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These Violent Delights

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This demon was  not  friendly. 

It was also not really very visible.  Which made it both a good and an irritating way for Buffy to work off her current annoyance.  /You may not be easy to see, but you’re a useful demon./   Grunt, swing.  Stab.

Miss.

Typical.

She was off her game tonight.  Well, technically, she had been off her game for a few days now, but that was what happened when a Slayer was doing more fighting with her vampire beau than she was with the demons she was actually supposed to be tussling with.  It distracted, and was a waste of energy, and made her want to give beat-downs in the wrong places, and…

Her head rocked back as the transparent thing she was fighting got a good punch in edgewise; a very sharp one, filled with talons like broken shards of glass.

/Dammit!/

Stilling herself, quietening even her breath, Buffy went old-school.  Listened through the low, moaning whuffle of the Santa Anas flowing around her, caressing her skin with warmth… and heard a faint swish on the grass to her immediate left.  Her  uncovered  left.  Swung out with her off-elbow… and caught the whatever-it-was in the face or throat or something.

There was a  thud  as it went down hard. 

Whirling, she swung downward, no time to lose, and gave it a whack with her sword.  Saw the faint ripple in the grass that indicated what might have been edges. Heard a weird cracking noise, like a shattering window, and a faint, sharp cry, then silence. 

“Ugh.”  Her cheek was dripping blood onto her shoulder.  “What the hell  were  you, anyway?”

Her head jerked up when a slow-clap rang out across the cemetery.  /Oh, you bastard./ 

Swinging down off of the nearest crypt-top where he had been sitting, apparently nonchalantly dangling his feet to watch the show, Spike landed with casual competence and came up from his panther’s crouch to approach.  Standing at her elbow but with slightly more space between them than was standard, he peered down at the invisible monster in the grass. Scuffed at the spot for a moment, then shook his head. “I’ll get it, pet.” And bending, he grasped… something.  Lifted. 

His shoulder seemed to ripple a little, but that was it. 

“Wh…”

Straightening, his eyes bored into hers.  “Wouldn’t want some poor tosser to come here in the daylight and trip on the bloody thing, innit?” he pointed out, and tilted his head in the direction of the open grave she had passed on the way in, probably dug for the next fledge she’d have to stake tomorrow night. 

They walked in strained silence till they gained the edges of raw earth.  With a low grunt of effort, Spike hefted the thing in. It fell with a  whoosh  and a crystalline rattle as it hit bottom.  “There. ‘Magine they’ll just toss a bit more dirt in to hide it from the mourners, lower the casket, and call it good.  No doubt the sods around here are used to lookin’ the other way, yeah?” But as if to be helpful, he kicked a few clods in over the edge from the pile of dirt left behind by the backhoe.

They rattled down along… something inside the dark pit.  Some of them seemed to hover without quite touching the bottom.  “You know that probably made it worse, right?” Buffy pointed out blandly.  Which was probably bitchy of her, since it was damned nice to have help with the cleanup nowadays, especially when she was tired from a night of slaying, and definitely when she was wounded.  It made it easier to get home or back to school quick and get some sleep before the day started all over again, which was still relatively new for her. 

Or, well, sometimes it made it easier.  Sometimes it was just a means to a quickie.  Or had been, till recently. All the better to make time so they could make time and all that.  Except there hadn’t been any sex in four days. Not post-slayage. Not at all. Not even any more angry, possessive sex.  Just, nothing.

Spike hadn’t even tried to do anything about the gouges in her face, which was totally unlike him. 

Instead, he shrugged and turned away, heading for the crypt he had recently begun to renovate here at Restfield.  “Willful ignorance is bliss,” he pointed out, and poked inside his duster for his cigarettes. 

They fell into a silence that was somehow both comfortable and mildly awkward, and dammit, couldn’t he just admit it wasn’t her fault so they could move on?

Everything had been going so damned well, for months, before that idiot Dracula had shown up in town.  For one thing, there had been no official capital-A Apocalypse last year, which in and of itself had been weird as hell, and definitely a first in Buffy’s experience.  By far a first for her tenure here. Not that things had been in any way uneventful. First, there had been a frustratingly sexless family Christmas, replete with Spike being a ridiculous puppy over his inclusion in the festivities (Mom got him a dark blue sweater that matched his eyes and made them glow and which, okay, made Buffy drag him outside for a serious makeout session when he promptly wore it to please ‘mum’). 

Needless to say, the school break was also replete with a whole hell of a lot of snuggling and petting, and during the above event, one extremely chilly tryst on the back porch that might have turned into full-on wall-sex if Mom hadn’t been literally right on the other side, in the kitchen, baking something or whatever. 

Unfortunately it was also full to the brim with Giles climbing right up Buffy’s butt at every opportunity about her not-quite-promise to look deeper into that whole First-Slayer inheritance thing with that what-was-her-name, Sineya, but that was slow going.  A lot of the stuff on her was in some African language—Yoruba or something?—and was really tough. Giles did a lot of shepherding Buffy through the meditations; and yes, she was willing, because she truly did want to get to the bottom of her very primitive connection with Spike on an apparently demon-y level… but it was tough to concentrate on stuff like that when said demon-y level (and every one of her human-y levels, to boot) was mostly focused at that moment on getting her vamp alone behind some corner on any available flat surface for some far more physical meditations.  As such, she'd made a lot less progress than Giles had really hoped for before school became a thing again. “Sorry, Giles. I’ll keep on it whenever I don’t have homework, I swear.” /And probably make a lot more progress once I get really, really laid./

Between Mom, Giles, and holiday family-time, Christmas break from school had flown by with hardly any moments alone.  Then, immediately after all the snuggly family fa-la-la-ing, there was a very small mini-apocalypse-earthquake thing—which had, by the way, totally gotten in the way of attempt number whatever at getting down while they had actual voices.  A) crypts and stuff falling on people during earthquakes actually got distracting, eventually. B) Buffy had been way too freaked by the concept of possible world-endage to focus after that. 

Spike had been not only understanding but all gung-ho to go out with her and beat up the stupid jerks out to end everything for the nth time, and had helped her stop the ritual by virtue of a nice slaughterfest down around the hellmouth, because why not have more killing-in-lieu-of-actual-sex.

They had, of course, given the dorm another shot after that, since things were pretty dead in there over the break.  But unfortunately that didn’t work out even a little bit, because though Willow was gone a lot lately doing all-night study things, she didn’t go home for the break, instead staying on campus over vacation... and she still got a little wigged if she came back and found them doing what Spike called ‘canoodling’.  She had made that pretty clear during the whole ‘mass laryngitis’ episode of things by doing a very succinct impression of ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ and making ew-faces at them while hiding half behind the door. It all made for some very tense attempts at sex that ultimately went nowhere, and Buffy was starting to seriously rethink her concerns about public venues when it came to carnal acts.  Which, if she was being real with herself, every time Spike whispered sweet, dirty, encouraging nothings in her ear in places like the Bronze, was starting to look not just vaguely possible but even maybe… um, a little bit attractive? Like, in a ‘maybe I’m even developing a  thing  for this concept’ kind of way.  Which was bad, bad, bad, but she was starting to have a tough time not thinking about it a  lot  of late, and they really needed to get to the sex in appropriate places before she cracked.

Thank god they’d gotten Spike’s chip out, because without sparring, they’d both have died of sexual frustration.  Probably Buffy’s would have strangled her in her sleep. However. Sparring had eventually started to make it worse, what with the hard, fast, wonderful trial of it, and the laughing and dodging and no-holds-barred  thrill  of it, and…

The thing was, she had kind of forgotten how freaking sexily fast Spike was.  And the way he could, like, grab her and whirl her and hold her from behind, around the neck…  Which move, for the record, was a lot more effective when you kind of wanted it. When you kind of wanted the ‘dip in for the kill', crazed vamp-tinglies, ‘danger-danger!’ portion of festivities, because when his mouth landed it was all cool, seductive lips and nibbling teeth that totally mistranslated that old message from ‘I’m gonna die, he’s gonna eat me’ to something more along the lines of ‘dear god, please eat me I’ve never felt so alive as here on the edge of not-death’.  Which was kind of them all over, and somehow she was supposed to  not  climb him like ivy up a slim, cool, inviting tree, and a graveyard was just fine, wasn’t it?

Well, except for the other vampires and assorted demons who kept showing up to comment on proceedings and vamp-shame Spike for trying to get it on with the Slayer.  Because everyone needed a dose of peer-pressure and guilting in their daily ration these days, and you know what? 

Nowhere was sacred or helpful, and could Mom maybe just go on a buying trip or something? 

Then, hallelujah, she actually had, a week or so into January.  An after-Christmas miracle. Praise Santa.

Which was, of course, when that jerk Ethan Rayne had come back around and turned Giles into a pointy-shouldered demon like those ones who’d gotten out of the Initiative.  Because it was pretty clear at this point that if the universe wasn’t conspiring against Buffy getting back to home plate—and along about then she was kind of over Spike’s insistence that they had to round third first—it was making a serious case for Spike getting an apartment, or a warehouse, or a cave.  “I don’t care,” she’d told him in mindless, frothing frustration. “A cardboard box on the marina!”

“Flammable, those, love,” he’d answered, chuckling and adjusting her clothes.  So much fooling around with plenty of orgasms, sure, but no damn follow-through, and she was  done .  Three weeks done.  Over-done. Toast.  Burnt  toast. 

Would it really be so bad to let him go down on her behind the Bronze or something so they could get this show on the road? /Did I just  think  that?/

/Does the DeSoto count as being in public?  Because I’m sure I can convince him it’s roomy enough if I just get all seductive.  Feel your power, Buffy./

Luckily for both Giles and Buffy’s libido, that whole ‘turned into a demon’ thing had actually not gone so badly, nor had it taken very long to unravel, courtesy of Spike, who somehow understood the language (something to do with having once had Fyarl minions or something.  Buffy really didn’t want to ask too many questions). He had helped convince everyone that their friend and Watcher was really just this dude trapped in a demon’s body so they could go after the real bad guy. Which episode had somewhat endeared Spike to Giles, who had been in kind of a bad way. 

Unfortunately, Giles had picked sort of a rotten moment to start things off, since the reason Spike had had a chance to hear him talk in Fyarl was because her Watcher had chosen the worst possible time to come up into Buffy’s house to try to convince Buffy he was himself.  Basically, just when… well. Buffy had sort of kind of been in bed with Spike along about then, since Mom had  finally  gone out of town for a day or two, thank  god , and after the better part of three days Buffy had finally worn Spike down enough to forget he’d made ‘that lovely woman’ all those extravagant promises about platonic blahdy-blah while under her roof.  As such, they had been trying, right at that apparently very inconvenient moment to see if their relationship should, you know, move very firmly in that direction, posthaste.  Which had contributed to Giles' super bad evening, since Spike had basically been buried in Buffy’s neck with his hands in  places  when he’d showed up in her bedroom doorway. 

Things had actually turned around for Giles right about then, though he hadn’t known it yet.  Probably he’d thought the world was crashing down around his ears. 

Spike had shoved the howling ‘demon’ aside with a curse, so hard that Giles had staggered against Buffy’s bedroom doorway, and gone right on back to what he had been doing—“Spike, I have a demon to fight, would you stop!”  “It’s alright, luv, I’ve dealt with Fyarls before. They’re dumb as posts. Dangerous, sure, but it’ll take a mo’ for the thing to recollect itself and rush us, and I was busy.” Nuzzle, nuzzle—only to pull away in stunned amazement when the demon had shrieked something and come roaring in again, claws bared to try to swipe the amorous vampire from Buffy’s body. 

Disengaging from his very important task, Spike had stiff-armed the thing and stared.  “Oh, surely not.”

Another bunch of incomprehensible roars.

“Oh, for God’s sake, man, I wasn’t going to bite her!  You ought to know better than that by now; or at least to know the girl better than that, yeah?”  A smug grin, and Buffy had at this point been utterly nonplussed by the way Spike had been acting.  “Though, as to what I did intend, if she was willing…”

Another bloodcurdling snarl.

“Oh, bloody hell, keep your knickers on.”  Spike’s free hand had slid up into his hair, and he’d glanced over at half-naked Buffy.  “Romantic interlude’s over for the mo’, obviously. Sorry, pet.”

“Um, obviously!  What the heck…”

Spike had had a weird, contemplative look on his face, though, his eyes studying the demon in a total once-over.  Almost clinical. “So, when did you turn into a Fyarl, anyway? Just come over all demon-y this morning when you woke up, is it?”  And to Buffy’s everlasting startlement he’d actually released the now quiescent demon—though to be fair the thing was actually looking kind of hangdog—rolled away from her, sat, held out a hand for her to pull her upright (at which point the demon apparently got shy?  Anyway, it had started looking everywhere but at her in her bra)… and then reached into his jeans for his lighter.

Okay, that was it.  “One, you.   No .  No smoking in my bedroom.   Definitely  not in my bed.  Two; you. Fyarl or whatever.  Who the heck are you, and why does Spike know you?”

Eventually they got the whole Fyarl-Giles thing ‘sorted’, as Spike put it.  Buffy had turned very, very red, hurriedly put her shirt back on, and decided that she would die of embarrassment as soon as this was all over, because awkward, much, having one’s father-figure walk in on the whole partly-naked-and-about-to-get-it-on-fest?

Fyarl-Giles had seemed as grateful as she had been to proceed directly to the task of collaring Ethan Rayne—do not pass Go, do not collect two hundred dollars, definitely do not ever talk about what had just occurred—with only Spike apparently amused at everyone’s discomfiture.

Luckily there had been this whole high-speed chase thing involved in the middle to break the ice, between the DeSoto and the cops, with Spike grinning over the wheel and squeezing Buffy’s thigh in clear, almost sexual enthusiasm while the huge Giles-beast hunched over on the other side of the cab looking both hunted and unwillingly aroused by the experience.  After that there had been a wildly unsettling one-sided (to Buffy) conversation between Spike and the be-demoned Watcher about demon-y urges, one which Buffy had had to interrupt to ask Giles, sweetly, if he hadn’t expected this, since he’d been ‘ridden’ by a demon once or twice before as a young Ripper. 

Giles hadn’t liked that much, muttered something that Spike had later informed her (he had recounted the whole convo to her, actually, much to her discomfort) was something along the lines of his having tried to forget about being a demon’s pony.  Which, ew. 

Then he’d lumbered out of the DeSoto to chase down a cop who had recently given him a parking ticket, to scare him.  Which was kind of totally un-Gilesy behavior… but also kind of impulsive and teenager-y, and Buffy had had to try really hard not to laugh.

As soon as she realized her Watcher-beast wasn’t going to eat the guy, anyway. 

Spike’s restraining hand on her thigh had tightened when she’d been about to dart out to stop him.  “He’s just blowin’ off steam, pet. Lot of crazed urges an’ energy runnin’ through him right now, yeah?  Tough to control it all, at first. Takes years of practice…” He’d shot her a very intense look. “Even after a hundred-plus, isn’t an exact science.”  And he’d lit up a cigarette and turned away to blow smoke out of his open car window. 

Everything about his demeanor had made her shiver in anticipation, and why in god’s name did stuff like that turn her on?  Was she really that big on flirting with danger?

She’d asked Spike that later, in bed, after they’d chased Ethan out of town—again—while her vampire stroked one hand slowly up and down her leg, urging her back to the place they had been in before all this.  “I think, luv… you spend your life flirting with death and danger. After that, after livin’ on an adrenaline high, vanilla shite and human lads… just aren’t gonna get you off. It’s just not in the cards for you.”

It had hurt to hear it.  But… it was real.

They had gotten it on,  finally;  which, boy howdy, by the way, with that whole if human guys hadn’t gotten her hot or gotten her off, vampires sure the hell did.  And in comparison to the first time, she hated to say it, because it sounded super disloyal, but… Just,  damn.   Happy birthday to Buffy, a little early and often, and many thanks to Spike for the best birthday she had had in recent memory! 

Much ‘practicing’ had ensued thereafter, in every available locale and very much to the detriment of college and Slayer homework; and for the life of her, Buffy couldn’t find it in herself to care.  She learned very quickly that there were actually very many extremely inventive ways to turn Spike’s favorite activity into a vertical sport if you just got creative. And he was endlessly creative, now that he had gotten his original ‘need time to do this right’ thing out of the way.  The main problem was actually getting him to stop long enough to give her a turn, because she wanted to learn, dammit!

Only a couple of weeks into the ensuing sextravaganza… Faith screwed everything up when she woke up from her coma.  And took over Buffy’s body, and her life. 

For, like, a minute.  Spike had walked in on Faith and Mom, gotten an earful of the other Slayer’s attempts to seduce him using Buffy’s bod, frowned, asked her, “Buffy, what the bloody hell’s going on, you alright?” and had, according to Mom (who was being  held hostage  at that moment by her ex-sister), glanced over at the woman sitting tense on the bed, gotten a whiff of all the anxiety and anger on the air, frowned, turned, cupped Faith-as-Buffy's face, looked into her eyes… and backed away.  “Joyce, you okay?”

“No.  Actually, Spike, I’m not.  That’s  not  Buffy.”

“Yeah.  Did notice that.”

Which was apparently when Faith had attacked him. 

She’d had no chance.  Faith was a damn good fighter, sure.  But she was in a body she wasn’t used to, and had been in a coma.  The reflexes were a little off when it came to brain-body communication.  Meanwhile Spike, well-fed, chip-less and sparring daily with a Slayer, the vampire who had spent a hundred years battling Slayers as a hobby… 

Eventually Faith had fled.  Right into Buffy, who had arrived right in that moment to clash with her, in Faith’s body, in her front doorway.

The subsequent shouting-match between the Scoobies and Spike, Mom, et al over who was who had been kind of epic, taking place as it had while the two of them had thrown down in the front yard.  It was a good thing Spike had been there to bear witness, since Buffy had had her hands totally full.  At one point Faith got Buffy down for a sec, at which point she'd absolutely lost her shit and tried to beat the hell out of her own face while screaming things like, "You're disgusting!  You're worthless!"  Just absolutely freaking to the point she was almost hysterical, which was... kinda sad?  

Seeing that, who knew what might've happened if Spike hadn't been there.  Luckily, Giles had been convinced enough—mostly because he had enough confidence in Spike’s savvy by then, after the recent Fyarl-support business—to be willing to take his testimony on… well, faith. They’d bundled the two Slayers into the house and hidden them in the basement till the Council’s ‘wetworks’ team had gone elsewhere in their search, then between them chained up the damaged Slayer and found the reversal spell to put them back in their right bodies. 

All’s well that ended well and all that crap.

Buffy had been all for sending Faith off with those wetworks guys.  It had actually been Spike, of all people, who had suggested the Angel thing.  “Not sayin’ I’m a big fan of my grandsire, Buffy; but if they’ve done some talkin’ over it in the past…  The bastard does know a thing or two about gettin’ over his issues, dealin’ with regret an’ the like. Should ask him to take her on.  He’ll do it; consider the project a soddin’ penance.”

Buffy had frowned fitfully.  “He’ll probably sleep with her.”

That comment had earned her a narrow glare.  “Who the bloody hell cares if he does?”

She had glared back.  /Oh, are we really gonna play jealous-guy now?/  “The girl who’ll have to go stake him or try to stuff his stupid soul back in so he doesn’t go tear-assing around LA torturing everyone as Angelus!  Or did you forget what happened the  last  time he got a happy?  Because I  can’t !”

Spike had managed the feat of both looking inordinately relieved and rolling his eyes at her as if she were an idiot all at the same time.  “Oh, for fucksake, Slayer, that wasn’t about him getting off! It was because you were a sweet, innocent sodding virgin, yeah? Which this one’s not; not by any stretch, so if they play with each other, no harm no foul!" 

She’d gaped at him, her world whirling.  “It wasn’t because… of the sex?”

He’d scoffed.  “You think the poof loses the bloody thing every time he tosses off?  That he hasn’t got himself shagged in the last hundred soddin’ years since he left us?  S’ not like he knew about the bloody curse then, yeah? He shagged Darla enough soddin’ times after, no trouble.”  He’d narrowed his eyes pointedly at her. "You think he hasn’t been desperate enough to go pay for a back-alley blowie since?”

/Oh./  She’d flinched, because no way had she thought of that.  Not even a little. And ugh; did he have to make it sound so  sordid?   “What, you think it has to be a… mutual…”

He’d snorted derisively.  “Dunno how mutual anything can be with a virgin, ‘less he was better in bed than I imagine he was.  Which, based on personal experience, and what I saw over twenty years watchin’ him shag Dru, was no doubt real soddin’ short on foreplay.”  He’d actually sneered. “Though I s’pose there’s always room for improvement since.”  

She’d flinched again and looked away to study the ground between her feet, both because she really wished she had never heard the words 'personal experience' in that sentence—she'd known, but she still didn't want to know—and because even now, based on recent personal experiences of her own, she still felt kind of crappy admitting that Spike was really pretty damn right in his assessment.     

So, fine.  There was a difference, and she could separate the two now.  But couldn’t he, like, give her a second to absorb the realization that orgasms were not, in fact, synonymous with ‘perfect happiness’, and sex was not, therefore, synonymous with shame, evil, and death?  After all, it completely threw the entire narrative Angel had fed her under the bus. /Not that I didn’t kind of figure that out since, but I’m kind of really happy when I have them, so, you know… 

/But I guess… we could probably have found ways to get around that little roadblock.  If we were enough.  But he just made it sound so impossible, like he was too scared to try. Like he didn’t want it, or.../

“B’sides," Spike had ground inexorably on, "he’s not in love with the bloody bint, so…”

Still reeling, Buffy had looked away.  “Well, either way, it wouldn’t be good for her.  He’s supposed to be helping her.”

“Well, maybe he’ll be a good boy and keep his prick in his pants, yeah?”

Angel had arrived within a few hours to knock at Mom's door, and was waiting when Buffy opened it.  Buffy had felt him there, knew who it was, and taken a deep breath on the other side of the closed portal before she’d admitted him.  Back in her own body, she had been overly aware of every bruise, scrape, kink, and raw place on her misused form, and also way aware of the vamp-buzz on her skin at fore and aft.  Despite the fact that she knew neither vampire would ever hurt her—at least, as long as the one in front was in his current frame of mind—she’d felt kind of… flanked in that moment, overwhelmed, and had shivered a little at the sense of being plunged deeply into a roiling spa of vampirical sensation.  “Jeez, that’s a bit much,” she’d breathed. It had been a bit much with Spike and Drusilla before, too, but Drusilla had felt… off. Weaker, till she was at full-strength again. Then it was either Drusilla along with Angelus’ weird-ass vibe, or Spike and Drusilla, but seldom both guys at once in close proximity.  Not since that one night with Spike and Angel in the Cabinet, with Spike spouting off about the true nature of love.  /Which... talk about food for thought, now./  

She had forgotten, though, how overwhelming it could be to be so close to the both of them at once.  

Bad enough that there was about to be some kind of jealous vampire showdown—which there would be, inevitably—but to also have to deal with this level of distracting-ness while she kept the two Aurelians from jumping on each other was a bit much.  “Behave yourself,” she’d reminded Spike as she’d set her hand on the doorknob.

“I will if he will,” Spike had answered shortly.  “He already knows I’m here, though.”

“God, this is gonna be so bad,” Buffy had whispered to herself, and opened the door.  “Hey, Angel. Thank you for coming…”

Angel had stood on the front porch, framed in the doorway and straining to burst in right past her surprise disinvite.  When he’d spoken, his reaction had been predictably… colorful. “Buffy! What is  Spike  doing in there?  And why can’t I…”

“Got an invitation, Peaches… which is more than I can say for you.”  Leaning back theatrically, Spike had posed himself on the stairs against his flared-out duster, and smirked.  “How you been, Granddad? Haven’t seen you since that spot of torture in LA.”

/And here we go./  “About that…”

“Not gonna say I’m sorry about it, Buffy.”  The response had come out short, tight, and fierce from where Spike reclined, one elbow cocked back on a step behind him to eye his grandsire in amused condescension.  Every line of his being, though he might have tried to deny it, hummed with tension and a ferocious need to defend self, territory, and a barely-held breastwork of ego, and oookay, this was so not going to be pretty.

Buffy had turned back to her ex, fighting to remember how very little this really had to do with yours truly.  /It’s not really about me, it’s not really about me/ had been the mantra of the day. “I’m sorry about the disinvite, Angel.  It was… just to hold you back long enough to get you to listen, and I wish I didn’t have to do it.”

His eyes had jerked to meet hers, dark and hurt and stunned out of their dark blaze of hatred.  “Buffy, what…”

“Spike’s inside because things have changed.  He lives here right now.” If Angel’s eyes were bulging at that, the next part was really going to hurt.  “Um, we’re, involved now?”

Angel had stopped straining forward and gone briefly limp to stare at her as if she had gone completely insane.  “You’re… Buffy, did… How…” To her distant amusement his eyes had narrowed to shoot over her shoulder to Spike.  “You don’t have thrall," he'd raged, low and furious. "I’d’ve known if Dru taught you.” Buffy's amusement at the ludicrous accusation had fled when they had come back to promptly flicker to her neck.  “Did… Did he…”

/Did he what?  Bite me? What the hell difference would it make if he had?/ 

Behind Buffy’s back, she could hear Spike’s low, warning snarl.  “She’s not mine, Peaches, I’m hers.”

“Okay, what?”

“Because unlike some avaricious bastards, I don’t take without askin’ first, and I sure the bloody hell would tell the girl what I was takin’ before I took it.  Full soddin’ disclosure, yeah?”

Something inside Angel had seemed to relax.  “Then you’re still my girl, right, Buffy? This is just…  You’ve got to be under some kind of spell, or…”

Behind her, Spike had snorted.  “No, that’s long gone. This is the real thing, Angelus.”

“The name’s Angel,  Spike,”  Angel had retorted grimly, but kept his eyes on Buffy, demanding the answer to his old, prodding question.

Buffy had closed her eyes as the pull dragged at her; the automatic drag to respond, automatically and with urgent loyalty, that she was, in fact, ‘his girl’.  But something in the back of her mind had fought, struggling against it. Something old, something fierce, something abruptly more than a little angry, and heading toward outraged. Her nostrils had flared, and she could have sworn in that moment that she could smell, or sense, or feel Spike at her back; a reminder of all they had recently cast off.  A reminder that she was powerful in more ways than she had ever thought of before.  

And something broke inside her.  Something that wanted free.  Something that had been chained.  “I belong to me,” she had heard herself whisper, and pulled herself upright.  It had sounded… liberating.  “I belong to me.” A little louder, this time; a realization, maybe a revelation.

She had opened her eyes, met Angel’s incredulous stare with ferocious, powerful certitude.  “I belong to  me!”

Angel had actually staggered back away from the door, as if the denial of her old, reflexive reassurance had been a blow.  “Buffy!” he’d whispered, sounding dumbfounded.

“She’s not yours, Angel,” Spike had intoned then, and came to his feet behind her to have her back.  “Think you heard her right enough. Which means you don’t get a bloody say who she dates, who she claims, who she sleeps with, any of it.  Now. You gonna be civil and do as she’s asked, help out with the other bird as actually needs you, or are you gonna turn tail and run because you lost this one?”

“I…”

Buffy hadn’t been at all sure what was even happening, except there seemed to be more going on here than just words.  That the words that were being used had heavier meanings than the surface definitions; that they maybe carried some kind of supernatural weight, even.  She’d felt like shaking her head, as if to clear it from some kind of muzzy, hanging curtain of clearing, leftover haze. /I don’t have time for… whatever this is./  “Angel. Make your choice.” 

She’d used to feel like she had all the time in the world to indulge her ex-boyfriend’s mysterious looks, his puppy-dog eyes, his dramatic expressions, but in that moment his wounded expression had seemed strangely irritating.  The whole meeting was kind of grating on her. “Do you care about what happens to Faith, or not? Because either she goes with you and has her shot at redemption, or those wetworks guys from the Council will eventually grab her, and I’m pretty sure, based on what Giles has said about them, that they’ll completely ruin her; or what’s left of her.  I’d like to think Spike’s right, and she can be saved. I mean, I’m not a huge fan of the way she came in here and attacked my mom and tried to seduce him in my body, but that’s kind of Faith for you, and maybe…” It sucked to admit it, but it was true. “Maybe she’s gone through some really bad things we don’t even know about that have messed her up so bad that she feels like she can never come back from it.  And I’d like to think that’s not true. For anybody.” 

Spike’s words would echo in her mind forever; spoken to her the night prior, when she had been ready to strangle her sister-Slayer and have done with it, for putting hands on her mother and her guy.   “Have my suspicions about her, pet.  About what might’ve happened to her, young.  About what happens to people to make ‘em think they’ve no worth, and that there’s no savin’ ‘em.  Give her a chance to have someone who feels the same way tell her she can come back, yeah? That there’s still somethin’ to life.  Let her try. She needs to believe she’s worth somethin’.”

Just the thought that Faith might have gone through…  Not that it would be surprising. Buffy had told Spike she knew she had been luckier than most.  Honestly, why she hadn’t thought of it before was beyond her, considering how Faith acted around guys, and about sex, and about everything; like nothing mattered anymore.  /This world sucks./ And it wasn’t like it was Faith’s fault. /But she would believe it was. And then she’d believe what happened down by the docks was her fault; that it was because she’s wrong.  Bad to the bone. Because she’s never lied to herself like I always did, about our dark side. And then when someone came and offered to take her out of that craphole of a motel and give her a place to live; someone who was nice to her but didn’t try to…/

All the sudden, very belatedly, Buffy had been able to see what had attracted her sister to working for someone even as venal as the Mayor.  It hadn’t been about being evil. Not really. It was about belonging, being cared for… and thinking she had nowhere else to go anyway. /Both because we never gave her anywhere to really fit in, and because she already thought she was the worst.  Oh, man./ “You tried to help her once, Angel, but everything kind of got in the way. I think she’d listen to you. I think you can help her. I think you might be the only one who can.” /Especially if sex doesn’t get involved, and I hope to God it doesn’t, for Faith’s sake./  “So tell me now; are you in, or are you out?”

Angel had stared at her, briefly speechless, then nodded slowly.  “I’ll help her Buffy. But you. I can’t just leave knowing you’re… here.  With him. Like this. I can’t… believe that you’re okay, when…”

To Buffy’s shock, Spike had nodded and stepped right outside the door, past the barrier.  And thrust his hand up in Angel’s startled face. “Let’s find out.”

Angel went instantly into game face.  “I will put you  down , boyo.”

Spike had set himself, spreading his legs, and kept his hand in place.  “Go ahead and try. I’ve learned a thing or two since the last time you did.  And any road, that’s not what I meant. Go ahead, if you have the guts.”

“Oh my God, you guys, will you please not?  I don’t want you two…”

“Leave it, Buffy.”  It was snapped out, short and sharp, stunning Buffy with the rudeness of it.  Since when did Spike ever talk to her like that? 

His hand was still in Angel’s face, his expression aggressive and uncompromising.  “Do it. Unless you don’t wanna, because you’re afraid it’ll confirm everything.”

Angel had growled, low and brutal in the yellow-eyed silence… then to Buffy’s disconcerted amazement he’d seized Spike’s hand.  Spike went promptly to game face as Angel’s fangs sank into the meaty edge of his palm. “Oh my God,  what …”

And then Angel’s expression had changed from vicious anger to startled denial.  His tongue had flickered out in an absent, unconscious move to seal the punctures, and he'd dropped Spike’s palm, half throwing it away from him and half dropping it in disbelief.   “No!   How?  She wouldn’t…”

“It wasn’t like that,” Spike had answered, lisping through his fangs.  “It happened a bit backward, but it did. I was broken. Bleeding. She took me on.  I pledged to her. She accepted me by holding me in her blood. She named me hers. I’ll never raise my hand to her, so you can bloody well toddle off and not worry, yeah?”

Angel’s game face had faded out as if it had never been, leaving behind bewildered chocolate eyes to stare at her over Spike’s leather-clad shoulder, as astounded as if she had shot him through the heart with a flaming crossbow of death.  “Do you have any idea what you’ve  done , Buffy?” he’d breathed.

She hadn’t been at all sure, though she was for damn sure resolved to ask Spike later what the hell that had all been about.  At the moment, however, she had known enough to answer, “Spike’s mine, and that’s all you need to know, Angel. Now, can I let you in without you having a big tantrum, or do I have to keep the barrier over the door?”

For the first time since he had decided to leave her last year, after he’d bitten her, Angel looked utterly defeated.  He’d closed his eyes, and his shoulders slumped. “Fine. Yeah. I guess… I’ll take Faith and head back. I’ll do what I can for her, if she’ll even stay with me; which is debatable after how things ended with us the last time.  And you can…” He’d shaken his head once, in sharp negation. “Go ahead and invite me in, Buffy. I’ll play nice.” Buffy didn’t think she had ever heard him sound so weary.

Faith had still been unconscious from the shots with which Giles was plying her when Angel had picked her up and, with a slight caress to her cheek that had belied his large frame, carried her to his car and handcuffed her to the door with the shackles that had once been used on Dome, the Hellion biker.  (Those chains had, by that point, seen a lot of use lately, between Spike and the Hellion and now Faith.) Before he’d left, though, he’d eyed Buffy and Spike sourly. “If this thing… goes bad, Buffy, give me a call. I’ll be here in a second to back you up. I know how to handle Spike.”

Buffy had had to fight to roll her eyes.  “I have your number.” Wow. Had Angel always sounded so…  So self-important? /Like I can’t handle myself if Spike suddenly loses his mind and attacks me or whatever./ 

It was really weird to think of Angel that way.  To think of him in any way uncharitably. It made her wonder why she was doing so now, when she had once had endless wells of patience for his shenanigans.  It was just… for some reason she was feeling kind of exasperated with him now. She had never felt that way before. It was bizarre.

“Not bizarre, pet,” Spike had told her later, holding her hands in his and kneeling before her while she sat on the couch and fought to swallow the uncomfortable realization that she had been had.  “It’s just tough to think negatively on someone who’s got a blood-leash on you, yeah?” And there was a depth of lived understanding in his tones as he said it.

“So… you’re saying that when he bit me…”  She’d shaken her head; unconscious negation.  “No! He was half out of his mind with fever. He was just feeding, to stay alive!  He wouldn’t have had time for an ulterior motive, and he never said  anything!   You say there has to be some…  words…”

“He growl?”

“What?”  She could still hear Angel, in her ear, ferocious and terrifying and, okay strangely attractive, she could admit to herself now, to the part of her mind that came out to play around Spike; the part that thrilled to danger and the wild. 

The part that had been kind of okay with how very damned much it had hurt, and…

Spike had looked away.  “Did you come, Buffy?”

She’d bitten her lip and avoided his eyes.  She had never told anyone that. Because it had hurt so very damned badly, and no one was supposed to come from something like that, and so she had tried to forget it.  Because it should have been easy to forget something that had happened then, on the fading edges of consciousness; and because she had been dying.  Dying!   And it was like getting off from being raped or something, even if she had asked him to do it, and it was so confusing that she…  That she’d gotten off in the end from this incredibly painful act that was killing her, because it meant that maybe she could  like  pain and…

“It’s not your fault, pet.  It’s a primitive thing. Part of the package.  Not always like that, anyway. And bound to happen, when someone claims you.  Which doesn’t necessarily require… words in English, or any other human language, for that matter.  He’ll have said it in… a way that made sense to the demon, did he want to keep you. And it would’ve been enough that your… body acquiesced, in that moment, to give him a bit of a hold.  Which it would’ve done, yeah, since you’d given yourself to him before then. It was familiar. Your brain knew him, wanted him. And then, every time after that he used that leverage to get you to accept the claim in words, it got stronger, even if you didn’t accept it in words during…”

She couldn’t look at him.  She couldn’t. “So I can’t…  He…”

“Not anymore.  You told him you weren’t his.  You broke it.” A cool hand, rising to touch her cheek, to stroke away the hot tear that had gotten away from her.  “I’m so sorry pet. I suspected, but I didn’t realize it was like that for you. I thought you’d have accepted it outright, the way you were with him, or I’d’ve…”  His voice was shaking now, and she heard the note of restrained fury beneath it. “Yours to do, I know, if you ever wanna stake him for it, or take his sodding head, but if you ever want help…”  A tiny tremor of his hand on hers as it dropped to cup her fists in her lap. “Know what it’s like, is all. To have him… take advantage. Of your need to be loved by him. To be wanted. And then to have that… violence, instead.  To be owned but not… held.”

She’d closed her eyes, trembling.  Because that was what it had been. Angel had kept her, but never held her.  Instead he had walked away, and that was… “Can you take me to bed, Spike? Please?”

“Yeah.  I can do that.”  And he had, and to hell with house rules.  Mom had been away at the gallery. And, well, they’d already broken the rules anyway, while she had been gone, and what she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her, and Buffy had needed to know that she was held by someone who wouldn’t hurt her, and wouldn’t leave. 

Spike, it turned out, knew all about that, and for the same reasons.

From then on out, Buffy did not call or speak to Angel Investigations, and they got all their 411 about Faith and her progress via reports through the Willow-to-Cordelia grapevine.

Things settled down for a while after that craziness, and Spike and Buffy had a very nice period of what he liked to call ‘crypt-shopping’.  He finally found one he liked way out at Restfield, which was pretty far from Revello, but kind of nice in that it was sort of equidistant between the college and Willy’s, which made it a good in-between spot.  “It’s no apartment, but… it’s kinda you. I have one problem with it.”

“Yeah, pet?”

She’d grinned at him and launched herself to wrap her body around his waist.  “No bed. And no shower…”

“Thought you said one…”

She’d covered his mouth with her hand.  “And no toilet. For when I’m gonna stay here all night…”  And she'd nipped his neck. 

“I’ll fix it up proper…” he’d managed around her vicious kissing assault. 

Such a damned relief to think of him living at his own place.  “You’d better. If I’m gonna have enormous amounts of sex with you…”

He’d had her against the nearest wall in a trice, and damn the ambiance.  “Could still get a flat, but this is cheaper…”

A hand in his hair had forestalled any further discussion, drawing his head back till his eyes met hers.  “I’m tired of waiting. This is fine. Great. Fuck me now and we’ll call it ours.” 

“Whatever you say, Slayer.”  It had become liberating to say certain things right out, with him.  And the way he responded…

God.

She’d helped him move in, lending muscle when he’d needed it.  Even helped him with some of his interior decorating choices. The crypt had a lower level, because of course it did.  Everything in Sunnydale had a lower level. That was where the place shone. Upstairs was reserved for pirated electricity from over by the caretaker’s shack, courtesy of a lot of carefully-hidden extension cords; TV, fridge for the blood, that kind of thing.  They scrounged a loveseat for him, with Willy’s help; just enough room for two to snuggle under the old afghan Mom gave him from his room at the house. ‘Downstairs’, though, was where they went all-out. Real bed—if you could call a box-spring and mattress slung over a couple of old sarcophagi a bed—two nightstands, a dresser, a record stand and player—yes, a record player, for reals—and about a half-million candles. 

Talk about making love in some seriously romantic—if a tiny bit goth—environs. 

Buffy was not going to ask him where he got the sexy, silk-blend sheets, either.  Whenever she asked him where he acquired stuff, he usually told her he won them or ‘the dosh’ to buy them in a poker game; and to be fair, the one time she sat in on a game, he did amazingly well.  He traded kittens for cash after at some bizarre demon-run kittens-for-cash pawn shop (and wouldn’t let her sneak in to release the poor babies afterward, warning her that she would upset the entire underground economy if she did and that the whole population of fuzzballs would likely starve to death on the streets in three days) and was flush for a while afterward, so who knew.  Maybe he did live off the proceeds.  

Things were stupid-quiet for a couple of months.  They nested. Buffy did school stuff and kept an eye peeled for Initiative agents who might try to shoot her vampire when no one was looking.  They fought fledges and the occasional demon with a grudge. Mostly they sparred with each other and had a ton of sex. Spike helped her with her homework, without admitting in the slightest that he knew what he was talking about when he looked over her essays, or held forth in long diatribes about the ‘absolute tosh’ they were teaching in her European History class.

Buffy honestly wasn’t sure when she had ever been this happy.  Some other shoe was bound to drop soon, right? Any time. When, a few months later the thing happened with Jonathan, it had been kind of a letdown.  After all, as baddies went, her ex-classmate was just plain ridiculous. 

Spike’s admiration of her, his glowing, unadulterated worship of her as his One, had seen her through the torment of those few incredibly weird, grating, humiliating days playing second fiddle to a pint-sized playboy. 

With Spike, she was always the A-number one Slayer. 

Also, he wasn’t sleeping with Jonathan, which was pretty okay in her book.  Though he had made a few comments in passing that had made her realize that, if properly motivated, her vampire could possibly swing both ways.  That little adventure in mind-control had given them fodder for some very interesting and amusing conversations, and led to not a few walks down memory lane for him, and, well.  Those broadened her horizons some, it must be said. 

Once the subject was broached, by the way, Spike was just overflowing with observations.  Like, he seemed pretty adamant that something was going on between Willow and some girl, which, just, what?  “Tellin’ you, pet. She smells of some other bird. Chit’s all over her. And not just in the friendly way. Smells of sex.”  He’d smirked, pulling at his cigarette. “‘M thinkin’ Red’s learned the glories of a bit of battin’ for the other team, as you yanks like to put it.  An’ more power to her, finally gettin’ over wolfboy.” He’d grinned broadly. “Bet she’s gettin’ a right education about now.”

Buffy had been utterly floored.  “I just… Are you  sure?”

“Pretty bloody well sure.”

“It’s just…  I mean, I would’ve said there’s no way, before.”  Except… there was all that stuff Wil had been saying lately about how she understood now why Buffy had hidden away with Spike at the motel, and how, ‘Maybe I drove you to hiding from yourself.  Maybe I helped you feel like you had to hide something from all of us that you can’t change, about who you’re attracted to. And that was… maybe uber-wrong of me. Maybe I should’ve asked more questions.  Maybe I should’ve listened better… or even just given you more room to talk. I’m sorry, Buffy.’

Buffy had been way thrown by that unexpectedly candid offering—not to mention that, at the time, it had felt sort of out of the blue—but now faint memory assaulted Buffy; of Willow, just after having met her vampire doppelganger, all unsettled and weirded out, freaking about how her vamp half had been ‘skanky… and kinda gay’; and how Angel had almost corrected Buffy when she had reassured Wil that who the demon was had nothing to do with who the human was, but had cut himself off before saying much.  Which, knowing what she knew now… 

/Oh my God, and she’s basically never at the dorm anymore, and all those late nights ‘studying’ with her… her Wicca friend…/  “Oh. Oh, wow.” 

And then pain had assailed her; a sort of ache of loss.  /When did we…/

Spike, of course, had read her instantaneously.  “What’s wrong, love?”

She had fought to shake it off.  Failed. “It’s just… If she was going through something so big… why wouldn’t she  tell  me?”  /Especially if she thought I might actually  get  it, now, with the whole vamp thing, and…/

Spike’s fingers, gliding through her hair.  “Would you have told her about me, if we’d started differently?  Or would you have hidden me away?”

Buffy had closed her eyes, because the idea that Willow might fear retroactive shaming in her own turn for who she was attracted to just made it worse.  “You think she’s… ashamed, or that she thinks I’ll… That we’ll  judge  her, or…”

“Dunno, pet, but maybe make a few noises in her general direction that you’re okay with that sort of thing, and she’ll no doubt come around.”

Commence operation ‘make Willow feel comfortable in her bi-ness’.  In which Buffy had probably gone a little bit overboard, she had thrown herself so totally into it—whenever Wil was actually in their dorm or around at all—but the final results were that Wil had finally smiled shyly at her one day over coffee at the Grotto and said, “So… I guess you know?”

Buffy had tried to play ignorant.  “Know what, Wil?” /Bury yourself in your coffee.  Let her come out or whatever./ That was what the literature they were handing out at that one stand over at the Commons said to do. 

Wil’s small smile was somehow both secretive and strangely more grown-up than Buffy had ever seen on her friend before.  “How did you even figure it out? Did you see us somewhere and notice how we acted, or was it… something else? Something I said by accident, or the new musical tastes?  Because that Lilith Faire CD is so not a dead giveaway. Or…”

Buffy bit her lip.  “Wil, I…”

Wil had sighed, and the little smile had fled.  “I saw the pamphlet under your books on your desk, Buffy.  And okay, I’m totally touched that you, like, did research on how to support me, but that’s kind of…”

Buffy had blushed.  “Well, you weren’t talking about it, so I…”

“Okay, that’s fair, but…”  Now Wil looked seriously confused.  “Seriously, though; how  did  you figure it out?  I mean, just me being gone a lot ‘studying’ doesn’t scream ‘suddenly doing gay things’, right?  Did you actually  follow …”

“Oh God no!”  Buffy had wondered, though, if Wil might actually think her answer was worse.  Things were rocky enough with the whole ‘Project Accept Spike’ without weirding out Willow, who was like the least unsupportive of the bunch, despite the fact that she’d been through some serious stalkage with the whole Angel/Angelus thing, and literally been kidnapped by Spike once.  Like, she was actually being open-minded, if cautiously so, and the idea of freaking her out at this early stage was of the suck, but… “Um… if I said it wasn’t me who figured it out, would you be mad?”

Willow looked askance.

/Might as well just tell her./  “Okay, so… don’t think this is super weird, but Spike kind of smelled her on you?  It’s a vamp thing? And he told me it wasn’t a ‘friend’ smell, if you get what I mean?  So he kind of hinted that there might be a reason you were spending a lot of time away, and then I felt bad that I wasn’t paying attention, so I…”

“Oh Goddess…”  Wil looked way embarrassed. 

“It wasn’t him being skeezy, I swear.  It was a totally ‘him telling me so I could be a better friend’ thing, I promise…”

It had been a really long time since she had seen Willow hide her face in her hands. 

“Are you okay?” 

Nothing.  “I promise to try to make sure he only ever uses his powers for good?”

Wil peeped out from between two fingers, glared a little.  “You so should get on that. Omygod.” But she did finally exit, her face still pretty much totally magenta.  “It was bad enough that Faith picked up on it right away…”

Buffy had sat up straight at that.   “Faith  did?”

“Yeah, that’s what…”   She had shaken her head.  “Never mind. Long story.”

/Yeah, it must be./

Making a face, Wil had sat back and looked kind of at a loss.  Buried her face in her cup and taken a long swig in that ‘buying time for equanimity-recovery’ way.  When she emerged, she faced Buffy squarely. “Are you freaked? Or mad, or…”

“No.”  Buffy had looked down and away a little, at her cup.  “Sad, maybe? That you felt like you couldn’t tell me?  Because it feels like we’re, you know, growing apart. And I know I’ve been super-involved with the Spike thing like I was with the Angel thing, but I don’t mean to not be there, or be a bad friend, or…”

“Oh, Goddess,  no , Buffy!  You’re  so  available!  You’ve been bending over backward to tell me you are!  It’s just…” Will had shaken her head, clearly at a loss.  “You have slaying, and I have… this. The Wicca thing, and her, and it’s… mine.  I kind of wanted it to be this powerful thing I had all to myself, that I didn’t have to share with the whole group for a while, I guess.”  She had actually sounded a little sad to have that over.

“Oh.”  Buffy got that.  She really got that.  Sometimes she kind of wished she didn’t have to share the thing with Spike.  That it could be just them, with no one watching them and making silent bets—or not so silent, in Xander’s case—as to when it might go wrong, or…  Or it might go totally the other direction. Xander was still having trouble with Anya, was fighting to try to prove to her that they could maybe get back together.  Which meant that he might be weird about Willow not telling him that she had a new person, and maybe he might even be flipped out that said person was a girl. Considering how Buffy felt about Wil’s not trusting her with such big news, Xander might feel even more hurt, being as how they’d been friends since, like kindergarten.  Or, he might conceivably do the guy thing where he got all weird and turned on about the two girls thing, who knew. 

For sure Anya, who still hung around the group, if on the periphery whether she was dating Xander or not, would make odd comments about sexuality.  Buffy could totally see why Wil would want to keep things to herself for a while. “I’m not going to say anything, you know. That’s totally on you, when you wanna do that.”  She reached out, covered Wil’s hand. “I just wanna know one thing. No, wait,” she amended. “Two things.”

Wil’s eyes rose, hope filling them again, turning them from stormy gray back to blue.  “What?”

“That you’re happy…”

The tentative expression turned upside-down, tremulous… became a bright, almost giddy smile.  “Buffy, Goddess, yeah. I’m  so  happy.”

“Good.  Then I’m happy for you.”  And she really was. It was so great, such a total relief to see her bestie look so blissful after so many months of being basically sunk in melancholy.  If this girl could make her happy-Wil again, then she was automatically in the club. /Whoever is good for my Wil is good for the world. End of story./

After a moment of basking together in that reflected joy, Wil sniffled, looked down at the table.  “What… was the other thing?”

“Huh?”

“You said you had two things.”

“Oh.”  Buffy had grinned, poking a light finger at the wrist under her hand.  “What’s her name, you doofus.”

“Oh.”  Wil had blushed.  “Tara.” And the blush had deepened to something so rich that Buffy didn’t even need to ask the next one. 

She did anyway.  “Do I get a bonus question?”

“Oh jeez!” Wil had groaned.  “Are you gonna…”

Watching Wil explode was adorkable.  And completely the definition of that ‘turnabout is fair play’ thing.  “Okay, you totally pried when I started having sex with Spike…”

“Okay, I did!  But this…” She sounded about to hyperventilate.

“Is only fair.  I’m guessing it’s good, or else you wouldn’t be turning fuchsia right now.  But, like, on a scale of, you know…”

Wil snatched up her coffee cup and buried her face in it once more, trying to hide.  “That’s totally not fair, Buffy! I’ve been with two people! Two!”

/And I’ve been with two one-night stands and Spike, so spill./  “And?”

Wil had mumbled something incomprehensible into the cup in which the words ‘not fair to Oz’ could be heard over the Styrofoam lip.

Buffy felt herself grinning.  “So what I’m hearing is, while Oz was very good, sometimes it can be an advantage to have the same parts, so you know your way around…”

“I am going to run out of here and never come back to our room,  ever  again, if you don’t. Shut. Up…”

Buffy had laughed out loud, but stopped before Willow could spontaneously combust right in front of her.  “Someday we’ll have to compare notes. Spike might be a lesbian in a guy’s body…”

The almost-change-of-subject had brought Wil out of hiding.  “What do you…”

“Sometimes getting him to stop what he’s doing and head north to the main event takes serious convincing.  Not that I’m complaining or anything.”

“Oh.  Well. I mean, that’s just…  Always a good thing.” Wil’s alarming color began to subside. 

“Yes, yes it is.”

“I’m… going to run away now.”

Buffy had managed to sober up enough to catch her best friend’s attention.  “Hey. Are we good?”

“Oh.”  Wil’s gaze had cleared, and she had exhaled shakily, nodded.  And her whole being had relaxed. “Yeah. Much with the good.”  And then she’d narrowed her eyes. “But you’re really gonna have to not embarrass the crap out of me when you finally meet Tara, or I’ll have to kill you.”  Getting up, she’d seized her cup and turned away. Whirled back. “And tell your irritating vampire guy same rule applies, and that I know more spells that would… I dunno.  De-love him if he doesn’t behave himself, or…”

Buffy swiftly held up one hand.  “I’ll make him behave.”

“Good.” 

“Hey,” Buffy had murmured as Wil had moved to depart.  “I love you, Wil.”

Wil had turned back, still a little awkward but also glowing.  “I love you back, Buffy.”

Spike’s newfound openness with discussing everyone’s bisexuality hadn’t stopped with Willow.  And, okay. Sometimes Buffy had had to shut him up, because on occasion the subject matter had been way outside the bounds of TMI.  Like, he also apparently seemed to think that Giles and Ethan Rayne had once been an item, which was just… Ew, much?

“Oh, don’t tell me you missed it, Slayer.  Their body language alone was…”

“Okay, just stop.  Seriously. Wil is one thing, but I  can’t  with bisexual Giles.  I definitely can’t with bisexual  my -age-Giles who used to screw his demon-summoning bestie while doing orgies…”

Spike had grinned irrepressibly.  “You did say there was only one bird in that group, yeah?  And if there were orgies…”

“I’m seriously begging you to stop, Spike.”  He was making  way  too much sense, and she had never thought of that, and she really, really wished she could  unthink  it now.

“Ought to ask him sometime what was the exact origin of this ‘Ripper’ business.  Like, was he ripping off people’s togs, or was it something more dastardly…”

“Oh my God,  please  stop.”

The jerk vampire had paused for a moment, as if considering something.  “He’s not the only one, you know.”

“Only one who what?”

“Who plays for both teams.”

“Yeah.  Wil. You, apparently…”

“Your girl Faith…”

“Wait,  what?”

“Chit’s in love with you.”

“Excuse  me?”

“Ought to know what it looks like to be mad for you and all twisted up over it, yeah?  Reason she stole your life, wants to shag the men you’ve had. Likes bein’ where you’ve been.  Next best thing if you can’t have the girl, to have what she’s had, stand where she’s been, smell it, bathe in it, taste it…”

“Spike,” Buffy had told him very certainly, “you’ve lost your damn mind.  You’re certifiable. Faith  hates  me…”

“Can’t have hate without havin’ love first.  Both come from great passion. If you didn’t have that, all you’d end up with is indifference.  Chit’s anything but indifferent to you, pet. She’s soddin’ obsessed. If she can’t have you, she’ll  be  you.  Anything but herself, since she’s apparently so bleedin’ unlovable that you can’t even look at her…”

“You know what?  This is definitely a conversation I can’t deal with right now.”

Spike had eyed her with interest.  “So, no high school experimentation, is what I’m hearin’.”

“I  will  punch you.”

He’d grinned broadly.  “Well, at least we know you didn’t lead the poor bird on.”

“I’m serious.  I will  dust  you if you don’t shut up.”

“Gettin’ to be a hollow threat, luv.”

She’d narrowed her eyes and pulled out the big guns.  Anything to end this highly uncomfortable conversation.  “Okay, fine. I was too focused on Angel to notice any of this so-called Faith thing.  Which I still don’t believe was happening, by the way.”

A low, resigned half-growl answered her sally.  “Fine, then. Won’t sodding bring it up anymore.  But it’s bloody well true, for all of that.”

“Quit while you’re ahead, William.”

He had.  Problem was, once the cat was out of the stupid bag, she couldn’t stop thinking about it and wondering, replaying past stuff.  Like most of the incisive crap he said. 

Eventually she had to lock it up in the back of her mind in the sinking cask labeled ‘Faith’, alongside a lot of other dark, heavily-chained ones, like the ‘Angelus’ cask, and the one involving memories of a certain rainy night in the vicinity of her seventeenth birthday, since, well.  It wasn’t like she could do anything about past events and people who weren’t around her anymore anyway. And Faith had no bearing on her current reality, so why deal?

Damn vampire.

Spike and his insights were actually really amazing, though, when it came to things that should have been super obvious and really weren’t sometimes.  Like, Jonathan had probably only done what he had—no matter how oogy—because he was lonely and wanted to be loved, have friends. Which made total sense, considering the thing with the gun at school, and…  

And Buffy had reached out a couple of times, after, on Spike’s instigation.  And, okay, it turned out that the guy was decently good at summoning, which was a thing you kind of wanted to keep close to the core if you were running Slayer-central, and not have running around loose…  Which meant that he could also read Latin, Sumerian, and Babylonian, which, um, wow? Like, this thing he’d done was no dabbling accident; he was serious demonology boy. Also, and more importantly, he was just a little spell-worker deluxe.

After a little fast-talking about redemption and keeping good magicks-users from going bad without supervision, she had talked ‘Ripper’ and Wil into taking the guy under their wing.  Which, after the first suspicion had worn off, even Xander had been happy about it. “It’s… actually kind of cool to have another guy in the Scoobies, finally. I mean, I know he’s, like, on parole here and stuff, but still.”  

Buffy had no idea why Xander didn’t think Giles and Spike counted as ‘guys’, unless it was more about Giles being old and Spike being not his type, because basically, no one knew who he thought he was kidding playing things all cool.  Xan and Jonathan spent like ninety percent of their time just straight up nerding out over crap. It was scary. Anya practically had to tear them apart like they were a couple. It was actually starting to be a problem—as in an ‘exactly how many bi people are there in this bunch?’ kind of problem—because it was clear that Anya was jealous.  Like, good thing she couldn’t do vengeance anymore, minorly screwing up the group dynamic kind of a problem. Not that Buffy was super hung up on the whole completely ambivalent, will-they-won’t-they Xander-Anya relationship or anything, and she wasn’t entirely sure what Anya and Xander even were, but as long as they were, you know, screwing—which she was pretty sure they were again since Xander had stopped mouthing off about demons every five seconds—Buffy agreed hardcore with Spike’s assessment that he needed to chill and ‘attend to his chit before she took his head off’. 

Things were getting tense as hell at every Scooby meeting.  Or, at least they were until Spike had pulled Xander off to one side and had a man-to-man with him about it.  Which could have gone over like a lead balloon, since at that point Xander still mostly eyed Spike like a viper slithering around the room and made unwilling, under-the-breath comments about his nasty presence at every opportunity.  Probably he wouldn’t have listened to a single word the vampire had had to say about his fraught not-a-relationship, since he was also kind of defensive about the whole thing… except Spike had that way about him of cutting right to the bone with a single word.  He’d probably said something like, ‘You’re losing your bird, with this whole man-crush you have goin’ with superstar-boy. You should tone it down a bit. You have a good thing goin’, there. Anya’s a real catch.’  

Yeah, Buffy could basically predict by now what her guy would say in any given situation.  She also knew that he really liked Anya. Which, to be fair, made sense, since Anya was, like, the only other one of them who got what it was like to hang with a bunch of humans and try to get past a lifetime of demoning around.  They ‘grokked’, as Xan put it, on this whole other level. They were bros. Which pissed Xander off and made him suspicious kind of in the same way that Anya was about Xan and Jonathan, and he would have been defensive at first about the interference… but it must have worked eventually.  Things quickly went back to an even keel after that little convo. He spent more time with Anya, spread things out a little more evenly with his fellow geek, let Wil have more time nerding around with Jonathan over books full of ancient languages; which worked, because Wil and Jonathan could seriously delve into texts.  

In that period they also found out, completely by accident, that  Spike  could read said ancient languages.  He had been leaning over their shoulders one morning while they were working on translating some scrap of something found between the pages of a book full of Greek or whatever.  “We’re not getting anywhere,” Wil had said in disgust, and moved to push it away.  

Jonathan had grabbed it away from her.  “Look, though. I  told  you, it looks like Hebrew, but that little thing in there is just gibberish, or some demon language I don’t know, or…  I mean it looks a little like Sumerian phonetically, but…”

Spike had been tensing more and more as they had gone back and forth over the same ground, over and over.  If Buffy was reading him right, he looked frustrated, about to explode about something, though for the life of her she couldn’t figure out why.

Then suddenly he broke, voice taut with irritation.  “That’s because it’s not Hebrew,” he had informed them in a tone that would sound casual to anyone but Buffy.  To her it sounded tense, irritated. “It’s square-script Aramaic with bits of Old Aramaic script stirred in to drive you mad; and that bit you can’t figure all wodged in the middle there is an older sort of cypher in Phoenician.”  

The second the words had left his mouth he had gone exceptionally still, as if belatedly catching himself, bit his tongue, and gone po-faced.

Of course, by then they were all staring.  Giles, lowering a book to peer over it, glasses dangling off the end of his nose.  Xander, head lifting from over his own tome, half-eaten jelly donut held forgotten in his hand.  Wil and Jonathan both lifted away from the scrap to turn their heads and stare over their shoulders.  Buffy, who had been leaning back against a bookshelf sharpening a sword, had frozen in amazement.  

“Y…  You read Aramaic?” Willow had demanded, sounding floored.

Spike’s face had hardened, and he’d turned away.  “Didn’t mean to interrupt. You go on about your research.  Got to help the Slayer sharpen things. Great load of weapons to prep for patrollin’ about tonight…”

Buffy had narrowed her eyes at him, watched the line of his body.  He was hiding something. She was sure of it.  

Anya, leaning against Xander’s shoulder and previously looking bored, now looked interested.  “How many did you collect over the years? I myself have about twenty, but I’ve lived a lot longer than you… and to be fair, Middle Aramaic was actually spoken, still, in some places when I was alive, which is more than can be said for a vampire who is barely a hundred and twenty.  A hundred and, I imagine, forty or fifty, counting your human life. This must be some holdover from your previous existence.” She’d tilted her head to study him with interest. “Did you have some sort of scholarly background, Spike?”

Giles’ book had snapped closed with a loud  whump .  “Not according to his Council bio… but I’m starting to think that might have been a load of waffle.”

Spike didn’t say a word.  He just strode over to station himself at Buffy’s side.  Picked up a nicked short-axe and a whetstone and began sharpening the broad, gleaming curve, looking mulish.

Giles had frowned a little, and then very abruptly snapped out some phrase in some language that Buffy thought she vaguely recognized as Ancient Greek.  

Spike winced so hard that Buffy felt it run through his whole body.  It was like he couldn’t help himself; and wow. /You totally understood that, didn’t you?/

Her lover had completely been hiding this whole other side of himself.  

Buffy had found herself staring at him in shock.  And she hadn’t been the only one. The whole room was focused on her vampire now.  

After the shortest pause, however, he had gone on calmly sharpening things.  

Giles was not about to let it go, however.  He had stalked closer, with an air about him of a leonine creature singling out a prey animal and preparing to pounce.  And rattled off something in Latin.  

Spike had actually shuddered.  

“Ugh,” Wil had called from over the back of her chair.  “I could be wrong, but I think that you did that verb-conjugation all wiggy…”

Eyes focused steadfastly on Spike’s stubbornly downturned face, Giles’ expression had taken on a determined, almost vindictive cast.  “I did.” And then he’d said something again, the escaping syllables clipped, hard. 

Spike’s eyes had shot up to meet the Watcher’s, burning, agonized… and pleading.  “For Chrissake, man, will you bloody stop that? You’re actually causing me pain, here.”

Giles’ expression had gone unbelievably triumphant.  “I  knew  it!  You great, lying git.”

/Wait.  What?/

Spike had sighed and lowered the axe.  And looked, in that moment, totally embarrassed.  “Alright, but it doesn’t go with the image, yeah? Just, for God’s sake, don’t do it again.  I swear to Christ I could feel the tawse every time you muffed a verb. Was like I was bein’ birched all over again…”

The light in Giles’ eyes went startled.  “Where?” he demanded. And then he’d straightened in something like shock.  “Don’t tell me…” he’d breathed, sounding stunned.

Then Spike had done something that had floored every single one of them.  He spoke. “My friend, I doubt very much I should have to explicate any further, as it seems to me you’ll have surmised with exquisite understanding exactly to which institution I would have called home at one point in my previous existence.  It was, after all, and remains, a fairly well-known establishment, with an exceedingly historic reputation. As, of course, befitted one of my station.” His tones were rich, cultured, his syllables long, measured, and without the remotest vestige of the clipped jocularity they were used to in his usual cadence.  

/Wait,  what?   What, what, what…/

He’d cocked one scarred eyebrow at Giles, then.  “As to my letters, I shall only have to tell you that they were earned in halls named for St. John…”  Giles gave a jerk of stunned amazement, opened his mouth. Closed it. “So I suppose one might say we share a certain kinship…”  And then, with a faint grin, Spike’s voice promptly dropped back into familiar tones. “But I left all that behind, didn’t I? Didn’t really fit my new life.  Had a certain demarcation goin’, a new image to maintain and all that…”

Giles must have been more amazed than Buffy had been, because he’d turned away to take a seat, falling into an armchair with a hard, heavy  plop .  “Bloody hell, I need a drink.”  And he’d stared up at Spike in clear shock.  “What did you… I mean to say…”

“What you’d expect, considerin’.  Literae Humaniores and the lot.”

“Oh.  Yes. Right.  Of course. Certainly.  By all means…”

Disengaging from Buffy, Spike had gone over to the liquor cabinet, pulled out a tumbler, cast an eye over his shoulder.  “Glenfiddich or Glen Livet?”

A vague wave of the hand.  “Oh, either. And, pour yourself one as well, old man.”

“Don’t mind if I soddin’ do.”  

“Just  what ,” Buffy had hissed on behalf of the rest of the clueless Americans, “was  that  all about?  And  you!”  she’d demanded, pointing at Spike, who had returned by now with two gleaming tumblers of Scotch.  “What was that… that uber-English  accent?   You sounded… more Giles-y than Giles!”

“Cheers,” Giles had muttered in a darkly amused way, and slugged back a mouthful of the liquor in one gulp.  

Spike followed suit and then poured himself another, tipped a hair more into Giles' glass, all the while not looking at Buffy at all.  

“I’m serious!  Spike! Are you, like, closet-stuffy?  Because if I’m secretly going to bed with a Watcher…”

“Oi!” he’d roared, swinging around so hard to glare at her that he’d slopped a little whiskey out of his glass.  

“She’s got a point, Undead,” Xander had chimed in, somewhere between confused and amused.  “Totally sounded Watcher-y, there.”

“I’m no bloody Watcher.”  Burning eyes fixed on Buffy, he’d stalked away from Giles, back to the rack of weapons.  Slugged back his own swallow of alcohol in one hard, fast swig, then set down the tumbler and grabbed up the axe again, set to sharpening with swift, violent strokes while glaring at them all with a kind of viciously quelling air, as if daring any one of them to comment further.  

“Could have been, though,” Giles murmured cheerfully, because he liked to live dangerously.  He raised his glass and smiled a little, cocking his head in Spike’s direction. “To the Oxford class of… what was it then, old man?”

“No,”  Spike answered grimly, and went on sharpening.

“Oxford?”  Willow had demanded, sounding incredulous.

“Wow,” Jonathan broke in quietly.  “That’s… impressive.”

“No  way,”  Xander breathed.  “No  way  Deadboy went to college!  No way I’m the only one here who…  Who… Buffy, did you…”

“I knew,” Buffy answered softly.  “I just didn’t know when. Like, if it was night classes after, or…”

Spike shot her a brief, fulminating look.  “You,” he informed her quietly, “are a sodding traitor.”

She rolled her eyes at him.  “Oh, please. You outed yourself.  I had nothing to do with it.” She eyed him up and down, did some mental math.  “So, what, 1875? Or did it work different back then?”

He buttoned his lip and went on glaring.

“Giles, what was Oxford like back then?”  She was seriously curious.

“It was, ah, going through some rapid upheaval in the curriculum…”

Spike snorted dryly and switched from axe to sword without comment.

“For one, you could suddenly earn your degree in the sciences—natural philosophy, they called it then—or in mathematics, rather than only in Classics and the humanities as was once the way, so that they could compete with Cambridge.  There were a few other changes; in the exam structure, mostly…”

Spike set down the sword and turned to pick up a mace.  “I’m off to go beat something to death, Slayer. Back later.”

She caught his arm.  “Oh, come on, wait. Like anyone’s going to tease you because you have a college degree.”  Man, he was stiff. “What? What’s so wrong with that? I mean, obviously you can help with the research, and…”

He didn’t move, just stood there like a statue.  ‘Vampire Holding Medieval Weaponry’. “Okay,” she asked quietly, “what is it?”

He shook his head; just the slightest jerk.  “Not here.”

She let him go.  “Okay.”

He whirled and was gone, coat tugged up over his head against the setting sun.

Left behind with everyone watching, she’d shrugged uncomfortably.  “I’ll see you guys later, okay? I’m going to go… deal with this.”

To her surprise, it had actually been Xander who had pulled her up.  “Maybe give him a while, huh Buff? I think there’s some kind of pride thing going on here, and for something like that, sometimes a guy needs a few minutes.”

Buffy had lifted her eyebrows at her friend, more than a little taken aback.  “Okay, since when are you on  his  side?”

Xander had actually managed to look slightly embarrassed.  “Look. I’m not dumb, alright? Did you even  see  that?  I can’t believe I’m saying this about someone like Spike—I mean, like I even care, right?—but maybe he got bullied or something.  Anyway, leave him alone for a while before you go after him, is all I’m saying, Buff.”

“That’s very sensitive of you, Xander!  I think you’re starting to see Spike as a person.  I’m very proud of you!”

“Okay, jeez, Ahn… don’t make such a big thing of it.”

Buffy had actually taken Xander’s advice, and waited an hour or so before heading to the crypt.  She had located Spike outside of it, beating a dead Slugnosh into jelly over the remains of a headstone.  “Feeling better yet?”

Grunt.  Swing. Crash .  “No.”

“Well, there’s not much left of him.  You wanna fight me?”

Grunt.  Swing. Crash .  “Not really.”

The rebuff had stung, but one thing they both knew how to do was to give space when it was needed.  It had happened a few times during sex, a few times during conversations, a few times just when one or the other of them had been in a crappy mood.  It wouldn’t kill her to give him space again. They would be fine. “Okay. I just wanted to check on you. Let me know if you need anything.” Turning away, she’d moved to leave again… and halted when the crashing stopped abruptly.  

“I was a pansy poet who couldn’t even throw a sodding punch, Buffy.  When I went away to school I used to be beaten every day by the older lads; and worse.  What they call hazing now is a wet dream compared to what they did in Eton back then. Couldn’t fight back, or Mum would go into hysterics thinkin’ she’d lose me too, like she lost Da, so I just had to stand it.”  

/Oh, wow./  Frozen in place with her back to him, she could only listen with her brain stuck in neutral as he ranted on, his voice a grating, gravelly mess.   

“By the time I was at Oxford I was convinced I was above it all, that I was a higher being than that rabble because I wouldn’t even cross swords with one if he insulted me, for all I knew how to fence.  But it was a lie. I was weak. I couldn’t even box. I was a failure as a man.”

She had turned back by then, couldn’t help it.  And the way he stood, arms and head hanging, mace-head embedded to the ground…  He looked like he thought she would walk away.  

She took a step closer instead, and waited.

“When…  When Dru turned me, I knew I needed to…  To be different. I had the demon in me, roaring for vengeance.  I killed them all. Every one of my tormentors.”

‘Earned his nickname by torturing his victims with railroad spikes…’   /Oh./

“And then I learned to brawl.  Bloodied my fists every night in her honor.  Learned to fight so that someday Angelus couldn’t hurt me anymore.  So that someday  no  one could hurt me anymore.”

/Oh God…/

“And I stopped writin’ poetry.”

“William…”

He flinched, and his eyes rose, haunted, to meet hers.  “Except, sometimes, when I look at you, I can’t help but want to write it again.”  His hand rose, carved a line around her in the space between them, like he was drawing fire on the air.  “And every sonnet I’ve ever heard comes to my lips when you breathe into me.” His voice cracked, and he looked like he was about to fall to his knees.

Then his eyes jerked away, and he closed up again.

Oh.  He thought he was showing her some true self.  Like he thought he was revealing something under the coat that would repulse her or something, maybe drive her away.  Or like being with her made the old weak parts come out or something, when…

She remembered then, something he’d said that night in the motel room, months ago.  Something about how ‘wherever you go you take yourself’. /Oh/ she thought, and took another step closer.  “Do you hate me because I make you remember who you were?” she asked him quietly, and wondered how hard her heart would break if he said yes.

His jerked up, his heart blazing in his eyes as he stared at her, incredulous.  “Christ, no, Buffy! It’s just… Sometimes I don’t know how to be this! I’ve locked this part of me away since I resolved only to be the monster I’ve tried to be for Dru, and for Angelus; for a hundred twenty sodding years, and now here, for you, all the bloody sudden I’m a man again, in parts, and I don’t know if that man’s worthy of you, or a match at all for you, because he’s a bloody great milksop…”

“He seems kind of beautiful to me,” Buffy interrupted, moving still closer, and smiled.  “He’s turned into a hell of a warrior over the last century; and in the meantime… I think I could stand to hear some poetry.”

Spike trembled visibly in the night.  “Do you even like the sodding stuff?”

“I don’t know.”  /I liked it a little when Owen said some./  “I’ve only heard Dickinson, I think, and, like, limericks…”

Spike snorted, a raw, contemptuous sound, and took one step in her direction.  “You need to hear others, then.”

She smiled, held out her hand, and waited.  “Show me?”

Shortly thereafter, Buffy decided you’d never lived till you’d had an undead Victorian poet recite verse to you while screwing you voraciously into a bed made out of silk sheets and sarcophagi, and clearly she led a very decadent life for a college girl.

Two days later, Spike announced his new status in a quiet way.  Giles was seated at his desk muttering something about a ‘concordance’.  Before he had a chance to get to his feet Spike unraveled himself from his cross-legged stance and ducked to pull a green-bound book from the shelf, without any perusal at all.  Opened it, glanced inside swiftly—Buffy noticed that it had Greek lettering—before closing it and striding over to the desk. He handed it over to Giles, who was quietly poring over about six other tomes.  “This is the one you need, I think, Watcher.”

Giles took it from him, lips twitching but otherwise working hard not to make a big thing of it.  “Ah, yes.” He’d adjusted his glasses, read a line or two, nodded. “Yes, fine. Just the thing. Thank you, Spike.”

With a stiff nod, Spike had turned away and gone back to leaning nonchalantly against the bookshelf with arms and ankles crossed, and Buffy could not have been prouder of him if he’d come in carrying a dragon’s head for her.  Leaning in a little, she had murmured low enough that only he could hear, “I think you are incredibly sexy. Just so you know.”

He had uncrossed his legs and straightened, seeming to inflate.  “Yeah?”

“Duh.”

Of course, Giles had to ruin it.  On the way out the door, as Spike had leaned in through the serving window to hand him the tea mug he’d been using, Giles had flicked him a brief look and a faint smile.  “‘Love hath made thee a tame snake.’”

Spike had frozen up tight, and for a second Buffy thought he was going to throw the cup right at her Watcher’s head.  “Oh, shut it, Rupert.”

“Not to say I’m not grateful.  But it’s true, for all that.”

Grabbing Spike’s arm, Buffy had dragged him away, out toward the door.  Once outside, in the late evening shade in the corner of the atrium thing, she had hissed at him, “What the hell was  that?   Do I need to go back in and punch him?”

Spike had shaken himself and settled in with a slight frown.  “No, it’s fine, love. Just a bit of scholarly teasing.”

/Okay, that is just so not helpful./

Correctly reading her expression, Spike had sighed and lifted two fingers to her lips.  “Doesn’t matter, pet. He’s right, anyway. ‘I do love nothing in the world so well as you; is not that strange?  I am one who loved not wisely but too well. I burn, I pine, I perish. Hear my soul speak of the very instant that I saw you; did my heart fly at your service.’”

At a loss, Buffy could but blink at him.  “Okay? I mean, that’s gorgeous, but I have no idea what half of it…”  

“We have to get you into a poetry class, pet.”

“Oh jeez.  You know I’d flunk it, right?”

He’d leaned forward to capture her lips with his.  The kiss had taken a while, so that by the time it had ended, she had pretty much forgotten the point of the conversation.  “I’ll help you.”

“Huh?”

“Plenty of ways to make poetry memorable.”

Okay, cue the blushing.  She distinctly remembered every word of the ones he had told her in bed.  “Alright, but if you do it that way, I’ll spend the entire class turning colors and squirming around, and everyone will think I’m some kind of poetry nympho…”

“And the world will lie in awe of my tutoring methods.”

“Jerk.”

Just when everything seemed to be kind of at station-keeping, Oz showed back up, because why not have things go all fubar.  Of course he asked Wil if she had a new guy, and Wil went completely tongue-tied about it, while Buffy and Spike, on their way out of the room to leave them alone, stared incredulously.  “Wil!”

Wil had blushed, looking away.  “Um, not a new guy, but… A new… girl.”

Oz had stilled.  Gone very silent for a moment, then, “Oh.  I didn’t… expect that.”

“Yeah.  Neither did I.  But it happened.”  Wil had lifted her eyes to his, shy but serious.  “I’m still really glad to see you. I missed you so much.  You have no idea. I mean… I’m… I’m really confused about you being here… but I’m really glad to see you.”

“Yeah.  Me too.”

They had let themselves out.

Buffy met Tara, finally, during all that mess, when Wil and her girlfriend were trying to talk Oz down from going all wolfy on her.  Apparently even though he knew about Wil’s new relationship and the guy part of him was good with just being friends, the demon part of him was still having a tough time with getting his mind, or his hormones, or his lizard-brain, or whatever it was, around that fact in some kind of primitive, ‘that’s my mate’ kind of way.  Which, okay, Buffy got, now that she’d been with Spike for a while. Heck, she got it from her own internal, primitive Slayer place, though it was kind of hard to articulate that to Wil. Also, she wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to admit how much she got it, even after Spike had explained it to her afterward. But suffice it to say, Oz had spent a lot of that interaction huddled in a corner of the empty lecture hall trying to talk himself down while partially wolfed-out, because it was a full moon and he’d smelled Wil all over Tara and, forewarned or not, bunch of Tibetan meditations or no, it was evidently tough to tie all that instinct and emotion down when faced directly with the evidence that one’s chosen mate was otherwise claimed.  

He’d managed to control the change in the end, with whatever new anti-wolfy meditation he had going, kept himself to ‘human but hairy’ and stuck at the halfway point, but apparently it was a near enough thing that he ended up raggedly begging for Wil to bind him.  Wil had, her tones broken as she’d clasped hands with a very rattled Tara to weave the spell. Then he’d whispered to Buffy, “Hey. Can you and, uh, Spike there, if he’s helping, get me somewhere safe? I need…”

“Somewhere with a different bouquet.  Got it.” Spike had been quietly understanding as he’d helped Buffy gently strong-arm the rigid, immobilized werewolf out and away from the hand-clasped girls and manhandle him down to the cage he had once used on campus.  

The next day, he was gone.  Wil relayed the story to Buffy in their dorm room; not weepy, per se, though clearly emotional.  “He couldn’t apologize in person to Tara; you know, since that wouldn’t’ve been safe this close to the full moon, but he was all profuse with the regret.  I mean, as profuse as Oz ever gets with anything.” She’d tried a little half-shrug. “He used three or more words.”  

“That’s big.”

“Yeah.  And he…   He told me to be happy…”  Her voice had hitched, causing Buffy to tighten her hold on the chilly, slightly-shaking hand.  “He wanted to try to be friends, you know. To stay. But I guess… he couldn’t deal.” Her eyes had lifted, gray and pained.  “The thing was… that’s all he was trying to do, was get it under control enough to come back for me, but he knew it wouldn’t be fair to ask me to wait for him, since he didn’t know if he even could, or how long it would take.  And Buffy… if I knew that was what he was going for, I probably would have waited, you know?”  

