledge it, but you've got your closure. Right."

She took a moment, gathered her strength, and then hopped down from the dryer, striding purposefully across the basement towards him. Firmly, she crossed her arms over chest and stared defiantly at him. "I am over it," she said. "Over. Done. Finished. I'm over it, and I forgive you for it because I--"

Spike shook his head, turning away from her, shutting her out. "Don't say it," he muttered gruffly. "Told you not to. You don't really..."

His voice trailed off, pained and stifled, and Buffy tilted her head to the side before placing her palm on his cheek. "What?" she asked softly. "I don't really love you? I do. It's real, Spike, and it's realer than anything I've ever felt before. It's incredible."

"It's a lie," he hissed. "Said it before yourself, Summers. You could never trust me enough to love me. Best stick with your instincts on that one, pet."

God, he was infuriating. Absolutely irritating and aggravating, all of this self-incrimination and shadow skulking. He made her fists curl up from frustration, her blood pumping hard and hot inside of her veins, temper rearing its vicious head. "God, what is up with you?" Buffy finally said, throwing up her hands in defeat. "Ever since you came back from Africa, you've been all different and weird and freaky."

"Have not," Spike said feebly, averting his eyes. He could not tell her about the soul, could not let her know, not yet. Not when she was still subscribing to this stupid idea of loving him, the thing that could get her killed faster than a thousand bloody apocalypses. Commitment to Spike never ended well, and she was a fool for not having known this the instant he shoved her against the bathtub and tried to take what was not his. "Just... Considered things, is all. You were right. I'm a monster." His voice almost broke. "A thing."

Wounded, Buffy turned her face away from him. "I did this to you, didn't I," she murmured, crossing her arms over her chest, suddenly chilled by the thought. "I made you think these... Awful things about yourself, all because I couldn't tell you..."

Suddenly, Buffy walked towards the dryer, and for the first time, Spike noticed something other than her. His leather duster, the one that was stripped from the body of a warrior, was draped across her dryer, serving as a makeshift malleable canvas for her photography. In a swift motion, Buffy picked up the pictures and walked back over to them, slamming evidence in his face once again.

A picture of himself, standing on her sidewalk with his mouth all gaping like the git that he was, eyes wide and stupidly open, showing all of his raw, unveiled love for her. For a moment, Spike was captivated by the celluloid reflection; he had not seen himself in ages. The last time he'd seen what he looked like was through the stolen lens of someone's camera in Brazil, when he went skinny-dipping with Dru in the warm, clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico, back when his dark bride still loved him enough to ignore the fact that his heart belonged to the woman who was born to hunt him down.

"Christ," Spike muttered, looking at the lovelorn shot of himself, "I really do look pathetic, don't I?"

Gently, Buffy touched his face, sliding a finger down his nose, shaking her head. "No," she said. "You look amazing. Do you see, Spike? Why I love you? It's right here in this picture."

Spike closed his eyes, and she leaned forward, laying a kiss on each slash of black lashes, threading her fingers through the springy, untamed curls. She felt him weakening, all of his defenses and nasty retorts melting to the floor, and she took advantage like he used to, trying to bring him out of himself and into her.

Threading her hands around the back of his neck, Buffy guided him towards the washing machine, surrounded by her slowly focusing photography, underneath the hot fiery lamps and into the shadows. "Do you remember?" she murmured into his neck, kissing the still pulse point by his jaw, making him shudder and sigh. "Remember when I came back from the dead? And you told me..." Another kiss, nipping at his earlobe, tugging with her teeth in a way that made his entire body stiffen and his non-breath all ragged. "...That you saved me. Every night, you saved me."

"Failed," Spike murmured, his head bowed and body slumped over her, succumbed to the touch of her hands and the weakness of his heart. Never had resolve when it came to her. Never, and that would be the death of Buffy Summers one day. Couldn't control himself. Couldn't keep his hands away from her, not when her hot, dry mouth was pressing little airy kisses along cheek, moving slowly for his mouth.

"You didn't fail," Buffy whispered. "I wouldn't let you save me until it was too late. But you did, you know. Eventually. I fall in love with you a dozen times a day, Spike, and it's for a thousand different reasons. The way you look at me. The stupid little nicknames you always make up for me. Your eyes, your voice, your hands..." She hissed in a breath then, heat and hunger colliding inside her belly. "God, your hands are so fucking beautiful."

Tentatively, Spike lifted one of them and wrapped it around her waist, aching at the feel of her feverish curves beneath his fingers, and the way that she moaned and arched, sucking in a breath. "Yes," she whispered. "Touch me. I want you, I need you, I love--"

Before Buffy even knew what happened, she found herself against the wall while Spike tore through the room like a hurricane, flimsy photographs shaking and trembling in his wake. "No," he said, flexing his fingers, gripping his head with his hands. Madly, he laughed and then whirled around, pointing an accusing finger at her. "You're crazy, Slayer, you know that? Finally gone right around the bend, and you want to take me with you. Too bad I beat you to it."

They had to stop doing this, starting something so hot and scorching and then throwing it onto ice. It was killing Buffy, her body tingling and skin screaming for his fingers, his mouth, his words and his cock. She wanted him so badly that it hurt without his touch. "Spike..."

Spike whipped around, staring at her with desperation on his face. "So I told you once that I'd save you," he said. "Doesn't matter now. Every night, pet, I dream about you. About killing you. All sorts of different ways, all sorts of different weapons, but the same result every time. You, deader than disco. And no one to blame but me."

Screaming, crying, sniffling in his arms as he grabs her by her too-perfect hair and brings her head back, exposing the graceful curve of her neck. "Tell Dawnie I love her," she begs, and he laughs because the little cupcake is dead already, doesn't she know, all of her lanky limbs broken and her spine all snapped to pieces. "Spike..."

"Spike..."

"Stop saying that!" he bellowed, his voice reverberating and bouncing off of the cement walls, desperate and angry. "Don't you get it? Every night, I kill you, and I wake up harder than algebra and begging for more."

Clenching his jaw, Spike suddenly stormed across the floor and grabbed her roughly by her shoulders, hoping to elicit a gasp, wanting to make her afraid of him, because at least fear was something that could keep her safe. If she hated him, if she was scared of him, then she might survive him after all.

"I'm a monster," he hissed in her ear. "You hear me? Evil, through and through. Everything you've ever said to me, well, I've proven you right. That act... Speaks for itself, pet. Says everything about what kind of a bastard I am. Is that what you love so bad, Slayer? That what you want?"

Hard, bony hands pushed against his chest, throwing him off of her, and Spike sneered at her, looking at the barely contained rage on her face, at the fury and thunder of Buffy Summers, unhinged. "Yes," she hissed. "I'm in love with you, after everything. Because of everything. I love your passion, and your fire, and your pigheaded badness, and the way that you're more alive than any man I've ever seen."

"Not alive," Spike muttered, turning his face away from her. "Not a man, remember?"

Buffy slapped him, hard across his face, enough to leave a handprint that could blossom into a bruise. "No," she said firmly. "I was wrong that night, Spike. I was wrong all along. You're more of a man than half of the men in this world. The way that you live, everything full-tilt and pedal to the metal... God, that's what I love about you. You're invigorating, and infuriating, and you make me feel alive!"

There it was, laid out as bare as her spare photography in the middle of the darkroom, and Buffy had her reason. It was not the death, not the destruction, but the way that Spike could throw himself into every action, every motion, and the way that he loved the world that he was created to destroy. He was fire and brimstone, hell decked out in leather and smoke, grinning like a wolf as he flung himself into the fray of living and being.

But this man was not the same. He was a wounded and wrecked version of that fitful, furious Spike who'd somehow fought his way into her heart. There was something tragic about him now, like a ferocious tiger who'd been kept too long in captivity and was dwindling away into listless death. Not domesticated, not tamed, just... Ruined.

"What happened to you?" Buffy asked softly, reaching out to touch his hair, all of those springy little coils of silver-gold. He jerked away, body tense and filled with bottled lightning, and she shook her head, sadly. "Talk to me. Tell me where you were in Africa. Tell me what you did."

Getting the crap beat out of me by countless beasties. Hating you for making me do this to myself. Loving you because I fucked you up so bad. Trying to find something to make this all right, only to find out that I was cheated by fate yet again.

Couldn't tell her. If she knew... If she knew, then it would never be over. She would just keep coming back, all loving and sweet like she was now, touching his hair and trying to wrap her arms around him, and he'd break her like glass before she ever knew what hit her. Buffy had wanted him to give her a reason to love him, to give her a reason for this ill-fated romance that she wanted so badly to spin, and all that Spike could hand her were reasons why she should kill him now and be done with it all.

"Went there for something I lost," Spike finally said through gritted teeth. "Thought it might make things better, fix what I fucked up. But it didn't. Nothing ever will."

Her fingers were the barest whisper of skin against his lips, and Buffy gently turned his head, forcing him to look into her eyes. They were all molten jade, soft and wet, like she could cry for him if he would just let her. "It'll be all right," she said, and she kissed him slow and crushing like snow, and he felt it deep inside of his gut, this love that she'd somehow managed to feel for him. All he'd ever wanted. Just to feel that, and Spike kissed her back, hand hovering helplessly over her hair.

In the end, I'll kill her.

Sighing, Buffy kissed his forehead once more before she moved away from him, twining her fingers briefly through his hand and then letting him slip away. "You should take your coat back," she murmured, fingering the worn, beaten leather cuff briefly. "I've been holding onto it for you for a while, you know. Kind of surprised you haven't come by and picked it up yet."

That's because I can't stand the smell of it, the feel of it, the memory of where it came from. Every time I think about that stupid bloody duster, all I can see is the girl who could have been you. The girl that I killed.

But if he didn't take it, then she would know that something was up, and he had to put on the act. Be old Spike, the one who wouldn't give a shit if the gorgeous leather came from a slaughtered Slayer. That vampire was proud of it, flaunting his trophies, flashing the scar in his eyebrow and the battered duster. "Yeah," he said, reaching over and picking up his coat. "Missed this baby, I did."

Spike slipped into the leather coat, feeling its heavy, birdlike wings settling like guilt on his shoulders, smelling that never-faded scent of power and murder that always clung to the duster's lapels and flaps. Felt like home, felt like him again. Out of familiarity, Spike plunged his hands into the pockets and expected to withdraw a stale pack of cigarettes, but instead found nothing. He frowned. "What'd you do with my fags?" he asked, and she frowned in disapproving confusion.

"Your gay friends?" she asked. "And so not-PC, Spike."

Spike rolled his eyes at her, a memorable gesture that made her think of beating the snot out of him. Ah, yes, those were the good old days. "No," he said, "my cigarettes."

Relieved, Buffy sighed. "Oh, those," she said, and then she ducked her head, quirking a smile at him as she started to take down her photographs. Spike portrayed in muted gray and charcoal, covered in a fine, clear sheen of water. "I kind of smoked them all. My bad."

Spike arched his eyebrows. She'd said as much the other night, but he hadn't really believed her, thinking that she was just being exceptionally melodramatic and overly romantic when claiming that she'd tasted his cigarettes to recapture the flavor of his mouth. Nice sentiment, he'd thought, but Christ, she'd really done it. For the first time since she'd said it, since she'd kissed him like an animal and tried to fuck him in the cemetery, he really believed it.

God, she really does love me.

Dazedly, Spike walked behind her, looking at the woman he'd idolized and worshipped for the past two years, possibly longer, maybe the entirety of his existence. Little blonde snippet of a thing, scandalously small shorts, long legs, wild gold curls. Tidy hands taking down photographs she'd taken of him in the nude, and Spike snickered at that. Made a lovely subject, he did.

The sleeping ones he had more of a trouble with, because of the odd shots she'd taken, the strange poses and expressions fluttering over his face while he'd dreamed about Parisian lovemaking and blood-flavored champagne. All of these photographs, carefully documenting his nightmares. Narrowing his eyes, Spike carefully inspected the several close-ups of his face, and saw with a sinking heart that she would see through his lies.

Suddenly, Buffy paused in front of the last photograph, and she snatched it off of the wire, all of the color draining from her face as she looked at it. Her wrist started to twitch and shake, and she slowly turned around to face him. "I... I didn't take this."

Dread coiled in the pit of his stomach as he looked at the photograph. Buffy and Spike, tangled and intertwined in bed, all covered up in sheets and thin skins. Neither one of them could have taken the picture, it was out of chronological order, and there was this funny shape over by the wardrobe, all secluded and foggy. Squinting, Spike tilted the photograph at another angle. Are those hands? Feet?

"Spike. There's a stranger by my closet."

*****

(end chapter eight)

*****



SUMMARY: As old friends return to Sunnydale and life begins to move on, a new adversary comes to town and shows Buffy more about herself than she ever wanted to know. B/S

RATING: NC-17

SPOILERS: Through "Grave"

DISCLAIMER: The characters within this story are the property of Mutant Enemy Productions, except for the ones that you don't recognize, because I made them up all by my lonesome. Aren't I cool? No? Shut up. You don't know me. Bitch. Music will be disclaimed as it is used, and it will be used occasionally. Like in this chapter. Really, it will.

AUTHOR'S NOTES: Written during a particularly bad bout of flooding in Charleston, in my own private Southern Venice. And on the day I departed to go visit the delightful Al. Written to the boring drone of 102.5, the Oldies station. Please, please, please no more Elvis. Make it stop.

Thanks again to the kick-ass beta efforts of Devil Piglet and wisteria, who made this story much, much better than it should be. Really. They are the bomb-diggity.



Chapter Nine: Charcoal, Smudged

Hidden in the corner, tucked away for none the world to see, the man stood tall and languid, leaning against her dresser, features blurred into jumbled slurs of shadow and light. Still, the body was there, the glinting glimpse of a mouth, hair stained ash in the achromatic photograph, and two fingers touching the temple in mock salute.

Unsettled, Giles laid the photograph on the table, the magnifying glass lying uselessly beside it. "Well, this is rather disturbing," Giles said, and Buffy threw up her hands.

"Well, duh. Why else do you think I brought it to you?" she asked, pacing anxiously around the training room, a small blonde bundle of nervous energy. Frankly, Giles was considering moving this conversation into the shop itself and away from all of the bright, deadly weapons that her fidgety hands might employ. A skittish Slayer was a deadly Slayer. "There's some creepy guy hanging out in my bedroom, and someone's messing with my camera. That's just... Not cool to the nth degree."

"I can't disagree with you on that," Giles muttered, looking down warily at the photograph. "There's something about... I don't know, but it seems like it's an oddly familiar picture."

Eagerly, Buffy arched her eyebrow and stopped her pacing. "Oo, familiar?" she said. "As in you've read something in some stuffy book before that looks like this?"

Crossly, Giles glared at her. "They're not stuffy," he said. "They're informative. Besides, how would you know? You've never picked up a chronicle in your entire career as--"

"Giles. Topic."

He cleared his throat, nodding. "Right. The photograph. I'll go through some of the texts and see if anything leaps out at me, but that's really the best that I can do at this point."

Dismayed, Buffy froze in the middle of the floor, staring at him with a hurt pout on her pretty face. "What?" she asked, hands on her hips, irritation etched onto her face. "There's nothing that you can do about it? Giles, someone is stalking me!"

Well, I don't see what you're all worked up about. The last time you had a stalker, you ended up finding a boyfriend. Giles swallowed his bitter thoughts, returning his attention to the photograph. The last thing that he wanted was documentation of this bizarre relationship between Buffy and Spike, and the tender position in the bed made Giles feel vaguely ill.

"Buffy, I understand that you're upset," he said, keeping his voice even and still, "but beyond a couple of chants or protective circles, I doubt that there is much that can be done at this point. I can research the texts, but this picture really does not give us much to go on."

Buffy knew that he was right, that she was being irrational, but there was this creepy-crawly sensation at the back of her neck, hackles raised on her skin as she looked down at the photograph. Someone had been in her bedroom, in her house, with Anya and Dawn and Spike and oh, God, she hated this. This feeling of impotence, of helplessness.

Troubled, she slumped down into the chair beside Giles and put her head in her hands. "I hate when the bad guys are all ambiguous," she muttered. "It makes them harder to beat up."

Chuckling, Giles put a hand on her back before he stood up. "I'll call Willow and see if she can cast anything that might keep prowlers out," he said, and Buffy frowned.

"I thought Willow was off the wagon," she said, and she furrowed her brow. "Or is it on the wagon?"

Carefully, Giles paused and pursed his lips, trying to think of a gentle way to break this news to her. "Buffy, Willow hasn't quit magic," he said. "I don't think she ever can. It's within her now. Permanent. She's learned control and balance, and quite masterfully, as well as how to avoid getting drawn into darker forces, but there's nothing that can stop her from being a witch." He lowered his voice gently. "It's who she is."

Shocked, Buffy stared at her Watcher. Willow couldn't be, not after what they'd gone through just a couple of months ago. Those awful things that she'd said to Dawn, the taunting black eyes and dark, monotonous drawl, flatly promising them murder and madness, so disaffected and blasé. Calling Buffy cold, and Xander stupid, and Dawn worthless.

Inky hair falls into her pale, cracked face, veins standing out, laden with poisonous black power. Onyx eyes stare out at Buffy from her best friend's face, and there is nothing but madness, nothing but grief, nothing but anger and rage inside of her. Willow is gone.

Yet even as she remembered the mad, dark-haired version of Willow, she could not equate it with the quiet, aching girl who'd returned to Sunnydale merely weeks ago. The new Willow was gentle and soft-spoken, stammering through her sentences like that long-lost geek of high school days. Guilt suddenly sank into Buffy's bones as she realized that she had not even paid that close attention to Willow since she'd come home.

"Buffy," Giles said softly by her ear, bracing his hands on the back of her chair. "She's fine. This is simply the way that she is. Magic is not something that one becomes addicted to, no matter what Willow might have thought. It's an essence, a force, and she's learning to let it go rather than try to hold onto it. She's managing."

The soothing words of Giles. Somehow, they always seemed to make sense of her confused and brittle world, taking concepts that overwhelmed her and converting them into sensibility. "Funny," Buffy murmured, "how everything seems to change and yet everything stays the same."

Giles could not agree with her more.

"There's something wrong with Spike," Buffy murmured, and Giles nodded.

"I've been saying that for years," he said, and Buffy turned around, alarmed and defensive until she saw the smile creeping up on his face. Teasing Giles. She supposed that it was an improvement.

"I'm being serious," she insisted. "There's something... Off about him." Swallowing, Buffy looked down at the photograph of the two of them intertwined, stuck on the look on his face. Even when he was sleeping, he looked haggard and overwrought, pained in his dreams by something he refused to explain. "I didn't tell you how it went last night, in the cemetery. When I went to see him."

His warm fingers crept over her shoulder in a show of support. "How did it go?"

"Badly."

Groaning, Buffy stood up abruptly, folding her arms over her chest and shaking her head. "I don't know what to do, Giles," she admitted. "I was so upset when I left the house, and I brought all of these papers and pictures with me and shoved them in his face, asked him to explain himself. I wanted something other than that, something that could give me an explanation..."

"And he couldn't give you one," Giles finished, and Buffy sighed in frustration.

"That's not even it. He gave me one, but he didn't say it. It just was... There. Because we started up with the fighting and the arguing and the Big Important Emotional Outbursts, and I told him that I loved him and there was kissing, and you'd probably really like me to stop right about now, huh?"

Chuckling, Giles shook his head and fingered the photograph slightly, eyes lingering on the way her hand splayed across his shoulder blade, protective and needy, fingers aching with the want that she possessed for him. For a monster, for a devil, but he could not be so terrible if she could find it in her heart to love him. "It's all right," he said mildly. "Go on."

Buffy bowed her head, tucking her hair behind her ears with nervous fingers. "But he couldn't... Touch me. I wanted him to, but he couldn't. And there are other things, strange things, and who's Richard III?"

Confused, Giles blinked at her. "Pardon?"

"Richard III," she repeated. "He was in a play. By Shakespeare."

"Oh," he said. "Yes. He was the main character of the eponymous play. He was a king of England, oddly compelling but evil nonetheless. He tried to blame his crimes on his physical deformity, but in the end, it was plain to see that he was a monster regardless. Why do you ask?"

Troubled, Buffy shook her head. "No reason."

No reason at all.

*****

Willow deeply mourned the loss of the coffeehouse.

Oh, it was still there, the Espresso Pump still brewing away at the corner of Vine and Main, but its summer intimacy and quietude had been sacrificed to the gods of University. Summer break was over and all of the students were pouring back into Sunnydale, little stick figure girls in trendy but comfortable faux-hippie wear and boys wearing baseball caps and plaids. The returning students were mostly congregated in the coffee shop, sipping on iced mochas and doing shots of Italian espresso, waxing philosophical and debating politics like they knew absolutely everything.

Of course, they knew nothing.

Willow and Xander sat nestled back in a corner of the café, oversized coffee cups decorated with drizzles of funny paint sitting before them, trying to block out the bustle of conversation that screamed all around them. It made Willow's head hurt, all of the talking and all of the feeling, this humanity screeching and roaring in her veins. Usually, she tried to avoid crowded places; the crush of people devastated her heightened senses. But Xander had wanted coffee, and he'd already had a bad enough morning.

Miserably, he sat across from her, despondently dipping his finger into the rich, frothy foam topping his caramel macchiato. "I acted like an asshole earlier, didn't I," Xander muttered, and Willow sympathetically reached out a hand, touching his fingers.

"Well, sort of," she said, but he knew well enough to read between the lines and find the yes written underneath her words. "You were pretty upset about everything. And you had good reason. I mean, Buffy and Spike. Wow. That's a double-headliner concert of not-good."

Bitterly, Xander barked out a laugh. "No kidding. I just can't stop seeing them in the bed, all cuddly and snuggling. Even the words taste gross." Quickly, he took a sharp swig of his sugary caffeinated confection, trying to wash the flavor and the image from his mind. It was hard to juxtapose the vivid, dreadful memory of Buffy sitting slumped and defeated on the bathroom floor to the contented, sugar-spun bliss of her and Spike in the bed. "It's not right. Not right to the extreme."

"But she loves him," Willow said softly, and Xander winced, holding up a hand.

"Please, Will. I'm trying to enjoy my coffee."

Exasperated, Willow sighed and took another sip of her vanilla frappe. It had startled her, too, seeing the vampire and the Slayer all cozy and snug, but more than that, it had caused that nagging, paining ache in her heart to rise up and start throbbing again in earnest. Loneliness was thick inside of her, so heavy that it dragged her down below the surface of the world, drowning her in its suffocating tangibility.

Tara.

Yet it also confirmed what Buffy had said. They were in love, hopelessly and helplessly, the kind of all-consuming inferno of passion that could scorch and incinerate. The room had smelled of ashes and the shadows had covered them like soot; they radiated sizzling embers and the heat of a wildfire. It reminded her of the way that the incense burned down into dust in those giddy early nights with Tara, when they set cones of cinnamon and myrrh aflame and made love under scented stars.

"You have to let it go, Xander," Willow murmured, her eyes quiet and contemplative as she looked into her coffee. "Buffy loves him, and that's what's important. That's what matters."

Xander flinched and shook his head, his jaw tight. "You don't know, Willow," he muttered. "You don't even know the half of it. The things that bastard's done to her..."

"I know."

Blinking, Xander looked at her with an expression of surprise, watching as she quietly stirred the foam around in her coffee mug. "I went to the bathroom a couple of weeks ago," she said. "There was this... Tension inside of it. Something that was all bottled up and funky, like when you drop a soda and it's all fizzy and bubbly and ready to explode. And then you open it up and it undoubtedly ruins this super-cool white peasant dress that you spent a whole lot of money on..."

"Will."

She smiled a little sheepishly. "Sorry. Anyway, I kind of picked up on this vibe, and the vibe turned out to be some kind of imprint. I know what happened in there. But you don't."

Xander snorted, taking another hard gulp of his mocha. "Believe me, I know," he muttered bitterly. "I saw what he did to her, and it's unforgivable."

"Why not, if you can forgive me?" Willow asked, and Xander stared at her. She had to be kidding. She was Willow, for Christ's sake, sitting in front of him with a little dollop of foam clinging to her upper lip, bright colors and open face, understanding eyes. The girl he'd known for so long that he could not recall life without her. In the beginning, there was Willow, and it would be that way until the end.

"Come on, Willow," Xander said softly, taking her hand in his. "You know why I forgave you. And... What you did, it was different."

"Yes," she said. "Very different. After all, Spike tried to rape Buffy, and I just tried to kill us all."

"You wouldn't have done it."

"I was going to. You came and stopped me." He made a face, and Willow shook her head, drawing her mouth into a thin line. "You don't know, Xander. I was this close to the edge. Hell, I was over the edge. Nothing mattered anymore, and everything just hurt without... Yeah, I would have done it."

All of this suffering, overwhelming her and stifling her. The sins of the world piercing through her heart like a poisoned arrow, painfully sharp and pungent, filling her up with all of the evil and rot, all of the haunting, harrowing aching and she cannot take it. Cannot allow it to continue. The world is a nightmare, and it is time to wake up.

Her hands were shaking, trembling from the very memory of all of humanity's anguish, and Willow pulled them away from Xander, not wanting him to know. No one should ever have to know. "If you hadn't been there, I would have destroyed us all," she said, and then she looked down at her hands, the hands that had placed the bullet against Warren's chest, the hands that had taken away Rack's worthless life and almost snuffed out the existence of Giles. "I've done enough already."

Xander knew these things. Every night before he went to bed, he watched Willow call the corners in his living room, watched her pray for forgiveness, connect to some inner sanctum of peace where she might find refuge for the night. Sometimes it wasn't enough and he could hear her cry out in her sleep, moaning Tara's name, the names of her victims, the names of her friends.

"I know," Xander said, his voice hoarse and ragged, his coffee bitter and harsh in his mouth. "But it's different for you, Willow. It's different because you care, because you want to do something to make up for what you've done. Spike... He doesn't give a rat's ass either way. He can't."

"Yes, he can," Willow said. "Because I felt what happened after he tried to... He was so upset. I mean, Buffy's everything to him, and he hurt her. He was so shocked and hurt by what he did, and he feels--"

"He feels nothing," Xander snapped, and Willow caught a glimpse of something underneath his voice, a snag of pain in his rage-hardened voice. "He's a demon, a monster, an evil thing that Buffy fucks."

"And Anya," she said softly, and Xander flinched, turning his face away, swallowing bad words with a gulp of mocha. "Is that what you're afraid of, Xander? That she's a thing now that she's a demon again?" She lowered her voice to a hush. "And you still love her?"

Wrong. It's wrong to feel these things, wrong to look at her demony little eyes and see the sly, bright girl he'd promised to marry. But his stupid, blind heart still skips a beat whenever she swiftly flicks her wrists and sings the "I Love Money" song while counting the register drawer. He still aches for her every night, and the taste of beer and the forlorn country music cannot replace her.

"It's wrong," Xander said feebly, and Willow shrugged, a wry smile on her face.

"That's love for you. Big on the crossing of the stars."

Frustrated, he groaned, putting his head on the table for a moment. Nice, cool, reassuring wood. Always sturdy. Wood didn't change on a guy like women did. Carpentry was truly the profession for him. "She deserves better," he said to the smooth surface of the table. "He's scum, and she's Buffy. She deserves much, much better."

"That's not your decision to make."

"Isn't it?" he asked, his voice insistent and desperate. "Doesn’t she need me for something? For anything? I can fix her air conditioner, I can take her kid sister to school, even save the world every now and then, but I can't--"

He couldn't ever be what she needed. Not really, not deep underneath the surface of frothy fashion and lip gloss. On the outside, she was so bright and funny, so real and sunny, but there was a darkness within the Slayer that Xander knew he could never satisfy. The core of Buffy was a black enigma, richly wrought with history and bloodshed, balanced by the snowy whiteness of her heart.

"I'm not in love with her," Xander protested weakly. "It's not like that."

"I know," Willow said reassuringly, nodding her head. "But it's kind of like that, huh."

Maybe it was kind of like that, where there was this part of Xander's heart that had been reserved for Buffy Summers ever since he ran into her oh-too-many years ago in that high school hallway, all bright and golden, innocence personified. Even though she'd been a happier Buffy this summer, there was no way to recapture that sense of purity, that untouched, dizzy energy that she'd possessed back then. Life had tampered with the formula.

He felt Willow across from him, gently stroking his wrist with her whispery, unobtrusive fingertips, and felt helpless in the knowledge that everyone had changed around him. There was a raw, untapped well of sorrow inside of his childhood best friend, and his heroine had fallen in love with Satan himself. The girl he'd promised to marry had moved onto vengeance wishes and financial wizardry, and even Giles was different and new.

Swallowing hard, Xander pulled out his wallet from the back pocket of his khaki pants, flipping it open to the picture of cotton candy Anya standing behind the counter, flashing him that nose-crinkled smile. "She's gone, isn't she," he whispered, and Willow shook her head.

"No," she said. "Nobody's gone away, Xander. We're just... Different. People change. It doesn't mean that they love you any more or any less, it just means that you kind of have to change, too. You have to let her find her own way. It's that thing where if you love her, you have to let her go."

Tara in her arms, blood seeping out from the open wound and Willow doesn't want to let her leave, doesn't want to feel her breath slowing in her lungs or her heartbeat fading away. She wants to hold onto her forever and ever, wants to keep her here, on earth, where she's touchable and tangible and alive, and she calls...

Wincing, Willow looked away from him. Behind them, there was a couple on the comfy couch, the one that was always occupied by lovebirds in the Pump. The woman was touching the man with such tenderness... "Love's complicated," she said simply, and Xander nodded his head.

"I miss Anya," he said, and Willow nodded her head.

She knew.

******

Chocolate, caramel, milk.

Skins colliding with skins, hands slipping over private parts and secret places, looking for the places where he is most vulnerable. Soft spots, like the ticklish area behind his knee or the delicate, breakable Achilles' heel. Mouths saying words that have no meaning, and kisses that are tender and bruising all at once. They seek to break him, and he is more than willing to be broken.

Fucking, fucking... He doesn't know who he's fucking. There's warmth surrounding his cock, heat that is raw and primal like magma. Prehistory, that's what he's got. Centuries and aeons, epochs caught in his cold, dead hands, and this is the most ancient of all earthly pleasures.

Sensation is everywhere and he's so hot and so cold, burning up. Their fingernails, their little blunt teeth sliding down his neck, mocking and teasing, laughter. Laughter everywhere. Wrapping his hands around breasts and thighs, twining his finger in their hair. Gorgeous hair, black silk, honeyed gold, wiry ebony. Smells, so many smells. Soy and ginger. Leather and dirt. Tangerine and lemon-clean.

Suddenly there is screaming and Spike is screaming so loud, it's all bad and Nikki is below him, covered in blood, her neck twisted around and her eyes mad with fury. He's killed her, oh fuck, he's killed her. Killed them all, all of these warriors, these brilliant women. The gorgeous little Chinese doll, blood spilling from her neck, dead and battered, and Buffy.

And Buffy.

Torn gray robe, body lacerated with fingernail slashes and bite marks, bruises and blood. Blood between her thighs, so much fucking blood, and he knows...

"Ask me again why I could never love you."

*****

What was her bloody name?

Frantically, Spike dug through the papers, scattering them all around her flawless bedroom, scampering for answers. The girl's face was rushing through his memory, flashing behind his eyes... Had to find her picture, had to find some clue. Had to know what her sodding name was, and the Council's intricate documentation had to have it somewhere. Couldn't take it, this burning, suffocating fist wrapped around his heart and squeezing him dry, draining him like he'd drained her.

"Sorry, love. I don't speak Chinese."

There were papers scattered across the carpet, photographs lain to waste at his feet. His fingers itched for a cigarette and his brain was burning for absolution, and he threw useless pieces of information away at his feet, sweat beading his skin. Had to find her name. Known the other two, he had. Nikki, the dark powerhouse of a woman, all Pam Grier-ed out in lace-up leather. Knew Buffy's name like a talisman, like a prayer, like the rosary. Like he knew poetry and punk rock, weapons and Wordsworth.

But this girl... She'd scarred him, left that forking little branch in his eyebrow. Had to do something for her, cause it was really shameful of him to have gone through the extreme trouble of killing this poor bird and not even learn her fucking name. Really, truly shameful, and he was not going to cry over spilled blood because it was pointless and stupid and so awful...

He looked up, just for a moment, and found himself face-to-face with the mirror. The empty, lying mirror. The one that told him that even with a soul, he was still unworthy of being acknowledged.

It'll never be enough.

With a roar, Spike picked up the stack of heavy books and threw them at the mirror, listening to the satisfying sound as the glass shattered into pieces, long jagged edges of glass cutting into his skin, slicing wounds and imperfections across his body. Felt raw, felt aching, felt like when she'd fucked him. When she'd fucked him without looking at him, without seeing him, without casting any reflection whatsoever.

The Slayer's name mattered. It was important, because she'd been a girl like Buffy once, fierce and too old for her age, destined to fight and suffer and hollow out until she found her way into the clutches of a vicious, evil thing and died. Just so happened that in this case, the evil thing was Spike, himself.

He'd been so proud. Slayer's blood tossed all around the Chinese crypt like impressionistic artwork, adding a nice spot of brilliant, ruined passion to the temple amidst the burning people. Singing in his veins, liquefied and sated, like a cat that swallowed the canary. And oh, how proud Dru had been, hitching up her lacy little gown and shucking her knickers, fucking him while the Slayer's body turned cold and hard in the background.

But what was her bloody name?

Didn't matter.

Numbly, Spike looked around him at the photographs and broken glass, at all of these victims that were his, and more littering the graveyard grass like celluloid corpses. Didn't know their names either, or the names of their husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, daughters, mothers, and it all connected together to form only one conclusion: he was a rotten, rotten bastard. For a fleeting moment of insanity, Spike wondered what Angel might have done in this situation, and then decided that it probably would've involved prostrating and copious amounts of hair gel.

Oh, hell. Who was he kidding? He wasn't the hero type anyway. The Scooby rabble had that lot covered, and there was already one vampire out there trying to atone for his sins. In any case, Spike was far too cynical to ever believe that he could make up for over a hundred years of bloody murder just by saving a couple of necks from getting bit. Bloody futile, that's what that was. Futile and foolish.

Not for the first time, Spike wondered why he'd even come back.

The sun was still high; he couldn't bail out now. Before she'd left with her creepy photograph, Buffy had told him to stay here and wait, not to leave, and there was a look of pleading in her eyes. Don't leave me. Like it was good for him to be here, of all places, in her fucking bedroom, just across the hall from...

When Spike stepped inside of the bathroom, he felt it all just rushing back. All of it, so hard and fast, the good intentions he'd come here with and the awful, awful Thing that he'd tried to do to her. Got so mad, lost his temper, did something stupid. Story of his life.

New shower curtain, but he supposed that was to be expected. Done the other one in, he had, with all of his tugging and pushing and bruising. This one wasn't bland like the other, not a leftover from the days of Joyce, but rather a bright and funny one, printed with tropical fish wearing sunglasses. Happy fish, unaware of the evil nearly committed in this cramped little room.

He could still hear her voice, hoarse and moaning, pleading with him not to do this, telling him that he was hurting her, breaking his promise. He didn't hurt her, that's what he'd said, and now here he was, pinning her down and unbuckling his belt, gonna give it to her good and proper, make her remember. Make her love him, make her feel that searing, hot connection, make her just feel something...

Make her suffer like me.

More shattering glass spraying all over his skin as he threw his fist into the mirror, another mess that he made.

*****

Sterile walls painted white, the smell of disinfectant and disappointment, sickness and fading health heavy in the air. Stretchers and hard plastic chairs, clocks ticking away valuable seconds, the color of blood and iodine.

Hospitals were not meant for delicate dances like this one, sweet and uncertain, filled with teenaged hopes and anxieties. Here, hope was something to be crushed beneath rubber-soled shoes here, buried underneath the aroma of illness and discomfort. Innocence rarely survived a trip to Sunnydale Memorial, and naivete almost always passed away in synchrony with the fatally ill.

And yet...

He remembered her, the girl who'd saved his life; her face was all that he could distinctly pick out from the blur of bloodshed and what-the-fuck-happened-last-night. Tall, willowy thing, throwing something sharp (battleaxe?), hand pressed to the gash (bite?) in his neck. Tons of dark hair, pretty and sweet-smelling, like shampoo and bubble gum.

"Hi," she said with a mild wave of her hand. "Just thought that I might, you know, stop by, see how you're doing." Silence, and an uncertain look on her pale, freckled face. Pretty; she's so pretty. "Um... I don't know if you remember..."

"Oh, I remember!" he said too quickly, rushing to talk, rushing to make her stay. Nervous laughter, and he couldn't stop moving his hands. "Um... Yeah. I remember you. You saved my ass last night." Cursing, why was he always cursing? Foulmouthed boys never got the pretty girls, that was what his mama always told him. They only got bad girls, girls who used nasty language, and she was going to leave...

But she was laughing, giggling a little in relief, like the swear word broke some of the bottled-up tension. "Good," she said, ducking her head, hiding her rosy cheek underneath some of her amazing hair. Glossy, shiny. Nice. "Um..." She stuck out her hand. "Dawn. Dawn Summers. I mean, that's me. I'm the Dawn."

God, he had the nicest smile, all of these straight white teeth in the middle of his darker-than-dark face. "I'm the Trey," he said, taking her hand into his, swallowing it up in all of his black skin. Electric shock, sparks flying, and Dawn felt her heart beating hard and fast in her chest, like hummingbird wings.

He was cute, cuter than she remembered, but then again it was dark last night and she usually didn't evaluate the hotness of almost-dead boys. But here was, propped up in hospital chic, wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a broad, beautiful smile that made her feel like melting, and oh, she'd been holding his hand too long but it felt so nice and...

Hands released, and then the awkward silence to fill. What should he say? Should he crack wise? Maybe swear again? Should he offer her his crappy paper cup full of Jell-O? Should he tell her that she was one of the prettiest girls he'd ever seen before, and he wanted to take her out dancing for hours?

"Do you want to sit down?" Trey asked, gesturing at the hard plastic chair beside his bed.

Dawn knew that she was blushing; she felt her cheeks grow all hot and bothered. "Um, that's all right," she said, ducking her head again, hiding her pink face behind her hair. "I... I can't stay long. I just wanted to, you know, say hi. Make sure you weren't dead or anything."

"Well, I'm not dead," he said, and then he paused, frowning. "Which, I guess, is obvious."

Oh, here was an opportunity to dazzle him with her wits, to say something ingeniously smart, to say something smarmy and oh-so-very-cool. Show him that she was clever and funny, delightful and spunky, a great girl to hang out with and take out to dinner and movies and things that did not involve staking vampires.

"Yeah," Dawn said, and then she felt like kicking herself.

Awkward silence, shuffling feet, eyes moving everywhere but across each other. Beeping monitors, hanging bag of blood, yucky-looking medical tools. What to say, what to do? Eyes flitting across each others' faces and quickly looking away when they accidentally met, and Trey finally blurted out the first thing that came to mind:

"I hate hospitals."

Dawn practically sagged with relief, flopping her lanky body onto the chair beside his bed. "God, I know," she moaned. "They smell too clean, the nurses are always smiling even though there are, like, tons of people who are really, really sick, and then there's the whole ick-factor that comes from the very idea of bedpans."

Trey gave her a devilish smirk. "You want to see mine?" he said slyly, slipping one hand under his bed while Dawn shrieked and giggled, kicking her leg at his bed.

"Nasty!"

This was the dating dance, the courtly waltz of teenagers on the prowl. Awkward grins, momentary glee, bedpan humor. But the bedpan was an important propellant, moving them past the uncertain dialogue and into the realm of "who are you?".

Relaxing into the molded chair, Dawn crossed her legs primly and folded her hands on her knee. "So, you're new in town, huh?" she asked, and he smiled a little self-deprecatingly, striking a pose.

"That's me," he said. "The new guy. My mom and I just moved here from LA. Compton, actually."

Her eyebrows arched, and she broke out into a grin. "Coincidence or fate?" she asked. "I also hail from the City of Smog. So, why'd you move to Sunnydale?"

"Compton's too dangerous." Dawn burst into raucous laughter, and Trey started to grin a little, hand rubbing the back of his skull in a way that made her belly tingle. "Yeah, yeah, yeah. You laugh it up while I'm stuck here in this hospital bed, all bleeding and shit."

"All bleeding and shit," Dawn teased, and then she shook her head, refreshed from that nice injection of irony. "Let me give you some advice, Trey. Sunnydale's not the safest place in the world, and you might not want to try it at dark again unless you're sporting wood." She frowned. "Well, not that kind of wood."

"Pervert."

"Oh, shove it up your bedpan."

Time passed too fast, and she did not want to leave. His presence was warm and sweet, invigoratingly innocent to the heartbreaking ways of the Hellmouth, darkly jaded in other manners. There was something about the way that he spoke, so easy and confident, and the size of his hands...

Reluctantly, Dawn stood up and tucked her hair behind her ears, giving him a semi-shy smile. "So... I have to do the going gig now," she said, hiking a thumb in the direction of the door. "But... I guess I'll see you, right?"

Trey could not take his eyes off of her, this slender droplet of a girl who'd been his hero. "For sure," he said, nodding his head, and Dawn flashed him one more radiant, roseate smile before slipping out the door.

For sure.

Giddy, girlish excitement bubbled up inside of her as soon as she stepped outside of his room, and Dawn leaned against the door, feeling laughter and glee rising, erupting in her throat, and she clapped one hand over her mouth as she tried to stop from laughing. It was this incredible emotion, an elation that made her feel tipsy and drunk, just because this one boy had smiled at her and made her feel like a woman.

Dawn made her way downstairs, dreamily pressing elevator buttons, staring at walls, lost in herself and the possibility of Trey. Doctors and nurses found themselves smiling at her, whipped back in time to that first hint of love, when hope seemed to spring eternal and the world was new and fresh.

And suddenly, there was screaming.

The reverie of budding romance was punctured and destroyed by the sight of a young woman in a torn nightgown walking into the main lobby of the building, her hair shorn and cropped close to her face, wails constant and high-pitched. Her eyes were wide and mad, stirred into chaos, and she was grabbing at her skull, wavering on her feet.

"There are men in the woods!" she moaned. "Men in the woods, and they're hunters with the dead, all of us dead, and floating... We're all floating and the book, the book..."

Doctors were rushing towards her, and Dawn stared at her with wide, horrified eyes as the orderlies and interns moved to restrain her. "No, no!" the woman wailed. "It's all coming apart, everything and the sky is falling, it's falling down and it will flood us all, all dark! All dark! It's going..."

As they began to drag her away, doctors barking out orders for medications, orderlies trying to strap her down to a stretcher, Dawn flattened herself against the wall and watched as they wheeled the woman past. Someone had managed to get a hold of some sort of sedative and plunged a hypodermic needle into the woman's arm.

She screamed and raged, hissing and arcing her back like a cat as the needle penetrated her skin. "No, no, no!" she cried out. "It's an affront to God! An abomination! The pages are written in blood and skin, the book, have to find the book..." But the sedative was taking hold of her, and she started to fade away, her voice quieting and slurring. "The dead... They're rising all around..."

As they wheeled the woman past her, Dawn watched with dropped jaw and frightened eyes, and suddenly the woman lashed out towards her and latched her fingers around the girl's wrist. Dawn cried out from the sharp, intense pain, and the woman then dreamily laughed as she looked at her through muddled eyes.

"Oh," she sighed. "So pretty. Such a pretty little girl, so shiny, new, and all of that green light..."

No, no, no, no... It can't be, it can't...

But they were rolling her away, taking her out, as the woman sighed and whimpered to herself like a mewling kitten.

For a moment, Dawn said nothing. She could not move, could not breathe. The world was closing in around her, walls pushing in onto her and history gurgling and churning inside of her stomach like bile. Time was frozen all around her, stagnant and still, and she could only hear the thick, quickened beat of her heart roaring in her ears.

It's starting all over again.

*****

(end part nine)

*****



Chapter Ten: The Coming Days

Just as she thought -- the dress does not suit her.

Too dreamy, too Renaissance Fair for her, with its yards of purple velvet material and the smell of burnt herbs. The gown reeks of unholy blessings and spent incantations, like there are runes and tarot cards sewn into the fabric. It smells like time and death mingling together, and as Dawn holds it in her hands, she does not want to touch it. Does not want it anywhere near her.

But those things are watching her again, and they have daggers to ensure that she cannot argue with them.

Her fingers are shaking and Dawn wants to be strong as she unbuttons her jacket, but there are too many eyes on her. All of them smiling, so pleased with the imminence of her death, and she asks them for a curtain, for something that might give her a shred of privacy. When they stare at her without answering, she begs for one last moment of dignity before they take her life, but all she receives as an answer is the glint of metal blades.

Scared. She's scared, and she can't help but cry a little as she strips down to nothing in the dingy, barren cell. Her skin is splotchy and covered with bruises from all of her fights and struggles, and Dawn wonders how badly they will mutilate her in the ritual. Will her sister be able to recognize her body? Will they know who she is? Will it have to be a closed-casket service? Do they know that she wants a wake even though her mother did not?

Will they even remember her?

She takes her time folding up her old clothes. Neat and tidy, the way her mom always said. Dust and grime coat the surface of her jeans, and the clothes reek of trash and hasty getaway, but they're still her clothes. Still her possessions. They are evidence that she existed outside of this purpose. They assure her that she was once alive, that she had a family who loved her and memories that comforted her, and she wants them kept intact.

Because when she puts on the dress and lets down her hair, Dawn knows that she is nothing but the Key now.

*****

"Miss?"

Dawn woke with a start, eyes wider than saucers and breath hitched in her throat. In that strange moment between consciousness and slumber, time was jumbled and memory blurred with reality in a soupy, disoriented fashion, and she ran her hands down her torso, expecting the feel of velvet and silk, the smell of dead incense and apocalyptic blessings. Instead, all that she found was denim and cotton, and the antiseptic non-scent of the hospital filled her nostrils. Just a dream, she thought to herself with relief, and she sank back into the uncomfortable plastic chair. Then what am I still doing here?

Oh. The girl.

Awkwardly, she mustered up a smile for the nurse hovering above her with concerned green eyes. "Sorry," she said. "Just feel asleep, I guess."

The nurse smiled at her, patting her arm a little bit. "You were the girl asking about the woman who was admitted earlier today, right?" she asked, and Dawn nodded. "Well, she's been sedated and stabilized, as best as we could. If you like, you can go see her. Her family approves."

Her family. "What's her name?" Dawn asked, slowly standing up, and the nurse frowned before checking the metal clipboard in her hands before she snorted a little.

"Which one?" the nurse said wryly, nodding her head and beckoning Dawn to follow her through the plain, white corridors. "Her legal name is Jessica Morgan, but her Christian name is Maria Pauline. She's a nun." Startled, Dawn blinked her eyes and the nurse gave her a dry smile. "Believe me, I know. You were lucky you slept through the Mother Superior's entrance. You'd be surprised at how well a nun can raise hell."

"Literally?" Dawn asked worriedly, and at the nurse's wary expression, she waved a hand and sighed. "Oh, never mind. What do you mean, she was sedated as best as you could?"

Another short bark of bittersweet laughter from the nurse, and she gestured at the black-clad woman standing silent and stoic by the nurse's station. "Better ask her, kid. She knows more than she's telling us, that's for sure."

As Dawn looked at the nun, so regal and distant in her severe black habit, she felt nervous and was tempted to run away. Religion had never been a big part of her existence, which was odd considering the fact that a bunch of doomed monks had given her all of her memories. Still, no church, no Sunday School, nothing but a sister who was always armed to the teeth with religious paraphernalia. Crucifixes, holy water, communion wafers... Still, Buffy had always expressed a distinct cynicism in the existence of a God, even though she'd been to heaven and it was all too confusing for Dawn's mythos-addled head to comprehend.

Relax, she commanded sternly. It's just a nun. Besides, you have to know. Have to find out if it's really true, if it's still...

The nun arched an eyebrow as Dawn resolutely marched over to her and tossed her long mane of hair in a mockery of the sister's humble, uniform attire. "The nurse said that you were going to let me see Jessica," she said, and a muscle in the nun's jaw twitched.

"Her name is Maria Pauline," she corrected, and she wrinkled her nose a bit, maybe in amusement, definitely in assessment. "And I suppose that you are the little girl she upset with her... Dramatics."

The hesitation did not escape Dawn, and she narrowed her eyes. "Yeah," she said. "They were pretty dramatic. But I'm guessing that she didn't start her acting career until sometime last year, huh."

Everything about the nun tensed and tightened, and Dawn held the older woman's gaze, channeling her sister's glare. Finally, the woman relented, and her gnarled fingers toyed with the rosary draped around her waist. "Last December," she admitted, shaking her head. "We never did uncover the cause. Pauline was such a quiet, sweet girl beforehand. I'd known her since she was six years old and living in the orphanage. She decided to become a nun only three years ago, and then just a couple of days before Christmas..."

The sister's eyes hardened, her fingers rubbing the rosary so hard that Dawn wondered if she might break it.. "Well, you saw what's become of her. Half the time, she doesn't even know where she is, who she is... But we're all that she has. We cannot hand her over to the state, even though they've certainly pressured us to do so since the last spring." She lowered her voice. "She went missing for three days. They finally found her out in the streets after sunrise, covered in dirt and babbling about dragons and gifts."

Dawn listen to me. Listen.

Abruptly, Dawn turned her face to the side and was met with the sight of the open door shedding fluorescent light into Maria Pauline's room. The fragile nun lay on the bed in a sea of white, her wrists twitching and her voice inaudible, and all that Dawn wanted to do was run. Get the fuck away. Go find Buffy, tell Buffy, Buffy will fix it...

Buffy's sitting on the roof again, her eyes lifted up towards the heavens, camera heavy in her hands. It is difficult to see what she is so fascinated with, but it does not matter. What is important is that she is radiant when she's not miserable, when life isn't grabbing her by the ankles and pulling her down into despair. Happiness is a rare emotion for her older, sadder sister, but when she gets a taste of it, it intoxicates not only her, but everyone who sees her.

But of course, it was not so long ago that she used to sit on the roof with different reasons. When her head would hang low and her eyes would stare off with distance and numbness, her world crumbled and destroyed like Atlantis, drowned and submerged.

She could not do this to her again.

Dawn straightened her spine. "I'd like to see her."

The nun was strapped to the bed with padded restraints, cuts and abrasions littered across her pale, eerily young face. Her eyes were wet and glazed over, drool spilling from her slack lips and hanging on her cheek. Cropped black hair was plastered to her pale skin with sweat, and the young woman looked barely older than Dawn herself. For a moment, Dawn wondered if the nun even recognized her, if she was so heavily drugged that she would be able to even talk to her.

"Oh," Maria Pauline sighed in a feathery, breathless whisper. "So beautiful... All of that light... God's light, God's energy..." The girl cooed and gurgled to herself like a baby for a moment, writhing with blurry excitement, and she started to cry. "So pretty, so nice..."

"Oh, look at that!" Tara breathes, not seeing the god in front of them, not remembering or registering the reality unfurling around them, and she points and rocks with pleasure on the debris. "Look at that, the light!" And her mad eyes, the ones that Dawn loves so dearly, are glassy like mirrors without reflection. "Oh, it's so pure! Such pure, green energy!"

Fear shot through her like an arrow aimed straight at her gut, and Dawn felt her knees go weak and tremble beneath her unsteady weight. Blindly, she gripped the handrail of the bed, momentarily forgetting that she was supposed to be the hero here. She was supposed to be the big, strong warrior girl and intimidate the fuck out of nuns and nurses alike with the jut of her jaw and the flip of her hair.

"And along came a spider, and sat down beside her," Maria Paulette slurred dreamily, "but little Miss Muffet was just a lie, all fake, and she doesn't belong in our world, so green and pure..."

Dawn thought that she might throw up.

Instead, she straightened her shoulders and sat down in the plastic chair beside the woman's bed while the addled nun sighed and whimpered, reaching for Dawn. "Time," she whispered. "Time's coming short, and they're going to come for the book."

"Who am I?" Dawn whispered in a fragile, breakable voice that sounded nothing like the steely tones she'd tried to conjure up before speaking. Couldn't help it; she was no hero. No warrior woman like Buffy was. That was a role meant for Slayers and heroes, and all that little Dawn Summers could ever be was a death knell.

Sister Pauline breathed out another feathery sigh and shifted restlessly in her bed. "The Key," she whispered. "The Key to God, the Key to life, the Key to the book. The Key to the world, and the Key to the moon and the spider is coming, little lamb. The spider and the wolf, and they're going to read the book..." Her face crumpled and she writhed and began to moan in her restraints. "All dark, it's going to go all dark and we won't be allowed to sink. Just keep on floating, floating, floating..."

The man straining against his cuffs, the tattoo on his forehead beaded with sweat and face contorted with pain. The cut on her arm still hurts, blood still oozing from the wound, and she's quivering, shaking with the magnitude of this discovery. Not real, not real, not real, not real...

"Destroyer! Cracked ... bones ... the sun bleeding into the sky! The key is the link." Oh, God, and he's lunging for her, trying to kill her and she hasn't sinned, she hasn't done anything wrong. All she does is exist, breathe, think, live, and they want to take it all away from her, and God, she never had anything to begin with...

"The link must be severed. Such is the will of God. Such is the will of God..."

"...Such is the will of God," Sister Maria Pauline whispered, and Dawn ran from the room like lightning, her head dizzy and filled with images that she could not handle.

Buffy knows, Mom knows, everyone sees it and I can't and oh God, I'm nothing, I don't even exist, and neither does my mother, and neither will the rest of the world and all because of what's inside of me, what I am, and the tower, the tower, the tower...

The hot summer sun beat down on her back like acidic talons, and Dawn did not stop running until she made it around the corner, away from the hospital and the haunting babblings of the nun. Everything was hot around her, so hot and she felt like she was going to suffocate in the stifling humidity and moisture of the too-warm August day. She tripped over a rock in the sidewalk and ended up sprawled out on the gravel, her knee screaming out pain and hot blood rising to the surface, but Dawn couldn't feel it.

All she could feel was that morning.

The air is desperate all around her, and there is something crackling and hollow inside of her heart. Her sides ache dully, the slits of bleeding skin that would one day scar if she would only live past this moment. But the energy within her blood is too strong for her own will, and it crackles and explodes in an enormous blast of blue light. The portal has been opened, and the sky is ripped apart and bleeding like she is.

There is Buffy though, beautiful, heartbroken Buffy with her hair flying around her face in a banner, her eyes so shattered and aching, on the edge of sanity. Dawn knows what she must do, knows that her life will never bring anything but pain, and this is her destiny. This is what she has to do, no matter how badly she wants to see Europe or go skinny-dipping with boys. Because her sister is brittle and desolate, and there are dragons flying through the air and fissures opening up in the streets. Chaos reigns supreme, and Dawn will never see another morning like this.

All because of her fucking blood.

And suddenly, that anguish and pain on her sister's face fades away as the first hint of sunlight approaches on the cracked, diminished horizon. For the first time in this side of forever, Buffy looks radiant, looks whole, looks...

Finished.

Protesting, pleading, and it all falls away into tears because Buffy is so tranquil, so serene. She knows what she has to do, and her hands wrap around Dawn's shoulders, voice steady and even while Dawn is sobbing for the inevitability of it all. The tragedy, the goddamn tragedy, and then the words...

"Dawn listen to me. Listen. I love you. I will always love you. This is the work I have to do. Tell Giles... Tell Giles I figured it out. And... I'm okay. Give my love to my friends. You have to take care of them now -- you have to take care of each other. You have to be strong. Dawn, the hardest thing in this world is to live in it. Be brave. Live. For me."

A smile. A kiss. And then Dawn cannot breathe because Buffy is running, running...

And then it was supposed to be over.

"Dawn?"

Gasping, she whipped her head back to see Trey standing over her, his dark mocha eyes clouded and rich with worry, and he knelt down in front of her, his large hands reaching for her skinned knee. "Aw, man," he muttered under his breath, and he moved to press his palm against the bloodied...

Quickly, Dawn jerked back, wrapping her own palm against it. "Don't touch me," she whispered, and Trey swallowed hard, hurt. He'd seen her race out of the hospital as he'd moved towards the car, his I.D. bracelet still wrapped around his wrist, release papers signed and hefty hospital bill tucked in the back pocket of his ripped jeans. There had been something so panicked about her movements that he'd felt compelled to follow her, and when she'd tumbled on the pavement, his heart had leapt to his throat...

Her words made him choke on it.

Disappointment registered on his face and Dawn felt terrible, reaching up a hand to touch his forearm. "I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't mean..." Her voice sounded shaky and uncertain to her own ears. "I'm just a little... Confused. It's been weird."

A ghost of a smile washed over his face. "Well, you picked the right place to get hurt," he said. "The E.R.'s right back that way. Let's go see if we can lift a couple of band-aids--"

"No," she said abruptly, grinding her teeth together as she pulled herself to her feet. It stung and throbbed, but there was no way in hell Dawn was going back to the hospital. Not after that. Not when that place had a million bad memories haunting the halls. "I'm... I'm fine. Really. Just a little skinned knee, right?"

Trey looked at the wound in question with skeptical eyes; it looked worse than she was making it out to be, but then again, there was something inside of him that hurt and twisted at the sight of her bloodied knee. "If you say so," he said reluctantly, and then he sighed. "Look, you can't go walking around on it, though. My car's right around the corner. I'll give you a ride to wherever you're going."

Ah, chivalry. So it wasn't dead after all. Of course, give her the right time and place and she'd bleed until there was no such thing as chivalry anymore. But God, she couldn't handle all of this now, when her knee was stinging and her world was collapsing. No more stability, not even the warped consistency she'd grown accustomed to over the summer. All dark, as usual.

Sadly, Dawn wrapped her arms around her midsection and mildly nodded her head. In the waning sunlight, bright and drowsy, she looked to Trey like some sort of sainted martyr-in-waiting, dark chestnut hair running down her back, eyes so soft and strained...

Dawn was surprised when she felt Trey snake an arm around her waist, supportive and gentle, all hot skin and kindness. "Come on," he murmured, and she allowed him to escort her towards his car, wondering all the while when the skies would open up again and demand that she pay.

*****

This was rock bottom, and it tasted like pineapples.

Slumped against the kitchen counter, Spike raised the bottle of schnapps to his lips and grimaced at the sugar-sweet taste. Not his choice, but Buffy had never been much of a drinker and Joyce was a fan of trendy mixed drinks and flavored liquor. After pulling out half the contents of the Slayer's cupboards, Spike had finally found the schnapps among the unopened ketchup (once Willow's, now eschewed in favor of soy and ginger) and near-empty bottle of blueberry maple syrup (the bit's, of course, too saccharine for the rest of them). The flavor alternated between disgustingly sappy and bitterly refreshing.

He'd just needed a drink so fucking bad.

His hands hurt, and Spike winced as he tentatively flexed his knuckles, the feeling of fine fragments of glass imbedded into the wound. Tiny cuts and nicks peppered the backs of his hands, and they were all deserved. Self-inflicted anger injuries, and he embraced the pain like a lover. Hello, old girl. Come to make me miserable again?

Oh, he was such a fucking mess.

Tiredly, Spike closed his eyes and rested his head against the cabinets, passing his hand over his eyes as he took a moment. Exhausted, that's what he was. Fucking exhausted. Suffering was a tiresome sport, but one he excelled at nonetheless. All of those years of torturing the innocent had finally paid off in spades, and he had a thousand inventive ways to make himself ache. Not that it took much these days. Existence was all that he needed to make him feel like shit.

Shouldn't be here, didn't belong here. Didn't belong anywhere, but least of all in Buffy's kitchen, drinking her mother's leftover schnapps straight from the bottle, especially when the scene of one of his more spectacular crimes was just up the stairs and on the right.

Nothing, can't see a damned thing in the mirror because he does not really exist. Can't really make a difference. Never would be seen or acknowledged by her sunshine and glass world, and the blasted mirror told him so. Told him that he was worthless, that he was scum, that nothing he did would ever be good enough, and he roared and slammed his fist into the mocking mirror...

The front door opened and closed suddenly, and Spike wondered if she was back already. Couldn't handle her right now; he wasn't even halfway to drunk yet. Sobriety only made her words clearer, her offers more tempting, her love more tangible and less doubtful. Beer goggle effect filtered all of those lovely lures and made them easier to handle.

"Buffy?" Willow's voice called, and Spike sighed with relief, taking another slug of his pilfered pineapple alcohol. Just the little witchlet, the recovering power-happy sorceress coming to make her rounds. Check on the roost and all the like. "I just left my wallet and thought I'd... Oh, boy."

The smell of the mess hit Willow before the sight of it.

Not that the mess was stinky, because it wasn't anything but glass and paper scattered around, but it reeked of anger and pain. Everything felt as sharp and jagged as the fragments of destroyed mirror crunching underneath her canvas tennis shoe, reeking of acidic history and embittered exhaustion. The carpeting glittered with the crushed remnants of the mirrors, and the photographs stank of death, thick and redolent with evil and tobacco.

She supposed that it was safe to assume that Spike was up.

Warily, Willow peeked around the corner and saw him sitting in a mess of scattered canned goods and bottles, his hand wrapped protectively around a bottle of pale yellow liquid that smelled of the tropics and sharp citrus-y goodness. Pineapple schnapps, the kind that Willow had liked to put in her Hawaiian Punch every now and then for a little extra kick to help her sleep through Tara-less nights.

The concern and worry etched into her pretty, pale skin made Spike feel like throwing something at her. Maybe the jar of peanut butter, lobbed right at her big freckled forehead, might make her turn around and leave him the hell alone. Least it might keep her from talking to him. Unfortunately, the damned chip in his brain started to dully ache at the twitchy, violent impulse, and then the soul chimed in with its "don't-do-that-you-evil-fuck" song.

"Everything spoils all my fun nowadays," Spike grumbled to himself, and he winced as the devastatingly sweet alcohol spilled down his throat and coated his insides. He thought about spitting out the nasty, cloying taste but thought better of it. Victorian sensibility won out again, and that meant that the little git was gaining headway in his struggle for dominance.

Sometimes, when he was feeling particularly unhinged, Spike imagined that he could hear the soul talking to him. Mousy little William's awful, cringe-inducing poetry spewed forth like literary puke at the most inopportune moments, reviving memories of bad rhymes and mocking laughter, and that belittling feeling of utter inadequacy flooded through him like a tsunami.

I do see you. That's the problem. You're nothing to me, William. You're beneath me.

Story of his life.

Nervously, Willow shifted her weight back and forth between her feet, looking at anything but the messy, half-drunk vampire sitting all slopped out on the floor, surrounded by Ramen noodle packets and bottles of cleaning detergents. "So, I like what you've done with the place," she said, and Spike rolled his eyes.

"She's not here," he said flatly. "Went to the Magic Box. She'll be back later." Bluntly, Spike arched his scarred eyebrow at her, and the intensity of full-on Spike focus was astonishing and intimidating. Even though she knew better, knew that he couldn't hurt her, it still made her remember days when he'd held broken bottles to her face and threatened her life.

Yet as he raised his bottle of schnapps to his lips and took down another desperate gulp of pineapple liquor, Willow noticed a tremor in his fingers and a look of utter despair on his face. He looked terrible, just awful, not at all like the big bad vampire she'd grown to know over the last several years. This Spike possessed vulnerability that was almost palpable, and it reminded her of the broken glass in the living room.

Resignedly, Willow sighed and bent down on the floor, gathering up spilled food in her arms. "I left my wallet here earlier," she said. "But since I'm here and always willing to do the big cleaning up, I'll help you make this place look like something not disastrous."

"Don't do me any favors," Spike said darkly, and as he reached for the bottle again, she arched her eyebrows.

"Is it really a good idea for you to be drinking right now?" she asked warily. "Cause hey, I've seen the Spike upset and drunk thing before, and it was kind of terrifying."

Oh, yeah. Spike was real scary nowadays, what with the fruity alcohol and the constant self-loathing. And the guilt, mustn't forget the all-consuming guilt and regret for the multitude of heinous acts he'd committed in the span of a century. "Right," he muttered. "Don't think you've got a whole lot to worry about, Endora. It's just schnapps."

A look of absolute horror passed over his face, and Willow frowned with concern as the revulsion quickly faded into a sad, desperate sort of bewilderment. "Oh, God," Spike moaned, burying his face in his hands. "I'm drinking pineapple fucking schnapps. Things can't get much worse than this. They just can't." He barked out a sharp, jittery laugh. "Course, every time I say that, something else blows up in my face and I'm screwed again."

His hands... God, they were just destroyed. Shredded skin seeped dark, sluggish blood onto the formerly spotless tile floor, cuts sprinkled over his knuckles. Berry-colored liquid stained the cuffs of his leather duster, and Willow bent down before him. "Oh, your hands," she sighed, reaching for his fingers, and Spike pulled his hands away with a scowl.

"Doesn't hurt," he said, and it was the truth. He wished that they did hurt, that there was some sort of tangible, physical pain that might drown out the ache in his heart. At least it could be pain that he could control, something that he could inflict of his own will, but there was no substitute for the soul's screaming sorrow.

Insistently, Willow pulled on his wrist and frowned. "Don't be a baby," she scolded, and as soon as she touched his skin...

Can't see anything, can't see myself. Don't really exist and I'm nothing, nothing in the eyes of the world, in the eyes of her. Says she loves me but she can't, can't ever love a thing like me, can't ever trust me when I tell her I won't hurt her but slam her down against the floor and tear at her clothes, tear at her skin. Tear at her. Tried to fix it, really I did, tried so hard, and the soul...

The soul.

For just a brief second, Willow felt her heart stop and her breath hitch in her lungs. Knowledge filled her head, memories transferring from his bleeding hands to her mind's eye in a slideshow of graphic imagery. Over a century of kills, thousands of bodies thrown aside like garbage, blood soaking and staining the cobblestone streets of Europe and the subway tunnels of industrial America. The corpses had no faces, no names, no identities because he could not remember; his murders were so numerous.

Of course, Buffy was as vivid as day. Her laughter was recorded in almost digital sound, bright and giddy, and every freckle on her bare shoulders, every scar on her naked body as she lay in his bed and tried to dissolve into nothing while he fucked her, every motion or word or deed or gesture. Every single moment spent in her presence, Spike remembered in full.

She was everywhere in his mind, drowning out the rest of him with vivid, vibrant images of Buffy. Buffy gleefully dancing on the Bronze floor, Buffy broken and crying on her back porch, Buffy hollow and numb after being roused from the grave, Buffy kissing and hitting and bruising and fucking and Buffy on the floor of her bathroom, sobbing and screaming, gray fabric torn and twisted around her body while he pushed and prodded and yelled at her...

She deserves better.

"Oh, God," Willow gasped as she pulled away, eyes wide as saucers as she stared at Spike in a mixture of wonder and horror. The vampire stared at her with wide, luminous blue eyes, hand pressed to his chest, and she opened her mouth, trying to get the words to come out. "You... You got a..."

Fear rippled through Spike's eyes, and he shook his head frantically. "Don't say it," he said, and God, it sounded like he was pleading except that Spike didn't beg. "Please. Don't say it."

Dazedly, Willow shook her head and leaned closer to look at him. So stupid, so self-absorbed with worries of acceptance and lack of confidence that she had not picked it up earlier. Everything about him was different, from the color of his eyes to the style of his hair. No more slick, sharp gel; he'd eschewed it for the simplicity of rough, bed-tousled curls. It made him look softer, made him look younger and yet more weathered. The very essence of Spike looked beaten and torn to shreds, and another flash ripped through her mind.

Can't even see myself, can't even be bloody seen by the rest of the world, and such a stupid, stupid fucking vampire to think that I could be real with a goddamn soul.

"You chose it," Willow whispered, bringing her hands to her cheeks as she felt her skin burn and tingle, absorbing the magic and fire of Spike's strange transformation. "It wasn't a curse. You wanted it."

Wincing, Spike turned his head to the side and reached longingly for the bottle before she snatched out of his grasp. Spike scowled; least she could do was give him a drink if he was going to have to tell this story. "Yeah," he muttered. "Thought it might make a difference. Thought it might fix what I bollixed up, but it didn't, and nothing ever will."

Willow was speechless. This sort of thing wasn't supposed to happen. Ever since she'd first learned about dark underworld that crawled through her hometown at night, it had always been stressed that vampires were evil, absolute. No sense of morality, no sense of right and wrong, no sense of remorse, guilt, shame... But Spike was a contradiction to that very edict, because he had known that something had to change. Something had to break.

And he was the one who was broken.

"Why didn't you tell anybody?" Willow asked, and he shook his head.

"Couldn't," he muttered to himself. Couldn't look at her, not when she knew. His fingers itched for a cigarette, but his body lacked the energy. He was just so fucking tired of this, of feeling awful and miserable, of feeling worthless and damned. It wore on a bloke to feel the weight of the world on his shoulders every single minute of the day. "Did something awful before I left... Did something terrible."

"I know," Willow said, and Spike flinched.

"Yeah," he said. "Everyone knows, except that they don't. Don't know how close I was to..." He could not even say the words, and Willow felt a strange ache in her bones, begging to reach out and touch him. Give him solace, give him peace, give him something other than misery.

Tentative fingers wrapped around his wrist and pressed sympathy into his skin. Surprised, Spike turned to see Willow sitting beside him with a tired, lost look on her pinched face, the bottle of pineapple schnapps in her hand. Hadn't seen the witch in shades of forever, and she didn’t look good. Looked old and tired, little lines marching across her face and showing signs of early age and exhaustion.

Willow unscrewed the bottle of the schnapps and took a long drink, wincing at the sugary taste of the liquor. "We really made a mess of things, didn't we," she said sadly as she shook her head at the wrecked kitchen. "With the killing and the bad behavior... Sometimes, it just seems impossible to ever make it up. Like nothing's ever going to be enough."

Spike nodded in agreement. "Yeah," he said. "Stop seeing the point in it after a while. Get tired of thinking about it, thinking about all those people." He lowered his voice. "Thinking about her."

"Your shirt..."

"I dream, sometimes," Willow murmured, looking down at her hands. "I mean, everybody dreams and all, but... I dream sometimes about Warren. About killing him." She lowered her voice. "And how much I liked it."

He screams and begs for mercy, tries to tell her that she's a good person underneath it all, that she does not want to do this. His pleas fall on her grief-deafened ears, and Willow does not care what he thinks. Does not care what this might do to her in the end. She might not come back from this, but that does not matter anymore. She has nothing to come back to.

When she rips his skin from his body, it's the first time she's felt anything all day.

Furrowing her brow, Willow looked at him with worry etched in her hazel eyes. "Is it like that for you?" she asked. "With the soul and everything?"

All of his dreams, his nightmares. The ones that woke him up in the middle of the night with tantalizing promises of bloodshed and chaos if he would only just give in. Seductive, spellbinding enticements of cutting a bloody swath through Sunnydale, of basking in bloodlust and howling at the moon. The good old days of destroying and taking, always taking...

"Yeah," Spike muttered. "It's like that."

"It's the power of it," she said, her voice dark and knotted. Strange to hear that tone from Willow, the perky little waif with the elfin face and big, bright eyes, and Spike turned to look at her, really look at what she'd become. A ravaged, thin bit of a girl, shrunken and destroyed. No more goofy pastel outfits, no more childish sweaters and Indian-influenced attire. No more bouncy, girlish curls. She was just...

Old.

Sadly, she shook her head and picked at the unraveling hem of her jeans. Everything about her seemed worn and frayed. Willow, falling to pieces in front of his very eyes. It was a disconcerting sight. "I don't know who I am anymore," she confessed. "I did these awful things. I killed two men, and I almost... God, I almost killed Giles. Giles."

"Bet he had it coming," Spike offered, and Willow laughed madly, bitterly.

"No," she said ruefully. "He was trying to save me, because that's what kind of person he is. The good guy, the big hero type. He never said he was going to kill me, never said he wanted to fight me. But every time he tried to tell me that it was okay, that I wasn't wicked or bad, it just made it..."