Buffy had nodded encouragingly.  

“But then I wouldn’t have met Tara, and…”  Will had looked away, biting her lip.

“And you’re happy now.”

Wil had sounded almost guilty when she’d answered, sharp and protest-y.  “I am! Is that bad?”

Buffy had rushed to cover her friend’s hand.  “No, Wil. It isn’t. You moved on. It’s been so good for your mental health.  And you know… I think he understands, right? I mean, he might’ve wanted to stay this time around, but if the wolf won’t let him...  It’s a part of him.” A breath, wondering if she should even say it, but… Oz was a part of Willow, and it wasn’t like her and Angel. Oz had been so good for her.  There hadn’t been that… weirdness. So if they could be friends, that would be of the good. “Maybe someday…”

“Yeah.  Maybe.” Wil had shrugged, a painful little movement.  “Though, I dunno. Because he really loves me. Like, really, really.  And I love him, you know; like will always? But I don’t think the wolfy part of him can deal, and I…  I need to be with the person I…”

“The person you’re in love with right now.  I get it.” Buffy had smiled at her bestie and patted her knee.  “You know I get it. It was like that with me and Spike. Part of me will always love Angel…”  /Putting aside wondering how much of that was actually loving him and how much of that was him putting some kind of weird vampirical claim on me, because I don’t even know anymore, and how can I separate it in my head?/  “…But I’m with Spike now, and that’s uber-intense, and I have to do what’s right for me now. Especially when that first love… can’t work. So yeah. Definitely get it.”

Wil had nodded.  “It still hurts, though, doesn’t it?  Thinking about the might-have-beens. Wondering whether it all means… it was never meant to be?”

/Yeah./  “Maybe… Maybe those relationships were like… training wheels on how to love?”

Wil had bitten her lip and nodded, then smiled.  “I have to go talk to Tara.”

“Yeah.  I think you should do that.  And Wil?”

Wil had lifted troubled eyes, reservations filling them.  

“She seems like a really nice girl.  I mean, not that she talked much or anything, but…  If you guys want, I’d like to get to know her.” She left it hanging.

Wil had blushed, big and rosy and one hundred percent pleased schoolgirl.  “She’s… great.” It came out bubbly and gushy. “I really want you to know her too.  If…” A tiny shrug. “Do you think Xander’s gonna be all weird?”

Buffy had shrugged.  “I think you more have to worry about Anya sharing a bunch of stories about any lesbian escapades she might have had over the years.”

“Oh man, I never thought of that!”

After Wil ran off to go talk to her girlfriend Spike had re-emerged from his hiding place to sit behind Buffy, rubbed her shoulders bracingly.  “So, Wolfboy’s off again, then, is it?”

Buffy had leaned back against him and nodded, eyes closed.  “Sometimes first love just doesn’t work, and you find out the next one is the right one.”

A low rumble of amusement.  “Dunno. Thought for a minute there they might work out a way to make it a threesome.  All the lad had to do was find out how to be a bit less possessive, and…” A spreading of the fingers as if to say, ‘hey-presto’.

Buffy had jerked around to stare at him, nonplussed.  “Oh my God! You are so…”

“Inventive?  Devilish? Mildly evil but chock-full of great ideas?”

“I can’t even.  Whatever! A threesome?  Wil would so not…”

“Sure about that, pet?”  Thoughtful eyes rose to the door.  “Could see it, m’self. More a question, could her witch-friend go for it.”

“You are so the complete worst.”

“I’ll go to the city offices and buy my trademark tomorrow.  First, though… best earn my patent.” And bending, he’d applied his lips to her neck.

“Oh, God.  If you… ever suggest… such a thing to me…  I’ll stake…” The ‘complete worst’ was doing the complete best things to her neck and his hands were wandering to… places.  “Dammit, I’m trying to…”

“Never would.  Shared a woman with Angel before.  Never happen again.”

Exasperated, she’d punched him, an action which, it must be said, didn’t deter him in the slightest.  “So not what I was… Oh, God…”

“Mmmm?  What exactly did you have in mind, then?”  And he’d nipped her till she’d bucked against him.

She’d honestly had no idea anymore by then.

The dorm room had been empty more and more often of late.  As such, it had become all the more romantic a locale. Studying was no longer strictly the first activity on the docket, unless one called anatomy lessons ‘a study’.  

Buffy sighed as she twirled her stake and marched through the graveyard, looking neither to the left nor to the right.  All summer after school had been great, even. Sex, learning about this Sineya chick and the Slayer line, more sex. A few trips into the desert with Giles to shake a gourd, listen to her Watcher chant, get in touch with a dreadlocked, feral creature who seemed a hell of a lot more like a wild animal and who moved much more like a demon than she was anything like a tame, modern Slayer.  Which, okay. Talk about some thinky-thoughts about self and the relationship one had to the demons one fought. A few discussions with said First Slayer, mostly in dreamy code, both in the desert and in dreams; dreams which included waking up not a few times in her vampire’s arms, startling him out of his sleep shouting inane things like, ‘little miss muffet!’ because why not be haunted some more by that weird thing she’d shared with Faith... and also some stuff from her meditations with the First Slayer-Guide chick, like how death was her gift.  

It had taken her a while to work that one out, the whole ‘no matter how much she embraced her Slayer side, she couldn’t lose her humanity, because she had let that part of her, let love, bring her to her gift’.  Which was, apparently, death. That whole thing had briefly scared the bejesus out of her, till Spike had pointed out, with certain amusement, that he was kind of death incarnate, and he would like to think of himself as a nice, gift-wrapped package for her, sitting around helping her to remember how to love at any given moment, even when it hurt.

He’d had a pretty fair point.

In general, there had been a lot of time spent in bed with Spike; some of it spent having poetry murmured to her between some exceedingly loving sex which was turning more and more kinky as time went on, which…  Well. Let it just be said that her incipient embarrassment about such things had quickly vanished as proceedings… proceeded. She was even venturing outside more with him, since there was also a whole lot of very flirtatious sparring that got more and more hot and heavy as the uneventful summer months dragged on.  Like ya do. That kind of thing made sex in public venues seem very attractive.

No one was going to walk by at night in a cemetery, right?  Except… they kind of could, and should that prospect contribute to her arousal as much as it did?  

Probably not, but it was tough to care when you had a Spike.  

Spike tended to make thinking, much less worrying, an impossible pastime.  And, really, life honestly couldn’t get any better in her book.  

That was, until that douche Dracula had shown up to try her, because apparently Spike was right and her fame had spread stupidly far and wide, and now baddies were coming from freaking Europe to give her a shot.  Except Mr. Eurotrash 1400 or whatever had to take  his  shot with a bunch of stupid party tricks and crap.  

First, the dickhead showed up right in the middle of Shady Rest, mid-patrol, and tried to be all seductive to her, right under her vamp’s nose, like ‘I came to meet the creature whose darkness matches my own’, yadda yadda.  As if she should be Miss Flattered-cakes and fall at his caped feet.  

Spike, of course, took exception and got all flipped out.  To her irritation, he had actually stood in front of her while she was still…  Well, okay, to be fair, she was acting a little starstruck that someone like the actual Dracula had even heard of her, but look.  Till that night she hadn’t even known he was a real person and not book-monster-guy, so cut her some slack much? Anyway, sure. It had probably put her vamp’s back up a little, but still.  Macho, threatened boy-games, much? All, elbowing in front of the actual Slayer to be all, “Look, you tosser, back off. And any road, if you need to talk to anyone, it’s me. You still owe me eleven quid, you poncy prick!”

Cue a little domestic discord of the ‘I can fight my own battles’ nature, which hadn’t endeared her to Spike, nor Spike to Buffy, and et cetera.  Things had been tense from then throughout the ensuing emergency Scooby meeting, and she had—it turned out, stupidly—gone to bed alone that night; at Revello instead of joining Spike at the crypt.  But okay, even if Dracula could turn into a bat and fly off (nuts, right?), Buffy could still so handle him.

Or so she had thought.  Till he’d turned up in her bedroom and thralled her.

The discussion in there was so messed up, with the word ‘magnificent’ being thrown around, like she was all needy.  When you’d had someone like Spike talking you up for like nine months, having some rando vamp with pancake makeup glamor and Fabio hair come in to do it was a little less convincing.  “I bet you say that before you bite all the girls.”

“No, you are different.  Ki…”

“Look,” she’d interrupted, impatient and, frankly, kind of worried about the whole ‘showing up in her bedroom made out of smoke’ thing.  “Not that I’m not flattered that you came all the way to California to meet me and stuff, and I’m definitely down to fight you, but this whole vamp-seduction thing?  Not my gig, okay? I’m a taken girl. I mean, you saw. I have a vamp boyfriend. I’m vamp-taken.”

“I do not see his mark on you.  And the others… they are old. They were unworthy.   He  is unworthy.  Perhaps this is why you do not let him…  taste  you.  Because you know…”  Creeping closer, all slithery sensuality, and, just, no.  

/I am really, so very much not getting into this with you, of all assholes.  And see me not having visible qualms about the subject in front of you? No qualming right now.  Zero./ “He is  so  worthy.  We just… haven’t discussed it yet.  I still have some trauma over the way the last one went down.  But he’s mine, and I…” Her voice had hitched over it, unable to say it.  Not yet. Not when she had so successfully avoided considering the question in depth thus far.  “So anyway, thanks for coming all this way, and for the offer, but…” She’d leaned back, scrabbled away into her pillows.  He was way too close, totally in her space now, and… “You can’t just waft in here with your music video wind and your hypno-eyes and think I’m gonna let you jump in ahead of my guy!”

“I have searched the world over for you.  I have yearned for you.” The prick had actually sat on her bed, totes uninvited; which, by the way, it had taken them a hot minute to figure out how he’d managed  that  little invitation trick.  “For a creature whose darkness rivals my own.”  Tried to touch her, to peer at her neck like a creeper.

/Um,  so  much with the no!  Max no-fly-zone!/ She’d scrambled backward a little further, unsure why she hadn’t been able to fight, to stake him, to…

He’d just smiled at her, all sensual unconcern, as smugly certain he’d have her as if she were some kind of kitten he could eat.  “You remember. The embrace. His bite. You  remember.”

So gross.  And weirdly compelling, like all old vamps, and she  hated  this.  Hated that he had the  pull.   Hated the way it dragged at her, sucking her in toward him like fleshy magnetism.  It made resisting a feat like lifting a building with her mind. “This is not gonna happen.”  Just pushing the words out past her lips had taken all her breath and will. But she had done it, because just the thought of…  /And oh my  God , Spike would be so…/  He would never,  ever  recover from the hurt.  “Not from  you .”

“Do not fight.  I can feel your hunger.  So much I have to teach you; of your history, your power.  What your body is capable of. Why… we are so much alike in our difference.  You feel it, do you not? And you long to know… why.”

Okay, his insinuation pissed her off; the assumption that she didn’t know herself, didn’t know the source of her own power.  “Listen, you Eurotrash bastard! I…”

“All those years fighting us; your power so near to our own...”  He’d crept closer; ever closer, crowding her; caressing her neck with chilly, beckoning fingers that raised gooseflesh and made her breath hitch, unwilling, hating the familiar arousal he could command.  “And yet you’ve never once wanted to know what it is we fight for? Come now. Let me taste you, and then you will beg. You will want to taste me, and have an eternity to learn…”

Buffy had rolled her eyes, abruptly beyond done.  And some of the fog had lifted. /Beg? Um, try again, Mister!/  “Okay, you’re  so  full of yourself.  I would definitely not do that with anyone but Spike.”  /Because for one, he would never ask. And if I ever did that… it would be a game; at  best ./  “Are you  serious?   Just wow.”  And she’d scrambled—okay, half-fallen, but grace was so not a factor in that moment—from the bed to fumble in her nightstand.  

As if realizing he had overplayed his hand, Dracula had held one up; a soothing gesture that had indeed quietened her mind somewhat.  “You would not change. You must be near death to become one of us. And that comes only when you plead for it.”

The chink found, held, the thing in the back of her mind had reared up in that moment, rebelling against the thrall.  “Okay, you know what? Do you think I was born yesterday? I  know  that, you dumbass!  I’m not a child! I’m the damn  Slayer!”  

“You think you know what you are.  What's to come.” Some of the seductive air had failed, giving way to frustration.  A hardness. “You haven't even begun.”

Her own hardness, rising to match his.  “Oh, buddy, you don’t even know. You are so barking up the wrong tree there, mister.  I know where I come from. I’ve felt it; with Spike and on my own.” Words rising from somewhere in the back of her mind, behind where the human parts of her stumbled, half-asleep.  “I’m from thousands of years of ancient strength, down to the first Slayer. She was all demon-y power and totally undomesticated, and I feel her at the back of my mind one hundred percent of the time.  I don’t deny her anymore; when I’m in bed with Spike, when I fight, when I slay. I don’t need some outdated vamp from a European backwater to come here and talk a bunch of bullshit about how only he can give me the secrets of the universe.”

Dracula had drawn back, looking startled.  “You know already that we are kindred, you and I?”

The word had Buffy taken aback.  It had an interesting intonation, and one that totally reminded her of something Anya had said last December but upon which she had for some reason had never followed up.  “Kindred? Anya said we had a kinship. Huh. Thanks for the note. I forgot to talk with her about that. I’ll hit her up about it ASAP. But as for you…” Shaking her head to clear the few remaining cobwebs, Buffy had managed to fumble finally for the stake she kept in her nightstand drawer.  It had been part of some slightly edgy sexplay here and there, but had otherwise never made an appearance before now. This time, it was a bit more serious. “Get the hell out of my bedroom before I turn you into a dusty little pile of bad makeup, you waste of a Pantene commercial.”

Dracula’s too-pretty face had twisted.  “You will come to me. I have your friend.”  And, turning into smoke like a ridiculous carnival trick, he had literally  drifted out of her damned window,  the freak, before her stake could do more than waft him around like smoke.  

Which was how she had found out he had thralled Xander and turned him into some crappy Renfield; an event which had filled Spike with some kind of sick glee and thoroughly pissed off a possessive Anya.

Speaking of possessive, when Spike found out that Dracula had been in her bedroom trying his wiles on her, he had completely turned into Mr. McJealousVamp, which was so not the most attractive look on him.  It hadn’t made anything better, since for one thing, Buffy totally thought she should have gotten points for resisting thrall and crap, what with the Master making her all susceptible or whatever, and with the ‘old-vamp-buzz’ to contend with.  /I mean, that’s totally a first for me! I should get a parade!/ So while Wil, Tara, and Jonathan went around putting wards on everyone’s houses and stuff, Buffy basically told Spike to stop being a big baby and marched off to go save Xander.  

Of course, Spike followed her, all teed off that she was ‘playing right into the git’s hands’, and, per Willow’s later account, vowing first to save her and then to kill her, or vice-versa.  Giles had followed, trailed by Anya and the magicks brigade.  

Giles was out of the running really super fast.  Pretty much the minute they entered the maze, he ended up trapped in some pit full of Drac-wives, and was, per Spike, no doubt seduced in some kind of vamp-ho dogpile; which, you know, the less Buffy ever heard about that the better.  Not that she was one to talk, but also, good blackmail material in future if Giles ever gave her crap about her yen for vamps and all that, because he had literally zero room anymore to yap about her weakness when it came to vampire sex appeal.  /Let’s just leave it at that./  

Giles probably realized it too, because all his little digs and crap had been suspiciously absent ever since.  

Jonathan…  Well, he just basically got lost somewhere in there.  Anya spent a lot of the time apparently marching straight into Xander and slapping some sense into him once she found him, then demanding that Wil and Tara do a spell to “Get him back into his right mind, I don’t care if he’s under a spell!  Dammit, Dracula is sexy, but I didn’t think he was sexy enough to get to Xander! Though I guess I should have. Still; this is taking things a little too far!” 

Buffy and Spike got separated for a short while by some weird trick of the bizarre ‘castle’, and Buffy had a final, solo showdown with Drac.  He tried to thrall her yet again, and yes, tried for a second time to get her to do a little bit of vamp fluid-bonding with him, which, just, ew.  “Look. I told you. If I’m going to be exchanging pleasantries of the bloody kind with any vamp, it’s gonna be Spike. I’m pretty sure I can figure out how we’re ‘kindred’ with him.  You might’ve noticed he’s a Master vamp himself, and plenty old enough for me to get a nice buzz or whatever. And besides; we have an actual  relationship .  You’re a total stranger, so no offense…”  And she’d punched Captain Shiny in the face with her stake-hand.  “I’m not that kinda girl.”

The throwdown had been brief, unfortunately; mostly because the stupid jerk cheated.  She staked him twice, but he just kept turning into stupid misty crap and reforming.  

Which was when Spike had come around the damn corner like some kind of insane Brit-punk cowboy,  thrown a gallon tank of gasoline  on the reassembling dust, and tossed his lit Zippo at it.

Cue the infamous Count fucking Dracula, up in goddamned smoke.

“Guess I’m never gonna get my eleven quid,” Spike had muttered, and pulled out a cigarette, then frowned in frustration, standing there empty-handed and sans lighter.  “Oh, bloody hell. And now I’ve lost me best lighter. Christ.”

He’d just stolen her kill.  And he could have burnt himself up.  He was about a foot from a sizzling pyre of vamp, over there writhing and shrieking as it blazed up into melting and reforming skeleton, and oh my god, he could have died, he could have dusted, he was so  stupid

Shoving him around the corner by his lapels, Buffy had had him up against the wall before he could speak.  Had slapped the stupid, unlit cigarette away, nails digging into his neck. “You absolute fucking imbecile!”  And then she had swarmed aboard him, so terrified that she was going to lose him that she had probably lost her damn mind for a second.  She had definitely gone at least halfway into tunnel-vision-Buffy, with the Slayer-y thing roaring in the back of her mind as she’d slammed his shoulders hard into the stone and ripped his belt and jeans open.  

He had been willing enough, snarling back at her in abrupt game face.  “Fucking  mine , Buffy!”

She had snarled back, no longer able even to articulate anything, and lifted up to basically impale herself on him, and alright.  Yeah, so they had fucked right there against the wall of the world’s most notorious vampire’s stupid castle, Spike whirling around to slam her against the stupid stone wall and glaring into her eyes with feral, amber abandon while a celebrity burned like a merry torch behind them.  

There at the end she was sure he was going to bite her.  She had almost invited it. Could have just tilted her neck and let him.  But in that moment… she just couldn’t. Not with the smell of that bastard smoking away right over there, and hints of gasoline on Spike’s hands.  Because he could have  died;  and what if the fire had jumped onto him?  Or, what if they did, but it was all just because he was trying to prove something; or because  she  was, and not because…

If she ever did this with him, she wanted it to be special.  

Not like this.  So at the last minute she had closed her eyes and pulled away.  And he had growled, pumping into her, and got them both off with a kind of angry ferociousness she had never felt from him.  And dammit, it didn’t have to be like that, and she hadn’t  meant  it to be like that, and she knew he had been hurt, but okay, so was she, and…

And he hadn’t touched her since.  And it had been  days,  now.

*   *   *






Alrighty, then.  Welcome to These Violent Delights!
Let me know what you think of the kickoff to season 5!

 

Chapter Text

The problem was, it wasn’t just his fault, of course.  She had come around to that sometime in the vicinity of late yesterday, when Mom, having watched their downward spiral for a worried two and a half days in silence, finally frowned and said, “Look Buffy.  Far be it from me to get in the middle of someone else’s relationship, but I’ve been in a bad one, and you have a good one here.  So let me give you the wisdom of the ages.  It’s never all one person’s fault.  Whatever you’re fighting about… there’s blame on both sides.  And if you don’t talk it out, you’re maybe gonna lose something incredibly special.”  And then she’d narrowed her eyes at her daughter; eyes they shared, eyes too alike, sometimes.  “And no offense, but I like Spike too much to let that happen.  If you let him get away, I’m still keeping him.”

“Wow, Mom,” Buffy had breathed, taken aback.  Though, not that she had been all that surprised.  Her mother and her vampire were basically besties.  Whenever Spike wasn’t with Buffy he was down at the gallery, or hanging out with Mom in the kitchen or in front of the TV, drinking cocoa and watching Passions.    Aside from his ‘used to be a proper demon, those were the days’ convos with Anya over the gallery counter, and his weird, bristly, one-sided chats with Giles about book-stuff, Spike didn’t exactly have tons of friendships, and most of them were a little edgy, or had fences.  Clem; poker, mostly.  Willy; comrades in the way of business while being the default Master vamp in town… but that was more about running things in the Slayer’s name as a sort of unofficial deputy.  And that was about it.

Well, technically he was friends with Buffy’s little sister, but that was more of a big-brother thing than a friend thing.  Like, they were friendly, but in a weird ‘brat-and-overprotective-bad-influence’ kind of way, and Buffy would never understand their dynamic if she lived a thousand years.

 She understood her mother’s codicil, though.  If Buffy ever, god forbid, broke up with Spike, she was also going to keep him.  He was not only her lover but her business partner and her left hand, her psychologist and her dream-interpreter (which, those had been coming thick and fast lately, for sure!), her confidant…  Her all-around best friend.  She hated to say it, but he had surpassed even Willow on that front (though maybe it wasn’t so disloyal to say it at this point, since Wil probably felt that way about Tara by now, not that they’d specifically discussed it.  They tended to walk way wide around that conversation).  Spike just… knew her in a way no one else ever would.  Anyway, she simply could not imagine her life without him in it in some shape or form, so… yeah.  Spike.  There, at her left side, no matter what.  The end.  

/Which means, I have to find a way to fix this./  

A heavy sigh escaped her lips, because the problem was, doing that would probably require her to word, and she was just so, so bad at that.  Most of their communication was practically done at submarine level.  She floated around somewhere at about his midriff and just sort of bumped him in the dark till he caught her with his hands, lifted her to his eyes, smiled, nodded, gave her a little smirk, said something like, “I hear you, Slayer,” and then kissed her, and it was all good.  But that sort of crap wouldn’t work this time, and dammit, she was going to screw this up royally, wasn’t she?  She always did when she tried to talk.  

/I’m gonna hurt you worse, aren’t I.  I’ll get mad, or say it wrong, or…/

Probably best if she just… showed him.  /It’s usually the best way.  Eventually he gets me, even if I have to do a lot of show-for-tell before he picks up what I’m putting down.  Which…/  She glanced up at his impassive countenance from where he strode next to her, all stiff resolve and cut-glass cheekbones.  Damn, stubborn vampire.  He was still so pissed off, or at least he was clinging to his determination to be mad at her till she made the first move.  

Jerk.  He knew how hard that was for her!  

Gah!  

/Well, fine.  Don’t make it easy for me this time.  I’ll just…  Show you./

She quailed slightly, thinking about it, even as she got more than a little warm in her nether regions.  /The question is, are you actually  ready  to show him?/

Letting out a long, slow breath, she nodded firmly to herself.  /I think I am.  I just have to… be brave enough to step up to him and…/  “C’mon,” she insisted firmly, because, action?  It was what she  did .  “Let’s go… talk.”  

He started, and to her surprise his hand was chilly in hers despite the warmth of the evening air as she seized him in a firm grip and half-dragged him toward his crypt.  Thank goodness they were already in Restfield tonight.  It saved time.  

It was easy enough to alter his trajectory from gate to home, since she had taken him unawares.  He for sure hadn’t expected her change in tacks, considering their current mutual temperature.  But you know what?  It was fitting, dammit.  And they needed to have this out, once and for all.  Needed privacy for it.   Especially  this.  /For sure we don’t need Dawnie poking her head in the damn door while we…  It’s gonna be hard enough for me to figure out how to make this romantic, the way I screw stuff up without trying.  We so don’t need fourteen-year-old interruptions for  this! /  And there would be.  Her little sister had the most execrable timing on the freaking planet, no matter how quiet they tried to be.  /She’s such a  nosy  little…  Ugh./ 

That had always been half the point of having the crypt, right?  Not just a convenient place for post-slayage sex, and not just a ‘get Spike some digs in a hurry to get around Mom’s house rules’ thing.  ‘Little sister with huge crush on vampire boyfriend’ so did not help in the getting sexy-times alone with said vamp-boyfriend part of the equation.

She had never had that problem with Dawn when she’d been with Angel.  But then, Dawn had always kind of despised Angel, and had never made the slightest secret of it.  At best she had barely tolerated him, and for the most part always avoided being in the same room when he was around, so that had helped with the whole getting make-out time department.  

Not that that had mattered when Buffy couldn’t have had said sexy-times with Angel no matter how much she might have wanted to.  Whereas now that she was with a vampire who provided much repeated sexual-tension-relief on a regular basis, all the sudden Dawn was all over said vampire’s case all the damned time like an adoring puppy, trying to monopolize all of his time and practically competing with her big sister for his attention.

Hence, crypt.

The decadent ambiance was conducive to a certain level of exploratory kink, as well.  Not to mention that there was no one around for miles—or at least no one alive and non-demonic—and the thick stone muffled all sorts of full-throated noises.  And dammit, Buffy tended to make the hell of a lot of noise; or rather, Spike tended to make Buffy make the hell of a lot of noise, and sue her if she didn’t feel like stifling herself.  She had been doing that, one way or another, for her whole life till recently.  Just, no.  

Spike watched her as he held the door, his expression illegible in the gloom.  She stepped ahead of him into the relative coolth of the main space, though she didn’t take a seat or anything.  The upper level tended to be a little dusty lately, and sported that vaguely-neglected sort of, ‘not really lived in anymore’ air, because he spent most of his chill-time at Revello, or at her dorm, or with her at Giles’ house when there was a Scooby meeting.  Like, he came over here sometimes when he wanted some time to himself, but for the most part, the upstairs area was kind of nil in the hangout department.  

When they were here, they were mostly downstairs.  

Consequently, Buffy waited, not bothering to light any candles or anything, for him to join her.  He did so, closing the door to leave the room in darkness, then passed her to head further in, and resolutely lit the closest wax pillar with the cheap Bic he’d picked up since Dracula.  /I should get him a new Zippo/ she thought in passing as she watched him move, silent and wary, his back to her.  /Dammit, Spike,  talk  to me./

He didn’t, though, and she just knew if she started, she would say something wrong.  “Do we… have to be up here?  Can we go downstairs?”  Not that either portion of the nest was less cool-verging-on-chilly, but this part was by far the least comfy.  They had tried, between the two of them, but it still leaned a hair toward seedy, while downstairs was…  Well.  

There were blankies.  More candles.  No windows to let in the air, late summer though it was.  It was just generally more welcoming.

His shoulders went rigid, but he nodded. “Sure,” he answered, too lightly, and headed over to the hole in the ground.  Shoved aside the flat stone that served as a trapdoor, and jumped unceremoniously down without waiting for her.

God, it was already going wrong, though Buffy honestly couldn’t for the life of her figure out how or why.

She followed, trying not to hug herself.  Moved in behind him in the dark, making him out only by the faint outline of his body, the pale blob of his hair in the scarce remnants of light trickling down from the one candle upstairs.  Touched his taut shoulders, wondering if she should pull off his duster.  “Spike, I…”  /How am I supposed to do this?  To tell you I’m… ready?/  

/Maybe…/  She trailed her fingers over his uber-tense neck, down his chest a little.  Back up again over his shoulders.  Caught the lapels of his coat and tugged it away.  

He let it drop, arms dangling stiffly.  But he remained silent as a statue while she tossed the heavy article over toward the corner of the bed; as motionless as ever a vampire could be.  /Are you even here?/  He needed to be here, with her.  He needed to…  When he…  When they…  

Just thinking of it was starting to make her very, very wet, and achy, and she was beginning to realize how very much she actually  did  want it.  But dammit, he didn’t even seem to get it, and how was she supposed to tell him if he wouldn’t even turn around and  look  at her?  “Spike, will you just…”

Her voice caught around the lump in her throat when he tensed even more.  She hadn’t even realized that was  possible .  “Thought maybe we came here to talk, Buffy, not to have a quick shag like it never happened.”

/Wait, what?  You think…/  To say she was stunned by the bitterness in his voice was an understatement.

“Know slaying makes you hot,” he went on grimly, still avoiding her eye.  “Never thought I’d just be a means to an end for you, though, luv, or that you’d push m’ feelings aside like this, ‘cause it’s easier than facin’ ‘em.”

/Oh my  God! /  He was so  stupid!   He thought she’d brought him down here just to…  To seduce him so that she could get off?  Like, yeah, sure, she was horny, but she was also trying to make this right the only way she knew how, and how could he even  think , after everything they had been through, that she would…  “You are such an idiot,” she hissed, glaring, and backed off to throw up her hands.  “I can’t  believe  I ever thought I wanted this.  God, you’re dumb.”  Flinging herself away in a wide turn, she marched off to sit on the nearest large trunk, unbuckling her sword as she did so to cast it aside.  It landed on the stone ground with a clatter.  “Sometimes I don’t even know what I saw in you in the first place.”

He swung around then to glare in his turn, dander up and eyes glinting darkly in the faint hints of candlelight.  “Oh, yeah?  If I’m such a bloody idiot, tell me how I’ve got it wrong, Slayer?  You lure me down here, you start runnin’ your hot little hands all over me, you don’t say a soddin’ word…”

Buffy lifted her eyes to his, miserable.  “Because whenever I try, it comes out wrong, and I wanted this to be right.  But I guess it’s always gonna be wrong no matter what I do either way, huh?”  God, she was going to cry.  Her throat was tight and her eyes were burning, and this was too embarrassing.  She should just run, shouldn’t she?  It was a stupid disaster, like always, and...  

Something she had said, though, had arrested him.  He stilled, drew closer finally.  Crouched in front of her, softening.  “Wanted what to be right, pet?”

She couldn’t look at him.  “I just…  I couldn’t when he was there, burning, and I could  smell  him, and I was so  mad  at you!”  She was stumbling over it, and it had all sounded so meaningful in her head, and of  course  she was making a hash of it, but dammit, this was why she had wanted to  show  him, not tell him, and…  “And I could have  lost  you!  You could have burnt up too, and I would have had to smell you dusting, burning…”

“Buffy…” he breathed, confusion clearing, comprehension dawning.  But by now she couldn’t stop, because it was all flooding out.

“And then you…  You were there, still with me, and I was  so  worried, and I  so  wanted you to…”  She realized from somewhere distant that she was biting her lip to keep the tears from falling, remembering.  And dammit, she was beyond aroused, still, just thinking of what it maybe would have felt like, because  everything  with Spike felt better than...  But if he…  “But I didn’t want it to be because you were mad at  him , or maybe even mad at  me  a little, or trying to prove a point, or…”  

“Oh, bloody hell.”  He sounded awed, and kind of poleaxed.  “Buffy, you don’t ever have to…  I wouldn’t have…”

He was so dumb, sometimes.  “Of  course  I don’t, but I did, and you  know  it; but do you think I wanted it to be like  that?   Dammit, Spike, I’ve already  done  this wrong once!  Do you think I wanted it to happen that way with  us?”   It had taken her this long to realize that she wasn’t mad so much as just plain scared.  Scared that they would screw it up somehow.  Do it wrong, when...  “If we ever did that, I wanted it to be  special , you idiot.”  When he gaped at her, she lost it.  Surged to her feet so that he had to follow, hit him in the chest.  “God, why are you so  stupid?”

In an instant, every ounce of his remaining ire fled in realization.  He caught her elbows, drew her in close, dropped his forehead to hers.  “Oh, bugger, Slayer; oh Christ, I’m so sodding sorry.  I didn’t realize.  I’m a right ass.  Please don’t cry.  I’ll…”  Ran his hand gently through her hair; just a bare whisper of a caress over her bangs, growing out around the frame of her face.  “Bloody hell; can we start over?”  

She hadn’t meant to cry.  She considered it an unfair advantage.  He gave up everything to her when she did, went all to pieces, would promise her the moon, the stars, the universe on a string… and it wasn’t fair.  Consequently, she fought to pull herself together.  “Sorry.  Sorry, it’s just…”

“No.  Don’t.  Just…”  He shook his head, threw his arms away from himself, looking desperate.  “Christ.  Here, please, pet… would you just… close your eyes for a tick?”

“Huh?”

His blue ones pleaded with her.  “Buffy… for me, would you do this?  I’ll tell you when to open them.”

She was completely at a loss now, still riding a squall of emotion like a small bark on huge combers, way out to sea… but she trusted.  And did.

She could hear him, moving around her, first to her left, then to her right.  Little rustlings, small movements.  A hollow, dull tap.  A grating click, though no longer the one that had become familiar as anything she had ever known.  And then the smell of wax slowly warming.  /Oh./  He was setting up candles.  Several, by the sound of it, all around the chamber, on probably every surface.  Lighting them.  

He had scrounged about a metric fuckton of candles for down here.  The place would be…

It would be like make-up sex inside a glowing, flickering globe of light.  And he would look like…  With all those alabaster cuts and curves and disciplined planes and landscapes of muscle and bone and sinew, limned in saffron light, he would be…

Her confused arousal came roaring back, this time accompanied by a serious whammy of emotion.  / God …/

“Alright, love.”

Holding her breath, she opened her eyes.  And was briefly dazzled.  

It was both exactly what she had expected, and more beautiful.  And so was he.  

The chamber’s normal scents—moisture, cool stone, soil, rugs, the faintest hint of decay, a touch of whiskey and Spike’s cologne… they were all trumped right now by an overpowering aroma of melting wax.  He had turned down the bed.  The infinity candles in their glass pillars and cleverly-rigged tubes, made to re-form from their own demise, blazed all around it as if creating some sort of ritual circle of flame, burning steady and dependable in the motionless air of the catacomb like an unyielding symbol of what stood between herself and her vampire.  Heat, but an immovable thing, too; never to be quenched.  Life, light, a thing that fed and replenished itself, melted and molded and renewed; burnt and was never spent.  

And Spike.  He stood before her, hands open in supplication.  He had removed his shirt, and the warm light danced a little over his chest, his abs, his arms… and reflected in eyes that carried his heart to hers.  “Buffy.”

It was question, hope, request, prayer.  She smiled a little through the mist, stepped to him.  Took his hands.  

Relieved, he wrapped his arms around her, buried them in her hair, closed his eyes, and lowered his cheek for a moment to her crown.  “Bloody hell, woman,” he murmured again.  

“Shh,” she whispered, and pulled back.  Lifted her hands to his cheeks, zeroed in on his eyes, then his mouth.  “Take me to bed, William, and we’ll find our way.”

“Christ,” he answered, and walked backward with her toward the waiting furniture, his searing gaze never leaving hers.  Fell back when his calves struck the stone plinth of his bed, drawing her with him, over him.  She came along, let him pull her over his body to lay across him, crawled in concert with him as he put down a hand and edged himself further up; trapped by eyes blazing into hers like blue fire.  “You sure you…”

“Yes.  And I don’t want it to just be…”  Lowering her head to press her cheek beside his, she nipped his neck, arched up, pressing her hips down to grind against his erection.  Felt his awed intake of breath flutter against her ear, her jaw.  “I want to share myself with you, the way you have with me.”

He went utterly still, freezing in her arms.  And then the world whirled as she was spun, him atop her abruptly, staring down into her eyes with an expression teetering between fearful and ferocious, and surely she would burst into flames from the conflagration going on inside of him.  “I need to know you’re sure,” he whispered, rough and shaken.  “Need to hear it again.  Christ, Buffy, after what my sod of a grandsire…”

“I’m sure.”  She  was .

“Oh, bloody, bloody, christing fuck…”  His head dropped to the hollow between her neck and her shoulder, and he was shaking now.  She wasn’t sure she had felt him tremble so hard since last winter, when all this had started.  “Oh, love.  Oh God…”  And then he was up again, hand cupping her cheek.  “I’m not askin’ for that.  I don’t need it, pet.  I’m happy bein’ yours.  Fine.  More than.  Bleedin’ ecstatic.  You’ve nothing to prove, there’s no sodding contest or…”

“Listen,” she answered, soft but firm, so he’d  hear  her, and laid her hands to his chest to push him away.  Sat up, faced him dead on, caressing the smooth muscles of his pecs, the long sweep of his collarbones, lightly palming his nipples till he shivered.  “You’ve had my blood already, so that’s no big.  Somehow it got all turned around the first time, but we’ve done it since; a dozen times.  More.  And it’s been great.”  More than.  He  begged  her to bite him sometimes, pled for it.  Roared like a caged animal freed as she did.  As she called him hers; bellowed his belonging to the universe as he came, hard, and gave himself up to her.  And whether it should be or no, it was unbelievably hot to know that he was so willingly owned.  That she held title and deed of him in her hands, in some strange vampiric way that was terrifying and heavy with responsibility, and yet incredibly light for the way it seemed to hold him safe and utterly complete.  

And once, the thought of belonging similarly, yet again, had been frightening.  But that was then, and this was now.  /I would still belong to me, because unlike the last time, you would come  with  me.  Because you belong to me too… and because you don’t hold leashes, at arms-length.  You hold in arms, and cup in hands, so no one would ever feel the pull of a collar.  You do what I try to do and probably fail half the time.  You don’t… push away and then tug.  You give instead; and you always forgive when I forget, or pull away.  Or; jeez, maybe you  like  to feel it.  But just knowing that you…  That I could be sure that you would never…/  God, how she wanted to know what it felt like to be as safe as he looked when he stared into her each time she made him hers; when he fell apart, and melted… and  knew .  

Buffy wasn’t dumb.  She knew for a fact that her vampire would never leave her.  Spike couldn’t.  He didn’t know  how  to leave.  Even without the blood-leash she held, even if she threw him away—as if she ever would be that dumb—he would stay.  But to know it on a cell-deep level, the way he did?  The way he had known with Drusilla, and Drusilla with Angelus; the binding of it?

She knew it had been a double-edged sword, that knowing.  That there would be no possibility of leaving for one, but plenty of opportunity for the other, the one who held the leash, to drop it in the dirt and vanish, leaving the one with the broken collar bereft.  That pain had stood not just for Spike.  But that was because those bonds hadn’t been mutual.  And so Angelus had been cast out by Darla, leaving her empty-handed, and so in turn Angel had left Drusilla broken, and broken Drusilla had cast out Spike, whose heart had already left her, and on and on… 

But there was no leaving at that bone-deep level.  Not really.  They were still all bound to each other in a way that Buffy could never touch.  Drusilla, and even freaking  Angel , still held a part of Spike that she couldn’t assail with the strongest weapons she had ever known.  She could see it, feel it when they were around each other; something she could never break into or get between… and she wanted him free of it, bound only to her… if he wanted that.  Call her a jealous bitch, but the thought that her  ex  held a part of her lover that she didn’t and might never have, a hold over him, a pull…  It was anathema.  Anguishing to watch how they interacted, how they could cow, wreck, destroy one another with a look or a word, and the thought of putting herself into that kind of mix was terrifying and potentially painful, yes…  But Buffy knew pain.  She knew risk, and gambles for big odds.  And this would be different.  What they had built was good.  It wasn’t about power, or control; and it would be  mutual,  which it wasn’t now.  

And they could both be secure in it.  

More than that, and maybe it was an addiction, but dammit, she wanted it again.  Wanted that feeling that was the only part she missed from before; that safety-trust-belonging on a mystical level.  Because yes, she and Spike had that already in one way.  They had it because they had built it without.  But to have it settle into their bones, bound by blood magicks?

God, yes, she wanted it.  Wanted the circle closed, and to know for a fact that there would be no leaving.  Ever.  /Because with you?  I wouldn’t survive it, to see you walk away./  Not that he would or could.  But still.  /Even if I was ever the one stupid enough to send you.  So don’t…  Just  let  me./  “Spike.  God, please.  I’m fine with how we are, too.  But I remember how it was.”  She managed a shaky breath, because she could never impugn his honor by saying all that.  He’d be so offended, even if he understood.  

But if she took refuge in logistics…  

Besides, she was kind of mad, still, that he had never told her.  “And do you think I ever want some other asshole to come waltzing in trying to take what’s yours, spouting off about how I must not love you enough because I haven’t let you?  Do you think I want these idiots here in town thinking that I don’t respect you, when you’re my  partner?   Because I know they’ll think that means deep inside they don’t have to respect you either; and you can’t lie to me.  I know sometimes even wet-behind-the-ears fledges give you crap about that…”

He gaped at her, astounded.  “You’re the Slayer, Buffy!  No one thinks any vamp’s gonna claim the Slayer!”

She rolled her eyes, abruptly impatient at the omission.  “They all know a vamp already did.  And that I’m with you now, that you’re my Master in this town, but that for some reason I’m not extending you the same courtesy.  They’re wondering why, and they’re gonna keep giving you shit about it.  I know you don’t tell me about it, but…”

He sat back, looking away.  “Didn’t figure to bother you.  My problem.”  He rubbed his hand over his face, looking more than a little irritated.  “How the bloody hell did you find out?”

He wasn’t going to like it.  “Willy.”

She was right.  He went rigid, one eye peeping through his fingers, sparking with amber.  “Are you sodding serious?  That little pissant thinks he can get in the middle of our…”

Buffy held up a hand, dropped it to touch his by way of forestalling the outburst.  “He was just trying to help.”  And god, how it had hurt to know that someone like Willy the Snitch, ally though he was now, had known something about her relationship that she hadn’t, had never even considered.  

“Hey, kid,”  the barkeep had muttered to her one evening about two weeks before Dracula had blown into town.   “Gotta ask you something.”

Having just had a seriously frustrating conversation with two Thurgalds over their refusal to cease dealing in contraband Tagash venom, Buffy had not been in the best mood as she’d turned back to the rat-faced informant.   “I’m not really in the mood for questions tonight, Willy.”   She’d rubbed wearily between her eyes with her stake-hand thumb-knuckle and sighed.   “No, I haven’t seen any of the Initiative leftovers around; yes, I’m still holding a hard line on the trafficking thing; no, I don’t care if it impacts your business…”

“Not what I was gonna ask, kid.  More along the lines of a personal thing, actually.  Which, you know what?”   He’d been polishing a glass beer mug with a rag that had seen better days, but all the sudden he left off to twitch a grimace at the crowd.   “Maybe we should step in the back for a sec.”   Without waiting for her response he’d turned to one of the regulars.   “Hey, Thomas, can you watch the bar for a few, make sure none of these assholes takes any of my booze?”

“You bet, Willy.”   Smoking a cherry cigarillo, the hulking thing, something Buffy vaguely identified as being in the Ferava family, twiddled its Freddy-Kreuger-esque claws cheerily and nodded.  

She supposed she wouldn’t argue with it, and followed Willy back toward his rooms, somewhere between exhausted and mildly curious as to what the hell had him in such a lather to get her away from the clientele.   “Okay, Willy,  what ?”   It had been a very long damned day.  She’d had a pop quiz in History  and  in Soc, she still had patrol to get to, she had to go all the way back to campus tonight because her first class was at eight AM, which was practically dawn—only those insane-os who took O-Chem got up earlier than that.  That was like, before breakfast!—and she was wiped.  

“Listen, kid.  I don’t wanna get all up in your business, but I figured you should know.”   Willy had looked totally anxious; practically jittering.   “Some of the vamps, and even a few of the other demons who care about that kinda thing, are givin’ your guy a rough time about the one-sided deal.  Didn’t know if he’s been tellin’ you, but it’s makin’ his unlife kinda tough when it comes to keepin’ the peace in your name, which probably makes things tough from your perspective too…”

She had been at an utter loss.   “The one-sided deal?”

“Yeah.  The whole ‘you own him but he doesn’t have a claim on you’ thing?”

Cue one very embarrassed Slayer turning some very bright colors.  

“Guess he didn’t tell you.”   The answer to that must have been written all over her so-not-a-poker-face, and Willy’s expression had gone oddly regretful about being the messenger.   “I kinda figured, since the last time I brought it up he about took my head off.”   He’d cleared his throat anxiously, avoiding her staring eyes.   “Look, I’m not tryin’ to get in your business.  Like I said, it’s no skin off mine if he wants to make life hard on himself, or if you don’t mind if he has to pull a double half the time just keeping the youngsters in line, but I just thought you should know he’s getting mocked a lot on the playground; especially since every vamp in town and half these other idiots know you let his grandsire have a crack at you.  I mean, the evidence is right out there, front and center…”  

Talk about ready to sink into the floor.  She had automatically moved to cover the old scar before defiantly dropping her hand.   “Look, that was…”  

“Master did it too, kid, and you lived.  Honorable battle scar.  You staked the bastard and turned his bones into talc.  Hell, you put Angelus down too, but this was after, right?  So now they’re all wondering… what about the current Master vamp in town, since you’re two for two when it comes to workin’ with ‘em or stakin’ ‘em, so what’s that mean for this one?  And, you know, that puts him on real unsteady footing when it comes to whether they think he’s gonna have a super long tenure as the big boss.”   He’d shrugged uncomfortably, looking a little away from her.   “You and I both know it’s the real thing, and maybe it’s complicated.  But I just thought you should know.”

Lifting her eyes to Spike now, Buffy sighed and touched his lips.  “It’s not the main reason,” she assured him softly.  “But I wanted you to know… I get how extra hard you’ve been working.”  She narrowed her eyes.  “Also, you’re so way not off the hook for not telling me what was going on.”

With a low groan, Spike sat back on his heels and shook his head.  “I didn’t want you to think I was tryin’ to use it to get you to let me…  Bloody hell, pet, I wouldn’t…”  

God, it was cute.  He was actually stumbling.  Maybe even this close to stammering, which, wow.  Feeling affection for him fill her like warmth, Buffy sighed and cupped his cheek.  “You’re such a giant doofus.”

He lifted his gaze back to hers, confused.  Narrowed his eyes again.  “Look, you mad bint.  I told you.  Never gonna take advantage.  Not my buggering git of a grandsire.  Won’t manipulate or…”

She kissed him.  It was the only way to shut him up.  Well, that and other related activities.

He was still trying to talk through the kiss, but he gasped, broke it off with a hiss when she wormed her hand under his belt to tickle his cock (which was, it must be said, not nearly as confused as he was by the conversation).  “Do I have to manipulate and take advantage to get you to bite me?”

He growled, thoroughly overloaded.  “You’re being unfair and cruel and confusing, and you know I’m gonna have sod-all ability to think about this or do this rationally if you keep…  Oh fuck!”  Desperate, he grabbed her wrist, fingers digging into her tendons to hold her still.  “Buffy, wait.  Please.”  

The ragged tones in his voice stilled her far more than his grip could ever do, and she felt tears prick at her eyes.  “Do you… not want me?” she heard herself ask, feeling a little far away.  

“Oh, buggering hell.  Bloody, bloody fuck.  Christ, Buffy, I want you more than anything, I just want to be sure you…  Oh shite…”  For a vampire, he almost sounded like he was about to hyperventilate.  

How could she tell him she meant it?  That she wasn’t afraid?  “I…  Dammit, Spike, you know I can’t word like you do!  How do I get you to understand?”

His forehead lowered to hers, his cool breath wafting over her face.  “Can’t make a mistake here, love.  If I do, and you end up resentin’ me, and I lose you…”  His hands rose, cupping the backs of her arms.  “I belong to you, and you belong to you, but I can’t risk…”

There.  That was  it.   “Yes you can,” she whispered, fierce and uncompromising.  “I need some part of me to belong to me enough to decide what to do with it.  Because otherwise I really belong to the world instead, and it can take me away anytime.  And I know I do.  And I know that any minute it can ask me to give  everything .  To die, or take  you .  But this way… you won’t ever lose me, and I  can’t  ever lose you.  You won’t ever… leave.  Because you’ll be in my blood, and I’ll be in yours.”  She pulled away to regard him fiercely, on fire with certitude.  /I  know  it’s for keeps, you dope.  And I’m not afraid!/  “And this will be  mine , because no one can take it from me.  Not the stupid Council, because sometime they’re gonna find out about this and want to; and not some idiot fledge some night who got lucky, and not some apocalyptic whatever.  And maybe I can  live  with you; because something is coming, Spike!  Something is always coming, but I can  feel  this one, and it’s  big , and it’s on its way, and I  need  you; and we’re not even.  We’re lopsided, and it’s just been me for so  long , and dammit, I want to  belong  somewhere!”

“Oh, bloody, buggering hell, lover,” he whispered, low and devastated, and dragged her into his arms.  “Buffy, Slayer, oh, love, then yes.  Belong here, with me.  In my arms, forever.”  And rolling her, he lowered his mouth to her throat, sucking hard, fast fingers at work to ruck up her skirt.  “Come here and let me have you, and I’ll make it so soddin’ good for you, kitten, oh Christ…”

She was already lost to his hand, arching up as he found her panties, and, “Oh God…”

“Oh, fuck, love, you’re this wet thinkin’ about it?”

“I  told  you,” she breathed, shuddering up toward the cruel knuckle that had barely grazed her.  “Oh God, don’t stop.”

He made a sound that was half groan and half snarl, and her skirt was up and her underwear down and he was sliding down between her thighs, and she had hold of the thick coverlet for dear life as he plunged in, greedy for the evidence of her arousal at the thought of his having her in every way.  And ohgodohod, he was so good at this, she had never known before him how  essential  this was; to be raked from clit to core and back and sometimes further, because he had done things to her she had never even considered before him; to have his ravenous tongue hollow her out from her brain to probably her toes, rock her whole body with eager strokes, and she was coming, already coming, had hazed out, clenching down on nothing, so that the sudden departure of sensation was a shock…  

Though not nearly as much a one as his cock, sudden and abrupt and filling her while she was still coming, pleasure and pain and oh  god

“Jesus fuck, oh God, sometimes it’s like you’re punishing me for it, Buffy; making you come.  Less, more, hard, not hard enough…”  He thrust, and she doubled up around him, lifting off the bed, collapsed back to wrap her legs around him, lost.  And then he was losing himself in her, and she couldn’t think, he was deep, battering the place inside her that needed more, that was greedy, hungry for him, please, more, harder, forever, she was going to unravel, thought she screamed ‘YES!’ but maybe it was just in her head…

And then he was at her throat, on  his  side, bumpy and breathing harshly, waiting… and there was a moment of stunning clarity.  A moment in which she could accept, or turn away.  

Her nails raked his ribs, dragged down on his shoulder blades, punched into his neck.  “Please.”

“Oh Christ,” he whispered again, a true prayer this time, and thrust again, hard enough that lights went off behind her tight-closed eyelids.  And his fangs slid into her.  

It wasn’t like before; either time.  No agonizing gnawing feeling, like a shark.  No serrated, ferocious tearing.  Spike felt like a burning, piercing ache that spread, abrupt and sudden as unexpected but wanted penetration; a question that required only acceptance.  

He didn’t drink.  Instead he hung there, shaking, made a little grunt against her.  

It was a question she knew the answer to.  “Yours,” she whispered, and meant it with all her being.

His arms went tight around her, and he made a low sound.  Almost a sob.  And then he was holding her so tightly she almost passed out from it, and the low pulling began, in tune to the resurgent thrusting inside of her, so that every slow, deep pull was punctuated by the slow, gliding impact of his cock, each familiar fluttering of his tongue against her carotid like what he always did on her clit, so that it answered, thrumming against him, and she was going to…  She was going to…  God, from  this , she was going to…

And then one of his hands was loose, had slid between them.  The second he touched her clit to match what his tongue was doing that was it.  “Fuck, fuck, oh God, Spike, I’m so  yours …”  She ground it out, biting down hard on her lip, ground it out on his cock, wrung it out on his hand, lifting, seeking, and his hand clenched hard at her lower back and pulled her close, and shuddered, and shuddered as he came in her, growling her name all the while, into her blood.

Buffy had never had an orgasm like that before.  It almost felt… doubled, somehow; a rushing, localized surging exploding from her loins, coupled with her usual—amazing—internal ecstasy and the maddening, overpowering overwhelm Spike was bringing to her clit, and it was all so much that she couldn’t…  She couldn’t…

Alright, she maybe kind of lost track of things for a minute or two there.  

She started paying attention in there somewhere when she felt him closing her up in long, tingly sweeps of his tongue that felt like he was setting off teeny-tiny, straight-pin-sized explosions beneath her skin.  “I…”  She blinked then.  She felt like jumping up to go fight something.  Like beating something to death or sparring or…  “Did it work?”

Long, slow strokes from the backs of black-painted fingernails, sliding up her sides, bumping over her rucked up shirt.  Lips, finding her nipples.  A vast surge of contentment, of awe, competing with the vibrations of renewed want thrumming through her from the stimulation.  “Would you stop that?  You’re gonna make me nuts.  Answer me!  Did it…”

He ceased his attentions to lay between her breasts, voice incredibly husky.  “It definitely worked, Buffy.”  

“Are you sure?  You didn’t say anything.”  God, she felt good.  But completely high.  She wasn’t going to be able to sit still much longer.  Either there was going to have to be more sex, or some judo moves or something.  

“Oh, I said something.”  He sounded amused.  Amused!  

Buffy frowned, confused, and touched her solar plexus.  It felt like his laughter was located somewhere inside of her abdomen instead of his.  

Her body jumped, striving to leap off of the bed without consulting her.  “Why am I so wired?”

He sighed and rolled abruptly off of her before she could forestall him.  They were unceremoniously uncoupled, which was rude, and why did she feel so suddenly chilly?  “Because  I  am.  Because I had your blood, love, and I’m high as a sodding kite.”

“Huh?  And get back here…”

He did, and nuzzled, spoke into her neck till her flesh was crazed with it.  “And since we’ve closed the circle right and proper, it seems we can feel each other now.  Feels a bit like sire-bond, actually, though stronger.  Used to be able to tell when Dru was hacked off at me, any rate.  This, though…”

Buffy frowned, working her way through that.  “Wait, so you’re saying since you feel like you could dance with a Mack truck, so do I?”

He lifted away slightly to regard her.  Cobalt eyes glittered on hers in the candlelight, a little reserved as if he was watching for an unexpected reaction.  “Seems so, love.”  He tilted his head a titch, the yellow glow glancing off of his alabaster bod.  “Bit more than you bargained for, no doubt…”

/Oh./  He was worried she would run.  And to be fair, she was maybe a little overwhelmed by the thought of feeling his feelings and stuff, but…  “Did you expect it?  I mean, feeling a bunch of Buffy-stuff is probably more than you…”

Spike shook his head, eyes blazing on hers.  “Felt you come,” he whispered.  “Bloody fuck, love.  Did you feel me?  Because that was…”

/Oh.  Was that what…/  “Oh, wow.  I…  Oh.”  Well, no wonder.  “Um, yeah.  I think I did.  Jeez.  That could, um, come in handy.”

He looked reverent.  “Shagging you was already a sodding miracle, Buffy,” he whispered.  “Bloody hell.”

/Ditto.  Oh, God./  “You mean, it’s gonna always be…”

A slow smile spread across his face; one with just a hint of a smirk, but mostly wonder.  “I’m thinkin’ so.”

“Well, that’s just…”  Buffy closed her eyes, belatedly aware of a new logistical problem in the works.  “Okay, how am I ever gonna get anything done anymore?”

He started laughing.  

She flung herself backward on the bed, glaring.  “Oh, shut up.  I’m already addicted to you.  And how are you not already in me again, if you’re feeling me like I’m feeling you?  Because if  I’m  going nuts here…”

“Je suis tojours a ton service, mon amour,”  he whispered cockily, and bent to tug her blouse the rest of the way off her body.  

“Okay, I caught that one,” she whispered back, and shivered.  

“Good,” he murmured, and dropped his mouth back to her breast.

*   *   *






Hope that y'all feel better about the whole Drac situation.  Next week we'll commence the whole, actual S5 storyline.  You know; now we have a nice, mutual bond-o-claimyness to make things more interesting.

Chapter Text

As they made their way up the steps to Giles’ door, Spike slipped his hand to her lower back.  Buffy leaned in automatically, just as unwilling to lose physical contact despite the fact that they could literally  feel  each other now.  

Somehow that almost made it harder to let go.  Feeling his emotions, his sensations made her desperately hungry for his touch, for more of those echoes.  For the funhouse-mirror of it all, the endless reflections of sensation and emotion cascading through her being and into his, then back again, and again, and again in a ricochet without end,  god .  

Buffy let out a breath that was mostly a shiver and fought to retain some semblance of sanity about how to word about… conversations.  Spike had just asked her something.  “Huh?”

/Intelligent, Buffy./  

“I said, you really think something bad is coming, pet?”  His voice was as rough, as strained as she felt.

“Oh.  Yeah.”  Somehow it was tough to care right now about any of it.  “The… dreams lately have been…”  God, she wanted to climb right  into  him, or on him and  get  into him; right here against the wall, or…  It was dark enough, right?  

Did it even matter?  

His neck was right  there .  She should bite him again.  Just to make sure he knew…  “Dammit; we probably shouldn’t be let out in public, huh?  At least not yet.”

A shuddering sort of chuckle was her only answer, and then she was against the wall, the duster all around her.  “Do it quick, love, before I lose my damn mind.”

She had his collar in her hands, bringing him down, his flesh in her lips, his throat between her teeth, and he was shuddering against her.  “Christ.”  And she could  feel  him.  How close he was to coming as she bit down hard, just this shy of drawing blood, thrummed her tongue against the trapped flesh, sucked fiercely.  

Dammit, she wanted him.  Wanted to take him and…   “Mine,”  she whispered, releasing him abruptly, because there was never enough time.  Never would be.

He trembled, turned his cheek against hers.  “Yours.  And  mine .”  And dropped his head to snuffle at his new marks on her neck, there on his side where there were no marks but his own.  Making her shudder, making her skin want to leap off onto him, making her whole body convulse with the need to  combine  with him somehow, and…

“Yours,” she breathed back, shaking at the feel of his cool breath against overheated, healing flesh, and oh god, they were going to have to go somewhere.  It was amazing they had gotten this far.

Well, they hadn’t really.  There had been two stops, and they should probably mop up the DeSoto, but it wasn’t like that was a first.  She had long since had reason to be grateful for the way those seats laid back.

The faint creak of the door opening, the wash of lamplight almost made her jump out of her skin, made Spike snarl reflexively against her neck, which, by the way, oh  god .  “Hey.  You guys coming in?”  Willow.  She had probably seen them from the window.

Buffy fought for composure, a voice, something.  “Yeah,” she managed after a second, and holy crap she sounded husky.  “In, um, just a second?”  

“Oh.  Okay?”  Wil retreated immediately, and Buffy could actually hear the blush on her voice as her friend realized belatedly that she had stepped into some probably very private moment.  

“Christ,” Spike whispered, and it was half-groan.  “Gonna have to button up the bloody duster.  I’m soddin’ indecent.”

“You’re not the only one.”  Buffy was literally awash, knew he knew it, and they had yet to graduate to full-on public sex, but if they were going to go there she was almost prepared to make that a now-thing, since the idea of sitting there through a whole meeting squirming like this, with him looking at her the way he did when he could smell her, and knowing he had a huge hardon and…

She bit her lip and very suddenly gave in.  The thought of it was too much.  

Unable to believe she was doing this, she grabbed his hand and dragged him around the back corner, past the window, before she could think anymore.  /Just don’t.  Just… do./  

There, behind the apartment, where they wouldn’t be giving the neighbor across the courtyard a free show.  Scrabbling at his belt, and him staring at her, amazed.  “Buffy?”

“Quick.  Before they wonder where we went.”

“Oh hell…”  And her skirt was up, and his fingers were in her, his thumb doing its work, and she was already halfway to heaven before she had her hand on his cock, pulling him to her while he shuffled awkwardly in his jeans, half-down and just barely out of the way.

“Please.  And remind me.”  She wound her legs around him, pulled him in.

“Fuck,” he whispered, and came hard into her, fingers still working.  And his mouth was on his bite, sucking hard, tongue thrusting in time with his fingers, and she was already coming, crushing down on him, hitching around the almost-too-much of him so that he went still for her, shaking with the power of her need and waiting his turn while she keened against his hair and dug her nails into the duster; just feeling her.  And she could feel that too; how it was for him.  Hard and almost-pain and so good,  god!  

“Fuck…” he whispered again, when she could release him, and then he was moving; and she could feel how  that  was for him.  His sensations, mingling with her own till it was hard to tell where he ended and she began.  His coolth slaking her fever, parting her like madness, pounding the ache away just how she needed him to…  And her heat, enveloping him, burning him; keeping him fevered and on edge and making him crazy the way sun burning his skin made him crazy.  Like stepping into a bathtub after you’d been out in the cold, to prove you were still alive, but for him it was the way it felt when he stood just on the edge of a shady spot and the sunrise prickled all around him; like life and death and danger could make a person feel the most alive they would ever feel, because you’re always the most alive you would ever be when you know at any moment you might teeter over that edge.  /So of course, you leap, every time./  She was bungee-jumping to him, or skydiving, a quick dash into the sun or dancing with a Slayer, except,  dancing.  This  dance; and he never felt more alive, had never felt, in all his century of existing, than when he was in her arms and moving in her… and neither did she, and that was terrifying, and so right.  /Death is your gift./

“Fuck, fuck, bloody Christ, oh, Buffy!”  Holding him in her hands, his head against her throat while he came apart in her arms; so  alive .  

/Alive for me./  And he gave up everything to her when he came.  Everything of himself.  It was incredible.  /And you give me these little moments of rest, like little pieces of heaven, and I feel so perfect.  Stillness in your eyes, where there’s nothing else but knowing who I am, and who you are, and that I’m… complete./

He could be alive, with her.  And she could be at rest.  /My gift./  Sometimes he made her cry, he was so perfect.

When she could breathe again, when he could let her go and meet her eyes, she smiled so that she wouldn’t, though he would see the tears edging her lashes.  Stroked his brows where, behind blue eyes, amber waited, loving her.  “Maybe that’ll hold us over for, oh, fifteen, twenty minutes?”

He saw the emotion there, wasn’t fooled.  So, yes, he snorted in amusement at her words, but he also brushed her cheek with one freed hand, then recaptured her butt and dropped his mouth unceremoniously to hers, her ass snugged hard in his hands to pull her in deep against him.  Which was fine, since her legs weren’t about to let him go any time in the next decade.  

And god, the way he kissed her…  

At the best of times, kissing Spike could easily be an Olympic sport.  The best ever sport.  When you added in the whole knowing how it felt for each other, now, and on top of that stirred in emotions?  How it felt for him, kissing her, how it almost broke him every time, and the way he became both fierce demon and loving, sweet man all at once.  The conundrum of him, and who knew what he felt from her when they did this, but he had to feel that she was seriously emotionally rickety right now, because no matter what, she tried to give him all of her.  Which, he seemed to love it, and did there really have to be a meeting?  /Let’s just stay out here and… feel each other./

“Where the heck did they go?  You said they were out here, right?”

“Uh, Xan?  I think, um, just…  They’ll be in in a minute.”

“Wh…  Oh, you’ve  got  to be kidding me.”

“No doubt they found it important to give each other some orgasms.  Sometimes that takes precedence.  I know ever since you got that new apartment, I’ve been considering letting you give me a great many more orgasms.”

“Anya!”

“What?  It smells better in there, for one thing.  I think I’ll visit you a lot more often.”

“Oh God…”

The door shut again, slicing off voices and lamplight.

Buffy disentangled her mouth from Spike’s with an effort.  “Damn,” she whispered.

“Yeah.”  He sounded as reluctant as she felt.  But they’d had their fun.  Best go in and get on with the business at hand so they could leave ASAP and patrol or something.  /And then use the duster for some more extracurricular sex on a crypt or something, because it would be really cool to feel what the Santa Anas feel like on his skin while he’s naked out in the night air, and woah, my mind is so very much not on business./

Spike was smiling into her eyes; not a lascivious smirk but a tender, knowing smile as he kissed her forehead and very gently tugged her ankles off of his lower back.  “Like this new adventurousness, though, pet,” he informed her, keeping it light.  She appreciated the effort, appreciated the way he twinkled outrageously at her in the gloom, rolling his tongue behind his teeth in that way that was one-thousand-percent suggestive.  “We should work with that.”

It helped keep her emotions on an even keel, going into the lion’s den to face everyone down.  After all, it wasn’t going to be fun and they both knew it.  /But I’m not gonna hide it, so…/  “Guh.”  Scrambled brains did not a big talker make.  She so was not going to have much to contribute to this meeting if she couldn’t get herself together.  But who knew going all claim-y with him was going to make her so emotionally… what was the word?  They’d used it in her psych books.  It started with an ‘L’.  Whatever.  Emotionally all over the place.

“But for now…  Sorry about it, love.”  With another light caress to her cheek, this time in warning, Spike pulled out of her and gently tugged her underwear back into place.  And winced with her at the discomfort of decoupling, the immediate flood of spunk anointing her crotch, seeping past her panties to make for her thighs.  “I’ll run interference for you, yeah?”

“And you ask me why I bother to wear underwear.  Not that they help much.”  She shot him a narrow-eyed look as he hitched up his jeans and tucked himself back in.  Logistics would also help.  Cold, hard math.  Problem-solving to help get her head on straight.  “This is the only stupid thing about not using condoms.”  

Thumbing his button through the eyelet of his jeans, he rolled his eyes dismissively.  “Would you want to?”

She had with Parker, obviously, and no.  Not when it was completely unnecessary.  ‘Dead’ men carried no bugs or babies.  It was stupidly freeing and way too damned good, if it came with some obvious, immediate consequences.  Which she would take.  “Nope.”  She blinked at him, surprised.  “Would you do that, for me?”

He lifted a scarred eyebrow as he buckled his belt, snorted.  “Be askin’ a lot, pet, but I’ve already said I’d set myself on fire for you.”  His lips twitched and his eyes turned away, almost shyly.  “I’m just grateful you agreed about the other bit.”

‘The other bit’ had been discussion back last quarter when they had still been sorting out the ins and outs of their relationship.  She had heard about a trial for some experimental new birth control when she was at the campus clinic getting a required shot, and seriously considered it, if only because it would be nice not to have to remember a stupid pill every day.  It had sounded a little invasive, having something stuck in her uterus, and apparently it worked well for some women and really, really didn’t for some others, but she figured what the hell?  Maybe for a Slayer, with a Slayer’s constitution, it might work fantastically.  And besides, anything that potentially saved her even more hassle when it came to cyclical fatigue and random bleeding while on patrol was a good plan, right?  

Except when she had brought it up to Spike as a passing thing, he had gotten all bad and moody about it.   “Your body, pet.  You do whatever you want, obviously.  It’s just…”

/Okay, what…/   “You don’t think it’s a good idea?”

He’d shrugged.   “Not my business, love.  Shouldn’t even be bringin’ it up to me.”

Which had been fair, since she wasn’t even sure by that point how they’d even gotten on the subject.  Just random, ‘how was your day, dear’ kind of crap, probably, but by then she had been sort of worried.   “Why are you squicked?  I mean, I get that it’s kinda weird, but it’s probably not gonna hurt me, if that’s what you’re worried about.  Okay, it supposedly hurts some girls, but if it does they’ll just take it out and I’ll go back to the pill.  No harm no foul.”

He’d shrugged, looking away from where he’d been lying, stroking her shoulder.   “Yeah, I’d worry about that, of course, and yeah, it seems unnatural as hell.  And maybe I’m showing my age, and maybe I’m just an old sod sometimes, but it’s odd enough sometimes knowin’ how it works with the bloody birth control you’ve got.  But I understand why, pet.  God knows I do.  With all you’ve got to manage, and d’ya think I want any other bloody tosser following you about scenting you when…”   He’d growled and rolled abruptly out of bed to pace around the crypt while she’d watched in amazement.   “It’s just… you’re not bound to the moon anymore, time means nothing, and it’s there sometimes, but barely, and I’ll have you, but it’s like a sodding tease, and then gone, and not my place to complain, but…  Oh, Christ, ignore me.  I’m a fool.”

“A tease?”   She’d blinked, confused, and then comprehension had dawned, followed by something between horror and a faint, unwilling arousal; like overexposure and realization all rolled into one, because sometimes it really hit her.   Vampire .   “I never… really, thought about it.  God.   Really?   I mean, it’s not…”   She had had to try really hard not to ‘ew’ at him.

Still not quite looking at her, he had shrugged slightly, staring off into space like maybe his eyes could drill a hole into the stone walls and he could use it to escape.   “Not the same sort of thing, Buffy.  More of a kink.  Never been with a human woman before you, yeah?  Not long enough to…”   Another shrug.   “Doesn’t matter.  Too much to ask anyway, considerin’ what you have to do.  It’s just…  At least sometimes, with the way you’re doin’ it, I get it a bit, here and there.  If you did the other thing, there might be a chance of nothing, and that’s…”

/Oh./  He had thought she’d be horrified, so he hadn’t said anything, merely taken what he could get and tried not to make a big deal of it so she wouldn’t take it away.  And now suddenly he felt like he had to ask, though he didn’t want to because he felt like it was not his place to ask for her to do something that was extra work added to her day just so that he got… well.  A brief, ephemeral treat once and a while, and… jeez.   “Sometimes,”  she’d breathed, surprising herself,  “like, once every few months, it…  For like a day or so.  It hasn’t happened yet since we…  But…”

His shoulders had hunched.   “Buffy, you don’t have to keep doin’ something that’s an added stress if you…”

“I know.”

She had taken her name off the list of girls who had signed up for the trial.  Heck, when hemorrhaging was one of the possible side-effects, why try anyway, right?

They each put up with a few inconveniences for their pleasures, worked around a few roadblocks—/Like underwear, heh/—and enjoyed the unexpected benefits when they came.  And were paid in dividends they would get nowhere else.  “C’mon,” she whispered to him, and caught his hand.  “Let’s go in.  You can be all Big Bad personality and stuff while I slip away to the bathroom for a second.”

“I get to keep the knickers after?” he asked, flirtatious, and patted his pocket.

It was her turn to roll her eyes at him as they headed for the door.

Stepping inside, Buffy quickly cased the room as was her wont.  Willow and Tara sat practically in each other’s laps on the bottom of the stairs to the loft, fingers intertwined and sharing some secret that had Wil blushing a little and Tara ducking her head to hide her slow, secret smile.  Good.  They wouldn’t be paying any attention.  Jonathan was by the bookshelf, buried deep in some tract on, probably, the ancient lore of the Graknar-whatsis.  Excellent.  Giles, same, poring over some parchment-y thing at his desk, the low lamplight casting a greenish glow on one side of his face.  Xander, on the couch, was hunching over the Krispy Kremes box, picking over the selection in search of jellies, powder already on his lips.  Good deal.  Anya, leaning against the couch near him but not quite next to, had her arms crossed as she watched the door.  As they came in and she took in their probably disheveled appearance she smiled knowingly.  /Crap./  

“Oh, good.  You’ve gotten the orgasms out of the way.  That means we can have a quick meeting and you’ll be able to pay attention.  I have to get back to the gallery; Joyce has a showing coming up and I want to ensure we make a great deal of money.  Also, I caught her trying to order a  Diablo Danzante  mask from Caracas last week.  Thank goodness I was there before we ended up in a war with dragons made of sun-rays.  Obviously art galleries are an excellent import spot for demonic enterprise, and having a knowledgeable point-person on site is a must.”

Buffy blinked, standard horror melting into immense gratitude that her mother and Anya had gone from swift friends to business partners.  “Oh, yeah.  God, that would be so bad.  A what mask from where?”

Giles had tugged his glasses off and was pinching the bridge of his nose, successfully diverted from any discussion of orgasms, thank god.  Shaking his head wearily, he shoved the glasses back on and sighed.  “I cannot believe Joyce ordered another dangerous mask.  Honestly, that woman couldn’t tell a safe artifact from a hole in the wall.  Of all the incredibly…”

“Now, now, let’s not jump all over Joyce,” Spike began, holding up a hand, and gave Buffy a swift, inconspicuous nudge in the butt to send her in the direction of the hallway.  “It’s not like she knows what to look for, yeah?  Any road, she has me, and Anya, and Buffy.  One way or the other, nothin’s gonna get in that way.  It’ll get sorted, Watcher.”

Buffy shot for a Mona Lisa smile as she headed toward the bathroom, and let the exasperated conversation whirl around her.  /Thank you, Anya./  Once again, she had to be grateful for the former vengeance demon’s big mouth.  And, apparently, for her mother’s lack of demonic discernment.  

Not that she was grateful, even now, that Mom had let Dracula into the house last week, but still.  /Sometimes it works for me./  

As cleaned up as she could get without a shower, Buffy headed back out a few minutes later to find Spike had settled into ‘their’ armchair in the corner.  Grateful that he had given up his opportunity to join her for a quick cleanup of his own—he liked to, he had told her, ‘keep the tackle in good working order for you, pet’—she moved to join him.  Plopped herself down on his lap—mmm, very recently-used muscles definitely felt that, which was half the point of the plopping—caught his grin of appreciation, and slipped her damp panties unobtrusively into his duster pocket.

The quick grin brightened to something devilish, and she received a squeeze of appreciation on one arm for her thoughtfulness.  “I’ve seen that festival,” Spike was saying with a quick wave of his hand.  “Great party those Venezuelans throw, but overall harmless as that Krampus business in the alps.”

Anya looked amused.  “Well, that one’s also debatable…”

“Oh, really?”  Diverted, Spike leaned forward around Buffy, sounding downright fascinated.  “How the bloody hell did I never know  that?

Giles was leaning forward as well in a freakishly analogous pose, just as clearly intrigued.  The similarity in their poses briefly wigged Buffy right the hell out.  “Anya, I really must pick your brain more often.  The Council’s never been able to determine if the Krampus actually existed beyond folklore…”  

“Well, really, they’re a whole family of demons called Perchten, and Krampus is a proper noun for one specific sect, but that’s neither here nor there.  We have bigger problems.”  

“Ahn…”

Anya ignored Xander.  “I saw the mask Joyce was about to purchase, and the markings inscribed on the face and wings were Kalina.  I’ve seen them before.  We don’t want to meet those ‘serpents of the sun’.  Their whole goal is to destroy the world; to burn it dry and consume everything.”

Giles was up and heading toward his bookshelf.  “Amana, the creatrix of the Kalina tribe tasked her son Tamusi to cut away the serpents of the sun and cool their ardor in the sea before the world could be burnt to a husk…”

Anya shrugged noncommittally.  “It’s a nice story.  Someone did something during an attack and locked a few demons up tight; demons who were powered by the sun...”

“Lucky bastards,” Spike put in.  Buffy elbowed him, riveted.

“Anyway, these dragons are angry, and tired of being imprisoned away from this reality.  They’re hungry and they want revenge.  The Church came along of course and called them devils, so now the humans dance around once a year to propitiate them with a masked festival, but it seems like at least one group is hiding in the crowd trying to free them instead…”

“Please  tell me I get a trip to Venezuela,” Buffy interrupted, excited.  “Sun, sea, one of those little tiki bars…”  Giles shot her a  look .  “Okay, but world-save-age.  And I  am  the Slayer.  Isn’t this, like, my whatever?  My bailiwick?  Shouldn’t I get traveling vouchers or something if there’s a fire to put out?”

“Well, yes, Buffy, but as a general rule the Council has people who handle this sort of…”

Spike rolled his eyes and muttered loudly about slavery.  He made no attempt to keep the opinion quiet.  

Buffy winced a little, even if something deep inside and rebellious wanted to agree. 

 Willow was already at her laptop, typing away.  “This is really interesting.  I’m so glad you took my advice and got a router, Giles!”

“You know, you should seriously consider sending Buffy,” Anya pointed out.  “If it weren’t for Joyce, we would never have known this was happening.  I don’t know who that particular  confradia  serves, but it’s no harmless festival group, and if they succeed…”

“World end-age, Giles…” Buffy wheedled, and turned to Spike, grinning.  “When’s this festival, anyway?”

“June, pet.  Still got some time.”  He shook his head, amusement at her eagerness fading to disdain.  “Christ, some tossers are so bloody stupid.  Always someone has to get ambitious and try to end the sodding world…”

“I know.”  Anya was still on a roll.  “You think, ‘harmless dragon effigies’, right?  But of course it might not even happen in Venezuela.  Sorry Buffy, but the chances of that sort of thing actually working out are much better on a hellmouth than even on their native soil…”

Buffy sighed heavily and flopped her hands on her lap, feeling her chances at a tropical vacation dashed as if with cold water.  /My hellmouth, my home, my prison.  No glamor for this kid./  “Of course.”

“Though I think I put a stop to it coming here, at least,” Anya answered brightly, “so maybe you’ll get a chance to travel after all.  Which is good, when you think about it.  If your mother had managed to get this mask into the country, we’d have all ended up enslaved to some lower hierarchy of  U’trigash  or  Gadah’gan  before next week.”

Buffy shot Giles a hopeful look.

Pinching the bridge of his nose, he removed his glasses and dangled them, clearly at his wits end.  “I’ll take it up with the Council.”  And he shot Buffy another look.  “Not that you’d be in very good odor with them right now should they discover certain… facts, so the idea of bringing you to their attention seems a rather poor move…”

Buffy sighed heavily.  He had a point, since she was kind of amazed she had flown under the radar this long with the whole ‘consorting with another vampire’ thing.  “Well, it sounds like we have time, anyway,” she huffed, and mentally consigned the thought to oblivion.

Spike’s fingers tightened around her waist.  “How about if there’s no apocalypse again this year, or if she averts the bloody thing, she gets to go do this one as a treat, yeah, Rupert?  Time off for good bloody behavior?”  His voice sounded grim as he took her part, and possibly angrier than she felt even she had the right to be.  Honestly, she just felt tired, weighted down.  Spike, she knew, was pissed on her behalf that she not only never got vacations, but that if she ever managed to negotiate one, it would have to be a working holiday.  

Shaking his head wearily, Giles shoved the glasses back on and sighed.  “Could we deal with the substance of the current, upcoming, local apocalypse before we focus on ones which may or may not fall into our jurisdiction nine months from now?”

Spike leaned back into the chair, hands ratcheted so tight around Buffy’s waist that she was practically able to feel his fingerprints.  “You’re shaking,” she whispered as the group kibitzed.

“I’m so bleeding brassed I can scarce keep from putting holes in the walls.  How can you bleeding well stand this, love?  Letting them own your every sodding hour?  You’ve long since earned your own time.  Why the bloody fuck do you have to have the excuse of putting more blood in the game in the first sodding place just to get the chance to have a buggering break?  What the bleeding fuck do they  want  from you?”