"Worse," Spike said, nodding his head. "Yeah. I get that." In the forefront of his mind was the image of Buffy, sweeping her hands his hair, nibbling on his ear, telling him over and over again that she was in love with him. After everything, and she was in sodding love with him. Spike winced, pressed his fingertips to his brow. "She says that she loves me, but she can't. Not really. Not after what I did to her."

"She does love you," Willow said in a clear voice, quirking her mouth to the side. "I mean, yeah, it's majorly weird, but..."

She frowned suddenly and looked at Spike, really looked at him. Nobody ever took the time to closely examine the blond vampire, preferring to treat him as some sort of taboo subject that was better left buried in the dark. Nasty thing, change the subject to a better topic. No, not even that. An easier topic. Spike was a complicated mess of contradictions that nobody wanted to think about.

He did that without a soul. For her. For Buffy.

"Actually, I don't think it's that weird at all," Willow said suddenly, and Spike frowned at her, confused. She had the strangest look on her face, like she had just considered something that had never occurred to her before. "You're not a bad man, Spike. You never were."

Gently, she leaned over and kissed his forehead, her mocha-scented mouth sweet and kind like caramel. One of her hands caressed his cheek briefly, and Spike was surprised by this sudden show of sympathy. He blinked his eyes at Willow as she pulled away, and her fingers affectionately ruffled his tousled blond curls. "Come on," she sighed, offering him a hand. "Let's see if we can't get this place cleaned up before Buffy comes home and has a fit. Or, even worse, Anya."

Spike chuckled for a moment, arching his eyebrow at the witch. "Have to say, I wonder how that works out," he said dryly, and Willow shrugged.

"I choose not to dwell on the unmixiness of their living arrangements."

As Spike replaced noodle packages and jam bottles, he shook his head in disgust. "Can't do this anymore," he sighed. "Too much stress, you know? The self-flagellation and the recriminations are all fine and dandy when you're in the privacy of your own crypt, but it's the cleaning up that's the real pain in the ass."

Willow hiked up one gingery eyebrow. "Self-flagellation and recriminations?" she asked pointedly, and Spike smiled sheepishly, ran a hand through his hair.

"Yeah," he said in a small voice. "Sorry 'bout that. Soul had an Oxford education, you know. Likes to throw out the big and fancies every now and again."

Willow frowned at a package of fruit roll-ups, a staple in the Summers household thanks to Dawn's taste for all things non-substantial. "Really?" she asked. "Oxford? I thought about going to school there once upon a less-evil time. You know, doing the whole nerd thing." She widened her eyes at him. "Not that I'm implying that your soul is geeky. Or that, by association, you are, cause--"

"Relax, Red," he said, waving at her dismissively while replacing a cereal box in the cabinet. "The soul is geeky, and therefore, I am, too. Without telling you the whole embarrassing story, let me just say that you and I had a lot in common, sweetheart." His voice sounded sharp and bitter, like the vinegar in her hands, and Willow understood where he was coming from. She'd done a great deal of work to bury her computer-obsessed past underneath layers of witchcraft and power, had even scoffed to Tara at the notion that she might have once been a nerdy outcast, but now...

She tucked her mouth to the side and nodded her head, but changed the subject nonetheless. "Is it... Hard? The soul thing?" Willow winced. "I mean, of course it's got to be hard, because, soul and everything. That's like, a major angst alert, huh?"

Yeah, that was one way of putting it. Disastrous was another. The memories, so vivid and cloying that they sank into his bloodstream and resurfaced at their own will, the nightmares of past kills and fucked-up fantasies, the knowledge of his own crimes suddenly illuminated in harsh fluorescent morality... Angst. Spike had it in spades nowadays.

"Guess so," he said shortly, replacing another can in the cupboard. He abruptly closed the door and avoided her eyes. Damn soul, damn William's stupid embarrassment and shyness... At least when he was an evil bastard, he'd had a shred of dignity about him. "Kitchen's done. You can leave, if you want. Perfectly capable of cleaning up all my own messes."

He said it with such wryness, such self-deprecation, and Willow frowned at him for a moment. That was why he'd done it, wasn't it? Cleaning up the mess he'd left in the bathroom with Buffy? A slow-moving sorrow started to creep through her bones, weighing her down with a sudden, deafening knowledge. She had done her murders, committed her crimes with a functioning, if fractured soul. And yet Spike, the soulless vampire, had done something about it. Something far better than her ill-fated attempt to destroy the world. All he'd asked for was pain, and that was what she had tried so foolishly to erase.

There's something wrong with me.

Quietly, Willow walked into the living room and bent down in front of the papers and photographs. Spike followed behind her and sighed in frustration when he saw her starting to clean again. "Really, Red, I've got it," he said, and Willow rolled her eyes.

"It's not like it's a big deal," she said, reaching for the first photograph. "I mean, I've got the free time thing going and--"

Have to know her name. Have to know all of their names, and God, I never cared enough to find out and now they're all dead and buried and fucked...

Widening her eyes, Willow jumped away from the stray photograph on the ground like it might bite her, and Spike flinched, reaching down to take it away from her. "Sorry," he muttered. "Got a bit upset earlier. Didn't mean to leave these hanging about. Might frighten the kid."

She swallowed hard, shook her head and started collecting photographs and documents. "It doesn't help," she said. "Knowing their names, I mean. I knew Warren's name." She lowered her voice, remembering the way that he'd screamed, the way that he'd pleaded for his life as she threatened to snuff it out. "It doesn't help at all."

Spike narrowed his eyes at her as Willow picked up the rest of the photographs and documents, stacking them up neatly before she handed them to him. She sighed and crossed her arms over her chest as she took one last look around the living room. "Well, there are the mirrors," she said. "Can't do much about those, I guess." She turned her head towards him, her eyes luminous and pretty in the dim lighting. Sometimes, the prettiness of Willow surprised him, reminded him why, once upon a time, he'd thought of stealing her away from the mortal world. "She doesn't know about the soul, does she?"

He said nothing, and Willow nodded her head. She met his eyes, open and plain, and waved her hand once in the air. Glass leapt up from the carpeting and returned to the wooden frames, reassembling themselves. They showed nothing but Willow, standing in the middle of the room, holding up her empty palm.

Startled, Spike stared at her as she picked up her purse and walked towards the door, her head bowed. She placed her hand on the doorknob and turned her eyes to face his. "The magic's permanent," she said. "I can't take it out of me. All that I can do is live with it. Everyday, I have to live with the fact that the same stuff that helped me kill two men is going to be inside of me, forever and ever, until I'm gone." Her lip trembled a bit, but she did not cry. He supposed that Willow was beyond weeping by now. "But I'll live with it, and you should do the same."

With that, she walked out, and Spike laughed brokenly one more time to himself, staring at the mirrors that still showed him nothing of himself.

"Yeah, pet," he murmured, looking at the blank slate of glass. "Only problem is, I don't live."

*****

Buffy felt like she could cut the tension with a knife.

The sleek red Honda crawled down through the familiar neighborhood streets, the silence permeated only by the cheerful, tinny sound of teen-fad pop chiming on the car radio. Xander sat in the driver's seat, jaw clenched and hands firmly gripping the steering wheel for dear life, while Buffy sat beside him and tapped her fingers impatiently on the armrest. The night was heavy and thick with unleashed rain, clouds on the distance and thunder rumbling and snarling low underneath the stiff air.

She didn't know why he'd volunteered to take them home from the mall. His scene earlier that morning still made her uncomfortable, and the knowledge that he had seen an intimate part of her in the bedroom made her feel awkward and a little dirty. His entire demeanor at the round-table discussion of Buffy's love life radiated disapproval, and she didn't really want to discuss it any further with him. He'd either deal with it or spend the rest of his lifetime bitching at her about it. Whatever. Life moved on past the various vampires and men of Buffy Summers.

Dawn heaved a sigh in the backseat, and Buffy took a look at her sister from the rearview mirror. She looked lost somehow, arms crossed over her chest, finger winding and unwinding a strand of hair around her finger in slow motion as she stared out the window at the groves of trees passing by. Ever since the cute boy who Dawn would not talk about had dropped her off at the shop earlier, she'd been broody and sullen, her voice soft and distant whenever she spoke, and it made shopping for school supplies on the Council's dime a lot less fun than it should have been.

When Xander pulled into the driveway, Buffy felt a great sense of relief. She turned her eyes to his and found him staring at her frankly, his big brown eyes as blunt as Anya at her worst. Maybe he'd picked some of that up from her during their engagement. It wouldn't shock her. Nervously, she averted her eyes and smiled down at her hands. Was she blushing? Almost definitely. "So, um, thanks for the ride," she said, and Xander nodded, still not saying a word. "So... I guess I'll see you tomorrow, huh?"

"We need to talk," he said, and she nodded her head, reaching for her seatbelt.

"Definitely," she agreed. "I'm all for talking. But I've got to patrol and get Dawn all school-ready..."

"It won't take long." His eyes were firm and hard as he looked at her. "But we've got to talk. Now."

Great.

As Dawn climbed out of the car, all gangly limbs weighed down with Office Depot and Old Navy shopping bags, Buffy rolled down her window. "Dawn," she called out, and the teenager turned around, face blank and expressionless. "Are you sure you're okay? You really look..." She squinted her eyes at her sister, tilting her head to the side. Drawn lips, pinched tightness, mechanical slowness to her movements. "I don't know."

Older, Dawnie. You look older.

"I'm fine," Dawn said softly, giving her sister the barest wisp of a smile. "See you inside."

With that, the girl turned around and walked back in the house, her shoulders slumped and defeated.

Sighing, Buffy slumped back into the car and looked at Xander, wincing slightly. "Okay, so let me guess," she said. "You're going to tell me that Spike is all evil and soulless, and he tried to hurt me really badly, and he'll only do it again, right? And of course, I don't really love him and I'm just under his thrall, which Spike so can't do, and if he could, he does a really bad job because he still manages to annoy the--"

"I was an asshole."

It wasn't the way that Xander had planned to start out, but his good intentions were overruled by his big fat mouth. At least he managed to shut Buffy up long enough for her to look at him, lips slightly parted in surprise, her eyes large and luminous in the nighttime. He swallowed hard, and then continued. "Well, I was," he said. "I was a jerk, and I'm sorry for making a scene. It's just... This whole Spike thing. It's just kind of a big shock to the system, you know?"

Buffy barked out a laugh and bowed her head, wincing a little as she covered her face with her hand. "Yeah," she said. "Believe me, it shocked me, too. I mean, it's Spike, you know? But..."

"But you really love him," Xander finished, and she didn't have to say anything. It was all written on her face, the way that her mouth curved a little, hinting at a smile, or the pink suddenly furiously appearing on her cheeks. "It's okay, Buff. I mean, yeah, extremely frightening and more than a little weird, but still. If he really makes you happy, then... Then good." He smiled at her, a genuine Xander-smile, a little skewed and sloppy. "You deserve that."

Her fingers entwined with his, and she squeezed his hand. "Thank you."

Xander sighed, leaning back in his seat to watch the stars through the dusty windshield. Funny, how he hadn't taken the time to really look at the stars in ages. Life had been so hectic, so swift and blinding. Wedding plans, wedding disaster, Willow. The last year had blown by in the blurry disaster of a hurricane, and now the skies were clear and untouched by all of the last twelve months' blinding pain. He could see everything again, see his world and all of its many revolutions, all of his carefully made plans, all of his long-lost wishes...

"Do you ever wonder what would have happened if we'd gotten together back in high school?" he asked suddenly, and Buffy chuckled, shaking her head.

"No," she said, and she caught the brief glimpse of disappointment on his face. "I'm sorry, Xander. You've always been..."

"What, just a friend?" he asked wryly, and he nodded his head to himself. "Yeah, that about makes sense. Good old, sturdy Xander. Friend-guy for life."

"You're not just a friend," Buffy said sharply, cutting through his self-pity. "You're much, much more than that."

She sighed, leaned back in her seat, propping her feet up on the dashboard and hugging her knees close to her chest like a child would. Xander was momentarily startled by her vulnerability. Sometimes, it was easy to forget that she was a warrior, a mythic hero, and oftentimes her delicacy bewildered and confused him. There was always something so fragile about Buffy, underneath her battle-scarred skin and behind her arsenal of weaponry. Something always on the verge of breaking.

"My world's not a normal world," she said, and then she laughed bitterly. "I guess that's the understatement of the century, huh. I mean, I'm sharing a house with a magic Key and a vengeance demon, dating my second vampire, and still trying to battle the forces of evil. There's not a whole lot of normal in the land of Buffy." She turned her head to his, and a small smile tugged at her pretty, soft mouth. How many times had he fantasized about kissing those peach-and-cream lips of hers? Too many to count. "But you're normal."

And there was the reason why.

Average, hands-on Xander, making with the funny and the jelly doughnuts. That was all that he would ever be in her eyes. The reliable, boring guy with no witchy superpowers or flammable reactions to sunlight. Never good enough to share a spot of intimacy with the golden girl of the Hellmouth. Only dark creatures ever wormed their way into her heart. Angel and his anguishing martyrdom, Spike and his crawling, creepy evil. Secretly, Xander had always wanted Riley to win her heart, if only because he was the closest thing to ordinary that Buffy might ever love. Even still, not good enough.

A part of his heart would always belong to Buffy Summers. Oh, he was desperately, painfully in love with Anya, and living without her was destroying him, but Buffy. But Buffy. She was the girl on the pedestal, unattainable but still worthy of his everlasting worship. The goddess on the cover of fashion magazines, the celebrity walking down the red carpet with escorts that should have been him. He supposed that he wasn't the only one with a burning, hidden yen for Buffy.

Everybody always loved a hero.

"I see," he murmured, heartbroken by her statement, and Buffy ran a hand through his dark hair, smelling of night-blooming jasmine and fresh-cut pine.

"Don't you see, Xander?" she said. "I live my life with witches and demons and other things that are beyond strange. It's just the way my life has to go. But you... You're the only one who's real."

Xander scoffed at her. "Yeah, right," he said. "Last time I checked, Buff, you were pretty damn real."

"Not really," she protested softly. "Sometimes, this life gets so crazy and fucked-up, and it's so weird and strange... Do you know why I dreamed that I was in a mental institution when that demon poisoned me?"

"No," he said. "I just figured that you had a kink for straight jackets."

A smile broke out on her face, and Buffy good-naturedly poked him in the ribs with her elbow. "Stupid," she said. "I dreamed about being in an asylum because it would make this life stop being real. It would make it a fantasy, and I'd finally get to have the big normal life I'd always wanted. Husband, kids, SUV and lots of anti-psychotic prescriptions."

"Ah, the American Dream."

She sighed, turned her head and stared at him frankly. "I'm twenty-one-years-old and I've already died twice. I'm never going to have the normal life, Xand. Hell, I might not ever have a life, period. It's just the way that my sad, sad world works. It's always throwing awful surprises at me from every direction possible. Kill your first love. Kill your sister. Kill yourself. It's crazy and cruel." Buffy swallowed, and touched his cheek with the back of her hand. "And you're the only part of my world that isn't that way."

Astonished, Xander watched as Buffy leaned her cheek against his shoulder. Her scented hair drifted to his nostrils, and it smelled of pubescent fantasies, of April-freshness and August-heat, sun drenched locks instilled with dreamy girlhood and hard, tired age. "I need you so much, Xander," she said. "I can't handle all of the crazy evil madness on my own, not all the time. I love my life, don't get me wrong, but it's a hell of a lot to deal with on my own. You're the only kind of normal I can ever have."

She sighed, nuzzling her cheek against his shirt, and he tentatively placed a hand on her shoulder. "It's selfish of me," she said. "I want you here in Sunnydale, but I think sometimes that you should go. You'll never have a really happy life here in Hellmouth-land. I'm stuck here, Xand, but you could have a thousand other things that are better than this life."

He shook his head, laid his lips against her hair for just a second, breathing the enduring love of boyhood dreams onto the ephemera and gauze of Buffy's tentative existence. "There's nothing better than this life," he promised her. "Nothing."

She couldn't help it; she wrapped Xander up in a big bear hug, ignoring his startled squeak when she squeezed his ribcage. "Breathing good," he wheezed, and she released him with a giggle, patting his cheek.

"I love you very muchly, Xander Harris," Buffy declared, and he grinned at her broadly.

"I love me, too."

A light flickered from the front porch, and Buffy smiled when she saw Spike walk out onto the front porch, cigarette dangling from his lips, cloaked in leather and promises. She had a thousand things that she suddenly wanted to say to him, a million different vows to make and wounds to heal. She needed him, too, her knight in tarnished armor, needed him to touch her and make her feel alive. Make her feel passion and pleasure, purpose and pain.

"You've gotta go, huh," Xander said, a little sadness tinting his voice, and Buffy nodded her head at him, a strange guilt tugging at her heartstrings. It would never be that way with her and Xander, not the way that he might have one day wanted it. She would always need that darkness, that haunted man to slip between her bedsheets and make her feel whole, and X



Chapter Eleven: All Fall Down

Night settled into the city, thick and impenetrable, insinuating humidity into the populous. The heat wave was seemingly endless, coating everyone with a thin sheen of perspiration, bringing tempers and troubles to a damp boil. Tension was thick, almost tangible in the air, and thunderheads loomed on the horizon, with rolling, tumultuous clouds and dark hints of sumptuous thunder.

"Something's coming."

Startled, Buffy whipped her head around to look back at the vampire sitting on the front steps, a cigarette burning between his fingertips and a dark, unreadable expression on his sharp face. "What?" she asked. Spike shook his head and turned away.

"Storm," he said, pointing at the clouds, and then he retreated back into silence.

It was the quiet that made her worry. He'd always been such a talker, flapping his gums at any given opportunity no matter how badly she wanted him to just shut the fuck up. Spike could yap for hours about nothing in particular and had proved that fact on a regular basis. Even when they'd had sex, it was always him doing the talking, murmuring nasties into her ear and making her shudder and shiver in spite of herself.

Oh, you like that, don't you, you little tart. Touch me, yeah, right there like that, more, harder. Won't bruise me, pet, and if you do, it'll just be good. Oh, fuck, how do you know how to move like that, my sweet, my love, my darling, I'm...

Heat rose to her cheeks as she thought of all of his dirty talk, the way that he'd once been. Able to make her temperature soar with a single tilt of his head, the subtle arch of an eyebrow, the intimation of a sultry pout. Just the way that he'd moved was enough to undo her. The way that Spike seemed to move like water. Liquid. Boneless. Graceful. Inviting.

When he walked now, it was as though he was stepping on broken glass.

Troubled, Buffy wrapped her arms around her midsection and leaned against the porch railing, frowning out at the bottomless night. Heat lightning crackled and cut through the seemingly impenetrable dark, illuminating the shadows briefly before it flashed into nothingness again.

"I'm worried about you," she said softly, and Spike took a deep drag from his cigarette, fingers pinching the filter a little too tightly.

"Don't be."

It made her want to laugh, that dark and dreadful voice, and then it just made her want to cry. This was not Spike, not at all. Right about this time, he'd be sliding his hands around her hips, trailing his fingers down the small of her back, pulling her hips to his and telling her to come upstairs for a spot of sex. Looking at her with those gas-flame eyes that burned too deep for her, murmuring obscenities into her ear and tonguing the delicate silver hoop...

"Not going to happen, ducks."

Spike did not know why she looked so surprised at his words; she knew him better than that. Could always tell. Wasn't just the scent of her desire, though it had always been overwhelming. It was the way that she seemed to melt when she thought of it, all of the tension and worry draining from her body, until he could almost feel her melting behind him.

Shock quickly melted into self-defense, and Buffy gave him a sharp, defiant look. "Wasn't thinking about--"

Spike rolled his eyes. "Don't play dumb," he said. "I know you."

The intimacy of that statement was undeniable, and Buffy bowed her head, feeling slightly shamed. "I know," she said. "It's just... Hard."

It was always hard, this thing between them. Always difficult and murky, the definitions and boundaries of their strange romance never clear-cut, always shady and uncertain. But ever since his return, things were even more strained. They were still dancing as they had always danced around each other, step here, step there, but now she felt like they were spinning around in wild circles, trapped in the same routine.

Something had to change.

Abruptly, Buffy stepped forward and took the cigarette from between his fingers, taking a long drag before she exhaled a shower of smoke into the night. Startled, Spike watched her with close attention, briefly mesmerized by the lovely sight of Buffy Summers, awash in intangible whorls of transparency. "I need to get out of this house," she decided, and Spike raised an eyebrow.

"Where do you want to go, pet?" he asked, and she felt a muscle in her jaw twitch before she pitched the cigarette into the front lawn.

"Let's kill something."

*****

Buffy was right. She was too tall.

Dawn stood in front of the mirror in nothing more than her cotton bra and panties, skin illuminated by the dim radiance of candlelight, scrutinizing her appearance. Definitely too tall for the Summers clan, filled with their petite, doll-women. Her hair, too straight and dark -- it was not theirs.

The monks had screwed up. It was the only explanation that Dawn could think of, fearfully peering into the looking glass and seeing nothing of her family in the reflection. Buffy said that they had created her from her own blood. It must be so, or else her sister's sacrifice on the tower would not have saved the world.

But the monks, in all of their infinite magic and eye for detail, had overlooked a few key factors. She did not look like her family. She could remember breaking her collarbone when she was six, but when she'd broken her arm a year ago the doctors could not find any fractures or remaining scars. The insane could look at her and tell that she did not belong in this world.

And even though the gates to the dimensions were closed, she was still the Key.

A gust of wind whispered through the open window and pushed and tugged at the candlelight, tossing illumination across her abdomen and illuminating the twin scars on her sides. Carefully, Dawn traced the straight, fine lines where the knife had torn her skin, remembering the taste of fear and metal, and struggling in vain against the inevitable. They would bleed her until she crumpled, dead and done, and then it would be over.

But Buffy had jumped instead, and the blood continued to flow.

New curves were beginning to ripen her stick-straight figure, gentle sloping places where her breasts were budding, the flare of womanly hips, baby fat finally departing and leaving her with a willowy, towering shape that was foreign and strange.

When she was a little girl, she used to dream of these changes, longing to be beautiful and starlit with dreams and sensuality. She remembered watching Buffy kissing Angel when Dawn was no more than nine, seeing the stirrings of passion, and remembered that ache in her chest. Wondering what it would be like to fall in love.

Dawn watched from her window as Buffy and Spike started off, him looking so dashing and dark in his leather coat, long white fingers brushing her sister's cheek for a moment of tentative tenderness before she smiled at him and broke the spell. They had so much intimacy between them, so much that was left unsaid, and this passion that bubbled and boiled beneath the scarred surface.

It broke Dawn's heart to think that she'd never experience love like that.

In the back of her closet, where nobody could discover its presence, she kept the dress. The dress that still smelled of suicide and sandalwood, herbs and hurt snagged in the fine plum-colored velvet and cranberry silk trim. It felt heavy in Dawn's arms as she pulled it out, and she reached her hand inside of the bodice, pushing her fingers through the slits where the knife had cut. Flakes of dried blood fell like rusty snowflakes onto the carpet, and Dawn felt a strangled laugh bubble up in her throat and choke weakly in her chest.

Some girls bought their prom dresses early. Dawn had the dress she would die in.

The rumble of an engine startled her from her reflections, and Dawn frowned as she walked to the window. Her heart suddenly leapt into her throat when she recognized the yellow Cavalier parked in her driveway, and she watched with a strange, frilly sensation rippling through her body as Trey stepped out of the car and walked up the front walkway.

There's someone who likes me.

As the doorbell rang, Dawn hastily thumbed through pretty dresses and blouses on plastic hangers, her mind panicking as she thought of what to wear. The pinstriped pink dress? No, too young. Too silly. The yellow organdy, but no, it made her look too much like a lemon, all sour and bitter. Finally, she pulled out a simple red dress, spare and barren of any childish ornamentation, and slipped it on, turning around to zip it up the back when...

"Dawnie, could you help me with this?" her mother asks, frowning a little as she stands in the middle of her bedroom, struggling with the zipper and hooks on the pretty black cocktail dress. Jagged silver earrings dangle from her earlobes, that artsy design that Mom has always liked.

Dawn scoots off the bed, flips her pigtails over her shoulders and bounces over to Mom. "Sure," she chirps, and as she pulls the zipper up and fastens the tiny, fragile metal hooks, she thinks that her mother is undoubtedly the most beautiful woman on the planet, so elegant and--

The mirror showed a tall, boldly pretty girl, her neck craned around to eye the progress of the metal zipper as she tugged it up, and Dawn smiled at her reflection.

For a moment, she saw her mother in the mirror, and she belonged again.

*****

Cemeteries were strange and exquisite havens, odd refuges for a girl who'd been pulled back into life from the dark, tilled soil and dried floral offerings. Yet Buffy liked graveyards, enjoyed the sense of history and stability that came from walking through aisles of marble and stone markers. Robert Henry Tucker, 1902-1923. Dianne West Marcus, 1972-1990.

In Sunnydale, everyone died too young.

Kathleen Ann Freeman was buried in the nestling edge of the cemetery, her headstone placed beneath the embracing arms of a willow tree, grass too green over the mound of freshly turned earth that covered her body and casket. The smell of hothouse flowers was thick and almost sickening in the air, baby's breath and delicate arrangements of lilies and crocuses. Purple flowers, dark violets and pretty angel-face roses.

"She must have liked purple," Buffy said a little sadly as she stood over the grave, noticing the plush lavender stuffed animals laid out on the grave, the balloons and bubbly toys. November 19, 1984 to September 1, 2002. Almost eighteen. Too young to have her life snuffed out like this, too young to be buried under six feet of dirt and earth.

Too young to be a vampire.

His fingers itched for another cigarette, something to make this anxiety a little more manageable, but he forced himself to stand there and look at it. He'd killed thousands in his heyday. Slaughtered the innocents, burned the villages, left internal organs strewn around in his wake.

But he'd never looked at the graves.

Funny, the things that having a soul made Spike notice. The subtle differences, the slight injustices of the world that made an impact instead of rolling off of him. The tragedy of a dead teenager would have meant nothing to him before. Just another silly bint who'd gotten herself into a spot of trouble that she couldn't recover from.

Now, there was an inherent sadness about the display of toys and flowers spread across young Kathleen's fresh grave, all of these gifts that this girl would never receive. For the first time, he wondered what his own grave looked like on the day of his burial. Had his family left out prayers for him? Engraved some of his awful poetry onto his gravestone? He'd never gone back to check. Once William was gone, Spike wanted him to stay gone. But Christ, the thought of his mother laying flowers at his grave...

"How did it happen?" he asked quietly.

"Make-out Point. She was pulled from her car by a vamp."

Girl sitting pretty and sweet. Blonde. Brunette. Doesn't matter. Naughty little thing. Should be home studying for her exams and instead she's here with a guy's hand down her pants. Moaning and sighing, teenaged petting in a secluded parking spot, and he can see her through the windows. Wants her. Delicate skin, fragile bones. Blood rushing and blushing with newfound arousal, and he can fucking smell it through the clean scent of new-car-smell and hormones.

Spike stifled a shudder, shifted his weight. "Could be a waste of your time, pet. Don't know if she'll come back, do you?"

Buffy shook her head. "Willow has a hack into the local coroner's office and the police station. We cross-reference the obituaries with their findings. They found weird blood in the car and on her mouth."

She's moaning in a different way now, full-blown ecstasy shooting through the both of them as he presses down onto her, her teeth gnawing at his chest, lapping at his blood as he feeds her. That's right, angel-face. Get greedy. Get strong and ruthless. Just keep on taking.

A gentle, clicking noise distracted him, and he turned his head in time to see Buffy unwind the simple string of lavender beads from her forearm and lay them carefully across the girl's headstone. "Sorry, Kathleen."

Worried him, it did, this sudden respect for the dead. He remembered a time not so long ago when she used to sit on these graves and bitch and moan about the length of time these new vampires took to rise while he smoked cigarettes in the distance and memorized the way that she smelled. Buffy had never once taken a moment to commemorate the life of the vampire she was preparing to slay.

"You do this often?" he asked quietly, and she quirked her mouth at him and shrugged her shoulders.

"Not really," Buffy admitted, and she sighed, touching her hand to the raised lettering of the headstone. "It just strikes me as sad sometimes, you know? I mean, not just the death because wow is that sad, but... She's going to wake up tonight as something different, and she'll never have a chance to make things--" Buffy cut herself off, but Spike knew what she was going to say.

She'll never have a chance to make things right.

Ever since Spike got the soul, he'd drowned in the way that he hurt her. Wrapped himself up in the misery of his crime, accepted his punishment, wallowed in his mud for a while like the pig he was. He told himself he was no good for her, that soul or no soul he would only end up destroying her in the end, giving into those urges and desires, bringing her back into the bathroom for another round of make-you-feel-me.

He'd never considered all of the other lovely ways he could kill her.

Buffy, laying beads and apologies at the foot of the newborn vampire's grave, all while the changing beast lay sleeping below her feet. Talking nonsense about vampires having opportunities, monsters having a second shot. Regretting that this girl would never have a chance to do something impossible, because as soon as she shot out of the ground with a body full of bloodlust, Buffy would kill her.

All because of him.

Clenching his jaw, Spike stormed over to her and grabbed her by her biceps, cold fingers pressing into her flesh unrelentingly. "None of that," he said. "Vamps don't get second chances, Slayer. Don't want them, either. They just want the kill, and if you start feeling sorry for them, they'll take you down before you can trade up your rosary for a stake. Got it?"

Buffy threw his hands off and glared at him fiercely. "Don't tell me how to do my job," she said. "I know what I'm doing."

A bitter laugh pierced the air, mocking and dark, and he sounded like himself again. Fists and fangs, reckless and wild, throwing punches at her back while she ripped off his clothes. Their old song and dance routine.

"Do you now, pet?" Spike murmured, voice mocking, and he tilted his head coyly as he approached. Almost like his old self, almost, but something so hateful in the way he moved. Something not at all fluid or graceful. Bitter and jerky, stiff and awkward. He was having trouble moving in his own skin. "Don't quite think so. Have to be a little off your game, love, if you're thinking about vamps like they're people."

"Aren't you?" Buffy shot back, shoving him away from her.

His lip curled in a trace of his old snarl, that feral look that crossed his face whenever he was about to vamp out and strike her. "Oh, no," he said sarcastically. "I'm just a dead, evil thing. Or don't you remember?"

Fists slam and pound into his face, turning his skin and flesh into putty, and she can feel bones breaking underneath her hands as she screams and hits him. Over and over, and he takes every blow, rolls with every punch as she pulverizes him. Hates him, hates him so much, hates herself even more...

"You don't have a soul! There is nothing good or clean in you. You are dead inside! You can't feel anything real! I could never be your girl!"

Buffy flinched and turned away, hating the memory for haunting her. Spike's beautiful face, exploding with bruises and blood, and the way that he never tried to stop her, never once protested. Just took his punishment while she yelled awful words at him and made him bleed. "I wasn't talking about you then," she said, and Spike sighed wearily.

"Should've been, pet. It's all true in the end."

Buffy groaned, a disgusted look crossing her face. "Oh, God, not that again," she moaned. Had to bring it up, though. Didn't she see? She was forgetting things, making allowances that she should not be making. Needed to remember what vampires were, what monsters they could all be underneath their pretty, eternally young exteriors.

"Yes," Spike said firmly, drawing her hands up in his. "That again. Don't tell me that you're over it. Don't tell me it didn't affect you." He lowered his voice, gave her a sliver of honesty, handed her something that he'd been concealing. "You can't be over it, cause I'm not."

She could see the blue of the bathroom tiles in the dark shades of his eyes, could see the gray shadow of her robe hanging over them. Even though they were in the openness of the cemetery, she still felt trapped inside of the bathroom, the fucking bathroom, the walls closing in on her. She hated him in that moment for forcing her to think about it again.

"Yes," Buffy spat angrily. "It hurt. It hurt a lot. Are you happy now? It hurt to the point of breaking me." Her lip trembled, and she felt everything come rushing back. The aching in her bones from the struggle, dulled by the grief she felt inside of her. That thick, awful feeling of betrayal. "It broke my heart."

She sits alone in the bathroom for two hours after he is gone. Sees the bruises erupting on her too-pale skin, blossoms of ugly purple and green rising to the surface from where his knee prodded into her thigh, parting her legs. There are scratches on her breasts from where clawed at her robe, and they're beginning to bleed. And yet nothing hurts as bad as her heart does. Nothing hurts as bad as that.

She struggled for composure, wrapped her arms tightly around her midsection to keep herself from sobbing. All the while, Spike stared at her with his sad, sorry eyes, all of the anger faded out into dark navy regret. "After you left, everything fell apart," she said, and she laughed sharply. "Not that it had really been together before. But... Tara was gone, and Willow was half-crazy, and I had to be the big Slayer again. So I pushed what happened out of my mind. I didn't think of you until it was over."

Sighing, Buffy walked past the grave and sat down on the wrought-iron bench next to the Cochran crypt, and Spike stared at her with an ache in his heart. Wanted to touch her, make her better, yet he knew he wouldn't be able to offer her anything. After all, he was the one who'd done this to her. Christ, he really was a bastard.

"When I thought of you again, when I thought about that night..." Helplessly, Buffy shook her head, gave him a weak smile. "I was devastated. Just destroyed. I thought that I should be angry with you, should be thinking about staking you for what you did to me."

Flinching, Spike looked away. "Jesus, love, I'm so..."

"I wasn't angry, though," Buffy said, and she reached for his hand tentatively, her fingertips traveling over the palm of his hand, tracing all of the lines of fortune engraved into his skin. She pulled him close to her, forced him to sit down beside her. "And then I realized why it hurt so bad, what you did to me. Why I didn't fight back at first."

She swallowed hard, and looked up into his eyes. Amazing eyes, burning and smoldering, always shifting from dark to light, much like the man himself. "It was because I was wrong about what I'd said to you before that happened. I did trust you, Spike. I trusted you, and you betrayed me."

Don't cry. Not in front of her. Got no right to cry in front of her, not after what you did, you selfish fucking bastard, you worthless piece of shit...

"I'd trusted you all along. Trusted you not to hurt me, to take care of me and my family, to... To love me. I'd let you in, and somewhere in the last year, I..." Her voice faded to almost a whisper. "I fell in love with you."

Desperately, Spike clamped down on her fingers with his own and begged her with his eyes. "Buffy, listen to yourself. You can't possibly mean that. You've gone off your bird."

But she shook her head at him, withdrew her fingers from his tight grasp. The scratchy, callused palm of her hand settled on his face, rough with all of the fighting that she was forced to do, and he remembered the way that these scratchy hands used to scrub his body like sandpaper, removing all of his thick skin until he was a mess of vulnerable flesh. Against his will, Spike leaned into her touch, a slave to her as always.

"I know what I mean," Buffy said gently. "We did some awful things to each other last year, Spike. We hurt each other pretty badly. But those moments, Spike. Those good moments."

Smiling and laughing, coated in afterglow, they lay there underneath the carpets, surrounded by faux-Orientals and stone. Disaster is strewn around them from the force of their sex, and yet here everything is calm. Everything is sweet, and he laughs at something that she says, ducks his head down and brushes his nose against her shoulder, and she lets herself smile at him because sometimes, he's adorable.

Her fingertips whispered down the bridge of his nose, moving towards his mouth, that silken creation that always made her feel dizzy and breathless, like vertigo but blissful. Heat began to braid her blood, twisting it and accelerating it, and she parted her lips as she looked at him. God, he was so beautiful. How did he ever get this beautiful?

"I want you," she whispered. "I don't care about the consequences. We'll work through it together. Take things slow. We can do this, because we love each other." The most fragile of kisses, laid on the tip of his delicate nose. "You couldn't make me hurt so bad if I didn't love you."

And it undid him. "Oh, Christ, Buffy..."

The softness of his mouth always astonished her. No matter how many fiery, fuel-laden kisses they'd forced upon each other, she would always be floored by how tenderly he could kiss. Just a sweep of his tongue across her lower lip, dancing across the tips of her teeth. Lust ensnared her, snapped her up in its jaws, shook her fiercely. A moan. A whisper. A breath. Everything was too much.

Everything was not enough.

"Spike," she gasped into his mouth, and he swallowed the name before she could say it again. Helpless against her, absolutely defenseless. When she touched him, he couldn't say no. Not to her. Never to her. Weak, selfish, evil animal...