Uncaring for the moment of everyone else’s presence, she turned in his arms, straddled him.  Wrapped her arms around his neck, lowered her forehead to his.  “Every day and night I’ve had with you since last December has been more of a vacation, more of a treat than I’ve ever felt like I’d ever have.  More than I feel like I deserve.  I’m so rich.  You give me so much.  I’m so, so happy…”

He closed his eyes against her forehead.  “I’m grateful as hell to be able to give you that, pet, but it’s not the same and you know it, and you bleeding well deserve better.”

“Well, we have nine months.  That’s long enough to hatch a getaway plot.”  She hesitated.  “That is… if you’ll come with me?  I mean, I’m probably on my own fighting sun-serpents, but afterward, if you’re there waiting for me,” she wangled, “in the moonlight…  On the beach…”

His hand rose, caressed the screen of her dangling bangs back.  “I’d be so bleeding honored, love.  I’ll travel anywhere with you.  Take you anywhere.  Christ, I want to show you the world.”

She shivered, entranced by the fervid light of his gaze.  “I love you.”

“Love you so bloody much, Buffy.”

They remained locked like that for some indeterminate period, until a throat-clearing interrupted their moment.  Buffy took that reminder to recollect how to breathe.  “Okay,” she murmured.  “Showtime I guess.”

“Yeah.  Got your back, Slayer.”

“I know.”

Turning around again, she ignored Xander’s incredulous looks, Giles’ utter embarrassment, Jonathan’s avid stare, Anya’s amusement, and Willow and Tara’s knowing, blushing exchange to address the room.  “Alright, so since we’re not dealing with sun-serpents till June…  Um…  I had a dream the other night, after we got Xander all pasted back together.  It freaked me.  I think something big and bad is headed our way.”

“W…what did you dream?” Jonathan stammered, all ready to be anxious as hell.  This, after all, would be his first trial-by-fire.  He’d been razzed enough by Xander about whether he had what it took to be a ‘real Scooby’.  Poor guy.

With a sigh, Buffy leaned back against Spike’s chest and threaded her fingers in his.  “A flash of a face; it looked like a monk or something.  Somebody in a ritual robe.  Human-looking, but all bruised and beat-up.  A glowing light.  And then the light exploded, and there were all these huge flaring lights everywhere, opening in the sky, with dragons and horrible demons flying out; demons I’ve never seen before.”  Buffy shivered.  “I’m not a fan.”

Giles came back to his feet, looking alarmed.  “Dimensional portals.”

“Okay?”

Pulling off his glasses, he nodded and pointed with one earpiece, frowning.  “What, ah, color was the light at first?  The one you saw glowing, which started all this?”

/Okay…/  “Uh, sort of purplish.”

“Purple, glowing, dimensional portals opening…”  He darted toward his bookshelves, all intent and book-guy.  “Portals, Jonathan.  Willow!”

Willow sprang up, looking harried.  “Oh, right.  Duty calls, baby.”  

“Go.”  Tara released her hands, expression concerned as she turned to Buffy.  “You really think s…something really bad is c…coming, Buffy?”

Considering this was also Tara’s first taste of upcoming apocalypse, Buffy hoped the stammer was for the situation and not for addressing her directly.  She had done her best in the last couple of months to make the shy girl feel comfortable around her; though probably speaking up in the group setting wasn’t helping.  “I do,” she answered softly, and squeezed Spike’s hand to show him she didn’t mean the next comment in any way personally.  “I think we’re about to pay for how easy last year was.  Apocalypse-wise, anyway.”

He rumbled slightly, but squeezed back to show that he didn’t take it as a diss against what had actually happened.  He knew she took it seriously, what had gone down with the Hellions.  She would, after all.  It had been the genesis of them.  /Not to mention those bastards practically turned my town into a wasteland.  That was at least a lower-case-apocalypse, right?  Localized end of the world?/

It had definitely had the potential to be a personal apocalypse.  Thank goodness she had instead had the sense to see the chance for what it had been instead, and gained the love of someone as constant and imperative to her being as her William.  /I don’t even know what my life would be like right now if…  If…/

“Nothing in  Nostrans Guide  about opening multiple dimensional portals…” Jonathan murmured, tossing one thick tome onto the nearest flat surface.  The  thud  completely disrupted Buffy’s thoughts, for which she was grateful.  Thinking about life sans-Spike was not really conducive to happy emotional reality.

“Nothing in The Quaternary Sollust either,” Willow answered, sounding discouraged, and shoved her book back into the shelves.  

Giles made a frustrated face, flipping pages on a huge folio.  Slammed it shut.  “Glowing light,” he muttered.  “Portals…”  Turning, he glared at his library as if it had personally offended him.  “I need access to the damned Council library!”  And he shot Buffy a brief, sideways glance full of some fierce anxiety.  “Daren’t bring them into it, of course.”

Buffy sighed and lifted her chin.  Gave Spike’s hand another squeeze and slid from his lap to stand.  /Definitely showtime./  She was grateful, of course, that her Watcher was willing to run interference for her with those English jerks, whatever he felt about her personal choices, but now it was pretty much a done deal.  If he knew that, maybe he wouldn’t stress so much.  “Um, so, if they found out, but also found out that there was nothing they could do about it, do you think they’d send the wetworks guys again to get rid of me?”

Spike growled his opinion of their chances as Giles lifted his head slowly to blink at her, thoroughly nonplussed.  “Beg pardon, Buffy?” he asked, confusion dominating.

With a little shrug, Buffy turned her head to expose the left side of her neck.  

Xander, of course, was the first one to react.  He leapt to his feet, immediately livid.  “You  didn’t!   Oh God!  Buffy, you  can’t  be serious.  After the last time, I can’t  believe  you…”

“It’s not what you think,” Buffy cut him off flatly, and nodded to Spike.

Without bothering to rise, Spike turned down his collars to show his own marks.  He never had before.  Honestly, the Scoobies were probably the last members of the local supernatural community to have missed that memo.  

Giles’ face drained of color as he turned to stumble to the nearest chair, fumbled for the arm.  Sat heavily, like his strings had been cut and he’d aged about twenty years in a second.  “Oh, bloody hell…” he whispered.   

/Wow, he sounded like Spike there./  It took Buffy a second to recover from her Watcher’s shock.  /Man, if  he’s  that floored…/  It also cleared up, pretty immediately, whether or not the rest of the Council would recognize the significance.  “If they know,” Buffy pointed out reasonably, and shrugged, trying for nonchalant.  “I mean, it’s not like they can undo it, so…  And anyway, you said we needed them.”

At this point her Watcher had his face in one hand.  She wasn’t sure if the sound he was making was a sob or laughter.  “Giles, you okay?”

“Think we broke him, love.”  Spike lifted his voice, jerked his chin at Xander.  “Fetch Watcher some scotch, yeah?  The good stuff.  He’ll need it.”

“What… just happened?” Xander whispered, for a wonder losing all his belligerence in the realization that more was going on here than just some biting thing.  

“Just get the alcohol, Harris.  Poor sod needs it.  Had the hell of a shock just now.”

Nodding like a mechanical toy, Xander turned for the liquor cabinet.  “Uh, on the rocks or neat?” he asked, then shook his head.  “Never mind.  Probably neat.  If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times; ice is water, and water’s just a waste of space.”

Willow winced so hard Buffy couldn’t miss it from here.  Belatedly she remembered some of the things Xander had said in the past and realized that he had probably played bartender to his alcoholic parents a number of times growing up.  Buffy had had no idea what ‘neat’ meant until just this moment, but Xander clearly had no problems with such definitions.

“You want me to get it, Xan?” Wil called.

“No,” he answered grimly as he scanned the bottles, settled on one, pulled it down, opened it with some sort of weird determination, and reached up over the bar to grab a tumbler.  “I’m fine Wil.”  

He came back around a second later with a few fingers of amber liquid in a glass, handed it to Giles.  The Watcher blinked up at him, shook his head.  “I appreciate it, Xander.  And don’t worry, I shan’t ask you to pour me another.”

Xander nodded and returned to his seat, hunched and frowning.

“I miss something?” Spike asked under his breath, looking mildly at a loss.

“I’ll tell you later,” Buffy whispered back and, with a low sigh, turned back to the group.  “Well?”  And waited for the fallout.  

Willow took up the unspoken vote.  “So, um, what’s the deal, Buffy?  I mean, I get why Giles would be freaked that you two are doing the, um…”  She waved her hand weakly.  “The bite-y thing, but why is he all…”  She frowned over at the Watcher in serious concern.

“And for real,” Xander interjected, clearly horrified, “biting  back?   Oh my  God , Buff!”

“Oh, don’t be such a bigot, Xander,” Anya scolded him.  “Biting is fun even if you’re not with a vampire.  I swear, sometimes you’re the most vanilla…”

“Hey!  I’m not…  I mean I’ve…  When you want me to…”  Snapping his mouth shut, he turned aubergine and collapsed back onto the couch, looking horrified to have spoken at all.

“It’s okay,” Anya trucked on blithely, patting his shoulder.  “You’re getting better.”  Turning away from her madly blushing fuckbuddy, she smiled and leaned over on the back of the couch to settle her chin in her palm and regard Buffy with clear fascination.  “I never got the opportunity for either, though not for lack of trying.  You know; in the way of fun, not for anything permanent.  I was most definitely not in the market for what you’ve done, which would obviously add an entirely other dimension, but…”  Frank interest was predominant; an almost predatory absorption.  “Is it really as erotic as I’ve heard?”

Buffy bit her lip, aware that she was blushing to probably maroon stage seven.  “Uh, can I plead the fifth or something?” she tried, aware of the vast flood of smug amusement from her vampire behind her.

To everyone’s surprise, Tara broke the resultant silence with a high-pitched giggle, though she abruptly cut off when everyone stared at her in amazement.  “Sorry.  I just…  Sorry.”  She retreated again, hiding behind her hair.

Willow jerked her gaze away from Tara, blushing almost as hard as Xander and biting her lip.  “Uh, so  anyway …”

“They’ve claimed each other,” Giles broke in heavily, and the glasses were off.  He sounded absolutely exhausted, pushed beyond the boundaries of thought and emotion.  “As… mates.”

Xander reacted instantly once more.  “Um,  excuse  me?” he demanded, holding up one hand as if he were in class and asking a teacher for clarification.   “Mates?”

“Yes.”  Giles was shaking his head now, and, still half-blind, he tossed back his measure of scotch without the remotest genuflection toward anything like sipping.  The whole third of a tumbler vanished in one fortifying gulp.  “Oh Lord, Travers is going to have my head.  One Slayer in service to a man who ran a hellmouth for hundreds of years then turned himself into a damned Old One, and who then ended up comatose and is now being ‘tutored back into good’ by a formerly-sociopathic vampire… and now one who’s got a penchant for sleeping with vampires and has decided to mate herself to William the damned Bloody, slayer of Slayers…”  His shoulders were shaking.

Buffy bit her lip briefly to fight the urge to scream.  /Try to see it as funny?/  “Maybe we can tell him I was doing research and I got carried away with my field work.”

Giles shot her a poisonous look before throwing himself backward into his chair.  “Well, it isn’t as if they can fire me more.  I’m already sacked.  If they decide to assassinate us both, though, Buffy, I expect you to protect me along with yourself.”

Buffy frowned.  That wasn’t a joke.  Not even a little.  “You’re not kidding.”

His eyes popped open again to pin her with a very certain, warning glare.  “I’m not.”

“Wait, wait, wait; let’s just hold up for a second.  Before we get into why the Council would assassinate their own Slayer for shacking up with a vampire—which, okay, yeah, I’m so not the happiest camper in the world about it, still, but even  I’ll  admit that’s a little extreme!—can anyone explain to me what this ‘claim’ thing is and why they’d be so pissed about the mate thing that they’d want to  kill  you guys?”  Xander looked frantic at this point, and his voice had ascended to a much higher than normal register; almost a falsetto.  “I mean, why wouldn’t they just try to dust the vamp?”  His head jerked over to Spike and he shrugged a little uncomfortably.  “No offense, buddy.  It’s just, if I had to pick between you and the Buffster, it’s her hands down, every time, and you’d think her own Watchers would say the same thing…”  

“No offense taken, Harris,” Spike growled, low and intense.  “Rather dust than let any of those poxy buggers touch our girl.”  He caught Buffy’s hand and dragged her back, ferocious in his need to touch, to be close, to protect.  Buffy felt his primitive, desperate urge, knew it.  She felt the same.   No one was going to take her vampire from her.  She went willingly, crushed his hands with hers where they rested, fierce and uncompromising, around her waist.  “‘Specially ‘cause of me.”

“Stop.”  It was one word, but Spike plugged up like she’d corked his mouth.  It was so abrupt that it surprised them both.  He made a faint strangled noise, and a surge of alarm shot through him to spark in her.  She half-turned to regard him, touched his mouth, wondering.  “What?”

He shook his head, schooling his expression, and buried his forehead between her shoulder blades.  “Later,” he breathed, but something stunned and a little worried still flowed between them.  

/Ooookay./  Turning back to the room, Buffy sighed and moved to address her friends.  “They’ll be mad because what Spike and I have done is permanent.  They won’t be able to make me take it back or tear us apart.  We’re in each other’s blood.  It’s like…”  She felt him twitch against her, felt the rush of certitude overwhelming that whatever-it-had-been, relaxed in relief.  Her certainty surged up to match his.  “It’s like a lifelong marriage.  Let nothing put it asunder, because it’s blood-magick.  Unbreakable.  He has a pipeline to my soul and I have one to his immortality.  Our…”  How to put it?  “Wild-sides aren’t going to let each other go for any money.  They’re really primitive about mating stuff.”

Willow looked both super concerned and fascinated.  “Is this part of that ‘essence of the First Slayer’ thing Giles was talking about last December?  Because…”

“Yeah!”  Xander broke in, sounding offended and confused.  “Look, it doesn’t even make sense!  I don’t care how much you’ve gotten in touch with your inner Slayer, Buffy; I don’t get how this can even  work , if only one of you is a…”  His face twisted, glancing away from Spike and their obvious cuddliness.  “I mean,  he’s  a demon, but…”

Giles sighed.  “Xander, please don’t be obtuse.  You’ve felt Buffy’s power, no matter how you’ve tried to deny it.  That is precisely what the essence of the First Slayer means; that Buffy also carries the essence of a demonic entity.  The Slayer line was begun by infusing a human girl with a shadow-demon of unknown ori…”

“Wait, wait, hold up!  Are you telling me that Buffy’s not  human?”

Spike fielded that one, snorting indignantly around Buffy’s hair.  “Oh, don’t be a pillock, Harris, a’ course she is!  She’s just…”  Smirking into her neck, he nuzzled at Buffy’s nape so that every part of her stood at attention; the parts in the front and the parts at the very back of her being.  “…Augmented.”  His hands drifted up to her waist, and he grasped her, pulling her firmly back against his ever-present erection, making her shiver.  “Has to be, to keep up with us.  Which makes it the hell of a thing keeping up with her, since she’s like us, but so bloody hot-blooded that it’s like fighting the sodding sun…”  Nuzzle, nuzzle.  “Dancing with open flame…”  He nudged her, just a tiny bit, with his hips, and Buffy fought not to make noises that would completely give her away.  

Her eyes did flutter closed for a second, though, and her mouth fell open.

“Please have the decency to cease actual sex-play in my living room.”  Giles sounded at his wits’ end.  “I am, at this point, no longer blind, more’s the pity.”

/Okay, fair, but you have no idea how tough it is when you can feel each other’s everything./

Spike, of course, didn’t remotely possess the willingness to keep his thoughts quiet.  “Ask a lot, Watcher, when you can feel everything your bird’s feelin’, and she can feel everything you’re feelin’.  It’s like standin’ in the center of a cascade of mirrors, goin’ on forever.  Reckon we won’t get much accomplished for a while till the novelty wears off.”

Willow’s mouth fell open in amazement.  Buffy did some more blushing.  Giles firmly set aside his glasses and groaned a little.  “At any normal point in my life I would take this opportunity to quiz you at length as to how all this worked so I could get it down in my journals, but at this particular moment I am not precisely keen to explore the matter in any great depth…”

“Oh, don’t be a prude,” Anya broke in.  “I’m awfully jealous.  Is it just physical empathy, or is there a telepathic component as well?  Because I would imagine that could get terribly claustrophobic.”

Buffy looked into her hands, avoiding everyone’s eyes.  “Uh, more like emotional and, uh… sensations.”  Cue more blushing.  “So, um, it’s not telepathy.  We mostly…  Well, it’s stronger when we’re touching, and when we’re not it feels wrong, so we…”

The amusement in Spike’s voice made it clear that he’d rather be off somewhere experimenting than doing an exposition on the subject.  He hated doing the ‘tractable vampire’ routine, but he did it for her.  “Feel each other at a distance.  Haven’t experimented yet with how far.  Gets uncomfortable.  We’ll let you know how far it goes once we can get ‘round to that, but don’t get your hopes up it’ll happen anytime soon.”  He shot Willow a pointed look.  “Empirical research isn’t as easy when the subjects aren’t cooperative.”

It was Willow’s turn to blush this time, at this reminder of her thwarted attempts over all last quarter to interview Spike about the chip she’d purloined from the Initiative doctors.  She had done all kinds of poking and prodding at it with electrical impulses and stuff.  She and Tara had even done some witchery over it, but in the end she had had to resort to questioning Spike, since without the leads the scientists had left dormant in his brain there was nothing trailing off the thing to send out sparks or whatever.  She had been able to read certain bursts coming off of it, had found out important stuff like that it had settings—pulses, continuous firing, stuff like that—but less about what kind of output it had had and stuff.  She had wanted to know what it had felt like.  

Spike had proved less than willing to relive the experience to give her scientific data.   “It hurt, Red,” he’d told her flatly.  “Hurt like a bugger, put me on the ground sometimes, alright?  Gave me nosebleeds, wrecked me so’s I didn’t want to get up again, often.  Couldn’t, sometimes.  Would rather starve than be in that kind of pain.”   His head had come up, and he’d riveted her with a fierce, blue glare.   “D’ya know what that feels like?  D’ya know what it feels like for a vamp to starve?”

“No, I…  Um…  I mean, I guess it’s probably… uncomfortable, like with anyone…”

“We lose life-force, witch.  We dry out.  We turn to husks, from the edges inward.  You wanna know what it’s like to feel like you’re turnin’ into a soddin’ corpse while you’re still alive—or whatever you bloody wanna call it—while your every last remainin’ organ’s tryin’ to eat you and your every cell is screaming at you to take life to keep you alive because you can’t make life on your own?”  

Buffy had had to turn away from the look on his face while Willow stammered out her response.

“Oh.  Wow.  I…  No.  I mean…”

“It’s agonizing is what it is.  And still I’d have rather that, in a low-grade sense, all the soddin’ time, livin’ on pig-swill, than risk that buggerin’ thing goin’ off.  That should tell you something about how it felt.”

“Wh…  You always felt like that?  Even when you were… being fed on blood?”

Spike had snorted derisively.   “If pigs were people, Buffy’d be just as miffed about me drinkin’ from Babe, yeah?  Course I was starvin’ a bit all the soddin’ time!”

/Oh God…/  Buffy had known by then, of course, that the blood wasn’t the same, hadn’t been giving him what he’d needed… but to have it spelled out like that, in such blatant terms, was agony.  

“But…  It was blood!  You had plenty of it…”

“Can you use it for transfusions?  Course not!  ‘S not the same sort of blood, an’ no life left in it to boot, comin’ from the shops and long dead.  Use your head, Red!  You’re a bleedin’  scientist !”

“Oh.”   Wil had had the grace to look mildly ashamed at this comparison.

“Oh is right.  That and knowin’ a manky human tosser havin’ a bad day could’ve beat me to half to death or even staked me and I could’ve done nothin’ to protect myself?  Like those Initiative buggers, or even some kid on the street?”  

It was an unspoken thing between them, but they all knew that of their intimates, Willow had come closest to guessing what had happened to Spike last year.  She had looked away, nodded once, briefly, a faint wince playing around her eyes and mouth.   “Yeah, I guess that part must’ve really sucked, huh?”  she’d breathed.   “Feeling vulnerable like that?”

“Could say that.  Now get that soddin’ thing away from me.”

If Buffy hadn’t desperately wanted to know enough to be sure that any lurking Initiative agents could never use the thing against her guy again, she would have marched right over, grabbed the chip from Wil’s hand, and crushed it under her boot heel.

Research was often bought with pain.  /And we are not subjects in a study./  “We’ll let you know,” Buffy informed the rebel Watcher core quietly, “when there’s something to tell you.  Till then, let’s focus on how we’re gonna deal with the Council.”  She shot Giles a pointed glance.  “Because we know they’re gonna come, once they hear.”

“Yes.”  Giles cleared his throat.  “Yes, quite.  Ah… well.  Quentin Travers is a by-the-book man, and thoroughly politically expedient.  He will try to cow and bully you, Buffy, in order to bring you back to the party line.  If that fails, and that swiftly, then his next course of action will be to see you… removed.”  Xander gasped, outrageously loudly in the resultant quiet.  Giles ignored him to speak flatly, well aware that Buffy had been prepared for this sort of rundown.  “And since even in his current ignorance he will likely feel you are beyond saving with anything less than a full remediation program, it’s doubtful he’ll start with a conversation.  Most likely he’ll come to you with a covering approach of strong talk, while a wetworks team moves in behind his back to remove Spike from the equation and then, while you are devastated from feeling his loss… to take you in for… reeducation.  And that’s only if he does not find out about this mating bond, believes you’ve only made Spike a sort of a minion.  If he does find out...”

/Find out that I’ve given William the Bloody that kind of a hold over their Slayer./

Buffy didn’t even want to think about how it would feel to be in the world without Spike; to feel his bond removed from her.  Just, no.  She would almost rather they  did  find out about the claim.  /Just come at me straight up and try to take me out too.  Do your ‘start from scratch’ routine.  But don’t you  dare  try to take my mate from me./

Underneath her, Spike growled, low and threateningly, apparently much more offended by the idea of her possible ‘reeducation’ or the insult of an assassination attempt pointed in her direction than he was at the likelihood of his own demise.  /Idiot./  Buffy patted his hand in reassurance, then covered it on her waist.  “Pretty much what I figured when you started running interference and keeping them out of the loop.”  Giles hadn’t much liked her hooking up with Spike, but he hadn’t gone running to his ex-bosses, for which she had to thank him.  He preferred to deal with their problems family-style, to keep things in house.  He trusted the Council even less than she did, probably because he knew them better than she ever could.  

The strain was telling on him, though.  He had more lines on his face than he had this time last year.  “Thank you, Giles,” she murmured, catching his eye.  “For buying us the time to figure this out.”

He went briefly still, then nodded.  “Of course, Buffy.  It’s what I’m here for.”

“Which is why I’m really glad you are.  I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

A faint, pleased flush showed around the edges of his face, and his hard eyes took on that shy-smile cast that said he was pleased.  

Spike’s hands twitched at Buffy’s waist.  She felt a surge of approval from him, hoped it would be enough.  Spike had been worried about Giles all last summer, had told her more than once that he thought her Watcher was drinking a little too much, that he seemed lost.   “Bloke’s having a bit of a mid-life crisis, pet.  Likely he doesn’t know where he fits anymore.  You’ve gone past the place where most Slayers bite it.  Dunno if he’s prepared to see you through where his training ends and you’re off living life, when all the book tells him is to keep you from doin’ it.  He’s got no job, no standing, lookin’ for meaning in the bottom of a bottle all too often.  Thinks you don’t need him anymore.  Might want to find a bit of something for him to do, yeah?”

Luckily, Jonathan’s arrival into the gang had given Giles a little bit of a hobby—baby man-witch guidance—which had kind of spurred a little bit more random guidance of Willow, who was seriously getting way stronger now she and Tara were joining hands on a regular basis.  The two girls had jumped at the chance for more magicks classes—for anything magicks-related, really—and Giles and Jonathan’s little tutoring sessions had become a small casting-circle once or twice a week at Giles’ apartment.  Willow was always raving about it in the dorm, whenever Buffy was actually there; talking about how the guidance and the regular discipline of the group work was helping her to mold all the instinctive stuff she did and to channel it into certain avenues.  A lot of talk about ‘drawing from the earth’ and ‘the handrails of natural laws’ and ‘the karma of the threefold return’, whatever the hell that meant.  

“She has more raw, instinctive power on tap than I ever had, will ever have.”   Giles had sounded amazed when he’d said it.   “Joining hands with her when we turned the earth against the Hellions…  I knew she was talented, but seeing it like that, touching it…  And since then, since she met Tara, began working with her…  She needs guidance, or Lord knows where she’ll end up, exploring things on her own.”   A pained wince.   “I never want her to end up doing… the things I’ve done in my past because I had no one to tell me how incredibly dangerous they were, what the repercussions could be.” 

“Maybe we can do a spell to confuse whoever they send,” Wil was suggesting.  Leaning eagerly forward, she touched Tara’s hand as if seeking affirmation, then caught Jonathan’s eye.  “The four of us could start something; five if Anya wants to help.  She’s really knowledgeable.”  Anya preened.  “A confusion spell or something.  Some protective thing or a binding against any wetworks team.  Then all you’d have to deal with would be the tweed-wearers.”

Tara was nodding thoughtfully.  “Defensive magicks are w…worth considering, Buffy.”

Buffy smiled at the girls.  “That’d be great.”  Caught Jonathan’s eye to include the quiet boy.  “You okay with helping with that?”

“Oh, yeah, sure.  W… we could…”  He lifted his gaze to his compatriots, clearly ill at ease at having been addressed directly.

“We’ll look into it, Willow finished for him, firm and sure.

“Excellent,” Giles wrapped, and glanced over at Xander.  “You could run interference with your mouth alone, Xander.  At the best of times your prattle creates confusion.”

“Uh, thanks?”  Xander straightened, looking confused.  “You want me to…”

Spike was smirking.  “He wants you and Vengeance to do your thing.  You lead in, yeah, rattle on about something with me or the Slayer, then she pops in with some anecdote from the eleventh century, then you get into a bit of a tussle over it, distract the lot for a while.  Take the tension off whenever things get a bit heated.”

“Oh.”  Xander shot a glance at Anya.  “We could do that, right?  We do that all the time anyway.”

Anya looked mildly anxious.  “If you don’t think they’ll target me as well.  Though I suppose with Buffy having mated herself to a Master vampire, they’ll have other fish to fry.”  She finally nodded assent.  “If all else fails and they’re focusing too much on Buffy and Spike and their sex lives, we can just talk about ours.  Everyone seems to find that highly unnerving.”

“Ahn , I  find that highly unnerving.”

“You shouldn’t, you know.  When a woman brags about her satisfaction, it reflects well on her bed partner.  And that’s you, whatever else we are to each other.  You should be gratified.”

Xander subsided, blushing furiously.

Giles cleared his throat loudly.  “Once the, ah, enforcers are dealt with, we’ve only to manage to find some way to deal with Quentin.  Which is a formidable enough task in its own right…”

Buffy shook her head.  “No problem.  I have that jerk’s number.”

Giles blinked.  “Buffy, I hardly think we should discount the head of the Council as some sort of pushover.  He isn’t likely to take this lying down.”

“No,” she answered, coming to her feet with her hand still in her vampire’s, “but nothing and nobody’s getting between me and Spike.  And we’re all stronger together than any of us is apart.  Way stronger than any Council asshole who thinks drugging high school girls to keep them under control is a fun pastime.”  And okay, maybe she was still a little pissed off about her Cruciamentum.  She would hold onto that rage, funnel it, use it to power herself in the upcoming confrontation.  “So let ‘em come.  And I will  bury  them.”  Giles leaned away, looking awed at her tight-lipped expression.  But that was the thing.  This lesson was the same one she had had to bring to her own team’s attention last winter.  That was apparently just practice, and now it was time to bring it to a larger stage.  “There’s dozens of Watchers.  They’re the disposable ones; walking libraries with the field experience of children in Sunday school.  But there’s only  one  me.  Trained, honed, ready.”  All their eyes were riveted on hers now, and she felt it; that ancient power, flaring through her like a guided torrent.  “Maybe it’s time they remembered that.”

“Damn right, love,” Spike breathed, staring at her from his seat in the chair.

“That,” Giles murmured in low tones, “is precisely what they’re afraid of.”

*   *   *






And we've set up the stuff.

Chapter Text

“You were bloody brilliant in there, Buffy.”

His face was buried in her neck, his unneeded breath cool and arousing on her skin as she danced with him down the steps, toward the DeSoto.  Wrestled the door open behind him, shoved him unceremoniously in and crawled in after him to clamber in over his body as he scooted backward on the worn vinyl and looked up at her in awe.  “Sodding goddess.”

“How fast can you get us back to the crypt?”

He jerked his head once, a swift denial.  Not fast enough for either of them.  “Due to meet Mum anyway, at the galle…”

Nodding to forestall him, she yanked up the seat-release.  

Cut off mid-reminder, he toppled back with it, all of the bench-back falling to the rear save for the tiny segment reserved for the driver.  Who was, at the moment, at her mercy, his head falling to land in the back seat with a dull  thwuuck .  

“Well,”  he murmured, looking up at her in deep appreciation.  “Look who’s back in the back seat…”

“I really like your car.”

He grinned broadly as she shoved the duster off his shoulders.  “Thought you said it was a heap.”  He shrugged it off, peeling his arms free, and twitched his fingers at her in invitation.  

“Well, you know.”  Buffy stripped her halter off, threw it over the steering wheel, and lay over him with a sigh.  “I was young and dumb and didn’t appreciate the perks that came with a classic model.”

He snorted and slipped clever, knowledgeable fingers under the clasp of her bra.  “Get the feeling we’re not talking about the car anymore.”

“You’re right.”  Shoving his t-shirt up, she dipped her head to his right nipple.  

“Fuck, Buffy…  Don’t care anymore, do you, that the kiddies are gonna come… Christ!  Piling out of the flat at any…  Hell!  Moment, and…”  He bucked a little beneath her, knocking her briefly away from her single-minded pursuit.

“No.  The windows are blacked out.”  It was endlessly fascinating, feeling him.  This, for instance, felt different for him than it did for her, but still really good.  The sensation didn’t head straight south, the way it did for her when he did this.  It more just sort of radiated all around, and…  And she could probably spend the next year or so playing with this new toy that was shared sensation.  

Her tongue found the little scars around behind the nipple, and this time she just couldn’t stand it.  She had avoided asking for months, in case it was a bad story, but…  “Is this…”

“Mmmm?”  He wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to her words.  “Christ, pet, gonna need some instructions here.  How long before…”  His hips jerked toward her, still firmly encased in too-tight jeans.

She pulled away a little, brushed the damp nub with her finger.  “These little scars.  Is that a bad story?”

Arrested, he frowned, and then his face cleared and he tugged her up very abruptly to meet his mouth, kissed her long and deeply enough that she forgot her inquiry for a moment.  When she struggled away for breath, he smiled into her eyes, just twinkling away and looking delighted with her.  “Barbells.”

“Huh?”  She was so lost.

“Had ‘em pierced for a bit, pet, back in my heavy Punk days.  Was a bit of alright, ‘cept…”  The twinkles vanished abruptly.

Buffy was still lost in the shocking and yet somehow alluring image of a Spike with pierced nipples.  “Except…”

He looked away with a little shrug.  “Once when she was brassed at me over something the pixies said to her, Dru ripped ‘em right out.  Said they didn’t fit me anymore because I was on my way to the light or some such rot, and metal didn’t burn.”   He made a twisted sort of face.  “Didn’t feature to put ‘em back in after.  Too convenient a way to get damaged, I reckoned, so…”

Buffy winced.  “Ow, much?”

“Yeah, well.”  He shrugged about as much as anyone could who was horizontal.  “Lot of fun when you handle ‘em right.  Not as much when you handle ‘em wrong.”

“I bet.”  Buffy bit her lip, afraid to ask, especially since the unexpected conversation was kind of a mood-killer, but…  “When…”

“Eighty-one.  In the winter, too, which made it the hell of a lot worse.  Was cold as bloody fuck, out in the sodding streets in Merry Old after a Pistols show, snowing an’ the lot.  Ever have cold, lacerated nipples rubbin’ on a shirt made of safety pins, pet?”

Buffy didn’t want to imagine that, but she was more concerned with the chill he had induced by his first words than his last.  “Winter of eighty-one?  Like, the early end, or the other end?”

“Early.  Was after Christmas.  January sometime.  Know that for sure, ‘cause I was gonna give myself the gift of a new set once I healed, but figured not to, considerin’.”

“Said they didn’t fit me anymore because I was on my way to the light...”   

Buffy felt very far away for a second.  “I was born in January of eighty-one.”  

Spike went all vampire-statue.  “Oh, bloody fuck.”

“She knew.”  Not a question.

“Christ.”  He closed his eyes, lifted up, rolling his body till his forehead was pressed to hers.  “Even then.  Oh, bloody hell, love.”

He had been hers.  From the moment she had been born, he had been hers, and marking time till she had been ready for him.  Oh god…  “Just, really, wow.”

“Yeah,” he breathed, sounding as thrown as she felt.  “Christ, no wonder she was hell on wheels that whole month.”  He sounded seriously awed by the realization.  “Left me standin’ in the soddin’ corner once for a day and a half, tellin’ me I’d been a bad doggie because I didn’t belong to her anymore, and I was a forsworn knight.  Load of rubbish.  I’d been loyal to her for a bloody century.”

Buffy frowned, confused.  “Left you standing in the corner?  What?”

“Yeah, well…”  Sliding his hand absently into her nape, Spike pulled her back down to his chest.  “Used a sire-command on me, innit?  Couldn’t move a bloody muscle till she released me.”

Buffy jerked up and away for a second time to stare at him in confusion.  “A sire…”

Azure eyes regarded her starkly.  “Something you should know about now, Buffy, in order to have a care, since you can use them on me now we’re claimed, and you’ve the upper hand in that little circuit.  Already felt the pull to do what you’ve told me to do these last few months since you took me on, but it’s stronger now; a lot sodding stronger.  When you told me to hush earlier…”  His expression turned rueful, and he sighed a little, sounding almost philosophical about it.  “I couldn’t have gotten a word out edgewise if you’d paid me.  Not unless you changed your mind and gave me leave to speak.”

Horror lanced through Buffy’s stomach.  “Wh…  No, I…   No!”

The solemn blue of his eyes started to twinkle a little.  “We haven’t had to use safewords yet, love, but I’m thinkin’ we might start needin’ ‘em in bed, with this, the way you tend to pop off with demands without thinking, or I’ll end up bein’ your personal property.  Not that I don’t all but wear a soddin’ collar, but it’d be nice to be able to say something to let you know I’m of a mind to ask a bit of respite here and there as part of my conditions of servitude.”

/Oh, God./  Dismay hit her, followed by a vast wall of dread that hollowed her belly, made her shake.  /No./.  If she said something, he had to do it.  /Oh  God ./  “I didn’t want…  I didn’t ask for…  Dammit, Spike, why didn’t you  tell  me this could happen?”  

His mouth twisted a little, and he tightened, just slightly, around the eyes.  “Didn’t occur to me till it happened, Buffy.  It’s a different sort of bond, innit?  And I wasn’t thinking all that clearly.  We both wanted the rest, and we went and did it, and now we’ve all of it.  This is just part and parcel.”

Buffy closed her eyes and swallowed hard, fighting not to go into a panic attack.  “Do you think it’s at least… mutual?  Like, can you… do it to me?  Because we’re both…”  That would at least make it better in her mind, if he could also do the same.  Not that she wanted him to be able to… command her.  Not to do  anything .  After the Master, after Angel, after the hospital, after her Cruciamentum…  After so many blows to her sense of self, she found the very thought invasive, frightening, and not a little bridling.  But it was equally terrifying, not to mention horribly unfair that she could do it to him... so at least if it was a two-way street, then they could both equally avoid it, or… something.

“‘Magine not, love,” Spike answered, sounding somewhere between semi-resigned and almost… what was that word he used?  ‘Flip’, as he twitched his fingers up and away from himself, like he was dismissing the possibility.  “It’s a vamp thing, yeah?  Vamps run on a hierarchy…”

/No!/  “Tell me to do something!”

He rolled his eyes skyward.  “Bloody hell, Buffy.”

“I need to know.”  /For so many reasons.../

He sighed heavily, sounding deeply unconvinced, and shrugged one shoulder.  “Right.  Say something to me, pet.”

/God, what.../  “Spike, I want you to…”

“Shut your beautiful gob, Slayer.”  It came out with a snap, though he sounded thoroughly amused to even be uttering the words.

For her part, Buffy found herself almost gaping to hear him say such a thing to her.  She stared, startled… and found herself torn between stunned, amused, and mildly irritated, like she kind of wanted to pop him on the nose for it.  

She definitely, she realized a little belatedly, felt zero urge to ‘obey’ him.  “Oh, God,” she whispered.

His expression remained unchanged; still rueful and resigned, if with that twitch at the corner of his mouth that said he found the whole thing darkly amusing.  “Could’ve told you as much, love.  Someone’s got to be on top.  Just the way it works.”  He reached out, lightly caressed her bangs away from her eyes, looking absolutely unsurprised and certainly not all that alarmed while she swirled ever deeper into horror.  “I gave myself to you first.  I’m utterly yours.  Not surprising that it came out this way…”

“So… I’m not also yours?” she heard herself ask, and was not at all surprised to hear her voice sound small, to hear it shaking.  “I thought, when we…”

“Oh, you’re mine as well, Buffy,” he answered softly, and his fingers drifted down to brush ever so lightly over his bite, making her shiver involuntarily.  “You’re bound to me and I’m bound to you and that’ll never change.  But that’s a different matter altogether to who stands where in the power structure.”  

“Oh my God…”  Buffy bit her lip and jerked away from his touch, absolutely aghast and veering swiftly toward panicked.  “I could hurt you and not even know it.  I could make you…”

He caught her, seizing her arms in both hands.  “No, pet.  You wouldn’t do that.  Not with the way we’ve begun.  That’s what I’m sayin’.  Though I reckon to prove it to you we’ll likely need a word I can say—and probably best all round if you have one as well, just to be proper about it—so you know for sure I’m right with what’s happening, and we’ll be fine.”

She tugged her bicep out of his grip, struggled away.  “And what if I’ve told you to hush again or something?” she demanded, ferocious in her fear.  “What if I think I’m doing something you want, and I think it’s all fun and romantic, and it turns out I’m taking advantage, or abusing you, or…”

“Buffy, stop.  Please.”  

She bit her lip and cut off, breathing hard.  Waited, avoiding his eyes.

“Then we’ll have a gesture as well, love, alright?”  He lifted a hand, hesitated long enough for her to see it, acknowledge it, then cupped her cheek briefly, stroked her bangs out of her eyes.  “You think we’re the first people to ever have to deal with this sort of thing?”

Her eyes shot up, caught him in a glare.  “I’m pretty sure most people don’t have to deal with vamp-commands, no matter how kinky they get, dammit!”

He sighed heavily and turned his head away, muscles taut.  “This is because of what happened the first time, innit?”

/Weeell…/

The thing was, their first serious time together had been wonderful.  Amazing.  Beautiful and gorgeous and fun and sexy and healing, and basically everything Buffy could have ever dreamed.  It had completely lived up to advertising.  Spike had absolutely been worth the wait, in every conceivable way, and then some.  Everything had been fantastic, except for that one little glitch.  

She had tired of the gentle, teasing stroking of her thigh and, wrapping her arms around his neck, yanked him down atop her, on the bed.  “Can we just start where we left off when Giles came in?  I’m starting to seriously worry that there’s a curse on us or something.  We need to make up for lost time, stat.”

He’d laughed.  “Pet, nothing about what I want to do with your lovely self has anything remotely to do with quick.  But I understand the sentiment.”  He’d kissed her, long and slow and deeply enough to reset her anxious frame of mind, her buzzing body, then lifted away to smile that boyish smile she loved so much.  “We’re bound to get a break one of these days.  Maybe this is it.  Barring a three-alarm fire, more earthquakes, or a new demon busting down the door…”

“Don’t!  Stop saying things!  Just come here!”  And she’d hurriedly stripped off his shirt.

They’d proceeded to mostly-naked with swift economy, if only out of deference to Buffy’s urgency, but Spike, while finishing her quick work with his jeans, had stepped away.  “Hold that thought, love.  Got to do something.”  And he’d headed to the dresser top to pick up Mr. Gordo… and turned him around backward.  “There.  Since you insisted on bringing the pig home for the holidays…”

“Wh…”

Coming back to the bed, he’d hitched down his jeans, grinning at her, and kicked them aside to leave her arrested for a long moment by the sight of his lean, well-muscled form.  Fed for a couple of weeks on human blood, and having had a quick stoup of Slayer to start him off on the road to recovery in the last fortnight, he was looking mighty fine compared to his hollow self post-captivity.  Not that she had allowed herself to assess the goods in any great detail, what with one thing and another, before this moment.  “Getting a nice eyeful, Slayer?”

“You look… good.”  /Understatement much, Buffy?  How about you tell the wordy guy something a little more flattering and accurate, like, you know, maybe, ‘freaking gorgeous’, or ‘goddamn amazing’?/  

He seemed to take it in the spirit it was offered, though, giving the air a little sniff and grinning.  “Nice to know I inspire your ardor there, Slayer.”

“Oh, shut up.”

“You look nice as well, you.  Wouldn’t mind seeing more of you.”  He’d prowled closer, clearly amused by her blush.

“Uh…” she’d stammered, briefly overwhelmed by his insanely attractive nakedness as he had arched over her body.  She was only wearing a bra and undies, and was acutely aware of that fact.  “Why the thing with Mr. Gordo?” she’d blurted, feeling unaccountably nervous.  Unbidden, her hand had slipped up to brush along his washboard stomach, the backs of her fingers sliding up to his chest.  

He’d inhaled sharply when she’d flipped it over to palm his nipple.  “Used to shag with a dozen dolls watching me, pet, their eyes all glittering.”  A faint note of discomfort etched his tone.  “Would rather not do it now with piggy-wiggy eyeing my arse winkin’ at it while I go to.  Christ, your hand’s hot, love.”

His words had jerked her away, very briefly, both from her minor embarrassment at his naked proximity and his very gratifying reaction to her barely-there touch.  /Okay, trauma much?/  “Dolls?”

“Never mind, my love.”  Dipping, he’d moved to kiss her neck, her throat, making her tremble.  “Want to get you naked, Buffy, feel you against me.”

She wanted that too.  God, she did, and lifted up inarticulately for him to slip his hand beneath her to find the clasp of her bra.  He’d done so with remarkable one-handed skill, leaving her very promptly pressed against his hard chest, and alright, they had just progressed further than they ever had before.  He was really, really cool against her nipples, and it made her feel even more overheated than she had already felt five seconds ago.  The words slipped out before she could censor them.  “God, I missed this.”

And she’d bitten her lip, feeling like she had crossed a line, but dammit, she’d been with who she’d been with, and they both knew it, and…

To her surprise, Spike had chuckled, tugging her close again.  “Sex at all, or the temperature contrast?  ‘Cause I don’t half blame you on the former, with all you have to do and no outlet beyond your hand, but if it’s the latter…”  A faint shadow crossed his face, and was swiftly put aside.  “We imprint on what we imprint on, love.  Reckon you weren’t satisfied in the same way by the human lad.”

She’d turned her face briefly away.  “Sorry, I shouldn’t’ve…”

“Shh.  It’s bound to come up.  We both have pasts.”

Way too intertwined ones.  Oh God, she hadn’t thought of that; or at least she’d tried not to.  But he’d been with Drusilla for a hundred-plus years.  Obviously she’d learned to satisfy him in ways that someone with Buffy’s (lack of) experience couldn’t begin to…

“Hush.”  He’d stroked her cheek.  “I’ll reassure you right now before you worry about it, that whatever went on for me in the past, it doesn’t compare to the heat between us.  Apples and oranges anyway.”  He’d grinned then.  “And as for the other…  I’m planning on seeing to it that you feel the same way posthaste.”

“Oh jeez.”

He’d sobered, eyes darkening to indigo on hers.  “As to the rest, long as names don’t come into it, for either of us, I think we’ll be fine.”

“Deal.”  /Such a deal./

“Right then.”  And he’d scraped blunt teeth over her collarbone… and then lowered his mouth to her nipple.  “Hold onto somethin’, love, and feel free to let me know what you like or don’t.  Don’t need to spare my feelings, yeah?  I want you to act like a soddin’ air traffic controller.  Grab my hair and drag me around wherever you want me to go.  I’m all yours.”

“Oh my God…”

Grinning, he’d dropped his mouth, chilly and perfect, and set to work while she arched in shock beneath him.  Because his tongue was already doing  things , crazy thrummy things that were sending shocks straight south.  He was making her jumpy and making her make noise, and no one had ever gotten her this…  This antsy just by…  Like, when Parker had done this it had been nice and everything, but then he’d gone straight from there to a little fingering, and then they’d headed directly to the main event.  And with Angel, there had been a lot of this, and it had been languorous and loving, with a lot of touching and stroking and looking into each other’s eyes, and then the joining and the moving together, but it had never felt like this; never built up this swift, raw, fierce, physical need.  “Spike, I…”  She was going to climb out of her skin, was mildly embarrassed to find that her hips were already pressing against him.

Grinning against her—she could feel it—he switched… but did not relent, fingers moving to the recently-vacated nipple to…  Was he doing the same thing with his fingers as his mouth…   How?   “Spike, I can’t…”  She’d given up the battle, no longer cared that she couldn’t still her hips, was now seeking pressure for the ache he had started, and couldn’t he just…  “Spike…”

Wait.  He’d said she should…

Grabbing his head, she shoved him south, hard.  She felt like a wanton nympho doing it, but she seriously couldn’t help it.

And then his hands were gripping her hips, and he was looking up at her, his chin in her navel.  And to her amazement, he looked… proud.  “That’s my girl,” he’d told her softly, and started kissing his way down along her belly.  

And then…  /Oh,  fuck!/

Grabbing the pillow out from under her head, she threw it away, seized a handful of blankets, and bore down for the ride.

She hadn’t known what to expect.  Like, not even a little bit.  The fact of the matter was, she had thought she would have been too embarrassed by the situation to get off for a while.  

What actually happened was she came about three times in as many minutes, which might have been attributable to Spike’s prowess, or to her terrible need, or a combination of the two, but either way, it was probably a good thing he didn’t need oxygen to keep his unlife, because he was no doubt in danger of drowning otherwise.  

Eventually she slowed down enough to actually parse what the hell he was doing as individual sensations, found herself rocking toward his mouth.  “I need,” she heard herself sobbing, “I need…  God, Spike, I need…”

“I’m here, love,” he’d answered, and slipped a finger inside of her; and dammit, she’d convulsed, almost came again right there.  

“More, please, more…”

Another, pressing… something, and that was it, and she’d had some kind of orgasm she’d never had before, and at that point she’d found herself babbling probably absolute nonsense at him and reaching for him, clawing air.  At which point he had, thank god, taken pity and moved up to join her.  “Christ, the feel of you, comin’ so hard…”  He’d sounded vibrant, admiring, a touch regretful.  “S’pose I can spend more time later.  Seems you’ve other needs at mo’ pet.”

“Please…”

Feeling him nudge her opening all cool and perfect had nearly driven her out of her damn mind, and she’d lost all control of her body.  It had been too long.  Her legs had spasmed around him of their own accord and dragged him in with an abrupt suddenness that had shocked them both.  Then, wide-eyed and stunned, they’d halted together, staring into one another’s eyes, she gasping and open-mouthed and he much the same, but breathless.  “Bloody fuck, Buffy; your quim’s like fire, oh Christ…”  And he’d twitched; just a little.  It hadn’t even counted as a thrust; just a little adjustment.

She’d come again, just from that.  And she’d tried to hold back, remembering Parker, how it had hurt him, how when she’d come it had made Angel go all game face… but she just couldn’t.  It had completely caught her by surprise.

“Oh fuck, oh Christ, oh Jesus fuck, oh hell… I didn’t know, oh fuck, Buffy…”

“Nnn… I’m sorry… did I… hurt you?”  She couldn’t stop, even her feet were curling, but…

Seizing her butt in both hands, he’d lifted her up, stared blazing into her eyes.  “Hurt me, hell.  I’m gonna make you come so many bleeding more times, Slayer!  That was sodding amazing!  Holy fuck!”

And she could breathe again.  “It didn’t…”  He thrust deep, making her grunt, pulled out.  “…Hurt you?”

He had lost control of his movements, was thrusting madly into her and chanting; and it was so. Damn. Good.  “Christ… if that… counts as… hurting… I’ll ask you… to hurt me… all bloody… night!  Oh Christ, Buffy!”  And the expression of feral pleasure in his eyes, on his face, was no lie.  And the savage abandon with which he had driven into her had made her coil around him, brought out some insane part of her that had her shoving her hands up against the wall to brace herself; had her wrapping her legs around somewhere like maybe his ribs, so that his impacts felt like they were in her throat or something, and okay, yes, she came yet again before the end, deep inside, chills running all through her body in waves while he ground out some kind of massive, groaning orgasm along with her, moaning something about ‘the hot, punishing fist of her cunt’ and how amazing it was, which language she probably would have found horrifying before that day but in that moment she had had nothing left but ‘limp’.

Later, in the haze, she had drawn her fingers up and down his back and butt, stroking him.  She felt sleepy, but the idea of falling out in his arms was, of course, terrifying.  Best to prolong things.  Not that she wasn’t otherwise motivated.  “So, when do I get to play the same game on you?  You know, where you’re the air traffic controller and you tell me all the things you like?”

“Mmmm…  Give me a few more minutes, pet, then I’m all yours.”  He’d nuzzled into her neck.  “Bloke needs a mo’ and maybe a fag, after having the shag of his life.”

/The shag of your…/  Something warm flooded her, relaxing her body and chasing away a few of her fears.  /Does that mean maybe you’ll… be here in the morning?/  

Biting her lip, hating herself for being insecure, she still couldn’t stifle the words.  “Does that mean that I’m… worth a second go?”

He’d pulled away abruptly and groaned, hands going to her face to cradle her.  They were warm from her body, and the way he’d stared into her eyes had riveted her.  His gaze had been filled with so much regret that she had been floored by it.  “Bloody hell.  I’m so sodding  sorry , Buffy.  Do you know why I said that?”

She’d looked away.  “Because he…  Because they all…”

“No.  Sod that.  Look at me.  Please?”

Bringing her gaze back to his had been the toughest thing she had probably ever had to do.

Touching her beneath the eye where one traitorous tear had managed to escape her custody, he’d shaken his head.  “Fuck, I could saw off my tongue.  Buffy, I said it because I was jealous, alright?  I wanted you, and  he’d  had a go and I knew I’d never get one; and then that little pissant of a college brat got a ride, and you’d never look at  me  that way, and I just…”

She blinked at him.  “What?  You…”

He sobered, touching her lips.  “And now to know you took it to bloody heart, when  look  at you.  You shag like a goddess.  Never thought you’d believe a single word I said.  And besides; why  would  you believe it?”

She’d looked away again.  “Because they…”  And faltered.

“Yeah, well…  Their problem, not yours.  Bleedin’ idiots, not to hold onto you.”

To her horror, she’d sniffled.

“Oh, hell.  C’mere, love.”  And pulling her close, he’d rocked her against him, wrapped her up tight.  “You could hold me ensorcelled till the end of time, Buffy.”

Reaching out tentatively, she had begun to stroke him once more; as if attempting to reassure herself that he was real.   “And when I wake up… you’ll still be here?”

He’d trembled slightly, and it had taken her a moment to realize that he was chuckling.  “Love, you’d have to kick me out of bed to be rid of me.”

“Oh.”  /Wow./  Her strokes coming longer, she’d felt some long-held, heavy weight lifting from her being.  “I love you so much.”

“Well, that’s fair enough, seeing as I love you to distraction as well, you mad chit.”

Burying her face in his shoulder, she’d continued her stroking, he doing the same to her.  They’d gone on with that for a while, refamiliarizing themselves with the ease of moments before and getting to know the terrain of one another’s bodies.  She had finally relaxed into the moment when, sliding up along the globe of his rear, her fingers slipped along to touch him a little just behind his balls, at the bud of his ass.  And he’d tensed, jumped a little, and completely tightened up.  And very forcibly relaxed himself.

She’d stilled immediately.  “I’m sorry.  I’m sorry.  I…”

“No.  It’s fine, Buffy.  You just took me by surprise.”

“Sorry, I should’ve asked if anywhere was a no-fly zone, or…”

He’d caught her other hand, at the moment cupped against his chest, drilled his eyes into hers.  “It’s fine.  I’m fine, with a bit of warning.  I just wasn’t paying any attention; or at least, not the right kind of attention.  And probably with a little time it’ll pass.  It always has before…”

She’d winced.

Eyes pinning hers with fierce patience, demanding her attention.  “Buffy.  I’ve been here.  There are things I enjoy, and will again, given time.  Just… let me work through them, yeah?  And… don’t… run away?”

She’d bitten her lip.  “I don’t know how to… not screw up.”

His expression was open, eyes warm on hers.  “I’ll let you know.”

As freakouts went, it hadn’t exactly been huge.  It also hadn’t been the only one.  

And he had never hidden them from her.  They had worked through them all, together.  So while she wanted to say it wasn’t what this was about, and that it didn’t haunt her, the truth was that it did a little.  And, dammit, she couldn’t lie.  They had always had truth between them, after all, and to break that…  “I know you’d tell me,” she said softly, instead.  “It’s just… what if you can’t?”

When he answered, his voice was tight.  “And if I ever sparked something in you that brought anything back?  If we were ever to get playful and rough, and I had you quick against a wall somewhere, and you remembered what happened with the Boy, or if sometime when I had my hand on your cunny and you flashed back to that sonofabitch who touched you as a wee chit, would you tell me, or just get on?”

She hesitated.

Shifting out from under her, Spike made a sound that she knew was an exasperated curse and slid aside, over to the upright driver’s side seat.  Shoved a hand hard through his hair until it was in disarray.  “Bloody hell, Buffy.”

/Damn, damn, dammit./  “Okay, look.  It’s not like it’s even the same thing…”

Wrong thing to say, and he turned on her, eyes shooting blue fire.  She was blindsided when a surge of rage hit her; so powerful it almost knocked her down.  “If you treat me like a fucking victim, Buffy, I will get out of this car right now and walk away.”

/God, oh shit, fuck…/  “I’m sorry, damn, that’s not what I…  You know I say the wrong things, that’s not what I meant, I’m sorry?”  Panic was making her babble.

Breathing as hard now as she was, Spike gripped the steering wheel like his fingers were about to break, stared straight ahead.  “Tell me how you think it’s different, dammit.”

/Oh, shit./  She was going to hyperventilate, she was going to pass out, and part of it was right now she couldn’t tell how much of what she was feeling was her emotions, and how much of it was his; anger so white-hot it made her vibrate, twining with her own terror to make a nauseous mix.  “I just meant… maybe it’s easier to differentiate because… those things didn’t actually… happen, you know?  Progress very far?  So I can push them away?  Or, I dunno, that’s just how it’s been so far, and maybe I’m just imagining how things are for you, because I don’t know; I haven’t felt you yet, but…  God, I probably sound like an idiot, and I was trying to be sensitive and I didn’t mean to be… whatever.  I was just saying that I wouldn’t be trying to lie to you or to be Miss Strong, all powering through, but that it just… comes and goes, you know, and it’s not a big thing.  I’ve put it away, and I dunno if you…  I dunno if that’s what you do or if you even  can , and I’m just really scared that if this thing is piled on top of it…”  She trailed off, terrified that she had made things worse by trying to explain.

Silence fell between them, with Spike still and unbreathing for so long that she was sure she had ruined everything.  Terrors ran through her, like, /Now that we’re bonded, what does it mean if he wants to leave me? How does that work, if I’ve messed up so bad that he decides to leave…/

And then he came to life beside her.  “Then I’ll tell you.  I’ll tell you that it’s just the same, love.  If something happens to remind me, I still myself and I let it pass.  I center myself and remember that I’m with  you , and that I’m safe.  I breathe in your scent, and listen to your heartbeat, and feel your heat, and know where I am.  And because you’re still with me every time, I know I can take as long as I need.”  His eyes burned on hers then, fierce azure flame.  “Which you can’t do for your part if you don’t tell me, so you can’t take the sodding time to center back to being with me.  I bloody don’t want those buggers in bed with us, so if you haven’t been telling me, then for all I know, they’ve sodding well been there!”

/Oh, shit.../  “They haven’t,” she hastened to reassure him.  “I promise.  It’s… what’s the word?  Fleeting.  Barely even there.  Like you said; I smell you and feel you and you’re cool and they weren’t, and you don’t have a heartbeat and they did, and when you breathe, the way you breathe isn’t the same, and neither of them smoked or drank whiskey or…  God, I’m probably not making any sense, but it’s so easy to stay with you that I can’t even…  No one at all in my world smells or tastes or feels like you, so I have no problem staying with you,  ever .”

After a long moment he gave her a grudging nod.  “Alright.  I suppose I can understand that, since I’ve seldom been hurt by a woman, and that, not a warm one with a heartbeat.”

She definitely didn’t want to ask what Drusilla and/or Darla might ever have done to him.  “I’m sorry that I didn’t ever speak up.  If you want me to I will, but it didn’t seem like a thing.”  She felt ashamed now, in retrospect.  “Though, I mean, now you’ll probably feel it if it happens again, ever.”  She felt a weird half-laugh escape her.  “I bet if I ever dated another human guy I would’ve had a lot more issues, whether he ever noticed or not.  On top of getting a bunch of new ones about my strength and thinking I was a freak.”

He snorted.  “No doubt you’d’ve trained yourself not to come at all, love; or at least, not properly, else you’d’ve crippled the poor lads.  Which is a soddin’ shame, because watchin’ you let yourself go is a bleedin’ wonder.”

They were getting far afield.  “I’m scared, Spike.  I’m not gonna not be scared about this.  I don’t want it.”

He stilled, and his hand rose to stroke her cheek.  “I know, pet.  And your reaction alone is enough to let me know how safe I am with you.  But in the meantime, let’s come up with those words, innit?  Tell you what.  You hear me say…”  He faltered, grinding to a halt.

“What?”

He shot her an exasperated look.  “Give me a mo’ to think of something, yeah?  Bit put on the spot.  Never had a safety-word before.  Idiotic for a vampire to even consider such a thing, most times…”

In other words, he was doing this more for her peace of mind than for his own, because vampires were insane.

“S’posed to be something you’ll not say otherwise, ‘specially in those circumstances…” he went on thoughtfully.  

Buffy frowned, struggling to stick with the conversation, to keep it light.  “Well, crap.  I’m gonna have a hard time thinking of anything too, then.”

Spike’s head popped up, eyes like gimlets in the dim light of the cab.  “Euchered.”

“Huh?”

“Means ‘done in, at the end of your tether’.”

“Okay?”

“Never mind, pet.  It’s from an old card game as went out of style long before you were born.  And if I can’t speak I’ll hold my palms up before me.  Alright, then?”

She blinked at him, nonplussed.

“Your go.”

It was her turn to feel seriously put on the spot.  “Um…  What kind of…”

“Something unsexy, love, and something you’re unlikely to say in bed.”

Buffy’s mind was a complete blank.  She found herself absolutely grasping at straws, blurted out the first thing that came to mind.  “Uh…  Beetlejuice!”

Spike jerked in surprise.  “What the bloody hell?”

“Like, don’t say it three times or a monster’ll show up?”

“Well, that’s bloody offensive.”

/Okay, dope./  “Not a pretty one.  A really ugly, unsexy one with bad breath and bad skin and bad manners.”

Spike didn’t bother to comment on the manners part.  “Look, far be it from me to criticize anyone else’s safety word, Buffy, but what in the name of…”

“It was a cartoon,” she defended, feeling a little under attack.  “When I was younger.  I liked it.”  She felt herself smile a little, batted her eyelashes.  “It was stylish.”

Shaking his head in defeat, he rolled his eyes.  “You were a twisted child, Slayer.  Who knew?”

“Oh, shut…”  She stopped herself just in time, froze briefly with a skirl of panic rushing up through her belly.  “Oh c’mon!” she rerouted, panting a little.  “I didn’t knock your word.”

He obviously noted her adjustment, let his fingers trail over her hand, just lightly, in appreciation; keeping it light.  “Alright.  Yeah.  Whatever you say, pet.  Long as you remember it in the moment.”

She fought to get her breathing back to standard.  /Keep it light./  “And  you  do.”

He scoffed loudly.  “No fear, luv.  I’d stop dead whatever I was doing, you say something odd as that.” 

“Whatever.”  She could breathe.  She could.

Smirking, he kept his fingers pressing lightly to the back of her hand for just a second longer, offering reassurance, before he turned to put the car in gear.  “S’pose we should go see Mum.”

“Oh, I see how it is,” Buffy huffed, crossing her arms.  /Light, easy.  Everything’s gonna be okay./  “You don’t like my unsexy word, so you’re gonna play all hard to get…”

He shook his head and reached over to ratchet the seat back into place behind her.  Nodded toward the side window and the curb beyond.  For the first time, Buffy paid attention to extraneous sounds, heard the voices of her friends piling out of Giles’ apartment and onto the nearby sidewalk.  

“…Got to go to the grocery store and get some milk,” Xander was saying.

“Will you drop me off at the gallery, Xander?”

“Oh, yeah.  Sure.  Sounds like kind of a late day, though, huh Ahn?”

“I have inventory.  Joyce has her weekly dinner-date with Buffy and Spike, so I’m being very kind and taking up the slack.”

Willow’s wry voice broke in.  “They don’t seem to realize they’re supposed to be going to dinner.”

“Ugh,” Buffy sighed.  “We’ve been found out.”  /Just a normal day… only with…  Oh God.../   Making a sour face, she fumbled for her camisole and pulled it back on.

Spike smirked and started the car.  “Gotta live up to everyone’s expectations.”  Then he frowned grimly, showcasing one of his mercurial mood-changes as he pulled off to head toward downtown.  “Besides; considering you never get a sodding break, you need to take every moment of pleasure you can manage, and about time they understand that.”

He was trying to change the subject.  Which she appreciated, and she should go with it, for his sake if nothing else.

Consequently, Buffy bit her lip and did her best.  “I don’t think they will, Spike.  They’re not Slayers.  They’re just the support staff, so they get to choose, and to walk away if it ever gets too much.  To have sick days, to be overwhelmed.  They’re never gonna understand what it’s like to have a Calling.”  /They’re not me./

His fingers whitened on the wheel as he turned it in a wide arc toward Johnson.  She could feel him vibrating on some vast edge, like a volcano.  “What?”

“Oh, bloody hell,” he growled.  “I’ll take you, love.  Even if they won’t allow it.  I’ll dig back into that sodding Amara treasure, fence the lot, and get you there.  I still think it’s a fucking joke that you have to write it off as a bloody working holiday, but I’ll see you get it if I have to dust doing it.”

The words sent a thrill of terror through her.  “Please don’t ever say that,” she whispered, fingers clenched on his thigh.  The fear felt like a premonition.

His mouth tightened.  “I’m just saying, love, the way they treat you, like you’re bleedin’ chattel…”  And he jerked the car hard over toward Main.

She nodded, looked down at her hands.  “I get that.  And maybe I’m buying into it.  But it’s how I tick now.  If it’s not for slaying, I’d feel guilty the whole time, and…”
“Oh, sod that!  As if any bloody thing ever happens here in the buggering summer anyway!”

Buffy frowned, unwilling to admit that was probably true.  

“C’mon, pet, you’ve gone to LA to see your deadbeat bloody father for a whole sodding summer, yeah?  You’ve…”

She shut down, knew he felt it.  

In the resultant silence, he sighed.  “Bloody hell, pet.  I’m sorry.  I really am.  It’s just…”

/Dammit./  “I know.  And you’re right.  And after an apocalypse everyone’s quiet… like even the troublemakers are exhausted and want a vacay somewhere else.  It’s just…”  She almost had to whisper it.  “Especially after… what happened with the Hellions…  I’m afraid.  To relax.”

“Fuck.”  It burst out of him… and to her shock, he punched the dashboard of his beloved car, breathed through his nose for a moment to calm himself… and pulled over for a moment to the shoulder.  “Sodding hell, Buffy,” he insisted, and now he was facing her, eyes blazing like blue fires.  “You can take a break without having to pay for it.  You’ve already paid, over and bloody over again.  You’re  allowed .  You don’t have to feel sodding  guilty  for wanting a damn bit of rest!”

She nodded down into her palms.  “I know that.  Intellectually I know it, but here?”  She tapped the back of her head.  “In my lizard brain?  Not so much.”

He fumbled for her hand, pulled it down, wrapped it up in his own to hold it tight.  “We need to reeducate you.  You’ve bloody well been brainwashed.  You’re a soddin’ child soldier, Buffy.”

Buffy jerked, startled, and stared at him.

“That psychology textbook of yours cover post-traumatic stress an’ the lot?”

/Well, shit./  “Yes.”

“Pay any attention?”

Her mind wanted to shy away from this all-too-pointed conversation.  “I tried to skim a lot and ignore the rest.”

“Figures.”

She fought not to squirm away.  “Can I have a break?” she asked softly.

His lips twitched.  “You using your safeword?”

She felt the smile come to her lips.  “You’re kind of begging me not to say it, huh.”

“I’ll stop for now.”

“I’ll say it if I need to…” she threatened.

Tugging his hand away, he put the car firmly back into gear.  “It’s fine, pet.  I’ll give it a rest.”  

It almost made her giggle, how much the word scared him.  “Beetle…”

“I already bloody stopped!”

They pulled up in front of the gallery a few minutes later, landing in time to see Xander driving off.  As Spike put the DeSoto in park and turned it off, he was frowning again.  “Out of curiosity, pet, what was that business with Harris and the scotch?”

“Oh.”  Buffy sighed heavily.  “I think his parents are bad alcoholics.  Life at home is kind of rough for him; or at least it was before he moved out.  I’m pretty sure he had to play bartender, and that they at least yelled a lot.  Anyway, it’s a thing.”

Spike cast his eyes skyward through the roof of the car, and reached for his door’s handle.  “Oh, hell.”  And there was a wealthy of frustration and even maybe a hint of regret in his voice.

“You didn’t know.”

“No wonder the little nit is such a pissant.  And no sodding wonder he wanted out of the bloody basement.”

“Yeah, well.”  Laying a hand on her own, Buffy sighed.  “He used to spend a lot of time camping out in the backyard.  Till he started coming out to our house that’s what he did for Thanksgiving and Christmas.”

A short silence, then, “Never thought I’d say I felt sorry for that little prat.”

“Yeah.  Good family fun, I guess.”

Jerking open his car door, Spike came around as was his wont to escort her out.  Buffy met him, as was hers, to circumvent being handed out like some sort of damsel, and joined him to lay her hand on his.  “Look.  He’ll live.  We all have stuff.”

He grunted neutrally in answer.  It was enough of a tell that she knew he felt uncomfortable, much as he might try to pretend that, as the resident, recovering Big Bad, he didn’t care all that much.

She would let him go on pretending.  “Let’s go in.  We need to check in with Mom.  I’m sure she’s feeling bad about the whole mask thing.  We all know how blunt Anya can be.” 

“Yeah,” Spike agreed, giving her fingers a squeeze.  “Vengeance is a fair treat, but her tongue tends to be on the sharp side on occasion.”

They passed the windows filled with paintings and the occasional sculpture, the flyers mentioning the next few showings and, as was a local merchant’s duty, events like the arthouse theater’s upcoming showcase of some movie Buffy had never heard of in German which was “Werner Herzog’s ouvre”.

Of course, Spike held the glass door open for her, to the accompanying tinkle of the little bell, because he simply couldn’t help himself.  Buffy didn’t even bother to throw him an amused glance anymore for his random spasms of old-timey chivalry.  They were as much a part of him as his cutting wit and biting sarcasm.

Once inside, Anya spoke up before even Mom could.  “Hello, Buffy and Spike.  I’m surprised we beat you here.  Unless you stopped on the side of the road for another moment of intimate bliss.”

Mom rolled her eyes as she stood, having ducked behind the counter to bring the cash box to the surface.  She tended to find Anya’s bluntness refreshing… except when it came to her daughter’s sexual relationship with her favorite vampire.  “We need to make this deposit tonight, if you’re willing, Anya.”

“Oh, I’m very willing, Joyce.  You know how I love handling the money.”

“It’s okay, Mom,” Buffy informed her mother as they approached the counter.  “It was more a relationship freakout.”

“Oh?”  Looking concerned, she eyed them both with a slight frown touching the edges of her lips.  “Is everything okay?”  Her eyes darted to Spike, narrowed a little.  “I thought you’d settled everything after that business with Dracula… and there’s a sentence I never thought I’d utter in my life.  I certainly haven’t seen much of either of you lately, which seemed a pretty good indication that you’ve mended fences.”

“Oh, we have, Mum,” Spike hastened to assure her.  “Just standard business.  Getting on with things, yeah?”

“Well… good.”

Buffy looked around the room, wondering why it was so quiet.  “Where’s Dawn?”  Usually Mom would have slipped away to pick her up from school by now.

“Oh, I let her go home with Janice.  She promised to be back in time for dinner.”

Spike rumbled a little.  “Not a big fan of that chit.  She’s a troublemaker.”

“Don’t be overprotective, Spike,” Mom chided as she peered at the receipts.  “Sure, Janice isn’t my first choice for peers.  Obviously she’s not the best influence in the world, but every teenager needs friends, and the time to realize on their own where to make those mistakes.  If I told her not to spend time with Janice she’d just work harder to do the exact opposite.”  A quick flash of warm, placid smile in Buffy’s direction.  “I learned that the first time around.”

“Because I was such a rebel.”

Mom leveled her with a  look .  “Burned down the high school.”

“Okay, it was just the gym.  And there were  vampires  in it, remember?”

Spike was grinning as he looked her up and down.  “Never heard that.  Torched a whole bloody building to take out a nest, did you?”

“Okay, but look.  They had me surrounded, and Lothos was  such  a bastard…”

He tugged her close by her waist, looking exceedingly proud.  “That’s my girl.”

Rolling her eyes, because look who was being a bad influence, Buffy went for a decided subject change.  “Anya, how’s the money situation?”

“Oh, it’s going very nicely, Buffy, thank you for inquiring!”  As always, when asked about anything cash- or business-related, the ex-demon girl turned completely bubbly.  She paused mid-count to smile sunnily, both hands holding wads of cash.  “The gallery does a modest but steady business, now Joyce and I have conspired to rearrange certain aspects of the marketing.  I think we make a formidable team.”

“I’ll say,” Mom agreed, and set down the receipts to circle the counter.  “Anya’s a whiz at managing a business.  I did alright before, but that part was never my strong suit, even when I took the class.  I’m definitely better at the art and art history parts.  I guess I’ve always needed a business manager in here so I could focus on acquisitions and coordinating with artists.  Connecting with the buyers.  You know, the fun stuff, while someone else does the part I  don’t  enjoy…”

“I’m pleased to be of assistance!  Especially if it means I get to handle the money, and balance the budget.  Lining up all those little numbers is such a joy...”

“See?  She’s perfect.”  Mom smiled fondly over at her friend.  “And, of course, she’s here if I accidentally order anything that’s demon-possessed,” she put in a little sadly.

“C’mon, Mom,” Buffy interrupted.  She had, after all, been ready for this.  “That’s not your fault.  It’s not like you’re trained to recognize stuff like that.”

“Buffy’s right, Joyce,” Spike chimed in immediately.  “No reason you’d know.  Won’t have you blamin’ yourself.”

“It’s true.  Ignorance is an excellent defense; at least in modern courts.”

Mom smiled at their fierce tones, and Anya’s blasé one.  “You’re all very sweet.  I suppose I’ll let myself off the hook this time.”  Turning to her business partner, she lightly touched the countertop.  “You’re sure you’re fine with me leaving?”

“I’m glad of the opportunity, Joyce, and the trust.  Please, leave me alone with the money and go away.”

Her lips twitched.  “You’re always so straightforward.  And you’ll be alright?”

“The bank is only a few yards away.  The night-drop is on this side of the block.  My apartment is a block beyond.  I fail to see how I can get into any trouble, even in Sunnydale, in such a situation.”

Buffy frowned.  “You know that’s just asking for trouble, to say it like that.”

“I have friends in low places.  If anyone bothers me, I’ll have Kerakh beat them to death.”

Spike looked surprised and impressed.  “Kerakh, is it?”

“Yes, he wishes me to have sex with him, so he’s been hovering outside the gallery and my apartment, and commonly following me around hoping for sexual favors.  I assume his looming presence will discourage any interlopers.”

Buffy blinked and decided not to ask exactly what kind of demon Kerakh was.  “Uh, doesn’t this guy know you already have a…  A sexual partner?”  /Or whatever./

Anya favored her with an assessing look.  “Not everyone is in an exclusive relationship, Buffy.  Xander knows that I occasionally look elsewhere for satisfaction.  He’s free to do so as well, though I’m not sure that he does…”

/Because he’s in love with you./  Buffy wondered if Anya realized that.  But to be fair, Xander had really hurt her last year when he’d broken her trust with his anti-demon bigotry.  She knew Anya had also at least guessed some of what had gone on between herself and Xander when he’d had himself a little demon-time.  

Amazingly, Anya had taken that knowledge in stride, perhaps analyzing their subsequent relationship for any evidence of Xander’s straying toward similar trends.  She had made a few comments here and there about how all men were, at base, confirmed monsters, very few of them worthy even of her sexual favors, but she had also mentioned, very frankly, that she did in fact require someone with whom to enjoy said adventures, and she had had sex with worse people.  A reformed character walking a redemptive path and who gave good orgasms was better, she had opined, than a string of worse and unsatisfying losers.

She had also kind of implied that this way, she could keep an eye on him.  Which was really an unnerving idea, since Buffy kind of thought that Anya wouldn’t mind doing a little more vengeance here and there if she thought she could get away with it, powers or no powers.

Buffy had tried more than once during these muttered, one-sided conversations to convince the ex-demon that she actually thought that Xander was one of the good-guys; but as far as she could tell, the whole thing had just served to confirm for Anya that there really was no such thing.  She doubted that Xander would ever make inroads back into his lover’s heart.  It looked like at best all they’d ever manage again would be friends with benefits.

And it was not Buffy’s circus, not her monkeys.  Tough to watch one of her best friends suffer from unrequited love, but…  /Not my problem, if I don’t want him to make my love life his business./  

“For instance,” Anya went on blithely, counting tens from one hand to another, “I’m certain that at some point he’ll explore sex with a man, or perhaps a male demon.  Though each time I suggest it to him he covers his ears and runs the other direction as if I’d thrown Tarkhelian dust at him…”

Spike let out an abrupt guffaw, though he choked it off into a rumble at Buffy’s sharp glare.  “Right, well… best not to push the lad, Vengeance, or you’re like to send him off the deep end.”

“I’m not sure why he’s being so stubborn about it.  Considering his leanings, I think he’d find it a very enjoyable experience.  I told him I wasn’t at all opposed if he wanted to explore things with Jonathan, as long as it didn’t cut into  our  time together…”

“And on that note,” Mom broke in, “I think I’ve learned quite a bit more about Xander Harris than I ever wanted to know.  Thank you for making the deposit, Anya.”

“Oh, of course.  Have a lovely dinner, Joyce.”

On the way out, Spike paused to eye a piece near the entrance.  “This a one new, Mum?”

“Oh.  No, actually it’s an older one I rotated out from the back to see if I could get it some exposure before I send it on to another gallery to see if it’ll do better elsewhere.”  She frowned slightly.  “I don’t know why it never sold.  I like it a lot.”

Spike eyed it with interest; long enough that Buffy halted to study it as well.  She wasn’t sure what he found so riveting.  “What?”  As far as she could tell it was just sun shining through some pillars somewhere.

“It’s the Grand Colonnade in Versailles,” he murmured.  “Never seen it in the daylight.  Looks a whole lot different in the sun than in lamplight.”  His voice sounded decidedly breathy, almost awed.  “And the perspective.  Photographer must’ve lain down to take the photo, yeah?  To get such an odd angle.  And what sort of film must he have used, to get such an effect?  Looks almost like a bloody painting.”

Mom was watching Spike with a strange, wistful look on her face.  “I’m not sure what she used; some kind of developing trick to soften it up.  You like it?”

“It’s bleeding gorgeous,” he breathed.  Buffy had never heard him talk like that.  Like he’d been stricken dumb.  His hand rose, lightly brushed the edges of the piece with just his fingertips.  “That was one of the few places I’d been in the world where I didn’t…”  He cut off abruptly, and his hand dropped away.  “All beauty, there.  Meant to keep it that way.  There’d been enough blood in that sodding place.”

/Huh?/

In the resultant silence, Mom reached up, tugged the photo off the wall.  And pressed it into Spike’s hands.  “It’s yours.”

Spike jerked away as if he’d been burned.  “I can’t take this, Joyce!”

“You can.  I’ll pay the artist.  My gift to you.”

“Joyce, I…”

“You’ve made my daughter happier than I’ve ever seen her, these last few months.  This makes you happy.  I want you to have it.”

Buffy didn’t think she’d ever seen her guy look so panicked.  He was backpedaling away, looking almost frantic.  “I couldn’t…”

“Alright, when’s your birthday?”

He gaped at her, now thoroughly flummoxed.  “My what?”

“Well, Christmas is already over,” Mom answered, reasonably enough.

“Joyce…” he protested weakly, “I haven’t celebrated a birthday in a hundred and…”

“Well then, it’s about time we do, isn’t it?”

He put his hands behind his back and clasped them like a kid who’d been caught rummaging in the cookie jar.  “I don’t even remember when it is,” he told her tersely, “so…”

“Nonsense.  You’re just trying to be polite.  If you won’t tell me when it was, you’re just going to have to take it now.  And if you won’t, I’ll give it to Buffy and she’ll hang it on your wall when you’re not looking, right baby?”

Buffy grinned, ready to be in on this conspiracy.  “You bet.”  /And you know now I’m gonna find out about the birthday, and why you’re being so weird./

Spike shot her a poisonous glare, then jerked back to Mom, his body broadcasting alarm.  His eyes flickered to the photo and back again to her face, naked desire warring with a strange terror there.  “I…”

Buffy frowned, confused at the way that bizarre dread wended through the link between them.  “Why don’t you wanna take a gift from Mom, Spike?”

His voice shook.  “Because…  Oh, bloody hell.”  He shook his head and reached out his hands, a look now of sheer, stubborn irritation overriding the panic in his features.  By the time he’d touched Mom’s fingers over the paper frame of the print, his expression had slipped over into rueful.  “Thank you, Joyce.  I’m touched.”

“I’m glad,” Mom answered softly.  “Because you’re one of us now, Spike.  So beware.  We do birthdays; and gifts, when people mean a lot to us.”

He actually flinched as he took the photo.  And then touched the edges of the picture again, a shy pleasure taking over his features.  “It’s lovely.”

“Good,” Mom answered, then with a quick, decisive nod, “See you at home.”  And she headed out the door for the Jeep.

Spike remained frozen, staring down at the print.  

“What?” Buffy asked again, softly, and waited.

The silence hung between them for a long moment, filled only with the rustling of Anya’s money-counting in the distance, across the room, and the faint sounds of traffic outside on Main.  Finally, “Me mum gave me a gift.  Before she…”

“Oh.”

“Nothing much,” he whispered.  “Just a bit of a thing, to show she cared.  No particular reason, but…”  And when he lifted his eyes, naked fear shone in them.

Buffy touched his hand.  “It doesn’t mean anything, William,” she told him softly, using the pet name she seldom pulled out except when he was particularly emotional, or she was.  “Nothing’s going to happen to her, just because she gave you a present.”

He shivered involuntarily.  “I reckon you’re right.  It just threw me for a loop is all.”

“C’mon,” she told him, and tugged him toward the door.  “Let’s go to dinner.”

“Yeah.”

*   *   *








onward to some smooshy, snuggly family stuff with Buffy-Spike-Joyce, because god knows I couldn't get enough of it when I was writing it, and I cannot WAIT to share it.  

I swear, writing the dynamic with that lot (and often, with Dawn included, depending on the situation) has been the best thing in the world.  I literally wallow in it.


Chapter Text

Spike was spending a heck of a long time sitting in the car, looking overwhelmed and staring down at picture in his hands.  He had this weird mix of pleasure and confusion on his face, and drifting through their bond.  Buffy gave him a minute before speaking up.  “When  is  your birthday, Spike?”

Jerked away from his study of the French palace, her vampire blinked up at her, a little nonplussed, then narrowed his eyes with suspicious interest as if wondering at her angle.  He didn’t, though, try to prevaricate with her the way he had with her mother.  “Which one, pet?” he asked instead.

Of all rejoinders or put-offs, that was one Buffy had not expected in the slightest.  “Okay, huh?”

With a faint twist to his lips, Spike turned to set the picture in the backseat with a reverence that said he found it precious.  “Been born twice in a way, innit?” he reminded her, avoiding her eyes.

Buffy frowned at that, momentarily confused in her own turn, before understanding dawned.  “Oh.  You, uh, consider that a rebirth?”

“Yeah.”  He eyed her blandly, eyes meeting hers with a kind of challenge in them.  “A renaissance.  Wouldn’t you?”

It had honestly never occurred to her, now that she knew what she knew.  But then, he had died, and come back, and…  “Yeah, I guess…  Yeah.  Okay, well, then…”

When she didn’t back down, he sighed and dropped his hands to the steering wheel.  “My birthday as William was June the twenty-sixth.  My demonic birthday was November the twenty-third, on an uncommonly warm winter day.”  And he started up the engine.

They made the entire drive to Revello in silence.  For her part, Buffy found herself wondering idly if vampires counted the day they’d been drained and bitten or the day they’d risen to their new unlife as their ‘birthday’, but didn’t bother to ask.  It didn’t particularly matter either way.  A couple days’ leeway wouldn’t change much since, unfortunately, both birthdays were kind of far away for her purposes.  One had just recently passed.  The other was super close to Christmas.  

/Well, at least it gives me time to hunt around, find a good replacement./  “Good to know,” she informed him softly as he pulled into the driveway.  

His head jerked over so he could eye her with a very real suspicion.  “Why, Buffy?”

Stepping out of the car, she wandered over to the verge of the porch, leaned against a carport post.  When he joined her there, moving like an intent predator, she shot for coquettish.  Looked up at him under hooded eyes, hands in pockets and half in the shade with the heat of the newly-arrived Jeep at her back.  “That’s for me to know and you to find out.”

His eyes flashed, bright blue in the low glow of the distant streetlamp and fierce with the challenge of it.  He stalked one vast stride nearer to close the distance, the shrunken space between them crackling.  “Oh, I’ll pry it from you, never you fear, pet,” he informed her in lowered tones

“You’ll try.”

“Oh.  I’ll make you talk, Buffy.  Have you beggin’ to tell me before the end.”

Buffy shivered at the heat in his voice, already aching with anticipation.  “That’s a really ineffective threat, just so you know,” she managed, lightly.  “And also, not gonna work.”  Hopefully that sounded as certain as it felt.

Faster than a striking snake he scooped her around the waist, dragged her up against him.  “Care to make a small wager?” he breathed, hard against her and lips trailing along her neck.  

Well, now she wasn’t going to give in no matter what he did.  “You know I could just tell you to stop, right?” she reminded him, hands pressed against his chest not in token refusal but in welcome, body molding to him of its own free will as she fought not to shudder full-bodied, to keep her brain from short-circuiting at the feel of his hands cupping her ass, tugging her hard and high against him.  Her traitorous legs were already trembling with the need to hitch up and wrap around his waist.

“That’s just cheating,” he informed her, grating and harsh against her throat.

He had a point.  And she’d only been joking anyway.  Like she ever would go there.  “Alright.  No commands.”  It came out in a strained whisper, and damn him.

“Excellent.”  He nipped her behind the ear, and wholly against her will, she bucked a little against his hips.  “What’s the wager, luv?”

Breathing through her nose; that was the thing.  It steadied the brain cells.  Sort of.  “I, um…  What were we talking about again?”

Grinning against her neck, he scraped his human teeth down along her wildly-thrumming carotid, teasing other delights.  “I’m going to win, Slayer.”

/Grr.  Sometimes I still hate you./  “Not if I can’t even remember what we’re talking about.  Interrogation’s wildly ineffective when… nnnnn…  When you can’t remember anything about the…  Oh God.  The conversation…”  He was rocking her against his hard length now, just so, and her clit was crying out for those jeans to be gone, and she was only wearing a skirt, how long would it really take for them to just…

“This is gonna take a lot longer than we have right now, pet.  And I prefer a horizontal surface; one a lot further away from your mum’s house.  So hold that thought, yeah?”  And to Buffy’s confusion and distinct displeasure, Spike set her away from him and firmly detached her arms from his neck.

The reason for this move became apparent when Mom’s voice sounded over the railing of the porch behind him, a low, clarion call in the warming summer evening.  “Hey, you two.  Get in here and help me.  Buffy, you’re on salad duty.  Spike, you’re cutting the steak; and no drinking the blood off the plate till after you’re done, young man.”

Spike eyed Buffy pointedly as he pulled away and tugged her splayed body off the post with both hands.  “C’mon, pet.  Let’s get in.” 

/Okay, now that I’m totally indecent for motherly company, you jerk./

As they entered the kitchen, Buffy was greeted with a bowl half-full of leafy things.  She  oofed  as the large, Pyrex item was shoved into her arms, to slam solidly against her solar plexus.  “Happy to see you too, Mom.  Isn’t the salad Dawn’s job?”  The complaint, like the impact, would get her reset back to an even keel.  One that did not involve obsessing over her boyfriend’s many charms.

“She called and begged to eat at Janice’s house.”  Mom had already turned away, back for the stove.  “Looks like it’s just gonna be us.  Something about enchiladas and how steak is boring…”

Spike stopped dead behind Buffy.   “Boring?”  he burst out, incredulous.  “Bloody hell, that’s good red meat, that is; and anyhow, doesn’t she know this is  family  dinner night?  I could strangle her!" he blustered.  "Do you want me to go over there, Joyce?  I can drag her back by her hair!  I’ve no problem being the bad guy…”

“I appreciate the offer, Spike, but I’ve already given her my permission.”  The fond amusement in Mom’s voice turned to quiet solemnity.  “And besides, I thought maybe this would give us all time to have more adult conversation.”

“Oh.”  Spike subsided abruptly, sounding stymied.  “What did we do now?” 

He didn’t have to sound so harried.  Buffy could do that for the both of them.  Turning away from where she’d set the salad bowl on the island, she sighed.  “Seriously.  Did we screw up somehow?”

“Oh, no.  I just thought we could check in, see how you’re doing lately.”

Eee.  That sounded mildly dire.

They assembled the dinner things in companionable silence and with the ease of long practice, Spike thoroughly abusing the steaks with a meat-tenderizing hammer and sending them off to Mom to be sautéed with onions and spices and some sort of marinade she’d picked up and then slowly simmered into, in Spike’s case, rare, in Buffy’s medium-rare, and in hers, medium states.  

Spike, meanwhile, got to take the plate back.  No one even blinked anymore when he poured off the blood into a mug and stood sipping it while he watched and handed things to people.  He got only one comment during proceedings.  “Did you wash your hands, Spike?”

“Oh.  No.  Forgot.  Sorry, Joyce, was distracted.”

Buffy rolled her eyes from where she was grating cheese into the salad he wouldn’t eat.  “Remind me not to touch anything you’ve touched.”

He favored her with a tolerant glare and tossed back the last sip of his gleanings.  “As if you haven’t had worse on you.”  Turning to the sink with his mug, he set to washing hands and container, the muscles in his shoulders flexing under his dark tee.  “Last night you had offal hanging out of your hair for twenty minutes.  You’d never have even known it was there if I hadn’t told you.”

Stung, Buffy shot back, “Okay, but to be fair, I didn’t exactly expect that whatever-it-was to literally explode when I beheaded it.”

Turning back to face her, he did the thing with his tongue and ran his eyes up and down her body.  “Not complainin’, mind.  You looked dead sexy, all covered in gore…”

/Oh, for God’s sake./  “Keep it PG for the parental units, Spike, remember?” she censored, and threw a cherry tomato at him.  It struck him square between the eyes and bounced off, only to be caught and popped between his lips.  Which was surprising, because he didn’t tend to eat any vegetation if he could help it, predator that he was.  Well, except for those onion-blossom things.  Which were kind of gross.  Unlike cherry tomatoes when…

Eyes on hers, he waggled his brows.  Tickled the small, red rondel with the tip of his tongue.  And grinned.

Blushing, Buffy swung away to toss the salad.

“Careful, luv.  That lettuce and the lot is flying right out of the bowl.”

Mom turned calmly away from the stove to reach into the nearby overhead cupboard for some seasoning or another… and whacked Spike’s hand with the spatula that she held.  Hard.

“Bloody ow!” he howled, cradling the offended paw.  “What did you do that for, Joyce?”

Turning back to the cast iron, Mom flipped her steaks.  “I’m sure you were misbehaving somehow,” she answered primly, and scattered some steakhouse thing over the whole pan.  

“Damn,” he hissed, rubbing the faint imprints of the spatula holes, swiping at the grease.  “How do you know it wasn’t Buffy was misbehaving?”

Smiling slightly, Mom shook her head.  “I was playing the odds.”

Buffy smiled sunnily, scorecard intact.  “And the Slayer gets the benefit of the doubt.”

Spike growled.  “One of these days you’re gonna use that against me to get away with something truly diabolical, right under Mum’s nose, and I’ll take all the bloody blame…”

“Definitely.  I’m still planning my grand, evil plot, though, while you keep digging yourself into deeper holes so no one will ever believe it was me being the bad one when it happens.”

“Oh, bloody hell.  Get into a little trouble for just a few decades...” 

Buffy paused in her salad-making to hack falsely into her hand.  “Cough-century-cough…”

“…And all the sodding sudden you get no credit with anyone…”

Swinging away from her finished project, Buffy sallied forth from the island to approach him, pressed herself against his long, lean form so that he had to either keep his palms on the counter or place them conveniently on her waist.  Or butt, if he wanted to get in trouble with Mom.  “You get all the credit in the world with me,” she told him softly, and looked directly into his eyes as she said it.

“Oh, hell, Buffy,” he whispered, and bent to kiss her.

Buffy wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to anyone or anything else but him.  That already tended to happen when she was kissing Spike, even before the whole ‘sharing sensations’ thing.  Now it was even more of a thing.  Which meant that Mom’s voice made her jump about five feet when it broke through the moment.  “Not to interrupt, but… one rare steak.  Also, young lady, you do know that I’m onto you now, and I’ll be vigilant.  Spike’s going to get the benefit of the doubt from here on out.”

“Damn,” Buffy murmured against cool lips.

Strong fingers tightened briefly on her waist, her shoulder blade, then…  “Teach you to talk out of turn, pet.”  And he put her away from him to smile at Mom.  “Cheers, Joyce.  It looks lovely.  Smells a treat as well.”

“Thank you, Spike.  Yours’ll be done in a minute, Buffy.  Why don’t you two get the table set.  It’ll keep your wandering hands out of mischief.”  It was said with fond amusement rather than anything forbidding.  Still, they disengaged and went about the indicated business.  Best never to push things.  

Mom was their greatest ally.  And she had one rule.  Romantic, yes, but no over-the-top sexy vibes all up in her house.  It was a decree which she was probably aware they had broken while she had been elsewhere, but everyone involved was doing their best to play by nice, civilized guidelines like ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’, and ‘what I don’t know doesn’t hurt me’.  

Table set to the tune of a lot of knowing, flirty looks to keep temperatures to a simmer, and Mom was exiting with the other two steaks while Buffy doled out the salad for herself and the other leaf-eating member of the dining public.  “Okay, who wants what to drink?” she asked as she headed back into the kitchen.

Spike looked up from where he was holding a chair for Mom.  “Dunno.”  He glanced down at their hostess.  “You got any more of that nice Malbec you opened last week, Mum?  That’d go down a fair treat with this steak.”

“You know, it really would.  Buffy,” Mom called, “can you bring out the wine bottle from the deal on the counter and the wine key?  And whatever for yourself.  Unless you want to join us.”

Buffy blinked.  She was underage, and wouldn’t have expected her mother to treat her as one of the adults in that way.  Also, she’d never had wine; or at least, that she’d liked.  She’d had some at a wedding once, which was meh.  Also some crappy thing from a box, once, at a college party, which she’d thought was gross.  Granted, so was beer, unless it was cave-beer or you’d had enough to stop caring, but you had to choke it down for a while to get to that point, which, ugh.  

Basically when it came to most alcohol she just really didn’t get the attraction.  “Uh…  I mean, I’m not sure.  It’s not, you know, something I’ve ever…”

“Mean to tell me you never tried it at one of those college shindigs, Slayer?”

/Okay, bastard.  Trying to out me to Mom./  “I just don’t get how it’s supposed to taste good,” she hedged.

“It tastes good when it’s not rubbish,” Spike opined.  “Promise you you’ll like it with the steak.”  Seen over Mom’s hair as he took his seat, he tilted his head in her direction.  “Probably she should only have a bit, though, if she’s not used to it, else I’ll have to carry her upstairs and pour her into bed.”

“Trust me, I have no interest in seeing my daughter plastered.  I’m alright with her doing a little taste-testing, though.”

Okay, wow with the conspiracy to give her booze.  “I’m so gonna get myself a backup drink in case I hate it,” she warned them, and detoured to pick up three of the wine-glasses Mom favored.  Her mother was probably looking forward to having someone to drink the stuff with.  Not that she didn’t have a little wine with Anya here and there when they had their weekly business meetings, but…  Well.  

Mom’s friendship with her boyfriend could be freaksome sometimes, for sure, between the almost nightly  Passions  dates and stuff like this.  They were going to wear out the VCR  and  run up a wine bill.

Arriving back at the table with the wine-bottle dangling between two fingers, the mini- corkscrew-thing hanging from her pinkie, and three wine-glasses and a mug of orange juice pressed to her chest, Buffy stood before her mother and her vampire.  “Help.”

Smirking, Spike relieved her of the bottle, while Mom extricated the glasses and key from her grip so she didn’t drop her juice.  Then, moving away with her mug and her glass, Buffy set them both carefully down and sighed in relief.  “I’ve decided I’m not made for delicate tasks.”

Spike lowered his head a little to hide his expression and made a sound Buffy recognized as his low, strangled, speedy mischief-chuckle, while a thrill of hilarity shot through their link.

Buffy kicked him hard in the ankle.

Luckily, Mom appeared to miss this byplay while she moved to open the wine.  “This is so much easier the second time around,” she muttered as she dragged the cork out, then, “Spike?”

“Ta, Joyce,” he answered, tilting his glass in her direction.

Buffy found herself vaguely startled at the way Mom poured it; all weirdly sideways into the bowl so that it sort of drizzled in instead of splashing down into the bottom.  Wasn’t in danger of falling out over the rim if…

But apparently not, since they stopped with the exchange long before the wine reached the lip of the glass.  “Appreciate it, Mum.  Well, that smells nice, innit?  Bit of blackberry or summat in that one; almost like a merlot.”

“It’s a little heavy, but I like it,” Mom agreed as she poured for herself in that same tilty way.  

“Argentine, then, not local?  Doesn’t smell dry.”

“Yeah.  I got it at Trader Joe’s.  They actually have a pretty good wine selection.”

“Hmm.”  And to Buffy’s surprise, Spike literally buried his nose in his glass, started sniffing like he was going to drink the stuff with his nostrils.  “Mmm…  That’s going to be lovely with that Montreal seasoning…  Oh.  Here, love.”  Reaching out, he caught up the bottle as Mom set it down, held it out in Buffy’s direction.  “Have a wee nip.  If you like it there’s always more.”

“Oh, right.”  Blinking, Buffy snapped up her glass and held it out, tilting it belatedly the way she’d seen them do it.

Smiling slightly, Spike righted the glass a hair for her, his fingers glancing a little over hers in a slight caress as he poured.

She shivered at the odd intensity to his gaze.  It was a second before she could tear her eyes away, return them to the glass.  When she saw how much wine was in the bowl, she blinked again.  “That’s kind of a lot, huh?”

“Just a few sips.”

“Oh.”  She supposed it was a lot less than he had.

“Don’t need to finish it if you don’t like it.  I’ll take yours over, no worries.”  He nodded at the glass.  “Smell it, then.”

She complied, frowning.  Mostly she smelled sour fruit, but maybe… something smoky?  And berry-ish?  And…

Well, maybe there were a lot of smells, but her brain couldn’t quite get a handle on all of it.  It was kind of a mish-mash of impressions.

“Now, take a bite, love… and then sip the wine.  You’ll be doin’ yourself a favor.”

Dubious, Buffy did as instructed, cutting a small slice of her still-juicy top round and sliding it into her mouth.  She chewed a little to get the flavor set—Mom, as always, had done a great job and it was all buttery and seasoned and yummy—then reached out to lift the glass, took a sip to wash it down.  And… oh.  Now she got why she was supposed to smell the wine before she tasted it.  

The smoky thing jumped out first, wrapping around the buttery flavor of the meat and doing this complicated dance at the back of her tongue and up to the roof of her mouth, and then floating back into her nose from somewhere in the back of her throat.  And then the peppery thing from the steak was doing something that almost smell-tasted like the tobacco smell from Spike when he’d just lit up, but from a distance… and maybe a little bit like leather, too?  And way in the back of her throat she caught the faintest hint of something that almost tasted like plums, but it was gone before she could catch it, and she had forgotten how to swallow what was in her mouth.  

She almost choked, she was so confused.

“Hell of a thing, innit?” Spike murmured, watching her with hot, amused eyes.

Buffy swallowed hard and unwillingly and shook her head, dazzled.  “Wow,” she whispered.  “That was… different.”

“Welcome to wine, my love.”

“Holy crap.”

Spike turned his eyes away from Buffy, though he dropped his hand to cover hers on the table.  “I think we have a winner, Joyce,” he murmured, and lifted his glass.  

“Well, like mother like daughter.  But don’t go overboard, Buffy.”

“I’m sure it’ll take her a while to appreciate it without the steak as company.  We’re probably safe for a while.”

“You’re probably right.”

Shaking her head, Buffy tried another sip with another bite, sure it couldn’t be as amazing the second time around.  Except it was… and she tasted more things that time.  And the third time.  And then she ran out of wine, and suddenly the prospect of eating the rest of her steak without the wine sounded kind of dull.

Spike turned an eye to Mom, lifted his brow in question.  

Mom pursed her lips, then gave a tiny shrug and nodded.  He added a few more sips to Buffy’s glass.  

Buffy was still absorbed in the single-minded task of making it last when Mom leaned back in her seat, cut a slice out of her steak, and firmed up her voice.  “So.  Now that we’re all friendly and relaxed, maybe I’ll get a straight answer out of you.”  

Buffy’s head jerked up.  Beside her, she felt Spike tense.  “Um, okay?”  Clearly they were about to be interrogated.  “About what?”  /Note to self to not drink wine ever again, if it’s going to be used as some kind of stealth truth-drug./  Who knew Mom was so ruthless?

Leaning forward, Mom pointed her knife directly at Buffy’s face.  “What were you two really fighting about?  What happened with that Dracula jerk?”

/Oh wow.  Oh my Godohmygod…/  Shooting Spike a panicked look, Buffy dropped a hand to his thigh and squeezed, hard.  And felt her head spin.  Because maybe she was a little bit drunk, and she was just now realizing it, and, /Please help?/

“It wasn’t anything you might be thinkin’, Mum,” Spike broke in, very softly.  “It was more… a vamp-Slayer thing.”

Mom’s expression went through about five swift alterations before it hardened.  “Well, color me relieved, at least, that I didn’t contribute to something…  Well.”

/God.  She thought maybe I…  That…/  Though, considering that all she’d heard was that Dracula had wafted up to her daughter’s room in the middle of the night, and that Spike was furious the next several days, Buffy supposed it was a natural conclusion.  But still; thinking your daughter was a tramp, much?  

To be fair, the blood thing was similarly tramp-ish, from a vampire’s perspective, though, so…  “Mom, Dracula wanted me to let him… bite me.”

Whatever Mom had been expecting, that wasn’t it.  Which was kind of funny, considering she’d been palling around with a vampire for months, knew her daughter was dating one, yadda.  “Bite you?”

/God, this is gonna be so bad./  “Um, well…  The thing is…”

“The thing is, Joyce,” Spike interrupted, “he came prancing into town and got into the middle of our business, and got into Buffy’s head.  Tried to make her feel bad for letting our relationship stay one-sided when it came to that sort of thing.  The problem being…”

Buffy covered his hand with hers, because no way should he have to go there.  He shouldn’t have to take this on, for her, in front of her mother.  “The problem is, the way things were, there was always going to be some other jerk vampire who thought he could come swinging into town and try to ‘take me away’ from Spike, because the way vamps work is kind of primitive.  They smell bites, and see ‘em, and to them, it’s this whole… system.  It’s politics.  It’s a hassle; for Spike and for me.  He let me claim him last year, as a sort of a…  A vassal.  Though since then…”  Her entire body tingled with memories of since-thens.  

Spike’s hidden hand slid a little further up her thigh, and warmth flowed between them, certain and sure.  None of it helped with the explainy-ness, and she briefly lost her train of thought.

“Since then,” Spike prompted softly.

“…It’s been more… equal,” Buffy managed, clearing her throat.  “But, uh… if I didn’t let him claim  me,  then the other vampires would keep treating him like crap, and I’d have to put up with every vamp in town sniffing at me like some kind of unmarked fire hydrant.  Like that jerk Dracula, trying to put the moves on me, thinking there was a reason I didn’t let Spike do it yet.  And really, the only reason I didn’t yet was because I had leftover issues from the way Angel did it…”  Mom jerked sharply at that, looking stunned.  “...Because he did it without my consent,” Buffy elaborated, “which Spike would never do.  So…”  She turned her gaze to her mate’s.  Felt his eyes lock on hers.  And the link between them sizzled.  “We closed the claim.  Last night.”

“Closed the…”

Spike slid his visible fingers up along the back of Buffy’s hand.  She turned hers over automatically, locked her fingers with his.  “Bit like a marriage, Joyce,” he breathed.  “By blood.  Nothing can break it.  Was one-sided all this time.  She had the deed to me.  Now she’s given herself over in turn.”  He was speaking to Mom, but his eyes were smoldering on Buffy’s now; the threat of combustion always between them, and the promise of eternal devotion.  “Would’ve asked your permission first, but when the girl comes to you and proposes, sometimes you lose your head entire; fall to your knees and just say yes.”

The silence in the room was profound.  Then, “Oh.”  

Buffy knew that tone, and wrenched her eyes away, because, oh shit.  /Oh, damn./  “Sorry, Mom.  I didn’t even think…  It was just…  It was between us.  It happened and…  It’s a Slayer-vamp thing, like Spike said.  Spur of the moment.  I mean… I’d been thinking about it, but…”

“For how long, pray tell?”

And there was the frigid voice.  /Shit, shit, shit./  “Since Dracula?  Well, I mean, before, but he kind of brought it to a head, and…”

Mom nodded and rose to her feet.  “So, essentially, you eloped without telling me.”

Spike had just now cottoned on to the full nature of Mom’s hurt.  His eyes jerked away, toward the head of the table.  “Oh, bloody hell.  Joyce, I…”

Mom held up a hand, betrayal etched all across her face.  “When exactly  were  you going to tell me?”

It probably wouldn’t go over well that it hadn’t occurred to either of them, really, to bring it up at all.  “Well, I mean, it’s not like we can do this, you know, legally, or…”

Nodding, Mom turned her back to head into the kitchen with her plate.

“Bloody fuck,” Spike breathed.

Buffy was up already, pulling away.  “Let me.”

“Should I…”

Shaking her head hard, she tugged her hand loose from his clinging grip.  He was trembling slightly and just as worried as she was that the damage would be irreparable.  “No.  Right now I think…  Just me.  I’ll let you know if you should…”

“Right.”  His voice was tight.  Pained.

Buffy slipped away to follow her mother into the kitchen.  Stopped at the doorway to pull in a hard, deep breath, hands clutched together across her middle.  “I… we… didn’t do it to hurt you.  We weren’t even thinking.  It was… all instinct.  I can’t even tell you how much of how we work is like this big ball of animal instinct.  And it’s not like there were… ceremonies or anything.  You wouldn’t’ve wanted to be there, I promise you.  It was kind of… x-rated…”

A glass slammed down, a little too hard, on the counter.  Buffy jumped, felt Spike do the same behind her.  /Oh, damn./  “You said you wanted us to fix it.”

A short, harsh silence, then, “I didn’t say ‘get married’ to fix it, Buffy.   You’re nineteen!”

/Oh jeez./  Buffy bit her lip.  “Do you love Spike?”

There was a pause, and a clatter as Mom finally set her plate down.  “Dammit, Buffy, you  know  I do.  And I love how he is for you.  And I know there are things I’ll never understand about how you two work, but I’ve been  here  for you.  I’ve been in your corner…”

“You have,” Buffy interrupted softly, and moved a little further into the kitchen.  “And you have no idea how grateful we are.”  She got that her mother had to feel at sea sometimes with some of Slayer stuff, and definitely with the…  Well.  The other species stuff.  Heck; sometimes Buffy herself did, when she stopped to think like a human, when she didn’t just feel her way.  /It  only  makes sense when I feel my way, and Mom can’t do that.  She doesn’t have those instincts./ 

Buffy was also, in a way, a member of another species, or at least a subset of humanity, or a mixture or something.  And that was where she always met Spike as an equal; on that instinctive, non-human level.  The mixy one, where some human leaked through, but the inner monsters were met and challenged, and matched.  Satisfied.

Her mother could never fully comprehend that.  Mom only had the human rubric, and Buffy got that by that procedure, Mom felt robbed of something she had thought her eldest daughter would never have, before now.  Definitely since Buffy had started dating someone without a legal identity.  Also, to her, it would seem super quick and early, and maybe a betrayal of her leniency when it came to the relationship; like they had impulsively taken advantage of her relaxed response to her daughter dating yet another vampire to hitch them together for life.  Her nightmare, probably.  /She’s probably, like, torn in half, because we did it when she’s scared to death of that, and we didn’t even give her the chance to get used to the idea and let her celebrate it with us./

Well, Buffy couldn’t do anything about the first part, but as to the second…  “I get that you have concerns.  I won’t be able to change that for you.  But if you want to throw a party,” she went on softly, “and do that whole thing, I’m sure we’ll be down.”  Even if Spike wasn’t, he’d still do it.  For his Summers women, he’d do just about anything.  “Though, you know, hopefully at sunset, so Spike doesn’t turn to a little pile of dust…”

Mom made a scoffing noise.  “The day we get that boy into a tux is the day I buy stock in invisible nickels.”

Behind Buffy, in the dining room, Spike snorted sarcastically.

“Well, you might have to resign yourself to a lot of pictures with leather in them.”  Fond reminiscence stole over her, curving her lips upward.  “But to be fair, when we planned this before, we had a whole blood-fondue thing in the notebook, so count your blessings.”

A stunned note entered Mom’s voice.  “When you…  Buffy, when did you…”

/Oops./  “Uh, long story?  There was a spell involved.  Though…”  Leaning back, Buffy eyed Spike through the opening.  “I don’t suppose you kept any of that?  It might soothe the ruffled feathers now.”

“What kind of tosser do you take me for, pet?”

Buffy narrowed her eyes at him over her crossed arms.  

“Fine.  It’s in with my journals at the crypt.”

Satisfied, she leaned back in to nod at Mom.  “Some of the ideas were a little… out there.  Garish.  But some of ‘em might work.  If that’s what you wanna do.”  She dropped her arms, shrugged.  “The thing is, we’re… linked, Mom.”  Stepping forward, she touched her mother’s hand where her mother stood frozen and unwilling near the sink.  “We already were, but now it’s unbreakable.  We’re in this for the long haul.  So, yeah.  Whatever you want, but this is it.”

Another long pause, then…  “Spike, come in here.”  The tone brooked no disobedience.

A chair scraped, and then he was there, looking badly in need of a cigarette.  “Yeah, Joyce?”  His tones were trying for diffident, but mostly they landed on anxious.

“What are all your names?”

Spike jerked like he’d been hit with a taser.  “Beg pardon, Mum?”

“All. Your. Names.”

He froze, so comically that Buffy almost felt bad for him, except…  Okay, she was kind of curious herself.  By dint of some serious poking and prodding over the last almost-year, she had eventually dug his old surname out of him, but the rest was like trying to find buried treasure sealed beneath the foundation of a rebuilt house, constructed over the top of a basement filled with concrete.  William was part of the structural integrity of Spike, but the rest?  

She wasn’t sure when she had seen her guy look this floored.

“William,” Mom intoned, pulling out the big guns, and pinned him in place with Mom Glare Number Seventeen (use only in case of dire emergency), “if you’re going to be my son-in-law, I’m going to know all your names.”

Spike actually wilted.  And folded like a bad hand of poker behind Willy’s.  “William Esmond Jamison Pratt, Mum,” he mumbled.

/Interesting./

Mom just nodded.  “Fine.  Now get these dishes clean, and I’ll think about forgiving you for marrying my daughter without even telling me you were going to do it.”

Shuffling forward, Spike nodded, looking about as hangdog as Buffy had ever seen him.  “Absolutely, Mum.”

Buffy was fighting a case of the giggles when she was snapped out of it by the sharp clap beside her left ear.  “You’re not off the hook either, young lady.  Now, go get the rest of the stuff off the table, wipe it down, help William with the drying.  I might forgive you sometime this week if things are spotless.  And for God’s sake, one of you tell Dawn, because I’m not going to be in the room for the squealing.”

Jumping again, Buffy started for the table.  Demons leaping out at her from behind tombs, no problem.  Didn’t even ruffle her blood-pressure.

Mom on a tear?  Liable to give her a heart attack.

*   *   *





<3 <3 <3
Seriously.  I can't even handle these three.
They give me LIFE.

(side-note:  i have completely insanely-long reasons for choosing the names I did for Spike, and they're elucidated at length in my other series.  I might get into it in this one as well eventually, if I can find a place for an expository scene.)

Chapter Text

They were getting ready to leave when it happened.  Spike had just set his stack of finished dishes in the strainer preparatory to stepping away.  Buffy was shaking out the towel to hang it by the oven when Mom approached and sighed heavily.  “I’m still upset with both of you.  But I firmly believe in ‘never go to bed angry’.  So…”  She opened her arms.  “I love you, young man.  You know that, right?”

Spike’s voice turned decidedly thick, and he swung around to stoop and literally bury his face in Mom’s hair.  “I know, Mum,” he answered gruffly, and wrapped himself in her embrace.

Eventually Mom pulled back.  It was clear from her body language she was about to turn to mend fences with Buffy next, though she surprised Spike first with a light kiss on his lips.  

At which point Spike froze as if she had stabbed him with something pointy.  Buffy felt a rush of something like a vast, roaring horror blast through her, strong enough to freeze her in turn.  It made her drop the dish towel without thought to swing around and stare as her guy very slowly straightened.  “Joyce,” he whispered, and Buffy had never, ever heard his voice sound so terrified.  “I need you to get your coat.  We’re going to get in your car, or mine, right now.  Buffy as well.  We’re going to go to hospital.”

“Spike, what…” Buffy began, when she saw it.

His hands were shaking.  All of him was shaking.  And he had gone even more pale than he had any right to be; far more pale than normal.  

“Spike?” Mom asked, and her voice trembled.  “Honey, what’s wrong?  Why would we go to the hospital?  And…”

He reached out, touched her cheek.  “Joyce,  please.”   His voice shook.  

She flinched a little.  “God, your hands are so cold.  I mean, colder than usual…”

“Spike?” Buffy whispered.  She had just gotten a glimpse of his eyes.  

She had seen this carefully-contained panic-look in his eyes only twice before.  The first had been when he had been bent over a bed while a vile bastard of a demon had been brutally raping him… and he had been trying to tell her to get away before they turned their attentions to her.  The second had been when they were lost in the depths of the Initiative, and he had been quietly begging her to keep him out of their hands, at any cost; even if it meant dusting him to keep him from going back.

These were eyes that said ‘Don’t make me live through this again, seeing someone I care about suffer.  I’ve already hurt enough’.

/Oh, God…  What happened?/  “Mom,” Buffy heard herself whisper, “get in the car, please.”

Mom looked from one to the other of them, and her lips flattened to a thin line.  “I need to know why, first.”

Buffy was pretty much with her mother, was about to put her own foot down, when she saw it, felt it.  Spike closed his eyes, and Buffy felt a pang of pure agony slide through him on their link; so sharp it forestalled her.  “I can’t say for sure yet,” he damn near whispered.  “I’m just guessin’.  Don’t wanna upset you more’n I already have.  But I can smell certain things.  Comes of bein’ a hunter.  Smell what might be a certain illness on you, alright, Joyce?”

“Smelled…”

“On your breath.”

“Well, that’s just…”  Mom looked embarrassed.  “I even brushed.”

“Mom.”  Buffy was starting to share Spike’s panic.  It wouldn’t be something…  /If he’s acting this way, it’s nothing to sneeze at.  Especially since he’s working hard not to say what he thinks it is./  

“Need a doc to confirm it…”

“And it can’t wait till tomorrow?”  Mom sounded incredulous.

Spike bounced on his heels like a kid who had to pee, caught Mom’s eye with every line of his body emanating a fierce anxiety.  “Joyce, I don’t wanna sound like a bad old vampire around you, but I bleedin’ love you, and if I have to pick you up and carry you to the sodding place kicking and screaming and have you never talk to me again, I will bloody well do it, and to hell with your dignity.”

Mom turned to Buffy and lifted her eyebrows.  “This is the part of him I never get to see, huh?  The part you say is kind of an asshole?”

The blunt question took Buffy by surprise, startled her out of her queasy ruminations.  “Oh, that?  No, that’s just him being overprotective and impulsive.  ‘Kind of an asshole’ comes in when he casually insults me as a way to show me how he feels.  I think it’s a British thing.  The backhanded compliment deal, only with more sarcasm.”

“Oh.”  Sighing, Mom turned back to Spike and spread her hands.  “You’re not going to let this go, I gather.”

He crossed his arms stoically.

“Fine.  I’ll go grab my purse.  But I’m driving myself.”

***

The trip was a silent one.  Spike didn’t try to take shotgun, longer legs or no, just planted himself behind Buffy and hung over her shoulder like an overeager puppy, as if he couldn’t handle being too far from his girls and was dying to get to their destination.

He was absolutely freaking out, keeping himself in check by some very thin hair of control.  Just wow.

The second the Jeep pulled to a halt he was out, striding around to open the door for Mom and practically handing her out onto the tarmac.  Buffy stared as he half-escorted, half-hustled her mother to the doors, Mom grumbling at him all the way about how she was enjoying his being a gentleman but she didn’t think it was necessary for him to practically carry her.  

He ignored her, had her inside an elevator while Buffy was still jogging to catch up and join them, and then was handing her into a seat in the third floor waiting area before either of them had a second to catch their breaths.  

And then he marched off without a backward glance to go harass the poor, tired-looking woman behind the nurse’s station.  

/Alright-y, then./

“Do you have any idea what he’s worried about, Buffy?” Mom demanded, now starting to get more than a little irritated.

“No,” Buffy answered, “but I’m about to find out.”  And she stood to follow her guy toward the desk.

She was about halfway to closing the distance when she overheard his conversation.  “Listen.  I don’t bloody  care  whether it’s normal hours.  I know you’ve got someone on shift all the time, in every department.  Now, you call me some sod from oncology to come down here right bloody  now , you  hear  me?”

Buffy reeled back, grabbing at nothing for stability.  / Oncology? /

“I’m sorry,  sir , but you can’t just demand that a doctor come to see you, without an appointment…”

He flashed fang.  And in that moment, Buffy was way too numb to even care, much less take him to task.  / Cancer?   Mom has…  Has…/

From what seemed like an incredibly long distance, she heard the nurse’s sharp yip of alarm.  “I…  I…  I’ll call… security if you…”

Shaking off her stasis, Buffy strode forward and slapped her hand down on the desk.  “Oncologist.  Now.  Please.”  She shot a glance over her shoulder to where her mother sat watching them, a worried look on her face.  /Can she hear us?/  “That’s my  mother  over there.”

The nurse sighed and reached out for her phone.  “I can try, but they’re usually busy this time of night with paperwork, catching up on the day’s cases.  You’d be better off coming back in the morning…”

Spike’s subterranean growl hastened her dialing.  

“Yes, could you get Dr. Aarens to come up front here, please?  We have an, um, emergency consultation…  Yes, I know, but if he could please just come up for a few minutes…  Alright, thank you.”  The phone was replaced on its cradle and the nurse lifted her head to catch Buffy’s eye.  She was spectacularly avoiding Spike’s gaze.  “Dr. Aarens will be up shortly.  Please wait over there.”

Pulling Spike away from the desk, Buffy dragged at his arm to turn him toward her.  “Cancer?” she demanded, and could we talk about new levels of freak-outage?  Her mouth was dry and the steak was roiling nauseously in her stomach like it was trying to crawl back up, and her palms were sweaty, and she felt super jittery, and…

Spike’s too-cold hand lifted, cupped her face.  “Not sure, love.  That’s why we’re here.  Not sure if what I smelled…  It was faint.  When I’ve smelled it before it was… advanced.  A lot more certain.  But I sure the bloody hell don’t want it to get that way for her, if it’s…”   His eyes fell closed, a thread of sick terror sliding between them.  

He drew in a sharp breath, then seemed to steady.  When they opened again, his eyes were firm on hers, if more gray than blue.  “I’m sorry, Buffy.  Christ, your heart is goin’ at a bloody gallop.”

“Yeah, well…”  Buffy closed her eyes briefly, let out a breath of her own.  “I better go… talk to Mom.  I didn’t mean to leave her alone.  I just… promised I’d get answers from you.”

“Yeah.  We should go… sit with her.”

They headed back to the waiting area.

“So, does anyone want to tell me what’s going on yet?” Mom asked as they arrived to flank her.  She was trying for cheery, but there was a thread of iron under the tone that said someone better speak up really soon or there would be hell to pay.

Buffy opened her mouth, aware her heart had sped up to probably freight train speeds.  Before she could say anything, though, a new voice intruded.  “Hello, I’m Dr. Aarens.  And you are?”

Mom spoke up first, clearly just done.  “Joyce Summers.”  Rising to meet the doctor, she stuck out her hand.  “I’ve been railroaded here by my daughter and her boyfriend, and I have no idea why…”  In her frustration she had completely forgotten the revelations of earlier.

“Oh?”  The doctor’s eyes flitted from Buffy to Spike, looking interested.

Spike came to his feet at the same time as Buffy did.  He had a determined air about him.  “Doc, how long have you worked here?  At this hospital?”

The doctor blinked briefly at this unexpected sally.  “Ah, five years, about.”

“Done any rotations in the ER?”

Now he looked seriously taken aback.  “A few.  Why?”

Spike nodded sharply, and before Buffy could warn him off, he went full game face.  “Then you know what I am.”

The doctor jumped… but not as high or as far as one might expect.  “Oh, Jesus.”

/Oh, crap./  “Spike.”

The game face vanished, resolving back into safe human features.  “So you’ll know what I’m telling you is true.  I can smell things most humans can’t; and even those who can wouldn’t smell them when I can.  Early on, when they wouldn’t be detectable.  Comes of bein’ a hunter.”

Ashen-faced and trembling slightly, the doctor stilled, lifted his chin.  “I… will accept that as an evolutionary reality.”

“Well, then,” Spike went on bullishly, “tonight I smelled something on my mother-in-law, here, that I would pray I’d never smell on anyone I loved.  I dunno where it is, but it’s in her.  It’s faint as yet, but it’s there.  And you’re gonna find it before it’s not faint anymore.”

/Oh God…/  “Spike, it sounds kind of needle-in-a-haystack if you don’t know…”

“He’s a specialist.  He can figure it out.  It’s his bloody job.”

Mom held up a hand.  “Let me get this straight.”  She turned to Spike.  “You smelled some kind of illness on me; something serious enough to rush me down here in the middle of the night…”

Buffy opened her mouth; to defend Spike, maybe to tell her mother the reasons behind her guy’s panic.  /He’s already lost a mother, Mom, is the thing.  He’d die if he lost you too.  Which we won’t.  We  won’t! /  

Before she could speak, though, Mom was whirling back to the doctor.  “What’s your specialty?”

The doctor looked startled.  Clearly he would have thought she would already know.  “Um… oncology, Ms. Summers.”

Mom flinched back, did a little stagger.  Felt for the arms of the chair she had recently vacated, sat back down.  “Oh.”

The silence dragged on for a second; embarrassment, worry, blooming fear.  Then, gently, “The thing is, ma’am, though I’m not in any way doubting your son-in-law’s, ah… instincts, unless we have somewhere to focus, I’ll have no way of knowing where to look.”

“You’ll find it if you have to search her entire bloody body,” Spike snarled, and made to grab the doctor’s lapels.  He was raging, the flash of panic-fear-anger boiling over in him and turning off every ounce of control he had earned during the course of nearly a year’s relationship with the Slayer.  “I’ll drain you dry if you don’t.  I’m not losing another woman I love to some sodding disease.  God help me if I’ll just stand by again while another mum of mine withers away…”

Instinct flared.  Buffy snapped her hands to his, peeled them off the man’s lapels before he could slam the poor doctor against the wall.  “Spike.  Let. Go.”

The command she never thought she would use on him kicked in.  His hands snapped open immediately, and he sagged, shaking.

The worst part was, he had just attacked a terrified human, and all Buffy could feel right now was pain, for him, because she could  feel  his anguish.  It echoed her own, but his wasn’t numb with shock.  It was the agony of someone who had been here, seen and felt things she never wanted to, and...  

Turning his body with her hand, she pulled him against her, because it didn’t matter whether what she was feeling was his or her own.  It was all the same.  The impotence, the terror, the agony and the desperation.  “Come here.”

He did, and clung hard to her thin leather jacket.  Buried his face in her neck.  “Oh, Christ, Buffy.”

“His mother died of cancer?” Mom asked softly, from over his shoulder.

Stroking his hair, the back of his neck, Buffy jerked her head slightly in negation.  “Tuberculosis.  But that was the eighteen-eighties, so you know.  No cure.”

Voice shaking, Dr. Aarens straightened his lab coat and cleared his throat.  “Well, technically there’s still no catch-all cure for TB; just some very aggressive treatments which eventually hope to clear up all the bacteria in the system and lead to remission.  One might always be a carrier.  As to this…”  Turning to Mom, he straightened resolutely.  “Perhaps we can narrow it down.  Ah, Ms. Summers, have you been having any… odd symptoms lately that you might have put down to something else?  Anything at all; changes to menstruation, bad cramps, odd headaches, strange aches or pains in any joints, nausea of any kind…”

“The headaches,” Mom answered, looking pensive.  “Just a few, but all on the left side, and a little more intense than normal.  I’d put them down to stress, though honestly things haven’t been all that stressful lately.  I mean, I have help in the gallery now, Dawn—my younger daughter—is doing well in school, my older daughter is in a positive relationship and has help with her dangerous job, so I have to worry less about her.  Of course I’m still fighting their father for child support, but that’s been going on for years, so nothing new there, and of course the mortgage and car payments, but you know.  Life.  Everything seems to be going fairly well.  I just figured… who knows.”

Spike straightened in Buffy’s arms, turned with her to glare at Mom.  Buffy pinched his arm hard to keep him from saying anything.  “Mom,” she said instead, “how long have you been having these headaches?”

“Oh, Buffy, not long.  Just really in the last week.  And they’re really nothing that serious…” 

“Why didn’t you  tell  me?”   

“Baby, they’re just headaches.  And you’ve had so much going on…”

“And this is a  hellmouth!   Mom!”

“This is a what, now?”

Buffy ignored the startled doctor.  “No matter what Spike and I have going on, it’s never too big for you to tell us if you’re having a health problem, no matter how small it seems, okay?”

Mom started to speak, but Buffy was already spinning to talk to the doc.  “Can we, like, check for this?”

“Well, the first thing we’ll do is a neurological exam, of course.  Check your reflexes, eyesight, coordination, et cetera.  That way we can determine if your functioning has been affected in any serious way.  Any impacts can give me an indication of the possible location of the… mass, if it exists, and may confirm the likelihood of its being the culprit of the headaches.  Then we have blood tests, et cetera…”

Mom was nodding, looking as if she’d been hit by something heavy.  She had that ‘steeling herself’ look, though; the one that said she was trying to rally and be tough.  “So you’ll want me to come back and…”

“Well… since you’re here, we might as well get started tonight, if you want to.  At least it might ease your mind so you can get some sleep.  Do we have your insurance on file here?”

“Oh.”  Mom looked startled, then thoughtful.  “Um, yes.  Between my daughters and myself we’ve been in here often enough.”  

“Well then, if you want to have a quick exam we can draw blood, you can give a urine sample, and we can do a quick test of your reflexes…”  

“That doesn’t sound very invasive.”  Mom nodded, pulled in a deep breath.  “Alright.”

Buffy caught her hand, squeezed it.  “You want me to come?”

Anxious hazel eyes shot over to meet hers.  “Oh, I don’t think so, Buffy.  I’m fine.  You and Spike can wait out here.”

“Okay.”

Mom signed something at the desk, officially checking in, then followed Dr. Aarens back.  Spike remained on his feet, literally vibrating beside Buffy.  After they vanished behind the card-controlled doors, she tugged at his arm.  “Sit with me?”

Spike jerked his head once in negation.  “Need a smoke, pet.  Can’t sit.”

“Oh.”  Buffy felt a little deflated at the thought of sitting there on her lonesome, without a hand to hold.  Even a totally freaked-out vampire hand.  It was tough, trying to be the together one, to remain calm while everyone around her spazzed.  /But someone has to./

“You want to come?”

She blinked at him in surprise.  “No, I, uh, should stay.  In case they come back out.”

“Should take a bit, love.  You’ve time to take some air.”

She was shaking her head before he had even finished speaking.  “No, I…  I’ll stay.”

He seemed startled, but nodded, still vibrating with tension.  “Alright.  I’ll… bring you back something.  From the machines.  Coke or summat?”

“Yeah.  Sure.  Okay.”  She felt distant from the idea, didn’t even know if she wanted something like a Coke this late, but she would take the offering in the spirit it was given.

He disappeared in the direction of the stairwell.  She remained, clinging to her knees.  The clock ticked by on the wall.  The single attendant shuffled around the nurse’s station, occasionally glancing over at her.  No one else populated the room, which was denuded of patients at this late hour.  

Time washed over her at a backward pace, like it was stalled.  

Spike came back eventually, set a bag of pretzels and a Coke at her elbow, then paced.  She wanted to tell him to quit it, but couldn’t speak.  

Then Mom was poking her head out of the door to catch their eyes.  She was wearing a paper gown.  What…

Buffy shot up, jogged over, Spike in her wake.  “Why are you still…”

“Dr. Aarens wants me to do a CT scan.”

A chill worked its way down Buffy’s spine, settled heavy in her stomach.  “What; tonight?”

“Yes.  He thinks it’s best to do it now, so we’ll have something definitive to look at in case we need to… make plans tomorrow, or get on any schedules.”

“Oh.  That’s…”  Closing her eyes, she felt herself reeling back against Spike.  He caught her, hands lifting automatically, but he didn’t stroke or squeeze.  He seemed as numb as she felt, all she received from him in that moment a sort of fizzing, stunned blankness.

“It’s just…  He called it ‘expedient’.”  Mom seemed… calm, as her eyes flicked from Buffy’s to Spike’s and back again.  “Anyway, I’m sorry, but it’ll probably be another forty-five minutes.  Maybe an hour…”

“No, that’s…  That’s fine…”

“Yeah.”  Spike’s voice was hoarse, almost breathy.  “We’ll just wait out here.  You ah…  You need anything, Joyce?  Can get you something from the machines, or…”

Mom smiled slightly.  “I’m fine, Spike.  We just had dinner.”

“Oh.  Yeah.”

Buffy blinked when Mom turned back to pat her hand.  “Be back out soon.  Hang in there, baby.”

“Oh, I’m… fine.   You  hang in there.”  /God, what a dumb thing to say./

“Okay, honey.”  Her head pulled in like a turtle’s, and she disappeared.

They stood there for a moment, frozen.  And then Spike was clearing his throat behind Buffy.  “That’s good, right?  They’re makin’ sure.  Tonight.  Not wastin’ any time…”  He was tense, though.  Pulled back, giving away nothing.

“Yeah.  Right.  Good.”  Words weren’t making a whole lot of sense to Buffy right now.  

“Yeah.  So we just… wait.”  Suiting action to words, Spike turned to head back toward the chairs.  He didn’t sit, though; just stood there, staring down at them as if they were some kind of inanimate nemesis. 

Buffy followed.  Watched him for a moment, the distance between herself and him, between herself and the moment stretching thin and thinner, threatening to break.  If it did, she would float away.  She couldn’t breathe, she couldn’t hear anything, she could barely see.  

“Dammit, Spike,” she heard herself gasp, “I need you with me.  I can’t…”  God, even her voice sounded distant to her ears.  “I’m floating away.”  /And if I do, I might not come back./

He jerked hard.  Turned to her.  And realization struck him, as visibly as if she had slapped him across the face.  His eyes closed briefly.  “Oh, hell.”  And he was striding close, had her hand, was yanking her into his arms.  She clung to him, and, oh.  Was he supposed to feel… almost warm?  He usually only felt like this after prolonged contact--read, sex--or when he’d bitten her, and their temperatures had equalized briefly.  Did that mean their temperatures were similar right now?  How could that have…

“Christ, you’re cold, love.  Bloody hell; you’re in some sort of sodding shock.  And of course I’m no bleedin’ help.  Fuck.  Here.  Just sit here a mo’, alright?”  Setting her down in the closest seat, he strode away toward the nurse’s station, voice intense.  He seemed to be arguing about something.

Buffy couldn’t think about anything but that he was missing from her arms.  Didn’t want to think about anything else.  Couldn’t…

Something warm settled around her shoulders, wrapped her up tight.  /Oh, wow./

Everything in her abruptly relaxed into the sensation of warmth.  “There we are, pet.  Wrangled you one of those heated blankets.  Took some doing.  Slappers as run things up here bloody well hoard the things.  Had to flash fang again to get it.”  And then he had an arm around her again, outside the balmy, thin length of cheap cloth, was tugging her close to bring her into the curve of his chest.  “Christ, I’m that sorry, love.  Sorry I left you alone.  I was lost in my own fears.  It was unconscionable of me, especially knowing where you’d have gone.  This is your mum.  That was bloody well unforgivable, and I’ll not ask it, but I’m here now.”

“I don’t…”  Shaking her head, Buffy bit her lip.  “I get it.  I just…  I need you.  I need us to be in this together.”

“Absolutely.”

He held her throughout the remainder of that endless hour, and she held him; buried in his chest, her arms wrapped around his ribs, her face against his throat and his lips in her hair, one hand moving along her spine in long, repetitive strokes that seemed to have forgotten their genesis and might never find their ending.  It was a kind of meditation, and they were both lost enough in it that when the voice came, calling from the doorway, it surprised them both.  “Miss, ah, Summers, is it?  Or…”

Buffy bounded up so fast she almost knocked them both over coming to her feet.  “Uh, yeah, what?  Is there…”

“Mrs. Summers has asked you both to come back.”

They followed the orderly, a young guy with dark hair and green scrubs, through the doors and into a maze of desks and corridors, past bank after bank of exam rooms.  “Your mother is over here in Quad B with Dr. Aarens.  She’s in good hands.  He’s one of our best diagnosticians.  I’ve learned a lot from him so far during my residency.”

Oh.  So, not an orderly.  “Thanks.  Um, good to know.”  Buffy felt wooden, incapable of normal social interaction.

“Alright, here we are.  Seven-B.”  

“Thank you, uh…”

“Ben.  I hope everything goes well for you.”  Ben gave a little nod and showed himself out.

Pulling aside the curtain impatiently, Spike rapped on the very white wall.  “You decent, Joyce?” he called roughly.

“Yes.  Come on in.”

The room wasn’t your standard exam room with a bed and stuff.  It was one of those ones for looking at x-rays.  The walls were all white, and there were those clippy-things all around at eye-level.  Several of them were taken up with pictures of a skull, all glowy, stuck there on the wall.  Mom stood there, in front of the pictures, looking too small in her paper gown and robe.  

Buffy wanted to hug her, but she felt intimidated.  The effect of the room was very weird.  Antiseptic and distancing; like they were all in their own separate bubbles.  “Mom?”

“Oh, hey baby.  Spike.”  She didn’t turn.  “Dr. Aarens will be back in a sec.  He went to get some paperwork.”  She sounded sort of distant.  Almost dreamy.  

“Okay?”  Buffy drew a step closer, eyes on the brain-pictures.  “What, um…”

Mom turned to face them, and wow, she looked drawn, though her smile was there.  It was one of those ‘brave’ smiles.  The ones that tried too hard to be strong, oh god.  “I have a shadow.  I’m not sure what that means, but I suppose we’ll find out.  It can’t be too bad, because the shadow’s apparently pretty tiny, and thanks to Spike, we caught it very early…”

“It’s an extremely small shadow,” Dr. Aarens broke in, stepping in past the curtain.  His tiny, perfunctory knock barely preceded him as he set some papers down on the slip of a counter and moved to join Mom over by the x-rays.  “In a month or two it likely would have doubled in size.  Detecting it now has saved a lot of pain and heartache, and perhaps a great deal of danger.  You’ll have to consult a neurologist, of course, to confirm, but I’ll have to say that from what I’ve seen in the past, this doesn’t look to be pressing against any important blood vessels as yet.  It’s really very miniscule; perhaps a centimeter and a half by two centimeters…”

The room, the pictures, it all seemed to vanish in a tide of rushing that swamped Buffy’s mind; a rushing that was ramping up to a roaring.  “So… shadow is code for…  For tumor?”  She barely felt her lips move as she said it.

“Not necessarily malignant,” Mom pointed out quickly.  “They’ll do a biopsy.  We’ll schedule that first, to see.  And to figure out the growth rate.  To see if… there needs to be surgery.  And then…”  Her eyes flickered to Dr. Aarens.

“I apologize that I won’t be the one to follow you throughout all of treatment for this,” Dr. Aarens broke in quietly.  “I’m an oncologist, and if you want me to be, I can continue to be your oncologist as you move forward with your treatment… but I’m not a neurologist.  I can’t perform your surgery, if the neuros decide that’s indicated…”  He lightly touched Mom’s shoulder.  “Which from my end, sounds like it might be, but it will depend on many things.  Type, for one.  Once they make that determination, we’ll know whether they’ll be shunting you back to me, or moving forward with you to plan surgical intervention.”  A slight, encouraging smile.  “But even then, this little guy is so small and you caught it so soon, thanks to your son-in-law, that you’re unlikely to be at any great risk.  And once you get out of surgery, you’ll be back in my wheelhouse, if you want to stick with me going forward.  If not, no hard feelings, since obviously you only got me tonight because I was on call.”

“That’s very kind of you, Dr. Aarens.  Thank you.  I…”  Mom let out an anxious little breath.  “I suppose I should, uh, go get scheduled, then.”

“I’ll let them know up front.”  He gave her a nod.  “You’ve been a star through all this, Joyce.  Hang in there, and call me with any questions.  Feel free, I mean it.  They have my card at the desk.”  

“Alright.  Thank you, Doctor.”

On his way out, Dr. Aarens paused next to Spike.  “Have you, ah… ever considered moonlighting as a diagnostician?  You or any of your, ah… compatriots?  You could save a lot of lives.”

Spike’s lips twitched, though his eyes remained on Mom.  “Never gave it much thought.  Most of my type aren’t heavily invested in saving lives, unfortunately.”

“Ah.  Pity.”  Turning, the doctor slipped around the curtain to depart the room.

“Well,” Mom murmured, breaking the silence, “I’m definitely glad that Dawn stayed at Janice’s tonight.”

/Oh, wow; Dawn./  “When…  When are we gonna tell her?”

Mom shook her head a little, her voice sounding as strange and distant as Buffy felt.  “Let’s wait till we know what the plan is.  Then…”  Her eyes jerked up to meet theirs.  “At least we have both good news and bad news to give her.”  And there was the patented, depreciating Mom-smile.  “Maybe she’ll be so distracted by yours that she’ll miss mine.”

“Mom…” Buffy gasped, taken aback.  It felt like a spear through the heart.  So much had happened since their discussion at dinner that that felt like another day; another week, even.

Mom caught her limp hand, patted it, sounding terrifyingly calm.  “Baby, I don’t want you to lose sight of what’s happening; either of you.  Not yet.  Right now we’re still just diagnosing.  We’re twenty steps away from knowing anything.” 

Buffy felt simultaneously like tearing her hand away from her mother’s and screaming, throwing herself on the woman who’d raised her and crying and begging her never to leave her, or maybe just running away.  How was she being so calm like this?  Was it all a front?  It had to be, right?

The moment Mom dropped her hand with a squeeze Buffy stepped back to fetch up hard, against Spike’s chill, solid form, felt his hand clench tightly around her bicep.  Glancing up automatically to check in with him, she saw the muscles working in his jaw, knew he was just as unnerved by Mom’s reactions.  Maybe more so than she.  And felt, through the contact, his emotions, blunted before by the haze that had surrounded her.  

What was coming from Spike now was an anguished recognition.  

He had seen this before.  All of this.  

/No./

The rest of the visit seemed to resolve itself in a kind of daze.  They stepped out while Mom dressed, mutually silent and lost.  She exited with her paperwork and they trailed her like newly-claimed shelter pets being led to the front desk, where she discussed dates and times with the nurses there.  Apparently most of the operating bays were booked solid for biopsies for weeks, but they would put her on standby for the next available one, should anyone fall off the list, and would Mom lose all the time she had gained from Spike’s special intervention while she cooled her heels waiting for an OR table to open up?  Would the stupid tumor grow really huge while she waited for them to get a look at the thing?  “We’ll have you in in the interim, of course, to monitor the mass,” the nurse told Mom from some great distance.  “Once every three days is preferable, to keep an eye on it with CT scans…”

“Oh.  Well.  Is that really necessary?”

/Do they have to call it a ‘mass’?/  ‘Shadow’ was ridiculous dance-y around the truth language, like gentle baby-talk… but mass just seemed all… loom-y and terrifying.

“It’s in Dr. Aarens’ orders.  It gives us a baseline, and of course if the mass exhibits inordinate growth, we’d move you up to OR status immediately.  Also, remaining in touch with our staff here will help if your headaches become unmanageable with OTC medications…”

“Oh.  Well.  That makes sense, I suppose…”

“Could you make it in for an appointment on Friday?”

“Oh.  I…  I’ll have to rearrange a meeting, but I’ll speak to my gallery manager and…”

Buffy clenched her fingers down on Spike’s hand, hard enough to leave bruises.  He clung back, just as hard.  

On the way home they were a silent bunch.  Once they gained the house, Mom went into the kitchen without bothering to turn on the light.  In the reflected glow of the streetlamps outside she leaned over the counter for a moment, then pulled out a glass and ran herself a tall glass of water while they hovered anxiously near the island, uncertain what to do or how to act.  

Mom drank her water very slowly before she turned to them.  “Now,” she told them flatly, and gave them both a stern, gimlet glare, “I don’t want you two hanging around me like a couple of mother hens.  I can drive myself to this next appointment, and let you know how it goes, and I can take care of myself in the meantime…”  

Buffy opened her mouth to protest, felt Spike inflating to do the same.  They were both cut off by a very firm flash of bright eyes in the dimness, and by the uncompromising tones of Mom’s voice.  “I am a grown adult.  I understand that you are both very concerned, but this is happening to  me , and I would very much prefer to go on with my life as previously scheduled, without feeling like I have some sort of executioner’s axe hanging over my head.” 

Buffy flinched.  She wasn’t the only one.  

“We don’t even know if it’s anything that dire.  So.”  Mom set aside the glass, her every move exceedingly businesslike.  “Don’t stay here tonight.  Go; go to the dorm, or to Spike’s place.  I’m fine.  Dawn should be home soon, and if she sees how you two are acting, she’ll figure out that something’s wrong, and I really don’t feel like explaining this to her till tomorrow when I have a clearer head.”

“Mom…” Buffy gasped, incredulous.

Mom caught her eye, softened slightly.  “I need to sleep on it.  We can talk to her about it when she gets home from school tomorrow.  I’m going to need your help with that,” she finished, for the first time with a faint note of pleading for Buffy.

Buffy quailed.  She didn’t know if she was in any way up for that.  For being an adult.  For facing Dawnie and helping to explain…  For holding it together.  /This is my mommy too!/  

Mom’s eyes remained on hers for a moment, seeking.  Whatever she found seemed to confirm something for her.  Her eyes lifted to Spike’s.  “And I think you two need to get your heads on straight about it too, or neither of you are going to be any good in the conversation.  And Dawn’s going to need all of us acting like adults, not scared children, when we tell her about this.”

Spike spoke up for the first time.  “Understood, Mum.”  His voice was a hair rough, but mostly stoic.

Buffy couldn’t fathom leaving the house tonight.  “Mom, I…”

Spike had his hand on her arm, was urging her toward the back door.  “C’mon, love.  Mum needs some time to herself to process.  And so do we.”

Buffy swung half around to stare at him, shocked and betrayed.  “Wh…”

“G’night, Joyce.”

“Goodnight, Spike.  Buffy.  I love you.”

“Love you too, Mum.”

Buffy was being dragged out the door.  At first she was too stunned even to register what was happening well enough to fight back.  By the time she had fully come out of her fog, she was already outside; on the back porch and stumbling down the two small steps to the lawn.  “What the  hell!”  she demanded, jerking her arm out of Spike’s iron grip, and turned to head back toward the door.  To find that it had closed behind them.  

She stared at it for a moment, floored, then made to march up the step.  No way she was going to leave her mother alone tonight.  She was going to stay here, and then tomorrow…

Spike grabbed her and yanked her back down, so that she half-stumbled back to the lawn.  “Got to respect Mum’s wishes, pet,” he informed her in tight, clipped tones.

Buffy didn’t think.  She couldn’t.  Besides, she knew those tones, the feeling behind them, lurking in her blood.  He’d known she was going to do it, before she had even known it herself.  

She swung.

He blocked her, caught the fist, pulled it down.  “Sorry, love.  And we can fight about it if you need to.  I wouldn’t mind a brawl myself.  I’m right brassed at the world…”

Buffy swung again, with her free hand.  

And was blocked once more.  And for the record, fighting when your opposite number could feel what you were feeling, could sense your impulses, was kind of unfair.  

It actually royally pissed her off.  “Right now I’m mad at  you ,” Buffy grated, and ripped her right fist free to step back and try for a front-kick.  

He blocked that easily too, and grinned ferally, releasing her to crouch with hands out, fingers hooked like claws.  “Alright, then,” he growled back… and dove at her.

It was messy.  It was ugly.  It was no-holds-barred.  It was the first real fight they had had since he’d had the Gem of Amara.  They’d sparred, sure, but nothing real.  Nothing where Buffy had really let go.  Right now she didn’t care about anything, though, but the terror and the grief, and…

And she kind of thought Spike didn’t either.  

It also went exactly nowhere, since between nine-plus months of regular sparring, and the fact that they could literally read exactly what each other was going to do next, neither was capable of getting a shot in against one another no matter how hard they tried.  When he swung at her she could sense the impulse before he did it; which hand, even, how low or how high.  When he kicked, or spun behind her, she felt it coming; and he could do the same with her.  They anticipated each other’s moves without thought.  Not one single hit landed, every single one was dodged—which was fatiguing—or blocked—which was incredibly frustrating—and in the end, after twenty solid minutes of going nowhere, they ended up trying for a throw at the same time that resolved into their simply grappling full-force, teeth bared and glaring, boots and shoes digging hard into the lawn until grass was torn up in clods.  And neither went down or over a shoulder, and they were gasping and groaning and straining and…

Buffy was technically the stronger.  But Spike had been living off of human blood, if not fresh, topped off very recently with a nip of Slayer blood, and was stronger than he had ever been in Buffy’s memory… and Buffy was distracted.  Emotional.  

They went down at the same time, collapsing to the grass in a cascade of leather and limbs, like a house of cards.  

Buffy was exhausted.  And she realized with a vague horror that she had begun crying in there somewhere, and she had no damn clue when she’d started.  “I’m sorry,” she heard herself whisper.

“Don’t be,” Spike answered without moving a muscle.  His voice was exceptionally raw-sounding.  “You’re bloody terrified.  So’m I.  And it pisses us both off no end.”  

“Yeah.”  God, she was a mess.  

She was getting snot on his duster.

They lay there in a crumpled heap of limbs, for how long Buffy had no idea.  She found herself staring at the sky, a faint skim of stars visible behind the slight wrack of cloud over to the left and the constant glow of the city.  Her cheek and nose were pillowed on the part of the duster opposite the inside right pocket.  Consequently his flask was pressed hard against her cheekbone, the ridge of the closure just palpable against the edge of her nasal bone.  It was thoroughly uncomfortable, even with a layer of leather in between it and her flesh, but she didn’t move.  

Eventually, though, she realized she should probably find something to wipe her nose and rescue the leather.  It would really suck if the thing survived being covered in demon goop and who knew what for twenty years, only to be ruined by Buffy-snot.  “Do you have a handkerchief or something?”  It was a long shot.  It wasn’t like Spike had any reason to carry anything like that.

He fumbled in the far-left pocket, though, and handed her a few paper napkins from some fast food place, printed logo illegible in the darkness.  “Handkerchiefs are for gentlemen, Slayer.  Best I can do.”

“I’ll take it.”  She blew her nose, then mopped up his coat and sat with the crumpled excuse for a tissue folded in her hand.  And met his eyes, feeling weirdly ashamed.  

That was, until she saw his face, glistening with tears in the low light.  “Let’s get the bloody hell out of here,” he suggested roughly.

“Okay.”

They didn’t go back to the dorm, and Buffy did not patrol.  They went directly to the crypt, where they held each other for hours, Buffy unable to speak and Spike unable to leave her or find any solace elsewhere.  

At some point, late in the night, they made love, wordlessly seeking comfort in each other.  Comfort was hard to find… but they did their best.  Sunrise, when it came, was both yearned for, as the first day ticked off the calendar… and really not all that much help.  It was very bright, after all, and filled with truths no one was ready to face.

*   *   *






And, off we go on the cancer arc.  It lasts a few chapters.  
I think Spike would rather eat that tumor raw than let anything happen to Joyce, and now that they know what's the what, and they're, like, a month and a half early on detection, I think we have a good chance of changing said arc, what with a determined, more knowledgeable Buffy with strong support at her side, etc.  
Cross your fingers, y'all!

Chapter Text

“Are you ready for this?”

“No.”  Spike was tight-lipped around his cigarette; as unsettled as she had ever seen him.  As unsettled as she felt.  

Their shared emotions eddied between them, making it difficult to know where they originated, or even who was feeling what, exactly.  It was the downside of their claim.

“I kinda wish something would pop up and ask to die,” Buffy admitted softly as they neared the house.  It was the first time either of them had said anything for another long stretch; maybe fifteen minutes.  They had decided against taking the car; a mutual though unspoken decision that the exertion and the moving—if not remotely fresh—air would do them good.  

Buffy hadn’t done well in class today, zoning out so frequently that eventually each of her professors had called her out on it. Wil had stared at her in amazement during Sociology, and she had ended up telling her Spanish professor that she had to leave because of a family emergency.  

Thank goodness she didn’t have her Lit class today.  Spike would never let her hear the end of it if she walked out on the Keats unit.  /Not even if the world was burning down./

Instead she had been able to hurry back to the crypt with a clear conscience, to curl up with him downstairs and seek the oblivion of silence in his cool embrace and the stillness of not-thought for a few more hours until Dawnie was due to come home from school.  Spike hadn’t said a word when she’d arrived almost an hour early from campus; merely stood, tilted his head at the droning television—he’d been watching some crappy game show with clear inattention—and when she’d shaken her head, feeling dazed and too wide-eyed, he’d nodded, taken her hand, and tugged her downstairs to cradle her, and her him, in the kind of silence that made any words unnecessary.

Now, though…  “Yeah,” he answered quietly.  “Could do with a spot of violence m’self.  Course, no one’s coming beggin’, down here.”

Buffy made a face for the locale.  After all, it wasn’t sunset yet, necessitating a journey by underground demon railroad.  However, did that really mean they couldn’t meet up with some other demon using the highway for a nice stroll; one out for nefarious and not-innocent purposes?  

/Just my luck, if we do run into one, it’ll be, like, a Brachen or a Torflinn or something, and it’ll touch its cap, give a little bow and step aside for us to pass and mind its own business while the Slayer and the Master go on about ours.  Dammit./  

What really happened though was the dank-n-stanky tunnels remained disappointingly unpeopled by any variety of other comers; probably mostly because of the locale.  Revello wasn’t in an area of Sunnydale frequented much by the demon community in the first place; not even after last year’s big population shake-up.  Which probably had a lot to do with the fact that this was the part of town the Slayer called home at least part-time, because stir that in and most of the demon underground tended to steer clear, even now that Buffy had spent a solid nine months trying to get on more equable, straightforward, and clear-cut terms with the world that was her charge.  

It was a work in progress.  Jumping in to capitalize on the grudging goodwill she and Spike and the Scoobies had earned in the wake of kicking out the Initiative, and in filling that power vacuum… it had worked for them, to an extent.  Still, there had been a lot of damage to repair in the PR department, dating from years past.  And, of course, she still had a job to do, and that job came with certain setbacks in said public relations gig.  /Like when you have to kill someone’s brother for throwing in with a baby-smuggling ring, and it really hurts a family that’s otherwise inoffensive because he was their only breadwinner, because the line I draw is no baby-smuggling.  No budging on that one, sorry.  But what can I do about the starving demon-family missing a brother?  He wasn’t going to stop, okay?  It was the only way he knew how to make fast cash!/  

She’d even tried to get the family an in with a couple of the local realtors in town who knew about the demon thing, and had Spike put the next-oldest kid in touch with some demon he knew with a really bad growth over on eye who he said ran a restaurant or something.  After all, some of the realtors around town were so desperate for renters since the whole Hellions thing that they’d take anyone, human or no (half the humans in town and not a few of the demons had bailed after that whole fiasco)… and apparently there was this whole thing with the restaurant guy where, even if he was going to turn down the resident Master vamp, he’d once dated Anya and was willing to do a favor with a little combination bribery-slash-flirting-slash-apologies for who knew what past misdeeds (and Buffy didn’t want to know, thanks).  

Still.  That kind of convolutedness?  Talk about a lot more work she hadn’t asked for, a lot more headaches and time spent that she had never considered or had to deal with before, and a lot more overtime.  And the gray areas and the intertwined everything really made her job harder when it came to keeping up decent relations with the demon community.  

Also, the demon community?  A lot more spread out these days, a lot less concentrated just around Willys-slash-the-Warehouse-District-slash-the-Docks; which was more fair, but also made it a lot tougher to keep tabs on what might be going on behind her back.  It kept her and Spike running, made keeping up with school almost impossible—or would if she didn’t have this fabbo, uber-smart vampire tutor around to help her with her essays and to make sense of the poetry—and really, all of this extra work would have been impossible if she didn’t, A, have Spike as her partner all laying down the no-sirings-without-prior-approval law; B, have Willy on her side as informant (though they all knew he played both sides of that game when it profited him.  He was too useful for her to strangle even when he majorly pissed her off); and, C, if things weren’t so relatively quiet in comparison to years past.  

The up-front workload really did cut back by about thirty percent when you didn’t have half the town pissed off at you and ready to come at you without question, no holds barred, every second, and totally spoiling for a fight.  Heck, she spent more time in standoffs with demons these days, warily watching them across a cemetery while they watched her.  Instead of automatically charging each other like they used to, they would end up just nodding stiffly most times and turning away instead of that immediate, roaring attack for no other reason than that they both existed in the same space.

It was weird, and almost more stressful  not  knowing what to expect with every encounter, but at least  Buffy was starting to get used to not having to fight everyone.  Though, Spike often had to massage her shoulders after such encounters just to bring her down from DefCon twelve or whatever, because she couldn’t get out her frustrated confusion in a nice brawl, and five times out of ten she came home to him either bewildered… or just flat out pissed off at the lack of follow-through.

Not that he wasn’t willing to provide another kind of follow-through if she needed it.  Spike was always more than willing to be her stand-in, with the rough-and-tumble… and the rough-and-tumble. 

Between the bizarrely equivocal hostilities and the fact that she didn’t have those dumb commando assholes messing things up around campus anymore, her job had become almost… periodic rather than constant.  Though, taking the campus off the list was also nice from a ‘I don’t need this thing to be even more decentralized’ perspective.  Having another center of evil dumbassery to cope with on top of everything else would have been just one center too many on top of all the diffuse new little demon-home and -apartment clusters popping up all over town.  Instead of regular commando shenanigans, quick sweeps here and there once a week while she was heading through campus on the way down to Restfield did the trick.  

/You’d think having the Initiative gone would mean the numbers would go up and my job would be harder./  Actually, though, it was almost like her having helped get rid of those military jackasses had earned her and Spike enough cred that the petty troublemakers of demon-land had settled down a bit, were giving her some respite out of respect.  Her campus patrols mostly turned up dim-witted vamps with crap hunting skills trying to pick off the easy game of drunken co-eds staggering out of keggers—easy enough to plan for those, since keggers tended to happen on specific nights of the week—and the occasional ‘fraternity brothers trying to raise a demon for fame and fortune’ thing.

It wasn’t like the college was chock full of graveyards spitting out fledges or anything.  Not even  Sunnydale’s twelve cemeteries and bazillion or whatever funeral parlors were churning out anything like their usual numbers of late.  Spike was really laying down the law when it came to his whole ‘babies making babies’ policy.  His second rule, ‘your-unattended-or-ill-behaved-fledge-gets-staked-and-so-do-you’ was making a pretty big impression on the vamps in town who had sired fledges constantly like it was a dare, or some attempt to overrun the Slayer just to see how long she could stick it out.  A few stakings of the biggest offenders by the town’s Master, a few forceful ‘you made your fledge, now lay in it’ type-lessons had made serious impact in the vamp world, and the graveyards were starting to act like…  Well.  Places of rest.

Heck.  Patrols were getting downright boring of late.  Which made nights like this just really suck when it came to needing a distraction.  

They reached the grate outside the house without meeting a one, and Buffy sighed heavily.  “You know, when I took that public speaking class, I thought it would help me be more ‘with the words’ girl.  Not so much.  It might have helped me with talking to those idiots at Willy’s, but when it comes to people I care about I’m still foot-in-mouth Buffy.”  She closed her eyes, a wash of fear-anguish crashing over her.  “I’m not sure I can do this, Spike.”  /What if I don’t hold it together?  What if…/

“You’ve been better than you think lately when it comes to the words bit, pet,” Spike told her softly.  “And it’s not just you doin’ it.  It’s the both of us.  And Mum.  We’ll manage.”  He cupped her elbow, nudged her upward.  “Any road, the way you set all that lot back on their heels last week was a sight to see.  You’re definitely a sight better at gettin’ your point across than you believe.”

Buffy opened her eyes and stared up the ladder, setting her feet and hands firmly on the rungs.  “That’s intimidation,” she reminded him grimly.  “I have to be compassionate today.  And you know me.  I either feel or I turn off.  Dawn…”  She bit her lip.  “She deserves not-turned-off Buffy.  But if I don’t turn off…”

“Then you cry.  And she’ll appreciate that you’re showin’ her you’re scared with her.”

/Dammit./  “I need to be the strong one.  I can’t leave Mom alone with this.  She needs me to help her be strong.”  God, Buffy felt so trapped.  She just wanted to crawl into Mom’s lap and be held, patted, told it would be alright as Dawn would no doubt be.  /But I’m the oldest.  I never get that luxury.  I have to be the strong one.  I have to…/

Spike’s hand closed over hers on the rung, catching her attention.  The whirl of emotion in him arrested her utterly as it tore through her; understanding and a vast well of old, knowing pain.  “You hold back as much as you need to, love, so you can be there for them.  And you open up as much as you can, so you can be there for them; else after, you realize you weren’t, and you regret it all your days, how much you missed, protectin’ yourself, when it ends.”

/Oh God…  Don’t you see?/  “That’s what you’re good at,” she heard herself tell him quietly.  “You can give yourself like that.  I…  I don’t know how to.”