No, he didn't care. His hand cupped her jaw, fingers sank into her hair. Wanted to cry, so fucking beautiful, this feeling of her. This moment. Just this crumb of time, so insignificant, and yet so glorious. Awe overtook him as Buffy kissed him, her mouth seeking out all of the soft spots where she could make him crumble.

Yet it was different, foreign from any other kiss they'd shared. This was sweeter, almost sugary. Brittle and breakable in some ways, indestructible in others. He kissed her in slow motion, foregoing their former haste. The heel of his hand hovered over her cheek, alighting only briefly on her skin. Buffy found herself almost whimpering; this wispiness was something they'd never experienced before. Hesitation was never part of their coupling, but here he was, touching her so soft...

Who am I kissing?

Blinking, Buffy pulled away from his mouth, her hand resting on his neck. Something about his eyes. So dark, so rich. Full of colors she'd never seen before. Blue and black, gray and cornflower. Haunted and hollow, full and brittle. And God, the way that he looked at her... All of the love in him just seemed magnified somehow, like viewing it under a microscope.

"What?" Spike asked, and Buffy shook her head, her fingertips moving to touch the forking scar on his eyebrow.

"Your eyes..."

Suddenly, his eyes widened. "Buffy. Kathleen's up."

Quickly, Buffy jumped up from the stone bench and pulled the stake out from inside her sleeve, but when she turned around, she froze.

Kathleen Freeman was sobbing.

Dirt and soil was caked over her pale, bumpy face, and clumps of it clung to her lavender nylon dress. Her yellow eyes were wide with misery, tears streaking dirt and mud down her face, clumps of grass tangled in her blonde hair. She looked absolutely petrified.

"What..." she breathed, and her lower lip trembled. "What's happened to... It's not supposed to be like this, not supposed to be like this..." Buffy stood in front of the bench like a statue, gawking at the vampire as she dissolved into sobs, her fingers rising to touch her distorted features, and then one palm clutched her stomach. "Oh, God, what happened to me? What happened?"

It was not supposed to be like this. Vampires did not rise from the grave wracked with pain, weeping for the changes their bodies underwent. Kill. Maim. Feed. Destroy. Those were their functions, their actions following their rising, and Kathleen Freeman was not playing by the rules. Confused and distraught at the girl's obvious agony, Buffy wavered on what she was supposed to do. She felt helpless just staring while this girl wept, and she licked her lips. "Are you okay?"

Kathleen shook her head miserably. "No," she whispered. "I'm not."

A keening wail exploded from the girl's throat as she suddenly leapt at Buffy and tackled the Slayer to the ground. Gasping, Buffy struggled underneath the fledgling's grasp, stunned by how strong Kathleen was. Newborns weren't like this. They were easy to kill, predictable and almost boring. They weren't able to pin her down and hold her, and yet as Kathleen's fingernails dug into the sensitive skin of her throat, Buffy knew that something was wrong.

The vampire was still weeping.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I can't stop," she wailed as Buffy writhed beneath her. "I can't make it stop and it hurts, hurts so bad, I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry..." Buffy widened her eyes, saw Spike stand over the vampire with the stake in his hands, an equally shocked expression on his face as he raised the wooden weapon for the kill.

But one of Kathleen's stiletto sandals whipped out in a perfect, beautiful arc of leg and threw him aside like a toy, slamming him into her own gravestone. It shattered in an explosion of granite and rock, and Spike moaned, pain shooting through him as he lay on the grass. "Fuck," he whispered hoarsely, and he heard Buffy's screams behind him. Have to get to her, have to help her, Christ...

Wild hysteria jangled and jumbled in Kathleen's mangled voice as she scratched her dirt-encrusted fingernails across Buffy's cheek. Pain exploded in her face, bright and furious, and she jerked her face away, looking desperately at the abandoned stake on the grass. Almost in reach, almost...

Spike snatched it up and rammed it into the vampire's back, and Kathleen shattered into dust above her, a sob still lingering in the air like a ghost.

They both were absolutely still for a moment, shocked and dismayed at what had just happened, and then Spike muttered a curse under his breath and knelt down beside Buffy, pressing a hand to the ragged scratches on her face. "I'm fine," she said, but her breath was short and her eyes were wide, glassy-eyed from horror. "What the hell just happened here?"

"Don't know," he said shortly, helping her to her feet. "New vamps aren't supposed to rise like that, that's for damned sure. Something's interfering with..." He froze suddenly, his eyes widening with a paralyzing fear, as words drifted to him from a distance.

"My heart expands
'Tis grown a bulge in it
Inspired by your beauty, effulgent"


Mocking laughter, hands covering giggles while they stare at him with dancing eyes. Heat floods his cheeks and he snatches his papers back, embarrassment and shame filling him. Just the lowly poet as always, with the crowd sneering at him, taking his painstaking lyrics as amusement and entertainment.

"Oh, God," Spike whispered. "I'm buggered."

A man walked like a whisper over the small hill, applauding with a smirk on his face, and Buffy stared at him warily, her arms encircling Spike's forearm as she pulled herself to a standing position. He wore a dark Armani suit, beautifully cut and tailored to his slim frame, and his silvery hair was trimmed immaculately. She recognized him instantly -- the man in her photograph. The one who'd saluted her as she slept unknowing beside her vampire.

The man stopped when he reached the wrought-iron bench and pursed his lips thoughtfully, staring at Spike. "I don't know if I would have gone with 'effulgent', personally," he said in a conversational tone. "It just seems... Pretentious. But then again, you were young." He said this all matter-of-factly, and Spike felt a tension clog his throat and choke up his thoughts.

"Who the hell are you?" Buffy shot, her voice furious and bubbling with rage.

He ignored her for the moment, still looking at Spike with a knowing smile. "That's what they put on your tombstone, you know," he said. "In case you were wondering. Not that particular selection, of course, but another one. I think it was titled..." He snapped his fingers, smiled. "Ah, yes. 'Thy Knell Rings Twice'. Very touching. I especially liked the part about the moonlight singing you a lullaby."

"Sod off," Spike said in a low, cutting tone, and Buffy could feel the tension radiating off of him. What the fuck was going on here? What was this guy talking about? All that she knew was that it was upsetting Spike to the point of no return, and she rested a hand on his chest, tried to calm him down.

The man's sloe eyes turned coyly to gaze at her palm, pressed up against his cotton tee shirt, and then they returned to Spike's face. "She's a treasure," he commented. "Much better than that little tease in petticoats you ended up dying over. Sad death, man. Dying because some broad wouldn't love you back." His smile widened. "Would you do it again?"

Rage shuttled through him, and Spike snarled and lunged for the man, even as Buffy grabbed at his coat and hissed out his name. He hadn't made it even two steps before the man held up a hand, and Spike suddenly crumbled to the ground in a heap of leather and pain, clutching his head. He cried out in pain as imagery flashed through his mind.

Get off of me, oh God, please get off of me, Spike, stop, stop, it hurts, I'm hurt, this isn't happening, not from you, not from you, don't, please, please...

Panicked, Buffy bent down on the ground beside him, wrapped him in her arms, tried to get his attention. "Spike!" she cried, shaking him as his body shook and trembled, and then he broke into sobs. Tears ran down his face as he rolled away from her and buried his face in his hands, and when she tried to touch his shoulder, he only flinched and moved away. She whipped her head and around looked at the man in the overcoat desperately. "What did you do to him? Make it stop!"

"It has," the man said simply, leaning on the statue of an large angel with ease. "He's just weak. Funny. He's been bitching for weeks to himself that he should have suffered instead of you, but you give the guy a glimpse into what ran through your head in the bathroom that night..." He shook his head. "Some people. No concept of gratitude whatsoever."

Oh, God.

His fingers were digging into his face, doubled over with the impact of what she had felt, and Buffy was torn between the aching need to comfort him and the strong, furious desire to kill this bastard standing before her.

She decided to go with the second option.

Buffy stormed across the space and punched the man in the face. His laughter was instantaneous, and so was the pain in her face as he hit her back. Crying out, Buffy's knees gave out from under her and she was too distracted to notice his blow to her stomach. All of the air left her lungs, and she was left cringing with pain on the ground.

"Not tonight," he said, standing over her with dancing eyes. Blue now. Oh, God, what was happening? He licked one finger and raised it to the sky, felt the wind, and narrowed his eyes. "But another night. Very soon, indeed. We'll..." He smiled again, looking at the weeping vampire on the grass. "We'll dance."

"Who are you?" Buffy croaked, and he arched one gray eyebrow at her before he turned the force of his relaxed smile on her. It made her worry, the fact that he was so untouched, so nonchalant.

"Drake," he said, extending a hand. She didn't take it. He smiled and withdrew. "Drake Lucas. You can give your Watcher that name, if you like, but he won't find it in any of his stuffy old books." His eyes flashed gold, and Buffy felt that rumble in her stomach. The rumble that said that this was a vampire. A very, very old one. Fucking A.

A desperate, choked sob came from Spike, and Buffy quickly moved over to him, at a loss for what she could do. "Spike..." she whispered, stroking his cheek, and he shook his head, gritted his teeth, tried to compose himself. Slowly, he sat up, feeling nauseated from what he'd experienced. Christ, all of her pain. All of the horrible pain.

"What did you do to Kathleen Freeman?" he demanded.

Drake smiled and tilted his head to the side, giving him a coy, assessing look. "Oh, Kathleen?" He chuckled. "It's not what I did do. It's what I didn't."

Buffy clenched her jaw and stared at him with dagger-like eyes. "You know, I'm not really a big fan of the cryptic bullshit," she said.

He grinned. "Cut and dry girl, eh? I love that in a Slayer. Makes all of the banter much more enjoyable."

Impatiently, Buffy glared at him and balled her hand up into a fist. "Dammit, I--"

"I let her keep her soul."

She stands on the ruins of her new grave, her burial dress streaked with dirt and mud, bewildered and frightened. "Oh, God, what happened to me? What happened?"

"You sick fuck," Buffy whispered, covering her hand with her mouth. Nausea churned inside of her, and she thought she might throw up at the thought of it. Rising with a soul, living in a hell like that, no control and the confusion and disorientation... "How could you? You can't do that, make her live through that kind of pain, that kind of--" She shook her head, tried to keep it together in the face of all of this. "Do you know how that must feel?"

"Why not ask him?"

Oh, God. No.

Spike knew in an instant what was coming. He could feel it in the air, that scent of bad revelations and imminent devastation. Chaos was churning in the thick, furious air, and thunder rumbled and rippled in the background like a bad drama unfolding. Terror slammed into him like a freight train, and he looked at Buffy, who stared at Drake with an uncomprehending look on her face. "What?" she asked.

Desperately, he grabbed her shoulders in his hands, begged her to listen to him with his eyes. "Buffy, love... Don't listen to him, don't..."

Conspiratorially, Drake moved closer to her, a sympathetic look washing over his ever-changing features. "He did it for you, you know," he said softly. "He thought it might give you some kind of happiness."

Confusedly, Buffy shook her head, her eyes never leaving Drake's face. "I don't..."

A sneer tampered with the sympathy on his face, and he smiled with the anxiousness of an asshole who couldn't wait to spoil the ending of a great movie. "He suffers. Oh, how he suffers. Every minute. Every second. And it's all because of you." He lowered his voice.

"Even with a soul, he'll never be worthy of you."

A soul a soul a soul a soul...

It all came crashing over her, waves of understanding, tsunamis of sudden knowledge. The way that he'd kissed her, too soft, too hesitant, like he was afraid of touching her. The way that he looked so troubled in his sleep. All of the photographs she'd thrown at him in accusation, and the way he'd tried so desperately to convince her not to love him. But one memory...

"Terribly sorry," he says in a flustered tone, his hands moving nervously as he picks up the broken glass...

All that she had to do was look into Spike's eyes, and she saw her answer there.

Buffy jerked back from him, her eyes wide with disbelief and her hand clapped over her mouth. "Oh my God," she whispered, and Spike felt his heart splinter and crumble, like there was glass in his veins. The most horrible sensation ever, because he'd lied to her. Because he'd lost her.

"Buffy, love," he pleaded, and she shook her head, stumbling to her feet.

"I don't know you," she whispered. "I don't... I can't..."

Before she lost it and started to weep, before she spilled her heart out in front of her enemy, Buffy did what she did best, and ran away. Helpless, Spike fell to his knees, held his head in his hands, and listened as Drake fucking Lucas laughed and walked away. His last words lingered in his wake:

"Ain't love grand?"

*****

(end part eleven)

*****



Chapter Twelve: The Broken Sky

And in a single moment of blistering revelation, it was over.

Still could smell her, a piece of her lingering in the air like a tantalizing ghost. Scent of oranges, whiff of nectarines and lemon peel, splash of kiwi. Just a wisp, just a trace. Just a fragment of some long-gone apparition, a phantom of something that he could never have.

Just like Drake said -- he would never, ever be worthy of her.

Fury started to build and boil inside of him, and Spike's hands curled up into fists. Drake fucking Lucas, yeah? Poncey name for a poncey bastard who thought he could just pop on by for a round of kick-the-Spike. Wasn't his job to tell her about the soul, wasn't his secret to share, and that bugger had gone ahead and used it against them. Made it into a weapon, he had; fashioned it into a nuclear bomb and sent it exploding on the grass before him. Recited his dreadful poetry, gave him visions of her in agony because of him, and then told her the awful truth about the vampire she'd fallen in love with. Told her that he'd run off and gotten a soul, just for her, and that it was still not good enough to save him.

And she'd run away.

Pain shuddered through his body, and Spike dropped his head, loosened his fingers. Wouldn't have mattered who'd said it. She'd bolted, had her heart snapped into pieces yet again. All because of him. That shattered, ravaged look in her eyes before she'd fled... All because of him.

I can't do this anymore.

Slowly, Spike brought himself to his feet, feeling a dead, empty certainty filling his body. Couldn't do this to her. Wasn't fair. She'd been broken and splintered too many times already in her life, and now, with this Drake fucker walking around making demons weep, she would have enough on her hands. Didn't need a sad, pathetic remnant of a vampire wandering around and cutting holes in her heart. Didn't need anyone else to give her pain -- her shoddy, doomed life was bound to give her heartache in spades. Shouldn't have come back. Should've stayed as far away from her as possible.

Spike gritted his teeth. The soul was supposed to make him do the right thing, right? Stop bollixing up her life with his stupidity? Well, fine then. He'd start right now. Do the right thing. Make the good choice.

He'd leave.



"Get out."

Xander winced. "Anya..."

But she was not having any of it. She was all business tonight in her flawless pantsuit, briskly flipping through receipts with her thumb, punching numbers into the calculator.

She dismissively brushed an errant lock of sleek chestnut hair out of her face, all manicured nails and dry clean only linen. "I have nothing to say to you," she said breezily. "You were extraordinarily rude to me earlier and therefore, I don't want to see you. So unless you're going to buy something, I'd suggest you find somewhere else to be."

The brutal honesty of Anya. Part of him wanted to rise to the challenge, wanted to throw some sarcasm and facetiousness back at her brisk tones and cutting words. Xander could feel his hands ball up into fists, and then he flexed his fingers and relaxed.

No. That wasn't why he'd come here tonight. "I know," he said quietly, struggling to keep his voice even. Had to control his temper, even when she was the one person in the world who could inflame him so quickly. Well, her and Spike. "I'm sorry, An. I didn't mean--"

"Yes, you did," Anya said, never lifting her eyes from the printout of accounts sitting before her. "You meant every word you said. Your honesty was very impressive." Another punch on the calculator, another spurt of white paper full of numbers. "I especially liked the part when you called me a big ridgy evil genie. That was a nice touch."

"An, I'm sorry..."

Dark eyes underneath layers of perfectly applied mascara cut in his direction. Her voice oozed condescension and mock sympathy. How human she'd become over the years. "Oh, you’re always sorry, Xander."

"I'm still in love with you."

One slender, perfectly kept eyebrow arched in his direction. Interest finally showed on the flawless mask of her face, and Anya abandoned the sea of calculations and receipts swamped before her. "Excuse me?"

Xander swallowed hard and took another step closer to the register. He'd struggled with these words on the drive over, the radio on mute while he looked at himself in the rearview mirror and practiced lines. I'm sorry, Anya. I hurt you, and I'm sorry. Please, let me try again.

Of course, the moment he saw her perched on the stool behind the counter of the Magic Box, all of those carefully rehearsed words slipped right out of his mind and he blanked out. The old dry mouth from high school nervousness reappeared, and he could feel his palms sweating.

But he was not going to run again.

Xander swallowed hard, flexed his fingers a bit. Be cool. Cool guy, coming up. "I'm still in love with you," he said, and Anya stared at him blankly. It made him feel self-conscious, like it was back to junior year in high school, passing Cordelia her gift-wrapped necklace. At least this time, he knew enough to anticipate the rejection.

Sure enough, Anya barked a laugh in his face and shook her head before she returned to her work. "No, you're not," she said firmly. "You're just horny and looking for sex. I would sympathize with you, but you're an asshole and deserve a long period of celibacy."

Xander stared at her for a moment, and then burst into laughter.

Anya blinked from her position at the register, confused by his reaction. It was a good insult; she was very good at being insulting. Giles said so on a regular basis. But here he was, laughing deep in his belly in that way that she'd always been overly fond of, all big dorky grin and cute dimples. It tugged at a place in her heart she thought she'd abandoned, and Anya frowned.

"Stop that," she said, irritated. "There's not supposed to be laughing. You're supposed to give up all hope and leave."

"Can't," Xander said, shrugging his shoulders at her as he composed himself. "I just can't leave you."

She snorted at him. Decidedly unprofessional, but it wasn't like he was going to be bowled over by her perky charms and start stocking up on expensive magic products. "Funny words coming from the runaway groom," she snapped, and he sighed, all of the mirth falling away from his face.

"I know, An."

When he started to approach the counter, Anya jerked back, alarmed. She had grown accustomed to their song-and-dance of "it's all your fault, you evil bitch/bastard" over the summer months. He was supposed to bring her coffee and do nice things for her, and then get irritated when she expressed a valid opinion. Then she would kick him out of the store and revel in the glory of scorned woman collecting emotional vengeance.

He was changing the rules, and it frightened her.

Wide deer-in-headlight eyes stared at him as he walked over, and her fingers nervously began fingering the amulet around her neck. He'd noticed that new habit, that strange security blanket she'd acquired. If you upset me, I can just eviscerate you. It should have intimidated him, her death threats and hints at the wrath of the jilted bride, but strangely, it did not matter.

Life wasn't worth it without her.

A sparkle caught his eye as Anya twisted the heavy pendant around her fingers, and before she could jerk away, Xander crooked the fine gold chain around his index finger for closer examination. Oh, he knew that piece of jewelry so well.

Wistfully, Xander rubbed the ring between his fingers, feeling every sharp angle and edge of the diamond. "Did I ever tell you about this ring?" he asked softly, and she frowned at him warily.

"Is it a boring, Hallmark-y sentimental story that might make me nauseous?"

Usually, this earned her a cutting glare and a pursed-lip look of disapproval. Instead, Xander gave her a sly smile that made butterflies start fluttering around in her tummy. It brought back memories of sweat-soaked nights of sex and waffles, when he would toy with her hair and she'd babble endlessly until he shut her up with orgasms.

"I bought it for you after Buffy's mom passed away," he said softly. "After we had that... Talk. About the future."

Reluctantly, Anya gave him a smile. "I remember what happened before the talk," she said slyly, and he gave her a full-fledged Xandergrin, the kind that made her knees all quivery and ruffled her impeccable composure.

"Vixen. But that's not the point. As spectacular as the sex really, really was, it was the talk that did it for me. What you said... How we're all a part of something bigger. How we're all a part of this big circle, and yes, I do realize that I am channeling Disney, but it's right. And I wanted to be in that circle with you."

Another fond, fumbling caress of the ring.

"So I bought the ring the next day."

"But you regretted it," Anya said softly, her cool fingers carefully tucking the ring back underneath the starched collar of her blouse. He remembered how warm her hands used to be, back when she was human. Hot and tender, warming his body when they slept side-by-side. But vengeance demons were not supposed to get all hot and bothered. Revenge was a dish best served cold, after all. "And then you..."

Xander flinched and bowed his head. "I know," he said. "But it wasn't that I regretted proposing to you. It wasn't even that I regretted loving you, An. It was... I'm scared. Scared that I'm going to end up all alone. Scared that my life won't mean anything, and I'll be another Harris with a chip on his shoulder and a toupee on his head for the rest of my life."

Crestfallen, Anya slumped her shoulders, and he could see the thin line of her lips tighten and pinch with the start of bitter anger. "Oh, of course," she said snidely. "Because being with me would just ruin your whole life."

Softly, he smiled at her, patted her soft cheek with his palm. "No. It would make my life better."

Xander gently released the ring from his fingers, tucking it carefully underneath the pressed collar of her shirt. Keep her nice and neat. Don't mess her up. All the while, she stared at him like she was seeing him for the first time, eyes wide with curiosity, and he smiled at her.

"Want to go out for a drink?" he asked, and before she could narrow her eyes and voice suspicions, he raised his hands. "Hey, just drinks. Nothing sexy. Promise. Just..." He quirked his mouth at her. "I miss the things you say."

A brightness, the flickering of hope, lit inside of her eyes, and Anya smiled at him genuinely, without a hint of bitterness or irony. That simple-sweet smile, the one that spoke of starry-eyed love and wild wonder. God, how he'd missed her. "Let me get my coat."

As she locked up the receipts and the cash drawer, he caught her elbow in his hand for a second, and smiled at her. "It'll be okay, An," he said gently, and she cocked her head at him before she returned his smile.

"Maybe it will, Xander."



Everything was fine.

Calm. Even. She just had to concentrate on the little things, not think outside of the small actions that would carry her out of the graveyard and back to her house. The motion of her legs. The rise and fall of breath. The steady beat of her heart. These things were manageable, something she could control. The inconsequential act of blinking was something that Buffy could handle.

Focus. She had to focus. There were... Things that had gone wrong and she had to sort them out. Figure out the next step. Research, books and coffee. There was a man out there who could do awful, ungodly acts and she had his name. She could do something. She. Was. Fine.

There was a stranger in her house.

Not his body; no, that was as familiar to her as the scent of the kill. Spike was a savage sonnet composed of sinew and sin, draped in leather, collected in shadows. The elegant sprawl of a pale hand half-covered by the sleeve of his coat. The long, careless grace of his exhausted leg, strewn out and cast away. Moon bright hair. Mouth pouted but not petulant.

But his eyes did not belong to him.

Buffy froze in the open doorway, her hand tightly gripping the doorknob. Just in case of emergency. Her feet begged to run, toes itching anxiously inside of her shoes. He had not turned to look at her yet, those foreign eyes fixated dully on something she could not see. Perhaps he wouldn't notice if she just turned around and...

"They look so happy, don't they."

Her shoulders sagged with resignation, still tense and unsure. The room felt claustrophobic and consuming, like it might devour her whole. She did not want to talk to him. Did not want to acknowledge this sham, this mockery of the man she loved. If she looked at him again, saw this alien inhabiting her lover's supple flesh... "Please," Buffy whispered. "I can't--"

"Won't be long," he whispered, and she wanted to scream at the sound of his voice. He should not have that broken glass fracturing the fluid continuity of his velveteen purr. He should be murmuring naughty things in her ear, coaxing her and completing her. How could he possibly do that now, so broken, so strange?

Spidery fingers gestured slightly in the direction of the sofa. "They look happy. Content." He shook his head and flinched. "Don't know what's coming. Think love's just a cuddle and a snog. But I know."

Warily, Buffy stepped into the living room. She could feel his eyes watching her, prowling over her body, but she could not bear to meet his gaze. She did not want to see his eyes now. Instead, she looked at the couch.

They were a tangle of limbs and red silk, cream and oil skin entwined in the innocence of their dreams. Dawn had a boy, an almost-man with deadly long lashes and enormous hands. One oversized palm loosely cupped Dawn's fair knee, fingers fondling freckles.

"Bit's all growing up," he said, and Buffy felt her mouth go dry. Difficult to swallow. A bitter chuckle that sounded like twisted metal in her ears, not at all like the fluid ripple of laughter he used to give her in their ruined bed. "Gonna get her poor heart broken, smashed to pieces, and--"

"Stop it," Buffy whispered, shutting her eyes tightly. She could not turn around and look at him. Could not see what had happened. "I... I can't deal with all this right now. There's too much that I have to--"

There was the sound of fumbling, all of his old leather creaking as he stood up. "So... so sorry," he stammered. Oh, God. Spike stuttering. It was obscene. "I'll... I didn't meant to hurt..."

"Terribly sorry..."

Buffy heard something crash to the floor and the sharp intake of his breath, and yet she still could not bring herself to turn around and face him. Just the mental image of this clamoring, crushed thing inside of Spike's cool, liquid-smooth skin was enough to make her feel rotted and awful. Seeing him like this would be too much.

"Did it for you," he said softly, and Buffy felt sick to her stomach. Her fingers balled up into a fist, and the violence within her screamed to punch him in that sweet-and-sour mouth of his. Anything to silence him. Shut him up so that he couldn't talk about the... "Thought it's what you... What you needed. To be happy."

Oh, she needed him. Needed the fierce fury of him, the maelstrom made of muscle and malignance. She craved the steel of his eyes when he was hard and angry, the incongruous softness of his hands when he was lighter and dreamier. But this confused, belittled vampire standing behind her with clumsy fingers...

Buffy said nothing, merely let him continue as he sighed and continued to gather the pieces of whatever inconsequential item he had broken. It was nothing in comparison to what else was destroyed in that living room.

"Still remember the way you looked that first night," he said. "All lovely and fine. Had stars in your skin, and God, the way your eyes..."

His voice darkened suddenly, thickened into a sumptuous stream of words, hot and humid with sexuality. If she turned around, would she see her lover there, the one who could make her come with just a curl of his lips? She could not afford to find out.

"Looked like some slice of heaven, you did." Cool fingers started to ascend her bare leg, his callused fingertips skimming sensually across her skin. Arousal fluttered below his touch, and Buffy could feel the heat of her skin, the familiar tug and growl of want erupting low in her belly. "All long legs, smelling like all kinds of good."

She hissed in a breath, every muscle tense, every bone shaking like a tuning fork while his deadly, skilled hand traveled up to caress her inner thigh. "Always wanted to do something other than just fuck you," he purred against her hot skin, and Buffy closed her eyes shut. Stop it. Don't cry in front of him. You don’t know him well enough to cry.

A weary sigh, and then the barest brush of his thumb over the juncture between her leg and pelvis. Buffy gasped, her hips arching, as he chuckled from the shadowed floor behind her. "Wanted to make love to you, and maybe you might've liked it."

She couldn't help it, this sudden rush of arousal. It was his hands, those cool instruments of flesh that always made her buck and tremble. And yet it felt like betrayal, like she was giving herself to another man. Cheating on Spike with Spike. The hilarity of the entire situation made her want to scream, just as his fingers tracing her bikini line, finding that sensitive spot by her hip...

"Stop," Buffy whimpered, and she stepped back. Found the force in her voice, made it flat and cold like she'd once been with him. "It's different. Things have..."

"No, nothing has changed," he said, his voice hard and angry. She stepped forward, wrapped her arms protectively around her body. But he stood as well now, caught her waist in his long, nimble hands, one finger pressed against her navel in a way that made her want to moan. "Think that all you like, pet, but it's all the bloody same. Thought what I did... Thought it might change me. Make me better for you." His voice broke as he sighed against the back of her neck, and Buffy bit down hard on her lip, so hard that her teeth drew blood. "Thought you might..."

Roughly, his hands shoved her away and Buffy stumbled on her feet, her hands blindly reaching for the doorframe to keep her balance. "But I was wrong," he said in a hard, unrelenting voice. "Bloody typical, that's what it is. Always one step behind. Went out and got a soul--" oh, she flinched at that word "thinking it'd make me better, good enough to touch you and not hurt you, and it doesn't change a damned thing."

Wild, hysterical peals of laughter forced their way up from inside her chest, and Buffy pressed her forehead against the wall as she giggled at him. "You're so fucking stupid," she gasped between fits. "It changes everything. You've changed everything, and I didn't want it to change, I didn't, and--"

When he spun her around with his oh-so-rough hands and confronted her with the blasphemy of his eyes, all of the laughter within her died.

Because it was still Spike.

Same mouth, pretty and pink, too soft for the jagged angles of his face and the harsh blade of his nature. Same strong English nose, same slightly weak chin. The enigmatic scar on his eyebrow remained, and nothing could shorten the length of his dark eyelashes. When she touched his face, it was still that startlingly soft skin that she felt beneath her fingertips, curving down the dangerous cliff of his cheekbone.

His eyes told her a thousand stories. Kerosene blue blazing at her from behind a layer of lashes, and the flinted lapis orbs seemed to stare straight to her core. There was the coldness of his killing character contradicted by the low, languorous light of his love for her. He was still the same man, the one she'd fallen hopelessly in love with somewhere in time, and it struck her to the core.

This was still Spike, and now he was in agony.

"See, love?" he asked, his voice so familiar and yet so different. The molten murmur of his tobacco-roughened purr was now snagged on his own history, chopped up and distorted. "Try as we might, I can't change."

He swallowed hard, and gave her a smile so old it didn't belong on his flawless face. "Didn't mean to take this long," he said. "Just... Didn't want to leave you without saying goodbye." His voice softened to just a breath. "Know you hate that."

Leave me...

Slowly, he placed one trembling, cool hand on the side of her face and brought his mouth down to hers. No passion there, he'd tried to extinguish that in the aftermath of the dreaded bathroom. When he kissed her, she could taste desolation and despair. Kissing Spike was like drinking regret straight from the bottle, and she felt her chest hitch with unspent tears.

One last brush of his lips against hers, and then he stepped back. "I'm sorry," he said with so much earnestness that she felt one tear slide down her cheek. "Wish I... Wish I could've been good for you."

Shoulders slumped, dignity stripped, Spike turned around and walked out of the still-open door, his leather a shadow that rippled behind him, the antithesis of the soul he'd gotten in the name of love.

"Don't."

He froze on the front porch when her hoarse plea met his ears. Must've been hearing things. Must've heard something wrong. She didn't ask for him, not after everything he'd done to her. After he'd disproved her stupid folly of love for him, she had no reason to beg him to stay.

But there were tiny fingers wrapped around his elbow, tugging him back towards the house, and warm breath against his neck. "Don't go," she repeated, her voice soft and worn.

Spike sighed. "Have to, love," he said. Didn't she understand? After everything he'd done to himself, everything he'd tried to change, the darkness in him still wanted to throw her against the wall and drink her dry. Wanted to fuck her until her bones were broken and her spirit was crushed. Roughly, Spike threw off her hand. "You don't... Don't deserve this."

He could feel a tremor in her wrist, and then her fingers tightened around his arm. "Don't go," she said, her voice harder, more insistent. Like she'd salvaged some resolve from somewhere. "You're not the type to walk out."

Oh, now that was rich. Bitterly, Spike laughed and turned around. Gave her the old smile, that old killing glare. It made her flinch, and he grinned wolfishly at her. "Once upon a time, you might've been right," he said, and then he roughly threw off her hand. "But I'm through with fucking you up."

Once again, he set out on his way, and she was suddenly blocking his path. Moved so fast, she did, just a blur of blonde whipping in front of him with battle-hard eyes. Those eyes that said she could decapitate him with just three moves, and the demon in him surged and snickered, wanted to come out and get her to show him how. "So this is your big solution," Buffy said, her voice dark and cold. "When the going gets tough, the tough get going, huh?"

Tiredly, Spike smiled at her. "Not so tough after all, pet."

When she slapped him, the pain was exquisite. She could've hit him harder, could've thrown her knuckles into his nose like she'd always liked before. But the flat palm against his face would suffice. Any punishment she doled out, he'd take.

"That's bullshit," Buffy spat. "You know better than that. Everyone on this earth might leave me, but you're always here."

Yeah, he was. Always here to give her a little push in the wrong direction. Rub her face in her mistakes. Tell her that she was a dark, feverish bitch in the bedroom. Coax her into fucking him, pout and push until she gave up. Oh, yeah. He was always around to break her.

"Won't do it anymore," Spike said with equal coldness. "Not up for screwing you over anymore, love. I've fucked you up far too many times to do it again. Not when there's something out there who's trying to take my job."

The ponce in the cemetery, with his shifty eyes and expensive wardrobe. He had it in for her, throwing out poetry and impossible fledglings. Knew things, that monster did, and Spike could recognize bad when he saw it. Drake Lucas was going to kill her, and damned if Spike'd have a hand in her murder yet again.

Carefully, Spike passed his fingers over the jagged scratch on her cheek. "Things'll get bad," he sighed. "So bad. There are things in the desert that you and I can't see, but pet, I won't stand around and help him destroy you."

Needy fingers wrapped around his wrist, holding his fingertips to the berry-bright blood on her face. "So stay," she said. "Stay and help me fight him. Come on, Spike. I need you."

Shook his head, turned away. "Only make things worse..."

Her hand traveled up his back, fingers curled over his shoulder, and then her other arm wrapped around his waist. The slender heat of her body was pressed against his back, warmth from her cheek bleeding through the leather and cotton, seeping into his skin. "Shh," she murmured. "Don't say things like that." Her lips pressed against the nape of his neck. "It breaks my heart to hear you like this."

When he spoke, he couldn't keep the sob out of his voice. "Buffy..."

"Tell me that you don't love me anymore," she said gently, her hand splayed against his stomach. "Tell me that, and I'll let you go. But if you love me, then you'll stay, and we'll figure..." She took a deep breath. "We'll figure this out."

Slowly, fluidly, Buffy stepped in front of him, her jaw set as she dragged her eyes to his. Oh, he could drown in the intensity of her eyes. So hard, so soft, so dark, so light. Everything about her was a contradiction. The wisdom of her eyes in the lineless youth of her face. The hard calluses on soft, delicate hands. Such a small girl, but stronger than the forces of hell when put to the test.

"Tell me. Tell me that you don't still love me. Tell me that you don't want me..." She shuddered for a second, sucked in breath. "Tell me that you don't want me to love you back."

The shape of her body when she dances, all coy sexuality. One long, strong leg lashing out at him in the fury of battle. Passionate sparks in her eyes when he puts his hand on her breast and tells her that he'll fuck her until she can't see straight. Wild, wonderful Buffy, smart and strong.

The hero that he'll never be.

When he fell to his knees before her, buried his cheek against her knee and helplessly confessed that he'd never be able to stop loving her, she was there. Solid and warm, wrapped around him, her hand stroking his shoulder.

"Shh. It's okay. We'll get through this. It's all right, Spike. Everything's all right."

And as weak as he was, he believed her.



All night long, it had threatened to rain. Thunder rumbling, coming closer, lightning strips cutting the night sky into pieces. The humidity had settled in like a thick, liquid weight, swimming through blood, bending shoulders and bowing heads underneath its mass. Yet the sky only broke under the light of a dark, hazy moon, in the wee small hours of morning, as he fell asleep.

Gently, Buffy laid the phone back on its cradle, her fingertips lingering on the hard plastic shell. The echo of Giles's voice still reverberated through her head, words swimming and coalescing in the grief-numbed regions of her mind.

"We'll get everything together. Start researching. And Buffy... Is everything all right? You sound..."

"I'm fine, Giles. Good night."

It was surprising how easy it was to lie again.

The mattress springs groaned and creaked as he turned in the troubled beginnings of his sleep. One hard, bone-colored shoulder was exposed, slipping out from the swarm of sheets and comforters she'd carefully pulled over him. The moisture in the air combated the gel he'd used to carefully slick his hair back, and curls sprung up as she warily touched his head.

So soft. Just like she remembered, back in the days when she would grab fistfuls of his hair and pull him forcefully down to her mouth. Demanded kisses, ordered him to love her, but not too much. Not too sweet, like he sometimes tried to do. Coalescing her into gentleness with silk scarves pinning her wrists and ankles to the four corners of his great bed, so that she would not struggle when he swept his featherweight fingers across her thighs.

"Let me love you..."

She'd sat with him tonight, saying little while confessions and apologies spilled out from his throat and onto her lap. Held him in her arms, offered nothing but caresses and shushing noises. Gave him platitudes between his tormented rambling. She had not known what else to do for him. Her body ached to comfort him, her arms yearned to touch him, but...

But it could not really be him.

Curiously, Buffy leaned over him, studying his face while he slumbered in a nightmarish land of suddenly painful history. "Mustn't... Stop moving. Stop... Buffy..." And then he sighed and turned again, buried his face in the pillow. He still talked in his sleep, like it was really him, but it couldn't be. Not after this.

Because Angel was so different.

She remembered those first awful nights after that night of unspeakable happiness that had brought Angel back to murder. Remembered the foreignness of his big cow eyes, puppy dog brown thickened into impenetrable black. The cruelty of his words as he'd laughed at her sexual inexperience. The hiss of threats in the darkness of the school hallway. And of course, that awful, wild laughter as he'd stood underneath the sprinkler and mocked her inability to kill him.

It was like night and day. With the soul, he'd been so quiet, so reserved. So tormented. And without it, he was someone else entirely. Different name. Different eyes. Different voice, different everything. It had destroyed her to see this foreign creature walking around in her lover's body, using his hands to murder the people that she loved.

But with Spike...

Those were still his eyes. Still the same shade of divine blue. Still his hands on her body earlier, his fingertips unerringly knowing the curvature of her thigh. The only thing that had really changed was his absolute torment, the wracking guilt that had almost cast him away from her tonight. But he'd stayed, because he still loved her. Even with the soul, he hadn't changed so much as to fall out of love with her.

When she touched his shoulder, the sweet slope of his slender neck, Buffy could feel the same electricity burning underneath his cool skin. That same fire and fury that marked him as Spike, the brutal beast who'd tamed himself in the hopes of winning her heart. She'd held onto that desperately as she blocked him from leaving her house, refusing to accept his departure. This was still him. Still the vampire she'd fallen in love with.

A shudder from him, and he turned over, shaking his head in his sleep. "No, no, didn't mean to hurt... Didn't..." There was a strangled sob, and then nothing again.

She would help him. Keep him here, in her bed, away from the things that might destroy him. In his time of fragility, Buffy would keep him safe. She would whisper the words to him, tell him that she loved him, hold him when he wept and try to give him purpose again. She'd show him the world through photography and gentleness, and hope that he would want to live in it again.

But she did not know if she could ever save him.

Rain brushed against the windowpanes, liquid fingers sobbing down the glass in a despairing downpour, while thunder sighed in the background, far off but moving in closer. There were dark things coming for her, awful things that would try to claim her life and her sanity. Just another day in the life of Buffy.

Calmly, Buffy turned on the faucet and began to clean out the scratch on her face. Disinfectant stung, but not as much as the tearstains on her shirt. The places where he'd pressed his face to her stomach and sobbed out his regrets.

"Wasn't thinking, just couldn't hurt you anymore, wanted to be someone you might..."

Watered-down droplets of blood fell down into the sink, staining the clear water the shade of pink topaz, and Buffy stared hollowly at her reflection. Big dark eyes that were too big for her face. Mouth that trembled sometimes when she tried to speak honestly about herself. Hands that had bruised his skin so that she could see her fingertips darkly paining his body when she fucked him raw.

There was something within her that was not right. Something within her that could break the ones she loved. Something dark, and impure, and tainting. Something that could spit out awful words and make men believe them to the point of self-destruction.

I guess a Slayer is really just a killer after all.

She knew how to disembowel a demon with just a flick of her wrist and the proper weaponry. She knew how to save the world with the sacrifice of everything she held dear. She knew how to make lovely men crumble with just a few harshly chosen words and a distant, hollow expression.

But she did not know if she had the capacity for salvation.

A strangled moan came from her bedroom and Buffy flinched, turned away. This was the mess that she had made. The ravaged, gorgeous creature tossing and turning, tangled up in the bedsheets she'd only let him slip into a couple of rare occasions.

With numb fingers, Buffy replaced the first-aid kit in the medicine cabinet and took one last glance in the mirror. One more cursory examination of the face that had brought Spike to his knees. She brushed her hand through her hair, and then stared down at her hand. A strangled laugh escaped her throat as she stared at her palm.

Her first gray hair.

*****

(end part twelve)

*****



Chapter Thirteen: Fallout

None of them said a word.

Impossible. There was nothing to say. Nothing to do. There was no possible reaction, no way in the world to respond to this. None of them moved. None of them spoke. None of them looked at each other. It was awkward and awful, and they were all dying for someone to break this terrible silence, but none of them quite knew how.

And so Buffy's words just hung there in the air, and none of them could chase them away.

"There's something I have to tell you. Something that's going to come as a shock. It's about.... God, there's no easy way to say it, so I'm just going to say it. It's Spike. He has a soul."

A soul.

Dawn was crying. Softly, so that none of them would hear her, but they all knew anyway. She tried to hide her tears behind her hand, tried to cover her face with her hair so that no one else would see, but it was pointless. And she didn't know why she was crying, but the tears came nonetheless.

Giles had turned his back on them. Glasses in his shaking hand, his eyes wide and shocked, staring at nothing and everything all at once. Buffy didn't want to see him like this. She wanted him to have the answers. Wanted him to look at her and nod his head, and give her an explanation and a reason. He should be reciting facts and taking the pain out of all of this, and instead, Giles offered nothing. Proposed nothing.

Anya was the first one to act. Abruptly, she stood up and pushed her chair out of her way. Muttered some kind of excuse about having to make a business call or that she thought she heard the delivery bell ring, but everyone knew that it was a lie. She looked troubled, confused. Shattered. Xander stared after her, his hands open and his eyes pained, but he couldn't move to go after her.

He just couldn't move at all.

"Holy Jesus," Xander muttered under his breath, finally interrupting the dreadful silence. "How on earth did he.... I mean, was it a curse?"

Fingernails digging into her palms, Buffy shook her head. "No. It wasn't a curse. It was a.... It was a choice. It was why he left town."

Abruptly, Giles turned his head and stared at her. "That's impossible."

She shrugged. "That's Spike. He doesn't know the meaning of the word 'impossible.'"

Giles's bark of laughter was drier than the Sahara and more humorless than a funeral. "Be that as it may, Buffy, there is absolutely no way that Spike could have done such a thing. You must be mistaken, or he must be lying, or...."

"She's not lying."

Willow was standing in the shadows, apart from the group. She looked at none of them as she spoke, even when they all turned their heads to stare at her. Instead, she just wrapped her arms tightly around herself and shuffled her feet, uncomfortable in the spotlight. "It was his decision. He did it.... He did it for Buffy."

"How do you know that?" Dawn asked.

"I saw him," she said simply. "I saw him, and I knew. I could feel it."

"Why didn't you tell me?" Buffy whispered, and Willow flinched at the note of betrayal in her friend's voice. But all she could do was shake her head.

"It wasn't my secret to share."

The silence descended again, thick and impenetrable, as all of them tried to grasp the meaning of what had been said and what had been done. None of them could look at Buffy. After all, she was the cause of all of this. Vampires were not supposed to do this sort of thing. They were supposed to kill and hunt and not give a damn as to the consequences. And yet, there was Spike.

And yet, there was Buffy.

"Where is he now?" Giles asked softly.

"At my house," Buffy answered. "He's sleeping. I think... I think he's very tired. It was a difficult night. It was.... Everything's very difficult right now."

None of them could really object to the truth of that.

"How did you find out?" Xander asked, and Buffy turned her head to look at Giles.

"That's the other thing I needed to tell you. Last night, there was.... There were some strange things. The girl who was supposed to rise? Well, she rose. The problem was, she also.... She had a...."

"A soul," Giles supplied softly, and she averted her eyes. Some words hurt too much to speak or hear.

"Right. And there was a man. A vampire. He did it to her. Gave her that... and made her try to kill me. And he was strong. Really, really strong. He gave me a name, Drake Lucas, but I don't think it's his real name. But he knew things. He knew about Spike, and.... It doesn't look good."

"I'll look through the books, Buffy," he promised. "And I won't look just for information on our new friend."

She smiled at him gratefully, because through it all, Giles always understood.

Thank God somebody does, because oh, I don't understand this at all.

She could see it on all of their faces. The confusion. The disbelief. There were tears drying on her little sister's freckled face, and Anya had been so disturbed that she'd had to run away. Giles's hand shook as he held his glasses, and Willow, off in the shadows, looked pale and small. So very small. And Buffy knew that she had to look the same way. Just a pale girl, frightened and uncertain, all because of....

All because of her.

When she left him this morning, he'd been fast asleep. Buried under layers of quilts, his weary head resting on mountains of fluffy pillows. She'd stared at him for a moment, unable to touch him, unable to move. He was talking in his sleep. Softly, too softly for her to decipher anything, but still. Talking. The way that Spike always had. But instead of slurring out nasty things, his face all slack with desire as he hummed and twisted in his erotic dreams, he'd whimpered and trembled.

All because....

Slowly, Dawn lifted her eyes from the table and looked at her sister. She was startled by what she saw. Just a day earlier, there had been this light, this radiance about her. A glow that seemed incandescent and untouchable. All summer long, Buffy had laughed and fought and taken glorious photographs. She'd planted pink flamingos in the front lawn and teased her friends with sparklers and puns. But now, Buffy was dressed in black, slender and pale as ash.

She looked like she'd just crawled out of her grave again.

Dawn did not say a word. Instead, she slowly rose from the table and walked to her sister. Touched her hair, touched her cheek, and frowned at her. "Buffy? Are you--"

But Buffy just turned on her heel and walked out of the room.



The instant Buffy entered the training room, she slumped against the door. Closed her eyes oh-so-tightly and concentrated on the simple task of breathing. In and out. In and out. Calm. Be very, very calm and so very, very still. She tried to remember all of those little meditation techniques Willow and Giles had tried to teach her over the years. Anything to keep her heart from pounding. Anything to keep these thoughts....

The only way I could touch him last night was if he was sleeping and did not know about it.

And then Buffy tried very hard not to start crying.

She could not stay in that room with them any longer. It had hurt too much to look around at them and see the looks on their faces. Those uncomprehending stares that said they had no idea how to deal with any of this, and she understood that all too well. Shock. Fear. Confusion. They had no idea that Spike would ever do something like that. That he was capable of something like this.

But she had known all along, and she'd pushed him past the edge and into madness.

"Buffy?"

Dawn stood in the doorway, slender and concerned. Worry rumpled her pretty face, and Buffy quickly pulled herself together. Pasted a smile on her face. Fixed her hair with her fingers. Hoped to God that she hadn't forgotten herself and cried. "Yeah, Dawnie?"

"Is it really.... I mean, did he really do that?" she asked uncertainly. "He really...."

Buffy closed her eyes. Swallowed hard. "Yeah," she croaked. "He really did. And Dawn, I know that this is hard, and if you're not okay with it, then it won't happen, but I'd really like to keep him here. At the house, with us. I don't think he needs to be on his own right now."

I'm terrified that if I let him out of my sight for too long, he'll kill himself or run away.

"I'll go back to the house," Dawn volunteered. "I want to talk to him. Just talking. I think... I think I owe him an apology, Buffy."

Buffy flinched. "Dawn, this isn't your fault."

A sad little smile fluttered across the girl's face. "It doesn't mean that I'm still not sorry." She turned to go, and then paused for a second, a frown crossing her face. "Buffy? Are you sure you're all right?"

No. Buffy was far from all right. She'd broken the love of her life, and she had no idea how to fix him. No idea whatsoever. Weakly, she smiled at Dawn. "I'm fine."

She'd be just fine.

*****

There were things to do.

Everything was very busy. Yes. Very busy, indeed. She had receipts to file, and there was new merchandise that needed to be put out. And she had that new display that she needed to set up, because school had started back up again and there was nothing quite like a bunch of angry teenagers to necessitate the need for a good hex-sale. Telephone calls to make. Business deals to negotiate. There's that ad she wanted to put in the paper heralding the sale on toad's eye, and she needed to call Susan over at the alterations shop, and--

And Spike has a soul.

Anya shuddered, brought her hands to her head. No. She was not going to think about that, because there was nothing to think about. That was a detail that she could not contemplate. Not when she had that Versace suit with the tear in the hem that needed to be fixed, and not when she needed to call Mrs. Wagner and tell her that her mummified gerbils had arrived, and Anya could not forget that--

That Spike has a soul.

Oh, balls.

The supply room was silent and empty. Just the slow pitter-patter of drizzling rain as it fell from the heavens and onto the Magic Box's new roof. Anya gripped the edge of the shelf, closed her eyes, and tried to keep her knees from buckling. Everything was too much. It was too much to grasp, too much to manage, because Spike had done something impossible and beautiful, and she....

And she was a vengeance demon.

But not really. I mean, not really. Not anymore. Oh, certainly, I carry the title and I might have turned Mrs. Faulkner's ex-husband into a dingo for a couple of days, but I'm not really a vengeance demon. Even if D'Hoffryn keeps calling me and leaving me messages about quotas and I really am still a demon, and Spike has a soul. A soul.

What does that say about me?

Slowly, Anya opened her eyes. Swallowed and tasted the bitter promise of vomit in the back of her throat. There was a mirror across from her. Dark and dirty, and she really ought to clean it off and sell it, but that was not important at the moment. What was important was the reflection she saw. A pretty woman, dressed immaculately in tailored Anne Klein, her smooth chestnut hair cut in stylish layers, and a dark pendant dangling around her neck.

It did not matter how many different colors she dyed her hair. Did not matter if she dressed herself in funny, frilly dresses or sharp business suits. Because there was something deeply, deeply wrong with her. Something that was sour and rotten. Something that had made a Very Bad Decision that had changed her life forever, and she knew that now. A soulless, evil creature had made the decision to turn himself into something good, and Anya had made the decision to murder and kill. To maim and destroy.

Anya hated to cry, but she felt so lost and bewildered and she did not know what else to do.

I can pretend all that I want that I'm normal. I can pretend that I didn't mess up. But it doesn't change the fact that I can smell the need for vengeance whenever I walk up and down these streets, or that I dream about wreaking havoc on this town, or that even though my heart cries out for Xander, a pretty good part of me still wants to eviscerate him. I'm not a good woman. I'm not a woman at all.

"Shh, An. It's all right. Don't cry."

The sound of Xander's soft voice in her ear. The feel of his warm hand on her shoulder. That knowledge that he loved her like she'd once loved murder. And all of it compounded by the knowledge that when she falls asleep tonight, she'll dream about killing him, and it will be delicious.

But for now, she buried her face in the crook of his neck, and let herself cry for everything she would never be.



Giles could still the exact moment when he first loved Buffy.

It was night. Quiet, parked in front of her house. Her eyes downcast, her hair disheveled and damp around her face. Fresh from her first battle with Angelus, and terribly distraught. But it was a gentle sort of sorrow, something she kept tightly wrapped up under her pale, wet skin. It was then that he knew she was no longer a girl. No longer a child, but a woman. A woman who'd had her heart broken for the very first time.

To this day, he could never quite stand to see her like that.

Buffy moved in a flash of metal, her leg extended perfectly as she sparred with him. Her hair whipped and flew around her face as she lashed out, sweat beaded on her face as she grunted and hissed, moving around him with a catlike sense of grace. Every motion was perfect, flawless, copied from a textbook, but imbued with a passion and fervor that was astonishing.

Carefully, Giles stepped out of her path as she spun around and thrust the sword at him. His eyes scanned her body up and down, silently noting her mistakes as she parried and danced. She was being careless. Distracted. She always fought with passion; it kept her alive. But this.... She was going to die if she kept this up. She was sloppy.

She was furious.

"Come on, Giles," she panted, turning and thrusting the sword at him. "You're holding back. Give it to me. Just do it."

Swiftly, Giles raised his own sword to block her next move. Too easy. She was giving up too easily. "Perhaps a little restraint might benefit you," he suggested.

Her only answer was another grunt and a loose kick in his direction. Calmly, Giles dropped his weapon and picked up her foot in his hand, twisting her leg hard enough to make her cry out in pain. When she dropped to the mats, Giles knelt down, picked up his weapon, and pointed it at her throat. "Halt," he said softly. "Now, do you care to tell me where you went wrong?"

She glared at him. "I wasn't paying attention."

He nodded. "Very good," he said, "though that's not all of it. Tell me what else."

"There was nothing else. Let me up, and we'll try again."

"You're angry."

When dealing with Buffy Summers in this particular state of mind, the subtleties were key. The clench of a jaw. The twitch of a vein in her forehead. Simple things like that revealed everything. There were dark circles under her eyes that no amount of foundation could mask. "I told you already, Giles. I don't want to talk about it. Let's just get back to training."

Instead, Giles just pressed the point of the sword closer to her skin. "There is no point in training you in this condition. Tell me why you're angry."

Buffy narrowed her eyes at him, and he could feel her seething. Could feel the way that she hated. "It doesn't matter. Drop it."

"Are you angry with Spike?"

A desperate noise that might've been considered a laugh escaped her throat, and Buffy looked away. "That's the stupidest.... How can I be mad at him? After what he did...."

"It doesn't matter what he did right, or what he did wrong," he said softly. "The fact of the matter is that he's changed. You fell in love with him, Buffy, before you found out about... this. And now, he's come back different. Irrevocably changed. It doesn't matter if he changed for the better or for the worse; change is difficult to accept, and your anger would be understandable. The Spike you loved is gone, and--"

"It's still him," she whispered, and Giles cocked his head at her, frowning. She swallowed hard, trying to keep that brittle resolve of hers up, but he could see. The walls were crumbling. "That's the kicker. It's still Spike. Hurt, and in pain, and absolutely miserable, but.... But it's still him." Suddenly, she lashed out her leg and kicked the sword away from her throat. "I'm not mad at Spike, Giles. I'm mad at me."

Startled, he blinked at her. "Why, Buffy, what on earth...?"

In one swift motion, she was on her feet and glaring at him. "Remember how things were when Angel lost his soul?" she asked. "The way that he changed? Everything was different. He said those horrible things to me, and he did all of those.... He hurt me. And he hated me. When he lost his soul, he fell out of love with me. Angel and Angelus were night and day. Angelus was a monster. But Spike.... It's completely different. And if I'd realized that before, then none of this would've happened."

"Is that what you really want?" he asked. "Buffy, I know that you loved him before you found out about all of this, but doesn't this make things.... I don't know...."

"Easier?" Buffy threw her head back and barked out a laugh, so sour that it sounded like vinegar. "For who, Giles? For me? Oh, sure. All those pesky problems just go up in smoke. I don't have to worry that he'll ever try to kill me, because he can't bring himself to touch me. No more fears that he'll try to hurt me again, because, hey! He can't even bear it when I tell him that I love him. So, yeah, everything's just peachy-keen in Buffy-land, and who gives a rat's ass that Spike's lying in bed right now, crying in his fucking sleep?"

She was screaming at the top of her lungs. Giles doubted if she even noticed the tears running down her cheeks. He barely even noticed the way that his own stomach was knotting up with pain and turmoil, and, Lord help him, it wasn't just sympathy for her.

It was sympathy for the devil himself.

"Buffy," he said softly, but she wasn't listening.

"And to top it all off, he did it for me. Because he thought that I could never love him without a soul. Because that's what I led him to believe. I told him things, Giles, I told him so many awful things. I beat the shit out of him too many times to count. I called him.... I called him horrible things. I told him that he really didn't love me, and he loved me so much. He loves me so fucking much."

"Buffy, you didn't know. You couldn't have known--"

"Oh, but I knew it all along," she spat. She was a thunderstorm, a blur of motion. Running her fingers through her hair, pacing back and forth. Giles remained very still, watching her carefully. "See, that's the worst part. I knew that he loved me all along, and I hated him for it. Because Angel couldn't love me that way. When he lost his soul, Angel couldn't...."

Pained, Giles turned his head and reached out to her. "Oh, Buffy...."

She jerked her shoulder away, stepped out of touch. "No. I hated him for loving me. I denied it all along, and then when I finally realized it, finally accepted it, it was too late for him. And now, everything's just even worse, because I looked at him last night, and I knew.... I just knew that he loved me more than I ever thought imaginable. And I can't.... I can't save him...."

She was disintegrating into tears before his very eyes. Buffy, falling to pieces. Her shoulders shook with sobs as she hung her head and covered her face with her hands. Tears ran down her face, and when she could not bear the weight of her grief anymore, Giles was there.

He was there.



As all of this raged on around her, Willow simply returned to work.

She could feel them all in the rooms around her. Anya's confusion, Xander's solace. Giles's bewilderment and Buffy's bright, burning anguish. It was impossible not to feel. But there was nothing she could do about it. And God help her, but she just wanted to do something. Anything. Conjure up some kind of balm, chant a spell, do something that would make all of this a little bit easier, and it would just never end, would it?

What does it mean that Spike made a mistake and tried to fix it, while I made a mistake and tried to destroy the world?

So Willow just kept stacking books, and tried not to think about it.

The little cluster of bells suddenly jingled from the entrance, and Willow was exceedingly grateful for the distraction. Relieved, she sighed and turned her head to smile at the pudgy, middle-aged man who walked in the door. "Welcome to the Magic Box, is there anything I can help you find?"

The man smiled at her in return. "Actually, there is," he said. "I'm new in town. Practicing warlock, trying to stock up on some basic supplies. You know how it is. In any case, I'd heard from a good friend that this place would probably have what I was looking for."

Willow grinned at him, gave him that perky look that Anya always projected whenever she was helping customers. "Absolutely! We're the best darn magic shop in town. What are you looking for?"

The man just smiled at her. "Actually, I was looking for information on raising the dead."

Willow froze.



Chapter Fourteen: Downpour

Willow could not move. It was like she was frozen in this terrible position, staring at this man who just kept grinning at her like a wolf contemplating its prey. There was a sour taste in the back of her throat and a rumble in her tummy that made her feel nauseous. "I'm sorry," she said weakly. "I must've.... I thought you said you were looking into raising the dead."

The man's smile only broadened. "But I am. And I heard that this was the place to find such information. In fact, Miss Rosenberg, I was told that you were the girl to see if I wanted some information on the matter."

Willow flinched and averted her eyes. Something was very, very wrong here. She could feel it all around her. Bad magic, dark magic, and a rage that was incomprehensible. Rage that she'd tasted only once in her life.

This was how it felt when she killed Warren.

"No," she said. "I don't know who told you that, but they're wrong. We don't carry anything on resurrections, and I don't do that sort of thing."

"Not anymore, you mean," the man said. He took a step closer to her, and she instantly compensated by stepping away. He just kept grinning. "But once upon a time, you knew exactly how to do it, didn't you? You had the power, and you knew how to use it. You still have the power, don't you, little witch?"

"No." Her voice sounded weaker; oh God, where were the others? "I don't.... Who are you?"

The man clucked his tongue. "How rude of me. I know your name, and yet you don't know mine. I'm Martin Glaze. Now, tell me, Willow, how does one raise the dead? Must I slaughter an innocent creature like you did? Should I slit its throat and wear its blood? Does it have to be a fawn, or will a different sort of animal do the trick?"

She couldn't breathe. The air around her was thicker than water, and she was drowning. Blindly, Willow grabbed at the wall for support as Martin Glaze moved ever closer, and then she was backed up against a wall, trying to keep her heart from pounding. "I think you should leave," she whispered.

"Oh, but I haven't got what I came for...."

"You heard her. Get out."

Anya had heard nothing of the conversation up to this point, but she didn't need to hear a word. She'd felt it in the stockroom. Felt it burn and boil inside her blood, hiss and howl in her brain. Vengeance. The man reeked of it. And this was no ordinary call for revenge. This man sought vengeance against the entire world.

Calmly, Anya took another step closer and shot a glance in Willow's direction. The redhead was plastered against the wall, her eyes closed and her face pale. Sweat beaded across her brow, and Anya knew that she could feel it, too. "Get away from her," Anya ordered. "This is my shop. My property. If you're harassing my employees, then you need to leave."

The man turned that empty, dead smile on her. "But I'm a paying customer," he said smoothly. He had the kind of voice that spoke of shady business deals and dark secrecy. "I came here looking for assistance."

"We have nothing here for you."

"Is that so, Anyanka?" When he said her full name, Anya felt her blood go cold. The hair on her arms rose, and she could feel gooseflesh itch across her skin. "This is your line of work, after all. If Miss Rosenberg won't assist me, then certainly I can come to you. After all, you've come out of retirement, haven't you?"

"I don't do that kind of business," she said coldly. "Not for your type. And I don't exactly take kindly to men who call on me for my services."

"But I am your type. I come seeking vengeance, Anyanka. You're obligated to assist me."

A few gliding steps and the man was standing right in front of her. Anya did not like what she saw. She trusted her eyes and her ears, her primal senses, and she could tell point blank that this man was Very Bad News. He would hurt and maim and kill and not think twice about it. When he turned that oily smile on her, she wanted to disappear. "But you haven't been meeting your obligations recently, have you? You've been slacking off on the job. Why bother taking up your old profession if you won't help those who need you? I need blood. You need me."

"And you need to back the fuck away from her before I have to get violent," Buffy snapped.

In one swift motion, she grabbed the man by his collar and shoved him across the room. Suddenly, Xander was there and Giles, too, and all three of them made a protective barrier around them. Anya barely registered Xander's warm hand on her shoulder. Everything felt hazy, like the air was full of smoke. She was having trouble breathing.

The man just laughed and grinned at her. "Ah, the Slayer," he said. "Always up for a round of crash and bash, aren't you? No need. I'll go. I don't need your assistance, anyway. I've got my own stock set up. The blood of four will open the door."

"Great," Buffy said. "Now why don't you open the door and leave?"

"I just came with a message from Mr. Lucas," he said. Buffy's eyes snapped to his, and he smiled at her. "That's right, Miss Summers. He wanted you to know that last night, your vampire dreamed of raping you. He dreamt of forcing you to the bathroom floor and taking, taking, taking, and when he woke up, he was hard and-"

But he did not get to finish his sentence, because Giles punched him in the face.

The man staggered backwards, and Giles stood over him with a glare that made Anya wonder just who Rupert Giles used to be. "Get out," he said coldly. "And if you know what's best for you, you won't return."

All he did was smile. "So sorry to disrupt your business. Have a lovely day."

Without another word, Martin Glaze gave them all a smile, turned on his heel, and walked out the door.

Buffy did not open her eyes until he was gone.



They sat on the steps for a very long time and did not say a word.

Understood that, he did. Understood everything the moment Dawn staggered up the front walk and gave him those awkward, wary eyes of her. Eyes that knew, and told him everything. There were tearstains on her pretty face, and in the pale gray light of the rainy afternoon, she looked absolutely terrified. Just stood there under the shade of her umbrella and stared at him, until Spike gave her a faltering smile and called her his bit.

And then she'd thrown her arms around him and they just stayed that way for a good, long while.

Good. Yeah, it was good. Felt nice, just to be surrounded in her fresh-girl scent, tainted by the cigarettes he'd been smoking all morning long. If Spike closed his eyes, he could pretend that it was last summer. Last summer, when everything had been so awful and miserable, and Dawn would hug him at strange intervals just because she'd needed a bit of love. And he'd needed it, too. Needed her hugs, because she smelled like Buffy.

But now, when he smelled that Summers-scent all hot under her freckled skin, Spike only felt worse.

"I'm sorry."

Well, that was unexpected. Spike blinked, turned his head and looked at her. She did not return his gaze. "What's that about, love? Don't got anything to be sorry about, you do."

She sniffled; he supposed that she must have been crying again. Dammit; he hadn't noticed. Got all lost inside himself and forgot to pay attention. "Yes, I do," she said. "I spent all summer trying to hate you. And I tried really hard at it, too. But I couldn't, because I still loved you."

A wry smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. "So, you're sorry that you couldn't get up enough hate for your old pal Spike?"

The look that she gave him was one of absolute mortification. "No!" she protested. "God, Spike. Don't tell me that you're going to start getting all low-self-esteemy on me now, just because you have a...."

"A soul, pet," he said gently. "That's what I've got. Don't be so much like your sis that you can't say the word."

Wasn't surprising, this hesitance. She was a great deal like her sister, even though she always tried so hard to separate herself from her older sibling. But when Buffy had pulled herself from the bed this morning, she had turned on her side and kissed him. Told him that she loved him. Told him to stay here, not to leave, that she'd be back in a little while. And then she'd asked his permission to tell them about the soul. Only she couldn't say the word.

And she'd never looked him in the eyes.

So here was Dawn, his little bit, sitting here on the steps beside him. Not looking at him. She tugged at her lower lip with her teeth, and sighed. "I'm sorry that I tried to hate you, Spike. I'm so sorry. Because I meant what I told you at the crypt the other day. You were my best friend. You still are. I just couldn't...." Another teardrop sluiced down her cheek, and Spike sighed. Ached to wrap his arms around her, tell her that everything would be all right.

But he didn't want to make any promises he couldn't keep.

Instead, he just crooked his finger and brushed the tears off her face. "Ah, now. None of that, bit. Had every right to try and hate me, you did. Still do. Did some terrible, nasty things to you and the Slayer, even though I love my girls more than anything on this godforsaken planet."

Spike didn't see the slap coming, though he should've. Those Summers girls, oh, how he loved them.

Dawn glared at him with venomous, hurt eyes, and Spike was impressed by the way his cheek stung. "Don't say things like that!" she cried. "You always loved this planet, Spike. Don't tell me that you hate it now, just because you have a stupid soul." For a terrible moment, he was afraid that she might start crying again, but instead, her voice went all soft and whispery. "Has everything changed now? Are you completely different? Is it like it was with--"

"Don't even say that," Spike growled. "Not like it was with him, not at all. Still me, I am. Just a fucked-up version of me. Well, even more fucked-up, as the case may be. And that's the rub, isn't it? Went off to go get a soul, thinking it'd fix everything up right and proper, and I'd be good enough for your big sis. And instead, I'm sitting on her front steps and things haven't changed a bit. Not a damn bit."

A warm little finger suddenly trailed down his cheek, and there were Dawn's big hazel eyes, all wide with worry. "Oh, Spike."

He was so damn tired of crying.

Tired. Good word, that one. Tired of everything. Tired of the way that everything that once felt good now hurt like the dickens. Everything was so fucking confusing, and Spike didn't have a clue as to what he was supposed to do about any of this. He'd gotten a soul to please her, and instead, it seemed to just push her away. Got the soul to make him better, and instead, it just made him worse. He'd gone to Africa looking for answers.

And all he had were questions.

Dawn sighed, pulled him in close and wrapped her arms around him. And he let her, because God, he'd missed her. "I'm glad you didn't change," she said. "I like you just the way you are. But just remember -- if you hurt my sister, I will totally kick your scrawny white ass all over Sunnydale."

For the first time in what felt like forever, Spike smiled and meant it.

When he pulled away, he gave her that grin. Tugged at a handful of her glossy hair. "And you'd do well to remember that just 'cause I've got a soul don't mean I won't rip off that boy's head if he breaks my bit's heart," he said slyly. "Don't think I didn't see the two of you last night. All cozy and cuddly on the sofa." He clucked his tongue at her. "Naughty niblet."

Dawn turned pink. "There was nothing naughty! No naughtiness! We just fell asleep. Besides, I don't need to hear it from you. Buffy already read me the riot act about how boys are icky before she left this afternoon."

"Damn right." Spike then nudged her with his elbow. "Hand me my smokes, pidge, and tell me all about your lad. Grown up without me, you have."

Ah, there was that smile. That big, goofy Dawn Summers grin that was all her own. She shoved at him playfully and passed him his cigarettes. "Shut up. He's just a guy. A really, really nice guy, but a guy nonetheless." But the look on her face said that he was more than "just a guy." The girl was all aglow. A sharp pang of affection ripped through him, and Spike had sudden difficulty lighting his cigarette.

Loved her so much that if her sister didn't do him in, then this one would.

The purr of a motor interrupted his thoughts, and both of them turned their heads as a shiny red Honda pulled into the driveway. The way that Dawn's face lit up at the sight of the car told him exactly who had come a-calling. "That's Trey," she grinned. "I kind of had ulterior motives when I came back. Trey said he'd stop by around four and we'd go to the movies, and--" Suddenly, she paled. "Oh my God. It's all rainy, and my face is all teary, and these boots don't really match this top, and--"

Spike sighed and crushed out his cigarette under his boot. "Go inside and wash up," he said. "Change your clothes a dozen times, whatever it is you silly birds do whenever there's a boy involved. I'll take care of the lad, right?"

She gave him a grateful look and stood up, rushing for the door. Spike chuckled after her, and then turned his attention to the tall, dark-skinned boy running through the rain towards the front porch. Good -- little time alone with the lad was just what he wanted. Had to size him up, make sure he had a pulse and wouldn't try to corrupt his girl.

Boy seemed pleasant enough. Extended his hand, gave him a grin that had probably melted a dozen girls' hearts. Had a pair of wire-rimmed glasses on his nose and a good, solid handshake. "Hey, I don't think we've met yet," he said. "I'm Trey Baldwin. Just moved into town a couple of weeks ago."

Spike nodded at him, and then reached down for another cigarette. "Spike."

Trey nodded. "You're Buffy's boyfriend?"

Oh, what a loaded question. She'd told him she loved him. Kept him in her bed, gave him kisses and comfort, but as far as their relationship went? It'd always be a complicated mess, soul or no soul. He just smiled tightly. "Something like that. Friend of Dawn's. Take it you're here to see her, is that right?"

When the boy grinned, Spike knew. Could read that look a mile away. This was the look of a man enthralled. Didn't quite know if this was love yet, but Trey's eyes lit up just as Dawn's had earlier. "Yeah," he smiled. "She around?"

"She'll be down in a bit. Something I've got to talk to you about, first."

Before Trey could say anything else, Spike grabbed the boy's shirt in his fist and leaned in close. "You break my bit's heart and I'll rip your lungs out through your eye sockets," Spike hissed. "I'll hurt you so bad you'll have to revise your definition of the word 'pain.' And trust me, mate, I've had a lot of practice in the torture department."

Spike shoved the boy backward and gave him a dazzling grin. "Well, I feel better. Care for a cuppa while we're waiting, then?"

Trey didn't say a word; he just stared at Spike with wide, terrified eyes and made an barely audible "squeak."

Fortunately, Dawn came to his rescue. She bounded through the door with her hair all knotted up at the back of her head, wearing a black slip-dress that looked vaguely familiar (and probably came from Buffy's closet) and a pair of boots that made her look entirely too old for fresh-out-of-fifteen. "All right!" she chirped, looping her arm through Trey's. "We'll be back around seven. Spike, tell Buffy not to worry and that I'm not going to see an R-rated movie, and I've got my cell phone on me if she wigs. I'll see you later!"

Spike just waved at her as the boy stared at him in absolute horror while Dawn carted him off towards the car. He grinned. Still got it.

But his smile faded when he saw the way that Dawn and Trey were looking at each other. All enamored and full of young love-to-be. Dangerous stuff, love. Spike knew that one well. Remembered the way that the boy's hand had cupped Dawn's pale knee last night, the way that her eyes went all starry when he brought the subject up. The little bit was all grown up, and just waiting to get her heart crushed to smithereens.

Be careful, sweetbreads. Don't let your heart run away with itself. Love him if you must, but don't you love him too much. Don't get so swept away that you can't find your way back to earth.

Don't end up like me.

As the car pulled away from the curb, Dawn stared out the passenger window at the vampire standing underneath the porch. Still draped in his leather, still wreathed in his cigarette smoke. It didn't matter that he now radiated pain and was made heavy with sorrow. Underneath all of the grief and regret, she could still feel him. The same guy who'd taught her how to cheat at poker and taught her about punk music. The same guy who loved her and her sister beyond all logic or reason.

He was still Spike.

Trey swallowed hard. "You know, your sister's boyfriend is kind of scary."

Dawn smiled. "I know."



Buffy had not slept at all the night before.

Couldn't sleep. Not when Spike was curled up beside her, shaking and moaning his way through nightmares. He'd slept on his side, his back to her, taking up as little space as possible, so she just pressed herself against his back and felt him shiver and shudder all through the night. Had to stay awake for him. She'd been terrified that she might accidentally fall asleep and he would be gone. And besides that, she was so overwhelmed, so absolutely thrown, that sleep was an impossibility.