He brushed her cheek, nodded.  “You did all or nothing once or twice, pet, and it broke you.  So you’ve mostly landed on nothing.  But you have learned to temper.  You do it with me.  And those moments when you do give me all… they’re few and far between, but you do it; and you don’t know how I treasure it, knowin’ what it means.”  His hand dropped away, and he favored her with a sad little smile.  “You do it with Mum, too…”  

“Sometimes.”  It troubled her, how little it happened, even now.

“More than you know.”  He took her hand.  “You can also give that to Dawn, you know.  She’s not going anywhere.”  He squeezed her fingers gently.  “She’s been yours since Mum put her in your arms when she was a day old.”

Buffy bit her lip and turned away, shaking.  He knew her too well, sometimes.  “Let’s get this over with.”

“I love you, Buffy.”

Buffy bit her lip, nodded, still facing away.  “I know.  I love you.”  The emotions surged up in spite of her.  “And I have no idea how you’re doing this again.  How you did it even once.  How…”

“I don’t either.”  He halted briefly, then, voice trembling slightly, “But maybe I’m not.  That’s what I’m holdin’ on to.”

/Okay, I’m gonna hold on to that with you./  It was stupid, but it was all she had.  /I can deal with death all day and night, every day.  But after the thing with Angel, and Merrick, and Ford…/  She couldn’t with Mom, too.  She just couldn’t.  

The swift dash to the house, racing the sunset, was a nice, mindless exercise in adrenaline.  It brought them panting to the front porch, where they huddled, Spike hard up against the siding while Buffy got the door open and shoo’d him in.  “Hey, Mom.  Dawn.”

Dawn looked up, saw Spike slipping off his blanket, and rolled her eyes.  “Your hair is smoking, you dork.”

“Yeah, well.  Played it a bit close.”  He hung the smoldering item up as if it were a coat and joined Buffy at the French doors to the living room.  Dawn was spread out on couch and coffee table, pretending to do homework but clearly accomplishing very little—every book was open, every looseleaf page was neatly titled and utterly blank—and her body was positioned as if she had been watching the door.  

Mom, sitting at the far corner of the couch, had been relegated to one tiny segment of the furniture and seemed amused by something as she watched the other two members of the conversational team enter the room.  “It’s a good thing Buffy’s talked you out of too much hair gel.  It’s flammable, isn’t it?  You might end up going up like Michael Jackson.”

Dawn giggled and bent over to look industrious.  Buffy rolled her eyes and struck out for the nearest armchair.

Spike strode ahead of her and plopped himself down with a glare, opening his arms.  “It bloody well is not.  And it wouldn’t matter, because every bloody part of me is flammable.  And any road, I need some people on  my  side in this whole hair debate…”

“Nope,” Dawn interrupted, popping the ‘p’ hard.  “I’m with Mom and Buffy.  Unbreakable Summers front.  Unanimous in committee, no abstentions.  Curls are cute.  More Spike curls.  Curls r’Us.”

Sighing heavily, Spike glared up at Buffy.  “See what you started, you?”  And he put on a godawful falsetto.  “‘Oh, just use the mousse that one time, because we don’t have any gel.  It’ll be between us, this business with the curls.  I’ll let you get back to bein’ you the minute we get it out of my system’…”

Buffy parked herself in his lap, almost ready to smile.  He was trying so hard to joke around, to play the martyr to relieve the tension.  And he was doing it for her, and for Mom.  The least she could do was play along, let the moment push back against the black hole of terror trying to erode her very being from the heart outward.  “To be fair, I didn’t actually say any of that except the first thing...”

Spike made a noise of utmost disbelief.

“...And also, didn’t you use mousse all through the seventies and eighties or whatever?  Don’t lie; I saw that pic of you in all the Punk gear with your hair all poufy and messed up just-so.  So let’s be real; the ‘you’ part is way debatable.” 

Her guy narrowed his eyes at her, trying for deadly.  “You go spillin’ state secrets like that and you’ll never get another look into any of my photo albums, ever ag…”

“You have photo albums, Spike?” Mom asked, sounding fascinated.  She had her chin in her hand, now, gaze riveted on his face.

Buffy rolled her eyes as she adjusted herself in his lap to find a comfy position.  “He’s bragging.  More like, random pictures stuffed into books and journals and crap.  He said it was because they can’t see themselves in mirrors, so they had to…”

“Check the look with a camera.  I get it!”  Dawn glanced up again from her homework, eyes wide with sudden comprehension.  “So, what?  You just have, like, a bunch of polaroids or something?  Because you know now we all need to see every single one of ‘em.”

“Traitor,” Spike informed the shell of Buffy’s ear, low and mock-threatening.

And then, as if the conversational momentum had abruptly failed them all, the room stuttered into silence.  Buffy struggled, aware she should say something, but she had no clue what; how to open the conversation, or if it should even be her who should do so, or…

“So,” Dawn broke in again before anyone else could, “what’s the big?”  Her eyes remained on her books, pencil poised in her hand, but she sounded tense.  

They adults stared, exchanged a few glances.  Mom looked pale but poised.  Buffy felt like panicking and running out the back door; as if Spike’s room-temperature grip on her waist was all that was keeping her anchored in place.  His palms were gentle on her, but the rest of him was rigid, unmoving.

“C’mon, you guys.  This is like some kind of summit meeting.”  Dawn’s head lifted, her expression set and dispassionate but eyes glittering.  “What’s the problem?”

/Oh God…/

“Well, first of all, your sister and Spike have some news they wanted to tell you…”

That shifted gears on everything.  /Wait, what?  Oh, God, you’re gonna do this to us  now , Mom?/

Underneath Buffy, Spike grunted as if he’d been punched in the stomach.  A feeling that wasn’t quite dread and had some threads of maybe stunned amazement drifted between them, followed by amused admiration.  

Buffy remained simply stunned.  “Uh…”

“What?” Dawn asked, thawing a little to turn to them with growing interest.  “What’s the news?”  She bounced then.  “Are you pregnant?” 

Buffy choked on literally nothing.

“No, wait, that’s not possible.  It isn’t, right?  You can’t, can you?  Get her pregnant?”  Dawn’s voice rose higher and higher in combination excitement and horror, now complete with a narrow-eyed glare of accusation for a gaping Spike.

Buffy kind of wanted to bang her head against the wall.  

Spike loosed her waist to bury his face in one hand.  “Oh, hell.  Niblet, just bloody stop, please?  No, I can’t, and no, she isn’t.”

“Oh.”  Dawn sounded both relieved and a little deflated.  “Well, I guess that’s good… though also kind of sad.  You two would make the most adorable baby  ever …”

“Oh my God, Dawn, just shut up for a second.  We got blood-married.  Dracula reminded us we should do it, so we stopped putting it off.  So now we’re mated in a sort of vampire way.”

“Blood…”

“It’s permanent.  Spike’s your brother-in-law.”  Buffy paused mid-explanation, while Dawn stared at them in shock.  “Brother-in-blood?” she corrected questioningly, and glanced up at Spike’s jaw.

Spike rolled his eyes in prompt and thorough exasperation.  “Buffy, there isn’t a term.  You don’t have siblings in a nest.  Or, I reckon you do in that if your sire has other childer they’re sort of your siblings, but if I’d mated you in a nest…”  He halted, frowning, then flung his fingers wide, impatient.  “There’s just no sodding terminology for a thing hasn’t been done, yeah?  They’d never let you.  Look at us!  It’d bloody well cock up the hierarchy, cuttin’ loose the master’s minions like that to seal ‘em to a mate.”

Buffy nodded thoughtfully, accepting that explanation.  It was, after all, one of the main reasons she’d wanted to do it; to take over his bond from Angel and Dru, though they hadn’t exactly thought through all of the provisos vis a vis that implied hierarchy stuff.  /And why didn’t we?  It’s blood.  there’s always someone at the top of the food chain!/  

God, Angel was going to be so pissed; just from a ‘messing with the natural order of things’ perspective.  Keeping his underling in his charge was such a  thing  to him, whether he stayed around to do it or not.  “Well, anyway…” she blew it off, and turned back to her sister, who was staring at them as if they had just announced they were running off to join a cult.

“Are you  serious?”  Dawn breathed, incredulous.

Was she upset about it?  Glad?  It was hard to tell.  “Yeah,” Buffy answered quietly.

“Oh my  God!”  Dawn shrieked, and no shit,  leaped  over Mom’s legs (Mom leaned back out of the way to avoid being smacked in the face by wayward, coltish body parts), launched herself over the corner of the coffee table, and flung herself into their arms.  “This is so  cool!”

They spent the next couple of minutes under assault from long limbs and enthusiastic cheek-kisses and huge hugs and supersonic shrieking.  Eventually the youngest Summers resolved herself back into salvageable form and started ‘Twenty Questions, Vampire Mating Edition’.  “So, how did you do it?”

Buffy bit her lip and dug her nails into Spike’s thigh when he started to chuckle.  /‘Do it’ being the operative term./  “Uh, that’s… complicated.”  /And oh so private./

“Ooh!  Was there a ceremony?”

Spike fielded that one.  “Of sorts.  A rather… short and primitive one.”

“Which I hope we can remedy later,” Mom broke in sternly.  

Buffy opened her mouth, closed it again, at a loss for what to say.  

Thank goodness this topic sent Dawn off on a rather predictable tangent.  “Oh, yay!  Like a commitment ceremony, or…”  She bounced from where she had been squatting at Buffy and Spike’s feet like some sort of student basking in the glow of their love.  “OH!  Do you think we can do a double one, get Willow and Tara to also do one?”

/Oh, we so need to rein this in before it gets out of control./  Flinging up a hand, Buffy halted her sister’s insane excesses before she could explode or something.  “Settle down there, turbo, before you plan everyone’s weddings for the next ten years…”

“I’m just saying.  Everyone’s so happy—I mean, Xander and Anya are who knows what, but you two and those two are great, anyway—so why not celebrate the happy?  Big parties with big flowers and big cakes and…”

Spike sighed and leaned forward to catch her hand and pull her close.  “People gotta be ready first, Niblet.  They can’t make a commitment like that just because it seems right to everyone outside of them.  It’s gotta be right for  them .  An’ even then, sometimes things happen later as can mess it up; no matter how right it was at the time.  You gotta let people go at their own pace.”

Dawn drew back with a sigh, her bright, happy balloon all pinpricked.  “Why do you have to be all ‘adult Spike’ right now and not ‘impulsive guy’?”

“Was impulsive guy when I threw myself at your sister’s feet and begged her to own me.  Which is how I got myself into this mess in the first place.”

“Hey!” Buffy exclaimed, half-amused and half-horrified, and wapped him over the head with a copy of ‘Better Homes and Gardens’ from the nearby end table.  

He didn’t even try to block; just tightened his arms around her waist and eyed her with a steady, pointed gaze.  “I’m gettin’ talked into a twilit promenade on the back bloody porch, with dancing and the whole lot, Buffy, you just watch.  Mum’ll get me into a tie before the end; can see it now.  ‘F I’d’ve known…”

Buffy narrowed her eyes dangerously.  “You’d what?”

He grinned and rolled his tongue.  “Stay right there on my metaphorical knees and beg to be yours, any road.  I’d just have taken a bit more on credit over the last few months, yeah?”

Buffy rolled her eyes at him.  As if he hadn’t had his chances to be on top, as it were.

She shivered a little, remembering a few moments in particular.  Like the one with the handcuffs.  That had been, um…

Guh.

Anyway .

“Ugh.  Do you two ever not flirt?” Dawn demanded, flouncing back around the coffee table to return to her seat on the couch.

“There are times when they don’t,” Mom broke in quietly.

Buffy tore her eyes away from Spike as the realization struck.  /Oh, crap.  She’s gonna do it./

She felt Spike tensing all around her.  “Yeah, we don’t when, ah, something important’s afoot,” he agreed softly, and tightened his arms around Buffy as if to shore up both her and himself.  

He was trembling.  Or maybe she was.

Probably they both were.

“Dawnie.”  Mom turned to face the youngest Summers scion.  “There’s something else you need to know.”

“Oh?”  Dawn’s voice was tense again.  Clearly she sensed the incoming impact.  

“Yes.  Last night when we were having dinner, Spike noticed a smell on me when we were saying goodnight.  It was a smell he recognized.  It turned out to be a very lucky thing.  We went to the hospital…”

“Wait,” Dawn protested.  “What?”  Her eyes darted to Spike’s, back to Mom’s.  “A… smell?  And you went to… the hospital?  Wh…”

“Just listen, baby.  You see, apparently some illnesses have a distinct odor.  I guess some dogs can smell them too, but they can’t talk to us about it.”  Mom turned her head over her shoulder to favor Spike with a brief, if warm, smile.  “Vampires, luckily, can.  Which means the illness I have was detected extremely early, before it could get very dangerous, and it can be treated swiftly and aggressively.  I have to wait a few days for the first procedure, and then from there, once we know more, we’ll know what to do next…”

Dawn was very pale now, shrinking back against the cushions of the couch.  “Th…  The first  procedure?   What kind of…”

Mom caught her hand, held it between two of hers.  “A biopsy, honey.  They need to check and see if the… mass I have is malignant or benign.  From there they can figure out if they need to remove it, or try to shrink it with medicine, or…”

Dawn turned white as a sheet.  “No,” she moaned, voice shaking.  “No…”

/Oh God…/

“It’s very early, baby.  I should be fine…”

“No.  Mom, no…”  She ripped her hand out of Mom’s cradling two.  “No!  Are you saying you have  cancer?”  

The word struck Buffy harder than any blow she had ever taken in any battle.  She thought she might throw up on the spot.

Spike’s arms tightened around her, holding her up while the world whirled.

“No,” Mom answered softly, apparently unperturbed.  “I’m saying I have a possibly benign tumor in my brain.  We don’t know yet if it’s cancerous…” 

/Except that if you smelled it, Spike, then…/  It was all very potato potahto, and just words, and not reassuring, and…

“Which is what the biopsy will tell us.  I’m scheduled to have one in a week or so, depending on cancellations, and then from there we’ll know if they need to operate to remove it or what the plan is.  Which is why I wanted the whole family here; so you’d have Buffy and Spike at your side while you process all this…”

Dawn’s eyes darted to theirs, terrified and heading toward raging.  “You  knew!”

Buffy found her voice somehow.  “Just since last night.  Mom asked us to wait to tell you till we could all be together…”

“You knew, and you didn’t tell me!  You…”

“Dawn…”

“I can’t  believe  you!”  Leaping up, she ran from the room to thump up the stairs at speed.  The slamming of her bedroom door resounded.  

Left behind downstairs, the remainders of the family looked to one another in resignation.  

“Why does she always blame me?” Buffy finally asked of no one in particular.

“Because, pet,” Spike answered softly, “you’re the closest.  When we’re hurtin’ and we swing, the closest are the ones get caught in the crossfire.”  Lifting her limp, chilly hand, he kissed the back of it, at the knuckles.  “We always hurt the ones we love.”

Buffy closed her eyes, afraid of what that meant.

“Take it as a compliment?”

“Oh God.”

Mom sighed and came to her feet.  “Part of me wants to go up there, tell her that was not fair of her and unacceptable, and that she should apologize to you…”

“No, Mom… it’s okay.”  Buffy pushed herself to her own feet.  “Last night I took it out on Spike.  He’s right.  It’s just… lashing out.  If anyone should go up it’s me…”

Mom swiveled to them, looking concerned.  “You…  Are you two…”

“All’s well, Mum.  Just a bit of friendly rough and tumble.  I was just as needful of a scrap.”

“Oh.  Right.  I forget that you two…”  She waved her hand aimlessly, distracted.  “…Do that.”  Shaking her head, she eyed the stair once more.  “I’m not so sure you should go up just yet, Buffy.  Whatever she’ll say right now would just cut deep…”

“She shouldn’t be alone.”  /I need to be there for her./

Spike’s hand on her arm.  “I can go up, love.”

/And I love you for saying it.  But./  “I know.  And she’ll need you at some point in this, just like I do.  But I think this is an us thing right now.”

Spike nodded, stepped back, turned to Mom.  “Cocoa and marshmallows?”

Mom’s lips twitched.  “With a side of eavesdropping?”

Spike tilted his head slightly in that way that said he would oblige if she requested enlightenment.  Buffy shook her head at the egregiousness of the overt conspiracy as she headed up.

***

Knock, knock.   “Hey.  Dawnie.”

“Go away!”

With a sigh, Buffy ignored her to push the door open.  /Might as well get it over with, being the punching bag./  The irony was not lost on her that she had done this with Spike earlier; and that he had volunteered for it.  Now she was doing the same for Dawn.  /I guess we just do that for the people we love, sometimes.  Because Summers girls are violent, or something…/

Dawn was laying facedown on her bed, body canted away from the door.  “Don’t you understand English?  I said go  away!”

“I understood,” Buffy answered patiently, and fought not to cross her arms, to keep her body language somewhat open.  “I’m just ignoring you for your own good.”  /Low, even tones.  Wide, open stance.  Public Speaking class for the win./  

“Great,” Dawn snapped.  “Now I get the tough love.”

/Keep all the sighing inward./  “No.  Just love.”

Protracted, stubborn silence.  Time to try again.

What had Spike said to do?  Try to open up, at least a little?  “I get it, you know.  How it feels.  I was there, last night.”  God, this was hard.  It hurt.  “This… got sprung on all of us.  And I felt like the world was falling out from under my feet…”

“Great.  That’s great.  And you all thought, ‘We’ll just keep little Dawnie out of the loop.  She’s too young and stupid to handle it…’”

Punched while she was keeping herself deliberately open, Buffy clung to her nonexistent patience with serious effort.  Remaining vulnerable to attack was the greatest act of love she could fathom, and here was her sister, throwing it right in her face like this, and…  And despite all her best efforts, she couldn’t quite keep the edge out of her voice when she answered.  “Or, we thought, ‘Let’s all get our heads on straight so we can tell Dawn about this without bursting into tears, and talk about it like adults, together as a family, instead of freaking her out by calling her home early from Janice’s like there’s a four-alarm fire…’”

For the first time Dawn reacted, shooting upright on the bed and swinging on her.  “But there  is!”  she half-shrieked.  “Mom’s gonna die, and you didn’t even bother to  tell  me…”

Buffy’s stomach swooped, bottomed out.  She clenched her hands into fists on her jeans.  “Mom’s  not  gonna die.”  /We won’t  let  her./

Buffy’s kneejerk denial of that shared fear only incensed Dawn the more.  “Oh yeah?  Sure!  She has  cancer!   And there’s a reason you all didn’t want to tell me!  Because it’s bad, right?  It’s bad, so you didn’t wanna tell me, and now she’s gonna leave, just like Dad, and then I’m gonna have to go move in with him, and leave all my friends, and leave school, and leave Tara and Willow and Spike and you and Xander and Anya and Jonathan and Mr. Giles and…”

/Oh my God./  “Dawn!  Mom’s  not  gonna die!  Cancer isn’t an automatic death sentence!  People live through it all the time!  We caught this way early, thanks to Spike!  The doctor’s super enthusiastic that that’s a good sign for Mom.  Seriously.  The only reason we didn’t tell you right away was because we wanted to get our heads together, and because Mom needed to get used to the idea for herself!”  Goaded, the harsh words continued to fall from Buffy’s lips before she could forestall them.  “I mean, step outside of Dawn’s world for a second and realize how this must be for  Mom , realizing she has a brain tumor!  She needed to get real with it inside her own head before she told you about it!  It’s not  about  you!”

Dawn gaped at her.  Buffy couldn’t seem to relent, the words pouring out like a dam had been broken.  “You’re  fourteen , Dawnie,” she bit off, “and life is hard.  Maybe it’s time you grew up and realized the world doesn’t revolve around you.  Other people have lives and fears too, okay?”

Dawn whirled away again, tears springing from her eyes and mouth open in a soundless ‘O’ of misery, and oh shit, oh crap.  /Way to be foot-in-mouth-Buffy and make things worse.  Dammit./  “Look.  I’m… sorry, Dawn.”  / Breathe , dammit, and stop snapping.  She’s just scared; possibly more scared than you are.  She’s still, like, officially dependent on Mom.  Duh./  It didn’t change the feelings; waspish and frustrated, that Dawn was being selfish.  That Buffy had never gotten to be dependent, that she had had to move out and fend for herself at a few years older than Dawn, that…

It all made it tough to strangle down the childish, crying voice inside her own mind that said she still needed, would always need her mommy, that Dawn didn’t get the franchise on fear just because she still lived at home.  But it was much-needed perspective.  “It’s just… we need to suck it up and be there for Mom.  If we need to cry or… I dunno; be mad?  We can do it at each other; up here, or somewhere else, away from her.  Yell at me if you need to; sure, fine.  I can take it.  Or at Spike.  He gets it too.  Or cry;  here .”  Buffy fought it down, heard the trembling in her voice anyway, as her shaky resolve faded.  After all, it had been less than twenty-four hours.  It was all still so raw.  The fear.  The preemptive grief.  “I… do it too.”  /Shit.  Pull it together, Summers./  Getting a handle on her voice somehow, Buffy went on with an effort at firmness, and uncrossed her arms with an effort.  “But let Mom deal on her own, because this is happening to  her .”  

Her hands dangled uselessly at her sides, and just what the hell did people do with arms when they weren’t crossed?  They were so  in the way!

God, Buffy felt vulnerable.

Dawn sniffled for a moment, facing the far wall, but she must have heard the tremors in Buffy’s voice, because when she spoke, her voice was very, very small.  “You promise she’s not gonna die?”

/Oh God./  

Vulnerability fled.  Drawing closer, Buffy sat on the side of the bed and laid a hand on her little sister’s back.  She was so slight, if way too tall; and right now it made her seem fragile again.  Small.  “Mom’s strong, Dawnie.”  Choking back a sob of her own, Buffy drew in a deep, fortifying breath.  “And she’s got us, right?”

She wasn’t surprised when Dawn flung herself around to bury her long, lanky body in Buffy’s smaller shoulder, already heaving with sobs.  She was surprised to find that, as she patted her sister’s shoulder and kissed her head, she had tears in her own eyes.  

Maybe in a way it was a kind of strength, to cry together?

***

‘Sweetie, can you get Dawn from school and meet me at the hospital?’

Buffy sat bolt upright in bed, the phone held to her ear and a groggy Spike hanging off of her waist.  His hand, splayed under her tank top, tried to press her back down flat; he was half-asleep and had not recognized Mom’s voice.  He always slept like the damned in the very late hours of the morning; which was fair, since that was his normal time to fall out.  

Buffy had been out cold as well… till this.  She was wide awake now and squinting into what looked like maybe nine AM-ish light.  “Get up!” she hissed, and kicked her vampire hard in the shins.

“Uuuff…  What the hell, Buffy?” 

He turned over, incidentally yanking the sheet off of her and around himself, leaving her wearing only her underwear.  “Yeah, Mom, we’ll get her and, um, meet you there.  As soon as possible.  What’s…”  She fought down the rising tide of fear in her voice.  “What’s up?”

‘Oh, they just got me an emergency slot for the biopsy.  I guess my shadow’s… growing particularly fast.’  

Her voice sounded so calm.  “Wake  up,  Spike,” Buffy hissed again, and kicked him harder.

“What?” he demanded, shooting upright.

She cupped a palm over the receiver.  “It’s  Mom ,” she mouthed.

“Oh.  Oh, Christ.”  He raked a hand through his hair, making it riot with curls, and yanked aside the sheet to stumble out in a flurry of undone jeans and bare feet.  “Yeah.  Right.  Uh…”

“How close is the car?”

He blinked, glancing toward her closed blinds, then at the half-open ones on Willow’s side of the room—Wil was gone, at Tara’s for the night—and frowned.  “Too bloody far.  You know how these idjits designed this place.  Can’t park anywhere near anything useful…”

Buffy made a face.  “Why did I give that stupid ring to Angel, again?”

He lifted his eyebrows at her in a very pointed, extremely expressive manner.  Buffy bit her lip and turned back to the phone.  “We’ll figure it out.  See you soon.”  /Mommy./

‘Okay, Buffy.’

“What… happened?” Spike ventured, hunting around for his t-shirt and avoiding her eye.  Every line of his body was tense.

Buffy fought to remain calm in her delivery, at least.  He would feel the shoots and tendrils of terror snaking through her.  “I guess it’s growing fast.  They’re going in to do an emergency biopsy, and then…”

His head jerked up.  “It’s only been three bloody days!”

“I know.”

He shoved his arms into the sleeves of the tee, so hard it almost tore, then yanked it over his head.  “I...”  Jammed the hem into his jeans, found his belt, threaded and buckled it with sharp, angry movements, head down.  “Bloody fuck.”

“Yeah.”  In spite of her best efforts, Buffy could hear her voice shaking.  “I guess maybe I should, um, go get the car and pull it up closer so you can run down, and…”  She caught the blouse Spike tossed her, scooped up from the floor.  “And then we need to go pull Dawn out of school, and…”

Their heads jerked up simultaneously when the door creaked and Willow stepped in, tousle-headed and bleary-eyed… and worried-looking.  “Why do you need to pull Dawnie out of school?”

Before Buffy could even think of how to answer, Spike had straightened from another of his scooping moves, tossed her jeans into her lap, and was grabbing up his duster.  “Joyce is having surgery,” he answered flatly, and marched over to the nearest seat to shove his bare feet directly into his boots.

Willow gaped at him soundlessly.  “Wh…  Wh…”  She swung on Buffy, gabbling.  “How…”

Sometimes Spike was so abrupt it was painful.  “She, um, has a brain tumor.  They’re doing a biopsy today.”

Fumbling behind her for her bed, Willow staggered back a little and took a seat.  “Um, well, okay.  Um.  When did…  I mean…  Wow.”

“A few days ago.  Spike smelled the… cancer smell on her breath and we rushed her in to get checked out.”  /And this was so not how I was planning on telling my friends, Impulsive-Boy./

“Oh.”  Nodding, her face working in that way that people’s did when they were trying not to show about ten emotions at once, Willow looked off to one side, down at her bedspread.  “Is, um, she gonna be okay?” she asked softly, and plucked at the bright quilt.  Her voice shook.

Wil was not close with her own mother.  Both her parents, she had told Buffy, took refuge in academia and used it to hold their child at a distance.  When she had first started coming by and Mom had hugged her all warmly and given her affection and a listening ear, Wil had eaten it up.  

She was a huge Joyce Summers fan, and Buffy thought she was pretty attached.  Not that Buffy blamed her.  She thought anyone who wasn’t a huge fan of her mother was just plain wrong.  “We…  We hope… the biopsy will tell us what…”

“They’ll either have to operate or give her chemotherapy,” Spike interrupted grimly, shoving his second foot in and lacing fast and hard.  “I’d hate to council anyone toward brain surgery, considering my experiences, but the other sounds so bloody awful I might just threaten to drain the bloke says Joyce ought to do it.”  And he was on his feet.   “Buffy.”   Anxiety laced his tones.

“We’ll know more after today,” Buffy reassured Willow.  “I was gonna wait to tell all of you till after we knew…”

“Get the car, pet!”

His urgency thrummed through her, keyed her own to fever pitch.  Buffy bit her lip and turned for the door.  “I’ll tell you more ASAP.”  And she ran for it.

Fifteen minutes later he was diving through into the driver’s side door while she scooted over, every part of him smoking.  He tossed aside a blanket from her bed—so much for that one—and put the car in gear to shimmy away from the curb with a protesting squeal.  “Red’s worried,” he informed her grimly as he hunched over the steering wheel.  

“She loves Mom too.”

“Yeah.”  He didn’t say anything else as he drove like a bat out of hell toward the middle school.

***

Ever since Buffy’s senior class had blown up the entire school to destroy a gigantic snake-demon, all of Sunnydale’s high school student population attended classes in Goleta, Montecito, Summerland, or in hastily-erected mobile-units set up around the middle school.  Population pressures in all these areas were eased by the fact that a lot of families had bailed on Sunnydale after the whole Hellions crisis.  

Buffy was still amazed that the press and the police here had managed to cover up the whole exploding high school thing with that gas main story, when so many parents had seen the huge snake, and so many students had been turned into vampires.  The number of grieving families, convinced they’d seen things out of shock…  

Still.  There had to be a limit to trauma-induced insanity, even on a hellmouth, right?  

She so could not blame half of them for leaving when a whole other disaster happened less than a year later.  

Leaving Spike alone to stew in overwarm monster of a car, Buffy struck out for Mobile Unit Seven.  Knocking on the door of the cramped structure, she popped her head in.  

Dawn looked up immediately, along with several other kids.  And promptly turned to stone.  

Wincing, Buffy headed in to speak to Mr. Greenbaum, the history teacher.  Because of the whole mobile unit thing, the teachers moved from one to the other instead of their trying to shuffle the students around in herds from one structure to the other.  “Hey, Mr. Greenbaum.  Could I steal Dawn?  Family emergency.”  

She did her best to keep her voice low, knowing how it was at that age when the rumors flew.  Every kid was probably listening in.  This would be tough enough on Dawnie as it was.  

Mr. Greenbaum nodded.  “Uh, you’ll have to stop in at the main desk and check her out…”

“Sure.  Of course.”  /Duh.  I was in high school myself like, a minute ago.  Which you know, since I was in your class./

“Okay.”  He lifted his head.  “Dawn, would you please go with your sister?  The rest of you, keep reading.”

Buffy turned, following the wordless shuffles as her sister stood, shoving books and papers into her bag.  They headed out silently and made for the makeshift office across the small lot.  “Mom’s getting the biopsy today.  We’re gonna meet her at the hospital and, uh…”  Buffy crossed her arms as she walked, not quite hugging herself.  “I guess maybe, get lunch while we wait?”

Dawn nodded, looking down and totally not speaking.  She remained silent the entire time Buffy was checking her out with the attendance chick, and while they were heading back between the mobile units before she spoke up.  “Is Spike gonna be there?”

Buffy nodded, relieved that she could give a positive answer.  “He’s driving.”

“Oh.  Okay.”

When they got to the car Dawn scrambled in without comment, tossing her backpack heavily down on the seat and scooting in on the beltless bench to sit with her arms behind each of them and her head hanging in the gap in between them.  Whereupon she remained, silent and anxious, as Spike made to pull off. 

Buffy touched his leg and lifted her eyebrow to indicate that his ‘Niblet’ was not okay.

He put the car back into park and turned around, twisting awkwardly in the seat.  “C’mere, Bit,” he murmured, and held out one arm.

Dawn fell into the embrace like Spike was gravity. 

They stayed like that for a long moment before Spike kissed her forehead and gave her a shove.  “Sit back, Pidgeon.  Got to drive.”

“Right,” Dawn answered a little thickly.  “Can’t have you mowing down any more city signs…”

“Look,” Spike answered, leaning forward to put the car back into gear, “I only do that to announce the Big Bad is back.  No point doing it when I’ve already been here for a time, innit?”

Buffy covered up her utterly inappropriately-timed smile by rubbing her nose with her forefinger.  “Yeah, that would totally be gilding the lily…”

Spike shot her a quick, narrow-eyed glare.  “How do you even know that bloody phrase?”

Buffy rolled her eyes at him.  “I’m not illiterate, William,” she answered witheringly.

He winced.  “No.  ‘Course not,” he backpedaled as he headed out of the school lot.  “It’s just not somethin’ that’s used a lot nowadays, and it’s not like you have a lot of bloody time to read extracurricular shite, with all the slaying an’ that…”

She knew he thought she was intelligent, but in some kind of feral way that didn’t have the fences of his book-learning.  She also wondered sometimes if he despaired of the latter.  “You help me build in the time,” she pointed out blandly.  /What with the whole ‘practically at peace with five or six of the local demon species’ thing./

“Oh.”  He sounded shamefaced.  It was a start.

Time to grind it home.  She wasn’t hurt, per se, so much as… stung.  “You’re the one who got me to pick up the whole ‘reading in bed’ habit…”

“You’re kidding.  You mean you two actually do something else in bed besides…”

“Dawn.”  /Stay out of this./

Spike was, at this point, pained.  “Can we just forget I said anything?” he muttered, swinging the car hard onto Fairhaven.

“Oh, probably not.”

Dawn had switched to seriously amused.  “I don’t think you’re gonna get out of this one, Spike.”

“Bloody hell.”  After a moment’s wordless driving he twisted the wheel around, pulled into the hospital parking lot, found a spot under some contiguous shade.  “Here we are, then.  Hand me the blanket, Bit?”

Dawn did, though she fingered the singed holes as she passed it over.  “I think you maybe need a new one.  This one’s kind of charred.”

“It’ll do for today.”  His response was as clipped, as edgy as Buffy felt, and okay, so they should probably stop sniping at each other.  /We’re not mad at each other; we’re mad at life./

They made their silent way in, two jogs and a dash, and waited in between the double set of sliding doors for Spike to stop smoldering before they entered the clean-oxygen environment.  It garnered less attention.  Eventually they ducked past the lobby and headed over to the bank of elevators, him folding the now very-holey blanket over his arm as they did so.  The smell of char-broiled polyblend and slightly-burnt hair trailed them into the cubicle.  “You’re lucky I don’t mind that stink.  Or, I dunno.  That it fades quick.  Leather, cigarettes, whiskey, Spike-smell, all good.  Burnt-blankie and charcoal-hair, not so much.”

Spike grunted.  “Cost of doin’ business with the Slayer, runnin’ round all the bloody time at unnatural hours…”

Buffy lifted a brow at the bank of buttons rather than at him, where he stood behind her shoulder.  /Vampire, still edgy, check./  “Doing  business?”

He grunted in the obvious realization that he had stuck his foot in it there.  “Bad choice of words, mebbe.  But,” he defended, “we are rather in the nature of bein’ business partners, as well as the rest, which…”

Fighting to keep her lips from compressing into a thin line, Buffy flattened her voice.  “Spike.  Quit while you’re ahead.”

He shut his mouth.  And the chaotic emotions rolled between them without pause; an endless eddy of fear-worry-anxiety-pain.  And sometimes this whole double-bonding thing was more trouble than it was worth.

Silence fell… and was sliced wide by a very sudden fit of the giggles.  “You two kill me, you know that?  You squabble like you’ve been married for twenty years.  It’s so dopey.  Anyone who thinks it’s weird that you did the thing is insane.  I mean, was anyone even surprised?”

Ding!   The doors sprang open.  Buffy exchanged a brief, weighted glance over her shoulder with her guy.  “Uh…” she hedged, and stepped automatically out into the familiar smells and sounds of the floor where Mom had been being seen for the last few days.  “Can we plead the fifth or something?”

Spike followed, uncharacteristically mum.

Dawn bounced out after them, staring.  “Oh, wow.  You haven’t told the gang yet, have you?” she demanded, sounding amazed.  

“No, we told them,” Buffy answered quietly, and crossed her arms.  “And they were… surprised.”

Spike scoffed in his understated way that spoke volumes about his opinion on the matter.

“Okay?  Were they all judgey, or…”

“Can we help you?”

“Can we talk about this later, Dawn?  Hello.  We’re here to see Joyce Summers,” Buffy answered, striding up to the nurse’s station.

***

Mom was already all gowned up and on a gurney and everything by the time they got back there, and Buffy was so not ready to face this.  Which meant she wasn’t sure if it was good or bad that the hand-holding and squeezing and reassurances were very rushed.  “I’ll be fine.  You three just hang onto each other.  I’ll be out before you know it, and then we’ll know what we’re dealing with.”  

Mom was being so brave, lying there looking all crazy vulnerable in her paper gown on the intimidating, fenced-in, rolling bed with all the fire-engine-red stuff and an IV in and some kind of electrode pasted onto her chest.  She looked a little pale, but set and determined, and, just…  “You’ve got this, Mom.”  False bravado, but if anyone had it under control, Mom did.

“Mom…  Please… be okay.”

Dawn, not so much with the okay.

“Oh, baby, I’ll be fine, honey.”  A kiss for Dawn, and they were about to roll her away, while Buffy fought not to fling herself onto the gurney and beg for just another second.  To cry for her mommy, and…  /And I’m the strong one.  I’m supposed to be…  Mom needs me to be strong for her, so she can stay strong; for Dawn, and…  And…/

“Joyce?”  Spike’s hand, on Buffy’s shoulder, holding her to the floor before she could explode or float away.

“Yes, Spike?”

His low, rumbling voice, soothing, anchoring Buffy into the present moment so that she didn’t need to act.  So that she could just be.  “It’s both as terrifying as you think… and not nearly.  You don’t feel a thing inside, because you can’t.  Nothin’ in there to feel it.  All you’ll feel after is the skin, the bone.  Which is odd enough, but the business inside?  You just trust they know what they’re doin’, yeah?”  He had done this.  He was fine.  Mom would be fine.  “You’re in good hands, here.”  It was different.  These were good doctors, not…  Not creepy…

She would be okay.

Mom’s eyes softened, and she nodded, seeming to calm.  “Thank you, William.”

He nodded back, a wave of relief flowing from him into Buffy.  Relief that he could help.   He needed that just as much as Buffy did, and…  And she had him.  She didn’t have to be strong on her own, and that was…

They wheeled Mom away.  Buffy squeezed Spike’s shaking hand with her own, aware that if she didn’t speak up she would burst into tears or something; tears, this time, of relief.  /I have  you. /  “Thank you,” she whispered.

He lifted her hand to kiss it, wordless.

***

Then it was down to waiting.  

Spike alternated between pacing and sitting with an arm around each of his girls.  Dawn did a lot of trying to crawl right into his lap.  Buffy could tell he was dying for a cigarette, but he never left them; not once, unless you counted stalking off with Dawn at one point to go get them all Cokes.  They came back with the drinks, and Dawn told Buffy in an aside that the Coke machine now had a dent in it because it had eaten Spike’s five, and he’d punched it kind of hard to make the drinks fall down.  

Normally Buffy would have taken him to task for even that level of impulsive violence in a public place, except…  Heck.  Considering today’s stress-level she might have slipped and done the same, and she had spent years throttling her abilities down to ‘human-normal’ in public settings.  

But right now…  “Good job not picking it up and throwing it,” she told her guy softly.

His head had been hanging down between his shoulders, while he glared angrily at his unopened bottle.  Now he turned to her, shot her a grateful look, then twisted the cap off.  “Cheers, luv,” he murmured, and tossed back a good third of the Coke in one swig, as if it were rum or something.

Eventually Dawn curled up in one of the highly uncomfortable chairs, head on Spike’s arm and hand curled up under her chin, and fell into an exhausted sleep.  She even managed to look like a small child again as she did so, which was a feat for a girl who was already an inch or two taller than Buffy and who would probably end up topping her by at least half a head if not more.  “It’s been two and a half hours,” Buffy hissed, shifting in discomfort.  “How long can it possibly take to do a biopsy?  I mean, they did your thing in one and a half!”  Her butt was numb as heck.

Spike shrugged and trailed his fingers absently up along her neck, under her hair.  “Reckon they were less interested in takin’ care when it came to me, love.  ‘Magine this business takes a bit of finesse.  Got to go in and get a sort of core sample of the thing, but no other bit of her.  Touchy business, findin’ the right spot an’ all.  ‘S not like mine, where you could tell what was the wrong bit, all hard and knobbly and made of plastic, yeah?  No doubt this all looks the same to the naked eye, an’ you don’t wanna get the wrong bit.”

Buffy shuddered at the very thought and moved to extricate herself.  “I’ll be back.  Bathroom.”  

Partly the trip was to take care of the necessary, but it was also to splash her face with cold water and fight off the willies Spike’s casual explanation had engendered before they made her vomit.  A Slayer was made of stern stuff, sure, but it was one thing to whack off heads and be splattered with brains on the regular; entirely another to consider the damage that could be done to a living one—one belonging to someone you deeply loved—if you messed around in one in any unorthodox manner, or did something in there incorrectly.  /Just one slip, and…/

Wincing, Buffy flinched away from the mirrors and tried to block out all thought.  

When she exited, Spike was waving urgently at her in a come-hither gesture, and Dawn was awake.  “She’s out, Buffy!” her sister hissed.

Buffy broke into a jog.

***

“I’m fine, Buffy.  I promise.  You all can go home and get some rest.”

“But… the results…”

“Won’t be in till later today.  Maybe not till tomorrow.  And I don’t want you staying here overnight.  Now, go on.  You’ve spent enough time here with me.  Go on.  Dawn, I’m sure you have assignments to catch up on, and you need dinner; probably lunch too…”

“Mom, I so couldn’t eat…”

“Nonsense.  Now, get my card out of my purse, and you all go get some pizza or something.  You two, stay at the house with Dawn, please?  And come see me tomorrow.  They said I’ll be in here for at least another day, so there’s no reason for you to stand watch over me twenty-four-seven like some sort of armed guard…”

“Joyce, for bloody Christ’s sake, you’ve just had sodding brain surgery…”

“And I have a whole hospital’s worth of staff around me, hanging on my every beep and buzzer.  And I will enjoy your visits, but I will feel terribly guilty if you’re all hovering in here every second.  You’ve been in here for almost ten hours, hanging around like a bunch of nervous statues just waiting for me to wake up and make sense.  Go.  Get an actual meal.  Relax.  Come back in the morning.  Please.”

“Mom…”

“Buffy,” Mom answered, drilling her with serious Mom-gaze, “I’m asking you to take care of your sister for me.”

/Okay, way to push my responsibility button.  And that is so not fair./  “Alright,” Buffy subsided reluctantly, feeling resentful.

“Thank you, baby.”

“Mom, I don’t wanna go home and worry about you and…  And I won’t be able to sleep, and…”

“Dawn.  Go home with your sister and Spike.”

Dawn flounced up out of her chair and stomped to the door.  “Fine!”

With a sigh, Spike caught Mom’s hand, being careful of the IV, laded it with a light knuckle-kiss.  “Till tomorrow, then, Joyce.”

Mom patted his cheek as he lowered the hand back to the blankets.  “Such a smoothie.  Now get my girls out of here.”

“Yes, Mum.”

Turning with him, arms crossed, Buffy joined Dawn at the door.  “Suck up,” she murmured in an aside as they headed down the long corridor toward the elevators.

“Know which side my bread is buttered on is all.”

Buffy shook her head wearily.  “You play the odds.  ‘Which Summers do I need to butter up today.’”

“Bloody good thing I’m excellent at placating Summers women…”  He pushed the elevator call-button.  “…And that every one of you is an easy victim to my devilish charm.”  The door dinged open and they stepped into the right-hand car.

“You wish, buddy.”  With a sigh, Buffy laid her head on his shoulder and hit the ‘L*’ button.

Giving in, Dawn caught his other hand.  “No.  He’s right.  Big jerk.”  And she laid her head on his other shoulder.

Spike slipped an arm around Buffy’s waist.  “And people wonder why I’ve given up hot blood.  Look at this I’ve got here.”

His voice, as he said it, throbbed with emotion.

*   *   *








deep breaths before the even harder stuff.

Chapter Text

Spike dropped her off at the college the next morning, after they took Dawn to school.  “I’ll go sit with Mum, pet, and pick you up after class so you can do the same.  Meet you here right at three forty-five, yeah?  Will have already gotten Niblet.”

It was so massively frustrating, that she had such a huge gap between classes.  It was likely to drive her insane.  But she would force herself to eat, and try to concentrate on her essay on the Romantic Poets that was due on Monday.  Spike would look it over for her later, tell her it was hideous—though in the nicest possible terms—then half-write it for her because he wouldn’t be able to control himself, even though he would call it ‘proofreading’.  And she would let him, because that would be  his  stress-relief, not hers, and he really should be the person teaching this class, not Professor Stellingbaum.  “I’ll show you the garbage essay I’ve churned out when you get here,” she told him, already ducking her head preparatory to opening the door.

He grabbed her chin, tension rolling off of him in waves, and tugged her back.  “You’ll write something amazing about them, because they’re the best of the lot, and I bloody well believe in you,” he told her, and kissed her once, hard.

Pulling away, Buffy cast her eyes skyward in theatrical tolerance.  “Not that you’re biased or anything.  And anyway, I know you also like those newer ones.  With all the weird imagery and intensity, like that one guy from South America with the weird name, and…”

“We’ll get there, pet.  Now go lose yourself in it; in the words, yeah?  Let it distract you instead of the other.”

/I wish it really worked that way for me, like it does for you./  But he was cute. 

Patting his hand on her cheek in gentle bid for release, she scooted out of the car, careful as she did so to keep the door-maneuvering to a minimum so that the light cast across the seat didn’t touch her guy.  And headed for mid-campus, resolute of step while the DeSoto rumbled away behind her, leaving her bereft, their connection attenuated.  “I can do this.  I can do school.  I can…”

Willow accosted her at the doorway to Building Seven.  “How’s your mom, Buffy?” she asked, all ball-of-anxious.

“Oh.  Um…”  She so wasn’t ready for the interrogation-by-friends, but she also should really have known it was coming.  “She’s, um, recovering okay from the biopsy.  She’s in the hospital right now.  She’ll probably be there at least till tonight, maybe tomorrow.  Then we’ll wait to see if they, uh, can figure out from that what they need to do next…”

Wil nodded shakily.  “Can, uh, we go see her?”

Buffy blinked.  “We?”

“Yeah, you know, me and Tara and Xander and Anya and Giles…  The gang.”

How Buffy had not realized that Wil would have vented her concerns to her girlfriend and to Xander was beyond her, now.  A whole night had passed.  The group would have had time to play telephone with the information posthaste.  Heck, it was amazing they hadn’t already found out long before this, since Anya had had to be ready to spell Mom at the gallery at a moment’s notice.  /Kudos to Anya for having more of a sense of discretion than I thought possible./

/Guess she  does  know when to keep her mouth shut./  “I dunno if, um, it’s a very good idea for everyone to just barge in while…  I mean, she’s in recovery, but it’s touchy, with the whole ‘drilled into her brain’ thing, and…”

“Well, yeah.”  Wil did a very uncomfortable and put on ‘duh’ laugh.  “I meant, you know, in small groups of sane sample-size.  I know, we don’t wanna overwhelm someone who just had brain surgery.  Even a small brain-surgery.  It’s just, we’re all super-concerned, and we care, and…”  Wil was babbling.  She was freaked.  “And, I mean, Anya’s gonna need instructions, right?  For the gallery.  And…”

“Anya’s already visited her, actually,” Buffy heard herself saying, and immediately felt like an asshole. 

Willow blinked to a halt.  “Oh.”

“Just because they have a business together,” she hastened to reassure her friend.  “Like you said.  She needed to get instructions.  And stuff.”

“Oh.  Right.”  Wil frowned, mildly placated, then, “And she didn’t tell Xander?”

Buffy tried a tiny shrug, feeling abruptly very tired as she turned a little to head for class.  “It’s all just so…  Everything’s all at once, and…  She just…  Spike smelled it on her, and then we took her, and they said it was a tumor, and then…”  Buffy looked down at her feet.  She was wearing her white, open-toed shoes with the two-inch heels and those really cute, wide criss-cross straps today.  She had no recollection whatsoever of putting them on.  They really didn’t go well with this skirt.  It was coral.  Was this after Labor Day? 

It was totally after Labor Day.  Like,  way  after Labor Day.  /Not that I ever paid much attention to that rule, but…/

/Maybe it’s cause I’m wearing a white halter.  Maybe that was what I was going for./  Not that the halter was strappy.  It was kind of… crocheted-looking, actually, and thank goodness she’d had a nice, satiny camisole around.  Spike liked that camisole.  He hadn’t even torn it, every time, just sort of skinned her out of it.  A lot.  /Maybe I’ll wear it for him tonight.  Just the camisole and the shoes.  He won’t care if it’s after Labor Day either…/ 

“Buffy!”

“Huh?”

“You, uh, kind of checked out there for a second.”  Willow sounded a little concerned.

So was Buffy, when she realized she was near the center of the building, eyeing the atrium with its thronging students, and that she was standing outside Lecture Hall Six with a flood of people swarming by, completely blanked out.  /Woah, Summers.  Dissociating again./

She hadn’t done that in so long.  /Not since Spike and I…  Or, well, not much, anyway./  “Sorry.  I, uh…”

“Are you okay?”  Wil touched her arm, tried to look into her eyes. 

“Yeah.”  Buffy nodded, aware she sounded insincere, and fought to blink some reality and ‘thereness’ into her eyes.  “Yeah.  Much with the okay, Wil.”

“Buffy.”

/Damn friends who know how to read me./  “I’m just trying to keep it together.  You know; for Dawn.”

Willow nodded understanding.  “Well, you have us.  We can be there.  And you have Spike, right?  It’s gonna be okay.  Don’t…  Don’t put it all on Buffy, okay?”

Buffy nodded, pulling harder on her bag strap like it was an anchor.  The twist in the strap cut into her shoulder, grounding her in reality.  “Yeah.  I know.  Sorry.  I’ll…  I’ll make time to talk to you all… soon.  And you can come to see Mom in… like, ones and twos later.  Not more though, okay?  She needs rest.”

“Okay.”  Wil smiled a little.  “Better go in.  I need to get to ‘Feminism and Yadda’.” 

Buffy smiled, aware it wasn’t touching her eyes.  “Right.  What is it this week?”

“‘…And the Crusade Against Gender Norms’.  Which is actually really interesting.  But next week it’s gonna be ‘and the Question of Whether We Can Impose Our Will On Other Cultures’… which just sounds like a painful debate waiting to happen.”

“Ouch.  Remind me to be glad the essay I have to write is only about comparing a couple of dead poets to a couple of other dead poets.”

Wil smiled indulgently.  “The Romantics and who, again?”

“The Neo-somebody or another, who don’t sound like they were in ‘The Matrix’ at all.”

“Because they were all about science, but not about technology.”

“Right?”  Sometimes Wil said the most obtusely nerdy things.  Once in a while she and Spike could get into some debates that were so incredibly opaque that it frightened her; especially when Giles or Jonathan or, god forbid, Anya, jumped in. 

“Never mind, I’m just being a dork.  Have a good poetry class.  And hang in there, Buffy.”  And Willow impulsively gave her a hug that was swift, zephyr-like, slightly frankincense-tinted, and made Buffy feel extremely loved, before she vanished into the crowd.

Class was a haze of Coleridge and William Blake and something about the difference between an early tiger and a later, supernatural passage to historical figures made heroic, and admixtures of Greek legends, and the Greeks’ many concepts of love, and the impact of Greek and Roman lore on the English mind of the day, and something about pantheism and the movement of Spiritualism at the time, and then a whole sidebar about something called Deism versus natural philosophy and a return to ‘Arcadian’ joys.  Then there was a detour into ‘Free Thinking’ and a lack of lip-service paid to the church and state; danger courted in a gentlemanly way.  And Buffy could only think of how this was a period in which her Spike had begun his life as William, and how he seemed to talk about god without caring so much about the concept in any really concrete sense; and was that a demon thing, or a Romantic poet thing?  Had he been one of these Free Thinkers who’d cared only about beauty and love, and hadn’t paid much heed to social constraints of a moral nature, only those which had been required of a ‘proper gentleman’?  /Because if so… then once you shed your proper gentleman… all you would have cared about was life and love and beauty and good feels, and to hell with morals, because you never really believed in them anyway, did you?  You probably thought they were a farce, or resented them just as much as the social convention thing, and…  Wow./

It was a new realization, and kind of a shocking one, how much a person could have been the same pre-demon as they were afterward.  Because what that meant was…

Well, it meant a lot of things that were continually tough for her to digest when it came to certain dichotomies she still took for granted that were probably kind of completely false, if not a huge, fat lie made to make things easier on her that were just majorly traumatic and probably…   

“Miss Summers, did you have anything to add?”

Buffy blinked and looked up from her doodles, found half the class and the professor staring at her.  “Um, what?”

“I just never usually have a student so engaged in my lectures that they start talking with me while I’m doing them.” 

Hello withering.  “Oh.”  /Oh, crap, what did I say out loud?/  “I w…was just thinking…  Sorry.”  She hated this kind of stare-fest.  “I was just wishing we could… talk to one of these Victorian guys, you know?  It sounds like such a different… perspective than before.  Or… than what we think of when we think of, you know.  Back then.  When you think of everyone just going to church and being good, la la la…”  /Oh my God, though; if I  could  get you to come here and guest-lecture, do you know the kind of education you could give them?  Including the teacher?  You’d probably upend so many of their ideas they hold sacred, telling ‘em what it was really like…/  She had a brief image of Spike, standing up front in the lecture hall, all snarky, telling the whole class that everything they knew about the Victorian poet was crap, and that they were all a bunch of disaffected jerks who mostly just wanted to get out of going to church, and probably wanted to have sex more than was allowed if they were going to be proper gentlemen, and... 

“Well, unfortunately they’re all dead and buried, so we must get to know them through their poetry.  Now.  If I may continue.”  Turning away, the professor continued with the lecture. 

Buffy dropped her eyes back to her notebook, and bit her lip as she noted that she had written a very curlicued, very ornate doodle of Spike’s name, with ‘William’ intertwined throughout like a complicated embellishment.  The jaggedness of ‘Spike’ and the wide swoops of the name exploded out of ‘William’ from all sides, while the lines of ‘William’ seemed, at first, very sedate and cooperative and very much contained within ‘Spike’… until you noticed how subtly the long ‘l’s and jagged ends of the ‘w’ and ‘m’ seemed to punch through, as if attempting to escape. 

/I’m trying to figure out how you work./

After class, Buffy picked at her tuna wrap in spinach-tortilla, forced down a few bites of her salad-a-la-ham-and-sunflower-seeds, and talked herself out of just eating Captain Crunch or something like a damn grownup, because it sounded much more palatable and she would actually finish that.  /And the sugar will keep me going, and this won’t, and I have a Slayer metabolism, so why do I always have to be responsible and eat healthy, and…/

/To hell with it./  Getting up in a fit of frustration, she headed to the cereal bar, tossing aside her mostly-uneaten health food in petulant, still-officially-a-teen excess such as she had not been permitted to enjoy when she was in high school.  Upon gaining the bar, she stubbornly poured herself a vastly unhealthy measure of Captain Crunch, with ‘berries’, thank you very damned much.  With whole milk.  And, she had some more Coke.  Not diet.  And she was going to be on a sugar high for hours while she tried to sit through her essay-writing extravaganza.  So what. 

/I might convince Spike to take me out tonight and have a drink, too.  How often did I do that when I was younger and most of my friends were out drinking?  Try almost never!  Because if I drink, someone dies, because I’m laying down on the job.  Except Spike’s right, and jeez.  Half the time there’s nothing to do on patrol anymore, and so what if tonight a bunch of idiots tries to end the world!  My  mom  is sick!/  She slammed down her bowl, slopping milk over her hands.  /My mom has a  brain  tumor!/  She threw herself down on the seat, shoved a spoonful of too-hard, almost slimy cereal into her mouth, crunched it stubbornly between her teeth.  “They’re lucky I care most nights anyway!” she mumbled, and tried not to spit milk and bits of cereal at her nonexistent table companion.  And promptly felt guilty for even thinking such heretical thoughts, much less speaking them aloud.

At the next table, three students stopped laughing briefly over their trays to eye her.  One chick lifted her brows.  The other, a blond, dreadlocked dude, snorted.  “You tell ‘em, girl.  Also, you should get some weed and chill.  They don’t matter; and they won’t anymore once you smoke out.”

/Okay, I don’t think I’ll go  that  far./  “Thanks.  But I’ll probably settle for just getting drunk.”  Buffy nodded genially at them till they turned back to their plates, then frowned into her cereal and shoved her spoon back in.  And wondered just exactly how much business she would drive from Willy’s place if she went there to drink tonight.

***

The essay was crap.  She knew it, and Spike…  Well, Spike was going to have to be really gentle with her.  But there were clearly extenuating circumstances.  Mom.  Sugar.  Caffeine.  Mom. 

Her second class of the day?  Total bust.  She hadn’t been able to sit still any more than she had been able to back when they’d first found out about this whole thing.  But then, she was never able to concentrate in so-called ‘Math for Liberal Arts’ anyway.  “Why do they call it that in the first place?” she demanded of her vampire as they headed into the now all-too-familiar elevator.  “It’s Statistics.  Everybody  knows  it’s Statistics.  We’re all still gonna be scared of it, no matter what you call it.  Most of us aren’t gonna pass it till, like, the third time, when they send you to the remedial teacher of dumbass students who can’t survive math for dummies, even if you change the name.  I mean, who do they think they’re kidding, anyway?”

“Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, pet,” Spike answered in distracted tones, “or maybe it just looks better on paper.  Sorts who run a uni always do like to sound a bit flowery.”  He started for the exit as the doors sprung open… and pulled up short, Buffy at his side, when they were confronted by the literal throng hovering around the nurse’s station.

“Miss Summers, Mr. Pratt, could you please tell your friends that your mother can’t have this many visitors?” Nurse Ocampo pled, looking harried.  Her wide, lined Filipino face was tight with frustration.

“Oh.”  Buffy blinked over at the mass of Scoobies.  “Uh…  When did you all show up?”  They were all there.  All of them.  Like…  all .

Even  Jonathan  was there.  Like, how often had Jonathan even  met  her mom?  Twice?  Three times?  /Wow, Mom, you must really make an impression!/

“They’ve been hovering for almost an hour,” the nurse informed them grimly.

“We’ve been going in in twos,” Willow jumped in hurriedly.  “Like you said.”

Buffy tightened her fists and counted backward from ten with an effort.  “I kinda meant later like I wanted to warn Mom first and ask her if it was okay with her, if she was feeling up to it…”  /And not twos right after the other!  Twos like… two today and two maybe tomorrow, or.../

“Oh.”  Willow retreated into herself a little, frowning.  Which Buffy supposed was fair, if that wasn’t what actually she’d said, but…

/Didn’t I say that?/

“We just wanted to tell her we’re rooting for her,” Xander broke in, all peppy.  “We haven’t been in for long.  Just a quick hi.”

/Yes, and she just had  brain  surgery, you guys, and this isn’t about you wanting to reassure yourselves that she’s okay./  Beside Buffy, Spike was vibrating on the edge of violence; like a volcano about to erupt.  “Okay, well, she needs her rest now,” she managed with what she thought was a credible attempt at sanity.  “Anyone who hasn’t seen her yet should probably wait till tomorrow…”

“We can all come back another time,” Tara put in quietly.  “Like I said, I can definitely wait.  You can too, right Jonathan?”

“Oh.  Oh, yeah; sure.”

“Buffy, I’d very much like to pay my respects…” Giles began, glasses dangling from his hand.

“Leave off, you complete berk,” Spike burst out.  He was growling; almost snarling and way beyond done.  “The woman’s just come out of having her head professionally caved in by a bunch of butchers with drills, and had a bit of her sodding brain removed, yeah?  Come back tomorrow.  She’ll not have gone far.”

Giles blanched.  “Oh, yes.  Quite right.  Of course.  I suppose she’ll have had quite enough excitement for one day.  We should all be off.  Xander, Willow, Anya…  Come, Jonathan, Tara…”

Buffy watched her as Watcher gathered up his ducklings and turned to depart.  He looked chastened.  Anya was chattering on about how she didn’t need to see Joyce today anyway, since she’d already checked in last night to report on the money, and how she was perfectly capable of running the business in the owner’s absence for a day or two without guidance.  Xander was reassuring her, looking a little wrong-footed for having stuck his own head in the door.  Willow looked equally sheepish, and Jonathan, as per usual, looked like he was trying to hide behind the group.  Tara, though, held back as the group moved to wait for the next elevator car.  She seemed to be hesitating, and then, with a touch to Willow’s hand, she stepped aside, back toward Buffy and Spike. 

“Baby, what…”

“Just a sec, Wil.”  Approaching, Tara reached out, touched both of their hands with each of hers, smiled at them with what Buffy had never realized before were really strikingly green eyes.  “I…I just wanted to say…  I’ve been here.  I…  My mother…”  She looked briefly down, twitched her shoulders, and then that gaze was back, firm this time, as if she had found strength from somewhere that she didn’t usually project.  “I know you two don’t know me very well, compared to Willow or Xander or Mr. Giles, but I…  I just wanted you to know that…  I get it.  And that if you ever need anything, or need to talk; you or Dawnie…”  She nodded, stepped away.  “Anyway…”  And she very abruptly went back to being ‘shy-Tara’. 

Well, wow.  Who knew.  “Hey.  Tara?”

The gaze came back, steady again.  The soft-spoken voice of reason.  “Yeah, Buffy?” 

“Thank you.”

“Yeah.  Thanks, pet.”

Green eyes flickered briefly over to Spike’s, and a faint smile touched her lips.  “Sure.  Always.” 

Buffy hadn’t realized till now, Tara always played everything so… so quietly, but she was really just an amazingly full-of-love person, wasn’t she?  Like, did she give off even the remotest vibe of grr, at all? 

As the other woman stepped back to rejoin Willow and the group embarked their ride down to the lobby, Spike grunted.  “That chit’s too bloody good for this world.  I worry about her.”

Buffy sobered.  “What do you mean?”

He shook his head and turned toward the hall and Mom’s room.  “I mean, world like this can easily grind someone like her to dust.  She’s too bloody sweet, that one.”

“I dunno,” Buffy answered thoughtfully.  “I think maybe there’s more to her than meets the eye.”  There was something under the surface of Tara; something that niggled.  Quick flashes; a hidden strength.  “Willow doesn’t date pushovers.  Quiet people, but not pushovers.  I mean, look at Oz.  He barely ever managed to string two words together, but if you ever tried to get him to back down over anything, he stood his ground.  He was a mountain in that Mohammed saying.  He would never move; like, ever.”

Spike nodded.  “Well, hangin’ about with our lot, Glinda’ll get tested one bloody way or the other.  Sorry to say it.”

He was probably right. 

They knocked lightly on the wall next to the drawn curtain. 

“Who is it?” Dawn’s voice called; a tried-sounding, carrying whisper. 

“Just us,” Buffy whispered back, and peeped inside the recovery room.  “She asleep?”

“Yeah.”  Siting in the chair opposite the bed, Dawn looked frazzled and kind of teed off, though she relaxed when seeing her sister’s face.  “Everyone coming in here to invade kind of wore her out.”

Sliding in past the curtain with Spike at her back, Buffy nodded and moved toward the nearest chair.  “Yeah, we sent them packing.  I don’t know what they were thinking.”

“They weren’t,” Spike answered sourly, if low-voiced, and gazed down at the still figure on the bed.  “Selfish sods.”

Mom looked so small, curled up on her right side with all those wires and tubes coming off of her, and that shaved spot on the left side of her head where all the hair was gone.  She would hate that, trying to arrange her hair over a bald spot.  Buffy wanted to comb the tresses over for her so she’d feel less self-conscious about it, but she had forgotten to bring a brush.  God, she felt ashamed about that, like a forgetful, selfish bitch.  All caught up in worrying about her essay and pointless crap like that, when Mom had needed a brush.  She was going to get snarls, and need detangler or something, and by the time they brushed her hair out it would pull on her scalp, and that would really hurt her scar or her stitches, and could they even use a spray-detangler on her right now, or would that damage her skin where it was healing?  And…

“Buffy.  Breathe.”

Damn him.  “You know, that’s really annoying,” she hissed, snapping, of course, at the one closest.

“Bloody tough,” he snapped back, stung.

“I’m just saying; me letting you claim me back doesn’t mean you get to be in my head every second!  I mean, have you ever heard of privacy?”

“Right, because it’s so bloody wrong of me to want to comfort my bird when she’s goin’ through it an’ her mum’s in hospital…”

“Okay, seriously?” Dawn broke in, sounding amazed.  “Not here.  I mean, wow.  Wrong place wrong time, much?”

Buffy realized very suddenly that she and Spike were chest-to-chest; still whispering but glaring into one-another’s eyes like a couple of roosters about to start kicking.  Biting her lip, she looked away, feeling like a child who’d been caught tussling over a toy.  /Man./  “I…”

Spike was already backing away, hand in his hair and glancing toward the bed with embarrassment flowing off of him in waves.  “Sorry, Platelet,” he apologized, in lieu of an apology to the sleeping woman.

“Like, jeez.  And they say I’m the moody adolescent.”  And Dawn looked back down at her US History textbook with a perturbed expression, like she was the chiding adult and they were the recalcitrant teens.  Which, right now, was fair.  

Also, kind of lowering.

Flinging herself into the nearest chair, Buffy buried her face in her hands.  “Ugh.”

Spike hesitated before taking the seat next to her and laying his nearer hand lightly to the center of her back.  “Sorry about it, pet.”

Buffy shrugged without excavating her face, spoke into her palms.  “That was stupid.  My bad.”

“No.  It takes two.”

She would not cry.  But.  “There’s just so much.”

“Yeah,” Spike answered softly. 

Good thing very quiet conversations were easy to carry on when one of the conversationalists could hear a mouse farting two doors down.  Heck, Buffy was pretty sure even she could hear things most full-on-humans couldn’t, what with the honing of the senses and the specifically tuning in for vamps and stuff.  “Do you think we could…  I mean, after she wakes up and we make sure she’s okay for tonight…  Do you think we could just sit?  Watch TV?  Work on my paper tomorrow or something?”  It was, after all, a Friday night.  She would have all weekend to get to said paper, right?

“Whatever you want, love.  Anything you want.”  And his voice lifted over her shoulder.  “What do you think, Niblet?  Chinese and bad TV and no more homework?”

The US History tome snapped shut with a dull  whumph .  “I vote  The Cutting Edge .”

“Beg pardon?”

Buffy bit back a smile.  How Spike had been with her for almost a year and managed to avoid seeing her favorite movie of all time was a mystery.  /Well, maybe not a mystery, since we only rediscovered the wonders of television in the last, like month…/  There had been, after all, a hell of a lot of sex to get through first.  And the crypt didn’t have a working VCR.  But still.  “It’s only the best skating movie ever  made .”

“Oh, bloody hell.”

“And also just like the best sappy romance ever about people who pretend they can’t stand each other but are secretly totally hot for each other.  You’ll love it.”  Grinning, Dawn shoved a pretzel into her mouth.  “It’s so completely you and Buffy it’s not even funny.  Except, you know, with blades on their feet instead of swords and crap.”

Spike grunted noncommittally.  “Does anyone punch anyone else?”

Buffy shook her head tolerantly and grabbed his arm to snug herself against him.  “Sort of.  There’s a hockey puck involved.  A lot of incidental violence.  A whole lot of athletic competition to see who’s top dog, though the woman usually has the edge…”

Spike tilted his head to indicate he had bowed to superior force.  “Doesn’t sound half bad.  When do they shag?”

Dawn snorted way more loudly than anyone would ever give her credit for when looking at her stick-figure frame.  “Don’t get your hopes up.  Those two took longer than even you two.”

Spike made a face.  “What kind of movie is this where there’s all that and no shagging?”

“You’ll see,” Buffy answered, and settled in to wait for Mom to wake up.  “It’s worth it, I promise.”

***

“You’re lying.  These two will be shaggin’ before we get a quarter-hour further into this bloody thing.  Tops.”

“Uhuh.  More popcorn?”

“If there’s tabasco.  See, look there.  She’s signaling like a bloody semaphore; and he’s all but tearing his sodding trousers off for her…”

“This is gonna be a long viewing experience.”

***

“What the bloody hell is  wrong  with these two?  I’d say she’s frigid, but…  Oh, wait.  Is the poor bird a virgin or summat?”

“You know, I was wondering that too.  What do you think, Buffy?”

“I am so not going to get into this conversation…”

“Oh, because I’m so innocent…”

“I’m just going to say that when you see her boyfriend, and how he acts around her, I’m willing to bet that that trip to the hotel was supposed to be ‘that time’.  And you know he’s the only guy who’s ever given her the time of day, because he works for daddy…”

“Money-grubbing bastard.  Poor chit’s so desperate she’s practically vibratin’.  Look at her.  This Dorsey bloke needs to put her out of her misery.  He talks a big game; what the bloody hell’s his great problem?”

“Maybe he’s trying to be a gentleman?”

“Has a gentleman, she does.  She’s bored as hell.  She wants to get shagged.  It’s as plain as day.”

“I hate to say it, but I’m with Spike on this one.”

“Dawn, shut up and watch the movie.”

***

“Are you bloody well serious?  They didn’t shag after that?  She was all but throwing herself at him!”

“She was drunk.  He was trying to do the right thing!”

“Oh, Christ.”

“So, if I’d thrown myself at you, all drunk, before we’d gotten together…”

He waggled his brows at her.  “I’d’ve had you six ways to Sunday, pet, and you’d’ve woken up thoroughly debauched and with a ruddy awful hangover, convinced you were a disgusting person for having gone to bed with a demon, and terribly confused about why you’d had such a bloody good time.”

He probably wasn’t wrong.  “Of course you would have.  Because you have no conscience.”

“Not sayin’ it wouldn’t’ve ended badly, love, but it sure the bloody hell would’ve been the shag of a lifetime, yeah?”  He pushed himself up on one elbow.  “Haven’t had you smashed yet.  When are we gonna try that?”

“Well, I’ve actually been th…”

“Lalala!  Virgin ears, here!”

/Ooops./

***

“Well, that was a bloody waste.  All that buildup and no shagging.  What the hell?”

“Okay, but you know they’re gonna go back and do it till way past dawn, right?  Even though they’ve both been up all night?  And her dad can just deal…”

“Her dad sucks anyway.”

“...So they just left it up to our imaginations, is all.”

“Bloody hell.  And that’s how you know it’s a bird-flick.”

“Um, because you didn’t know that from the figure-skating and the romance-novel setup, Mr. ‘I Religiously Watch  Dawson’s Creek  When I Think Buffy Isn’t Paying Attention’?”

“Okay, but that’s no secret, since I’m totally the one who got him into that show,” Dawn jumped in.  “Anyway, it doesn’t matter if they had sex or not, because it’s  so  romantic.  It’s Buffy’s favorite movie of all time; and it’s totally in my top ten.”

Spike stopped bitching to eye Buffy in surprise.  “This is your favorite movie, pet?”

Buffy squirmed around to avoid his gaze, feeling a little mocked.  “Okay, yeah.  But I love figure skating—you know that—and I’ve… kind of been a… a singles skater my whole life, only with slaying, and it’s like…  You don’t think you’ll ever get a partner, you know?  That no matter who you try on, it’ll always be a bad fit.  Or you think the one you had a long time ago was a good fit and then it goes really, really bad, and it burns you, and you think that was your only shot and no one else will ever fit, ever…” 

She shrugged, trying for nonchalant, though her throat had gone tight.  “And then someone comes along who seems like an enemy; someone you fight with and fight with and you don’t get along and you think you hate each other, but you also can totally predict each other’s moves and body language, and there’s this… physical intimacy.  And then you realize it’s more than chemistry; that you  get  each other.  That somewhere, out of nowhere, you have a  partner .  That you don’t have to be a solo skater anymore.  That you actually  can  do the pairs thing, and that the reason you were solo for so long and that the others didn’t fit isn’t because there’s something wrong with you…  It was because  they  weren’t right, no matter how hard you tried to make ‘em fit.  They were right for other people, is all.  You had to find the right one for  you , even if it seems completely out of left field, who it is.” 

Looking down at her hands, she shrugged a little.  “And once you do find that person… you know it’s right, and you’ll never be alone again.  Because that person’s the one who brings out the fighter in you, the best in you, makes you better than you’ve ever been, keeps you working, keeps you alive.”  She cut off, feeling stupid and weird and wrong… and was stunned when Spike twisted out from under her to bury her in the couch, mouth on hers.   “Oomph.”

He kissed her for a long time, till oxygen started to be a problem.  Buffy kind of forgot to care for most of it; just wrapped her arms around him and hung on, responding eagerly while he sort of drove her into the cushions in a fever of loving enthusiasm, hands roaming up from her hips to her ribs to cup her face.

“Oh my God, guys, get a room.”

Buffy was panting for breath when he finally lifted away, framing her face with his hands.  “Love you so bloody much, Buffy.”

“I love you,” she answered, and hoped he saw the intensity in her eyes.  Hoped her eloquent vampire understood all the things she never knew how to say.  Hoped that he could feel them now, at least, so that emotions and the flow of sensation between them might begin to make up for all the words she couldn’t manage in the din.

“Oh, Christ,” he whispered, and lowered again to gather her up tight in his arms, to pull her up into his shoulder and rock her against him.  “My One.  Oh, love…”

“Well, fine.  Movie night over.  I’m going upstairs to my room where it’s safe.  Ugh.”  Seizing the bowl of popcorn, Dawn swung up out of her seat and clumped away toward the stairs, muttering to herself about adults acting like teenagers and why did the teenager in the house have to act like the adult.

“She’s got a point,” Buffy murmured into Spike’s neck.  “I seriously considered dragging you out tonight to get tanked.”  She couldn’t but shake her head at herself in retrospect.  “Speaking of irresponsible.”

A low speed-chuckle vibrated against her neck-shoulder-region; Spike’s version of a titter.  They were both so messed up.  “If we had anyone else here to watch the Bit, I’d very much take you up on that, pet.  Wasn’t lyin’ about wantin’ to see what you’d be like, havin’ you in your cups…”

Buffy felt a wild urge to call up Tara and ask her to stay with her sister for a while so she could go out and get plastered and screw her boyfriend upside-down in chains or something--or maybe to let him do her that way for a change--and not think about anything at all.  Maybe ever again.  And that was so not a Buffy thing to do.  Not even a little bit.  “I’m thinking bad thoughts.  Bad, bad, wrong, anti-Buffy-ethical thoughts.  Ones that would probably make Dawnie feel completely unloved, and would make me feel so guilty if Mom ever even  looked  at me again…”  The confession made it a little better though. 

“Gratifying to know you’d let yourself think them, at least.  That’s progress.”  His voice had gone very rough.

Buffy shifted beneath him, aware from his reaction that he could smell how aroused she was right now.  “Probably best not to tell you too much about my thought processes, since you’re not known for your restraint.  You’d probably definitely convince me that since it’s no criminal act to indulge my wild side…”

He shifted with her, ground down a little.  “I think you’re too bloody responsible most days, Buffy, and if you don’t let off the charge sometime, you’ll fall to bits.  And I’ll be right at your side no matter how you feel you need to manage things, but I’m losin’ my mind same as you, so…”  He lifted his head, eyes blazing on hers.  “I’m at your bloody service, either way.”

She was tempted.  She was so beyond tempted.  /Am I a bad, bad girl, or…  What’s a few hours, really?  Dawn’s going to bed, and normally we’d patrol a little, and this’ll mean I’ll be more together for her, and Mom, tomorrow, right?  Both of us will be.  And we’ll be back for her the rest of the night, right?  And…”  And this was insane.  They should just go upstairs and… and be appropriate, adult role-models, right?  Not…

Somehow, without thinking, her hand strayed to her pocket, and she was flipping open the phone she had gotten in the last year to replace her aging beeper.  She held it out past Spike’s shoulder, aware his eyes were on her cheek, glittering in the low light as she scrolled through the names to a number she had only called a few times, looking for Willow. 

Once cued up, she stared at it for a moment, wondering if she could really do this.  But…  /She offered, right?/ 

Holding her breath, unable to believe she was actually taking this step, Buffy hit ‘send’. 

‘Hello?’

“Hey.  Uh, Tara?”

Spike stopped breathing.

‘Oh.  Hey, Buffy.  What’s up?’

“Hey, listen.  Uh, this is gonna maybe sound really weird, and if you’ve got something going on with Wil or whatever, I don’t wanna impose, but you said…”

‘I said anything I can do.  And I meant it.  What do you need?’

Buffy nodded, though Tara couldn’t see it, and forced the words out on a deep breath.  “A…a few hours?  Alone, without Dawn?  To just… get our heads together?  Is that… bad?  But we don’t wanna leave her alone, you know?  And she really, really likes you, so I thought…”

Spike lowered his head, very, very slowly, to the spot beside Buffy’s, still not breathing.

‘Absolutely, Buffy.  I can come by for a while.  Just give me a chance throw some stuff in a bag.  I… is it okay if Wil comes too?  We were just here doing some research into some magick-y stuff, you know…’

“Oh, we don’t have to…  We didn’t mean to interrupt…”  As far as Buffy had been able to determine from side-hints and conversation with Wil, when it came to those two, magicks often turned into sex, kind of the same way patrolling did for Buffy and Spike.

‘No, it’s all good.  We can research the spell just as well there.  It’s no big at all, right Wil?’

‘Oh, totally!’  Wil’s voice from the other side of the line was faint, but it still gave Buffy a qualm. 

/Are you gonna judge me if you…/

Spike’s resurgent breathing, hard and fast against her neck, tipped the scales.  /Just for tonight, it doesn’t matter.  We’ll even be… out, if something jumps off, so this is… virtuous, right?/  “Okay.  See you soon.”

As soon as she flipped the phone closed Spike had it out of her hand and cast aside on the table.  “What are we doin’ tonight, Slayer?” he ground out, fierce against her neck.  His entire body was tense as he fought not to grind down into her. 

Hands free, Buffy clutched at him, dug her nails into the flesh behind his shoulder blades.  “I say we go to Willy’s, or maybe somewhere more disreputable, get wasted, and then you tie me up and make me forget my name.  And then if I have anything left I’ll use my muscles to make you forget yours.”

He growled like she’d punched him, and his hips snapped their tether, driving hard and low and urgent against her clit.  His jeans were rough over the bulge of his cock, the thin material of her cotton eyelet skirt and panties doing little to alleviate the friction.  “Bloody fuck, kitten.”

Breathing through her nose, Buffy threaded her hands in his hair.  “Can you wait till we get out of here?” she managed.

He stilled with clear effort, his arousal sparking through her in a flood like lava to twine with her own urgency.  “You ask a whole bloody lot, pet.”

“I know.  But I need to go upstairs and tell Dawn… something.”

He made a despondent noise, but extricated himself and rose, disheveled and clearly ready to get the hell out of here.  “Yeah.  Right.  You want me to come?”

Biting her lip against the not-so-witty comeback, Buffy shook her head.  “Let me.  You just focus on putting that thing away so you’re decent for our guests.”

“Fat bloody chance, waving fantasies like that in my face…”

Snorting to herself in mild amusement, Buffy left her strained vampire behind and headed upstairs.  “Hey.  Dawnie,” she called through the door.

“Yeah?”