She was tired. Exhausted, even. She was angry, and confused, and hurt. Buffy had a million questions and not a single answer for any of them. The last twenty-four hours were an emotional roller-coaster, and she had a sinking feeling that the ride had only just begun.

She could not cope with all of this, so she was exceedingly grateful to the opportunity to just push it all to the back of her mind and deal with Martin Glaze.

"Tell me what you've got, Will," Buffy said as she paced back and forth behind her friend.

Willow frowned, typed in a few more words into the search engine. "Well, we've shot down lie number one," she muttered. "Apparently, Martin Glaze isn't as new in town as he claimed. He lived in Sunnydale for about four years, but in 1995, he moved to Boston. According to the DMV, he just re-applied for his California driver's license only a week ago."

"Why on earth would anyone ever want to leave Sunnydale?" Xander asked, and then he fake-winced. "Oh, right. Because of all the earth-shaking evil and apocalypse. How could I forget?"

"I don't know, Marty seemed like the kind of guy who'd be attracted to that sort of thing," Buffy said. "Maybe he had a bad magic experience. You know, the Hellmouth went all wonky on him or something."

But Willow frowned and shook her head. "He didn't feel like a magic kind of guy," she said. "I mean, yeah, there were some dark mojo vibes about him, but not in a heavy way, you know? I got the impression that either he was really inexperienced or they weren't his vibes."

"Oh, they weren't his vibes," Anya said. "I could tell. He was all about the vengeance, but he didn't have any natural magical affinity."

"Well, if Mr. Glaze couldn't have come to these conclusions about us through his own magical talents, or lack thereof, then I think it's safe to assume that our mysterious Mr. Lucas gave him all of his information," Giles muttered. He looked away from a dusty text long enough to meet Buffy's eyes. "After all, you said that he had rather private information about both you and Spike last night."

"And then it's probably also safe to assume that Drake's responsible for the extra-creepy photograph," she said. "Great. So, we've got a vampire with either a freaky sort of sixth sense or the best informants money can buy, plus a total freak-head with a thirst for vengeance against all humanity. And they're working together. Oh, this is going to be fun."

"Oh, this isn't good," Willow said suddenly, and Buffy turned her attention to the redhead and her laptop. "I did a search on Martin Glaze's name through the Sunnydale News & Courier and found out why he left Sunnydale seven years ago. Turns out that he had a son, Brandon. He died of leukemia."

"The pain was too much for him," Giles said softly, and Buffy winced. God, she knew that feeling. Remembered it all too well. In those first awful weeks after her mother's death, Buffy had wanted to leave the house in the worst of ways. Wanted to get away from how everything still smelled like her mom's perfume. Everything was painted in memory, too bright and too vivid.

"And that explains why he was asking about resurrection," Anya murmured. "His anger.... He wants vengeance for the death of his son. That's why it felt so unfocused. He doesn't know who he's angry at, but believe me, he's definitely more than just a little pissed off. He wants to bring his son back to life."

Clawing at the dirt. Everything is harsh. Everything is bright and dark and terrible. Cold. So cold. Everything is loud and awful and silent. Has to get out, has to breathe. Has to get out of this place. Climb out of this hell and then she'll be back in heaven, but when she gets into the moonlight, she knows that she'll never get back.

She flinched. Closed her eyes. "No," Buffy said. "No. He can't.... We can't let him do it. Not after what...."

"Buffy," Xander said softly, "it'll be all right. We won't let him do anything, all right? Besides, no more urns of Osiris. The ritual's gone; he won't find any information about it here. We sent him away, remember?"

She could feel her head pounding already. Resurrection. It was one of the dirtiest words she knew. "Willow," she murmured, "how old was Brandon Glaze when he died?"

Willow looked away. "Eight years old."

She could not let this happen. She could not let an eight-year-old boy be dragged out of heaven and thrown back into this world. She'd been twenty when it happened to her, and it had almost destroyed her. And God, how this kid must've suffered before. Ravaged by disease, finally released into some kind of sanctuary, only to be ripped out....

They never learn, do they? They just keep making the same mistakes, over and over again, and you just keep on protecting them. Give up everything for the world, and what does the world do in return? It takes. It just keeps on taking until there's nothing left.

Oh, Buffy was so very tired.



What the....

There was blood on his forehead. There was the smell of smoke and burning things. The airbag hadn't gone off. Everything hurt. The seatbelt hadn't held him right, and his neck hurt. His head hurt. Fuck, everything hurt. It all just hurt.

I didn't see it, I didn't see the car coming, but it was on the wrong side of the road. It was coming right for me.

There was an accident. There was metal crashing into metal, and he'd hit the brakes as hard as he could, but he couldn't avoid it. And then his head hit the windshield, and he couldn't see anymore. He heard things, fuzzy sounds. The hiss of the engine. The crunching of steel. He heard car doors opening and there was a girl's voice screaming beside him, and then the screaming went away and he fell asleep.

Dawn. Oh, God. Dawn.

Trey's eyes snapped open, but it was too late, and she was gone.

There was blood in his eyes, and he swiped at it. Felt sick and dizzy. There was the other car, right in front of him, but it was empty. Nobody home. And it was raining, and the passenger seat was empty. Dawn. She was gone. Taken away, removed. He'd heard her screaming. She was screaming his name, and he'd passed out. He'd failed her. Failed her.

"Dawn," he rasped hoarsely. Had to find her, had to get help. Clumsily, Trey reached for the seatbelt and unbuckled himself. As soon as he stumbled out of the car, he fell to his knees and vomited. Couldn't help it, his stomach hurt and he felt dazed and sick to his stomach. But then he felt a little better, and it didn't matter that he was kneeling in a dirty puddle, because the cold was good. The rain was good.

He could do this.

So he pulled himself to his feet and started to move. There was blood in his eyes and rain on his back, and he stumbled away from the site of the accident. Looked around at the dark that was falling all around him, and how long was he out? Didn't know, didn't matter. Had to find help. Had to find Dawn. Had to....

He walked. He tried to keep himself from falling. Kept himself moving. He walked up the front steps of the house and knocked on the door. Cried out for help. For anyone who was there. Beat on the door with his fists until it opened, and there stood the boyfriend. The one who'd threatened to kill him if....

"Spike," Trey gasped. "It's Dawn.... There was an accident, and she's gone, and I don't know what happened to her, and I lost her, and there was screaming, and I'm so sorry, and--" He felt himself sway and sob. "I'm so sorry, I don't know what happened, I'm so sorry, I'm so...."

Then Trey couldn't hold on any longer, and he burst into tears.



Chapter Fifteen: Sinking Ships

Spike? Are you home?

Dawn? What are you doing over here? Too late for you to be wandering around. Scare the witches, you will, and you know how terribly uppity and tight-assed they both are.

I left a note. Couldn't sleep. Not with.... Well, you saw it.

Yeah. I saw it. Repaired the robot, did they? Looks good as new.

It's not her.

No, love. It'll never be her.

But when you built it, you wanted it to be her.

That's cause I was a stupid bugger. Thinking I could replace your sis.... She's one of a kind, you know.

I know you're sorry for it.

Yeah. Right sorry I am, too. What of it?

They say that you're a bad man.

Yeah? They still say that? Well, that rather warms the old heart. Give me details.

Spike, stop it. I mean.... What does it mean that you knew that you couldn't replace Buffy with a machine, but they don't get that they can't?

What're you playing at, love?

They're doing all this stuff to protect the town. To protect me. But they don't get it. Buffy was the one who protected us. I mean, yeah, they've slain some vamps and done the whole save-the-town thing, and don't get me wrong, because you've been, like, super-vamp all summer, but....

But we're not her. Yeah. Thought of that a few times, myself. Problem is, she's....

You can say it, you know.

No, bit. I really.... I really can't.

She's dead. And now that she's gone.... What's going to happen to me? What's going to happen when the next big bad comes along and tries to take me away?

Ah, love. Don't worry your pretty head about it. Got your back, I do. Made her a promise. Made myself that same one. Gonna keep you safe, sweetbreads, so you just run on home and snuggle up for the night. I'll check on you in the morning. And don't cry, niblet. Breaks a poor bloke's heart to see a Summers woman in tears, remember?

Spike?

Yeah, Dawn?

Tell me you promise.

Promise.



Promises were made to be broken.

Dully, Spike replaced the phone back on its cradle, and then winced and ran a hand through his hair. Buffy's voice echoed through his head, reverberated like a death knell. Could still hear that twinge in her voice. That little tug that was empty and tired.

"Spike? Calm down, what happened? Are you all right? ... Wait, there was an accident? Is Dawn okay? ... Oh. ... Yeah. Just... make sure Trey's all bandaged up. We'll be home soon. ... Yeah, Spike. I'm fine. Don't worry about me. ... No, Spike. It's not your fault. I'm on my way. Love you."

And it was funny, and it was sad, but he could hear that note of resignation in there. That feeling that this was all she'd really expected. Just another bad deal in the life of Buffy Summers.

This was all she could expect from him.

The boy didn't look good. Didn't look good at all. Trey sat at the end of the table, hands folded in his lap, swaying back and forth and staring into space. Kid looked positively miserable.

"It's all my fault."

Yeah, Spike knew how the kid felt.

But the truth was, Spike really had no idea what he was supposed to do. If he really wanted to admit it, he'd have to say that he'd spent the better part of his life sliding through on charm and a hell of a lot of luck. Granted, some of that luck was better than other parts, but still. And living that kind of life pretty much meant that regrets didn't do a lot of good in the long run.

Spike didn't know how he was supposed to deal with it now that it was rearing its ugly head, and he certainly didn't know how he was supposed to help out this poor sap.

"Uh, right," Spike said. Awkwardly pushed the first aid kit in his direction. "Might want to bandage that up. Bleeding all over the place."

“I’m fine.” Trey did not move to pick up the kit, and Spike realized with a tinge of panic that he couldn’t let the kid bleed all over the dining room table. Fuck. He’d have to touch him. Have to get close to him.

He stood up a little clumsily and sat down in the chair next to Trey. The boy glared at Spike fiercely. “I told you, I’m fine. I’m not the one you need to be worrying about.”

“Well, you’re not going to do the bit a lick of good if you bleed to death,” Spike snapped. “Now, either you clean it up or I’ll do it. And let me tell you, mate, I’m not exactly known for my bedside technique.”

Reluctantly, Trey picked up the first aid kit and got out the antiseptic and began to clean the ugly gash on his forehead. All the while, Spike stared at him. He could smell the kid’s blood from here. Hot and fresh, come and get it. Nobody would have to know, right? Chip wouldn’t argue the point, and Christ, how long had it been since he’d tasted—

Ah, fuck. Fuck all. Couldn’t, wouldn’t, shouldn’t. Spike abruptly turned his head away and started tapping his fingers on the dining room table. Fidgeting, his old standby. “So, want to tell me what the hell happened?”

“I don’t know what happened. Everything was fine. We were on our way to the movies. Dawn was laughing. And then suddenly, there was this car and it just came out of nowhere, man. Hit me dead on. I passed out, and then—“

Trey suddenly frowned, and Spike arched his eyebrow. “What? Come out with it.”

“There was something…. I could swear, I saw the other driver right before we made impact. And there was something really, really wrong with his face….” He shook his head. “I don’t know. It looked all bumpy. Guess that’s the concussion talking.”

Vampires. Great. Spike winced and ached for a cigarette. Seemed to fit right in with that poncer Drake’s agenda, didn’t it? Torment the Slayer, kick her crazy boyfriend around like a puppy, and then grab her sis for a good spot of emotional blackmail. Fun for one and all. “Well, that’s something, then,” he muttered to himself.

“Can’t believe I passed out,” Trey said. His voice was thick with anger and disgust. “What an asshole I am. If I’d just held on for a little longer, or if I’d been watching the road, or something, then Dawn—“

“Stop it,” Spike said. “Nothing you could’ve done differently. Can’t help that you got knocked in the head. This isn’t your fault. ‘Sides, all that matters is that we get her back, right? So just get yourself together. Buffy’ll be here soon.”

“Buffy?” Trey snorted. “What’s she going to do? We need to call the cops, we need to rally a search party or something, right?”

Oh, right. The boy was new to Sunnydale, wasn’t he? Had no idea the way that things worked around here. Well, Spike wasn’t in any position to tell him, now was he? Still, this was more of a headache than he’d thought possible. Spike reached in his coat pocket and grabbed his cigarettes. Fuck the rules; he was going to go insane (well, more insane) if this kept up. “Right, that’s a good idea. Ring up the cops, let them take care of it. Except that they won’t do squat. Not in this town.”

“So, what? We all just sit around here while Dawn gets….”

“No,” Spike snapped. “We wait until Buffy and the others get home. Then we’ll figure out where to go from there. Not much else we can do.”

“Well, there has to be something!” Trey exclaimed. Spike gave him a wary eye as he took a drag from his cigarette. Boy was getting hysterical. Not a good sign. “I mean, Dawn’s in trouble, and all you can do is sit here and chain smoke! What the fuck?”

Spike leaned in close to the boy and glared at him. “Look, kid. You’re new in town, so I’ll hand you a bit of advice. Sunnydale’s not like other places. Rules work a bit differently here. And when things like this happen, police don’t do a lick of good. Just so happens that Dawn’s big sis knows how to handle these situations, so just cool your bloody jets and sit there like a good boy.”

Trey narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “What do you mean, Sunnydale’s not like other places?”

“Just what I said. Things are different here. And some of those things, you just can’t understand.”

“That’s some bullshit if I’ve ever—“

“Ever hear of vampires, kid?”

Trey burst into laughter. Loud, obnoxious laughter that grated at Spike’s frazzled nerves. “Oh, that’s rich,” he brayed. “Vampires. Bitey things that go bump in the night? Man, I knew you were crazy the minute I laid eyes on you, but—“

“Got bit, didn’t you?”

Trey froze. His hand fluttered to the small band-aid on his neck. “I don’t remember. Don’t remember what happened….”

“Yeah, you do,” Spike said. He gestured at the kid’s throat with his cigarette. “Got attacked, is what happened. Heard the story already. You went running through the cemetery at night and got bit. Ever wonder why that was? Why someone would do such a thing? And wasn’t there something wrong with that person’s face?”

Trey was suddenly very still. “There was something wrong with her face,” he whispered. “And those guys who hit us….?”

“Look a bit like this?”

When Spike vamped out, Trey jumped back in his chair. Eyes wide and huge, full of terror. “What the fuck?” he yelped, and Spike just kept his gaze steady. When the kid tried to look away, Spike’s hand lashed out and grabbed him by the chin. Forced him to keep on looking, buddy.

“See, if they looked like this, then that makes them vampires. Like me. And that means that police can’t save Dawn. Can’t stop them. Only one who can is Buffy. She’s the Slayer. The one and only. And you can tell yourself that all this is a fantasy, some sort of post-concussion hallucination, but it won’t change the facts, boy. Vampires are real. Deal with it.”

And then Spike realized that Trey was trembling, and he had to let him go very fast because suddenly, he felt like absolute shit. Slipped out of vampire face and right into absolute misery. Because the boy was terrified. Petrified of him. And God, he’d just fucked that up. Shouldn’t have told the kid like that. Bloody hell.

“Get away from me,” Trey whispered. “Get away.”

“I’m sorry,” Spike muttered. Winced, took a drag from his cigarette. “I won’t… I won’t hurt you, see? I’m not like the others…. I’m not….”

“No, he’s not like the others at all.”

Surprised, Spike turned around to see Giles standing in the doorway, his head tilted to the side with an odd expression on his face that Spike had never seen before. Not directed at him, at least. Almost like he was weighing something. Figuring something out. Interesting.

And then Buffy walked through the door, and Spike couldn’t help but feel it. Feel that love for her, that old, good love that just rose up inside of him and made it difficult to remember anything existed outside of her. Didn’t matter that she looked bedraggled and terribly tired. Looked beautiful, just like always.

I’ve failed you yet again, love.

Her eyes flicked over the dining room and then she pursed her pretty mouth into a frown. “What’s going on here?” she asked.

“Apparently, Spike was letting Trey in on our little Sunnydale secret,” Giles said.

“I’m sorry,” Spike said instantly. “It’s just…. Well, he wanted to call the cops.”

Buffy snorted. It was a bitter noise that didn’t sound good on her. “Yeah, because that’s always a good idea on the Hellmouth.”

“Hellmouth?” Trey asked uncertainly. He never took his eyes off of Spike, though Christ, Spike wished he would. Something about the way the boy looked at him….

Looked at him like he was a monster, and frankly, Spike didn’t need the reminder.

Giles stepped forward and put a hand on Buffy’s shoulder. “Why don’t you take Spike into the kitchen and fill him in on our new friend? I’ll see that Trey’s questions get answered.”

She gave him a grateful smile, and Giles sat down at the dining room table as Spike stood up. Trey just kept on staring, until Spike looked down at his feet. “Didn’t mean to frighten you,” he mumbled. “Just…. I’m sorry. Really, really sorry.”

Trey said nothing. All that was left was the fear.

It was all that was ever left.



Anya could not stand the quiet much longer.

It was annoying. Everyone had all of these thoughts in their head about Spike and Buffy and that creepy Glaze guy, and nobody was saying anything about it. Instead, they were all just sitting there, reading those boring textbooks like that would do a lick of good about any of this. She was desperate to talk about it. Desperate to make any kind of sense out of this entire mess. And now Dawn was gone and everything looked like it was really going in the crapper, and Willow was just pointing at books and yammering on endlessly about resurrection spells.

Willow furrowed her brow and looked down at the textbook in front of her. “There’s got to be something about that blood of four thing,” she muttered. “He wouldn’t have said it if he didn’t want us to find out about it. Which means that maybe we shouldn’t find out about it, because it’s totally a trap, but then we have to find out and—“

“Stop it,” Xander said. “You’re making my brain hurt more. Besides, we need all the information we can get. Knowledge good. Besides, Dawn needs us.”

That only made Willow frown harder. “I know, I know. It’s just… there are so many spells out there. Resurrection spells in particular. I think I looked through at least two dozen last….”

Her voice trailed off, and all of them sat in silence. Thinking of last summer. When they’d decided to do the impossible and bring Buffy back. Anya looked down at her hands and desperately wanted to say something. Wanted someone to say something. They all had these bad thoughts and guilty feelings about bringing Buffy back from the dead and unwittingly pulling her out of heaven, but nobody said anything. It was like there was a pink Belaim demon sitting in the room and nobody would talk about it, let alone behead it.

Don’t you idiots understand? We have to talk about these things, or else we’re just going to turn into our old, stupid selves. Business as usual isn’t going to cut it.

“Anya?” Willow asked. “There’s a text in the back room that might have some stuff in it. The Book of Gyarhlok. Would you mind…?”

Anya sighed. “I’d be happy to.”

Naturally, the volume had to be extremely old, extremely huge, extremely musty, and extremely on the top shelf. Anya groaned and stood on her tiptoes as she reached for the book. Almost had it….

The book fell down onto the floor with a “thud”, and a flurry of dust rose into the air. Anya coughed and waved the dust away from her face, and when it cleared, there was D’Hoffryn.

She yelped, and D’Hoffryn just laughed. “Scared you, didn’t I?” he teased. “Anyanka. You’re looking good. Love the hair.”

She nodded at him, trying to retain some semblance of cool. “Nice robe. Did Lloyd get that for you? It’s very slimming. Brings out the red in your eyes.”

D’Hoffryn smiled at her. “Why, thank you.”

“So, is this a business call, or are you just trying to give me a heart attack?”

He shot her an amused look. “Business is all we have, Anyanka. You should know this by now. I’m here to talk to you about Martin Glaze.”

Anya rolled her eyes. “Look, I’m not messing with him. He’s a man, and I don’t do men. Well, unless it’s sex.”

“We’re well aware of that,” D’Hoffryn said dryly. He took a step closer to her and gave her a sharp look. “But we’re making a special exception in Martin’s case. He needs assistance. The call for vengeance within him is strong. Stronger than anything we’ve seen since the days of Miss Rosenberg. And he serves a higher purpose than just his own vendetta. He needs you.”

She remembered this. Remembered this from before. Last summer, when Willow came to all of them and brought them her research. Told them what they could do. Strong, powerful, united. They could raise the dead, because it was what Buffy needed.

“No,” Anya said. “I can’t…. Bringing people back from the dead doesn’t help anybody. I know this.”

D’Hoffryn suddenly didn’t look so friendly. The smile stayed, but the eyes changed. Hardened. Grew vicious and malevolent and very, very scary. “You know vengeance,” he said. “Have you forgotten your calling, Anyanka? You asked to be what you were. Philosophy and questions isn’t part of this job. You’re here to serve vengeance.”

“And if vengeance serves evil?” she shot back. “What then? What about the boy you want me to bring back? How does any of this serve him?”

“That is none of your concern.”

“Yes, it is,” she said firmly. “I’ve been there, done that, bought the nifty urn. And all it does is cause pain and suffering.”

“And that’s exactly why you have to help him,” D’Hoffryn said coldly. “Vengeance breeds nothing but pain. You knew this from the startup. And if you find that you can’t do this, then there are others who will. But remember this, Anyanka – you are what you are, and nothing can ever change that.”

With that, he disappeared, and Anya was left alone.

She did not move for a moment. Did not breathe. Then, she calmly smoothed out the wrinkles in her trousers. Brushed a speck of dust from her immaculate white blouse. She bent down and picked up the book, and brought it back out to the others.

She did not say anything after that.



Buffy was so very, very tired.

There was too much to do. Dawn was missing, probably in grave danger, there was a man trying to raise the dead, her lover was losing his mind, and there were all these dishes that nobody had bothered to do and--

Breathe. Just breathe.

Buffy stopped washing the pot out for a second and closed her eyes. Took a deep breath. She had to calm down, or else she was never going to get through all of this. She had to be okay.

And Spike had to stop talking or else she'd go insane.

"....Such a wanker, your man Spike. Lost sight of it, slipped back into old habits. That's all that was, but they keep happening and dammit, I can't figure it out for the life of me, you know? One minute, I'll think I've finally got it all sussed out and then it's yanked right out from under me. Right frustrating, it is, and I'm starting to get sick and bloody tired of getting tossed--"

"Spike, just shut up."

She didn't mean to say it. Didn't mean to sound like that. All sharp and hard, like nails. But it was out there anyway, and the kitchen was suddenly deadly silent. Still, Buffy could hear him. That self-loathing. Despair and guilt. It was too much to feel. Too much to bear.

She loved him too much to see him like this.

Suddenly, she felt terrible, like she'd just kicked a dying animal. She sighed and turned off the faucet. Didn't turn around. Didn't want to look at him. "What happened wasn't your fault."

"Wasn't it? Shouldn't have let her go off with her boy. I should've thought it out better, with that poncy bastard running about and the like. Fuck, I've really buggered this one up."

Buffy turned around to look at him. He sat at the kitchen table, his head in his hands, palms pressed tight against his closed eyes. She sighed and walked over to him. Put her hands lightly on his shoulders. "It's all right, Spike. These things... they happen. Especially in my world. You can't prevent everything, you know? Things just happen."

He didn't say anything, not even when she bent down and kissed the top of his head. It was like there was a thousand miles between them, and she couldn't bridge the gap.

She was starting to wonder if love was going to be enough.

"Buffy?"

She turned around and saw Giles standing in the doorway. "Willow just called. She says that she thinks she's found something out about the ritual. She and the others are on their way."

Buffy sighed, relieved. "Well, that's one good thing. How's Trey?"

Giles looked past her to Spike. She followed his gaze for a moment, wondering what he saw when he looked at him. "Better," Giles murmured. "He's calmed down a bit. Buffy, why don't you go upstairs and round up some weapons? We'll need artillery."

She glanced in Spike's direction, and saw that he hadn't moved once since Giles came in the room. Worry flared up inside of her. Her hands ached to touch him. She longed to just be able to kiss him and make it all better, but that hadn't worked in years and she didn't have enough faith in kisses, anyway.

"All right," Buffy said quietly, and turned to leave.



She didn't know where she was.

The air felt heavy and dank. Somewhere underground. There was the smell of freshly-turned soil and that warm, sour smell of things better left buried. The cemetery, she thought. Maybe even those tunnels that ran under Spike's crypt. She could hear the distant scuttle of rats, and the constant drip of water. She could see nothing; she had been blindfolded.

But Dawn knew that wherever she was, it was not a good place to be.

She didn't know how much time had passed between the car accident and when she woke up, feeling sick and groggy from whatever sedative they'd slipped her. Her arm was sore, so maybe there was a needle involved. She was absolutely terrified.

There were others; she was certain of that. She could hear them crying. There were at least two other voices, and she wasn't sure if there were more or not. After all, they'd all been drugged, so there could be others, asleep. Rope at her wrists. Rope at her ankles. Blindfolded and gagged.

Fire. There was the smell of burning, the crackle of flames. Two calm, distant voices that were swiftly approaching. Impossible to tell over the others, but it was definitely coming this way. Dawn squirmed in her restraints, trying to wriggle out. Buffy had taught her that. Always test for weaknesses.

It was more than a little discouraging when she didn't find any.

Footsteps approaching, and two men speaking. Dawn stilled herself and listened to what they were saying. "...very effective. I think it's safe to say that she took the bait."

"She knows it's a trap, though," the other voice said. Calm, cool. Silky and strangely unaffected, like the guy had no accent. "She's a funny one. I think it's one of my favorite things about this one. Crafty. Hard to find these days, Marty."

The flat man's voice circled around the room, and Dawn could hear them coming closer to her. She stiffened as his hand wrapped around her chin. So close, so cool. Vampire. Spike had hands like this.

"And here's the kid sister. Hey there, Dawnie."

Yeah, this was definitely a really bad place to be right now.



Chapter Sixteen: Awakenings

The vampire sat at the kitchen table with his head in his hands. Dressed in stereotypical leather, hair bleached an ungodly shade of blond. Scuffed combat boots with a steel toe, everything black. He had that kind of shine about him that made him seem preternatural, like he was something other than human. But to look at him, you would never know.

To the naked eye, he was just another man in love.

Giles stood silent in the doorway, never taking his eyes off of Spike. He'd only seen him asleep since he'd come back to Sunnydale, but he hadn't really seen him in months. Now that he was there, sitting at the kitchen table in absolute agony, Giles found that he couldn't stop staring. Like if he visually dissected him, he could figure him out.

Fascination, perhaps. Spike was a puzzle. A paradox. He was not supposed to do such things. He'd changed his very nature. Giles was desperate to ask him about it, anxious to learn how on earth Spike had even accomplished such a task. How had he done it? Where did he get it? What on earth would compel him to do such a thing?

Oh, what fools love makes of men.

"You still gawking at me, Rupert? Take a bloody picture, it'll last you longer."

A dry smile curved at the corner of Giles's mouth. Rather comforting to know that some things didn't change. "Hello, Spike."

"Do you think she'll kill me if I smoke in the kitchen?"

Giles slowly walked to the kitchen table and took a seat across from the vampire. He reached across him, picked up the pack of Marlboros, and withdrew two cigarettes. “Well, she’ll have to kill the both of us, now won’t she?”

A dry look of appreciation crossed the vampire’s face, and Spike lifted his eyes to look at Giles. Instantly, the Watcher wished that he hadn’t. They were too naked, too open. His eyes had always been like that, but not the way they were now.

Oh, yes. He most certainly had a soul.

Giles nearly coughed up a lung when he took a drag from the cigarette, and Spike gave him a sly grin. “Been a while, has it?”

“Shorter than you would think,” Giles said. “Actually, I took up the habit again while I was in Bath after a while.”

“You were bored.”

Giles didn't answer. Instead, he just took another drag from his cigarette and kept his eyes on Spike. "You did a good job of scaring that poor boy," he said evenly. The reaction shook him. Simple things; Giles had to remember that. It was always the simple things that gave a person away.

The way that Spike flinched said quite a lot. "Didn't mean to," he muttered, averting his eyes. "Just got a little mixed-up, is all."

"Yes, things have been rather mixed-up for you lately, haven't they?"

Spike narrowed his eyes and tilted his head at him. Like he was looking at something that he didn't understand. Perhaps something that surprised him. "Yeah," he said slowly. "Things've been... weird."

Well, weird was one way of putting it. "I know about you and Buffy, Spike," Giles said. "I'm not exactly pleased about it."

Spike was instantly on the defensive. Pulled back and took a pull from his cigarette, blew smoke out of his nostrils like an indignant bull. "What, am I supposed to ring you up and ask your permission to court the bloody Slayer? Not my style, mate, and--"

"I'm not your mate," Giles said sharply. "Let's get that clear from the start, shall we? I've never liked you, and I never will. You've lied to us, you've attacked us, and you've tried to kill us more times than I care to recall, and I won't even start on your personality."

Spike clenched his jaw and glared right back. Good, good. He could see that passion rising up. That fury, that rage. Looked like himself right now. Looked like he might have a fighting chance at this if he didn't give up on himself.

"So no," Giles continued, "I don't like you. I'm not happy with the idea of Buffy having anything to do with you that didn't involve your very dusty end." He paused then, and softened his voice. "But I do respect you."

Spike stared at him for a moment. There was something akin to surprise in his eyes. Suddenly he laughed. Dry and bitter, like something was burned out of him. "Right. She didn't tell you."

"She told us all about the soul, Spike--"

"But she didn't tell you what made me go get it."

Giles paused for a moment and frowned. She hadn't said anything about that at all. Not at any point in any of their conversations had she ever mentioned the reason behind Spike's disappearance. He'd once tried to ask her about it, but Buffy had dodged the question and quickly changed the subject. "No, actually," he murmured. "What exactly was it that compelled you to do such a thing?"

Spike gave him a tight smile. Absolutely predatory. The monster was still there, after all. “I tried to take what I thought was still mine,” he said. When Giles stared at him, confused, he arched an eyebrow. “What? Don’t tell me you don’t know what I’m talking about. Need a little more than that, eh? You Watchers always were sticklers for detail.”

There was a flash of blond and suddenly Spike was inches from his face. Those blue eyes were right there in front of him, and his features were too sharp, too harsh, too much. “Had her in the bathroom, I did. Put my hands on her, all over her, and she told me no, but you know how she is. Always means yes. Pushed her down, climbed on top of her, and she was screaming—“

“You bastard!”

The smack of his fist into the monster’s face was deliciously satisfying. Spike reeled backward and onto the floor, and Giles was on him in an instant. Fury and rage boiled up inside of him as he hit him again. He'd had pity for this monster, harbored sympathy and bloody respect for this thing, and it'd tried to force itself on Buffy, and—

And Spike wanted this.

Giles froze, his arm still reeled back for a third punch. Spike had his eyes closed, and there was a look of absolute resignation and almost bliss on his face. He wanted to be punished. Hated, reviled, beat, destroyed. Spike opened his eyes and stared at Giles. “What are you waiting for? What, still aren’t sure? Want me to tell you about—“


“I’m not going to do this with you, Spike,” Giles said. He released him from his hold and stood up. Looked down at the vampire sprawled out on the kitchen floor, his leather pooling around him in a swirl of black. “It’s not going to help, you know.”

“I need it,” Spike hissed. “You stupid fuck, I need it.”

“You need to get a hold of yourself,” Giles said roughly. He narrowed his eyes at Spike, crossed his arms over his chest. “I don’t know what went on between the two of you before, and frankly, I don’t want to know. It’s not my business.”

“Damn right it’s your business! She’s your Slayer!”

“No, she’s not. She’s not anybody’s Slayer.”

Giles sighed, ran a hand through his hair and sat back down at the table. Reluctantly, Spike picked himself up from the floor and eased back down into a chair. He picked up his cigarette and took a long drag from it, glaring sullenly at the Watcher all the while. Sulky bastard. “Buffy is her own person. She makes her own choices. And while I might not always agree with her, I respect her for doing so. She’s chosen you, for whatever reason on this earth, and I won’t be a party to your destruction.”

He looked at Spike seriously. “You’ve got to pull yourself together, Spike. If not for your own sake, then for hers.”

“I don’t deserve her,” Spike said softly, and Giles sighed. Shook his head.

“No, you don’t. But you have her all the same.” He lowered his voice. “I know that it hurts. That it must be very difficult. But you have to try to get over it. She needs you to be strong.”

A tight smile pinched Spike’s inhumanly pretty face. Giles had always thought that Spike’s sharp, cutting face was always proof that God was indeed an arrogant bastard. “I did it for her,” he said. “The soul. Thought it might change me. Make me something better, something more worthy of her, you know?”

“It didn’t work, did it?” Spike said nothing, just turned away. “A soul doesn’t mean instantaneous change, Spike. It means that you have a choice. A chance. But as long as you sit around on your ass and beat yourself up about the things you’ve done, then everything you’ve accomplished means bugger all. You say you love her. Prove it. Not just to her, nor to me. Do it for yourself.”

For just a moment, Giles could see it. That thing that she loved about him. It was there, just a flash of something in his eye. A spark. There was vitality in him, passion, and something that Giles didn’t like at all. There was something in Spike that reminded him far too much of himself.

The doorbell rang, and Giles turned away. “That must be Willow and the others,” he said. “Apparently, they have some information on our latest bit of trouble.” He arched his eyebrow at Spike. “Are you coming?”

A dry smile touched the vampire’s face. “Yeah. I’m coming.”

He stood up and stretched for a second, extinguished his cigarette, and straightened his shirt. Gave Giles an amused look. “Got no idea why you’re helping me, you know.”

Giles just smiled. “Neither do I. But I’m sure that one day, we’ll figure it out.”



There were things she would never tell them. Little things, nothing important. Just stuff like the fact that she’d thrown up after she found her mother’s body, or that when she was fifteen, she used to shoplift from Nordstrom’s back in L.A. Stupid things, hurtful things. Things they didn’t need to know about.

They didn’t need to know that she’d kept the dress she was buried in.

Still smelled like that night. Rot and death and dirt. Grime and soil were ingrained into the black threads, and there were rips and tears in the fabric. The slit down the back, traditional funeral home style.

Gently, Buffy ran her fingers over the skirt. Touched the fine fabrics, smelled its awful scent. She’d never really understood why they’d chosen this dress. It wasn’t something she would ever wear, not something bright or colorful. It wasn’t her. Too baggy, too bunchy. Too black. They should’ve known that this wasn’t her, this wasn’t her at all. Who were they burying in this awful sack? Who were they laying to rest? Whose sleep had they disrupted?

They didn’t need to know that sometimes, she still hated them.

Stupid children. That was all they were. Dabbling in things that they couldn’t understand, all because they didn’t think they could handle it alone. Always needing Buffy, always whining for her attention, her protection, her love, her strength. Taking, always taking. But they’d fucked themselves over, because now she was back, and she didn’t have anything left to give them.

Give them pain. Let them know how this feels.

No, no. They were her friends and they didn’t know. They thought they were doing the right thing. Thought they were saving her. And they were sorry when they found out that they’d damned her instead, oh yes, very sorry indeed. It didn’t matter that sorry didn’t make the pain go away. Didn’t matter that a part of her had been left in the earth, or that it had been her time to go, or that—

Buffy sighed. Closed her eyes and swallowed hard to keep from crying.

They didn’t know that sometimes, she still dreamed of heaven.

Carefully, Buffy folded the dress back up and replaced it in the corner of her closet. She opened the weapons chest and removed her crossbow, her sword, her daggers, her stakes. Brushed her hair. Straightened her clothes. Looked in the mirror and saw the girl she’d always been. The girl she’d always be. A little too skinny, a little too tired, and a little too much death around the eyes.

Her resurrection had unhinged her. Made her dark, made her desperate, made her terrified and afraid. She was getting better, she really was, but Buffy knew that she would never fully recover from everything that had happened to her. Nothing in her life had been as painful as losing paradise.

She would not let that little boy share her fate. It did not matter what she had to do, or who she had to sacrifice, or even if she went to her grave again. She could not let that child be ripped out of heaven and thrown back on this earth.

And she would never let them know that she wasn’t all right.



Trey still didn’t quite understand what was going on.