“We need to do a quick patrol.  Though, technically it’s a check of one graveyard…”  /Restfield, which no one uses anymore even if they’re the world’s dumbest fledge-making-fledge or idiot demon con-man, because the town’s Master owns it and the Slayer practically lives there, but who’s counting?/  “…And a run through Willy’s.  Not much; just enough to say I’m working, you know?  Keep up appearances?”  /All lies, and I should probably feel so bad about this, shouldn’t I?  I’m finally letting my relationship with a soulless vampire corrupt my good sense or my morals or my… whatever./  And was it bad that she couldn’t quite bring herself to give a damn right now?  “So Tara and Willow are coming by for a couple of hours, then we’ll be back…”  She was only lying to Dawn, after all.  She wasn’t lying to Wil and Tara.  Omitting, maybe, but not lying.  And it wasn’t like Dawn needed to know that her sister was leaving with the express intent to have her way with her vampire beau, or more likely to let said vampire have his way with her in any way he could possibly imagine.  Because crisis or no crisis, and it didn’t matter if Dawn was fifty, she was so never getting a blow-by-blow of her sister’s dates with Spike.

“Oh.”  Dawn came to the door, opened it.  And spoke as if sensing she was being dumbed down.  “Cool.  Did you tell ‘em I’m fourteen and I can be alone babysitting other kids by now and I probably don’t need one sitter, much less two?”

/And I thought we were doing so well tonight./  “I just… didn’t want you to feel deserted.”

Dawn rolled her eyes, one hundred percent teen attitude.  “I’m so totally fine!  I mean, tsha!  Like I can’t be alone for a couple of hours without adult supervision!  What do you think, I’m gonna burn the house down?”

Buffy sighed, aware that Dawn had a point, since she had only called Tara half to assuage her own guilt.  But still, the fact remained that…  Well, current circumstances were special ones.  “Normally I’d just tell you and go, but I didn’t want to leave you alone right now, with all this,” she repeated patiently. 

Dawn hesitated.  The moment hung on a seesaw.  Then, as if seeing how hard her sister was trying, she exhaled herself and nodded.  “Fine.  I like Tara.  I’m kind of mad at Willow today, but maybe they’ll teach me a spell or something.  Anyway, don’t worry, I’ll live till you get back.”

“Okay.  They’ll be here in a few.  I love you, Dawn.”

Dawn tried for nonchalant, but it had cracks as she answered, all blasé, “Yeah, I love you back.”

Heading back downstairs, Buffy was resolved to maintain adult boundaries with her guy at least until they were inside the car.  Or maybe they could use the motorcycle tonight?  Though, that would necessitate a quick trip to get it, which would kind of take them out of their way.  /Maybe save the bike for another date./  Then she thought of the rumbling between her legs.  They really hadn’t made much use of that machine, considering.  And that was a damn shame, wasn’t it?  /I s’pose I can suggest it.  It really isn’t  that  far out of our way./  “Hey,” she asked her guy as she descended the stairs.  “Do you think it’d be too much work to stop on the way there and switch to the motorcycle?”

His head swiveled to follow her as she alit.  His eyes trailed her hand on the newel post, up her arm, to her eyes.  He looked… starving.  “I think, my love, that that sounds a truly fitting idea.”

Buffy shivered.  He only sounded like that when he was making  plans .  “I thought I said I wanted you decent when our company arrives,” she reminded him, trying for playful, and eyed his crotch pointedly.

Said crotch jumped like a Cocker Spaniel whose mistress had snapped her fingers.  Spike threw her a pained look.  “You want it to behave, love, don’t keep drawin’ attention to it, yeah?  It’s a trifle excited.”

Buffy giggled in spite of herself, wondering if she’d stepped out of her body… but no.  That wasn’t it.  She was very definitely in her body.  With Spike, she always was.  He just had that power; the one that made it possible for her to live in the moment, and forget everything else that beckoned, roared, demanded her attention, banged the door down. 

“He’s good for you,”  Mom had said to her, more than once in the last year. 

/Mom won’t care, as long as we’re here for Dawn and her in the morning.  That’s all that matters./

They remained locked like that, a good seven feet of space between them like minimum safe distance, until the knock sounded on the door.  Then Buffy was off the foot of the stairs like a shot and opening it without even looking.  “Hey.”  Willow and Tara slipped in, carrying their bulging messenger bags and their occult reference books and looking wide-eyed and concerned.  “Thanks for coming.”

“No problem.  Is Dawn still up?” 

Buffy marveled at how much Tara was talking; and with so few stutters.  It was kind of cool, actually; like some kind of ice had been broken.  “I think so.  I told her you two were coming.”  Buffy tried a little half-smile.  “Don’t be surprised if she tries to crash your spell-research party.  She thinks your Wicca circle is the coolest thing since Spike.”

“Oi!” he called from his station behind the door, where he had moved with vampire-speed to thrust his arms into his duster.

“Let it go, Spike.  It’s about time she got over the crushy feelings and got into some girl-power stuff.  She’s too young to be thinking about date-y stuff, anyway.”

He grumbled, but acceded to her point.  “Got that bloody well right.”  Accoutered, he closed his coat a little tighter around his… area; his one concession in the interim to his little problem.  “We off then, pet?”

“Yeah.  Better get this show on the road.”

Willow assessed them both with interest.  “Gonna go beat something up?” she asked cheerily, and set her heavy bag down on the coffee table. 

Buffy breathed through her nose.  Told herself firmly that she had said she would lie to Dawn because kid, but that she shouldn’t be ashamed enough to lie to everyone else, because she was a grownup and had needs and this whole thing with Mom was stressful, and…  “No, uh…  We’re gonna go be a couple and get our frustrations out in a couple-y way so we’re not a mess tomorrow, and we can be there for Dawn and Mom,” she answered bluntly.  /And you so don’t need to know about the alcohol and BDSM part.  Though, probably we shouldn’t be thinking about BDSM when I’m planning on being way drunk, because that’s probably against the rules, but we have safewords, and Spike didn’t call me on that because…  Oh.  Right.  Vampire.  He’s barely sticking to this whole safewords thing as it is, to make me feel better about stuff.  And this is probably a bad plan and I should probably not do it, but…/ 

Well.  Maybe they could adjust the plan to ‘wasted and regular sex’ and then do the tying up part after some of the wasted wore off a little, or something.  /Whatever.  I’m making this up as I go./

“Oh.  Um, I guess that makes sense,” Wil answered, sounding kind of floored.

“It does,” Buffy answered firmly.  “I think…”

She trailed off when Spike crowded up close to her at the door and lifted his fingers to drag them, very pointedly, over his bite-scar.  Buffy’s mouth dropped open involuntarily, and her eyes closed as her breath shuddered out of her in a rush. 

She kind of forgot to inhale again for a moment as her body rocked toward his. 

“We’re gonna go now,” Spike informed them quietly, and turned Buffy, gave her a little shove toward the door.  “Put on your jacket, kitten.”

God, it did things to her brain when he called her that.  It was a term specifically reserved for when they were…  When he was the one who was…

He didn’t use it a lot, but when he did, it was… a thing.  Buffy found herself fumbling blindly to shove her arms into the sleeves of the article he held for her.  Looked once over her shoulder, half-unseeing.  Willow was just staring at them, clearly thrown.  Tara, though, was watching them, Buffy noted distantly, with what looked like a knowing expression.  She was hiding her face behind a curtain of hair as she set down her pile of books, but from what Buffy could see, she had a faint smile curving her lips. 

“Have fun,” the blonde witch called as they exited.  She sounded amused.

The door slammed quietly shut behind them, leaving them outside in the cool night.  

The air out there did little to bank the ardor in her flesh. 

From inside, Buffy could hear Willow’s voice, rising in shocked exclamation through the cracked front window.  “What, so they’re just gonna go… screw somewhere, because…”

“No.  They’re gonna go reconnect, and help each other forget for a little while, that life and death are all around them, by making each other feel alive.  We know all about that, Willow.  We do it with the magicks, and we do it with each other.”

“Oh.  Well, yeah, but…  But…”

“Here.  Let’s start up with the spell again.  We were reading Quintessus...”

Buffy shivered, staring up at the moon, sure she was messing up.  That was, until the instant Spike’s fingers drifted, cool under her hair, to press at her nape and to slide over to just shy of his bite.  “Come on then.  Got to go fetch that motorbike.”

“Oh, yeah.”  /That./

***

Buffy pressed her thighs together under the table.  She felt like the booth was vibrating under her, the scarred vinyl like a sex toy.  Everything vibrated.  She was going to fall apart, had to stop herself from sliding around on the seat like some kind of nympho.  Riding the Harley with Spike was one thing; a quick way to get a little turned on any day of the week. 

Riding it when she was  already  all turned on was an entirely other proposition, and why were they here at Willy’s watching demons get drunk when she could be somewhere in an alley, bouncing on his cock?  Seriously, who’s idea was this, anyway?

“Forbearance makes the prize all the sweeter in the end, kitten,” Spike informed her, taking a swig of his Jack-straight-from-the-bottle, and nodded at the single shot in her hand.  “Drink up, and maybe I’ll give you a little something to tide you over.”

God, what would he do to reward her if she complied?  “It’s just so gross.  And it burns.”

“Just give it a try.  I promise, it’ll go down smoother than the first one.”

With a sigh, she lifted the tiny glass, eyed it askance. 

“And don’t bloody sip it, or it’ll make your whole soddin’ tongue numb.  It’s meant to be quaffed, pet.  Just down it fast.  Let it ride right past the front of your mouth, hit the back of your throat.  Like givin’ it a blowie, yeah?”

“Now I see why it’s all, ‘you drink like a professional’ or ‘like an amateur’…” Buffy muttered, and holding her breath, she screwed up her courage, threw the miniscule glass at her mouth, and tossed the stuff toward the rear of her tongue like it was cough medicine.

It most definitely wasn’t cough medicine.  It still burned.  And it made it hard to breathe, with all the fumes.  And maybe burned off all her nose hairs.  And sizzled all the way down, leaving her wheezing.  “Bleargh!” she exclaimed, shaking her tongue out and gasping. 

“Good girl,” Spike told her proudly, and gave her that look; that one that said he fucking adored her. 

She jumped when she felt something blunt and cool flick her vibrating clit through her panties.  “Wh…”

“Shh…”  He did it again, sending a jolt of sensation through her entire body like she was a plucked string wound too tight, and oh my god, was that his  toe?

“How the hell did you get your boot off without me seeing you?” she hissed, half-horrified and half intrigued.

“You want me to stop?” he asked, for all the world as if he were making casual conversation. 

He sat there, leaned back in his side of the booth, lazy and chill with one hand wrapped around his bottle, innocent as any vampire could ever look, one booted foot planted on the floor and the other up to absolutely no good all wormed under her skirt, and…  And…  And she so didn’t want him to stop, but this was weird, and in public, and…

“All you’re gonna get right now, pet.  Take it or leave it.”  And he flicked again.

And then halted utterly.

Confused, she lifted her eyes to his, uncertain whether she wanted him to keep going or not.  It was… really kind of embarrassing that what he was doing was working—or maybe it was how he was doing it, or where they were—but also her body kind of had a ‘beggers can’t be choosers’ mode going at the moment, and she had the distressing feeling that at any moment she might start pleading if he didn’t do it again.  Which was really just unacceptable, but…

Tugging the shot-glass toward himself, Spike tilted the bottle to refill it halfway, then shoved it back in her direction and gave her a pointed jerk of his chin.  “Drink up, kitten.”

She gaped at him, stunned.  “You’re kidding.”

“Give a little, get a little, my love.”

“Oh my God.”

He grinned—evilly—and tilted his head back, adam’s apple prominent, to swig freely from his bottle.  And lowered it to pin her with his predator’s gaze.  “What’s it to be, then, pet?”

Her body blazed with need, thrumming on the edge.  She could feel the cool aura of his, um… nether digits resting just there, next to her thigh.  She was pulsing just beyond his reach, and…  “Damn you.”  Reaching out, she dragged the shot-glass close, picked it up, slugged it back, blinking. 

It burned, but not as badly the second time.

And shuddered when his toes went back to work with fierce skill; more than one this time, caressing over her damp underwear.

At sea, Buffy clutched the edge of the table to stay upright and bit her lips to keep from moaning.  The room swayed a little as she rode a tide of impossible, ridiculous sensation. 

“Christ, you’re a lightweight, my love.”

She had only had three shots, but…  “Please,” she heard herself whisper, and it was like the words were coming from someone else’s mouth.  “Don’t stop.”

“That’s my girl.”  

Not only did he not stop, he went faster.  And faster still, and it was insane, no one should be able to be this dexterous with their toes, or maybe she was just that drunk; but the bar whirled, and she swiftly forgot how it smelled in here, and the sounds around them faded, the world telescoping to the table to which she clung and the sensation of him… doing that, until she was convulsing, holding on for dear life so she didn’t fall, or bang her head on the hard surface, or… 

Well, at the end it was mostly so that she didn’t just slither right underneath the booth to land next to his bare foot on the nasty floor. 

“Well,” Spike drawled, and lifted his bottle for a satisfied-sounding swig, “I’d call that a nice start to the evening.”

“You,” Buffy breathed, still blind, “are a smug bastard.”

“You,” he answered, and sniffed the air around them, “smell like the only heaven I’ll ever see or want to know.”

He made her melt.  “Can we…”

“Yeah,” he answered, and she heard the bottle being set aside, felt his foot slide away from her heated flesh, heard the thump as he reset it inside his boot.  “Let’s get out of here, kitten, and see to you.”

Shivering, Buffy let herself be handed out of the booth and through the door, while a large compliment of the town’s demon populace watched their Slayer be escorted by the Master vamp who had once served her as, in the parlance of vampires, little more than a glorified minion.  And left thinking about the politics of that little scene till tomorrow. 

Tonight was not about politics, or about anything else but  feeling .

*   *   * 





Alrighty then.  
You'll likely assume that the next bit shall be equally--if not more--smutty.  Heh.  
I hope I shall not disappoint.  

Chapter Text

Buffy turned over in bed, Spike sprawled along her side with an arm flung over her body.  Her eyes popped open on the confused remains of an exceedingly sexy dream, most of it a retread of last night.  “Did I really… do  that?”

A low rumble of laughter met her ears.  “Can’t take it back now, love.”  The arm slid off of her back to vanish beyond her head, to the accompaniment of a low groan and a few cracking noises as her guy stretched full-bodied; the kind of stretch he tended to do when he was utterly self-satisfied.  “Must say, you surprised me a bit.”

Buffy blushed a little.  “I… was really okay with letting you use your imagination.  As long as I didn’t have to think.”

Spike was grinning.  She could hear it in his voice.  “So I noticed.”  He rolled toward her, and his tongue trailed up her back, from the top of her panties, there at the dip of her tailbone, all the way up to the hem of her spaghetti camisole, which he pushed up one-handed to continue his trek along her spine.  “Pretty much the only thing you said all night was, ‘I trust you’.  Which is a dangerous bloody thing to say to a vampire with a hundred years of fantasies built up about what he might do with a captive Slayer in his grasp.”

“Uhuh, Mr. Big Talker,” Buffy murmured, squirming.  “If that was what you were doing, you were oddly patient and gentle.”  He had been.  There had been no degradation, not even a pretense at abuse; not in play, not in props.  There had been a few firm rules, her total surrender… and then an intensity of loving while she had been held helpless that had left her trembling, gasping… and his.  

His mouth stilled against her back.  “Why’d you let me do it, Buffy?” he asked.  “Let me bind you, do what I wished?  I could’ve done anything.”

“I know.”  She turned her face toward his, shrugged a little.  “And I know usually it’s me doing it to you.  But I needed it last night.  And I trust you.”

He closed his eyes, let out a shaky breath.  “Couldn’t but be patient and gentle, knowin’ that.  You understand what I’m sayin’, love?  That you’d…  That you’d put yourself into my hands that way is…”  He let out a breath.  “An’ you know what it is to me to have… room for tenderness.  To be able to put it in that place, where before it’s only been…”

She swallowed, remembering what he’d said, more than once, about Drusilla.  What she assumed love had been like, for them… because it was the only way his ex had understood love.  For them it had always come coupled with pain, with suffering, with cruelty.  So maybe what she had given him by letting him be soft with her when they were…

Still, he had done it all, which was maybe hardly fair, considering he was also suffering right now.  “Thank you,” she told him softly.  “For taking that on, when I know you probably needed…”

His eyes glowed, and he stopped her mouth with one finger.  “Oh, you gave me back so much, love.  No worries.  I promise you, I’m bloody well paid out…”  And he lowered his lips to her shoulder.  “Go on then.  Go back to dreamin’ and rememberin’.  I’ll lie here and dream and remember it with you till it’s time to be up and about.  It’s still really soddin’ early.”

“Is it?”  She had no sense of time right now.  Her eyes were sandy, but…

“Only about seven.”

Seven on a Saturday.  Why was she even awake?  “Mmmm.”  Closing her eyes, she slipped back into a happy somnolence, let the cozy memories play over her body and her mind, while Spike’s fingers toyed with her hair.  

The ride back on the motorcycle had her a thrumming mess.  Getting off the way she had at the bar had barely taken the edge off, only whetted her appetite, and as they rode she had to fight to keep her caresses to his chest under the duster.  As the gates of Restfield hove into sight she lost all remaining threads of self-control and dipped lower, over the six-pack of his belly, over his belt-buckle, to run a hard stroke up the unsatisfied bulge in his jeans.  

One hand left the handlebars of the motorcycle to clench hard over hers, pressing it into place, and he huffed out a breath.  “Not yet, pet.  You didn’t ask permission.”

She pouted.  “But I wanna touch you.  Get my mouth on you…”

“Not for a while, kitten.”  Turning into the gate on a long, slow curve, he rode along the maintenance path behind the crypts, seeking the shed that housed the lawnmowers and all that.  The source of his illegal water hookups.  Next to that was the security hutch from which he pirated his electricity.  /My low-grade, petty criminal./  Beyond that was the little overhang between two crypts, vastly overgrown with ivy, where he stored the motorcycle for free.  “Alright, love; off you go.”

She stepped off, feeling jittery as he turned off the heavy machine and shoved it into its hidey-hole.  And then he was back out, dusting off his hair and coat, and turning to grab her hand.  “C’mon, then.”  And he was tugging her down the back path toward the mausoleum he called home.

She followed without comment.  God, she never felt this submissive; like  ever , it was bizarre, but tonight it felt weirdly good to let him call the shots.  To not have to think, to control anything.  “I’m gonna feel so weird about this tomorrow,” she informed him casually as they rounded the side of the crypt to find the door.  

“No doubt,” he agreed, and held the door for her.  “S’pose that means I best do everything I can think of while I have the chance, in case I might never get another, yeah?”

She turned to regard him as he followed her in and closed the door, assessing.  Was he trying to give her an out?  Scare her into changing her mind?  “I trust you,” she told him softly, and tugged off her thin, leather jacket.  Somewhere in between Willy’s and Restfield, the world had gone from whirling to just spinning slightly.  She still felt floaty and mildly detached, but not nearly as ready to fly off the globe while it kept turning without her.  “And I’m even mostly of sound mind.  I think I’m about half as drunk as I was twenty minutes ago.”

“Yeah?” Spike answered, cocking his head with interest.  “I wonder if that’s drunk enough to be sloppy and abandoned, but still sober enough to mean what you say?”

Buffy sighed and threw her jacket over toward the ratty couch.  “Meh.  I agreed to this before I started drinking.”  Lifting her arms, she smiled at him.  “Take me below and ravish me, vampire.  Chains optional but encouraged.”  

Spike held very, very still for one seriously protracted moment, and then something seemed to run through him that looked like exultation, and he leapt for her, in full game face.  “Oh, shit, Buffy, oh, Christ, I’m gonna make it so bloody good for you love…”  He had her up in his arms and was jumping down into the hole to the lower level before she had even gotten her bearings.  And then he was setting her on her feet with a kiss that could only be described as reverent.  “Close your eyes and wait here, pet.  Let me set some things up.”

“Alright.”  She simply stood there, eyes closed, waiting.  And was surprised when he didn’t move off right away.  He just stayed there in front of her for a sec, breathing hard, his arousal pounding through her in waves to match her own, banked needs.  “What?  What do you want me to do?”

“Nothing.  Christ.”  He sounded strained.  “What you do to me, Buffy.  I could go off like a bloody fountain just lookin’ at you, standin’ there, puttin’ yourself into my hands like this…”

“I trust you,” she repeated, and felt the tremor of it blast through him.  

“Bloody fuck,” he whispered, and brushed her cheek with his hand.  Then, “I’ll be quick.”

She heard the rustling, the sounds of candles being lit, the clink of the chains, and then, “I’m gonna undress you, kitten, and lead you where I want you to be.  Keep your eyes closed, yeah, till I tell you to open them.”

“Okay.”  She was trembling a little now, not sure quite what she had gotten herself into, but really kind of curious to see where it would lead.   He might never know what it meant that she trusted him with binding her, after her little trip to the hospital.  After Lothos.  But in a way, this would be therapy.  /I can test myself./  The thought, if a little scary, was strangely alluring.  /I’m tired of being afraid of this.  And I know you’d never.../  He would never make her feel the helpless vulnerability she’d felt there, or in the Council’s hands. She had the power here; to stop it, to break free.  And besides...

She really did trust him.  

His fingers brushed over her, a reminder that he was here, close; a safe and known quantity as he made quick work of her blouse buttons.  And then, “Lift your arms.”

She did, without question, and he muttered an oath as he stripped off her top and camisole.  A faint note of amusement entered his voice, then.  “No bra, is it?”

Buffy found herself surprised at how steady her voice sounded; how certain and lightly teasing.  “I thought you said underwear gets in the way.”

There was a short pause.  “You’ll note,” he answered, in a very controlled voice, “as how I’m not crowdin’ up to bury my face between your heavenly tits right now.  I’m playin’ a bloody role.  One I used to be good at, dammit.”

Taken by surprise, she giggled.  Pulled it in with an effort, forced her face to sober, imagining his expression.  “Sorry.  I’m respectful of your struggle.”

“Cruel wench.  Alright then.”  He pulled in a few audible breaths, schooling himself to stillness, then moved close again, setting all her hairs on end and making her body ripple.  And ran the tips of his fingers down, from the valley between her breasts, over her taut stomach, down to the waistband of her skirt.  Down, down, to the hem, there at her calf.  Lifted it, urging her leg up as well.  She complied, and let out a little sob of breath when he slipped up under the skirt without further ado to hitch one end of her panties off her hip and down over her knee, off over her white shoes.  

“You’re not supposed to wear white after Labor Day,” she informed him, scatterbrained.  “Should I take those off?”

“No,” he answered very roughly.  “You’re going to keep those on the whole bloody time.”

“Oh.”

He had her underwear bunched in one hand; she could tell by the way he sat tense before her, the way he lowered her leg with a skim of knuckles, the way he used his other hand to repeat the process with the other side of her undies.  /And, those are going into his pocket as a keepsake, and it’s a wonder I have any underwear left, with him around./  She opened her mouth to tell him if he was going to keep stealing and tearing her underwear, he needed to get on buying her more, but then thought the better of it.  She was just letting go tonight.  /I’ll tell him tomorrow./  “Am I keeping the skirt on too?”

“Hush,” he told her in distracted tones, and drew her, eyes still closed, around the room in a four-footed dance.  They maneuvered around the foot of the bed, toward the far side of the chamber, then, “You need anything, pet, before I bind you?  Need to use the loo or anything?”

She fought down the brief surge of panic.  /I’m with you.  You asked.  That means I’m safe./  

“Buffy?” he queried, hesitant and catching the edges of her moment’s alarm.  

“I’m okay,” she answered, moved briefly closer.  Drew in a long inhalation of his scent.  /I’m okay.  I’m with Spike.  This is going to be good.  Completely new and different feels.  So just focus on the now, and the question./  

Centered back in her body, she duly considered the matter; but she’d done that before she’d left Willy’s.  The bar-owner had started making the bathrooms a lot more presentable, on pain of Slayer wrath, once she’d started coming around making irritable faces at him in the last few months.  “No, I think I’m good.” 

Spike remained still for a moment, then, “Do I need to know something, love?”

She didn’t want to talk about it right now.  Didn’t want to break the mood, didn’t want to bring it up.  Didn’t want to think.  “Can I wait to tell you if it comes up again?  I want to enjoy this.”

A brief silence, then…  “Alright,” he told her quietly, and drew up one of her hands.  Kissed her wrist.  “Only gonna ask one more time, Buffy.  You sure about this?”

Buffy opened her eyes, set her gaze firmly on his.  “I trust you.”

He was in game face and blazing, and he looked…  /Oh./  This was all demon, making love to her.  No leftovers of the man.  All demon, all the time.  /And that’s why you want me to be sure./  

She lifted her hand to his cheek, brushed her thumb over his changed brow.  “Make me feel, Spike.  Keep me in my body and let me feel you, everywhere.”  And she very deliberately closed her eyes again.

The hungry-satisfied rumble he made vibrated just under her skin in a way that would have been a predatory warning to anyone else.  /But I’m just tuned into a different station with him; or I’m just that messed up, because Slayer./  Every hair on her body stood up… but for her, instead of signaling ‘Danger! Get out! Run!’ or even ‘Fight!’ all she was getting out of this was,  ‘God , yes’, and similar syllables that made even less sense and translated to mostly goo, because tonight Buffy had somehow lost all of ‘Slayer’ except the ‘not-afraid-of-vampires’ portion of festivities.  Hell.  She had even lost any semblance of healthy respect this evening in favor of ‘just do me’, which was…  

/Well.  Probably how Spike got most of his meals before last year, but yanno.  Currently being goo, don’t care./ 

She felt the manacle clip around her right wrist first, then her left, and shivered.  Her arms hung above her head, bent at about a forty-five degree angle, the cold metal making her skin flinch till it absorbed her warmth.  She would have been anxious, but then Spike’s bumpy forehead was at her neck for a second—mmmmm—and he was breathing hard, fighting for control, while awe flooded the link between them.  The timeout was not, she knew, because of the sight of her bound; or not mostly.  /It's because of what I said.  What I’m giving up.  And why./  

But the respite ended up being just as much for her as it was for him.  His scent, the feel of his body against and all around her, the fizzy buzz of his presence filled her with a sense of time, place, and person… and there was nothing else.  Everything was okay and right, and there was nothing left anymore to associate this with other times and places.  Even the restraints felt utterly different—metal, not cloth with velcro, and she was standing, not lying down—and  Spike .  /Spike is here./

God,  she wanted him.

After a moment, she felt rather than heard him slip to his knees, and then his fingers were siding coolly around to find the closure of her skirt.  It wafted down, leaving her naked to her white, strappy shoes.  

It hit her in that moment.  /I really shouldn’t, but I feel seriously sexy right now, considering I’m naked and chained up.  Is that twisted?/  And, considering that Spike was practically falling apart over there when she was the one bound, she had begun to realize that she kind of felt oddly powerful.  Which was a trip.  “You okay?” she asked, casually stepping out of the ring of cloth.

“Hush,” he whispered again, and stood with a rustle.  Turned to, she imagined, lay her skirt over the foot of the bed and regain his composure.  

No one had ever told her that the submissive one could feel so much power.  It was nuts.  It made no sense.  But there it was.  

/Talk about getting your own back./  Whatever else happened tonight, Buffy felt like she had already won.

When Spike returned, he had apparently gotten his mojo back, because his voice was all firm and hard.  Like, probably, other parts of him.  “I have a few rules, pet.”

“Okay.”  This sounded… interesting.  

“One.  You don’t talk unless I ask you something or you need to use your safety word.”

She supposed she had to give him that one, or she’d keep throwing off his concentration.  Technically, blood-wise, she was his superior, so it was kind of unfair of her to interrupt on a rare occasion like this when they were trying to invert the dynamic.  Especially since blood or no blood, it was just way too easy for her to fall back into ‘in-charge-girl’ mode.  Which was probably really bratty, considering what they were trying to do here.  /And you’ll always let me, even if it frustrates you and screws everything up.  So, deal.  I can do that.  I think./  “That’s really strict, but alright.”  

“Agreed then.  Two.”  His voice had gone all throaty.  “No off-limits bits of you.  You want to use your word, you go ahead, but once you do, I don’t touch you again on that bit of you.  It’s all or nothing.”

Well… that was… intense.  But… she had said she trusted him.  And if this was about pushing her boundaries, seeing what she could feel…  “Okay,” she breathed, shaky but sure.  /There’s always that good old safeword.  And there’s always next time, if I’m not ready for something this time and I need to think about it, right?  It’s not like ‘not now’ means ‘never’./

“Right then.  Three,” and now his voice was shaking as if he hadn’t been able to believe that she’d agreed to two (which was fair, since she was kind of surprised at herself for it).  Then he firmed up abruptly, sounding oddly stern.  “You don’t get to come till I tell you to.”

Buffy’s eyes cracked open in shock.  “ Excuse  me?”

His hand slid over her face, closing her eyes again.  “I tell you when to come, pet.  Till then, you have to hold back.”

/Well… crap.  I don’t even know if I can… do that./  “Uh, what if I… screw up?”

“Well, then you get punished, kitten,” he answered as if it were the most logical thing in the world.

/Um, wow./  “Are we talking flogging, or walking the plank, or what, here?”

“Master’s discretion.”  

/Okay, now he sounds like he’s having way too much fun./  Which, of course he was.  He’d gotten the upper hand back.

She could call this off.  Except…  /Spike won’t ever do anything to hurt me.  Not like that; not really.  And I do trust him.  So…/  “This is really gonna suck,” she heard herself say, feeling aggrieved.

“Actually, you might find you rather like it, love.  Is that a yes?”

She blew out a breath, feeling edgy but surprisingly more squirmy for all the conversation than she had been prior.  There was a lot of mystery in this, and her brain was working overtime trying to figure out what he had in mind.  It was a little anxious-making, but mostly there was just a lot of anticipation, because spontaneous much?  “Okay, yeah.  I’ll do my best.”

“That’s my girl.”  She felt the back of his hand graze down, from her neck, between her breasts again, like he was both gentling and admiring her.  “That’s my girl.  Alright, then.  Alright.”  She heard him step away, heard his belt buckle open, his pants unzip, heard a rustle.  “Open your eyes, kitten.”  

She did, and stared in shock.  He was sitting on the edge of the bed, a good ten feet away from her, just watching her dangling there… and jerking off, the asshole.  He had his shirt off and his jeans undone and riding low on his hips, and was pulling at himself in slow, steady strokes; playing with his foreskin the way he liked to do, his thumb flicking irregularly over the rich, pinkening head of his cock and golden eyes glowing on her while his braceleted wrist flashed in the candlelight.  

She opened her mouth to ask him what the hell he was doing, when she saw the challenge in his eyes.  /Oh.  I’m not supposed to talk.  Right./

Outrage filled her, twining with unwilling arousal as she watched the familiar sight and her body responded accordingly.  She reluctantly admitted to the eroticism of watching him.  He was so beautiful, bastard though he was.  She felt his growing need build; as he let her feel it, pooling in his groin, tightening in his balls, his perineum, his thighs, curling at the balls of his feet and tingling in his belly.  And then, as the familiar rushing feeling began, that prelude to his orgasm…  he stopped.  Reached down, firmly tugged his balls away from his body; closed his eyes, breathed long and deep.  Nodded, and stood up.  “Christ, you’re gorgeous,” he whispered, “your eyes on fire like that.  Lookin’ at me like I’m a traitor.  Like you’d like to bloody kill me.”  And to her amazement he actually zipped up his jeans over his cock—which had to be incredibly painful…  Oh yes, she felt it, and it was—and stalked over to face her.  

She opened her mouth.  Closed it again, helpless without her words, such as they were.

“Go ahead and ask, kitten.”

“Why…”  She didn’t even know where to begin.  Why chain her up and then jerk off in front of her?  To prove he could?  To give her some kind of show?  To piss her off?  And then, if he was going to, why stop before he…

“If you don’t get to come, pet, neither do I,” he informed her softly.  “Not yet, at least.  But you’re so bleedin’ gorgeous, I just had to take a moment.”

“Wh…”  /You did it because you wanted to be  fair?/

He had the weirdest sense of fair play in the universe, her amoral vampire.

Smirking, he moved closer, pressed a finger to her lips.  “Close your eyes,” he repeated the old instruction.

Biting off about seven retorts, Buffy did as she was told.  And felt her body jerked hard against the roughness of his jeans, the incredible hardness there.  “Feel what you do to me, kitten?”

She bit back a moan, wondering if he would grind against her when she was all bare.  Those jeans would be… really a lot.  Also, she had half-expected him to call her ‘Slayer’ just then… but he hadn’t.  He was all vamped out, all demon-y, but he was still speaking to the woman in her and not the Slayer at all.  It was weird.  It was confusing.  

And she couldn’t ask.  Not if she was abiding by the rules, anyway.

“No coming,” he reminded her, and then he ducked without fanfare to fling her left leg over his shoulder and was diving for…  

/Okay, you know what?  We’ve been doing this for way long enough for me to say words, at least in my own head./  He went straight for her pussy and was doing what he loved best, and she couldn't put her hands on his head because they were restrained, so all she could do was hang on with all she had to the chains and rock forward against his face and hold on and pray she could figure out how not to… how to tell him when to…  Because if he didn’t, then she would…  She wouldn’t be able to…

It got to that point way too soon, and she was trying to jump away, making desperate noises behind her teeth; and he seized her hips in his hands and thrust two fingers, hard, into her.  “Don’t. Come,” he told her firmly, and settled back in to some little side-ventures that kept her just that much on edge; that let her take a little bit of a breather.  But not for long, and then he was right back to where she couldn’t… 

All other communication taken away, she resorted to pushing, kicking, desperate ploys to get him to stop; heard him chuckling at her gasping breaths and pounding heart… and then he was back to his merciful little cruelties while she stood on her tip-toes on her one foot, and fought for equilibrium.  And vibrated.  

This went on so long that Buffy was starting to feel wrung out, strung out… and more than a little desperate.  She thought if he didn’t let her get off soon she might actually brain him with her shoe.  Which, of course, would solve nothing, since it would only leave her dangling here with no means of fixing the situation, but it would at least stop the torture.  “You wanna come, kitten?”

Panting, gasping, all but sobbing for breath, and  aching,  she opened her eyes to glare at him, stunned and incensed.  

The asshole laughed aloud.  “Then you have to let me do something first.  

/Okay, here we go./

And then his hand was over her eyes again.  Biting off a few more imprecations, trembling with need, she closed her stupid eyes and forced herself to wait for whatever evil thing he had in mind to do to her next.  It was bridling… and weirdly arousing to just dangle there in midair; trembling, unfulfilled, and just waiting to see what…

/God, please let him be ready to get in me, because it’ll be hard as hell not to come right away, but at least he’ll be having a hard time too, and maybe I can make him go, and then I can.../

Something cool and slick touched her, um… backdoor.  Not what she had expected.  She jumped a little and pondered using her word.  

“Well?” he asked, waiting.  

She held her breath, then raised one finger.  

“Question?”

She nodded.

“Alright.”

“Why?” she asked softly.  “Why now, and not… some other time?”

He pondered that for a moment, then…  “Because… I’m thinkin’ of tryin’ it again, with you,” he informed her softly.  “Because I trust you that much, and I miss it.  But I’m gonna feel right helpless, and maybe a bit terrified for a mo’, here and there, and I think it’ll help you to understand a bit of what it feels like, and how to go about it… especially when it’s a vulnerable thing.”

“Oh.”  That… actually made a lot of sense.  And also, it was scary, knowing that he never did anything without intent.  Not that she didn’t know that.  Everything in their mutual sex life taught her something; about herself and her own wants and preferences, or his.  

It also explained a little of why he was all Mr. Game Face right now.  He was kind of protecting himself a little.  She wondered if he would be when they… did this for him.  “But… it’s good?”

“Yeah,” he answered softly, fervently.  “And I’d love to know how it feels for you.  Because it’s bound to be different… but also, it’ll remind me.”

/Oh./  Closing her eyes, she drew in a deep, shaky breath.  /It’s good, he says it’s good.  He said he’d make it all so good for me.  People do this.  If I don’t like it I can opt out./  Also, despite the fact that the shock had dropped her arousal down a couple of notches, his frankness and the images he had given her of possible future engagements had replaced her on-edge desperation with a kind of heated tenderness that made her want this almost as much for him as out of curiosity.  “Okay.”

His mouth was on hers before she realized what was happening, and she kissed him back fangs and all, surprised and elated by the suddenness, the rough emotion in the kiss.  It wasn’t the first time she had kissed him when he was fanged out, and he always took care, but this time he seemed a little more desperate about it, and she thought she felt him tremble a little, touched her tongue lightly to one exposed and pointed canine in a bid to slow him, calm him.

He rolled away from her, his bumpy forehead pressed to hers.  And then his dry hand was at her poor, overworked clit, and she was clinging to the chains again and biting her lip as her banked need came roaring ferociously back; and she abruptly forgot the rule about talking and had started some kind of crazed stream of consciousness that sounded like “ohgodspikeican’tpleaseyouhavetostopifI…”  And then his slick fingers were tickling at her rear again, and it actually did feel kind of good, and anyway it distracted her from what he was doing up front, which was pretty necessary right now if she wasn’t going to come, so she focused on that as he pressed.  And that was uncomfortable, and she tried to relax, and…  “Push back against me,” he advised her.

/Huh?/  

It took her a minute to catch what he was saying, and it was counter-intuitive, but the second she did…  “Oh!”

“Just take a mo’ to get used to the idea, pet.”

She needed to.  This was like losing her virginity all over again… except totally not.  Her body was kind of fighting back.  She lowered her head to his shoulder and breathed.  /I don’t know…/

And then he did the thing to her clit again, and, torn between two poles, she relaxed.  And all of a sudden it felt... good.  Which made literally no sense at all, and…  “There we are, love.”  He stood there for a moment, face against her chest, breathing with her, then kissed her breastbone.  “Alright, have another, and then…”  And she felt him press another finger against her, which… was he  kidding?

Except it was easier that time.  Tougher, and easier, because she knew what to do, and it seemed like a lot; and yet it was faster, and then he used her clit against her and all the sudden everything was  good , and she started to realize that all that pressure felt… astonishingly  nice .  “Wh…” she began, before remembering and cutting off.  It just didn’t make any  sense .  

“Think you’re ready, then,” he informed her conversationally, and slipped his fingers away.  

It felt oddly wrong for them to be gone.  She had just finally gotten used to them, and now she felt confused.  And also, ready for what?

And then he was gone from her body, and she felt something else slick pressed up against her.  And this time, Spike was standing behind her, rhythmically pressing her clit as he pushed, and she went with it… except whatever this was just kept coming, and it was wider and wider, and it felt huge, and the pressure was… She was going to split in half or something, she was going to…

Just when she thought she couldn’t take it anymore something gave, and whatever-it-was slipped past some wide point and settled in around a skinnier spot, and sort of bobbled inside her, which was disconcerting, but also made her throb.  “Alright, then,” Spike told her, breathing hard as if he had run a race with her.  “Christ.  Right then.  Bloody hell.  That was a small one.  Plenty of room left.  Promise you, you’re gonna like this, pet.”

/I’m gonna like what, exactly?/  She was still more than a little concerned about maybe kind of liking what was already happening.  The jury was still out on how much.  

She heard a clinking, and her chains loosened a little.  “Hold on, pet, and bend over.”

It almost burst out of her, before she censored herself, a shocked, ‘You’re kidding me!’  But then he was back against her, and the jeans were gone, and she could feel him, hard and ready, and oh god, he was going to fuck her with that thing inside of her, and he was going to feel it bouncing against him, and she was going to feel it bouncing against him, and what what what…

He bent her over while she was still reeling, roughly palming her nipples in a way that had her gasping in spite of herself and arching into his touch.  /Oh, you bastard./  He kissed her spine as she automatically curved into his hold.  The whatever-it-was inside her moved on its own recognizance, and her clit throbbed some more.

 He trailed a few more kisses along her backbone… and then waited, laying his demony cheek against her ribs.  “Alright, love?”

She trembled.  It was going to be so  much.   She would either come right away, or fall apart.  “How long do I… have to wait?” she asked, a tiny bit terrified of the answer.

“Till I tell you,” he reminded her gently.

“Oh God…”

“Make it worth your while, Slayer.”  It was the first time he’d called her that during this whole scene, and something about it challenged her.  Which was maybe why he had done it.  It pissed her off.   No way he was going to win.  Not this one.  

/Fuck you./  

“That’s my girl,” he growled, as if sensing the change in her… and thrust into her, hard, without preamble.  

/Oh God, oh God, oh God…/  He was  everywhere .  His hand was on her clit, and that whatever was flopping around inside her… and then there was his  se nsation…   The overall impression of an inferno of pleasure, and pressure, and...  And it was so much, everywhere, and she couldn’t…  She couldn’t…  

She was trembling, shaking all over, rising up on her toes with every thrust while heat and cold cascaded up and down her body in waves…

“Wait.  Bloody wait, Slayer,” he ground out, fingers leaving her clit to grasp her by the hips.  “Just a few times, feelin’ that, and then you can bring me off as hard as you need to.  Just. A. Few. Good. Ones…”  He punctuated each word with a long, low, deep thrust that had her almost off her feet, keening and clinging to the chains, fighting with everything in her to hold back as sensory overload drove her to orgasm as surely as if she were falling bodily off a cliff.  She was sobbing, and she couldn’t… she couldn’t…

“Fuck,” she whispered, defeated.  “Spike…”

“Alright,” he answered, and loosed a hand to fuck her hard against his fingers.  Everything that was inside her thrust, or bobbled, or twitched, and she disintegrated into her aggregate parts.  

She thought maybe she felt him come too, but it was from some distant shore where things still mattered.  Not where she was, in the calm darkness where people went who didn’t have nervous systems anymore.

There had been aftercare, too, of course; he’d removed the toy from her and put it wherever till he could wash it, and then unchained her and actually carried her to bed, which was a first, before giving her water and curling around her to stroke her hair away from her face.  “You managed that like a champion, love,” he informed her proudly.

“It was… unexpected,” she admitted, feeling strangely proud of herself and also mildly thrown off-kilter.  “Is it always… so much work?”

“Not once you’re used to it.”

“Oh.”  Well, at least she no longer felt like she was vibrating.  “I guess at some point we’re gonna have to go back to the house and pretend to be all normal and vanilla for Dawn.”

He grinned at that.  “You sound as if you’re not sure whether to be gratified or horrified at how vanilla you’re not, luv.”

“Did that sentence even make sense?”

“Sure it did.  So which is it?  Gratified, or horrified?”

She contemplated it for a moment.  “Mostly gratified?  Only horrified in that one little reflex part of me that thinks I should be a good girl and, you know, ‘kinky sex and bad vampires, blah blah blah’.  I’ve mostly got that voice down to a dull roar of a whisper these days.”

“Good on you.”  Nudging her over onto her back, he favored her with a sweet kiss, game face gone for the nonce.  “Good girl, bad girl, either way, will you return the favor soon, my love?”

Lifting her hand, Buffy had touched his cheek.  “You sure you want that?”

“Yeah.”  A little shrug.  “Got myself all jealous of you now, innit?”

“Okay.  Whenever you want.”  She looked at her blank wrist, frowned.  “Except, not now.  Because it’s probably, like, what?  Midnight or something?”

“Yeah.  S’pose we best be getting back.”

“Yeah.  Sadly.”  

He started to move off of her.  She caught his face and pulled him back into another kiss.  And when he lifted away, “I love you.  You’re insane, but I love you.”

He grinned down at her.  “Same.”

“Now go wash your hands.  And that whatever it was.”

“I tell you what it’s called, you’ll never let me use it on you again.”

“Then don’t tell me.”

Turning over in bed, the morning after, Buffy cast her left arm over her head to eye her guy thoughtfully.  “I thought of something kind of irritating last night, but I didn’t want to bring it up, because I was being all ‘obedient-girl’…”

“Yeah?” Spike queried, sounding interested.  “And you held back from hitting me over the head with it to stick to your role?  Who bloody knew.”

“Oh shut up.  I didn’t want to break your concentration.”

“Ta ever so.”  Shifting a little, he eyed the window longingly.  “Do I need a fag for this conversation?”

Buffy rolled her eyes at him.  “I was just thinking that my underwear drawer is getting a little thin, and that maybe you should contribute to the inventory if you’re gonna keep permanently borrowing the stock.”

A wide grin spread over his face, and he rolled his tongue up in that irrepressibly dirty way of his.  “You gonna set me loose in the lingerie shops of Sunnydale, is it, and wear what I choose for you?”

“Within reason.  And only if I know you’re buying them using cash you’ve earned.  Not, you know, ill-gotten-gains underwear.  Like, I don’t want some kind of creepy stolen underwear from an underwear-smuggling ring, or…”

He made a derisive noise.  “No such bloody thing, pet, and you know it.”  He sobered, looking thoughtful.  And then, to her growing concern, a light kindled in his eye.  “Will you come along?”

She leaned away, frankly worried.  “Why?  Afraid to be seen in the ladies’ lingerie aisles of the mall?”

Spike’s lips twitched.  “No.  More was hopin’ you might model ‘em for me.”

She wapped him on the arm.  “You don’t model underwear, you dope.  They can’t sell ‘em if they’re already used.”

“Oh.”  He deflated like a pricked Thanksgiving float.  “How the bloody hell do you know if they look good, then?”

/You’re such an idiot./  “You pick the ones you like in your size, dork, and hope for the best.  Jeez.”  Shaking her head, she sighed for the predictable vagaries of the male animal.  In this, Spike was exactly like any other non-gay guy in existence.  “Also, knowing if they fit is as important as how they look, duh.  Which is also something you don’t get to know till you bring them home.”

“Well, that’s a bloody racket,” he conceded.

“Yes.  Luckily you  do  get to try on bras, because that’s seriously tricky; much trickier than finding fitting underwear.”

His eyes lit up again.  “So you could model those, then.”

“Hey.  Don’t go getting any funny ideas.  You haven’t stolen any of my bras…”

“You’ve just given me incentive, haven’t you.”  He leered.

“God, you’re predictable.  Also, you don’t win enough at poker in a whole week to cover what new bras cost.  You have no idea.  They’re insanely expensive; so don’t even  think  about wrecking even one of ‘em.  The undies are bad enough to replace.”

His scarred eyebrow went up.  “What, how much do the bloody things cost?”

“A fortune.  I’m not kidding.  You’d think they were hand-stitched by blind nuns in France, not machine-made by starving children in Singapore.”

“Huh.”

“Also, please don’t ever try to buy me one as a gift.  You’d never get the fit right.”

He eyed her chest significantly, then made to cup one breast with a faint, studious expression.  “How much could there be to it, though?  Just this bit, and…”  His fingers traced around under her arm, lips moving as if he were counting invisible inches.

/And here’s our proof that Miss Nuts ‘n Bolts always wore corsets or whatever./  Spike was clearly as untutored in these matters as any typical male.

It was kind of heartening to be able to teach him something new in the way of relationships.  “Seriously.  Don’t.  There’s a science there that requires mother-to-daughter tutoring and takes years to master.  You can’t just go into Victoria’s Secret with your hand cupped and say, ‘She’s about a this.  Got anything lacy?’”

That earned a grin from him.  “Right; I’ll leave the brassieres to you, luv.  But I do get to watch sometimes, innit?”

He was incorrigible.  “I’ll put on a private show for you sometime.”

He bounced a little, happy as a puppy told he would get a special treat with supper.  “I love you, Slayer.”

“You’re such a boy.”

“You’re such a treat.  My gorgeous…”  His lips traced over her collarbone.  “Edible…”

She slapped the back of his head.  “You’re such a beast.”

“You can take the man out of the vampire…”

“No you can’t.  You’re all of the above.  And both of you are ridiculous.  Now go back to sleep.  I’m getting up.  I need to check in on Dawnie…”

He pouted.  “Not tired anymore.  Slept with you.” 

Buffy frowned thoughtfully.  “You did, didn’t you.”

“Wore me out, you did.”  He shot her one of those boyish grins.  “Was fair knackered.”  Sitting up, he flopped an arm over one propped knee, tenting the sheet.  A troubled expression touched his eyes, then.  “I’m actually starting to be damn near diurnal, hangin’ about with you.  Good thing vamps my age don’t need to sleep much.  ‘S bloody unnatural how easy it’s been for me to be up days, workin’ at your side, sleepin’ with you.”

Well, technically they kind of did shifts.  He snuggled her to sleep and then got up and prowled around a little more before returning to cash in, and then, barring incidents, she stayed with him till he was deeply asleep before kissing him and heading out to continue her day, leaving him well-snuggled in his turn.  But he had a point.  His habits had changed profoundly in the last near-year, whereas hers…  

“You’ve changed as much, pet, so don’t look all shamefaced.  Your habits may not have changed overmuch, but your approaches and your thought-processes have been utterly overhauled, and you know it.”

Buffy looked away from that too-piercing gaze.  “Yeah, I guess.”

“‘S why we have to be wary of those Council buggers, yeah, when they get wind?”

True.  /I just wish those jerks could see…  Could recognize how much better this all works now I’ve made some peace with…/

With a world they wanted to see wiped off the map.  Because to them, this was a millennia-long war, and she was their instrument to win it.  

No.  They would never see it the way she did.  They didn’t want peace.  They wanted annihilation.  “We’ll… deal with them when they get here.”

“Yeah.  Just one more bloody thing.”  Pushing himself to his feet, Spike reached for his jeans.  “Any road, they don’t signify.  Mum’s the thing to be concerned about right now.”

That was definitely true.

***

 The call came to pick up Mom around eleven.  They got her home and settled in, offered her food, probably hovered too much.  She told them to stop fussing and to let her rest because she was still a touch exhausted, and that she was just glad to be back in her own bed.  

“Why haven’t they told us yet what the results are?” Buffy asked Spike anxiously as they hovered near the top of the stairs.

“Hell if I know,” he answered grimly, and there was a hint of a growl in his voice.  “Probably they’re planning on doing it over the phone so they can be bloody impersonal and drive us all barmy.”

“I made chicken-rice-tabasco-anchovy surprise!” Dawn called from below, her voice a strained approximation of cheer.

Buffy elbowed Spike in the belly.  “I will make you  pay  for buying her that fish powder.”

“Didn’t buy it.”

Buffy eyed him askance.

He started away, down the stairs.  “Nicked it from that Oriental Market over on Twelfth.”

She had some throwing stars in the weapons’ chest in her room, didn’t she?  She could clunk him over the head with one before he made it to the kitchen.

“First rule of mate-hood,” Spike informed her without missing a step.  “You behead me, you feel it.”

“That’s a stupid rule,” Buffy grumbled, following him down.

They were all sitting around doing homework later—or trying—all of them with half an ear open in case Mom woke up or tried to wander downstairs.  “Now, see, the thing about this passage, luv, is…  You’re not wrong, but you don’t have the spirit of it.  The Neo-Classicists were all about the Enlightenment and that rot, sure, but they were stodgy.  They were all about the ruddy status quo.”  And wow, he sounded snarky about it.  “They believed in pillars.  Church.  State.  Immovable things.  We, on the other hand, believed in the ephemera of life.  Love, Nature, Beauty, Death… all that changes.”  His voice had gone a little dreamy, and rang with an adorable sincerity.  “It’s all that you can count on, after all.  The pillars’ll fall eventually, yeah?  But the mutable remains.  That’s what we ought to celebrate…”  

He caught her faint, amused look, shook himself free of the past.  “Any road,” he went on, straightening and firming up his voice, “thing is, we got a bit poncy about how we expressed it, sure, just the same as they did.  We were all great ponces back then, but the fact remains, none of those Neo-Classicist buggers had a bloody clue what the Greeks and Romans truly got up to.  They’d told themselves a great load of bollocks about what it all meant with the statues and pillars and the like, and forgot every bloody thing about human nature that those myths and the like told us.  It was all about ‘purity’ and ‘perfection’ and all this shite to them, whereas we had it figured.  It was really about appealing to the base nature of humanity; which is… nature.”

/You were already kind of a vampire, weren’t you?  Just waiting to be plucked.  That’s what she saw in you.  You were a… what’s the word?  A hedonist dying to be let out./

Tapping the pen on the coffee table in standard, Spike-style agitation, he shook his head. “That’s what the Greeks an’ that lot were really trying to say the whole bloody time.  None of those gods spent any time standing about trying to model ‘pure’ behavior or any of that nonsense.  They weren’t statutes.  They were all off shagging some nymph in a meadow, or tryin’ to convince some poor shepherd to let Zeus bugger him because he was besotted with the wildness of Arcadia and his own libido.  And every member of the Greek army was shaggin’ each other, because they hadn’t seen their wives in twenty years, and wouldn’t know how to talk to a woman if one bit him on the…”  Just in time he appeared to recall that they weren’t alone.  “The nose.”  He rushed on then, promptly forgetting where he was once more in the passion of the moment.  “Just like most of us in my own youth, because none of us got to talk to women, locked away in schools like Eton with a bunch of rutting blokes like it was modern Sparta—till we got married and were suddenly supposed to know what the bloody hell to do with a face full of qu…” 

“Spike.”  She had known he would get all fervent about this subject, but she had maybe thought he might kind of remember where he was.  

He had the grace to go a little shamefaced, if only for Dawn’s sake, a chair away and studiously buried in her English textbook; probably trying to pretend she was on the moon so she could keep listening.  “I’m just saying,” he went on stubbornly, “that the real difference was interpretation… but also it was in the way you lived your life and expressed your art because of that interpretation.  Whether you were free, or in chains.”

Buffy lifted an interested brow.  “Which were you?” she asked softly, and wondered if she could get a straight answer while he was still busy being fanatical.

Arrested, he glared at her for a moment, then flung his pen down with a growl.  “I hadn’t the courage to live my ideals till I got some demon on me.  I extolled the virtues of being free, but the Apollonian life had me enchained, for all I spoke of the glories of the Dionysian rite.  And I flowered it all up with talk of love, and ignored the ugly underbelly of carnality that came with it, because I feared the other side of the coin.”

/Sure.  You know, half the time I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, right?/  But it kind of confirmed something for her.  “So, what?  You got sired and then you decided to do all the things, for ever and ever, that you didn’t have the guts to do when you were human?  Eat fast food and drink and smoke and swear and get into fights and have sex and…”

“Get revenge; don’t forget that bit, love,” he put in roughly, and looked away; not because he regretted the killings so much as because he knew  she  cared.  “Yeah.”

She put it aside in the way she’d learned to.  The deaths were a part of him, and they were the past.  “You do all that now because you couldn’t as William?  Because it would’ve disappointed your mom, right?  Because she wanted you to be a gentleman, and because you wanted to be loved and get married and stuff, and so…  So everything you are now is still all about William, but you’re just like…  It’s still all about that guy, right?”  She was so damned determined to sort it out; to understand.  Because if her new theory was true, then that meant, when it came to… other vampires…

Spike leaned back very suddenly to watch her with a very strange look in his eye.  “The Church of Satan did its best for years to pretend it was its own bloody thing, but it doesn’t even have its own cosmology.  It’s just a reaction to the other, done by a load of folks as are brassed off at the religion of their childhood for hurting ‘em.  A way of sayin’, ‘Look at how many things we can do as are opposite of what you’ve told us to do.  Does it piss you off?’”

Buffy nodded, feeling warmed by the recognition that she had been right.  And also, as if the world had taken one step sideways into an alternate reality.  “So you’re still the same guy.”  Nothing would ever be the same again, once he admitted it.

 “I woke up,” he answered her softly, eyes far away.  “I wasn’t a different me.  I was new… and I was free.  I was changed.  But I was still me.  I hadn’t… gone.  I still knew myself.”

Buffy nodded and looked down.  “And it’s that way for… most.”  It wasn’t a question.  “I mean, Harmony didn’t seem that different.  Same girl, just with an appetite.  She didn’t care much about people even when she was human.”

Spike snorted and leaned back in to pick up his pen.  “I know what you’re asking, and the answer is, no, he’s not an anomaly.  He just fed you a load of rubbish because he had to believe it.  And you bought it because it made it easier on you when you needed to hear it.”

/Damn./  Getting that truth now…  Well.  It still hurt, but at least she could hear it now without it destroying her world.  A year ago, she couldn’t have heard it at all.  She would have had to destroy Spike for saying it; for even daring to imply it by his very homogenous being.  Otherwise, it would be her who would have been torn in two.  “Yeah.  I get it.”

There was a long silence, broken only by scratches of the pen and a few huffs from Spike as he went back to his proofreading.  Dawn broke through the silence after a while, sounding a little breathless.  “Uh, what’s the difference between assonance and alliteration?”

Spike answered without lifting his head or the slightest pause.  “Assonance is rhyming with just the vowel sounds.  ‘Rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.’  Alliteration is repeating the same sound at the beginning of each nearby word.  ‘Silly Sally sailed silently’.”

“Oh.  Cool.  God, you’re useful.”

“I try, Bit.”

Buffy’s lips twitched.  Leaning over his shoulder, she peered at her own homework.  “So, how bad is it, really?  ‘Cause in my defense, I was super distracted.  And way high on sugar.  Did I tell you all I ate was Captain Crunch?  And Coke.  That’s it.  I swear I tried, but…”

His hand settled over her thigh, cutting her off.  “It’s actually quite good, pet.  I just get on my high horse about the period ‘cause I lived it.  Pay me no mind.”

Something expanded inside her, warm and glowy.  “I like listening to you on your high horse,” she told him softly.  “I like it when you get passionate.  It’s cute.”

The word earned her a faint glare, though it faded swiftly.  “You make some fair clever points,” he told her, wonderingly, and tapped the paper with the blunt end of the pen.  “Not ones I expected considerin’ the scope of the assignment.  Makes me feel good thinkin’ you… actually care about the rot I pop off about.  Which shouldn’t be what I’m worried about, I reckon, and the professor’s gonna wonder what the bloody hell got up your arse…”

Buffy smiled slightly.  “He caught me talking to myself about you in class and asked me if I wanted to share anything.  I had a brief fantasy of you coming in as a guest-lecturer to tell them all what it was really like so you could completely ruin their idea of the period forever.”

“Oh, bloody hell.”

Buffy shrugged.  “I can tone it down if you think it sounds too…”

Spike’s eyes jerked to hers.  “Don’t you dare.  It all fits together too well.  He’ll just have to assume you did some off-brand research… somewhere.  We’ll find you a reference.”

“So I don’t have to say ‘interview with a Victorian vampire’?” she teased.

“Oh, sod off, pet.  Any road, you deserve the marks.  We’ll figure it out, because with a little tweaking it’s a lovely paper and ought to be left as it stands.”

She was really kind of amazed to hear him say that, when she’d written it about  his  era, his people.  “I guess I… didn’t expect that.”

He went still then, and sighed heavily.  “Bleedin’ hell.”  Turning to her, he cupped her shoulder.  “Buffy, don’t ever let anyone tell you you’re not clever.  Actually, you’re cleverer than I ever was as a human…”

Something tightened in Buffy, something that ran into an internal wall of disbelief, tangled with the part of her that had done really well on her SATs, and subsided in confusion.  “Oh, don’t give me that crap,” she sparked, flinching away.  “I know you’re…”

His fingers closed tight around her upper arm to hold her in place.  “I was very well-read, Buffy, but I wasn’t quick.  That came with the demon; the wittiness, the repartee.  I’d be no match for you as William.”  His fingers loosed from her bicep to rise in a light caress of her cheek.  “You’d think I set a great store by the book-learning bit, but I don’t as much as you believe.  I enjoy sharin’ it with you, yeah, since it’s a thing I love… but it’s not necessary, and I don’t consider it a measure of your intelligence, how much you do or don’t read.  I know you just haven’t had the bloody time, but you’re my brilliant girl either way, and I…”

She was going to explode, the way he was looking at her.  “Just shut up,” she whispered, and surged into his lap to kiss him.  God, how he believed in her!

“Seriously, do you two have to be all oogy and make-out-y  all  the time?  I’m trying to do  homework , here.”

Buffy pulled away from Spike’s lips with an effort, dropped her forehead to his and just breathed, aware he was doing the same, his fingers caressing her shoulders in an odd little tattoo of reassurance.  /God, I love you.  How did I ever do this—any of this—before you?/  “Sorry, Dawn.  I’ll just…”

The phone rang, making her jump.

Buffy swiveled in Spike’s lap, abruptly tense as hell and afraid.  “Oh.”

He let her go, and she clambered down, went to pick it up feeling a little bit like she was hovering above the floor by three or four inches.  “Uh, Summers residence.”

‘Joyce Summers?’

“Uh, no, that’s my mother.”

‘Buffy Summers?  This is Dr. Isaacs, from Sunnydale Memorial.’

Buffy’s heart plunged to her toes, and her whole body went numb.  “Uh, hi, Dr. Isaacs.  Mom’s upstairs.  She’s, uh, asleep, I think.  Do I need to go wake her up?”

‘Well, we have the results of her biopsy.  I thought we should let her know right away.’

“Yeah.  Right.  I’ll, um, go see if she’s…  Hang on.”  Turning in a haze, Buffy set the phone down and started for the stairs, Dawn’s fearful gaze and Spike’s anxious one on her back.  

The long trip down the hall to the master bedroom seemed like miles, the pause after knocking on the door hours long.  “Mom?  Are you awake?  Dr. Isaacs is calling with the…  The test results.”

There was a stirring sound from within, then a groggy-sounding, “Oh.  Okay.  I’ll get it in here.  Thank you, baby.”  And the sound of a phone being fumbled from the cradle.  

Buffy headed back down, aware she should reset the one downstairs, to give Mom some privacy.  She’d tell them later what the doctor said.  It all seemed so distant, though, and Buffy drifted back down the steps like dandelion fluff on a stiff breeze.  Rounded the newel post and crossed to the living room like she was in a Slayer dream to pace to the ecru side-table with its phone and notepads and bills, already able to hear snippets of the tinny conversation on the other end of the line.  Flashes of the room and its occupants were burned into her retinas as she made for the phone; Spike, sitting on the very edge of the couch with his fingers punching into the tight denim of his jeans.  Dawn, staring over the top of her English book, knuckles white, face pale; wide-eyed and frozen.  

‘…Is an astrocytoma, which is what happens when the glial cells in the supportive tissue of the brain…’  ‘…Good news is, this type of tumor is primary, not metastatic, so you are unlikely to have cancer in any other part of your…’  ‘…Also won’t affect your autonomic functions like breathing, motor functions…’  ‘…Doesn’t appear to involve any other structures as yet, such as blood-vessels or…’  ‘You can therefore wait, and try other treatments; however…’  ‘Growing at an alarming rate, and will eventually involve…’  ‘…Likelihood that we can currently visualize the entirety…’

Buffy hung up the phone and stood there for a moment, staring into space.

It was too real.

*   *   *






So...  In canon Joyce had an oligodendroglioma; however this was pretty much a massive mistake on the part of the writers.  Or at least it was a mistake how they ended up treating the tumor, having chosen that type. Neurologically-speaking, you would never attack an ODG surgically, because it doesn’t behave in a self-contained manner but spreads out all over the damn place.  You’d never get it all trying to resect it, and it would just come back again. You could try chemo, and they often do, to control the growth rate (radiation usually doesn’t work), but because it spreads irregularly, surgery’s a huge risk and is only used to reduce size as a last resort to keep a person functional. ODGs tend to be pretty fatal, and if they can be kept under wraps (rare), the person can maybe live up to twenty years, but that’s the prognosis.  Twenty painful years of recurring chemo; not an easy and uncomplicated surgery where they’d ‘visualize the entirety’ of the tumor and the patient would die of an accidental complication.

TL:DR, they picked the wrong-ass tumor-type for Joyce, esp. considering the treatment they ended up using for the narrative, so I fixed it.

Chapter Text

Somehow they got a surgery bay open for Mom within the week.  Something about emergency reshuffling of priorities, and a person dropping off the schedule… which Buffy kind of thought maybe was code for a patient actually dying before they could get fixed up, which was terrifying, and was it bad that she would take it?  

In the resultant kerfuffle, everything went into high waiting gear.  Buffy and Spike barely patrolled.  Xander and Giles took it up for them, with Willow and the witch brigade pulling up the slack with spell-power while she and Spike kind of forgot how to do anything.  They went out of course, here and there, and got into scuffles with likely comers, but it was a messy, undisciplined affair every time.  Most of the demon community, though, even the ones who were up to no good, seemed to have gotten the memo to stay out of their way.  It was uncanny how respectful even the usual suspects were being about their family troubles.  You’d think some of the more dangerous ones would take advantage of the moment to try to get away with something dastardly, but instead… nothing.  

Well, apparently there was one brief, cheap plot to open a portal to somewhere or another, but Jonathan and Tara of all people shut it down before Giles and Willow could even get there, which just went to show you how some people could surprise you.

Mostly it was all just a weird haze, from Buffy’s perspective.  They got Dawn to and from school.  She went to school herself.  Both Summers sisters did their best not to flunk everything.  Spike tried to help them not-fail.  They waited.

Anya had the gallery under control, of course.  Mom tried to go in here and there to prove she was up to rejoining her life, but post-biopsy she was shaky and a little mazy for two days, and she was still having headaches.  Also, maybe it was psychosomatic, or maybe it was because the tumor was on some kind of speedy, Miracle-Gro diet, but she was already showing a few of the symptoms that weird, blunt Dr. Isaacs mentioned to her.  She wasn’t having vision problems or anything, but her appetite seemed a little low, and she was a little wobbly here and there.  She wasn’t having mood-swings, per se, but she was a little testy.  Not that anyone could blame her, considering everything she was going through… and once in a while she acted a little strange around Dawn.  Like she was regressing a little at momming.  

Everyone just tried to give her space and to be understanding.  Buffy couldn’t imagine what it must be like to deal with something like this.  It was hard enough to be on the edges of it.

Probably it hadn’t helped that that jerk doctor had told her they still had to figure out if the tumor was ‘operable’, or if she had to do chemo or something.  Also, though Mom tried to put a brave face on it when she’d reported on the phone call, Buffy kind of thought the guy hadn’t had the best bedside manner about her chances or whatever.  The odds.  

Mom was kind of looking tight around the edges while the care team dithered about whether it was best to cut, or zap her full of chemicals, or what.

/God, this is so insane./  Why was it that it was easier to deal with demons and plots to throw the world into endless hell-dimensions than it was to wrap the brain around stuff like this?

When it came to the extra pressure of trying to run the gallery, Anya was totally Mom’s anchorperson.  She absolutely leaped at the chance to mind the store, for which Mom seemed profusely grateful.  The ex-demon seemed grateful as well, for the opportunity to do the thing without interference… until the one day Buffy went in to grab something for Mom to stop her obsessing about it, and found the girl huddled in Xander’s arms, shaking her head.  “…Don’t understand it.  Humans are just too… frail, and easily broken.  Are you saying she could actually die and… not come back?  Because that doesn’t make any  sense!”

“Ahn!”  Xander’s head lifted, taking in Buffy’s entrance, and he blanched.

Anya appeared not to have heard the bell indicating a customer; a total first for her.  “I mean, once upon a time I could have gotten stabbed a dozen times and it wouldn’t have made a single bit of difference, and you’re saying a little thing like a few changed cells in her brain could make her leave her body and…  And never come back?  I just don’t understand that!  I don’t accept it!  Isn’t there a way to… to anchor their souls to their bodies, or to make their bodies more indestructible, or… or something?  I  like  Joyce!  I like her a lot, and…  And what happens to  me  if she… leaves like that, and the gallery…”

“Ahn!” Xander tried again, helplessly.

“Does it go because she goes?  And  where  do they go?  I just don’t understand, and is this why Buffy fights so hard to keep them here?  Because she doesn’t know where they go?  Or…”

Buffy closed her eyes and dragged in a hard breath, feeling like a heavy weight had slapped her square in the chest.  It had never occurred to her that someone like Anya, who had dealt ugly death for a thousand years, might not understand it.  But then… it was a human thing, and Anya hadn’t been human for that entire millennium.  She had  caused  death, but she had never truly  experienced  it.  

Somehow, that realization—that she understood something that a centuries-old demon did not—was strangely comforting.  “You never lost anyone, before you were elevated?” she asked softly.

Anya’s head lifted from Xander’s chest.  Her face was tear-streaked, and looked lost.  “I…  I think I did.  It was all so long ago.  I don’t remember.  I had siblings.  Parents.  People died; of plague, of illness, by the sword.  Sepsis, common brawls.  But it all happened when I was very young.  If you lived past childhood you usually lived to a ripe old age.  All the death I saw was when I, too, was a child.  I don’t…”  Her lip quivered.  “I honestly don’t remember.  Except killing the rabbits.  I had to wring the necks of the rabbits, when there were too many, and send them off to be stew.  They bred so fast…”  Her voice trailed off, sounding haunted.

/Oookay.  Not gonna ask./  “We don’t know where they go,” Buffy answered the inherent question.  “I think it’s why we all make up pretty stories.  We hope it’s somewhere good.  Not nowhere, because that would suck.  Though sometimes I think maybe that’s better than the whole heaven-hell thing,” she admitted, thinking of Spike going south while she went north, someday.  Or, well, home to whatever dimension vamps came from, originally.  /Still.  It’s not where I’d ‘go home’ to, which means not going anywhere together.  Big dimensional separation.  No conjugal visits.  Talk about lame.  Can we get around that somehow with this mate-bond thing?/  “Or, I guess, sometimes we hope it’s somewhere bad, if we’re mad at them.  But mostly it’s just wishful thinking, you know?  Because we don’t know.  All we know is… they’re not there anymore.  They’re just… empty.”

Anya shuddered.  “That’s terrifying.  I mean… I saw.  I saw it every time.  But I never noticed.  I never… cared.”

“Maybe that’s why the soul, Ahn,” Xander told her, caressing her shoulder briskly, reassuringly.  “We think that’s the immortal part.  An exchange for how easy it is to kill the body.  So instead of living forever in this one life, we live forever afterward.”

Anya frowned, looking stumped and kind of irritated.  “Well, that’s just stupid.  It’s in no way an even exchange.  Souls can’t have orgasms, for one!”

/You have a point, there./  “Maybe there’s other thrills, where they go?  Spiritual… orgasms?”

Anya scoffed loudly and whirled away to swipe at her eyes.  “I need to go fix my face.  I mean, I probably look awful.  Can one of you watch the counter?  If a customer came in and saw me like this I could chase off a potential sale.”

“Yeah, we got it, Ahn.  Go ahead.  But you look beautiful.”

“You’re sweet and naïve.”  Patting Xander’s cheek, she turned to head for the back.  

“You’d think you’d like rabbits,” he called after her, “since they have so much sex.”

She halted, shoulders going rigid.  “They do it to make thousands of tiny rabbits, Xander; endlessly.  They don’t do it for the orgasms.  It’s awful.”

“Then why…”

The shoulders relaxed in disdain.  “It was a poor business venture.  Don’t worry about it.”  And she continued toward the bathroom.

“Is this why the whole bunny phobia thing?” he pursued, clearly intrigued.

“Look.  Can we just not talk about it?” she demanded sharply, and disappeared around the corner.

Xander lifted his arms to signal the white flag going up; not that she could see him anymore.  “Lips zipped.”  He turned to Buffy, dropped his arms.  Shrugged.  “Sorry about that.”

“No,” Buffy answered, and shook her head.  “I think… it actually helped.  And anyway… it’s not gonna happen.”

“No,” Xander answered, and pulled her in for a huge, engulfing, strength-lending hug.  “It definitely isn’t.  Because we won’t let it.”

She clung, held on tight, gave it back.  And prayed he was right.  /Even though I’ve never had that kind of power.  Even though none of us have that kind of power./  “Nope.”

***

The nurses were in and out of the prep bay in a bustling mass, getting Mom all ready.  All the waivers and anesthesia agreements and whatever had been signed off and all of that, and now they were just playing an agonizing waiting game.  Dawn was fighting to stay calm and brave, but as the hour had dragged into two she had finally broken and pulled out her Discman.  “Go ahead, baby.  Nothing’s happening here till it does.”

With a grateful look, the youngest Summers slipped on her headphones and buried herself in the soothing sounds of O-Town, which were, she had informed Buffy loftily, the hot new boyband and way better than NSYNC or 98 Degrees.  Because sure they were.  

Mom waited until the latest flurry of RNs and interns had left before speaking up.  “I need to ask you two something.”  

They drew close, bent over the bed in concert, each taking a hand.  “What is it, then, Joyce?” Spike rumbled for them both.

Tearing her eyes away from her youngest, Mom looked up from one to the other of them while wearing ‘Serious Mom-Look Number One’.  Uhoh.  “If it… doesn’t go well.  I want you two to take Dawn.”  Her eyes flicked to Buffy.  “Not your father…”

Buffy felt a wave of nausea roll through her.  Her mother shouldn’t acknowledge…  She shouldn’t...  /No./  “Mom…”

“I know it’s a lot to ask, Buffy, and with school and slaying and everything maybe it’s too much, but I think with William at your side and with Rupert’s help, you can manage it.  I’ve put it in my will, though with the codicil that if you don’t feel capable, of course you can defer to your father.  I just think that she’d be happier if she stayed here, with her friends, with the people she loves, than starting over in LA all over again with a parent who’s made it clear he has no interest in taking part in her life.  And I know maybe that’s foolish, knowing what I know about this town, and maybe I should want her as far from here as possible, but considering who you two are, she’s probably safer with you than she would be with anyone else…”

Spike had stopped even remotely breathing.  Buffy felt like she might soon join him.  

“That is, of course, if you don’t mind moving back into the house, Spike, in the event…”

“I…  That is to say…”

“Though, of course this time you’d be upstairs, rather than in a converted corner of the basement.  I still feel like a terrible hostess about that, but it was all I had to spare at the time…”

“Joyce…”

Mom’s voice turned flinty.  “They will most definitely go after Hank for the child support he owes, with you a student, Buffy, and since…”  Her mouth turned downward, and she looked deeply saddened for a moment.  “I’m sorry we didn’t have time to have a ceremony; even a non-legal one.  Maybe we could have come up with some sort of paperwork somewhere or…  If you were domestic partners…”

“Mom…” Buffy breathed again, feeling choked.

Spike looked like he’d been broadsided with that axe for a second time.  “I don’t even have a bloody income.”

Mom shot him a no-nonsense look.  “You have access to a whole cave full of income if you wanted to dig back into it.  And didn’t Faith say that there’s a demon-run law firm in LA?  Couldn’t they figure something out to put on paper for the two of you that would make sense in the human world?  And then there’s that whole inheritance you have that Angel’s holding…”

Spike gaped.  So did Buffy.

“I do listen when you two talk, you know.”

“Wh…”

“And to my mind, if he doesn’t have the decency to gift your part of your family’s monies back to you if you were to get married—if not for your sake than for Buffy’s—then I’d think you might also hire those demon lawyers to sue him over it, considering Faith says they have it in for him and would probably jump at the chance…”

“Mom!”

“I’m just saying,” Mom answered, calm in the face of her daughter’s shock.  “There are ways.”  She eyed them both, waiting.  “Will you do it?”

She was asking more than just ‘will you take Dawn’.  She was asking ‘will you do whatever it takes to keep her, and keep her safe’.

Spike’s eyes lifted, met Buffy’s.  His hand fumbled over the thin cotton blanket to grip hers, chilly and spasmodic.  A confirmation.  If she wanted to take it on, he would be right there, through thick and thin, like he was with everything.  

/Oh God./  It was so much.  So much to navigate.  Slaying, and school, and she knew Spike was devoted to them, but there would also be social services asking who this guy was who didn’t even have, like, a birth certificate and a papered identity; and it was one thing for her to be in a relationship with Spike and his unchipped demonyness, with the unspoken recognition that if he screwed up, she was strong enough to handle him.  They both knew that codicil was there, would always be there.  It had come up more than once already, in little moments when his judgement had been… questionable.  They’d mostly been able to laugh it off, or tussle it out, but what if…  Not that she thought he would ever knowingly hurt Dawn, but what if he just made one of his stupid-ass judgment calls or something, because he couldn’t see the consequences till it was too late?  And dammit, it was one thing to have him be around her sister as an all-around rotten influence as it was; but to officially say that he was  raising  her, on paper was…  It was…  

It was a step beyond.  Mom was nuts.  

And yet, without him, she couldn’t do it.  Not well.  She would screw it up, screw Dawn up.  With Spike beside her she could do it, because he could handle emotional stuff she couldn’t lift with a backhoe, and…  /And why am I even worried about this?  Because it’s never gonna happen.  You’re not leaving us, Mommy.  I’m just agreeing to this to make you happy, because you need the peace of mind before you go into surgery./  “Yeah, Mom.  We will.”

“Oh, thank goodness.  That’s a load off my mind.”

“Alright, here we go.  Ready, Joyce?”  The nurses were there, and that one young male resident with the dark hair—Buffy vaguely remembered his name started with a ‘B’—and they had to move out of the way while the medical people did their jobs, getting the lines and tubes situated and helping Mom switch to another, transitional bed, and moving her IV-pole deal and monitor around, and starting her toward the door.  And then Dawnie was up, and hugging her, and she was squeezing all their hands, and there were last-minute kisses to dispense… and then she was being rolled away down the long hall while they stood, forlorn and deserted in the empty room, echoing without the regular beeps of the monitor.

“Alright,” the prep room nurse told them cheerily, and began shooing them out.  “The lobby’s first door on the left, and the café is downstairs on B1.  Follow the signs.  It should be a couple of hours, so make yourselves comfortable…”

/Right.  Comfortable./

/Try not to die inside./

***

Willow sat huddled with Tara, the two of them uncharacteristically whisper-less.  Buffy noted that Tara was the one who seemed to be propping up a wilting Willow.  Xander in turn held Anya while she huddled against him, clinging.  All of her attempts at putting up a brave front seemed to have folded the moment they entered the lobby in favor of a jittering, overloud and babbling set of inanities on a revolving door with atypical silences, as if her usual bluntness had been drowned in confusion.  

Jonathan sat on the other side of Xander, knees bouncing, looking anxious, occasionally flipping the pages of some brightly-colored comic book, though he didn’t appear to be reading it.  Once in a while Xander glanced over at it, though he no longer commented on the storyline.  

Giles paced outside the lobby doors, glasses off and dangling from their earpiece.  His usual reserve had faded dramatically as the hours dragged on, to be replaced by a strange air of anxious regret.  He always acted like he and Mom didn’t have that… thing they had back during the band candy deal, but Buffy knew he was really fond of her mother, even if they had landed on being friends.  Strained ones, for a while there, during Mom’s disappointment over Giles’ stance about Spike, though that strain had faded in the last few months, and they’d returned to their previous casual, mutual respect with a side of shy smiles and not-quite-flirting, all of which tended to freak Buffy out a whole hell of a lot.  

/They’re friends./  Friends, she really hoped, without benefits.  Not that she didn’t want her mother to have fun, but it would just be too weird.  And also, if people had… benefits, and got too close, it was way too easy for them to screw it up and break up and leave, and…

/And I have problems./

Dawn shifted, curled up half in Spike’s lap and about three-quarters into avoidance-sleep.  He stroked her hair absently, his other hand doing the same to Buffy’s.  He prodded the air with his chin, indicating Giles.  “What’s his bloody problem, then?”

Buffy looked away from her Watcher.  /You might as well know, I guess./  No telling how her guy would take it, of course, but in the interest of full disclosure...  “He’s probably wondering if he should have said something, or not said something.  He and Mom had…”  /Ugh; how do you even classify that?/  “I guess kind of a fling?  A while ago.  It was while you were out of town with Dru in South America or wherever; right before you came back to get the love spell stuff.  They were under the influence of some crap Ethan Rayne put in a bunch of chocolate, but still.  I think they really hit it off for a while there… and I really don't want to know any details.”  /And I’m really, really upset that I know the details I do know./

Spike turned his most calculating gaze on Giles, brows drawn together a little forbiddingly.  “He shag her?”

“And the award for things a daughter most doesn’t want to know about her mother and her adoptive father goes to…”

Spike shot her an aggrieved glance, as if he thought she was obstructing justice or something.  

“Fine.  Yeah.  They did the wild thing.  Please, oh please, don’t make me repeat the things I heard about that whole fiasco, much less  how  I heard them.  I’m already scarred for life.”

Spike rumbled a low growl.  “He just better have seen to her proper, is all.  Lady like Joyce deserves to be taken care of.  He didn’t, and I find out about it, I’ll have his ears.”

/Are you  kidding  me?/  “You’re certifiable, you know that?”

“I’m just sayin’.”  

He actually looked murderous.  And she needed to head this off, because this had all the earmarks of ‘Spike, currently considering taking his misguided aggressions out on Giles because he’s British and wears tweed and is thus the anti-Spike’, or something.  “Do you know what a ‘stevedore’ is?”  At the very least it would maybe satisfy a longstanding and incredibly morbid curiosity.  She had never remotely brought herself to look it up, but maybe if Spike dropped a hint it would be enough to not feel stupid, without hearing too much fine print to be able to continue living.

Spike jerked away from his violent contemplation of her Watcher to stare at her in confusion.  “A dock-worker.  They tend to be very tough, virile sorts, and to work long hours non-stop without tiring…”  He halted abruptly and went very still.  “Oh, bloody hell.”

/And that was way more than I wanted, dammit./  Trust her guy to be a walking dictionary when she least preferred that particular function.  “Oh,” she answered, flinching.  /Filing that under things I never, ever wanted to know./

“Well, well, Rupert,” Spike put in, sounding amused.  “Good on you, then.”  With a grunt he looked away, back toward the far wall.  “Not sure I forgive him, any road, if he left her alone after.”

Buffy shrugged and leaned back against his arm to close her eyes.  “I think it was a mutual decision.”

Spike exhaled noncommittally.  “Reckon if Joyce decided they didn’t suit, that’s her prerogative.”

“Or maybe they both thought it would muddy things up or whatever.”  And Buffy could not even express what a relief that was for a certain Slayer.

Spike’s expression twisted.  “‘S already muddy, pet, if they’ve gone down that road at all.  In any case, they share you, either way.”

Buffy so did not want to think about that.  “I just wish this was over.”

“I know, love.”

Time dragged on.  Xander made a snack run.  Hardly anyone ate the proceeds.  Everyone drank bad coffee that kind of tasted like wet paper.  The clock made a concerted effort to run backward.  Giles did some more pacing.  Spike looked like he really wished he could join in, but couldn’t because he was serving as a pillow for a lanky, depleted teenager who hadn’t really slept in days and had taken this insane moment to collapse into nervous exhaustion.  Buffy wished she could check out similarly, but couldn’t seem to manage it… or even that she had had the foresight to bring along some homework, or something to read.

Jonathan tried to hand her the comic, babbling something about how it was ‘a compilation of the Reign of the Supermen series following the Death of Superman’, and how it was ‘hugely compelling stuff’.  Xander chipped in on that last, muttering something about four claimants to the throne and a surprise twist, but Buffy waved them off with a faint, nauseous shake of her head.

Which was when Spike surprised her by slipping his hand inside the breast pocket of his duster and, right in front of everyone, pulling out a tattered, dog-eared copy of a very familiar book; one she had not seen outside of nights snuggled up together in bed at the crypt.  Without speaking a word, he opened it and began reading quietly to her in that voice of his that, as a general rule, tended to make her clothes fall off, though in this case and what with all the current interference, it mostly fell into her brain’s programming language as ‘soothing’, at best.  

“‘Defeat, my defeat, my solitude and my aloofness…’”

/Okay, weird choice…/

“‘…You are dearer to me than a thousand triumphs…’”

/And getting weirder./ 

“‘And sweeter to my heart than all world-glory. Defeat, my Defeat, my self-knowledge and my defiance…’”  

Okay, now she really needed to know where the poet was going with this, because as far as she knew, defeat wasn’t sweet at all.  Though she got how you could get some self-knowledge out of it; of the bitter kind.

“‘…Through you I know that I am yet young and swift of foot, And not to be trapped by withering laurels. And in you I have found aloneness, And the joy of being shunned and scorned…’”

All eyes were on Spike now, as he quietly declaimed.  He ignored the inquiring gazes, eyes firmly focused on the book, held at arms length in that way that told Buffy that he probably didn’t have perfect eyesight for this task.  Hunting acuity, yes, but reading, not so much.  It made her wonder sometimes if, in his human life, he’d had glasses.  

“‘…Defeat, my Defeat, my shining sword and shield, In your eyes I have read… That to be enthroned is to be enslaved…’”

/Huh./  That one hit home.  You could lead, win, whatever… but there was no freedom in it.  You got controlled by the job, the honor of it.  There was a freedom in screwing up, failing, having the room of not having any expectations to live up to.  Unless, she guessed, everyone expected you to  only  fail, like they did with Faith, or with Spike.  /Maybe it’s tough either way; to be expected to only fail, or only succeed, and the only freedom is in the middle ground.  Like a lottery./

“‘…And to be understood is to be leveled down… And to be grasped is but to reach one’s fullness, And like a ripe fruit to fall and be consumed…’”  

Giles wandered closer, seemingly calmed in his peregrinations by the familiar sound of poetry.  

“‘…Defeat, my Defeat, my bold companion, You shall hear my songs and my cries and my silences…’”

There was that freedom, then.  What must it be like, to be allowed to fail, and be left alone to just… make your way?  Was it scary?  Was it wonderful?  

She kind of wanted to ask Faith.   

“‘…And none but you shall speak to me of the beating of wings, And urging of seas, And of mountains that burn in the night, And you alone shall climb my steep and rocky soul…’”

/Wow./

“‘…Defeat, my Defeat, my deathless courage, You and I shall laugh together with the storm, And together we shall dig graves for all that die in us…’”

That one also hit hard.  Hit with the weight of a bare room in LA, with blood on her hands.

“‘…And we shall stand in the sun with a will… And we shall be dangerous.’”

/Well, holy fuck./  Buffy closed her eyes and drew in a long, deep breath, the final words uplifting her.  “Thank you,” she whispered.  “That was exactly the one I needed.  Who was it?”

“Khalil Gibran,” Spike told her, sliding a finger into the book for a moment to mark his place, and kissed the top of her head.  “Man was a bloody genius.  Want another?”

She snuggled down against his arm, held on, laid her cheek to his shoulder.  “Yeah.”

“I’ll pick up the pace a bit.  Give you old Dylan.  He’ll make you want to kick every sod’s teeth in.”  Closing the book firmly, Spike leaned back and shut his eyes.  

“Wh…”

“Don’t need the book for this one, pet.”  He cleared his throat, and his face settled into ‘recitation mode’.  “‘Do not go gentle into that good night…’” he began, sounding kind of fighty.  And promptly built into a slow crescendo that peaked at the end in a way that was almost orgasmic.  He’d have roared it if they weren’t in the hospital… but he still managed to make it have that effect, sotto.

He was right.  It did make her want to get in a fight.  How Dawn slept through that performance was beyond her.

“Well, wow,” Xander broke in after a moment, looking startled.  “That one was…  I mean, I’m not into poetry, but that one got me kind of…”

“Hot?” Anya suggested, eyes sparkling.

“I mean,” Jonathan put in breathlessly.  “I’ve read it before, but not… like  that .”

“It is a wildly popular work,” Giles put in dryly, “and has been for a good many years.  With reason.”

“Willow,” Tara said, smiling prettily in Spike’s direction, “would you think badly of me if I decided I had a crush on Spike?  Just for tonight?  I’m sure Buffy wouldn’t mind.”  

“Plenty of me to go around, pet,” Spike put in magnanimously.  “Can’t take credit, a’ course, though I’m willin’ to ride in on Thomas’ coattails if it gets me all this lovely admiration.”

Willow smiled faintly.  “I wonder if there’s a way to determine now much sweet lovin’ Dylan Thomas got in his day.  He sounds like he was kind of a rock god, poetry style.”

“He certainly lived like one, by all accounts,” Giles put in.  “Left Wales to go to New York, tried to make a living as a writer, became a boisterous drunk, died at thirty-nine; probably of liver failure.”

“Live fast, die young,” Spike responded, and lifted his flask in memoriam.

“Well, that sucks,” Jonathan breathed, looking regretful.

“Rock star for sure,” Xander agreed, and turned to Anya.  “Did you meet him?”

Anya looked put upon.  “I didn’t meet everybody, Xander.  No one wished him ill; at least, not to me, so I had no reason to meet him.”  She lifted her eyes over the row of hard seats.  “You, Spike?”

“Wasn’t in Merry Old or the Apple at the time.”

“Where were you?  When was this?”  Buffy was curious, and grateful for any subject that wasn’t brain surgery, her mother, or the possibility of hovering mortality.  

“Forties and fifties.  Spent a lot of ‘em in Germany and Italy an’ the like.  An’ some of ‘em swimming.”  The last was spoken with a faint twist to his lips.

“Okay, swimming?”

He stilled for a moment the way he did when he was hesitating about telling her something, then…  “Initiative wasn’t the first time I had a run-in with a load of twisted bastards wanted to figure out what made demons tick.  First time around was the Nazis…”

“You’re kidding me.”

He shot her a grim look.  “Told you I knew what they were about.”

/Yeah, I guess so./

“Anyway, they captured me and a few other old vamps with the oldest trick in the book.  Bait and switch, and put us in a submarine.”  He shrugged philosophically, and avoided her eyes.  “Course, we did what vamps do under such circumstances; tried to eat our way free.”  

/Oh.  Well.  Like ya do, I guess./  Every time she heard something about one of his past… exploits, Buffy experienced some strange, ambivalent space that existed in between ‘disgusted’ and ‘numb’.  After all, nothing could be done about it now, it was the past, he wasn’t killing anymore… and yes, it still bothered her that he felt as little remorse about the killings as Anya did the torments she’d inflicted on her victims, but what could Buffy do about it?  What could Spike even do about it?  He simply wasn’t wired in a way that allowed him to feel that remorse.

“‘Cept,” Spike went on, monotone, “I guess the sub was bein’ taken over by Yanks for some reason, so the Americans sent bloody Angelus…”  His lips twitched.  “Angel, in, as he was able to handle the pressure at that depth…”

Now,  that  she had not expected.  /I thought he spent a whole hundred years basically moping over his soul./  

“He staked Nostroyev, this tosser who was Rasputin’s lover…”

“I  knew  Rasputin had some sort of connection with vamps!” Buffy burst out, unable to restrain herself.  “Do you think he was one, too?”

Spike was eyeing her with no small amusement.  “No clue, pet.”  He seemed bemused at her having chosen to key in on this particular part of the story rather than the rest.  “He staked the Prince of Lies as well, later on.  Probably would’ve staked me too, could he have gotten away with it.  And since he needed an engineer who could fix up the sub, and the only bloke as could do the work was stabbed in the gut by one of the Nazi prisoners, he sired the poor tosser just to keep him among us to do what was needful.  Minute the ship breached the waves he kicked us both out.  Made us swim for shore.  Barely made it before sunrise.”  Spike shrugged.  “No bloody clue what happened to Lawson.  Poor sap.  Had no training, no idea about the business; didn’t even get his first meal.  Had no buggerin’ clue what he was, much less how to manage.  Only got sired just to do a job and done.  Probably still out there somewhere, all buggered up in the head and no doubt brassed as all hell at Angelus for putting him through it.”

Buffy had no idea what to make of this story.  “Angel… sired someone… when he was souled?”

Spike shrugged one-shouldered.  “Did what he felt he had to, I s’pose.  Feel a bit bad for the soldier.  They’re used to takin’ orders.  Probably would’ve done well in a nest, yeah?  But he had none…”

“Why didn’t  you  teach him?”

Spike leaned back to eye her along his nose.  “Had Dru to manage.  Didn’t need another wet-behind-the-ears fledge on top of her.  Dunno why I should always have to put up with Angelus’ leftovers, because he can’t bloody well be bothered to take care of his get.  Irresponsible git.”  Tension and a modicum of poorly-restrained fury was rising now in his voice.  “I’m the bloody youngest, not a child-minder.  Know I’m just a minion to him, but that doesn’t mean it should be left to me to do his work, raise his line!”  His jaw tightened; a sure sign that Buffy had accidentally hit on some old, painful resentment.  “It’s a bloody disgrace, is what it is, him always leavin’ it to me.  Too bleedin’ much to ask, it is, and him thinkin’ he can just walk out on us like that…”  As if aware he had said too much in mixed company, he cut off abruptly and vibrated, obviously dying to go smoke or pace or something.  None of which he could do with Dawn pinned to his lap.  

God.  He’d been abandoned by a parent, forced to be a caregiver for another…  No wonder he felt a massive resentment at such a question.  No wonder he felt such rage when it came to Angel.  

They had that in common too.  Their fathers had abandoned them.  

She supposed she got why he wouldn’t have tried to take on a new fledge, back then, family or no.  Why he hated the idea of raising fledges now, why he never tried to sire his own.  He’d had to take care of a blood-maddened vampire who was supposed to be his parent but who instead had been stuck in her childish stages, and he’d had to do so for the entirety of his foregoing life; subject to her insane, capricious whims.  He had loved her, of course, because he had been hers, and bound to her by blood, had only left when that bond had been broken, and him cast away like garbage.

But unlike a human, he wasn’t pulled by that kind of compassion that said to take on strays…  /And yet, here you are.  You took on Dawn, who’s totally my responsibility; in spite of your past.  And when Mom asked, just now, if you’d… make that permanent…/

/And you love her.  So how’s that different?/

God, he was changing so much.

Threading her fingers through his, she held on tight.  “Claimed… and held,” she reminded him softly.  “Held safe.”  /I’m not going anywhere./

The muscle ticcing in his jaw slowed to a halt.  He exhaled hard, nostrils flaring.  Turned to her, lowering his forehead to meet hers.  “Yeah.  Claimed and  held .  No walking away.”

“Ever.”

“Right.”

“I do very much wonder,” Giles murmured into the resultant silence, “if it might make any difference to the demon chosen, that the vampire doing the siring was souled at the time.”  He sounded a tiny bit embarrassed to interrupt, but also grateful to be doing so.  “One might imagine this Lawson to be a rather odd vampire.”  

Spike didn’t move his forehead from Buffy’s, simply directed his words over his shoulder.  “Sod was pretty restrained for a fledge.  But we didn’t chat much.  Not a whole lot to say between us.  ‘Sire’s a bastard, yeah?  Yeah.  Right then.  See you never.  Got places to be; have a nice unlife’.”

“I might very well look him up.  He’d be a rather interesting interview.”

“Yeah,” Spike scoffed, “you do that, Watcher.  Impress the Council of Wankers with another anomaly.”

“Your family does rather seem to breed them.  You’ve an oracular vampiress, a soul-cursed crusader, and you, of course, with your oddly preternatural control…”

“It’s called love, Rupert.”

“Right,” Giles retorted dryly.

“And Dru started having visions long before she was sired.  Was part of the reason Angelus sought her out.”

Buffy stilled against him.  She had somehow never heard that little tidbit.  The ‘was crazy before the siring’ part.  “What kind of visions?”

Spike lifted away, catching the frisson that went through her.  “Dunno.  They never said.  Just that she had the Sight.  Chosen by God and all that rot, so Angelus of course had to rieve her away from Him, make her his out of despite.  I just know it was strong enough that between it and all the shite he put her through, she ended up checkin’ herself into a bloody convent to take holy orders…”

Buffy glanced over at Giles, saw that he, too, had paled.  “Giles…”

“I know,” he whispered, sounding as floored as she felt.  “It’s possible.”  And the glasses came off.  “Possible even that she was Called,” he admitted quietly, “if she was on the run from a madman like him, so they mightn’t have been able to keep track of her.  Or Angelus might have killed her Watcher before she could be rescued…”

Spike was staring, at sea.  “Her what, now?”

“Wouldn’t that be in the books?” Buffy demanded, horrified.

Giles looked pained.  “I rather think such a cock-up would have been an embarrassment.  In which case… it might have been smoothed over, either way.  A footnote, nothing more.  If she was killed quickly enough, after all, the next girl would have quickly been Called; no harm, no foul.”

“Hold on, then.  What the bloody hell are you two getting’ at?”

Giles shot Spike a pointed, almost accusing look.  “If it’s true, it rather explains your affinity for Slayers, Spike.”  He moved to take a seat for the first time since they’d all come here.  “Do you think it might be a possibility?”

Spike lowered his face into his free hand, recognition flooding his frame.  “Oh, bloody hell.”

“Wait; are we talking about Drusilla here?  Miss Bags o’ Crazy?”  Xander, leaning forward, sounded alarmed by the very thought. 

“It wouldn’t be the first time the Council of Watchers flubbed a catch,” Anya pointed out easily.  “Those girls died all the time before they were scooped up; especially back before the advent of modern communication devices.  Relying on a coven full of witches could be hit-and-miss when it came to tracing hundreds of girls all over the world, and the network was easily broken before the worldwide economy picked up.”

It all fit… and built to a horrifying realization.  Buffy could very distinctly remember what it had been like being a Potential… and what life had been like right after she had been Called.  Either way, the very thought of being sired with all that potential energy running through her, those confusing dreams and urges, just sounded…  /Oh, wow./  Like being slammed headfirst into some kind of brick wall of opposing force.  Because then, instead of the Slayer line to which one was heir, Drusilla would have been implanted instead with a vamp-demon; something totally opposite of the thing she had been meant to hold as a vessel.  And since her brain had already been used as a conduit for visions, she had kept getting them… only for the other side.  Or something.  /Or maybe she can still get both, but it’s all… garbled./

“Talk about some crazy blood-magicks,” Wil broke in, sounding amazed and appalled… and maybe a little awed.  “Like a hijacking.  If it’s true, could you imagine the… coup it was for the Gods of Chaos?”

“Yes, well, that aside, this is all just a theory,” Giles pointed out, and adjusted his glasses on his nose with his index finger. He sounded kind of fluttery.

Spike groaned a little into his hand. 

“You okay?” Buffy asked him, concerned.  

“Knew Dru was an odd duck, pet.  Never bothered to ask meself why.  Or why I was.”

“She needed you.”  Buffy rubbed his arm, then sighed, willing finally to admit her debt to the mad girl with whom she, too, had an apparent affinity.  “But she always knew that someday you’d want to go.  Find yourself.  So when it came time, she gave you to me.  Because I need you too.”

He lifted his face from his hand to regard her, a little squinty and as if he had never seen her before in quite the same light.  “Bloody hell.”

“After, you know, a hundred and twenty years of boot camp…”

“Christ.”

Buffy tried a little smile.  “After which, hopefully I’m kind of a picnic…”

His hand dropped away.  “Oh, for fucksake, Slayer,” he began, his voice one low note of disbelief.  

He never got to finish, though.  

“Buffy Summers?”

Buffy’s head jerked up at the sound of her name, caught sight of an unfamiliar, blue-scrub-wearing doctor standing at the double doors.

Springing to her feet, she dashed up to meet the man, Spike disentangling himself from Dawn and shaking her awake so he could follow.  Dawn trailed them, bleary and disoriented but careening toward alert as they arrayed themselves before the capped surgeon.  The dark-haired intern stepped out of the doors behind the doctor, looking earnest, and stood quietly to one side, listening.  

“Yes?”

“I’m Dr. Kriegel.  I don’t know if you remember me.  We met briefly a few days ago…”

“Oh.  Right.  You look totally different with the deal on your head.”

The doctor’s lips twitched as if he was used to hearing that sentiment.  “We’ve completed the surgery.  Your mother is in recovery…”

The whole group was up and crowding in behind them now.  Buffy felt claustrophobic and jittery, every part of her body trying to climb out of her skin.  “Is she okay?  Did you… get it out?”

“We were able to visualize the tumor completely, which means I was able to get all of it.  Luckily, as indicated by the MRI, it had yet to envelop any other significant structures, so we can be confident of a successful procedure…”

His words were fading out like a radio going out of tune.  “I’m…  I’m sorry.  Is she…  Is she okay?”

“Barring complications in recovery, which at this point are highly unlikely, I think your mother’s going to be fine…”  Behind Buffy, sounds of relieved celebration broke out; a lot of strangled whooping, the rustling sounds of hugging and slapping.  Dawn sagged in relief, grabbing onto her arm and clinging to her and Spike in turn.  Spike’s hand on her arm ratcheted up to almost-painful.  

Buffy stood like a statue for a moment, unable to process the sudden loosening of tension, the lifting of the oppressive weight.  

“Of course we're still going to have to watch your mother carefully, and, uh, have her back in here for some follow-up testing…”

Buffy felt herself nodding like a mechanical toy.

“…But, overall I'd consider the procedure a complete success.”

Buffy felt herself being spun around, grabbed up off of her feet.  And then Spike was kissing her; a hard, bruising kiss made up of eight parts relief and two parts tears, and she was being squeezed within an inch of her life.  She didn’t have time to respond, not even automatically, before she was set down and whirled around to hug someone else—she thought it was Xander—then Willow was hugging her, all teary, and muttering something about how it was a good thing these guys knew their jobs, because she had had a spell up her sleeve to use as backup if they had screwed up, which, what?  Scary—and then Giles was hugging her kind of hugely and shaking, and then Dawn was more asking to be hugged than hugging her, and crying.  It took Buffy a moment in there to realize she was maybe crying too.

She wiped her eyes impatiently as she let her sister go and turned back to the doctor.  “Sorry.  Thank you.  Thank you so much!”

“Oh, please.  It’s my pleasure.”

Buffy almost hugged him too, and remembered at the last moment that that would probably cripple the poor guy, settled instead for shaking his hand.  She didn’t even break it.  

At some point Dr. Kriegel made his escape, and they all fell to discussing who would go in to see Mom first.  At which point the young resident-guy jumped in in his quiet way.  “I’m sorry to interrupt.  I’m really glad for all of you that it went well.  I just thought you ought to know that this is basically the same as before, with the biopsy.  Mrs. Summers will be out for another six or so hours; maybe longer.  We’ll have to keep her under observation till she’s conscious and able to communicate before she can have visitors, so it’s maybe best if you all take shifts; go home, get some rest, eat a meal…”

“Oh.  Right.”  Buffy glanced around the room at the abruptly uncomfortable, shuffling crowd.  “Uh…”  She looked over at Dawn.  “Do you want to…”

Dawn shrugged and looked away.  “I can handle it.”

Bravado, or fear?  “But do you want to, or do you want to go home?  I promise we’ll get you here pronto when it’s time.  And it’s not exactly comfy here…”

Dawn twitched one shoulder noncommittally.  “Who’d stay there with me?”

“We can,” Tara put in promptly.  

“Oh yeah.  Absolutely.”  Wil was all desperate-to-prove enthusiasm.

“Yeah.  And I can pop my head in the door, Dawnster,” Xander chipped in.  “No problemo.”

“Oh!  We can play Pop-O-Matic Sorry!”  Dawn sounded like she was starting to cotton on to this idea.

“Or, The Game of Life,” Anya prodded hopefully.  “I always get the most cash on that one.  That, and Monopoly.”

“No one will  ever  play Monopoly with you again, Ahn, so let it go.”

“Looks like it’s a party,” Spike pointed out, deadpan.

Buffy slipped her hand into his.  “You okay with that, Dawnie?”

“Ye…ah,” Dawn answered, defeated, and cracked into a huge yawn halfway through.  

“I’ll drive her home,” Giles put in, “seeing as the girls don’t have a vehicle.  Anyone want a ride?”

“Count me in,” Jonathan piped up.  “I’m out of bus passes.”

“I’ll ride with Xander.  Your car is exceptionally tiny.”

“It’s economical!”

Buffy kissed Dawn’s cheek before she could turn to follow the herd out, and Spike tugged his ‘Platelet’ close for a swift, one-armed hug and a light knuckling of her head.  “Ugh, get off, Spike!  You’re messing up my hair!”

“Already look like a haystack.  And you’ve drool on your cheek…”

“Ew!  I so don’t!”  Swiping surreptitiously at her cheek, Dawn glared at him exactly as if he were her older brother as she turned away to chase down her ride.

Buffy sighed and reclaimed his arm as the troops vanished through the exit.  “I’m really not sure what we’d do if we didn’t have you in this family.  Just so you know.”

“Likely fall all to pieces,” Spike answered sagely.

/Humility, thy name is vampire./  “Come on, you dope.  Let’s get out of here for a minute and go breathe something not inside of here.”

He groaned in dramatic relief.  “You are a queen.”

“You know it.  Just don’t smoke all over my oxygen.”

“I’ll try to keep it to myself.”

***

“I feel like I have a cat on my head.”

Buffy stroked the wig... which, to be fair, was really kind of strange-looking on Mom.  But it didn’t have a big, gaping hole in it, so there was that.  “But a very well-groomed cat.”  /And think of it this way; your hair will grow back a lot faster than vampire-hair, if that’s any comfort./  Spike’s scalp had stayed fuzzy and light brown in that one spot till, like, March, and had barely become long enough to make it worth dying again by June.  Vampires were so completely folically challenged.  

“Now you see why I take such good bloody care of the coiffure, pet,”  he’d told her while patting at the nearby curls, trying to arrange them just so over the two-toned spot.   “Do it any damage and it’s half a bloody year before you get enough back to be going on with.”

Mom looked doubtful as she studied herself in the hand-mirror.  “I think maybe I'll ... stick with a scarf.”

“You look gorgeous, Joyce,” Spike called from his spot reclining in the far chair, boots crossed up against one of the bed’s roll-y-uppy-things.  He seemed to be enjoying the impromptu wig-show. 

“He’s right.  And besides; wigs are fun, right?  We can get you a whole bunch of different ones.  You know, you can be, like, sixties!Mom…”

“Always wondered what you looked like as a flower child.  Know you were one.”

Mom shot him a repressive glare.  “I was all of twelve when the sixties ended, William.”

“We all know the sixties went on well into the seventies for some late bloomers.”

Buffy ignored their byplay.  It was always the safest bet.  “You could be action!Mom...”

“Proper Charlie’s Angel, you.”

“Now you’re just sucking up.  What do you want from me, young man?”

Rolling her eyes, Buffy did a theatrical little hip-wiggle.  “French maid!Mom...”

“Oh.  Can I get a vote in for that one?  Mark me down for French maid Joyce…”

“Spike, go smoke.”

Mom looked from one to the other of them, smiling.  “I’m obviously getting better, because you’re making fun of me, and Spike’s buttering me up with all this excess flirtation instead of being all solicitous…”

The boots hit the floor, and Spike leaned forward intently, looking offended.  “I take exception to that statement.  I flirt with you all the bloody time, Joyce.”

“No you don’t.  Not when you’re worried.  When you’re worried or emotional you call me ‘Mum’ and act like you’re going to pick me up and carry me around looking for the smelling salts…”

“She has you there.”

Spike made a show of leaning back again.  “I’m a victim of my upbringing.  It gets away from me sometimes.  Pay it no mind.”

Mom shook her head, a little smile still playing at the corners of her lips as she turned back to Buffy.  “How’s Dawn holding up?  Really?”

Buffy sighed, glancing at Spike out of her periphery.  Caught his faint quarter-of-a-shrug.  Shook her head slightly.  “I mean, about as well as anyone can expect.  She fell apart a little, but she’s pulling it back together.  But, you know, we can probably expect her grades to take a dip.”  /And she’s not the only one./

Mom sighed and nodded.  Her eyes rose to skewer Buffy then.  “What about you, Sweetie?  I know you've been missing a lot of school…”

Buffy fought not to look away.  “Only a little.  Spike’s been helping both of us.  I might have to take a couple of incompletes on some assignments, but I’m gonna make it through the semester intact.”

Mom shot Spike a warm look.  He did his best to blush.  “Well, as long as he hasn’t actually been doing all your homework for the both of you…”

Buffy made a noncommittal noise.  /Does half-rewriting three of my essays and practically redoing a bunch of Dawn’s end-of-the-chapter quizzes count?/  

Spike really should just become a damn tutor or whatever, if he ever wanted a day job.  Of course, if she ever wanted him to go on strike, sex-wise, and leave her hanging in a permanent dry-spell, the best thing she could ever do to accomplish that goal would be to even remotely suggest such a thing.  Better part of valor to keep her mouth shut.

“What about slaying and your friends?  I don’t want my illness to take over your life, Buffy.”

“Rot,” Spike muttered from the vampire gallery.

“Slaying is,” Buffy expanded for her currently-not-so-verbose mate, “kind of on hold right now.  Which is fine, since all the groundwork we’ve laid over the last few months means things are kind of easy to leave at station-keeping.  And the rest of the Scoobies can handle the occasional randomness.  Spike and I patrol here and there when the big stuff comes up, which honestly isn’t that often…”

Spike did a snarky, ‘Cough-vacation-cough’.

“…Which  means ,” Buffy translated strenuously, “that whatever the Council might think, this whole experiment is actually paying off, cooperation with the other side of the tracks is actually possible, and the Slayer can even have, like, a life, and friends, and family without the whole world coming down around her ears.  Which means I can stay here for a few hours and help my mom style her beautiful new plastic dream hair…”

“What do you mean, ‘whatever the Council might think’?” Mom broke in, because dammit, she was way too good at reading nuance in Buffy’s voice, just like Spike was.

/Play it cool, Buffy.  She doesn’t need to worry about this on top of everything.  We don’t even know how they’re gonna react yet, and it’s like forever from now, so it’s a whole vague worry thing, and…/  “No big.  The Watcher’s Council is probably just a little peeved at this whole ‘making peace with the demon world’ gig we have going here in the good old hellmouth.”  /In a wider sense, and more specifically, me making a very personal peace with one William the Bloody, whenever it is that they find out about that, but you know.  They can have my Mr. the Bloody when they pry him from my cold, dead, feral-Slayer claws.  And they won’t be press-ons./

“Oh.”  Mom frowned fitfully.  “Why, if it’s working?”

“Because they’re thickheaded, stodgy old prats,” Spike put in succinctly.

Mom sighed and lifted her hands to tug the wig off of her head.  Buffy blinked, arrested mid-artful-arrangement, left holding the brush with nothing to fluff.  “Wh…”

“Why don’t you two get out of here?  You don't have to keep me company all night.  Go out, have fun.  You have too many insane things pressing in on your lives as it is.  Go see a movie or something, since you’re going to have to come back here with Dawn in a few hours anyway.”

Buffy made a dubious face and shot the unspoken questions in Spike’s direction.  /I’m really not sure I could concentrate on a movie./  “I dunno...”

Mom flicked her fingers dismissively.  “Spike, get her out of here.  That’s an order.”

Spike promptly rolled up off of his tailbone and stood.  “Yes, Mum.  C’mon, pet.  We’ve been dismissed.”

“Alright, look,” Buffy answered in disbelief.  “I get that you’re whipped for Mom, but this is just…”

“Whipped for every Summers woman.  ‘S just, Mum outranks you…”

“Okay, wow.”

“Till we’re alone.  Then you outrank every star in the sky and the courses of the suns in the heavens…”  He gave her a tug on the arm to encourage her off the bed.

“You think you can sweet-talk your way out of…”

“Yes.”  Dragging her up, he gave her a full-bodied kiss, which he broke before she could really register what he was up to, to wink at Mom.  “Be back soon with the Niblet, Joyce.  Dunno if we’ll see a film—seems a lot to focus on—but we’ll figure something.”

Mom’s hand rose to forestall him.  “Please, don’t give me any details.”

“Okay, look,” Buffy protested, feeling distinctly managed.  “We  do  do other things.”

“Oh, I’m sure you play a lot of Parcheesi.  Get out of here, Buffy.”

How could her own mother sound just this side of snide and also amused all in one sentence?  /And also… when did she start talking to me like I was an adult and we’re… like… girlfriends?/  

It was weird.  

Pushing herself to her feet, Buffy tugged her arm out of Spike’s grasp and ducked for her bag.  “We play poker,” she corrected.  “Ish.”  She felt kind of irritable.

Spike threw her a fondly amused look.   “I  play poker.  You look at cards and broadcast everything you’ve ever thought, felt, or considered about your hand to all and sundry with your lovely glass face.”

“You’re a dick.”

“You love me.”

Shaking her head, Buffy retrieved the wig and smoothed it before setting it carefully on the creepy-looking wig-stand.  “Alright,” she murmured, feeling reluctant.  “A few hours.  Then we’ll be back.”

“I’ll be…”  Mom yawned abruptly, and out of nowhere Buffy noticed the dark circles under her eyes, how delicate she looked without the subtle art of cosmetics she had been denied in here.  Makeup was armor, and as such Mom was unshielded in this place, defenseless.  “I’ll be waiting breathlessly…”  She laid back, a suddenly vulnerable figure, smaller than usual.

/I’ve been selfish, keeping you awake to make myself feel better.  You need to rest./  “Get some sleep, Mommy,” Buffy heard herself say, and leaned over to kiss the pale forehead, just below the shocking white of the long strips of bandage where they were secured to her forehead.  

“See you soon, Mum,” Spike agreed.  “Rest well.”  And he lifted Mom’s hand to brush his lips over her knuckles in that offhand, courtly way of his before following Buffy past the drawn curtain and out the door.  They pulled the huge panel closed behind them just on the off-chance the staff would leave her alone for a little while before waking her up again for another round of ‘poke-prod-check the vitals’.

“I should’ve realized she was getting tired,” Buffy fretted once they were outside.

“She spoke up,” Spike answered, absolving her.  “Joyce is no pushover.”  He stroked her cheek lightly with the back of his hand; just a graze of the knuckles, then laid his hand on her shoulder.  “C’mon.  Let’s be off.  Platelet’s out of school in two-and-a-half hours.”

“I don’t know how she’s doing it.  I’m not doing it, obviously…”

“You’re holding the fort, though,” Spike answered, pacing at her side.  “Takes a bit more concentration.”

“I have you.”

“I’m just moral support.”  He snorted as he heard himself.  “Which is bloody ironic, yeah?”

She laid her head on his shoulder and folded her fingers in his, wondering just what the hell she would do without him.  “Shut up and take me somewhere not here.”

“Can do that, pet.”

As they rounded the corner to the elevator bank, that one dark-haired doctor-in-training popped up from behind the nurse’s station, like some kind of jack-in-the-box.  His name was Ben—Buffy had finally gotten that straight after another day in the place—and he wasn’t a resident but an intern.  Not that she was really sure what the difference was.  Many middle-school years spent helplessly addicted to  All My Children  and  General Hospital —a former vice Spike would never know about, which had taught her the perils of ever tuning in to a soap, ever again—hadn’t fully sorted the nuances for her.  

Ben was very helpful—almost eagerly so, like a sweet puppy—and seemed always to be where she was.  And did he literally take every shift, or what?  

The staff had all gotten to know them pretty well here on the oncology floor, but this one member of the crew seemed to have taken a particular interest in her family for some reason.  “Hey, Buffy.  Uh, Spike.”  His eyes darted quickly from Spike back to Buffy, sliding from what looked like some sort of bland confusion to warm and welcoming.  “How’s your mother today?”

He should know.  He was part of her care team.  “Better.  You know.  Up and talking.  She’s taking a nap right now.”  Maybe he’d spread the word and get them to leave her alone for an hour or so, since he was trying to be so damned helpful.  Though, they had their schedules, and checking a pulse waited on no nap.  /I never will understand that.  I thought rest healed.  What’s with waking people up every ten seconds, anyway?/

“Good.  That’s good.  She needs all the rest she can get…”

/Hear hear./

“So.  Headed out for a while?”

/That’s… pretty much what it looks like./  What did the guy want?  “Yeah, we’re gonna go get something to eat, chill, come back later with Dawnie.”

“Well, good.  We’ll be glad to see you later.”

“Uhuh.”  Seriously.  There was friendly and then there was just… overly friendly.  

Buffy’s suspicious nature was starting to ding at her.  This was, after all, the hellmouth.  

“Well, see you later.  Let m… us know if you have any questions or concerns.”

“Will do,” Buffy called back, too brightly, and tugged Spike inside the elevator car to push the ‘P1’ button.

Spike, it must be noted, was grumbling slightly.  He had clearly smelled a rat as well.  

Buffy waited till they were on the first parking concourse before she asked.  “So.  Does Ben smell… you know, all human-y?”

Her vampire stuttered briefly mid-step, and looked thoughtful.  “Yeah.  For what it’s worth.”  He shot her an odd look, a faint, sardonic smile touching his lips.  “Why’s that, pet?”

“I dunno.  He just seems… overly interested.  It’s weird.  In my book that’s kind of suspicious stuff, you know?”

Spike actually stopped mid-stride and turned to stare at her as if she’d lost her mind.  “Christ, Red’s right.  You really are just that oblivious, aren’t you love.”

“Wh…”

“The lad’s not a demon, pet.  He’s just taken with you is all.”

Whatever Buffy had expected to hear, it wasn’t that.  “He… is?”

“Oh, bloody hell.  You’re the thickest bird in the universe when it comes to your own attractiveness, you know that?”

Buffy shook it off.  That was all wrong.  “No.  I mean, yeah, I get that I’m pretty in my own way…”

“Excuse  me?”

“…But I’m also completely unavailable even before I was taken…”

“Hang on a tick.  Let’s go back to the ‘pretty in my own way’ bit.  What the bloody hell…”

She rode right over him, unwilling to get into a long debate right now in which he would invariably spend the next twenty minutes extolling her virtues to her.  He wore rose-colored glasses.  She knew she had her pluses and her faults, and she was fine with all of them, knew which to accentuate and which to downplay.  “Which I am.  Obviously; completely taken, so why…”

Eyes still narrowed at her as if he couldn’t believe her temerity, Spike snorted mirthlessly.  “Means jack shit, love, when a bird’s as gorgeous and as unattainable as you; and believe you me, we’re gonna come back to that one.”  He brushed her cheek again, now smiling that one, awed smile of his that melted her.  “Like the sun, you are.  Blokes can’t help falling into you; like gravity.”  The melty smile promptly turned instigating.  “Some birds as well, ‘member?”

She wouldn’t stoop to answering that particular tease.  “But…  But even if I  wasn’t  taken, I must seem totally self-centered to any normal guy even on a good day, with my weird drifting off thinking about stuff I can’t talk about…”

“It’s called mysterious intensity, pet.”

“And my way-too-strongness…”

“Hot.”

He was being so  equable  about it.  And, like, what was with the whole having an answer for every rebuttal?  “And, like… right now I’m completely distracted by this Mom-thing, and who hits on someone when their mother’s in  surgery?”   She was starting to feel a little dirtied, now, and more than a little offended.

Spike shrugged indifferently.  “Well, to be fair—not that I mean to be—the bloke isn’t exactly hitting on you so much as he’s just hangin’ about like a soddin’ Pomeranian.  Figure he’s tryin’ his best to be decent about it, but for all that he’s still pantin’ about your ankles near as bad as I was, before.  Which is to say I can’t very well blame him…”

“Oh, jeez...”

“But as to his timing…”  The indifference turned stony.  “I think the lad might have an unconscious Florence Nightengale bit going, only in reverse.  Preyin’ on those as are in dire emotional straits when they’re down, offerin’ a shoulder…”

Buffy made a face as the doors dinged open, fighting for traction against a wholly distasteful theory.  “Maybe this is one of those moments where you’re applying demon-logic to humans, and if you stir in a human conscience, it wrecks the whole concept?”  She really hoped so.  /Because if not, then can we say ugh?/  “Maybe he's just a genuinely nice guy.  I mean, does he have to have an ulterior motive?”

Spike sighed and set off for his beast of a car with her in his wake.  “Can’t speak to that for certain, love.  But I’ve seen the hell of a lot of human behavior over the last century… and from what I’ve seen, even genuinely nice people have an angle.  Even one they might not know about; subconscious, like?”  He tugged out his pack of cigarettes.  “True altruism doesn’t bloody exist.  If someone’s makin’ it a point to hang about that much and always be the one as is available, there’s a reason for it, even if he doesn’t know it himself.  Or…”  Nearing the vehicle, he lit a cigarette and held it without smoking it to lean against the rear fender of the DeSoto.  “…Maybe he's the sort as just wants you to know that if things don't work out between us, he's ready on standby to be your shoulder to cry on and that sort of rot.”  His lips twisted a bit in mockery.  “Because he's a real nice guy, and frankly, why  should  it work out between us?  You're a bloody nice girl, and I'm obviously a rough sort…”

Buffy crossed her arms under her breasts, disgusted at the scenario he was presenting, as much because it didn’t sound too off the wall as because the whole damned thing made her feel soiled.  “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Wish the hell I was, Buffy.  Sod might not be so obvious about it if you were dating someone a bit more like him, or if you were single, but since it's me, he's making sure you know that you have a friendly alternative about.”  He took a long drag off of his cigarette and cast it aside only partially-smoked to yank open the car door.  

“Well, that’s gross.  Like I can’t make up my own mind what kind of guy I want.  And also… the whole hunting in the hospital thing?  Ew, much.”

“It’s his territory,” Spike pointed out blandly, and ducked his head into the car.  

She followed, frowning.  “What happened to ‘don’t shit where you eat’?”

He grunted and turned the keys in the ignition.  “Yeah, maybe it’s unconscious.  But it’s still a bit of a racket, I s’pose.”

Buffy felt a slow burn of rage; felt it build as the car slowly backed out of its slot.  “That’s just… so gross.  Like a reverse Parker.  What a dick.”

Spike gave a little start, then, as if her point clicked in his head, frowned and gave a little nod.  “Got a point, there, pet.  Bit predator-like, innit?  Huh.”  He tilted his head.  “When you get down to brass tacks I ought to admire him for the approach, yeah?  Appreciate the wiles of an instinctive hunter; ‘specially since it’s not put on like that other tosser.  All innate.  Just a part of how the bastard operates.”  He frowned restlessly.  “Instead I’m right brassed, would prefer to go shove my fist in his teeth for hangin’ about; and not even just because he’s tryin’ his wiles on my lady.  I’m offended he’s done it to others, which is...”  And all the sudden he sounded distinctly uncomfortable, and very, very confused.  “What the bloody hell is my problem?”

/Oh./  Touching his arm, Buffy slipped her hand up to cup his face.  “You’re starting to see humans as people, even when they’re not attached to me.”

Spike reared back away from her, looking horrified.  “Well, that’s just…  It’s j…just…”  He sucked in one hard breath.  “Fuck.”

Had he actually stuttered, there?

Wow, this was really scaring him.

“C’mon.  Let’s go before your brain falls out.”

They actually did end up spending the next hour watching a movie; or most of one, in the crypt.  Spike was kind of morose and distracted through the whole thing, though.  Well, that was, until Buffy got over the irritable-Spike show, and way over her own restlessness, and decided to take matters into her own hands.  Or, well, mouth.  

One thing about dating a vampire; they were easily distracted; even more so than ye standard guy.  

Buffy thought it had something to do with the temperature differential.  Or maybe it was the impulse-control issue.  

Anyway, one thing led to another.  Neither of them were irritable for long.

*   *   *







"Defeat", by Khalil Gibran.  Just saying.
GUH.
(also I would pay enormous amounts of money to hear Spike doing "Do Not Go Gentle" at the top of his lungs off of a bridge or a radio tower or something.  Just putting that out there.  Anyone wanna get on JM for that one?  In character?  Pretty please?)

Anyhoo.  Also, putting Spike into ANY AND ALL scenes from canon makes them better.  I don't care what the subject matter is.  I will firmly stand by that assertion.

Chapter Text

“Give over, pet.  Mum’s healing nicely, she’s up and about and back at the gallery, you’ve only the one essay left before your bitty break an’ that mad holiday where we’re absolutely not gonna make a bloody bear this time, and that bitty ring of dust-smugglers didn’t get away with smuggling anything…”

“Doesn’t…”   Straight punch .  “Mean…”   Roundhouse kick.   “I’m happy…”   Uppercut.   “About…”   Side-snap-kick-to-throat-punch.   “This guy.”   Front-kick-jab-elbow-strike .  

‘This guy’ went down, gurgling.  “Look!”   Groan .  “Slayer!”  Spat a gob of something to one side.  “I’m sorry!  I just…  I got high off the ambiance and got in over my…  Stop  kicking  me!  My head!  I promise to be good!  Can’t I just… leave town, or…”

Buffy stood over the hairy dope, incensed.  Planted her fists on her hips.  “Things have been  quiet  here.  Then you gotta come in here and party… and tell everyone the cover is  middle-schoolers , for an  orgy?   Are you freaking  kidding  me?”

“Well, you know…  Virgins are only going out of style because even when they’re innocent they’re not, you know, ‘innocent’…”  The jerk tried for a laugh that fell flat with the current audience.  He sobered immediately.  “Look.  It was just a bad judgment call.  They’re not even good currency anymore.  Hell; half of ‘em probably weren’t even virgins.  These days, who knows, right?  You’d have to shoot for, like, eleven to get…”

“I  will  stab you.” 

The idiot monster sighed and deflated, looking down.  “So, what.  I’m dead, right?”

“You’re stupid is what you are.  Do you have any idea how hard I work to try to keep the damn peace around here?  How far I stretch the letter of the law so we can all even vaguely coexist?”

“Yeah!  Yeah, I really do!  I mean, things have been really good around here!  For sure!  I’ve so noticed.  I’m not dumb!  I mean, I even got to drink three gallons of Parghulagakh at the party without worrying that you’d…”  His trap snapped shut, and he got a worried look around his furry, spiny eye-slots.

Buffy shot Spike a querying look.  Spike’s mouth tightened briefly.  “And just where the bloody hell did you import the soddin’ venom from, then, you nit; and did you use it all, or is there some still about?”

/Thank you, Spike./  Rolling her head on her neck to ease the growing knots, Buffy sighed and pointed her sword directly at the idiot demon’s throat.  “That’s two strikes in one night, counting all the poor kids you’ve probably sent to therapy with your stupid party shenanigans.  You’re a liability.  One I can’t afford to send off to the next county…”

“Oh, man!  Look.  Slayer.  Listen.  I’ll do better next time.  I made some stupid calls.  It all just sounded so good at the moment.  I wasn’t thinking.”  A short pause and a tiny, toothy, reminiscent smile.  “Or, I was, but I was thinking it sounded fun and I wouldn’t get caught…”

Buffy thought she heard a faint chuckle behind her shoulder.  Her mood toward her paramour swiftly altered from gratitude to irritation, and she seriously considered throwing a dagger in his general direction.  He would, after all, live; or whatever.  /You’re supposed to be  helping , not living vicariously through these idiots!/  What, did he  miss  it or something?  “Just shut up.  I have to decide what to do with you, and right now I’m not feeling large with the magnanimous.  My instincts say I should already have killed you…”

The demon shot up on his elbows to regard her with a combination of pleading, fury, and frustration, while tears leaked out of the corners of his protruding eye-sockets.  “Oh, that’s just great.  That is so fair.  This guy does it fifty times, screws up over and over, you take him to bed and make him Master.  I do it and I get shanked.  Right.  Makes sense…”

Hit between the eyes, Buffy felt her belly hollow like she’d been solidly sucker-punched.  “That…  That’s so completely…  You…”

Spike strode up, shoved his own sword directly into the demon’s mug.  “There’s one small difference, wanker.  I’ve pledged my fealty, on my knees.  She can feel when I’m about to go off half-cocked, and she can command me to stop.  She knows she can trust me to behave.  You, on the other hand, are just as likely to do the same bloody stupid thing tomorrow night, no matter what you say; because like all of us, that’s what your blood tells you to do, and you’ve no other bit of conscience says otherwise.”  Clearly disgusted, possibly as much with the situation as with the accusation, Spike turned his eyes on Buffy.  They were clear… and pained, for her sake.  “This one’s not on you, Slayer.”  Still half-faced away and keeping his eyes firmly on hers, he shoved once, hard; a reflexive action of the elbow.  The tip of his sword drove home under the wayward monster’s jaw to cleave his throat from his body, clipped right through his neck vertebra.  

A gush of dark blood shot out of the creature’s mouth.  His glinting eyes bulged in shock as he stared at the fellow demon who’d ended him.  Buffy thought she heard him gasp; an attempt, maybe, at, “Why?”  And then he was gone.

Swinging away, Buffy took a hard seat on a nearby tombstone.  “Crap.”  

She was shaking.

Spike moved to join her, sat beside her on the next stone over.  It was one of those ‘marriage stones’, where the two headstones sort of fit together.  “Sorry about it, love.”

“Yeah.”  She looked down at her trembling hands, her bloodied knuckles.  “I remember when this all used to be so straightforward.  Easy, you know?”

He sighed and nodded.  Jammed his sword into the ground; half to clean it and half to free his hands, then set his palms firmly against the tombstone and leaned back to look up at the night sky.  “Before I came along to complicate it, is it?”

She could pretend it was all his fault, but that would be cheating.  “No.”  With a sigh, she turned to him, eyed his starlit profile.  “I just pretended for a long time that it was so I could keep it easy.  It was always complicated.”

“Yeah, it was.  But you needed it to be easy so you could survive what they asked of you.”  His lips tightened, regret written all over him.  “I hate like hell that it’s so bloody hard on you.  That you…”  His mouth snapped shut, and he looked away, down at the grass.

He only cut himself off like that when he was avoiding saying something he thought would really piss her off or freak her out.  “What?”

He shook his head.  “Nothin’.  I know you’ll always do what you feel you have to, no matter what it takes from you.  I just bloody well hate it, is all.”

Sometimes he didn’t make sense to her.  What else could she do?  /I can’t stop any more than you can…  You can stop loving me.  More than that; than you can turn off the blood-link.  Because it’s like that, Spike.  It’s a Calling.  It’s a  part  of me.  Just like I’m a part of you./

Didn’t he  get  that?

She thought he must, or he wouldn’t always help.  Wouldn’t be at her side like this, running the town with her from the flipside, doing all the things he hated doing just to make it easier on her.  /You  must  get it./

They remained silent for the longest time.  Buffy finally made a face and pushed herself to her feet.  “I need to walk.”

“Alright.”

They paced side-by-side through the cemetery, Spike kindly carrying the corpse while Buffy kept her eyes averted, till a nice empty grave presented itself, at which point he unceremoniously dumped the offender into the hole.  “Better luck next time, ya tosser,” he told the body with a two-finger salute, and turned away, dusting his hands.  “Hang on a mo’, love.  I’m all over blood.”  And he leaned over to rub his hands in the pile of dirt, scrubbing away some of the worst streaks.  “Right, then.  S’pose I’ll do till we get to a tap.”

They wended in the direction of the caretaker’s hut without words to spare.  Buffy squatted to make first use of the spigot while Spike stood watch, dabbing carefully at the cuts on her knuckles and letting the not-quite-cold water soothe the swelling before stepping away to let her guy have his turn.  He took his place as she moved away, wordlessly scrubbing at his palms, then cranked the water off and moved to join her.  “You alright?”

She shrugged one shoulder, aware he could read her like a book.  “I hate it when they make a good point.  I mean, I know it’s different… but how much of it’s different because I want it to be, or because it feels different to me; or because I’m the Slayer, so I get to make whatever exceptions I want, because I’m the Law, or…”

“Oh, hell,” Spike answered, and grabbed the lapels of her dirty, blood-smeared jean jacket.  Without further ado, he dragged her around, unprotesting, to press her up against the side of the nearer mausoleum—the Branford one; tall, imposing, with a nice, ivied overhang—and got right into her face.  “It  is  different, Buffy.”  The intensity in his voice shook her, riveted her gaze on his eyes where they sparked gold.  “You think you can’t bloody trust me?”

“I know I can,” she breathed, and felt her hips buck, automatically, toward him.  And it wasn’t time for that, for all her body always answered his in this way when he was… like this.  “But they don’t know that.  And if that’s what they all think, then how can I ask…”

“To hell with what they think,” he answered shortly, fierce; and crashed his mouth onto hers.

Stress, fear, anger, confusion, guilt; it all blazed up all at once, and she was clawing at his neck, dragging him in.  And he was fighting the same fight; had her hitched up hard around his waist, his fingers digging into the cleft of her ass through the tough denim of her jeans, was grinding into her; and she was open-mouthed and gasping as he tore his away to press demanding, sucking kisses along her neck, her throat, his hips already pounding a driving rhythm against her; and somehow she was going to have to get her jeans off, which seemed impossible, because that meant she had to stop touching him, and that made less than zero sense.

“You’re right…  Should stick with skirts…”

“Always right.”  Hands on her ass, he pulled her in tighter, drove her higher, and damn damn damn, she hadn’t planned this.  They didn’t do this, or at least not all the way, not yet—though, why, she could not currently fathom—and jeans were easier for fighting than skirts, but skirts were so…  So much better for…

One hand, up and dragging at the waistband of her jeans, and a mouth absorbing her heat to make more with her.  “‘You have witchcraft on your lips…’  Oh, fuck, pet, let me…”

“I know... how?”  The whole situation was inexplicable, and how had they never  done  this yet?  Because surely if they had, they would have had enough practice to have figured out the logistics.

His hand wormed between them, somehow, in nonexistent space, got the button of her jeans undone.  Just the button, and she couldn’t.  She crashed against the back of his hand, head thrown back and making a sound that could probably be described as mewling, which was awful but she didn’t care anymore, and…

“Oh fuck, oh fuck…”  And he was diving in for her neck, and she saw the amber glint, knew he had gone game face.  If he couldn’t manage one way, he’d manage another.  “Buffy…”

“Yes.”  They’d both make a mess of their jeans, but who the hell cared?

She felt the faintest prick of his fangs; just enough that she was convulsing already… and then she heard it.  The dreadfully familiar, heart-stopping  ping  of a crossbow.  And Spike jolted full-body like he’d been electrocuted, and flung back from her, fangs ripping away from her flesh with a shocking tearing that hurt more than they had ever remotely hurt going in.  

Wrapped around him, she fell with him, already screaming, already terrified beyond measure that she would feel him dust in her hands, that he would go with her looking into his eyes… but he stayed; amber gone, eyes indigo in the night and staring in shock, with just the faintest touch of her blood on his lower lip.

The fall drove the bolt deeper, and he groaned in agony when they landed on it together.  

“Oh God, oh God, ohgodogod…”  She was already yanking him up by the lapels of his duster to fumble for it, feeling…  And it was so close, so damned close; just an inch above, maybe, oh god; if anyone knew how close to get to a vamp’s unbeating heart to dust him, it was Buffy the vampire Slayer, and this…  This one had missed by just a hair.  It had been shot by someone who knew what they were doing but didn’t have the practice to make it stick.  Someone who wasn’t used to using a crossbow, or didn’t slay often, or…

Ripping the thing out at just the right angle to keep it from dusting him on exit, she threw it away like it was a live snake and crouched protectively over her guy, staring around them.  The fucking thing was high-tech spring-carbon… but with a wooden tip.  That was vampire-shot, with  money  behind it.  “Who the hell  are  you?” she demanded of the night.  Whoever it was, she would fucking  kill  them.  She would rip the bastard limb from limb.  She would…  

She was rapidly heading for tunnel-vision, here, knew exactly what that meant.  Hanging onto her human side was taking some serious work.

“Buffy…” Spike’s voice came to her a little shaken.  “The bastard smells human… and familiar.  Can’t quite place him, but… be careful.”

She appreciated the warning, but…  “Right now I really don’t give a damn, Spike,” she informed him grimly.

“Slayer!”   Despite the pain he must be in, he actually managed to sound touched.  

“Shut up and let me listen.  You!  Whoever you are, get the hell out here; and if you even think of pointing that thing this way again I will  end  you.”

There was a faint crackle off to the left, near where the mausoleum entrance lay hidden in shadow.  A bulky figure in all black appeared; a faint gleam of starlight on light skin and what looked like blond hair.  The crossbow was held at the ready, if cross-body and pointed mostly away from their little tableau; a stance that indicated that the situation could easily be remedied.

Something about the way the guy moved, the way he stood, seemed vaguely familiar to Buffy, but she couldn’t quite place him.  “Who are you and what the hell do you think you’re doing?” she demanded, incensed and still dealing with enraged Slayer-Line-ness and a serious adrenaline dump.  Talk about three seconds of sheer, life-altering terror!

A short, pregnant silence, then, “He was going to  bite  you, Buffy.”

It took her a second for the voice to register, then…  “Riley Finn?”  

“I have orders to take him out if he ever bites another human…”

/Oh my God, I’m going to  kill  you.  You and every one of your orders-giving, bastard-faced…/  “You…  You complete  idiot!   I can’t  believe  you’re even still here lurking around invading my privacy, poking your nose into my town!  What you saw was a completely consensual act!  You just shot my significant other for giving me an extra happy mid-boink…”

“Don’t sugarcoat it for him, luv…” Spike broke in, sounding way too self-satisfied for a guy who had a hole in his chest.

Buffy wasn’t even going to bother mincing words for this Nazi asshole.  “I mean, couldn’t you  tell , or are all Iowa farmboys that innocent?”

Even in the dark, she could tell that Riley was gaping at her as if she had grown a second head.   “Consensual?   Buffy, have you lost your  mind?   You’re letting that… that  thing  bite you… on  purpose?”

Buffy really wished she had something to bang her head on right now.  Between having her raging libido suddenly arrested with a shock of horror so massive she thought she was going to die, to being faced with this level of ludicrous, dashing her head into solid stone seemed a really perfect solution.  /What a night!/  “You wouldn’t believe the orgasms,” she shot back dryly, exasperated.  “Riley, get the hell out of here.  Out of this graveyard, out of Sunnydale…”

Her words only served to stoke the jerk’s righteous indignation.  “You’re right!  It’s a  graveyard!   And you accuse me of invading your… your  privacy?   What kind of a girl  are  you, having sex outside, in a  cemetery , with a  vampire , and letting him…  Letting him…”

Spike was, of all things, laughing now.  If he hadn’t just been shot very, very close to his heart, Buffy would have punched him square in the face.  Instead she pushed herself to her feet, off of her chortling lover, to plant her fists on her hips and glare at the guy who’d gone out on exactly one date with her practically a year ago.  “In case you missed it last year, you complete, fascist meathead, let me spell it out for you in short, easily-digested words.  I. Am. The. Slayer.  I. Spend. My. Nights. With. Demons.  In fact, I am myself part demon.  This?”  She waved her hand around her.  “Is my milieu.  My  raison d’etra.   And Spike?”  She let a slow, satisfied smile cross her face.  “He’s my dessert at the end of a long night’s work, right honey?”

“You want sprinkles on that, love, or hot syrup?”

She threw a pout over her shoulder, let herself secretly enjoy the way he was trailing his fingers up along his, albeit wounded, chest.  The asshole would flirt when he was half-dead.  He’d probably dust with innuendo on his lips.  “Who says I have to choose?”

“Not I.  What the Slayer wants, the Slayer gets.  Spike on a platter, Spike  a la mode …”  

“That’s what I thought.”  Turning back, Buffy resettled her fists on her hips and waited.  “Well?”

Riley’s mouth worked soundlessly.  “You’re…  You’re…”  His face crumpled into a twisted expression.  “That’s disgusting.”  

Buffy threw him a saucy grin.  “I’d say you should try it sometime, but you really shouldn’t.  Vampire sex isn’t for mere mortals.  I mean, this is my second go-round, and the first time nearly killed even me, so…”

“To be fair,” Spike chimed in again, “you picked the wrong bloody one the first time.”

Buffy cast her eyes skyward, unwilling to have this debate in front of a guest.  “Yeah, well, you weren’t available the first time around.”

“Point.”

“I…  This…  I mean…”

/You know what?  I’m so very much done with this; and with you.  I was done with you  last  year./  Striding swiftly up, Buffy snatched the crossbow from the husky idiot’s hands before he could react… and cracked it in half over her knee.  Which hurt a little, since it had a fiberglass stock, but it did splinter.  She finished it off by whacking it against the mausoleum so that the fine fractures she’d put into it exploded into a sharp, dangerous spray of hairs and shrapnel, the wire snapping to coil up into a frazzled disaster as the limbs broke away.  “You know, that was a crappy reflex.  That was a really nice piece.  I should’ve kept it.  Oh well.  Here.”  She held it out.  “Here’s your toy.  I’m taking your bolts, though.  You’re lucky I came down off of my instinctive thing where I wanted to rip your throat out and feed it to you for harming my mate…”

Riley didn’t take the wreckage off her hands; merely goggled at her, shocked at her show of brute force.  “Your  mate?

“…Because lucky for you,  most  of my instincts absolutely drive me  away  from harming humans for  any  reason.  Even when they try to assassinate the man I love in cold blood.   Except ,” she pointed out dangerously, “the primitive Slayer part of me, which is a demon, and really kind of wants to kill you right now.  So toddle off home to your base or your barracks or wherever the hell you hole up, you dick, and leave us alone  forever , before I decide to listen to the part of me that really,  really  doesn’t like you.  I’ve been through a lot lately, including almost losing my mother, and I’ll be  damned  if I’m gonna lose my lover because you think you’re better than him just because you’re human.”

Riley’s face set in stone.  “If you’re also a demon, then you’re an enemy of the state, and you’ve just assaulted a member of the United States Armed Forces…”

Was he really that stupid?  “Oh, please.  I took your toy and broke it.  Out of self-defense, because you were pointing it at me after shooting my companion because we were having sex in public.  Heck, not even.  Necking - plus-tax, but just to be fair, call it sex; a crime punishable by what?  A little time in the drunk-tank and a fine, maybe, not execution by soldier.”  She deepened her glare to a challenge.  “Prove anything else.”

“A single drop of your blood will…” 

/Oh, yawn./  “Prove nothing.  I have extensive medical records that show I’m totally human.”  Buffy dropped the remains of the crossbow on the ground and snatched the quiver of bolts from his hip, held it away from his reflexive grab.  “My demon’s in my spiritual essence.  Find a way to test that.  I’ll wait.  Hm.  These are pretty.”  They were; all springy and carbon-y and bouncy.  “Thanks.”  Turning back to Spike, she dismissed Riley with a backhanded wave.  And watched as her guy gamely made to push himself up off the ground, now that the coast was clear.  He was moving very, very slowly and painstakingly, and the starlight gleamed off of way too much blood on his shirt, on the duster…

A flood of rage bowled her over, so vast it almost knocked her down.  For a second she completely forgot that Riley Finn was human, and she badly wanted to cause him excruciating pain.  “Tell your bosses I’ve got the town totally under control,” she bit off, “and we don’t need any of your help.  Oh, and Riley?”  She shot him a glance over her shoulder as she knelt in front of Spike.  “If I ever see you again, I might not hold back.”  And without further ado she tossed aside the tiny quiver and held out her wrist.  “Here.”

Spike lifted his eyes to hers, the question in them for the audience.  

She answered with a level, certain look.  The audience didn’t matter.  He didn’t even exist.

A flicker of acknowledgement; an unspoken, ‘Alright, then.’  And Spike took up her wrist, pressed a kiss there in thanks, opened his mouth in a slow, sucking, blunt bite to ready her.  She breathed with him, feeling Riley’s eyes on the back of her neck, shocked and horrified.  Then fangs, sliding in; the low, familiar, piercing ache, and the slow, deep pulling that seemed to draw from somewhere deep inside her.  And yes, even in these dire straits she felt her body answering; her nipples drawing tight, her clit beginning to respond.  

He groaned as the beginnings of her arousal scented the air, as the richness of her blood eased his pain and made it possible for him to answer her in turn.  And then he was licking her closed to pant against her, his cheek turned into her palm.  “Christ, love, oh bloody hell, Buffy…”

“Well.  One way or the other, huh?” she murmured hoarsely.  “Better?”

“Will be soon enough.”  He turned his forehead into her palm, caught her hand with his other so that she was held between his two.  And, as always, renewed his vow.  “Yours.  Always yours.”

She could give it back to him now.  “And yours.”  She stroked his escaping curls back away from his eyes.  God, the way he looked at her after he’d had her blood.  “Can you get up?”

He snorted faintly.  “Give me ten minutes and I can shag.”

/Dope./  “I’ll take it.  You scared me half to death.  I might need some reassurance that you’re really still here.”

“Always at your service, Slayer.”

She stroked her fingers through his hair again, dropped her thumb to touch the punctures at her wrist.  They had already pebbled over.  “He still there?” she asked, wondering if she was imagining the feel of hard, incredulous eyes on the back of her neck.

“No.  He scarpered along about when you offered yourself up.  Probably didn’t want to watch, or was afraid he couldn’t control himself without jumping in, an’ you might kill him for interfering…”

“Which I would have,” Buffy answered grimly.  “Asshole.”

“Think you scared him proper, pet.”

“Good.”  Turning her head, Buffy glanced behind them.  The doorway of the mausoleum was empty.  Good riddance to bad rubbish.  Patronizing jerk.  

“Would you really have?” Spike asked wonderingly.

“Hmm?”  Turning back, Buffy set her feet and, hands still clasped in his, heaved him to a standing position.  He swayed a little, but stayed upright well enough.  “You okay?”

“I’ll do.”  He eyed her quizzically, head tilted a little as if looking for something.  “You would have, wouldn’t you?” he went on, sounding awed.

“What?” she asked, slipping an arm around him to help him in the direction of the gate.  Luckily the car was nearby.  It was a long drive to… well, anywhere, from here.  She supposed she could take him to Revello, but she would prefer the dorm or the crypt, since she kind of really did want to reassure herself of his nice, solid, undustyness.  Speaking of, her pants were going to fall down if she didn’t rebutton them, and hah.  She’d had that whole conversation with Riley Finn with her jeans unbuttoned.  Oops.

Oh well.

“You would’ve killed the tosser, wouldn’t you?  Human an’ all?”

Having paused to do up her pants, Buffy stilled and lifted her head to eye her guy.  Frowned pensively into the distance… and sighed in defeat.  “If he’d dusted you I would have ripped his head right off and never even felt bad about it,” she admitted.  “And never recovered from the guilt that I missed hearing him, somehow, and let you get…”

“Buffy.  Love…”

“I almost did it anyway.”  It came out on a sharp, taut breath, and the realization terrified her.  But it was true, and how much of her other side was engaged by this… this mate-y-ness?  Did it sometimes eclipse her human-ness, or whatever part of the Slayer was devoted to the protection of humankind?  

Would it eventually make it hard for her to do her job right?  Care about the humans she was supposed to protect?  /I don’t kill humans, I save them.  I…/

Spike stopped her with a simple touch to her cheek.  “Self-defense, or defense of a loved one, isn’t called murder in any law on the books, you know.”  He frowned in brief, pensive reflection.  “Or, at least I don’t think it is.  ‘Less they changed it recently nearabouts.  Anyway, it’s mitigating or some such shite.”

Buffy rolled her eyes at him.  “You’re just trying to make me feel better…”

“Well, yeah…”

“But I can’t.  What was it that Xander said the other day about Spiderman?”

“Oh, Christ…”

“No, seriously.  This was the only thing he and Jonathan have ever said that made sense.  What was it?  ‘With great power comes great responsibility’…”

“That’s it.  I definitely need to shag you rotten if you’re gonna start taking pointers from sodding superhero shite on how to navigate bein’ the Slayer…”

Buffy sighed wearily and gave him a light shove toward the cemetery gates.  They passed through, him heading for the driver’s side door while she rounded the ass end of the DeSoto to get in her side.  “You do know that ‘shag you rotten’ doesn’t make it sound remotely attractive, right?” 

Spike didn’t reply until she was inside with him.  Once she was seated, though, he grinned challengingly at her as he turned the car over.  “‘Under the soft translucent… linen… the ridges around your nipples… harden at the thought of my… tongue.’”

“Is this a poem?”

He put the car in gear, grinning.  “‘You—lying inverted like the letter ‘c’—arch yourself deliberately…wanting the warm press of my…lips…’”

“This is an unfair advantage,” she protested, feeling mildly assaulted.  The arousal of twenty minutes ago came roaring back with reinforcements. 

He turned the car off of the side-road toward Forty-Third.  “…‘It’s wet to coat the skin… that is… bristling, burning, breaking into sweats of desire…’”

“This is porn.”

He rolled his tongue, eyes front and peering through his driving slit like a man with a plan.  “…‘Sweet juices of imagination.’”  And his gaze flickered hotly over to meet hers.  “‘But in fact, I haven’t even… touched… you.’”  He smirked evilly.  “‘At least, not yet.’”

She was breathing way too hard, considering that was true.  “Who the  hell  was that?”

“‘Desire’, by Sudeep Sen.  Seductive, innit?”

“That  one, you’d better do again in bed.”

“With my tongue buried in your sweet quim, is it?”

“Drive faster.”

His low, throaty chuckles were their music all the way back to Restfield.

***

They were in The Magic Cabinet a few evenings later with Wil and Tara when it happened.  They were really only there to pick up Dawn, who had snuck off after school to try to watch the magicks circle do some casting or other at Giles’ apartment, and ended up disrupting everything.  Willow and Tara had rather diplomatically decided to take her with them to the downtown shop to refurbish the supplies that had been wasted in the attempt, while an irascible Giles had directed Jonathan to help him reset their circle and symbols or whatever.  “Dawn, for goodness sake,” Buffy called as she stepped into the musty-smelling magicks store under the ringing bell, “why are you always in trouble?”

“Yeah,” Spike intoned behind her.  “Ought to have your bloody ears, me.  Draggin’ me into this place.  I hate magicks.  And this place stinks.”

“Oh, don’t be a grumpypants, Spike,” Willow spoke up cheerily with a little hand-wave.  “She was just being curious.”  She turned back to the empty counter, where she was clearly waiting for someone or something.  Probably the proprietor, seemingly in the back looking for a specialty item or whatever.

Tara looked up as well, clearly surprised.  “Does it really smell bad?”  She did a little sniff of the air, lifting her nose and everything.  “I think it smells… earthy.”

Dawn smiled irrepressibly, shining her hero-worship beacon on her new best friend.  “Like… patchouli and mugwort and wet incense.”

“Exactly.  Very wholesome.”

“Oh, hell.  Buffy, they’re converting her.  Any moment now she’ll be wearing a skirt made of straw and puttin’ shag rugs in her room…”

“I can still cast a hex on you, you know,” Willow answered, less flippantly.

Spike smirked and curled his tongue at them.  “Ever tell you about the flower child I ate at Woodstock?”

“Ooookay,” Buffy cut in, and stalked away from her guy to snatch at her sister’s arm.  “You.  Big trouble.  We don’t interrupt the witchy witch-ness.  It makes the spells go kerflooey, and badness ensues.  And  you ,” she finished, turning to glare at the vamp currently having a lazy faceoff with one of said witches, “we don’t joke about eating people in…  Well.  Just don’t.  And don’t tick off witches who are already having a bad day…”

Dawn tugged her arm out of Buffy’s grip to eye Spike with interest.  “Was the hippie high?”

“Oh, for God’s sake…”

“As a kite.”

“Oooh.  Did eating them make  you  high?”

“Spent a whole soddin’ day watchin’ my hand move.  It was bloody fantastic.”

“You know, that’s actually really interesting,” Tara mused quietly.  “I never thought of vampires as being able to get, you know, intoxicated…”

“Oh, we can, pet.  It just takes the hell of a lot of work, as we don’t have blood flow an’ the like.”   He smirked slightly.  “Or at least, not without provocation.  Got to half-replace the blood-volume with the stuff to get it to the brain.  But if you take it from someone who’s already done the work for us of gettin’ the mixture right…”

“Oh.  Well.  I guess that makes sense…”

“This conversation is so not happening.  Dawn!”

The shopkeeper chose that moment to reappear from the back of the store somewhere.  “I don’t have anymore of the hellebore, unfortunately.  I can put you on the list for the backorder.  Next herb order comes in Saturday.  Can I interest you in some belladonna in the meantime, or perhaps some…”

Willow sighed heavily and shot Tara an assessing glance.  Tara made a ‘not so much’ face.  “No, I guess we can just wait…”

“See,” Buffy told her sister grimly, “now they can’t do the spell till next week or something.”

“Okay, look.  I said I was  sorry , alright?  What do you want me to do?  Crawl around on my belly and  beg  forgiveness?”

“No, of course not, Dawn,” Tara interrupted, wide-eyed at their fight.

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous,” Buffy snapped, embarrassed now at her sister’s teenaged dramatics.  “Just… c’mon.”  God, Dawn made her tired.

And now, of course, Spike was radiating disapproval from behind her, because as usual in such situations, he probably thought he was being too hard on ‘the Niblet’, or that she was handling her wrong or something.  /But you give her too much slack.  And Mom’s just too tired to deal with her right now, so someone has to stay on her case, the way she’s acting up, or she’s gonna end up in a gang or something!/

Dawn crossed her arms, the picture of rebellion, and set her heels in.  Buffy immediately felt herself on the verge of explosion, ready to throw down an ultimatum.

Spike exhaled loudly, and stepped between them.  “Alright, Niblet.  Why don’t we just go for a walk or summat, yeah?  Scream at the trees, or kick something, and you can tell us what’s brassing you off, so we can figure out how to fix it.”

Like he’d waved a wand, Dawn vibrated briefly, and then her shoulders relaxed, hesitating, then…  “I can’t talk about it to  her .”  Eyes darting to Buffy, like she was queen bitch or something.  “She’ll just get mad.”

/Okay, wow.  Like I don’t understand life, or…/ 

Spike’s shoulders actually managed to  tense in her direction , just daring her to snap back.  

/Oh,  fine .  Let her have the last word./  She supposed if she was still not-quite-fifteen, she’d be all teed off at everything all the time too, and sure everything was all about her, and… whatever.  “Dawn, I do want to hear about your life.”  /Gah, this is so hard.  What do you  want  from me?/  “And I’m sorry I sound so mad.  I’m mostly just worried about you.  You could’ve been hurt by the backlash when the spell blew up.”  

Spike’s head twitched in the tiniest of up-and-down nods, approval now radiating from him as he relaxed infinitesimally.  Which should piss her off, but, well… taking her cues from him when it came to handling other people’s emotions was part of the reason she wanted him around, right?  /I can concede that./  And, Buffy supposed that in the long run it hadn’t costed her too much to say what she had said. 

Rolling her eyes, Dawn shrugged as if she didn’t care.  But she did drop her arms.  “Fine.  Let’s just get out of here.  I’ll see you later, Tara, Willow.”

“See you, Dawnie.”

“See you, Dawn.”  Tara moved to give their youthful rule-breaker a quick hug.  “It’s okay, you know.  We can do some other spell this time.  It’s no big deal.  You were just curious.  But Buffy’s right; we just want you to be safe and not get hurt.”

Dawn melted a little.  “I get it.  I’m sorry I messed it up.”

“It’s okay,” Willow chimed in, reinforcing her sweetheart.  “We’ll figure it out, Dawnie.”

“Okay.  Bye.”  A little bent-elbow wave, and Dawn was trailing her escort toward the door. 

Near the exit, Buffy was arrested by a little stand of brightly-colored, laminated astrological placards.  She fingered one, half turned away, ready to dismiss it.  Dawn paused with her, picked up the hot pink Gemini card to scan it with interest.  “Oh, that is so me.”

Spike made a contemptuous noise and leaned against the door, arms crossed.

Buffy shook her head.  “I dunno.  These things always seemed a little off to me,” she murmured, brushing the Capricorn one.  “I mean, some of it fits how I work in the day-to-day, but it never fit how I do, like, Slaying, or a lot of my friendships… and it kind of fits my relationships sometimes, but not always…”

Tara’s head popped up again from where she and Willow were perusing the drawers full of loose herbs.  “Well, I’d have to do your chart, but you always struck me as a Cap Aries rising, the way you take the lead in everything.  No idea about your Moon…”  She tilted her head at Spike, as if analyzing him.  “It would be really interesting to do a vampire’s chart, with the two birthdays; to see how they influence each other.”

“Oooh, I never thought of that,” Willow exclaimed, jerking up from her herb-perusal with interest.  “What a neat idea!  Spike always seemed very Sag to me, but sometimes when he’s all snuggly with Buffy he acts like the most complete Cancer I’ve ever seen in my life.”

“Exactly what I was thinking…”

“Bollocks, the load of it,” Spike interrupted, eyes skyward in clear disdain.

“His birthdays are in June and November,” Buffy put in helpfully.

“Oooh, we were right!” Willow announced, bouncing.

“What does that mean?” Dawn asked, looking confused.

“It doesn’t mean anything, Bit,” Spike answered, clearly annoyed.  “It’s all a great load of rubbish.”

“Shows how much you know.  I’ve done at least three spells using astrology that have been way accurate.  I bet if we did a reveal spell using one of your…”

“Touch me with your magicks and I’ll bite you,” Spike answered mildly, and tapped out a cigarette. 

“No smoking,” the shopkeeper called nervously from behind the register.  “I, uh, don’t care if a vampire comes in as long as you’re, you know… peaceable…  But no smoking.”

/So, I guess no fooling the local magick-shop-guy?/

Rolling his eyes, Spike shoved the filter between his lips and gave the room at large a truculent glare.  “I’m no one’s show-pony.”

“Okay, someone’s testy today,” Buffy muttered, and grabbed his arm this time.  “Sorry; I think he’s on his vampire period or something.  We’ll get out of here and…”

Spike beetled his brows at her.  “I’m not testy, Slayer, I’m sodding hungry.”

Thrown, Buffy blinked at him.  “Wh…  But, you…”

Tugging his arm free, he rubbed his chest, very deliberately, through his shirt, lips clamped hard around his unlit cigarette.  “Been doin’ a lot of healing.  Ran through all my provender.  Need to go stock up.”