Sure, Mr. Giles had explained everything to him. Vampires were real, and so were demons. They all hung out in Sunnydale, and Dawn’s older sister was some kind of superhero who fought them. A Slayer. And that guy, Spike, was one of them. “But he won’t hurt you,” Mr. Giles had said. “He has a soul. He’s really quite harmless, all appearances aside.”

Spike sure didn’t look harmless to him. Warily, Trey kept an eye on the black-clad freak hanging out in the shadows, away from the rest of the group. He looked so normal like that, just chilling with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, with his bleached hair and his leather coat. Didn’t look much like a vampire now, not like he had earlier.

Spike cast his cool blue eyes in Trey’s direction, and Trey shuddered and turned his head.

Buffy was standing by the stairs with a brown-haired girl, her arms crossed over her chest and a hard-ass look on her face. Superhero. Slayer. Who would’ve known? She looked like an average blonde chick to him. Pretty, yeah, but tiny. Yet there was this funny look on her face, like she’d been around the block more times than she cared to remember.

The redheaded girl was talking. Willow. She seemed all right. Normal. Human. She sat next to him on the couch, and she smelled like that New Age store back in LA that one of his old girlfriends liked visiting. She had a big dusty volume open on her lap, and Trey tried to read it, but the language was odd and old. “We found this in the stockroom at the Magic Box,” she said, and the brunette raised her hand and interrupted.

“Excuse me, but I found it,” she said. “I was the one who did the finding and the heavy lifting.”

Willow rolled her eyes. “Okay, so Anya found it. Anyway, it listed an old Greek resurrection ritual that I hadn’t ever seen before. When we…. We used an Egyptian spell. This one’s old, and kind of tricky. It requires that four people be sacrificed to the god Hades, and in return, the dead will be allowed to crossover. It’s kind of an exchange.”

“’The blood of four will open the door,’” Buffy murmured to herself.

The other guy, Xander, shook his head. “So this Glaze guy wants to kill four people so that he can get little junior back. Doesn’t seem worth it to me.”

“It’s never worth it.”

All heads turned to look at Buffy, and Spike crossed the room to go to her. Trey watched carefully as the vampire put a hand on the Slayer’s arm. He didn’t say anything. He was just… there. Man, Trey didn’t get this shit at all. Superheroes and bad guys and spells.

“There’s more,” Willow said. “Like I said, the spell is tricky. It requires the presence of an experienced necromancer.”

Xander frowned. “Isn’t that one of those guys who has sex with dead people?”

“Oo!” Anya said enthusiastically. “We have one of those! Buffy does that on a regular basis.”

Horrified, Trey glanced over at Buffy, who just gritted her teeth and tried not to look exasperated. Spike snickered, and Giles quickly intervened. “A necromancer, not a necrophiliac, Xander. A necromancer is one who has an affinity with the dead. They’re quite rare and very secretive. They can raise the dead, create zombies, hold souls….”

“Souls,” Buffy murmured, and then she looked in Giles’s direction. “Could a necromancer do what Drake Lucas did? Making sure that vampire kept her….”

“I don’t know,” Giles said. “Possibly. It would require a great deal of power, preserving the soul during such a transformation. But I suppose that if a necromancer were skilled enough….”

“Then that’s the link. Drake Lucas is working for Martin Glaze to help him resurrect his son. He’s the necro-thingie.”

“Necrophiliac?” Xander offered, and Anya shook her head.

”Dead people fetishist, remember? Get it straight.”

Trey was getting a headache. It was just wild, sitting in this room, listening to all of these seemingly normal people throwing around all of these crazy-ass ideas that didn’t make any sense and treating them like they were real, and Dawn was in danger and--

He couldn’t help it. He started laughing. Just giggles, and everyone all turned to look at him. “Sorry, sorry,” he said, and then he burst into loud, uproarious laughter. “This is some crazy shit right here! Y’all are all sitting around talking about raising the dead and fucking the dead and that dude over there actually is dead and y’all treat it like it’s nothing big!”

Gently, Willow patted him on the shoulder and gave him a sympathetic look. “I know it’s a lot to take in, but you’ll get used to it.”

“Get used to it?” Xander asked. “Hell, it’s been seven years and I’m still not used to it. When does that happen?”

Spike raised his hand. “I’m used to it.”

“Well, yeah, but that’s because you’re a vampire,” Willow answered.

“Ah, good point.”

Trey couldn’t take it anymore. He stood up and moved away from the couch, couldn’t stand being still any longer. “Well, it’s fucking crazy, that’s what it is. Vampires and Slayers and shit.”

“Do you want to save Dawn?” Buffy asked sharply.

Dawn. Trey stilled for a moment. He could see her right in front of him if he tried. Remembered the way that she’d smelled in the car earlier, like honeysuckle and cherry trees. And he could still hear the way that she screamed when she’d been taken. Trey bowed his head. “Yeah. God, yeah.”

“Then you have to trust us,” she said. “I know that this sounds kind of insane, but it’s all true. Fortunately, we know how to fight this. And we are going to save Dawn.”

Buffy turned to look at the rest of the people. “Okay. So we know that Lucas and Glaze are working together. We know how they’re going to bring back the boy. Where is he buried?”

“North Hill Cemetery,” Willow replied. “I’ve got a plot number.”

“Good. The sun’s down, so let’s ante up.”

“Uh, just a second,” Xander interrupted. “Can I just have a moment here to point out that this whole thing is a trap? I mean, come on. The guy walked into the Magic Box and handfed us that ‘blood of four’ line. And why else would he take Dawn? We’re playing into his hand.”

“And what are our other options?” Buffy shot back. “Sit around and wait for this guy to kill Dawn and three other people? Let him raise the dead? No. It’s not going to happen. I don’t care if it’s a trap or not.”

With brisk, purposeful steps, Buffy walked to the dining room table and picked up a broadsword from a pile of weapons. The blade caught the light and shone as she wielded it, and the look on her face was one of cutthroat ruthlessness. She held the sword like it was nothing, like it was merely an extension of her own body, and for the first time since this entire fiasco started, Trey believed.

“I’m coming with you,” he said, standing up.

Buffy’s reply was almost instantaneous. “No.”

Trey looked at her indignantly. Raised his head in pride. “Why not?”

“Because you’re weak and you’re untrained. You’ll get yourself killed, and I don’t want to tell Dawn that her prom date got murdered on my watch.” Buffy tossed a crossbow to Spike. “You’ll stay here and keep watch in case something happens. If we’re not back in three hours, call a cab. Don’t walk home alone. Not tonight.”

“But—“

“I said no,” Buffy said darkly, and then she sighed. Closed her eyes for a second and walked over to him. Gave him a small smile that was almost warm. Almost. “But thank you for trying.”

As they filed out of the house, Trey stared after them, dumbfounded and despairing. Dawn was out there, and he’d failed her. Failed her before he’d ever even started to try. Not good enough, not smart enough, not in his world or this strange new world he’d come across today.

Dazed, confused, and bewildered, Trey hung his head and tried very hard not to cry.



The night was warm and heavy with leftover humidity from the earlier rain, and a heavy fall of mist and fog covered the sloping hill of the graveyard. Everything looked eerie, surreal, as they approached the newer section of North Hill Cemetery. Funeral flowers and marble statues, warriors and weapons. Just another average night in Sunnydale.

But Willow could smell the truth.

It was subtle. Not something that the others probably even picked up on. But there was a cloistering scent in the air, something sour and greedy. It smelled like sweaty dollar bills and rotting animal flesh. There was a sensation that permeated the atmosphere tonight. Power. It lurked all around them, just waiting for someone to pick it up.

Someone like me.

Willow shuddered and shifted the weight of her backpack on her shoulders. Her palms were sweaty and her legs felt itchy. The night was unseasonably warm, but she knew that it wasn’t the heat that was making her feel this way. It was the proximity to all of this sensation, all of this energy crackling in the air. It called to her. Sang to her in symphonies that only she could comprehend.

The magic was still within her; she knew this and accepted it. It was part of her punishment for abusing the power, and it would be with her for the rest of her life. Willow ached to be rid of it forever. She wished that she could just make it go away, just like she’d always done. But she’d learned her lesson. She had to pay for her crime.

She had to atone.

The backpack held the contents of her magic supplies. Herbs, candles, books and print-outs from the Internet, all brought to her by Xander (except for the online stuff – all that Xander knew about the Internet was how to download porn) in secrecy. Everything that she would need for a binding spell, particularly the kind of spell used to block access to the dimensions of the dead.

Atonement. That was what this was. She knew that she couldn’t get rid of the magic. It was there, permanent, inside of her forever. All that she could do was control it. Use it for the right reasons.

And pray to God that she could do this without losing herself.

Cigarette smoke wafted to her nose, and Willow looked up ahead of her to where Spike and Buffy walked side by side, she with a broadsword and he with a crossbow. Willow tilted her head and watched Spike for a moment as he brought his cigarette to his lips and coolly exhaled a stream of smoke. Everything about him had always been so supple, so smooth. Like a jungle cat looking for its prey. And he still had that kind of lithe, luscious grace about him. It was just a little… tempered. A little more restrained.

Funny, how things worked out. Willow never would’ve thought that she’d look at Spike with envy.

Suddenly, everything went very cold. The humidity and heat in the air plummeted and froze, and chills shivered up and down Willow’s spine. Everything in her body started humming and thrumming in time to the vibrations, and she could feel power focusing, pulling, tugging at her insides.

Let us in, let us play, use us and channel us….

“Willow?”

Buffy had turned around and was staring at her, but Willow found that she could not say a word. There was too much coming at her, swarming around her like angry bees.

And then the vampires were upon them.

*****

They came over the hill in a wave of death, snarling and running, dozens upon dozens of them. They cut through the mist like scythes, and Buffy raised her broadsword and then--

Oh, God. No.

All of the vampires were crying. Sobbing, screaming. Pleading with them as they began to attack. Buffy cried out when one of them tackled her to the ground and begged for its mother. “Please, I don’t understand what’s happening, I just want my mommy, I need my mommy….”

Things were not going well.

Buffy lunged at the sobbing vampire before her and swung the blade around, expertly beheading the miserable monster. It dissolved into dust and she quickly scanned around her for others.

There were too many of them; they were heavily outnumbered. At least a dozen, maybe two. Anya cried out when one of the vampires tackled her to the ground, but before Buffy could reach her, Xander rammed his stake through the vampire’s back, right through to the heart. She could not see Willow, but she saw Giles wrestling with his own vampire, and then she saw Spike.

His head whipped back in a blur of white as the female vampire rammed her fist into his face. “You’re like us, I can feel it, can’t you help me?” the woman sobbed. Desperation surged through her as she watched Spike turn his face away, watched him babble out something that didn’t even make sense. He should be killing her. Should be fighting back, defending himself, something other than this blind panic….

He panics because the world’s not all black and white after all.

The voice was low and dark. Full of wasps and hornets, flying through her mind and buzzing through all the noise. Everything dimmed in front of her, and Buffy blinked her eyes. Couldn’t remember…. There were things going on, important things, and there was something she had to stop, but....

There's a light over the hill. Have a drink with me.

Numbly, her fingers released the broadsword and it clattered to the ground with the sound of dull metal. Everything dull, everything numb. Shapes around her, moving, but they were just shapes and therefore none of her concern. Step forward. Another step. Another. There were noises in the background, blurry like static, but she kept walking and eventually, they faded away.

Walk through the woods, Slayer. You know these paths better than anyone. Come on over and we'll chat for a while. Everything will be just fine.

And so Buffy stepped into the crypt and stood before Drake Lucas.



Chapter Seventeen: The Blood of Four

It had been this way for centuries. Ever since the dawn of man. Moments like this were bound to happen. It was inevitable. There would come a time like this when a girl would stand before a monster like this. One girl in all the world, and the foe she was meant to destroy. Sometimes, there were weapons. Others, just words. Rarely, but sometimes, there was sweat and seduction. But always, there was this.

That tiny glimmer of fate.

Nothing existed outside of the crypt. Everything was inconsequential. The world was encased in these four walls, and the only players in this tight-knit game were the monster and the girl.

The monster sat atop a stone tomb, Indian-style, dressed simply in blue jeans and a polo shirt. Barefoot. Smiling with ease. The girl moved in slow, careful circles around him, her eyes always on him, never trusting him to move. Neither of them wielded weapons. Neither of them dropped their defenses.

The game was on.

He reached down beside him and offered the girl a beer. "Care for a drink?"

The girl shook her head. "Not thirsty."

He widened his smile. "You're always thirsty. Might not be beer or wine, but there's other stuff you want."

"I want to kill you."

"Then kill me."

Neither of them moved.

The girl narrowed her eyes at him. "What's your name?"

"I don't have names. Neither do you."

Her eyes were cold like flint. There were sparks in them, like ancient flint hitting a stone. She was older than her skin. "I have a name. I have a family, and friends, and a life. I have a purpose beyond being a killer."

"But none of it will slate your thirst. You can taste the normal world all you want, but it's not going to save you from what you are. What's to come."

"I haven't even begun."

He smiled.

*****

Trey couldn't stand it anymore.

Nervously, he paced around the living room, biting his lip and glancing worriedly at the clock. Not even a half hour had passed since Buffy and the rest of them had left, but hours had passed since Dawn had disappeared. What if they were too late? What if these things got to her before they could save her? What if they were all really fucking crazy and this was all a big lie?

Frustration won out and Trey collapsed on the couch, slamming a fist into the couch cushion. He should've gone with them. Should've gone up there, even if it meant that he ended up just another dead kid. Dawn was up there, and it was ridiculously important that he save her. He'd lost her, and it was his responsibility to find her.

An ache flared in his heart when he turned his head to the little table beside the sofa. Photographs of the Summers girls sat atop the surface, and they broke his heart. Here was Buffy alone, pretty and blonde, and here was Buffy and Dawn together, all sisterly and adorable. And there were the two girls with their mother, a pretty woman with warm eyes that both of her daughters inherited.

Dawn had the loveliest eyes. You could see for miles in those eyes. Like she'd lived too long, even though she was only sixteen. But if you just looked at her for a little while, you'd see something much, much older than that. Something that was bright and delicate and full of potential.

He had to save her because he'd started falling in love with her and wanted to finish the job.

Trey balled up his fists and stood up. Walked calmly to the dining room table and picked up a dagger and a stake. Wasn't quite sure how to use them, but it wouldn't hurt if he had a little artillery. He walked to the front door and then started running towards North Hill Cemetery. The same cemetery where he'd been attacked, where he'd first seen what could only be a vampire.

Fuck this bullshit of waiting around.

He was going to get his girl.

*****

"Where is the ritual?" the girl asked. Still circling, always circling. It was the way things were meant to be. The girl would always revolve around to where she had started, and then the cycle would repeat itself for the remainder of time. A perfect ring, from life to death.

The man smiled. "The ritual is all around us. It never went away. You thought it did, but it didn't."

"Why are you wearing those clothes?"

"Because you like things casual. I like that about you. You like the modern way of living, and so do I. Sure you don't want that beer?"

"I don't drink."

"No, you don't. You never drink. You never consume. Kind of hard to devour something that's hardly even there to begin with, after all."

The girl frowned at him. "I exist. I do."

The monster waved his hand dismissively. "Yeah, you take up space, and you're made of bone and meat, but beyond that? There's nothing but death. Nothing but the hunt. The kill. You can have the friends and the family and the name all you want, but the fact of the matter is that you're building a life on a foundation that doesn't even exist. And then those people take and take until the little bit that was actually you is just... gone."

A troubled look passed over her face, and the girl swallowed hard. "But they can't take it. I give it. Death is my gift, remember?"

"Yes, death is your gift. But they took it away from you, and now what do you have left? An empty space where you used to be."

Something flitted across them. Around them. Shapes moving, and there was violence outside. The girl shook her head. "I think there's something I'm supposed to be doing."

"Nah. That's nothing. Excess noise. This is about us."

It was always about them.



The air was hot and full of water, and Dawn was sweating.

They'd been taken outside; she could feel the cold hands of the vampires on the skin as they'd taken her up through the tunnels. The other people were still with them, and they were all awake now and scared shitless. She was pretty much scared shitless, too.

But she had something.

A weakness. She found it. There was a little give in the ropes around her ankles, and she knew that if she could just get out of her sandals, she could slide her feet out. She could run, she could escape, she could fight back. She could do something other than wait and hope that she wasn't going to die.

The grass was cold against her body as she wriggled subtly under her restraints. One sandal loose, one step closer to freedom. There was whispering, soft chanting. It sounded like when Willow used to meditate, when she used to whisper Latin under her breath. A spell. Magic.

Sure enough, there was the crackle of fire and the burned smell of herbs. Quickly, she had to do this quickly, before whatever evil ritual this guy Marty was doing got to the part about the human sacrifices. More wriggling, and the other sandal slipped off of her foot. Dawn bit down on her lip and ignored the burn of the ropes as they chafed against her skin. Slithered and slid, and then her feet were free.

But there was the blindfold and the ropes around her waist. She had nothing, no weapons, no way of defending herself or avoid falling on her ass. Buffy could probably do it, but Dawn wasn't a Slayer. She had nothing but some light training and determination inside of her, and that wasn't going to get her out of this scenario, and--

And there was something in the air.

Dawn froze. Everything inside of her seemed to… move. Vibrate. Like there was a tuning fork at the base of her spine and it was sending shivers all under her skin. There were forces all around her, and she could smell the energy, taste it on her tongue. It was mixing inside of her, and she’d never felt like this before. Never in her life.

And then something took over her and she was on her feet.

Running. Kicking. Flailing. Everything dark and it did not matter. The darkness was inconsequential. All that mattered was survival. Self-protection to the highest level. Her body was capable, her feet were swift, and she did not need the light to guide her through the cemetery and towards safety. Blood was her compass. Curving, cutting, moving faster—

This is the way. This is the way that we fight. This is the way that we survive. We live through the blood, and the blood is the life and the key, absolute. This is the way of the ancients, and we do not need the map of men when we have the blood.

It is always about blood.

Hands gripped her shoulders roughly. She lashed out with her leg, but the body was strong and suddenly, Dawn snapped back into herself. Everything was dark and she was afraid, and she thought that she had blood on her hands but could not be sure. Couldn’t be sure about anything.

Except that here was Trey, with his hands on her shoulders, and his voice whispering her name in her ear as he embraced her. “Oh my God, Dawn, I thought I lost you. I thought I lost you.”

He peppered her face with kisses, buried his nose in the nape of her neck, and she was surrounded by his sweaty boy smell, his warmth, his substance, his humanity. Dawn said nothing for a moment. Her lips felt numb, and her heart was racing. Everything was racing, and when he took the blindfold from her eyes, the world swam around her.

She was in the middle of the street. Right in front of the entrance. Her feet were bleeding and she did not feel any pain. Felt nothing at all. Not his hands, not his heart, not her breath and not her life.

Something had taken her over. Something strong, something powerful.

Something inside of her.

It’s always about blood.

As Trey cut the bonds around her hands, Dawn said nothing. Just stared out into the distance, fear slowly creeping up and down her body as she came to. He was talking, saying things, and then he said, “Dawn? Are you even listening?”

She looked at him with terror in her eyes and licked her lips. “Something’s really wrong with me,” she whispered, and he frowned at her, about to speak—

But there were screams from the cemetery and they had to move.



“What do you want?” the girl asked. Still moving in circles, still returning to the same place over and over again. “Why are you here?”

The monster smiled. “I’m here because of you. Because you brought me here so that we could have the Book.”

“Which book?”

“The only book you’ve ever needed. Written in the language that only those creatures like you and I can understand. There are things you have within you that no one else possesses.”

“I know this already. I’m the one. The only.”

“It’s hard to be unique, isn’t it?” he asked. “It makes you tired. Makes you feel ill. Nobody really understands who you are, because they are not you. And that only makes the emptiness worse. The pain just increases exponentially, until there is nothing left but that final moment.”

“Yes,” the girl whispered, and the monster smiled sympathetically at her. Sometimes, in matters such as these, only the monster could understand the way that a dim, sad heart could beat.

“They don’t understand when nothing you do is enough for them. You’re different. Unique. They don’t understand that in order for you to live, for you to do your job, pieces of you must be broken.”

“Which pieces?”

“All of them.”



Disaster was everywhere.

Willow screamed as another vampire tackled her to the ground, and she quickly lashed out with her legs, tried to move the monster away from her. Tears ran down the dead woman’s twisted features, and it really was very obscene to watch a vampire cry. “I can’t stop this!” the vampire shrieked. “I can’t stop moving, and I want to sleep, I just want to sleep….”

Desperately, Willow flailed her hands around her until she found a snapped branch, and then she drove the makeshift stake through the vampire’s heart until the creature’s sobbing dissolved into dust. Quickly, she brought herself to her feet and looked around her.

The things just kept coming….

Giles called out Xander’s name as one of the vampires approached him, and Xander was there, stake in hand, ready to dispatch the undead attacker. Willow whipped her head around to see Anya cleanly kick one of the vampires in their direction, and Xander took care of that one too.

And poor, poor Spike.

One of the vampires, a young boy, maybe fourteen when he’d been turned, ran towards Spike while screaming in his child’s voice for release. Screaming for his mommy, for his daddy, for his sister and his kitty. Wanting peace, wanting something, but his fists were balled up and his eyes were yellow. None of them were in control of their actions. They were just undead marionettes and someone else was pulling their strings.

Willow could tell that this was killing him. The pain on his face was tense and sharp, like the tip of the stake he wielded as he slammed it through the young vampire’s heart. The boy screamed and dissolved into dust, but there were more of the monsters coming through the hills, and Willow could feel a sudden rush of darkness. A push, a tug of energy.

The ritual was about to begin.

She’d debated this. Wondered if when the time came, she would be able to do what needed to be done. Her palms were still sweaty, and her stomach turned like it was full of bees and butterflies. Perspiration glistened all across her skin, and Willow felt her heartbeat accelerate as the energy grew closer.

She didn’t have the luxury of fear.

“Spike!” she called, and the blond vampire lifted his head and cocked it in her direction. “Keep them distracted! I’m going to try something!”

“Right!” he called back, but his voice was choked and it sounded broken. A stab of pity ripped through her chest as she looked at him. He tried so hard, and he should not have to do this.

But then again, neither should she.

Quickly, Willow ran for the shelter of a nearby oak tree, far enough away from the din that she would be unnoticed but close enough so that if something were to go wrong, she could run to the fray. She slid the backpack off of her shoulders and dropped it to the ground. Hastily, Willow pulled out her supplies and began setting everything up. She tried to will her hands to stop shaking.

It didn’t work very well.

Candles. Herbs. The little jars of potions, the various demon parts that were necessary for the spell. Mortar and pestle. Incense and lime. She struck a match and began to light the candles in a protective circle around herself, and then sat Indian-style in the middle of it.

She did not need a book for this. After all, the magic was still there. All inside of her, all churning and waiting to be used. Utilize the forces. Harness the energy. Control. This was all about control.

Willow began to speak.

Blessed be in the name of the powers. I come before you as a humble servant, asking for your protection.

She sprinkled the powdered thyme into the bowl and then dropped a match into the dish. A brief explosion of sparks, and then the compound started to glow. “Take the darkness, take the time, and in your power I must bind. Lock the gate and drop the key, bind this harmful energy.”

Yes, oh yes. This was what it felt like. That slow, unfurling cascade of bliss and power that started to roll through her in waves. Ecstasy started to burn in needles and pinpoints at the back of her skull, and Willow swallowed hard. Swirls and whorls of magic crystallized in the air, creating patterns and shapes, dancing all around her. This was working, and she was strong and powerful again. All the world was at her fingertips, and if she just let go for a single second, she could taste utopia….

And Willow slipped.

Energy shot through her, slamming through her body until every single pore tingled and glittered and she gasped. Threw her head back and felt the words spill out of her in a dark language that her desperate brain could not comprehend. Her hands lifted to the sky, her body no longer hers, but oh, she could feel it. Feel the power. Feel the damage she was about to do.

She was crossing into familiar territory and pulling out the dead.

Oh, Buffy, forgive me. Forgive me, for I’m failing.

I’m failing.



“By the way, I really like your vampire.”

For the first time since entering this ring, the girl stopped in her tracks. Stared at him. There were memories niggling at the back of her brain. Eyes that looked like the color of the African sky, right when the sun was setting into the dunes. Hands that were cold but sweet. Her heart pulled in a strange constriction, and there was a flare of something bright inside of her that she could not name.

The monster smiled at her. “You remember him. That’s good for you, isn’t it? Having someone to remember. It’s nice not to be alone all the time.”

“I’m always alone.”

“Yes. But when you’re with him, you think that you’re not alone.”

Yes. This was true. She could remember vague games of mouths and hands, and there were gasps and ecstasy, and she could remember that there was no solitude when that jewel-blue gaze was upon her. “He makes me feel real. Like I’m not a shadow or a puppet.”

“You know that you can’t save him.”

The girl bowed her head. “I know.”

“But you don’t understand why.”

“Tell me why.”

The monster sighed and waved his hand in the air. “It’s simple, really. It’s the same reason why you love him. Because you are the embodiment of death. Death is attracted to death. I’ve seen tons of you girls, and you’re not the first who’s done this. Not the first at all. Like attracts like. Birds of a feather, stuff like that. But the two of you are doomed, because you can’t save each other. You desperately want to, but you’ll never be able to pull each other away from it.”

“Away from what?”

“From death.”

The girl started to walk again. Circling, pacing. They were reaching the climax, and she could feel it. “It’s all about death with you, isn’t it?”

The monster grinned.



This had to end soon, or else he was going to lose it.

Spike closed his eyes and lunged forward, stabbing the vampire through the heart and silencing its awful cries. Wished that it sounded inhuman, like most vampires when they roared and growled. But no, the worst of it was that they all sounded so fragile. So human.

Just like all of his victims.

The woman's hands were around his throat. Fangs and ridges, tears and pain. "This isn't happening," she wailed as she tightened her grip around his throat. "Please, tell me this isn't real."

Wanted to do something. Really, he did. Wanted to make her stop screaming, fix her proper. But there was nothing he could do. Souls or no souls, these vampires were gunning for him and the others, and Buffy was God knows where, and all Spike knew was that he had to survive. What do you know? Instinct prevailed after all.

Quickly, Spike spun out of the vampire's grasp, pulled out his stake, and rammed it into her heart. Just as the woman evaporated into dust, she cried out for mercy, and all he could do was stare.

The most unnerving part of all of this was that he could see himself in them.

They'd stopped coming, which was a bloody good thing because things weren't looking very good. Giles and Anya were sporting some scratches on their faces, and Xander was holding his arm a little funny. Plus, there was still no sign of Buffy, and pain clutched around his heart. She'd gotten lost in the fray, and dammit, what had happened to her?

The ground started shaking beneath him, and Spike swayed on his feet for a second, trying to keep his balance as the world rocked under his boots. "What the hell?" he muttered as he looked around him, and suddenly, he caught sight of Willow underneath the oak tree. Candles burning all around her. Eyes gone dark with power.

Oh, yeah. Little witch still had it in her.

Suddenly, a beam of violet and red light shot up from her slender body and reached for the sky. She raised her palms in front of her and blood was suddenly fresh and hot on her skin. Spike could smell it. Young blood. The earth trembled again, and her voice came out in booming tones, too dark and ancient to come from little Willow Rosenberg.

"Take the blood from my hands. I offer these lives to you in trade for the passage of another. I come before you in the names of the living and the names of the dead, and I ask that the gate be opened. Bring forth the boy from the blood of his father. Bring forth his soul, his essence, his life. Let him cross over!"

"Willow, no!" Xander cried from the background, and he ran towards her. A rush of light shot from the beam around Willow, and Xander cried out as it hit him in the chest. He crumpled on the ground, knocked unconscious, and Anya yelled out his name.

A scream howled from Willow's mouth and Spike yowled and clutched his head at the sound of it. The pain was instantaneous and horrible. All of them, the vampires included, fell the ground, covering their ears, as the light shot through her and then disappeared.

The instant that it was gone, the two remaining vampires exploded into dust, and everything was so deadly quiet that none of them could move. Spike couldn't think. Couldn’t do a damn thing but stare at Willow in awe. So this was what she'd become. Not such a little witch anymore, was she?

But she looked very little indeed when she fell forward and started to sob.

Instantly, Spike and Giles made their way over to Willow as Anya crouched beside Xander and tried to wake him up. She gasped for air between her tears, and Giles bent down next to her, brought her into a sitting position. She was pale, obviously worn out by whatever had just happened, and looked extraordinarily miserable.

"Willow, what happened? Are you all right?" Giles asked.

She just shook her head and sniffled. "Oh, God. It was... something shot through me. I was just trying to do a binding spell, and I thought I had it under control, Giles, I really did...." Her words went all wet then, and Spike suddenly really hated seeing Willow cry.

Slowly, he knelt down beside her, put his hand on her cheek, and looked her straight in the face. "Come on, love," he said softly. "Calm down, take a breath."

Willow swallowed hard and shook her head, her eyes panicky. "You don't understand," she rasped. "It's a trap, Spike, it's all a trap. You have to find Buffy. You have to find her before she...."

But Spike didn't hear the rest of it. He was already on his feet, running towards the gravesite.



"Tell me about heaven."

The girl's face crumpled. She shook her head, closed her eyes. "I can't talk about that."

"You miss it, don't you?"

She shook her head. "No. I have a job to do. I have purpose and direction. Remember? I have a name."

"You still labor under that delusion? Trust me, you don't have a name. You don’t need one. And really, if you'll come to admit it, you don't want it. What you want is what you used to have. When it was simpler. When you didn't have a name, and when all those empty parts were filled in."

Her voice was suddenly very small, and she could feel things outside of the crypt, but they were terribly unimportant. Small, minor details. Excess noise. All that mattered was the monster. "I felt...."

"You felt complete," the monster said, and she sighed in confirmation. "I know. I understand that. Only one of us could really understand it. For the first time in your life, you were allowed to be complete. It's a curse with all of you girls. In life, you're broken, and the only way to fix you is to kill you. That's the price you pay for saving the world."

"There shouldn't be a price."

"No. There shouldn't. But life's a bitch."

For the first time, the monster stood. He walked across the room to the girl, and leaned in close to her. Grinned his deadly wolf grin and licked his chops. "I'm much more interested in matters of death, aren't you? You can still taste it on your lips every morning. You used to dream about it at nights, and you'd pray you wouldn't wake up. They took it away from you, and they made you fight their awful war again, and all you are is a tool for the fates."

"Yes," the girl whispered. It all was true. Every last word. Monsters never lied, after all. The truth was much more painful.

He leaned in very close to her ear, so close that all he needed to do was whisper the words into her ear. "And sometimes, even though you'll never tell anybody else, you hate them. You hate your friends for taking away your reward. You hate your family for making you want such burdensome troubles as names. And you hate your lover most of all, simply because he has the audacity and the pigheadedness to love something like you."

Again, it was true. If she could, the girl would be crying now. She knew that in her heart, as broken as it was. "Yes."

"And sometimes, you think about killing them."

She didn't answer this time. She just bowed her head. The monster sighed, and then put his hands on her. Flesh to flesh, dead to living. He whispered her name into her ear, and then she let it slip away.

"The boy will suffer again if he crosses over. It has already begun. The witch is raising the dead again, an affront to nature, and he will wither and die again, and it will go on like this until that man is dead. His blood is what brings the boy through. Kill him, and the boy won't be made to go through what you went through. You can save him. Death is your gift."

The monster dropped his hand away. The girl was panting, her eyes wide and panicked as the world sank in all around her. There were things out there that she was meant to be fighting. She'd forgotten something important.

Slowly, the monster stepped away from her and gave her a smile. "I think there's something you're supposed to be doing."



The world spun around her in a violent blur of motion, and then it stopped.

Slowly, Buffy opened her eyes and took her bearings. A crypt, she was inside of a crypt. Alone. But he'd been there, that Drake man. She could remember something, something important. Lost time, she'd lost her sword and lost the others. She felt lightheaded, felt drugged and dazed. Needed to do something. She had a mission.

She looked around her for something, and found a sword on the lid of the stone sarcophagus. Glinting silver, ancient and beautiful. Meant for her. This was left behind for her.

Death is your gift.

Oh, God. The boy.

A scream penetrated the air and Buffy was instantly on her feet. She grabbed the sword from the sarcophagus and burst through the door. The ritual, goddammit. She'd forgotten about the ritual, she'd been caught off guard. Trapped, and she fell for it, and now there was someone screaming. How many lives to pay for the suffering of one little boy?

She had to hurry.

Buffy burst into the clearing and almost fell to her knees at the sight of it. Red and violet energy shooting down from the sky and onto the earth. Martin Glaze was kneeling before the gravesite of his dead son, sobbing hysterically. There were only three bodies. The blood of four, right? Then this couldn't be right, she still had time to stop this--

Glaze was bleeding.

Blood oozed down from the puncture wounds in his palms and dirtied the otherwise immaculate dress shirt he wore, and the blood on his hands was glowing. It was feeding into the energy, and the energy was shooting into the ground. She could see it, all around her, and she could suddenly feel that pull.

The gate was open into paradise, and Buffy could feel it again.

warm so warm everything finished nothing more to do lay down your arms and rest be loved feel loved know that you are safe and you are free

And then the gate closed, and the energy was gone.

The ritual was complete.

Glaze was laughing. Drenched in blood, rocking back and forth, laughing his fucking head off. "Brandon," he sighed. "Brandon, my boy, you're mine. We'll be together. We'll be together forever. I'll never let you go."

The earth at his feet started to move and rumble, and horror flared in Buffy's stomach. She couldn't let this happen. Not again, not to a child. Not when the taste of that ripe, gold place was still on the tip of her tongue. And here this bastard of a father was, rejoicing at the promise of suffering for his dead son.

Buffy charged.

She heard him in the background as she moved. Saw him break into the clearing, his black leather flying. "Buffy, no!" Spike screamed, but he did not matter now. All that she could do was move. She had to stop this. Couldn't let it happen again.

A hand shot out from the earth. Thin, small boy fingers, shaking and covered in dirt. She raised the sword back as she approached Glaze, and Spike cried out her name and tried to grab her.

He was too late.

The blade sliced straight through Glaze's back and impaled his heart. He gasped, eyes bulging outward as blood dribbled from the corner of his mouth. Slowly, he fell forward to the ground, his head landing inches from Brandon Glaze's fingertips.

The hand was still. The boy was dead.

And so was Martin Glaze.

I just killed a man.

Dully, Buffy stepped backward and released the blade. Spike's hands were on her in an instant, and he wrapped her up in his arms as she stared numbly at the dead body before her. She thought she might be shaking. It would explain why he was so desperate to touch her, moving his hands all over her, holding her so tightly that she forgot to breathe.

"It's all right, love, it's all right. You're safe, that's all that matters. It's going to be all right."

But all she could do was stare at the dead boy's hand reaching through the earth for nothing at all.



Chapter Eighteen: The Open Door

Buffy sat at the foot of the bed and did not say a word.

Silent, just the way she'd been for the past hour and a half. They'd tried to talk to her. Tried to get her to say something. But there were no words she could give them to explain what had happened, and so she remained mute. Besides, every part of her was still stuck in that moment back at the gravesite. She could still feel the leather scabbard of the sword. Could hear the slice of metal into flesh.

She could still feel heaven's kiss upon her lips.

The others thought she was in shock. It was certainly a good possibility. But Buffy had been aware of everything that went on around her as they took her away. Wrapped up in Spike's coat, cradled against his body while he carried her out of the cemetery and back towards the house. Dawn's worried eyes and Giles' concerns. Willow was crying but Buffy did not know why. Bad things had happened.

Very bad things had happened.

She could feel him. Knew that he was there, even if she did not turn her head to glance in his direction. An outline of black in the corner. The smell of dirty leather and spent cigarettes. Signature Spike smells, all around her. Anxiety; she could feel that. He was worried about her. Maybe he was even a little afraid of her. He'd been like that recently. Too scared to move or talk. So instead he fidgeted in the corner, watching her as she stared straight ahead of her.

All she could see was the gravesite.

Bloodied bodies slumped over in front of the boy's marble headstone. Candles burning, the smell of sour herbs and potions. The man's palms, streaked in blood, and the bright crimson stain slowly spreading over his white dress shirt. That sweet little hand reaching out from the grave, and she'd reached down and touched those tiny cold fingers. So very, very cold.

"Buffy. Come on, love. It's all right; we're home. See?"

Blue eyes. Spike had the loveliest eyes. You wouldn't expect it, not when he was all sharp angles and glowering leather, but there they were. She'd looked all summer for that exact shade of blue, and only found it in those few glimmering moments when the sky was between twilight and darkness. And then there were his lashes, so long and luxurious that any woman would envy him. Inky, sooty. Where did his eyeliner go? He used to wear that. Used to take pride in his pretty eyes, used to flash them at her and tease her, used to bat his eyelashes against her breast in little butterfly kisses&.

He was tugging at her jacket. Pushing it off her shoulders. Dully, Buffy looked down and saw the bloodstains splattered along the denim seam. "Got to get this off you," he muttered. "Get you into your night-things, right? Tuck you to sleep."

She could see the nape of his neck from this angle. That fine little place at the top of his spine where his silvery hair ended. Had she ever kissed him there? She did not think so. And his hands were on her, too. Cool hands. Not cold, not dead. Spike never had a corpse's hands. His were just a little warmer, just a little softer. Elegant fingers. Moon-colored nails. He used to paint them black. Her vain vampire.

Roughly, Spike shook her bare shoulders, digging his ragged fingernails into her skin. "Buffy!" he growled. "Come on, you've got to pull it together now. Know it was rough on you, what happened and all, but you've got to get yourself on your feet, all right? Come on, Slayer--"

"Don't call me that."

Startled, Spike took a step back from her. Lifted up his hands in a sign of surrender. See, harmless, remember? "Right," he said. Hell, he was so relieved to hear a word out of her that if she'd asked him to call her Steve, he would've complied. He peered down at her face, pinched and pale in spite of the warmth of the lamplight. "Buffy. Come on, love. It's not the end of the world. Things'll be all right, you know?"

No answer, and he was back to square one.

She'd been this way ever since he got to her. Too late, as always. He'd run, run like the wind from the instant Willow had snapped out of whatever black magic trance she'd been in, but it was too late. The man was dead, and her sword was buried in his back. She'd just stood there, staring down at him, and at those little bitty fingers poking out of Brandon Glaze's grave. Spike didn't want to think about the hand. Hell, he didn't want to think about any of this. Just wanted her to be all right again. Wanted her to be anything other than this right here.

It reminded him too much of last year.

There was a smudge of blood on her cheek. Glaze's blood? Hard to say. Gently, Spike ran a finger down the slope of her pretty cheek. "Need to clean yourself up a bit, you do. Come on, pet, what do you say? Get you into the bath, it'll make a new girl of you. Feel much better when you've got that muck off your face."

Nothing.

Still nothing. Fine, then. She wanted to play this way, then so could he. Just because he had a soul didn't mean he had to go all puppy-dog sweet on her, now did it? Wasn't broken all the way. Still had a touch of the old fire in him, and if anyone could spark it, it'd be Buffy in non-functional mode. He clenched his jaw, steeled himself. "Right, then. That's the way you want it, then that's the way we'll do things. Now, get up."

With that, Spike brusquely yanked her to her feet and shoved her towards the door. She stumbled on her feet, and a part of Spike's heart broke at her utter gracelessness, but no matter. Had to do right by her. Had to do something for her. Get her to snap out of this.

Even if it meant facing the bathroom again.

Didn't take the time to survey his surroundings or remember what had happened last time. Spike just pushed her in the door and sat her down roughly on the toilet as he stepped towards the bathtub. Turned on the water and closed his eyes for a second. Gritted his teeth. Remembered that. She'd had the faucet on that night. No, no. This was completely different. Necessary. Not about him. This was about her.

And she was getting angry.

A flare of violence sparked in her eyes, and Spike felt a little relief. Didn't care if she got pissed, because at least it was something other than that cold, dead expression. Coldly, he clamped his hands down on her shoulders and gave her a look that said he meant Business. "Got two options here, sweetheart. Either you strip down and get in the shower all on your own, and I'll leave the room all nice and proper, or I'll bathe you. Pick and choose."

Her voice sounded knotted and gnarled. "You wouldn't dare," she spat.

Spike arched his eyebrows at her, challenging her with his eyes. "Wouldn't I?"

Fury. Passion. Rage. All of it there, all of it in her pretty, open face. Yeah, love. That was the stuff. "Get the fuck out and leave me alone."

With that, Spike grabbed her by the arm and practically threw her into the shower.

Cold, cold, so fucking cold. Buffy gasped when the needles of icy water peppered her body, and she struggled against his grip as he held her in there. "Goddammit, Spike!" she yowled, her eyes wide with shock from the cold water. "Let me go!"

"Not a chance," he snarled. Hoped she didn't notice he was shaking. Tried not to think about the way that she was hitting at him with ineffectual fists, like that night, like that night in this fucking room. Had to do this. Do it for her sake, do it for her. Be the asshole she wanted him to be. "I'm not leaving 'til you get your head screwed on straight. So you just stand there in that shower and get that shit off you, Slayer, cause--"

He'd been doing well so far. Got a reaction out of her, got her talking again. But he'd fucked up, and he knew that now.

He'd called her "Slayer."

Furiously, Buffy shoved him away from her with all her power, and in a flash of nostalgia that almost made him vomit, Spike was thrown against the dressing table. Bottles of aspirin and rolls of medical gauze went flying, and he was slumped against the wall as she stepped out of the shower, sopping wet and dripping water all over the clean floor. She glared down at him scornfully, her eyes blazing with fire, and before she said a word, Buffy picked up the shampoo bottle from the edge of the shower and threw it at him. It hit him hard in the shoulder, but Spike didn't complain.

That's my girl.

"What the fuck is wrong with you?" Buffy yelled. The conditioner bottle was next, and it struck him square on the kneecap. That smarted, and he yelped and clutched his leg. "Christ! I was just fine, I'm fine!"

"Bugger that! You were catatonic!"

A bitter laugh spilled out of her, and she threw her arms wide. Looked desperate and terribly sharp at that moment, her hair hanging in wet strings around her cheeks. She'd gone pink with fury, and he really was a right bastard, but fuck if Spike didn't want her. Fuck if his cock didn't twitch a bit when her little fingers balled up into fists. "What was I supposed to say? 'Well, Spike, I killed a guy tonight. Guess I'd better go take a shower and get to bed?'"

"No," he said sourly, "but responding to simple questions might've been a bit more helpful than staring out into space like a bleedin' halfwit."

"God, what is wrong with you?" she said. "What, do you think that throwing me into a shower and telling me to cool off is going to make things better? Is it going to go back in time and take that man's life back? I killed him, Spike. I fucking killed a man tonight. How the hell can you possibly make that right? Tell me!"

But he had nothing to tell her, because Spike knew that there was no way to make it better. No way to fix it.

No way to fix him.

Something seemed to come over her then, something he hadn't seen in ages and had never wanted to see again. That little twist of acidic cruelty to her mouth. That hard, flinty look that made her eyes look like steel. A smirk twisted her face, and she swiped angrily at stray strands of wet hair that blew in her face. "What?" she asked. "No smart, cool answer for me? You're not going to tell me that all the people I've saved outweighs this sorry bastard of a man? Want to tell me that this asshole doesn't tip the scales? Oh, wait - that's right. You've got a soul now."

Spike gritted his teeth and glared at her. "You don't know what you're on about."

"No, you don't. You don't know what this feels like, Spike. You killed without a soul. It was part of what you were, part of the animal inside of you. But me? I'm just me. Buffy Summers. And I had a soul when I did that. I knew it was wrong and I did it anyway, because I couldn't take...."

She was breaking down. Tears started to roll down her cheeks, and Spike felt his heart snap and shudder as she cried words at him in wet, painful sobs. "I don't understand it," she wept, her shoulders shaking from the force of her grief. "It's not supposed to happen like this. I just couldn't... not after what I went through. Not after last year. And this stupid old man wants to put an innocent boy through that, after he'd suffered all that time being sick, and I didn't know what else to do. I couldn't let it happen, I couldn't...."

Buffy was so very, very tired.

Everything was hitting her all at once, and she felt punch-drunk and dizzy from the horror of everything she'd witnessed tonight. Everything she'd done. She was cold, and wet, and scared and hurt. She was scared of herself. Of what she had done with her own two hands. She'd thought that there were pieces of her left in that open grave, but she was wrong. There had still been enough left of her that a night like this could take another part of her away.

Smooth, soft hands wrapped around her arms, and Spike drew her in close to him, so close she felt like she could just sink inside of him and never come out again. Embraced her completely, his arms strong and gentle around her. "It's all right, love. Come on, then. Have your cry; that's a girl."

So she did.

It all spilled out of her like uncorked wine as she buried her face in his chest, felt him rain kisses on her damp hair. His hand cradled the back of her head, and she squeezed him tight in her arms as he whispered shushing noises into her ear. God, she needed this. Needed to just let it out with him, with Spike, who knew her so well that it broke her heart. The things he must see in her....

Does he smell the killer in me now? Am I different now, forever changed, because there's blood on my soul?

"Know it hurts," he murmured. "Christ, I know. But love, you're not damned for it. Doesn't change who you are, what you've got inside you."

"It doesn't," she whispered. "Because I've always been this way. Dead on the inside. There are pieces of me missing, Spike. It's what he said, what he told me, and he was right...."

Spike pulled away from her just enough before he caught her chin in his hand and narrowed his eyes at her. "Who fed you that rubbish? Drake Lucas? That where you were when we were fighting off those things?"

Buffy didn't say anything; she just tried to look away, but his grip was firm and he wasn't letting go of her any time soon. A desperate noise fell out of her, and Buffy hated the sound of her own voice. How long had she sounded this cynical? This jaded? Even her laughter was soured and turned, like milk gone bad. "Aren't I broken?" she asked. "You should know better than anyone else just how fucked-up I am. All the ways I hurt you. All the things I did."

"Christ, Buffy, last year you were going through so damn much--"

"It's not an excuse," she said. "It doesn't matter. Because no matter how far I think I've come, I can't help but want it. Can't help but need it. That's what's missing inside of me, Spike. Life, love, all those things that tie me to the world. I left them in that grave, and I can't ever get them back. There's only one way, and God, I can taste it. He made it taste it, and I can still feel it, and when you put everything up next to it, it's crap."

A horrible, yearning sigh pushed out of her and she almost faltered on her feet. "Spike, I can still taste it...."

So he kissed her.

Rough, hard, uncompromising mouth. Not a spot of tenderness or fragility. It was an assault on her senses, and God, it felt good. Teeth and tongue, his hand hard against her skull as he tangled his fingers in her damp, disarrayed locks. She could feel his fingertips on her shoulders, digging in so hard that if she was lucky, she'd bruise. Spike pulled her hard up against him, and she could feel the whipcord leanness of him pressed taut against her, and yesssss, this was what she needed. She clawed her hands and scraped at his skin, felt desire flare up sudden and strong in her belly. Couldn't get enough of him, needed him strong and brutal. Her fingernails cut ribbons into the nape of his neck, and she hissed into his mouth as she pressed him hard against the wall. Wrapped a leg around his waist, tried to climb him like a ladder, and if she could just kiss the soul out of him then she'd be free, she'd be whole, she'd be. She'd just be.

One large hand clamped onto her ass, roughly cupping her flesh as she gasped and arched into his mouth. She could feel his cock hardening against her, and the length of his shaft pressed hard and long between her legs, right up against that sensitive strip of flesh that was getting wet and swollen with every passing moment. Wanted to fuck him, wanted to kiss him, wanted those hands that knew her skin so well all over her. And it didn't matter if his hands were shaking or if her heart was breaking, because all of this was sensation and it prickled all over her dull skin. Made her feel alive. Made her feel.

"Can you feel that, love?" he growled into her mouth. "Come on, baby, can you feel how bad I want you? Feel me, that's right, come on...." His fingers wrapped fiercely around her wrist and brought her hand down to his denim-clad cock, and she felt it jump and twitch under her touch. A gasp spilled out of her, and she arched her hips against him as his voice simmered and sang in her ear. "Yeah, that's right, come on then. Put it on me, put it all on me. That's my--"

Oh my God.

Horrified, Buffy shoved him away from her and covered her mouth with her hands. Oh God. She'd almost done it again. Almost threw him against the wall and fucked him like last year. Like it was nothing, like he was nothing. Just some object she could use to make herself feel better, feel anything. And he'd let her, and he would let her again if that was what she wanted. Didn't have to say it; she could see it all in those big blue eyes of his as he gave her a bewildered look from the corner. "Buffy...."

She threw up her other hand and shook her head, stepping away from him. "No, no," she said. "No way. Oh my God, I almost.... I can't do this again. I can't. Not after last year."

Bewildered, Spike stared at her from the corner. Just a moment ago, she'd been all over him, fingernails in the scruff of his neck and her mouth sweet and wet against his. Now, she was balling up her fists in her hair and wild-eyed like a banshee. Didn't get it, didn't get her. "Love, it's all right, you just needed--"

"What?" she asked. "Needed to beat you up again? Needed to drive you into the ground? Don't you see, Spike? Don't you get it? Every word Drake Lucas said about me was right, and I just proved it. I don't have it in me to love. To give. All I can give you is death and violence and broken things, and that's all I'll ever--"

"Bollocks."

Spike stared at her from the corner, feeling resolve flood through him as he stared at her. Looked so brittle, she did. Just a wisp of a girl. He walked to her and grabbed her by the arms, and looked at her fiercely. "Every word that bastard said to you was rubbish. Don't tell me no different. I can see you, you know. See you like you can't. And when I look at you...."

Gently, Spike pushed her hair off her brow. Looked at her damp face, plain and undressed by any makeup or dirt. Just clean, simple, unadulterated Buffy. Bright bottle-green eyes, angel-sweet mouth that could twist into a million devilish expressions when she put her wicked little mind to it. Saw her pain, yeah, cause that was always there. Couldn't take those scars away from her anymore than she could eradicate his. But see, you had to look underneath that. Underneath all that agony and uncertainty, there was something beautiful.

"Got lots of love in you," he murmured. Touched her cheek, touched the pout of her lower lip. "Buffy, you've got so much in you that it almost killed me last year when you wouldn't give it up to me. And I almost... in this room...." His hand started to shake, and he supposed she noticed it because she whispered his name and stepped a little closer. Ah, see? There it was. That essence of her that he loved so dearly. The fact that even though she was suffering, even though she was in absolute torment right now, she cared. She always cared.

"I know you never believed me when I told you that I loved you," he said. Before she could protest, he put a finger on her lips and shook his head. "It's all right. I get that. Couldn't let yourself believe it, 'cause I was a bastard and still am. But I do, you know. Love you. Not out of some twisted perversion, not out of some fucked-up obsession with Slayers. Not because you hurt me or bruised me or were just bloody impossible. Was 'cause you were everything I... fuck, you were everything I wanted to be. Didn't know it, didn't ever realize it until recently, but it's true."

Her shoulder slumped, and she sighed. Closed her eyes and shook her head. "Spike, I'm not--"

"Yes," he said forcefully. "You are. That's what you don't get, Summers. I didn't go out and grab a soul just because of what I did to you in this room. Didn't do it just because I wanted you to love me, or wanted you to have what you deserved. Did it because you inspired me to do it. You made me want things in myself that I'd never even dreamed I'd want. Made me want to be a better man. And Buffy--"

But he didn't even finish, because her mouth was on his and he couldn't think.

Sweet, this kiss. Not at all like the last. Tender, just a whisper of her silky mouth against his. Her soft, warm hand trailed down the side of his face and cupped his jaw, and he felt himself sag under the featherweight of the kiss. Everything in him just crumbled, and his knees went weak as she softly opened his lips with her own and traced the tips of his teeth with her tongue. Spilled a whimper into her mouth, touched the base of her neck, and then he could feel it.

Love.

Everywhere. All around him. Crawling up inside of him while she kissed him so thoroughly that he thought his soul could taste her. Every ache, every pain, every ounce of torment that had brewed inside of him for the past three months just melted away. Release, merciful release. Spike actually whimpered into her mouth, moved his shaking hand to touch her cheek, and the warmth of her skin almost turned him to ash. And Christ, she loved him. She loved him.

And for a moment, just a moment, Spike found some peace.

Then she pulled away, a little furrow in her brow as she looked up at him with searching eyes. "Did you feel that?" she asked, worriedly.

Couldn't help it; Spike laughed a little. Put a finger under her chin and smiled at her. "Oh, yeah."

So she kissed him again, passionately now, with the force of all her desires and being. Her breasts soft and sweet against his chest, her hands reaching around to the small of his back. She reached up under his shirt and scaled his spine with her fingertips, and his dick was throbbing in his too-bloody-tight jeans. And Christ, he wanted to cry at the irony of all of this. Kissing her in this fucking bathroom.

But this wasn't three months ago, and they weren't the same people, and this was very, very different.

Buffy pulled away and Spike gasped as she pulled his tee shirt over his head, and then her wet, warm body was pressed up against him. Smelled fresh, her girlish skin up against his, hot breasts and soft cotton top. Her talented little tongue darted out to lick at his collarbone, and Spike cried out when she scraped her teeth along the side of his throat. She knew, she just knew that drove him mad. Everything flared up inside of him, and all his blood rushed and raced. So hard he thought he might burst, and her hand on his dick and fuck--

"Christ, you remember everything," he gasped into her face, and she nipped at his jugular, bit at his chin before she captured his lower lip between her teeth. Sucked hard and good holy Christ, he was going to come in his pants if she kept this up.

Sooty lashes lowered over her dark, lust-colored eyes. "I could never forget you," she murmured, and her voice was as husky as sandpaper, sweet and ragged. Her words hit him like a shot of whiskey, and Spike moaned as she dragged her fingernails slow and hard down his chest. Shuddered, shimmied, writhed under her touch. "Not an inch of you, not a minute of you. Love you too much to forget you." Buffy reached up to unbutton her top, and then paused. Lowered her hands slowly, and then picked up his hands in hers. Brought his fingers to her shirt. "Come on, Spike. I trust you."

I could never trust you enough for it to be love.

Pain stabbed him through the heart as it all closed in around him. The smell of it. Girly soaps and desire. Buffy standing there, holding his hands in hers, bringing them to her breast. Tried to rip her robe that night. Groped her, bruised her with his hands. Could smell it all around him in this little room. Could smell the night he'd....

Buffy furrowed her brow and looked at him with concern. "Spike? Are you all right? Your hands... they're shaking."

He pulled his hands away from her, tried to give her a smile, but he was pretty sure it came out as a wince. "I'm fine." Didn't sound too convincing, apparently. She just looked more worried. Spike swallowed, ran a hand through his hair. "It's just... room doesn't bring up a whole lot of good times."

Realization dawned, and then Buffy winced. "Oh, God. Spike, I'm so sorry. I didn't even think...." She laughed a little, bunched up her hair with nervous hands. "God, I just keep screwing this up, don't I? Good old Buffy, with the inappropriate timing and the bad setting."

"It's not you," he said. "Don't think that for a second, pet. Knew what I was doing when I brought you in here. Just had to get you back, you know?"

He astonished her sometimes. No, not just sometimes. Most of the time. Even in the beginning, when he still hated her and she really hated him, Spike always managed to surprise her. Whether it was calling a truce with her in order to save the world or enduring hell to save her little sister's life, Spike constantly challenged every idea she had in her head about him. And here he was again, standing in the middle of the bathroom with trembling hands, all because he was afraid for her.

God, how she loved him.

She reached out and picked up his hand. Looked down at those elegant fingers, smiled, and then looked up at him. "You know that I love you, right?" she asked. "You know it. I meant what I said. I trust you, Spike. I trust you with everything. What happened in this room, three months ago.... It's done. Over. It won't happen again. Ever. I know that. And you have to know it, too."

She licked her lips and dipped her head. "I don't know if I can love you right. And don't interrupt me here, because I have to say this. I'm terrified that I'm not going to be able to love you enough. To love you the way you deserve to be loved. I do love you. God, I love you so much that it stuns me. But what Drake said... there's truth in it. Even if it's not entirely true, it's not really a lie, either. There are pieces of me that are busted. But I love you with all my broken heart."

Her hand was still tangled up in his as she pulled him toward the door. Licked her lips a little nervously, but kept her eyes steady on him. "Come to bed, Spike. I'll do right by you."

He followed.

The bedroom was still dark, and the house was quiet. Buffy locked the door behind her as she pulled him into the room, and when she turned back around, Spike was standing by the bed. Eyes full of questions and uncertainties, but oh, she could see the lust in him. He wanted this. Wanted her. So beautiful, her big panther of a vampire, standing by the bed and bathed in moonlight.

Carefully, she stepped towards him, picking up his hands in hers and toying with his fingers. Mmm, he had the most clever hands. Always knew just how to touch her. Knew like nobody else. She kissed him again, long and slow, and she smiled when she felt him purr against her. God, she loved that sound. That rumbling low in his chest that only Spike ever did. Angel never purred. He was never that content.

"Undress me," she whispered in his ear, and Spike grinned at her. Big grin, wolfish one, the kind that made her panties even damper and her heart speed up. God, that smirk. The one that said he knew exactly how to make her scream. She loved that wicked, naughty grin more than she would ever understand.

"Whatever you say, Slayer," he growled into her ear, and she hissed in a breath at the way the sound hit her. His hands pulled her tight against him, and then he ripped her shirt off. She gasped when he tore at the cloth, and then she swatted at him lightly, giving him a mock-scolding look.

"God! You'd think that soul of yours would feel bad at ruining my clothes," she said, and he grinned, holding up the tattered remains of her dark gray blouse in his hand.

"Nah. I'll steal you a new one."

Oh, thank God some things never changed.

That hungry, predatory rumble in his chest was still there as he lowered his head to her breast, biting at the soft skin. He showed the bra a little mercy and unsnapped it, and then he sat down on the bed. Pulled her close to him, between his legs, and she gasped when he licked at her nipples. Smiled up at her with that voracious grin of his. "Mmm, I love the sight of you like this. Beautiful girl, you are. Missed this, missed the sight of you." Another nip of his teeth against the underside of her breast, and Buffy gasped, threw her head back, arched her hips. "Love this little spot, right here." Moved his mouth just to the side, where that sensitive little mole was. Brushed the teardrop of his upper lip against it lightly, and Buffy hissed in a breath when an intense rush of arousal stabbed her low in her belly. "Yeah, make that noise. Christ, love your noises. Love your--"

"Shut up," she gasped, wrapping her hands in his hair and drawing him close to her breast. "Always talking, you're always talking, but oh God, do that growly thing again...."

A mischievous flash of his eyes. "What, this?"

Spike growled low and dark against her breast. His chest was up against the curve of her belly, and the vibrations shot straight down to her crotch and she could feel herself spasm and shudder, so turned on that her skin was screaming. God, only Spike. Only Spike could ever make her feel this way. "You and no one else," she gasped, and it didn't matter if he understood what she meant. Just had to say it. "God, Spike, I love you so much, I love you--"

Her words were an aphrodisiac. Shot straight through him like honey, down to his cock, and the soft weight of her breast in the palm of his hand wasn't going to be enough. Had to have all of her, had to taste her, feel her, make her come a thousand times. Put her in ecstasy, make her fine and sweet in his hands. "Got to get you out of these wet things, don't we?" he said, and he quickly went to work unfastening her jeans. Slid a hand between her legs, smirked a little triumphantly when he felt the damp proof of her desire through the hot silk of her panties. "All of these wet things, as the case may be...."

"Egotistical bastard," she hissed into his ear, and he smiled blissfully.

"Yeah, and you love me for it."

She loved him. Christ, she loved him. Didn't ever have to question it, didn't ever have to wonder again. Could feel it every time she touched him. Heard the words fall out of her mouth when she touched him. Yeah, he didn't know if he deserved it. Didn't know if he was really worthy of that kind of affection from her. But God help him, he couldn't turn it down. Couldn't help but feel warmed by it. Said she was going to do right by him. Well, he was going to do right by her, too. Had to.

He pulled her jeans and panties down her hips, and she stepped the rest of the way out of them. Stood there naked before him, and Spike sucked in a breath at the sight of her. "God, you got beautiful," he breathed.

She arched her eyebrow at him. "Jeez, Spike, and here I was thinking that you always found me beautiful."

Spike gave her a look. "Don't be daft; you know you're a knock-out. Just thinkin' bout you makes me hard. But love, looking at you now...." He shook his head in awe. That slender waist, the round curve of her belly, the glow of her skin under the moon. "So beautiful, you are. Breaks my heart."

Her smile faltered, and he knew that she was thinking about what had happened tonight. "Make me feel beautiful, Spike," she said. "Tonight, I'm not really feeling it."

Spike pulled her down to the bed and pushed at her shoulders until she was lying on her back. "Got those haunting eyes, you do. Kind that'll follow a man around for years." Kissed her eyelids, kissed every body part he named as he worshipped her body. "Sweet mouth, tastes like mint and tears tonight. Rosy cheeks, mm, love your earlobe." Looped his tongue through the little silver hoop, felt her hiss and arch towards his body as he bit down on the tender flesh of her ear. "Slender little neck, god, have wet dreams about that throat of yours. Slender little shoulders, and your pretty tits, and that darling belly button." Got a genuine scrap of laughter out of her when he dipped his tongue into her navel. Ah, there was his girl. There was a flash of her. "Love your laugh, love your legs, and the smell of your cunny. God, you smell so good...."

And oh, the taste of her....

Danced across his tongue. Heady and intoxicating, waves of desire radiating off of him. Slid his tongue up her swollen labia, dipped the tip of it in her pussy. Smelled like marshes, she did. Ripe and rich and full of secret beauty. Tasted like saltwater and red wine. Deep and rich, like no other woman on the face of the planet. God, he loved this. Always had, always would. Loved the feel of her warm thighs against his face as she drew up her legs and gasped. Loved the sounds that she made, the ecstasy she projected. Didn't matter if he was so fucking hard he was going to bust out of his jeans any bloody minute. Giving her this.... It was like he could feel it, too. Feel everything she felt.

Her hand clutched blindly at his hair, fingers wrapping up in his curls as he licked at that tiny little button of nerves tucked away under the folds of her sensitive skin. Could feel her fingernails dragging against his scalp, and he was desperate to reach a hand down and touch himself, do something to relieve the pressure on his aching cock. But Spike couldn't drag his hands away from her skin. Couldn't stop touching her; couldn't touch enough of her.

Could never get enough of her.

"Spike!" she gasped, and all those delicious little noises were gasping and shuddering through her. He slid a finger inside of her, felt her pulse and throb around him, and he was dying to be inside of her. Bury himself inside of her so deep he could touch her heart, feed from her warmth. "Oh, God, Spike, I'm.... I'm almost...."

Suddenly, she shoved at his shoulders and pushed him away from her. Spike looked at her in confusion, and she panted out the words. "Have to... have to have you... inside...." Her fingers fumbled at the buttons on his jeans, and Spike sucked in a breath when her hot little hands brushed his prick through the fabric of his jeans. Oh, Christ, needed her so bad.

Finally, she got the buttons undone, and then she dove her hand inside, wrapped her hand around his hard, long cock. Christ, he couldn't handle it, and he jumped at her touch, felt all rational thought leave his mind as she cradled his balls in her hand. She stroked him long and good, from the base of his shaft to the wet tip. Spike's hips jerked towards her and he made a strangled noise in the back of his throat. Good God, her hands. "Mmm, you feel so good, God, Spike...."

"Inside you," he gasped. "Now, else I swear it, Slayer, I'm gonna explode."

Her hands grabbed desperately at his ass, and she pulled him inside of her, and he was there.

So long. Been so long since he'd felt this. Yeah, they'd toyed with kisses and gasps since he'd come back from Africa, but God, nothing like this. Nothing this complete. Surrounded by her, drowning in Buffy. Tight and hot around him, her panting breaths hot against his shoulder as he sank into her. Never forgot this. Never forgot what it felt like, to be inside of her, hotter and wetter than a tropical storm, her fingernails clutching at his shoulders as he moved in and out of her. Felt it moving, stirring inside of him. Felt ecstasy bubble up in his veins, and he pressed his forehead to hers. Looked into the swirling blurs of her eyes, too close for focus.

And then he felt it. Something new, something different. Very different from the last time they'd coupled like this. This wasn't about blood or brains or bodies. Deeper than that, more radiant than that. Something unfurling from inside of him, gaining color and shape, clarity and beauty.

He could feel his soul for the first time without pain.

"Do you feel it?" he whispered as he thrust in and out of her. "Christ, love, do you... do you...."

"Yes," she gasped. "Oh, yes. I feel you, Spike, I love you so much--"

And he could feel it, too, and it overwhelmed him into orgasm.

Gasping, clutching, feeling himself shake and shudder as he cried out incomprehensible words into her breast. Felt her shudder around him as she reached her climax. Felt like being released, like finding paradise, and it wasn't shocking in the least that he might find his own taste of heaven underneath Buffy's copper skin.

Time seemed to slow like honey, and Spike groaned as he rolled off of her. They lay there, side by side, staring at the ceiling. His hand was thrown over his head, and he felt her fingers snaking towards his wrist. Needy fingers, clutching at his, twining and binding them both together. Slowly, he turned his head to look at her. Big dark eyes, sweat-soaked brow. She was gorgeous in afterglow. Couldn't believe he saw her like this, all incandescent and fine. So close to him that he could feel her breath. Feel her heartbeat. Feel her everything.

Could feel her sorrow as she came back from sex-soaked bliss and down to reality.

That lower lip trembled, and Spike reached out, brushed his thumb across her mouth. "Hey, now," he murmured. "Don't give me that lip. Know it drives me mad. Tell old Spike what's wrong, ducks."

"It doesn't change things," she whispered. "Me and you. It doesn't... it can't fix what happened tonight. What's going to happen in the future."

Spike shook his head. Put his cool hands on her hot forehead; she always loved that. Got too hot during sex, his little volcano. Needed to be cooled down, soothed. "No, it doesn't," he agreed. "Can't change what happened, love. Hell, if we could, we'd all be running around back and forth through time, trying to fix all the shit we bollixed up."

Her eyes were wide and afraid. Terribly vulnerable, giving him those great big eyes that made his heart contract with pain. "So what do we do? How do... how do we..."

"Shh. We just move on. Take comfort where we can get it."

A sigh, heavy and long fell from her lips, and she gathered him closer to her. Wrapped him up in her arms, and he nuzzled the curve of her breast with his cheek as she clung to him like a vine. Didn't say another word, just moved her hand through his hair.

There was thunder in the distance, breaking through the quiet of the room. A flicker of lightning from behind the gauzy taupe curtains. Storm a-coming, but it was more than just the weather. There were dark things happening all around Sunnydale, and Spike could sense it. Feel it in the air, feel it in his blood. Things were coming for them. Things that might tear them both apart. And yeah, they would fight it. They'd stand tall and wield their weapons, wage their war, and even if it wasn't enough, they would have this. They'd have this.

Ah, not to worry. Not tonight. Tired, so tired, and surrounded by her sweet-smelling body. The smooth rise and fall of her breath was soothing and gentle, and slowly, happily, Spike drifted into sleep.

But love was not enough to make the nightmares go away.

She stayed awake for a while. Not moving, not speaking. Just looking at him as he lay beside her, his eyes pretty and dark as he slept. Heard the soft moans in his throat as he dreamed his bad dreams. Stroked his back, kissed his hair, but it didn't help. Loved him, but it didn't help. And he loved her, but it wouldn't save her tonight from the inevitable nightmares.

So Buffy just laid there, tangled up with him, and tried not to fall asleep.

Because whenever she closed her eyes, all she could see was Brandon Glaze's hand.



Martin Glaze was very, very dead.

The middle-aged man's body lay slumped over the tombstone, the sword still glittering bright in his back. Three teenaged bodies surrounded him, their blood spilling slowly into the soil, which greedily soaked it up like a cat in the sun. Magical herbs were strewn around him, and the candles had all gone out hours ago.

Yes, Drake was very pleased, indeed.

With a small toss of his hand, he brought one of the workers over to him. A young vampire, pretty. Kirsten. That was her name. Grew up in Europe on her daddy's various army bases back in the 80's, and was turned when she was just sixteen. She had a thing for foreign boys and their exotic blood. The girl moved close to him, her eyes flickering in their stupid, dull gold glow. Only the little ones stayed in vampire façade for so long. Still gave them thrills. "Yes, master?" she asked eagerly, and Drake rolled his eyes.

"Mr. Lucas, remember?" he said. "I don't go in for that whole master-and-minion thing. We're not a slave trade, Kirsten. We're a... corporation."

"An evil corporation," she amended, and he smiled with bemusement.

"Mmm, yes. Right. Could you gather up a couple of people and see to it that these bodies are destroyed? I want no evidence that anything happened here tonight, do you understand? If that means you have to scrub the blood off of this tombstone with a toothbrush, then that's the way it'll be. Understood?"

Kirsten beamed at him happily. "Yes, Mas- I mean, Mr. Lucas. Sir!" With one more perky smile, she swiveled on her heel and returned to the other vampires milling about the gravesite.

Drake stared after her for a moment and then returned his gaze to the sword protruding from Martin Glaze's back. Poor Marty. He'd been a sad case. Had a small fortune tied up in stocks and bonds, private jets, expensive yachts. All the luxuries money could buy, and it wasn't enough. Couldn't replace a person with a pretty piece of furniture or an authentic Tiffany lamp. Drake knew this. Learned it years ago, when he was just a boy, back when he had a different name and breath in his lungs. You could try to keep a person alive through memory, but it wasn't the same.

Tiny little fingers protruded through the rich, dark soil. The boy, yes, the boy. Drake knelt down slowly and touched his fingertips to the dead hand. He could feel him. Little Brandon Glaze, dead at the age of twelve from disease and exhaustion. Could feel his soul rippling throughout the universe. Just a little beck and call, and he could've raised him. Could have made the kid walk and talk again, even though the leukemia eventually would've claimed his life in the end. Could still do it. He didn't really need old Marty to raise a little kid from the grave.

But that wasn't what this was about.

This was about the Book.

Drake closed his eyes and felt for it. Yes, it was there. Power, written in blood-ink on ancient paper. Far away, too far for him to see exactly. Besides, it wasn't for him to see. Wasn't for him to take. But everything was going according to plan. There was blood on the blessed sword spilled by the Slayer's hand. And yes, his Slayer. Could feel her, too. Snuggled up with her soulful vampire, all hot and flushed from their fucking. She was an interesting one, this girl who could not help but love the dead. Could still feel her from the crypt, from earlier times. When she'd stood before him and told him she had a name.

He'd prove her wrong.

One of the vampires reached over to touch Martin's dead body, and Drake shot out a hand to still him. "Wait," he said harshly. "I want that sword. Take it with you. It's important. Vital."

The vampire frowned. "But it's all dirty and gross."

Drake frowned for a second, put his hand on the vampire, felt the residuals of his soul. Ah, right. He'd forgotten. When Jeremy was five, his mother had locked him in the basement for punishment, where the rats scuttled across his chubby little knees and the lice built homes in his fair hair. He hated germs. Feared them more than the wood of a stake or the light of day.

Drake gave him a sympathetic smile. "Face your fears, Jeremy. It'll do you a world of good. And if you clean that sword up, I'll make the maggots come back. And you wouldn't want that, would you?"

The vampire's lower lip trembled, and Jeremy shook his head. "N-no, sir. Please."

"Then get the fucking sword and go."

She was not asleep yet. Drake could feel it. Her thoughts were racing. Guilt, yes. There was guilt there. After all, her hands had been the ones that drove the sword through Marty's living heart. She'd taken a life for the first time tonight. A strange sense of pride flared up in his chest, and Drake grinned. Could see her so well, outlined in the shadows of her bedroom, stroking the back of her vampire's neck. Thinking she could save him. Couldn't save Martin, or those three innocent lives, or even poor little Brandon, dead in the ground. Maybe she could save him, though. Maybe.

But Drake already knew that she would fail.

Her eyes were growing heavy. He could feel it, feel the exhaustion as it quivered through her body. Streams of thought, the flow of consciousness slowly ebbing away as she drifted off into sleep.

"Good night, little Slayer," he murmured, and then a grin passed over his face. "Sweet dreams."