“Oh.”  Buffy felt very abruptly incredibly stupid.  “Why didn’t you say something?”

“Isn’t Wednesday yet,” he answered flatly, and pulled the cigarette away to seat it between his fingers.  “No run at the hospital for two more days.  Parlors are all out.  One problem with keeping everyone on their best behavior is less bodies in town, and more customers out back.  Less supply and more demand.”  He shrugged philosophically, tension singing in his frame.  “Might have to stoop to butcher’s blood, and I don’t bloody want to.  And it brasses me off.”

/Oh, wow./  Buffy wondered why the hell she hadn’t recognized it since yesterday; the shining edge of violence in his frame, the building frustration, the way he’d scarfed down that rare burger like it was gold…  And the way, she now realized, she had felt oddly hungry herself whenever she had been near him; and oh-so-on-edge.

He was depleted, had been for three days since that asshole Riley had essentially staked him.  And because of their link, it was a feeling she shared.  An edgy, panicked feeling that was the beginnings of vampire starvation.  He was healing slowly, from the inside out.  Her blood had given him a very nice head start, but it had been a near-fatal wound, and would take a lot more than that to fix.  

/And if you were your old self—if you weren’t with me—you would have fixed it already.  You would have gone hunting, and you’d be fine.  This wouldn’t be a problem./  But out of loyalty to her, and to their relationship, he hadn’t.  Instead he was just standing around suffering, aware that the solution to his pain and hunger was available, everywhere.

He had to be beginning to resent that, at least subconsciously.  

Which meant she needed to find a way to fix it, before this got any worse.  Because they both knew that even if he did stoop to animal blood, it wouldn’t do the job; or at least, not at any great speed.  Buffy had had a serious object lesson in that truth last fall.  It would take weeks to heal him that way, and just piss him off worse in the long run.  /No./  “Hey.  I don’t know why you didn’t say anything.  I guess… maybe I should’ve realized, and I’m sorry I didn’t.  But we’ll… figure something out, okay?”

He softened a little.  “No, I…  Hell, Buffy; I’m sorry I didn’t speak up.  I was afraid if I did you’d think I was weakening or summat, so I thought if I just waited it out…”

/Wait, what?/  “And what, got weaker and hungrier till you popped?  How does that even make  sense?”  she demanded, abruptly incensed.  “And do you think I want you that  mad  at me?”

That earned her his incredulous face.  “Mad?  You  are  mad!  Sack of hammers if you think I’d ever be upset with  you  over this, Buffy!  I  chose  it!  It’s not  on  you!  What the hell makes you think I’d put it on you?”

Dawn was staring from one to the other of them like she was at a volleyball game.  It made Buffy anxious.  “Okay, but I’m the one asking you to…”

“To hell with this!” Spike interrupted, cutting a wide swath sideways with his hand, and abruptly vamped out.  

Dawn jumped away with a surprised ‘eep!’ as if amazed that their debate had gotten to this point in the middle of a downtown store.  Which, to be fair, so was Buffy, if in a distant, hazy way.  But that was one level.  On another, it made complete sense.  Spike was half out of his mind with hunger and pain kept carefully under wraps for too long.  God knew she had seen this before with him.  Heck, it was where they had started.  The only difference was… she shared it with him now; felt it with him, augmented everything he felt, reflecting it back to him like an echo-chamber to make him even more anxious than he was already.  

And, it affected her thinking so that she had almost as little self-control right now as he had.  /But I have a little more./  “Lose the bumpies,” she ordered calmly, and to show there were no hard feelings, caught his hand, soothed with a little run of her thumb along the back of his wrist.

He struggled with it. It was a command, after all.  “Tryin’, pet,” he whispered, clearly startled at his own lack of control.  

She moved up close, touched his forehead with her free fingers.  “It’s okay.  We’ll figure out how to fix it.”

He shook his head, voice husky and taut.  “Best step out.  Too many humans in here.”

The store owner made a strangled sound and ducked to cower behind the counter.  Willow murmured something that sounded like the beginnings of a spell.  Tara, though, surprisingly, merely whispered, “Humans…” in a wondering tone, which was weird, but Buffy had no room to spare to ponder everyone’s reactions.  

“Okay, if that’s what you need.  Not that there won’t be people outside, either, and I think your self-control is better than you seem to think it is…”

He shot her a withering glance under Neander-vamp brows.  “Not gonna bite anyone, pet.  Just don’t wanna stand about with my guts burning, smellin’ everyone.”

/Oh.  Well, fair enough./

“Let’s go, Buffy,” Dawn urged, sounding pained for Spike’s sake.  

“Yeah.  We’ll go maybe find some blood at that one place over in Goleta, on the other side of the college; Sweet Home…”

The door crashed open behind them.  There was a flurry of pale hair and dark clothes.  Someone or something struck Spike broadside, hitting him square in the shoulder hard enough to knock him off-kilter, and in process banging Buffy away so that she staggered hard against the rack of astrology leaflets.  The entire rack collapsed, laminated materials slithering to the ground.  

Fighting to regain her footing, Buffy missed badly, stepped on a pile of baby blue pamphlets marked ‘Taurus: the Hedonist’, and damn near went down in an undignified heap.  It pissed her off, and she came up swinging at the mass of black limbs that was Spike and his co-combatant.  No way in hell he was on his own with this, weakened and hungry and… 

She had no time to sort out one set of black-clad limbs from another before the dimly-lit room was rent with a tiny nova.  There was a sharp report; some kind of  snap-sizzle  sound.  Spike snarled; a terrifyingly primitive noise that threatened swift and ugly death, and Buffy was briefly blinded by a bright, crisp, blue-white shock as it traveled across the room at inhuman speeds, leaving behind an odd, negative afterimage; two dark bodies in galvanic poses, one holding some sort of tube-like weapon and one leaning far off to one side and away while the bolt or whatever sizzled between them.  

Time stood still for a moment, then snapped back to the present with an odd, whistling sighing sound, and with the resonance of sharp cries from Willow and Tara as they leapt aside, out of the arc of the odd, out-of-place lightning.  Dawn cried out as well, though she wasn’t in the thing’s path, and dove behind some display or another, thank god.  Buffy swung around, ready to grab the interloper; to divest him of his weapon… but he was already grappling with an incensed Spike.  

She caught a flash of bared fang, of flickering fluorescent light glinting off of blond hair, a glimpse of a recognizable profile.  A fist swung.  Spike snarled again.  And then Riley Finn was on the ground, yelling something about civilians… and Spike, starving, beyond pissed off, and thus lost to sanity, reared back with fangs out to take a possibly fatal bite out of the demented soldier’s throat.

Acting on instinct, Buffy kicked her guy off the downed man—no time for commands, much less reasoned arguments about laying off one of his former abusers—and took his place on the jerk’s chest.  No way this could continue.  

Straddling Riley while Spike sprawled to one side, shaking his head and looking confused, Buffy pinned the soldier’s arms with her knees.  At which point, and none too gently, she yanked the whatever-it-was from his numbing grip to toss it aside… and punched him in the face, almost hard enough to knock him out.  “What the hell is  wrong  with you?” she demanded, incensed.  “Seriously?  Are you  dense?”

Riley’s head lolled, half-conscious.  He looked…  He looked sick; pale, too sweaty, weirdly drawn, and with dark circles under his eyes.  Said eyes burned with some bizarre, fanatic light that quite honestly terrified her.  “Civilians,” he hissed.  “Everywhere.  And you…” he spat... and then his eyes rolled up in his head, and he passed out.

/Anticlimactic, much?/  “Well, okay, fine,” Buffy sighed, and relaxed a little to sit back.  “Talk about cheating.”  Turning a little on the creep’s chest, she glanced around the shambles of the room.  “Everyone okay?”

Slowly, her posse emerged from their various holts.  “Yeah,” Wil called.  “We’re okay, I think.  Tara?”

“S…sure.  I guess.  W…who was th…that?”

“Dawn?”

“Here.”  Popping up from behind a fallen table, her gangling sister carefully stepped around some crunching remains of broken crystal.  “Uh, Buffy, what’s going on?”

Buffy sighed and turned to her guy.  “Spike?  You okay?  Did you… tear anything open or anything?”

Right arm flopped over a bent knee, Spike exhaled and jerked his head in the negative.  He’d managed to shake the game face in the interim, but he was still breathing heavily in clear and labored emotional reaction.  “Sorry about it, pet,” he grated, and his expression told her he expected them to have a pretty serious problem over his other very emotional reaction.

Honestly, Buffy didn’t have the time right now.  And besides; it wasn’t like she could blame him.  Aside from the fact that this was one of his tormentors from last year, the guy had only just shot him; damn near dusted him while he was at it.  Put that together with near-starvation and the resultant edginess, and it was a wonder he hadn’t torn into the prick immediately.  “Don’t.  It’s not an issue right now.”

A brief, tense nod, which… oh.  He’d take that to mean there  would  be an issue later, and dammit, would she ever be able to word in a way that he wouldn’t interpret as…  

/Later.  We’ll work on it later./  

“Buffy,” Willow broke the silence, “is that… Riley Finn?”

Pushing herself off the currently-somnolent asshat, Buffy nodded and considered giving the unconscious man a brief kick in his side.  “Yeah.  He’s been hanging around.  A few days ago he shot Spike very close to the heart…”

Dawn hissed like a teakettle.  “He  what?”  she demanded, and promptly went into attack-teen mode, complete with finger-claws.

Buffy caught her around the waist before she could pounce.  “Don’t.  He missed.  We’ve got this.”

“But…”

“Just back  off , Dawn.”

“But he…”

“Niblet,” Spike cautioned.

Making a face, Dawn immediately sagged and whirled to stalk back to her station by Wil and Tara, and dammit, sometimes it was infuriating the way she would obey Spike and not her own sister.  

Swinging briefly away from the irritating tableau, Buffy yanked out her phone.  “I should call the local base, see if they can… I dunno.  Grab him or something.  File a complaint…”

“Buffy.”  Spike’s quiet tones were a warning.  “Somethin’ you should know.”

/Oh, man./  She turned back, phone in hand.  “What?  He still smell funny, or…”

He shook his head from where he lay, still sprawled on the floor.  “No.  That’s maybe part of the problem, though.  Tosser smells mostly human.  But his ticker’s gone all wonky.  Sounds like he’s about to have a bloody heart attack.  And he smells anemic.”  A brief frown.  “And a bit like vamps.”

Buffy opened her mouth to counter that the jerk had probably been having some target practice around town without a hunting license, but if he was shooting, why would he smell like vamps, and be  anemic?   And, vamps, plural?  That was a little… off, wasn’t it?  “What…”

Spike lifted his chin to point at the torpid soldier.  “I’d check his arms, pet.”

/Buh?/  But Spike never suggested anything without having a damn good reason, so Buffy approached Riley’s crumpled form and rolled up one dark, ribbed sleeve over a pale, clammy arm… to reveal what looked like track-marks all up the inside, from wrist to inner elbow.  Only these track-marks were in pairs.  

There were at least three bites on this arm alone… and they were all only a few days old.

Shocked and appalled, Buffy turned to roll up the other sleeve, and… wow.  Just wow.  The other arm bore similar attentions.  Two bites there.  But no bruising, no signs of force or anything.  /You’ve been bitten  five  times in a few days?  How are you even still up and  walking?   And how did you get bitten so many times and not die?  What vamp bites a guy without draining him?  I mean, except my guy, who I know for a fact would definitely drain you if he lost it enough to bite you, so…/

Buffy lifted her eyes to Spike’s, confused as hell.  “Wh…”

Spike shook his head.  “Tell you later, love.  Seen it before, though.”

/You’ve seen…  this? /

“We’ve another problem, as well.”

“Oh, great.  What now?”

A little half-shrug of his left shoulder.  “Room’s missin’ one heartbeat, and your roll-call didn’t pick up a civvie.  Think maybe Soldier-Boy’s great taser there might’ve done for our overgrown shop-boy.”

Her brain was overwhelmed.  That was her only excuse for how long it took her to work through that one.  Normally her brain could translate Spikeisms with relative ease these days, after nearly a year’s constant association, but for some reason this one eluded her for a second.  Which meant that this time, Willow got there first.  “Oh no!  Mr. Bogarty!”  And she was darting for the counter, leaning far over.  “Oh, Goddess!”  And her hand flew to cover her mouth.

/Oh.  Oh crap./  “Is he…”

“No heartbeat’s usually a fair indication, love.”

/Shit, shit…/  

Dawn turned to Buffy, eyes wide.  “Now what?” she demanded.

All eyes turned to her, the Slayer.  

/Oh, because I always have to have the answers or come up with the plan./  

Le sigh.  Sometimes being the leader really, really sucked.

*   *   *









Some people... when it's their time, it's just their time, one way or the other.  And, well... it serves the plot.  We want the future Magic Box to be able to change hand either way, and we don't have Big Bad Harmony.  Not-so-bad Riley will do as well.  And he serves a number of purposes in this story, in which I think he'll be much more useful than he was in the canon S5, when he just hung around being pointless and then tied our girl in knots and left.  

Also, how about that Sudeep Sen?  Man's poems could make anyone sweat.

Chapter Text

“Well, first I guess we need to call the cops for poor Mr. Bogarty over there, and then we need to get Riley out of here.  Take him to the military base, maybe, and dump him off for those guys to deal with, since he’s about to have a heart attack or whatever…”

“Uh…” Dawn interrupted, “not to be all, logic girl, because you probably won’t listen to me anyway, but won’t they wonder who killed him if you cart off the murderer?  Like, won’t they think you’re hiding something or whatever?  I mean, this isn’t a dead demon, right?  It’s a dead human guy.  Won’t they, I dunno, prosecute?”

Buffy honestly hadn’t thought of that, she was so used to just dealing with the immediate now of post-fight cleanup.  But dammit, Dawn was right.  Usually the victims weren’t killed by other humans, so she could leave it up to the police to come up with whatever story they wanted to about what happened.  /This time, though, if I do that, I guess I’m, like, obstructing justice, and that’s an actual charge, right?/

Scary.

Except…  “Okay,” she allowed, flustered, “but he’ll die if we don’t get him medical treatment.  Shouldn’t we take him to the hospital, at least, and tell the cops he was involved and where he is?  Or…”  Man, this human-on-human stuff was sticky.  Give her a nice demon-involved disaster any day.  They were so much more straightforward.  

“For what it’s worth, pet, he doesn’t appear to be dyin’ right at the mo’, if you wanna call the bobbies first an’ see what they say.  Then maybe you can call the MPs to come pick up their wayward puppy after we’ve established our innocence an’ all that rot.”

And how ironic was it that a vampire was actually worrying about establishing his innocence with the police?  /Except he probably isn’t, so much as he’s concerned about what I think./  “Okay, I guess.  But… could you, I dunno, keep listening in to his pulse and let me know if it gets worse or whatever?”  It was a lot to ask, probably, considering how hungry he was, but it was all she had to go on.

“For all I couldn’t care if the sod kicks off, sure.  Will do that for you, love.”

/You really are a keeper.  Even when you drive me bonkers./  Lifting her phone, Buffy dialed the number for the local PD.  With how many unfortunate events she’d witnessed, she knew it by heart.  /They’re probably tired of getting ‘anonymous’ calls from me by now.  Except this one won’t be anonymous./  “Hey, Wil; can you and Tara take Dawn home?” she asked, hand hovering over the mic as she waited through the rings.  “She doesn’t need to be here for th…”

‘Sunnydale Police Department, how can I help you?’

“Hi.  I need to report… well, an assault that kind of became a murder.  Or, does that count as manslaughter, if they didn’t mean to do it, and someone just got caught in the crossfire?” 

“We can take her,” Willow mouthed, nodding dramatically.  Tara joined her in the gesture.  Dawn looked put out at being summarily relegated to a non-witness, but no way was Buffy going to let her be interrogated by the cops for this.

‘Ma’am, where are you?’

“Uh, you know that… that store where they sell herbs and whatever?  Uncle Bob’s Cabinet, down off of Maple Court?  I was in there getting a gift for a friend, and this guy came in and attacked my boyfriend, and he had this… taser gun thing, and I think he must’ve accidentally shot the guy who owns the shop, because he’s dead.”

The cop’s voice took on a much more tense cast.  ‘I’m dispatching an officer right now, and I’ll also be sending some paramedics.  Please stay on the scene…’

“Of course.  We’ll be waiting.  Do you, um, need anything else from me before they get here?”  She covered the phone’s mic.  “Get her out of here.”

‘No, ma’am, I believe…’

Dawn looked mutinous.  There was a brief, fulminating battle of wills, held largely via glares and posturing since Buffy couldn’t speak up about it with the police on the line.  

A low, pointed growl from Spike put an end to the silent debate as if it had been sliced through with a hot knife.  “Bit…”

‘...And they will arrive shortly…’

All of Dawn’s fight left her with a whoosh, as if her strings had been cut.  “Man,” she whined in a low whisper, “I miss out on everything cool.”  But she let herself be led out of the room between Wil and Tara.  

Buffy snapped the phone closed with a quick thank you; apparently just in time. As her sister passed, she eyed the pasty form of the downed soldier with morbid interest.  “Jerk,” she whispered, and gave him a spiteful little kick in the side.

“Dawn!”

Innocent eyes shot up to meet Buffy’s, batting like mad.  “What?  I didn’t do anything!”

Spike started to chuckle, fast and low.  Which, of course, helped nothing, since Dawn only took it as incentive.  

Buffy should punch him.  She  would  punch him, after this.  “You’re an idiot,” she informed him flatly as the door closed with a little ring of the overhead bell.  “You encourage bad behavior… and… stuff.”

Spike leveled her with an even gaze.  “Uhuh.  Tell me what’s really bugging you, love.”

Hand clenching hard around her cheap flip-phone, Buffy exhaled hard in defeat.  It was lowering to admit it, but it needed to come out, or it would end up coming between them.  It was a resentment, and Mom said never to let resentments fester.  “It’s just… really annoying, how she’ll do anything you tell her to practically without you saying anything, but she’ll go out of her way to fight me on literally everything.”

“Oh, love.  That’s because I’m not her big sis.  And the other’s because you are.  You’re too bloody alike, you two.”

She blinked at him, floored at his accusation.  “We’re  what?”

His lips curved in a lazy smile.  “Know you can’t see it—and neither can she, point of fact—but it’s true for all that.  Else I wouldn’t be able to work her same as I can you.”

“You’re nuts.  And also, ego, much?”

“Tell yourself what you like, love.”

He was crazy.  Dawn was nothing like her.  And also…  /You so don’t work me, you asshole!/

“Gonna try to prove me wrong now, aren’t you?”

“Okay, you know what…”  She was definitely going to punch him; just as soon as the cops were gone and they had Riley out of here, and…

Spike made a reluctant face and pushed himself to his feet in a quick, graceful move that would normally have made Buffy’s mouth water, if she wasn’t so damned distracted and ticked off, and...  “Don’t want to leave you alone with this, pet, but ‘spect I best push off before that lot get here.”

Buffy stared at him in new and sudden shock.  “Wait, what?  You  have  to stay, you’re a material witness!”

Her words earned her a long, faintly amused stare, as if she’d said something wholly ludicrous.  “Slayer, I have no legal identity.  I don’t exist to be a material witness to a sodding thing.”

“Oh.  Right.”  Feeling like an idiot, Buffy lowered her head to her hand, pressed her closed phone hard to her forehead.  “Duh.  And I just told that desk officer that he attacked my boyfriend…”

“Oh.  Fuck.  You did at that, didn’t you.”  Spike actually cast his eyes around the room as if searching for a spare boyfriend she could use for a few hours until the interview was over.  “Well… shit.”  

“And, also, you promised to keep listening to make sure his heart wouldn’t stop or something till they get here.”  Buffy felt as if she might just panic if this idiot died on her while she was alone here waiting for the cops.  Not that she particularly cared about him, per se, but if someone died when she could have saved him—died because of a decision she made not to get him immediate medical attention—she just didn’t think she could live with that.  Obviously Spike’s being around to listen in to his pulse wasn’t keeping him from kicking the bucket or anything, but for some reason she found it comforting to know what was happening; like having a heart monitor on the guy till help could arrive.

Spike’s eyes narrowed at her.  “Don’t much care if the tosser buys the farm, Buffy,” he pointed out flatly.  “Waste of blood, yeah?”  He wet his lips.  “Already enough of that goin’ begging in this room as it is.  Need to be out of here.”

“Wh…”  /Oh./  The shopkeeper guy was just… laying there, ‘going to waste’, and he was having a tough time with that concept when every funeral parlor in Sunnydale was currently empty due to his own white-hatted efforts, and him in need of fresh blood.  For which she couldn’t blame him, and really, she was probably being very cruel keeping him in here, should at least send him outside to smoke till the cops arrived, or…

“Least once the deader gets looked over, if they tag an’ bag him fast enough an’ I can figure which Home they send him to, I might be able to get first crack at the leavings since I know he’s going, before every other sod jumps ahead of me on the list.  Something ought to come with rank in this bloody town…”  

He sounded so damned bitter, and…  /And, I could lose him if I’m not fair here.  And the blood’s just going to be drained out of the guy anyway, before he’s embalmed.  And by then it’ll be old blood, and Spike’ll be fighting over it with a bunch of other vamps in town who are only trying to supplement because of the new rules, but aren’t living the way he is, for me.  And am I insane right now?/  Because a year ago she would never have even considered letting him do what amounted to desecration of the dead just to fill his belly… but that was before.  Before she realized that he wasn’t to blame for what he was; when she had thought he was a monster simply for trying to survive, even if he might have done it in the most humane way possible.  Before she had come to realize, and to believe, that he deserved to exist.  

That was what it came down to; whether she believed that he deserved sustenance more than a dead guy, a dead  human , deserved to remain wholly untouched from the moment of his demise to the time his family saw him dunked under the earth.  

Her values had shifted a pretty huge amount in the last not-quite year.  They could probably stand to shift another half-step.  Because, really… the dead man didn’t need the blood anymore, and it wasn’t like it was the first time a body might turn up in Sunnydale with bite-marks on it.  /And can’t they tell if someone’s exsanguinated post-mortem?  Like, that it’s not the cause of death?/  

Anyway, it was a nice solution to their current problem, and she should just do it before she had time to think too much.  “Spike…”  Deep breath.  “I need to call those military guys over at the base.  They’ll probably get here a little after the cops, but at least they’ll be on their way.  Can you stay in here with the body until I get back in, and make sure Riley doesn’t wake up and get away?”

His head jerked up, and he stared at her in clear amazement.  His mien darkened for a moment, as if he thought she was playing a trick on him.  “Buffy, why the bloody hell would you ask that of me?  You know what I’m goin’ through right now; d’you wanna torment me?”

“No,” she answered softly.  “I want to close my eyes, walk out of that door, and pretend I don’t know that you’re being taken care of.”  She held his gaze very firmly for a few brief seconds till she saw it; shocked recognition flickering in his gaze.  Then, turning on her heel, she headed for the exit.  “I’ll probably be done in like five minutes,” she warned over her shoulder.  “I don’t wanna see anything when I get back.”

“Buffy…”

“Just shut up.”  And she was out, the bell tinkling over her head.  

Outside, against the blank wall between door and tiny, shaded alcove, Buffy eyed the lowering light and huffed out the air in her lungs.  Her hands were shaking.  Everything felt unreal.  

/No point asking yourself what you’ve done.  You already know.  It’s done.  So just open the phone, make the call, try not to… stay connected./  She didn’t want to feel it when he…  /Wait.  What’s the number, anyway?  It’s not like you know it.  Military-Bases-R-Us?/

A couple minutes later she was outside of the bagel place on the other side of the little used book store, having briefly borrowed their phone book.  A couple of rings put her through to some very official recorded menu.  Several button-pushes later and she was on with a bored-sounding young guy named Private Ricks in the Office of Military Police.  “This, um, guy is here in town, at this shop called Uncle Bob’s Magic Cabinet…”  Inside of which store, at her back, at this very moment, was a vampire who was already feeling much better, despite the fact that she was trying very hard right now to feel absolutely nothing from him.  “I know, dumb name.”  The tension in her voice was not faked, rose in an inverse tandem with the relief, the satiation she could feel from the other side of her joint organism.  /Shit./  

“Anyway, I know he’s in the Army; and just now he attacked my boyfriend and me and then collapsed like he was sick.  He’s acting crazy, like he’s on drugs…  Oh.  What’s his name?  Riley Finn.  He was in, I dunno, ROTC or something at the college before I…”  She cut off when the private very suddenly stopped sounding bored and rattled out some speed-talk to someone else in the room.  “Oh.  Are you, um, looking for him or something?”   

‘Ma’am, is Finn currently conscious?  Dangerous?’

/Wow.  Talk about a name that gets attention./  “Uh, he’s knocked out.  But he’s pretty dangerous.  He had some kind of electrical gun thing, and he accidentally shot the guy who owns the magic shop.  I think he killed him.  The cops are on their way…”  Speak of the devil.  A patrol car bearing a pair of Sunnydale’s Finest was coming around the corner at that very moment.  “Why, is he AWOL or something?”  Sometimes it was best to pretend to be an airhead.  It kept suspicions to a minimum.

‘Ma’am, we don’t say AWOL anymore.  Please, stay away from Captain Finn, and advise the police to do the same.  We’re sending military police to take custody of him.  They’re already en route.  Thank you for your call.’  The connection went dead.  Which was good timing, since the cops were pulling up just then.

It probably would’ve looked better if Buffy had waited for them outside, clutching her phone like a nervous citizen afraid of the dead body and the unconscious attacker-guy inside.  But, well… she needed to warn Spike in case he wasn’t… finished, so she gave the cops a tiny wave in welcome, attempting as she did so to look grateful for their presence, and ducked back into the store.  

Spike looked up at her entry, as announced by the bell.  He was back by Riley’s side, looking much more calm and collected than he had when she’d stepped out.  There was not a trace of blood on his lips or clothes as he crouched next to his erstwhile attacker, actually holding a wrist as if counting the man’s pulse.  But then, he had always been a fairly fastidious eater.  She remembered seeing him once with a fair amount of blood on his lower lip, which happened when…  /Well, when it’s pumping.  Stop thinking./  But he always cleaned up quick, like a cat; and he never had that ‘blood everywhere for the sake of throwing it all over the place’ thing going on like when some younger vamps did it.  

His eyes touched on hers briefly as she moved to cross the floor; seeking, she knew, for regrets.  She fought not to look away.  She didn’t regret, per se.  It was… tough, but she’d deal.  It wasn’t, after all, like anyone had been hurt.  It was more of a philosophical hang-up; a social mores thing, which was part of the problem, she knew.  He didn’t care about social mores, didn’t see why he should suffer or starve for their sake.  He had left all of that behind nearly a century and a quarter ago when he’d been dramatically freed from the choke-chain of Victorian life.  He had no use for any of it, paid lip-service to the whole damn thing only for her sake.  Which meant… /I’m the only reason, in the end, he’ll ever suffer or go hungry.  And if that’s what lays between us…/

It had to be for a better reason than because she was uncomfortable over the disposition of a dead guy who no longer gave a damn, and hadn’t been in any way harmed.  It had to be for the sake of a life.  Or how could she call herself his?  How could she call him hers, and remotely consider herself a decent holder of his wellbeing, his heart, his fealty; all that he tendered her?  /If I can’t get past something like this, how can I consider myself worthy of this kind of love?  He’d dust for me without even thinking about it.  I better  damn  well be ready to be uncomfortable for him./

Holding his gaze, she mustered up a smile.  It was shaky and a little lopsided, but it was there.

Seeing the offering, he practically exploded, like some kind of awed tropical flower blooming; a riot of bright, beautiful color and light.  She never thought she had seen eyes so blue, seen him look so radiant.  “Oh, Christ, love; oh Buffy.  You’re one hell of a woman.  You’re the One, you.”

Tears sprang into her eyes, in spite of herself.  “I…” 

The bell tinkled again, making her jump.  She kind of wanted to rip it off the wall.

“Miss Summers, right?” the first cop spoke up as she entered.  She was a tallish blonde, about 5’8 with her hair done up in a tight ponytail under her cap.  After a brief pause to take in the scene, she strode into the room with a businesslike air that probably, Buffy assumed, came from having played in the boys’ club for years and made it work for her.  Behind her another cop appeared and was framed in the doorway; a shorter, stockier figure in standard-issue broad-shouldered, dark-faced, crew-cutted Sunnydale PD glory.  “C’mon, Ramon, get a move on.”

“Alright, alright,” Ramon answered, sounding aggrieved.  “Just wanted to take in the scene, you know?” and huh.  Did they put the Latino guy with the female cop as partners on purpose, or what?

The second cop entered, the door dinging shut.  Buffy looked up and automatically held out her hand as the female cop approached.  “Hi.  Sorry about all this.  I don’t even…  This is crazy.”

The cop eyed her for a moment with something behind her brown eyes; something uncomfortably assessing, maybe knowing, before she gave a quick jerk of her head that might have been acceptance and held out her hand in response.  Her handshake was tight, hard, and as businesslike as she was.  “Alright.  What happened here?”

Buffy had the uncomfortable feeling the woman had left off an unspoken ‘this time’.  /Ugh.  I’m, like, famous, aren’t I?/

Scary thought.  “Um, so this guy…”  She carefully nudged Riley with the toe of her smudged and abraded, fawn faux-suede over-knee boot, “just came barreling in here to attack us.  He had that weird gun-thing…”  She pointed at the tubular barrel of the zap-gun deal, safely kicked aside in the interim to lie up against the store counter.  “He must’ve shot it in the scuffle, because after he basically passed out mid-wrestling match, we found out the clerk guy was dead.  Then we called you.”  /Why do I keep buying cute shoes?/  It was an addiction that would end up sending her to hell way before anything she did with her vampire.  Not one pair of shoes she owned had the power to survive her life; and clearly most of her cute, strappy ones never even made it out of the closet anymore, what with slaying and school and…  /We need to go out.  Somewhere not Willy’s.  Maybe I can convince Spike to take me dancing at the Bronze.  If it’s an excuse to use the shoes…  It so worked out for me last time.  He never even let me take the things off./  “Wait, huh?”

“I said, do you know your attacker?”  The female cop was eyeing her patiently.  The male one was already halfway over to duck behind the counter and check on Uncle Bob.  

“He’s for sure dead, Waller.”  Tugging his radio from his belt, the other officer lifted it to his mouth and muttered into the static, “Cancel EMS to Bob’s Magic Cabinet.  Is the coroner en route yet?”

The blonde cop nodded.  “Thanks, Cortez.”  And her expectant eye returned to capture Buffy’s gaze.

“Uh, he used to work at the college.  Last year.  He was a TA at one of my classes.  We went on a date.  He was in the ROTC or the Army or something.  National Guard, I dunno.  Anyway, he got… called away on duty or something and vanished.  And then all the sudden he’s here again, attacking me and my boyfriend, and…”  She waved her hand vaguely at the chaotic scene around them.  She didn’t have to put on the befuddled face.  “I mean, it was  one  date, a  year  ago.  I don’t get it.”

Spike grunted, sounding amused.  

The cop—Waller?—turned her gaze to him, eyes filled with interested surmise.  “He attacked you.”  It wasn’t a question.  

What followed was the most extraordinary transformation Buffy had ever seen in her life.  Spike rolled his shoulders forward, tucked his hands into his jean pockets around the edges of his duster, ducked his head as if he was about to blink down at the floor, and shrugged a little.  “Dunno why,” he answered softly, and woah.  There was that quiet, Giles-ish accent from before; the unassuming, safe-sounding one.  “Bloke just came out of nowhere and jumped on me.”  

He actually managed to sound  diffident .  /Holy crap, are you channeling William?  Was this what William was like?/  

No wonder the line of his body under the duster was pained, the feeling of him on their bond stifled.  Just, wow.  No one in their right mind would ever believe this guy was a dangerous vampire.

“Well,” the cop answered, relaxing slightly.  “People act weird when they’re jealous.  I’ve seen crazier things, believe me.  Maybe he felt inadequate because, you know, big Army guy, and here you are, Mr. English Accent…”

Spike shrugged again, hands still in his pockets, and remained silent.  

It was giving Buffy a massive wiggins.  Was this what they meant in the books when they said ‘self-effacing’?  Because William the Bloody and ‘self-effacing’ should never, ever go together.  Not in any universe.  

“Hm.  So…”  Turning away from them for a moment, the cop knelt to touch Riley’s unconscious neck.  “He just passed out?”

Buffy shook it off to dive back into the narrative she was spinning for the good old Sunnydale PD.  “Uh, yeah.  It was nuts.  He was all, like, sweating and pale and talking crazy, and then, just, boom.  I, um, checked his pulse after like they taught us in health class, and it felt all weak and weird.  He still looks pale, and um…”  /What the hell./  “He has all those, what do you call ‘em?  All up and down the inside of his arms?  The holes; like he’s on drugs.  I noticed when I was checking his pulse…”

Frowning, the cop stripped one sleeve up… and cursed loudly as she dropped Riley’s arm and backed away from the still form.  “Cortez,” she addressed her partner, who had abandoned the dead shopkeeper to wander curiously nearer, “call for backup.”  Her hand had dropped to her gun.

/Oh, man./  

Cortez fumbled again for the radio at his belt.  Time to head this off, before it became a bigger thing than it needed to be.  “What, you think he’s on, whatsitcalled?  PCP?  Can you shoot that up?”

To Buffy’s surprise and amazement, the officer shot her a furious look.  “Miss Summers, if you’re trying to protect your cute English boyfriend, that’s great, but don’t play dumb with me.  This is an emergency.  Send him out or something, but dammit, I don’t wanna die here.”  She’d already flipped open the catch on her service pistol.  

The corner of Spike’s mouth twitched, a rumble of amusement sounding between them.  He was finding all of this very funny.  Ugh.  But his expression read as, ‘Your call, love.  I’ll back you.’

/Fine./  With a heavy sigh, Buffy turned to what was clearly a veteran Sunnydale cop and dropped the act.  “He’s not what you think,” she told the officer calmly.  “You can put away your gun.  He’s been bitten, but he’s not going to… change.” 

Waller flung her one brief, disbelieving look, and backed another step away from Riley.  “How do you know for sure?  He has what?  Three, four…”

“Five,” Buffy answered.  “But trust me.  You can get bit and not die, if you make friends with the right… people.”

The cop froze, turned to her very slowly.  “What, are you saying this is a…  A kink?” she demanded slowly.

“Can be,” Spike answered for her, dropping his own act. 

Both cops swung on him in surprise at his new, clipped intonation.  With a shrug that clearly said ‘in for a penny’, he straightened out of his theatrical slouch, pulled out a cigarette from his breast pocket and calmly broke California’s statewide smoking ban to light up.  

The familiar scent of burning tobacco filled the shop, the specific, sweet aroma of the Morleys almost as calming to Buffy by now as it was to Spike.  Probably that was a fringe-benefit of sharing his internal responses to the nicotine or whatever; unwanted, but unavoidable.  “You know that’s illegal,” she reminded him with a faint smile for his shenanigans.

He threw her a lazy, pointed look and held up two fingers, the lit cigarette snugged cheerily between them.  

He looked so much better confident than diffident.  /I love you./

“Well, technically this isn’t an enclosed workplace,” Cortez stuttered, still confused at the abrupt metamorphosis.  “I mean, it is, but you could argue…”

“Shut up, Ramon,” Waller interrupted, and watched Spike warily.  “So, this guy…” she asked with a gesture toward Riley.  Her words were directed at Buffy, but she kept an eye on the unknown quantity that was Spike while she spoke.

“Is, or was, in the Army, likes getting nibbled on for fun, apparently…”  /Which, what even, and  how?   Inquiring minds want to know!/  “And thinks he needs to attack me and my guy over and over again this week because he’s lost his damn mind?  Yeah.  That about sums it up.  That poor dude over there just got caught in the crossfire.”

Waller tore her gaze away from Spike to look over toward the counter where the dead clerk lay hidden behind glass cases.  “Right.  Sure.  Anything else I need to know?”  She sounded clipped and irritated at the foregoing charade.

/Well, since you seem to know who I am, or at least suspect, and you definitely know something about what goes on in this town, I might as well warn you./  “Uh, the clerk has a…  An unexplained injury.  They’ll find it when they do the autopsy or whatever.  But it’s not, you know, the cause of death.  So you can tell…”  She frowned.  “Which coroner is it?  Mr. Nunes, or Ms. Metziger?”  Yes, she knew the names of the town’s coroners.  Occupational hazard.

Waller’s eyes narrowed at her.  “Metziger’s on duty today.  Tell her what?”

Buffy shrugged.  “That her findings or whatever will back that.  He was already dead before the… unexplained injury happened.”

“What the hell is going on here?” Cortez broke in, sounding aggrieved.  “Why did you guys all start talking in freaking code?”

Buffy and Waller ignored his protests.  “Then how did he get the… unexplained injury?” Waller demanded, harsh and uncompromising.

Buffy drew herself up.  “I’d rather not answer that.”

Officer Waller turned to furious stone.  “Okay, listen.  I appreciate what you do around here.  But I have paperwork.  My life is hard enough in this town without having to put up with this kind of garbage.”  She swung on Spike, glaring.  “And what about you?  Why is your girlfriend doing all the talking, Mr. Strong and Silent?  Where’s your statement, if you’re the one who was attacked?”

Spike lowered his cigarette casually to his side.  “Rather not go on record if you don’t mind.  I’m… an illegal.  Don’t have ID an’ the like.”

Cortez snorted massively from off to one side.  “Look, bro.  I don’t think you have to worry about  la migra,  ID or no.  You’re white, man.  You’re the whitest white.  You’re freaking  British .  No one’s gonna bother you.”

Spike never took his eyes off of Waller.  “I don’t have a legal identity, here or in Jolly Old.  Makes it tough to make a police report when someone jumps you if you don’t exist, yeah?”

Waller jerked as if she’d been subjected to Riley’s taser-gun, and she took one tiny step back.  “Usually when someone jumps you,” she breathed then, “I bet they don’t live to tell it.”

Spike just shrugged.

The cop swung on Buffy, outrage and amazement lighting her eye, and was that for her letting Spike feed on the body, or for her having the temerity to screw a vamp?  

Either way, Buffy was so done with people eyeing her askance for her dating habits.  And as to questioning the rest…  “Look,” she pointed out flatly, “you know things’ve been quieter in the last year, right?”

The cop’s lips flattened to a thin, uncompromising line.  “Yeah,” she bit off, as if freeing the syllable had cost her pain.

“Well, there’s a reason for that.”  Crossing her arms, Buffy turned her gaze solidly on Spike.  “I have help.  Volunteer help on the inside.”  

Nodding genially, Spike lifted his cigarette and took another easy drag.

Turning back to the perturbed officer, Buffy shrugged with her arms still crossed.  “And in order to keep that help, I have to treat that help fairly.  I can’t… work in partnership with someone who breaks my rules… so when it comes down to it—to having that help crack under the pressure, or to bending those rules a little…”  Waller blanched, winced as realization struck.  Buffy didn’t let up.  “…With something that’s gonna happen anyway, I bend.  I give, where it’s otherwise going to waste.  Because I need the help.  Because in the grand scheme of things, it’s no harm no foul.  And compared to what could happen instead…”  She trailed off, and waited.

The cop fought with it.  The struggle was visible, and monumental.  Then her dark eyes flickered over to Spike’s.  “You help her?” she demanded fiercely.

“Have to kill me to stop me,” Spike answered, flat and uncompromising.  “An’ the only one can do that is her.”

Waller exhaled heavily and nodded, crossing her own arms.  Looked down contemplatively at the floor.  “I can see how…  How you could make that decision then, I suppose.”  The last was addressed to Buffy.

“Seriously, what the hell are you guys talking about?”  Cortez was getting loudly frustrated at his lack of comprehension.

Waller lifted her eyes to meet those of her confused partner.  “You’ve been on the job for, what, three months?  About time you get your initiation.”  A little shrug, an amused smile playing at the corners of her lips.  “Would’ve happened a lot faster a year ago, but like the woman said, things’ve been quiet as hell around here lately, which…”  With a look of decision about her she lifted her head and eyed Spike for a moment with the air of someone about to pick up a live rattlesnake for the first time.  Then she stepped forward and held out her hand.   

Spike’s eyes jerked to the proffered hand, then back up.  He didn’t take it.  “Don’t thank me.  I’m second in command around here.”  He tilted his head in Buffy’s direction.  “She’s the general.”

Rolling her eyes, Buffy smile slightly.  /You’re such a dope.  This chick’s fighting every instinct she has to be open-minded, and you’ve gotta play Big Bad because now even humans know you’re mine./  Sometimes he cracked her up.  He was so utterly willingly on his leash, and yet, very occasionally he would stand up, grab it, shake it, bare his neck to show off the collar like it was a crown, and bite everyone around him for daring to look at it when it was visible for all to see, like it was this completely private thing.  Which she got, but…  /God, it’s not like you hide it./  He was such a huge dork.  

Waller had turned her gaze to Buffy’s, hand out again.  “Never thought anyone could… I dunno. Broker that kind of deal with… them.  That must’ve taken guts.”  And clearly she thought that going to bed with a vampire was part of the arrangement… a part she considered to be possibly the bravest portion of the deal.  “Not that I don’t think it comes with perks,” she went on, eyeing Spike briefly up and down with clear, if awed, admiration, “but…”

Buffy heard herself laugh out loud as she accepted what was now a much more heartfelt handshake.  “Guts… had nothing to do with it.”  She released the hand to nod at Spike.  “Also, he’s being uncharacteristically humble.  I couldn’t do it without help from within and a lot of 411.  It’s a team effort.”  And she fixed her guy with a pointed look.  “Spike, will you please make nice and shake hands with the pretty police-lady?”

Spike removed his cigarette, threw her a glare leavened with a brief hint of gratitude that it wasn’t an order, and with a heavy, reluctant sigh, held out his hand.  And did his usual ‘get back his own’ thing when he felt like he needed to be on higher ground.  He flirted.  It was a subtle thing; just a shift in position from reluctant to welcoming, a slight change in expression from truculent to ‘dangerously attractive’.  But it was enough.  Looking surprised, the cop took the hand.  Shook it, breathing a little tremulously.  

She visibly shuddered at the touch of his room-temperature flesh… and froze briefly when Spike pinned her with his blue-eyed predator’s stare; the one that lured in the snacks with the promise of a ‘right good time’.  

/Oh my God, you’re such a…  A  vampire! /

Officer Waller didn’t pull her hand away till Spike broke eye-contact.  And she shivered when she did.  “Uh.  So…”  She shook her head, as if fighting to clear it.  “We’ll, uh, tell Metziger to overlook the… unexplained injury in the report…”

Spike’s nostrils flared, and he smirked in a self-satisfied way.  Which meant one thing.  He’d succeeded in turning the cop on.  Asshole.  

Buffy stepped hard on his foot, and drove a discreet elbow into his ribs.

The smirk vanished behind a bland screen of superior aloofness.

“I swear to God, if someone doesn’t tell me what unexplained injury…”

Having reset herself in the interim, Waller ignored her partner’s protests.  “She’s used to doing that anyway.  And there’ve been so few lately…”

“We’re getting into winter,” Buffy answered blandly.  “Less people falling on their barbecue forks now we’re out of picnic-in-the-park weather.”

Spike snorted again.

“Yeah.  Right.”

“Huh?”  

“I’ll tell you in the car, Cortez.”  Glittering dark eyes sized up the spot where the body lay.  “Where…”

Spike lifted his boot to stub out his smoke on the sole.  “Right arm, midway up.”

The cop took that info as stolidly as she could manage it.  “Okay.”  Her eyes swiveled back to take in the still-unconscious Riley.  “EMS was supposed to be on their way, but they got diverted to another call when we told ‘em our friend here was dead.  But this guy looks pretty bad.  We should tell ‘em to come back…”

“Oh.  Um…”  Buffy did a little  mea culpa  shrug.  “The military’s on their way for him.  They should be here any…”

The door jangled discordantly as it burst open.  Framed in the evening light were two guys in khaki helmets with blue bands that said ‘MP’ in white lettering, and behind them, two other guys in short, flat camo caps carrying what looked like briefcases, except the briefcases were decorated with red crosses.

The cavalry had arrived.

***

“That’s him alright.  That’s Captain Finn.  Call it in.”

“On it.”

“Man, he’s a mess; look at him.  He’s been UA for four days; he’s gonna need steroids, maybe antibiotics…”

Off to one side, the two cops were whispering urgently to one another, clearly taken aback by the military’s imperative response to Riley Finn.

“We gotta get an IV in him, get him back to medical before his heart goes.”

The lead MP guy shouldered in between the crouching medics, looking stoic and unmoved.  His gun remained trained on Riley’s somnolent body, as if he might explode into consciousness and start raging around the room at any moment.  “We gotta keep him under guard, is what we need to do.”  His beady, alert eyes flickered over to Buffy.  “Ma’am, you’re the one who called?”

“I am.  He attacked my boyfriend and me, twice…”

Broad-shouldered body, uniform, every part of him, assessing her with judgment in his gaze.  “And you didn’t press charges?”

/Dammit.  No, because I’m me, and because it was about us, and a world you’re not in, and.../  “I thought we had it handled.  I guess not.”  Buffy found herself frowning at the immobile body, surrounded now by urgent soldiers.  “I guess this means… that guy’s on us.”  She felt awful about it now, as the belated recognition hit her full-force; if she had called these guys on Riley when he’d first attacked Spike, come up with a decent cover story then, Mr. Bogarty might not be dead now.  “I guess I should’ve called you guys a few days ago.”

Spike’s hand closed around her upper arm.  Absolution.  She knew what he would say.  She’d had a lot of other things on her mind, among them making sure he was in one piece and un-dusty.  

Still.

“No, ma’am.  We should’ve located him.  He’s been a danger for a while now.  He’s…” 

“He’s off his meds,” one of the medics muttered as they swarmed over Riley’s form.   He dragged up one sleeve to check Riley’s pulse.  It was the one with the fang-marks in his wrist.  “Oh, shit, what the hell has this guy been doing?”

“It doesn’t matter right now,” the other medic muttered.  “Just get his pulse.  I’m on BP.”  The lead medical dude was hard at work wrapping a cuff around the less-damaged arm, lips moving as if he were reciting something to himself.  “Okay, we’ve got narrow pulse pressure.  BP’s one-oh-two over eighty-eight, pulse is thready…”

“We’ve got fifty-two here,” his second put in, looking grim.  “Think we’re flirting with tachy?” 

Head medic guy frowned and glanced up at the spare MP.  “You.  Make yourself useful, hand me that AED.”

Looking severely out of his element, the guy with the gun nudged one of the briefcases open with his boot, pushed it toward medic number two.  “Here.”  And he backed swiftly away to hold his gun on Riley again.

“Get the AED ready, Carter, and run that IV line…”

Carter looked uncertain.  “What about the meds?  We wanna give him the meds now, Corporal?”

“No.  We can’t risk it.  He’s been off of ‘em for almost four days, and he’s got too low a blood-volume.  I don’t know what the hell he’s been doing; self-medicating somehow.”  Turning over one bared arm, the sleeve now pushed up high as the cuff was stripped away, the lead medic cursed in disgust.  “Look at this shit; see those track-marks?  Who the hell knows what’s in his system?  Shit could kill him right now, even if he needs it.  Leave it to the docs to straighten out his system once we get a workup.  Full panel…”

“Keep the information tight, Corporal…” the head MP guy snapped, eyes darting around the room.

“Right.”  The two medics busied themselves with setting the IV line, lips buttoned.

/Okay, this is just getting too interesting./  “Meds?” Buffy queried, trying again for sweet, blonde, and cutely stupid.

The MP didn’t fall for it.  “Never mind ma’am.”

To her surprise, the quiet-till-now cops decided to join her in her info-seeking quest.  “If he’s UA,” the rookie pointed out, looking interested, “and he’s on some kind of meds he wasn’t taking, and he did  this ...”  A broad, encompassing hand-wave to indicate the wreckage in the room, the body behind the counter.  “I’m thinkin’ a dishonorable’s in whitebread’s future.”  There was a note of mild satisfaction in his voice as he said it.

“Keep it to yourself, Cortez.”

“No comment,” the MP put in without looking at either of them.

“Ooyah,” the rookie responded with a funny little smile.

Cortez was ex-military, Buffy assumed. 

There was a short silence, then, arms crossed, Waller leaned over to whisper loudly in her partner’s ear.  “Manslaughter at the least, though, and a definite court martial, whatever the meds are for.”  Her eyes glanced over at Buffy’s.  “Combat stress won’t excuse the death of a civilian while he’s running around out here with some kind of military grade, experimental weapon…”

Another one.  Huh.  Who knew there were so many ex-soldiers in the Sunnydale PD?

The MPs didn’t comment; just stood there looking all tight-lipped. 

“Not combat stress,” Spike muttered in Buffy’s ear.  The low rumble of his voice, as always, made every hair on her neck and arms stand up, made her body sway toward him of its own volition.  “Thinkin’ whatever they did to ‘em downstairs messed ‘em up.  Probably they’ve been on meds ever since to keep ‘em in workin’ order.  If he’s been AWOL and missin’ ‘em, it might explain why he went off his trolley like this and turned himself into Soldier Boy Van Helsing with a side of whore.”

Startled at that last, Buffy blinked and leaned in to clarify.  “What, now?”

“Show you in a bit, love,” he promised.  His whisper took on a taut note that said whatever it was, she was probably not going to like it much.

/Great./  

Eventually they got Riley stable, wrapped him up, carted him out.  The coroner came in just as the soldiers were leaving; a vaguely-familiar person in a zip-up cardigan with short, iron-gray hair and dark, plastic-rimmed glasses with tiny rhinestones, sharp, glittering green eyes framed by weary, jaded-looking squint-lines.  “Hey.  What’ve we got?”

“C’mon,” Cortez muttered, and escorted her over to where the body lay hidden.

Waller nodded at Buffy and Spike to get out.  “Go ahead, Miss Summers, Mr…”

“Spike,” Buffy supplied blandly.

The cop pursed her lips but didn’t comment.  “We know where to find you if we have further questions, but it looks like this one’s pretty clear-cut.  And the Army’s got their guy, so we’ll have to go through them if we wanna pursue it.”  A little, philosophical shrug.  “Which never amounts to anything from a civilian standpoint, so this’ll go nowhere.  Meantime…”  Her eyes focused sharply on Buffy’s.  “You stay safe out there, alright Miss Summers?”  There was actual, genuine concern in them, which Buffy found warming.  “And… good to meet you, ah, Mr. Spike.  Not something I ever thought I’d say, but…”

Spike managed a genial nod, which put together with allowing the handshake...  Well.  He was in an understandably good mood, what with the sated.  Buffy made a mental note to keep him well-fed in future if it meant good relations with the locals.

They made their escape, stepped from the lengthening shadows of evening under the awnings to the DeSoto.  Spike didn’t even need to yank his coat over his head by now.  “Ugh,” Buffy muttered, rounding the curb to the still-vaguely-sunny side of the car.  “That took forever.”

“Day’s not over yet, love.”  Turning the car on, Spike scanned her as if assessing her resilience level.  “Got something to show you.”

“Yeah,” she answered on a breath.  “I figured.”

He nodded.  “Off we go, then.”

***

Their destination appeared to be a rundown house near the warehouse district, between there and the docks and about a mile from the Fish Tank.  “Okay...?”  It was seedy, falling apart, and covered in graffiti, but it wasn’t exactly her idea of the kind of place the Slayer needed to look into.  Maybe a gang haunt, or…

“More’n meets the eye, pet.  C’mon.”

The place was silent as the grave as they moved up the steps.  Buffy thought she caught faint motion through the boarded up windows as they passed, and maybe she heard a moan of pleasure.  /What the hell?  Is this some kind of, like, pimp’s house, or…/

Spike stepped up ahead of her in that way he had where he turned his body sideways; pulled the door open, held it for her to look in.  She maneuvered to glance past him… and was literally assaulted by a blast of recognition, so strong it almost knocked her over.

There were a metric fuckton of vamps in here.  But if this was a nest, it wasn’t standard, because by the feel of it, every one of them was in game face right now.  

What kind of a nest was it where every vamp in the place was in a feeding frenzy?  This was like…  like sharks or something, when you chummed the water.

She pushed in, prickling and anxious and sure she needed to stake everything inside… and halted.  Because contrary to the feel of the place on her skin, the air inside wasn’t a thrumming mass of death and destruction.  

For one thing, none of the vamps even looked up at her entry.  Or, okay, one did, and looked confused by the intrusion of her vibe, but he didn’t look fighty.  He actually looked a little drunk.  Mostly the rest just looked either anxious, or lazy and sated.  All of them were in game face, yes, sprawled out over ratty furniture, holey couches, broken chairs, ripped beanbags on the floor.  It stank like old blood and unwashed clothes, and there was trash everywhere like this was one of those drug dens you saw on TV, but…  

But these sharks weren’t frenzied.  They were lazily circling around a meal already taken, or… 

“Spike, what’s this about?”

He shook his head once, sharply, to cut off her questions.  Nudged her inside and followed, pulling the door closed with a  creak-clunk  as it swung to on damaged hinges.    

A couple of the vamps in the room tensed when they recognized Spike.  He waved his hand dismissively, a king in his court, and they relaxed.  One of them narrowed amber eyes at Buffy at his side, putting the pieces together.  Buffy studiously ignored her, fighting to control her instincts; to wait to see what Spike was trying to show her about this vast nest.  

Passing the anxious watchers downstairs, they headed for a broken-spindled stairway with a rail she would never touch for any money, past torn wallpaper and up into a ghetto hallway with a broken, dangling lightbulb and some trashed furniture, more graffiti, and a lot of doorways filled with what sounded like more suppressed moaning.  “Seriously, is this like, a whorehouse?”  Were people having sex with vamps in here, or…

“Something like,” Spike answered, and nodded.  “Have a look in any door, Slayer, but don’t bother to interrupt.  They wouldn’t like it any more than you would if someone did it to you.”

/Buh?/  But, trusting her guy, she stalked forward on her toes to nudge one door a little wider ajar.  And saw them, inside.  A woman, lying on her back with her hand seated firmly at her crotch, flicking urgently with her fingers, while…  While a girl vamp in serious game face crouched at her arm, feasting at the inside of her elbow.

They were both moaning.  Both getting off on it.

/Oh my God./

Swinging away, face on fire, Buffy closed her eyes and breathed hard, fighting for equilibrium as the perfect storm of colliding realizations exploded in her mind and threatened to drown her in the undertow.  

There were so many rooms up here.  And she knew what they were doing; what all of them were doing up here was…  They were all…

Suddenly she felt like something incredibly precious had been cheapened.  This…  This should be special!  It should be between…  And here they were, all of them, up here just…

And any one of them could slip up!  Go too far, and then it was what?  Hide the body, make a fledge…

It hit her like a ton of bricks, all the sudden, why Spike was showing her this.  This, then, is where Riley had gone.  Five times in less than four days.  /Just… why?  Holy crap;  why?   Why take that risk?/

“You see, pet?”

She did see.  She saw Riley Finn behind every one of these doorways, cheapening the beautiful thing she had with Spike, risking his life to prove… whatever he had been trying to prove.  And yes, she got the draw, the addiction, the need and the danger, but she still kind of really wanted to burn this place down right now with everyone in it, and how the  hell  hadn’t she known this fucking place existed before now?  “You  knew ,” she heard herself whisper.  “You knew it was here this whole time.  Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Let’s talk outside.”

She knew that stoic voice.  He wouldn’t budge.  So she went.  Back through the ugly gauntlet; down the stairs, past all the vamps down in the living room waiting for their next fix, past the broken furniture and the banal nastiness of it all to exit the building, looking neither to the left nor to the right.  “Okay,” she gritted, eyes front and staring over the debris of the weedy yard.  “Tell me.”

With a sigh, Spike pulled out a cigarette and leaned on the rickety, canted rail of the sagging porch.  “It’s an economy, love.  The defective ones, or the lazy gits as can’t or won’t hunt right, they come here.  Vamps as’ve been damaged in some way—broken fang, bad leg, bad eyes, can’t see right to hunt, yeah?—this is what they stoop to.”

Buffy was admittedly a little nonplussed at that.  It had honestly never occurred to her that vamps could come out defective, or be damaged badly enough that they couldn’t hunt.  But then, she supposed that Spike had had a church fall on him and had been wheelchair-bound for who knew how long.  If Drusilla hadn’t kept him fed—and from hints she’d gotten since, not all that well—he wouldn’t have made it.  Which, god.  For a warrior, a hunter like him, how incredibly lowering, to be stuck taking what was brought by a half-mad, forgetful ‘mummy’.   “Dru brought me a puppy once.  A soddin’  puppy .  She was telling me I was her lapdog; there, with Angelus lookin’ on.  Christ, I wanted to off m’self.”

Without a nest to care for them, the lone-wolves of the vamp-world must have to make do the best they could, she supposed.  Still…  “Is that why you…  Why you let them…  Because you get it?”

Spike stubbed out his cigarette, looking bitter and abruptly pissed.  “Fuck that, Buffy.  Enough real vamps about.  It’s bloody survival of the fittest, yeah?  Think I care about these tossers?  Wanted Dru to off me when I was in this boat; wouldn’t come here if I was dyin’ of starvation.  D’ya know what…”  His jaw tightened in that way that said he was fighting something massive.  “When I had the chip in my head, for a while I thought maybe I might…  Might have to…”

/Oh.  Oh God./  “Spike,” she heard herself whisper, and covered his hand with hers.  

He pulled sharply away from anything that remotely resembled pity, and she had never been more glad that she’d gotten that hideous thing removed from his brain.  “Any road, it’s not about these tossers.  Did I do away with every one of ‘em, the junkies would just go to real hunters for a fix, yeah?”  Burning eyes turned to hers, his head tilted sideways and fiercely pointed in the night.  “Get themselves bloody well offed, wouldn’t they?  You wouldn’t like that.  Here, I can stop ‘em makin’ fledges, keep ‘em under control.  It’s all in one place, innit?  Very civilized.”  

/Oh.  Right./  Buffy forced out a nod, accepting.  This was part of his Master’s decision-making.  “And you didn’t tell me because you thought I wouldn’t get it.  You thought I’d… overrule you, burn the place down, and then…”

“They’d just set up somewhere else, Slayer.  And next time, I might not know where it was to keep an eye on it.  Supply and demand.”

“Okay,” she breathed, allowing he was probably right about that much.  “I guess I just don’t get…  I mean I get what’s in it for the vamps… and the… the donors, but it seems so…”  She fought down her gorge.  “What keeps them from getting too… personal?”  /They’re doing  all  of it, and somehow it’s so… transactional, and I just don’t…/

“The money’s what keeps it impersonal, pet.”

Buffy reared back at that, horrified.  “The…  The vamps pay the donors to…”

Spike cut her off with a loud guffaw.  “Love, the humans pay the vamps for the privilege.”

She stared at him, mouth hanging open in shock.  “The…”

“Keeps the vamps in rent, in smokes, in drink…  Whatever else they want or need and can’t get otherwise.”  At her continued incredulity, “Told you, the tossers in there are junkies.  They need it just as bad as the vamps need to eat.  Maybe moreso.”

“But…  But they’re both already getting…  I don’t…”  She couldn’t wrap her brain around this inversion of the wonted way of things.  The vampires were the ones who needed the blood.  Ergo, they should be the ones paying the humans for the privilege, not the other way around.

Spike lifted his brows at her.  “They pay for the right to come in and not die.  For the restraint they get while they get their kicks.  And they pay well.”

“Oh God,” Buffy breathed, and then, arrested, felt something sick permeate her soul.  “But that means the vamps are…”

“Whores,” Spike answered, turning away.  His face twisted grimly, and he pushed away from the railing to head for the holey, swaying steps.  “Yeah.”

/And you said you had to think about maybe stooping that low when you…  When the chip…/

/Oh. My. God./

No wonder he’d rather have thrown himself at the feet of his mortal enemy, seeking clemency.  Spike, the fighter she knew, would rather risk being staked outright by someone he hated than lower himself to prostitution to stay alive like a kicked dog.  “I’m…  I’m glad you came to me instead.”

“So’m I, Slayer.”  A faint huff of amusement.  “Least when you tie a bloke up, you do it proper.”

/Oh my God./

***

She shook her head as they passed through the dank alley, heading back toward the car.  “I just don’t get it.  I mean, I get them, but I don’t get Riley.  Don’t get why he’d… do that.  It almost killed him.”

Spike eyed her in the dark, looking amused.  “Sometimes I despair of you, Slayer.”

“Is this another one of your, ‘You’re missing something completely obvious’ lectures?”

“Yes.  Look.  You dated the bloke, right?  He thought he found his ‘perfect, normal girl’.  Likely he fancied you for a long bloody time before he pricked up the courage to ask you out, which meant he might have thought himself head over heels for you by then…”

Buffy blinked, thrown.  “We had  one  date!”

“And you’re you.”

Okay, sometimes Spike was the absolute end.  “Hello, bias.”

“Hush and let me tell you how it was.  So you finally give the poor, slavering tosser his date.  He thinks he’s making progress.  He’s probably hearing wedding bells…”

“Oh for God’s sake…”

“Then you turn around, tell him you’re engaged, prance about with a vampire, and make it inordinately clear that you’re not only not the normal, sweet—if wildly quirky—girl he’d built you up in his mind to be…”

“Wildly quirky?”

“Shut it and listen.  Instead you’re some sort of monster like the rest…”

“Alright, monster’s kind of a stretch.”

“In his mind?”

Okay, he had a point.

“Then he spends a bloody year lurkin’ about, spying on you…”

“Which is just nasty.”

“Given.  But there it is.”  Something darkened in his voice, and his shoulders tightened under the duster as he averted his eyes.  “I understand it.  I’d bloody do it, were I that gone on you and couldn’t touch you, Buffy; just tryin’ to understand why I was so soddin’ attracted, so obsessed with someone so wrong, so opposed to everything I was about…”

/Oh, wow./  What a thought.  /You…  That’s  why you understand him?  Because if we never got together you think you’d have… stalked me?/

Except, when she thought about it not from the ‘ew OMG gross!’ human perspective, but from the demon-y, instinctive one...  Spike was a hunter, first and foremost.  Of  course  he understood that.  Because for him it wouldn’t have been stalking, but… assessing.  Except not prey this time but a potential mate.  Studying her habits.  And falling harder, every second he did it.

After all, it was what he’d done with her from the start.  He would just have kept on doing it while finally consciously aware of why, instead of lying to himself about his motivations like he used to before.  And heck; it wasn’t even like that kind of thing was new for her.  Angel had done it too.  It was really just how vamps operated when they dug a girl.

/Though, given that, what was Riley Finn’s excuse?/

“So he hung about,” Spike went on grimly.  “Watchin’ you doin’ the slayin’, and canoodling with yours truly.  Everything he knew was a lie.  He was attracted to a demon-girl.  Was it you?  Did you have him under some sort of spell?  Was it what they did to him?  The stuff they pumped into him?  If it was, then why is he still attracted to you, totally against his will, when the shite they put in him is long gone?” 

/Oh./  “You think he was still…”

“Stop interruptin’.  I’m on a bloody roll.  Or is it…him?  Is he just attracted to monsters?”

“Oh,” Buffy whispered it aloud this time, all too aware of exactly how that particular conundrum could play out in a person’s mind.

“Then he finds out not only are you sleeping with a monster, you’re letting one bite you.  And all the sudden, there’s his answer; his way to find out, is it really him?  Because the question’s been burning him up from the entrails out for a year, and he bloody well can’t live with it anymore.  So he comes here.  He gets bit, to once and for all see, is he attracted to monsters, or is it just you?  Because one way or the other, he’ll finally know before he goes mad… or he’ll die.”  Piercing eyes found her in the low light.  “Either way, he’ll finally be free.”

Closing her own, Buffy let out a shaky breath.  “You know, I think you should probably also teach a psychology class.”

“Bollocks.”  The scoffing tone then altered to something pained, and her guy abruptly turned from armored, ‘give-no-fucks vamp’ to the sensitive person she knew always lay just underneath.  “It’s that I could’ve  been  him, did the chips fall a different way.”  His eyes cut briskly away.  “Had to ask meself once, briefly… was bein’ attracted to you ‘cause of that soddin’ thing they put in my head… or was it always there, and I only noticed it because you were near, and I couldn’t bloody get away?”

/Oh, wow./  

The car was a little ways ahead, beyond the mouth of the alley.  Buffy leaned against a pallet tilted against the wall and shoved her fingertips into what passed for pockets in her jeans, let out a little breath.  “You know, the common denominator in both of these little stories is me.  The girl who confused the crap out of your demon because you got all attracted to the wrong woman; a mostly-human girl, a Slayer.  And him, a human getting all attracted to a demon-girl, a Slayer…”

Spike eyed her warily.  “Where you goin’ with this, pet?”

She made a face at him for being obtuse.  “So are you saying it’s my fault he did this?”

Disgust touched her guy’s voice, made his rough, North London vowels go even more clipped with impatience.  “Bollocks to that too.  The tosser chose what he chose.  You didn’t ask him to get obsessed with you, make you represent his own existential crisis; no more’n you asked to be the catalyst to whatever the bloody hell is happening to me.  Not your fault.  Like you said, you went on one bleedin’ date with him…”

Buffy lifted a pointed brow in her vamp’s direction, watching his hair gleam in the low moonlight, the faint glimmers of incandescence from over there on the grimy street-front beyond the mouth of the alley.  “At which point he heard wedding bells?”

“Yeah, well.  ‘Love is like a child, that longs for everything it can come by’.  But, considering that it’s you, it’s not like I can blame the poor sod.”

“Sure.”  /Except that when you heard wedding bells with me right off the bat, it was because of a spell.../

Spike scoffed at her dismissal.  “Don’t look at me like that, Buffy.  I wasn’t gonna let you get out of my sight from the moment you stuck with me in that soddin’ motel and washed my damn jeans for me, whatever I told myself.  Would’ve hung about the rest of my bleedin’ unlife, loyal as a Labrador and happy enough just to have gotten friendship and respect from you, much less this.  Mating you…”  He trailed off, inhaled, and looked away, his expression illegible in the gloom.

/Oh, God.../  He wasn’t lying.  And, she could see it now.  How it might have gone.  Because that was so  Spike.   “I would never have let…  I could never have…”

His eyes came back to hers, indigo in the night and gleaming with certitude.  Then they broke away, sardonic.  “Have to give him credit for breaking the rules, though.  In my day, did a teaching assistant date a student, he’d’ve been flogged and cast out on his ear, penniless.”

Taken aback, Buffy frowned thoughtfully.  “What, you think it’s bad juju for a TA to date a…  Oh.”  It had never occurred to her to question that whole thing before, but she supposed it would be kind of a conflict of interest.  For one thing, favoritism grading papers and stuff.  “Huh.  Well, he wasn’t really directly a UCS employee, right?  Like, there was some weird contract through the government.  Maybe he never read the fine print.  He always struck me as Mr. Follow the Rules.”

Spike shrugged.  “Or, he wanted you so badly that he just bloody didn’t care.”

/Well, ew./  

They subsided into silence.  Eventually Buffy shoved herself away from the pallet with her elbows, turned toward the end of the alley and their ride.  And was caught by one cool vampire hand.  “Slayer?”

She would know that hesitant tone anywhere, and turned back to wait for it.

He wasn’t quite meeting her eyes anymore.  “Know that you must be disappointed, that I almost bit the lad.  I wasn’t in my right mind when I…”

Something flared in her; something that didn’t want to be discussing this.  /Oh, for God’s sake./  “Look, dammit.  I get it.  It was a fight.  He tried to kill you twice in one week.  He was part of a group that tortured you.  He attacked you when you were starved and in pain.  I understand.  That’s why I’m there; to stop you.”  She tried for nonchalant.  /Shrug it off.  Do we even have to do this?  Right  now? /  “Anyway, I’m just glad you could fight back.  Protect yourself, against him.  If…”  It caught in her throat.  “If he got another good shot in because you were weak or hurting, and he…  If you…”

Out of nowhere his hands were on her shoulders, and she was pressed up hard against the grody wall of the alley.  And very suddenly she had a face full of furious, intense, thoroughly-irate vampire.  “He wouldn’t have.  I would’ve killed him, Buffy.  You know it.  Drained him dry, and reveled in it, if you weren’t there.  And that’s the thing.  You won’t always be there.  So what do we do, you and I, when it happens?  Because sometime, someday… it will.”

/No.  Don’t throw this question at me./  It was the one she had carefully avoided all this time.  It wasn’t fair and it wasn’t right.  He shouldn’t ask this of her.  

She shook her head and cut her eyes away, unable, in that moment, to answer.  

With a sharp jerk of a nod he let her go, backed off… and vanished down the alley.  Away from the car.  Away from her.  

Left behind, Buffy breathed against the dank wall, bereft.

*   *   *







It can't all be smooth sailing.

Chapter Text

“It’s not fair, dammit.  It’s not fair that you even asked me that.  It’s just not!”  Stomping down the street, distraught and pissed off, Buffy punched boxes, slapped garbage out of the way, stabbed things with her sword.  

She hadn’t seen Spike since last night.  She couldn’t find him anywhere.  And how was it fair that he was staying away, making her crazy, making her feel guilty right now, when it wasn’t even her fault?  /I am what I am, and you are what you are, and it’s not like either of us asked for this, right?  So why do I have to have all the answers all the time?  Why do I have to have ‘em when you put me on the spot like that?  It’s not fair and it’s not right and you’re a being a dick!/  Because what he wanted her to say was ‘no matter what, I choose you’, and it wasn’t that easy.  /Don’t you get that what I want to be able to say, if I can get away with it, is, please let me find some middle ground with you,  please , because if I can’t I don’t know if I can go on living?  Because I love you and I’m bound to you and you’re everything I need and you’re my  partner  and I don’t even think I know how to  do  this without you now, and what the hell are you  doing , anyway, just running off and vanishing on me because I don’t have a black-and-white answer?  You asshole!  You’re the one who  taught  me nothing’s black and white in the first stupid place!/

At a loss, she closed her eyes and cast out around her, feeling for him… and came up empty, again.  Because, yes, she had tried it more than once in the last twenty hours.  Not that it had stopped her from trying again… and again; feeling around that featureless spot in her mind or her body or… whatever, no matter how often she came up blank.  

Literally blank; like she’d struck a black-painted glass wall.  Which was even more unfair, because, fine.  /Just because you’ve been doing this for a hundred-plus years, and you know how to lock someone else out of your vampy mojo when you wanna go screw around doing something you don’t want someone else to know about who has a blood-leash with you, fine.  But you’re being  such  a bastard, because this  isn’t  the same!  This is two-way, and I’m freaking out, and…  And when you do this you don’t know that I’m…/  

She was going to lose it if she couldn’t feel him soon, find him, because she didn’t know if he was okay, or if he’d gotten drunk and gotten into a fight with something that could really hurt him, or if he had left town, or what, and she had never realized how dependent she had gotten on feeling him till now.  Their bond had only been a two-way street for a very short time, but the sudden loss of it had highlighted the fact that, on some deep, subconscious level, she had actually been able to feel him since she had first fed him her blood and claimed him as hers back when the Hellions were taking over Sunnydale last winter, if only in the way of knowing, in a vague sense, which direction he was in in reference to her own position and generally that he was alright.  

Being stripped of that sense, now, after all this time, was liable to induce some kind of claim-y panic attack, somewhere in her deeply-buried ‘you know men leave, right?’ trauma-spot.  Not that Spike would or even  could , but…

/Then where the hell  is  he?/ her panicked mind hit back, and of course she had no damn answer, which just contributed to the not-okayness of this whole entire thing.  And was it bad that that was maybe, deep inside, part of why she had been okay with closing the claim, on some weird, kneejerk level--because it had meant she would get to keep him, no matter what, which, ugh--but now it was starting to look like maybe he could even get around even  that  if he was motivated enough, or if she pushed him too hard, because that was just Buffy all over; and if  Spike,  of all people, could leave her, then…

/He  can’t.   He won’t.  He’d  never .../

But she was still coming up blank, and this was dumb and unfair and… and embarrassing, but she was going to have to admit defeat and beg for help.  Go roust up the troops and recruit reinforcements.  /I’m going to have to admit to my friends I can’t manage my vampire./  And that was literally the most galling thing imaginable, both as a woman and as a Slayer.  She could already imagine the I-told-you-sos.

This was going to suck royal.

But it was still better than curling up in a corner in a tiny ball and crying, and maybe admitting to herself that she might have lost him?

Because if she had managed to lose  Spike,  of all people, then she couldn’t keep  anyone.   

Ever.

As per usual at this time of day, with work over and nothing else going on, the Scoobs were assembled at Giles’ place, because poor Giles had no life of his own and was constantly being invaded, and man.  He needed a girlfriend.  Or, if Spike were to be believed, a boyfriend.  Though, how the guy was going to get a life if he was constantly playing host to a bunch of barely-out-of-their-teens youths with magicks issues and problems with vampire-boyfriends, et cetera, was questionable.  

Maybe he needed a second, secret apartment?

/Probably he just needs to tell us all to leave him alone one night a week or something.  Or, you know, probably two./  With her newfound recognition of adult things like ‘date night’ and the actual right to have time to oneself that did not involve ‘working’ dates, Buffy had begun to recognize that Giles, too, seldom got grownup time.  Which was probably unfair.  “Jeez, do you guys ever let the man have any time to himself?” Buffy fronted as she shoved her way in.  “I mean, isn’t Tuesday the official Witches Club meeting?  Because just so you guys know, this isn’t Tuesday.”

Giles glanced up from where he was hiding in his kitchen, probably trying to avoid the crush in his living room.  “One might think they would realize that, mightn’t one,” he murmured dryly.

“But… this is the  spot,”  Xander protested, clearly befuddled.  “I mean, this and the Bronze, and it’s too early for the Bronze.  They don’t even open the doors till seven.”

“Maybe we should come up with a new, non-Giles-apartment-having clubhouse,” Buffy pointed out.  “You know, so Giles can get some play.”

Giles turned a sort of pale maroon.

Anya swung around to eye the Watcher with interest.  “Are we interfering with your capacity to find orgasm friends, Giles?  Because if so, that’s highly selfish of us and we should leave immediately.”

“I…  That is to say…  While Buffy is being quite…”

“You know, it just never occurred to me that Giles might, you know… date,” Wil pointed out, sounding surprised at herself.  “I mean, he’s so…”

“Old,”  Xander supplied, equally stunned.

“He really isn’t, though," Buffy pointed out, distracted, and waved a hand.  "I mean, he’s Mom’s age, and Mom dates.   They  even dated, briefly…”

“Buffy, please.”  Her Watcher had progressed from maroon to purplish.  “And anyway, that wasn’t a date so much as…”

“Sex under the influence of chocolate?” she put in sweetly, but with an evil edge that would make her missing asshole of a boyfriend very proud.

Everyone whirled to stare at Giles.

And, okay.  Buffy’s frustration at Spike was a thing, but she shouldn’t be taking it out on her Watcher.  “Never mind.  I’m glad you’re all here for now, though, because Giles’ dating life isn’t the thing we need to worry about today.  Mine is.”

They whirled back, albeit more slowly, because apparently the antics of Slayer-and-Vamp were a lot less juicy than the prospect of speculating over the Watcher’s nonexistent love life.  

Giles, though seized on the change of subject with relieved alacrity.  “Oh?  What’s the trouble, Buffy?  Something happen with Spike?”

“Yeah.  The jerk’s missing.  Has been since last night.”  /And let me just tell you how pissed off that makes me.  Also, terrified and frantic, but I’m not gonna tell all of you that./

“Oh, man,” Xander moaned, and plopped himself down on the couch.  “I need donuts for this.”  He made a grab for the box.  “Okay.  I’m fortified.  What happened?”

“Was it something to do with the whole Riley thing?” Will asked, sounding anxious.

“Yeah, was he upset because of the attack?” Tara put in, wide-eyed with concern.

/And, here we go./  “No.  He was upset about what I said to him after.  Or… more what I didn’t say.”

Giles rounded the bar from the kitchen to take his seat at the desk, eyes focused exclusively on her.  “I take it you two had a row.  What was the substance of the argument, then?”

/Dammit./  They were so gonna jump all over this.  But she was not  even  gonna feel like she was on trial while they did it, so she moved to take a seat herself.  “He apologized for almost taking a bite out of Riley while they were fighting.  I said I got it, and it was alright because I was there to stop him.  Then… he asked me what happens next time, when I’m not there to stop him.  And I… couldn’t answer him.”  

Predictably, it was Xander who first spoke up into the resultant silence.  “Well, to be fair, Deadboy has a point, Buffy.  I mean, he’s gonna slip sometime.  It’s just playing the odds.  The only thing holding him back is how he feels about you.  I can’t blame him for wanting to know how you’re gonna react.  Which, we all know what you have to do…”

Buffy’s jaw tightened.  “Oh?  And what is that, Xander?”  Because she knew what Xander thought, knew his hard line.  “See, I think it’s a little more complicated than that, and that’s why I’m mad.  Because it’s not so simple.  It’s not so black-and-white, and Spike’s the one who showed me that.  That everything’s a gray area…”

Xander shot to his feet.  “There’s where you’re wrong, Buffy!  I know how you feel about him, but he’s a  vampire .  This is why I was worried about this; for  your  sake, whatever you might think!  Because sooner or later, you’re gonna have to stake him, and what if you can’t?  Because, vampire kill, vampire dust.  The end!”

“No!” she snapped back, “that’s where you’re  wrong , Xander!  And I know how  you  feel about vampires, but this is different!  Every time, it’s different!  I don’t get how you think it’s different for a vampire than for a human, that we have all these exceptions when one of us does it—when we’re protecting ourselves, or a friend or a family member, or it’s an accident, or whatever, when even the law says a person can get off on a technicality—and yet in your mind, just because that person’s a vampire, all the sudden it’s open season!”  

Xander flinched back, looking confused.  She pursued the point ruthlessly.  “Don’t you think he should get the same whatever?  Latitude or proviso or whatever as we do if, like…  What if he killed someone ‘cause he was protecting me, or Dawn, or  you?   What if he did it to protect himself, because that jerk Riley tried to stake him?  Because he  did  almost stake Spike; four nights ago!  Nearly dusted him; and let me tell you something flat out, Xander; I damn near killed the jerk myself!  Should I get the death sentence for that?”  She was breathing hard, fighting for air… for her life.  Because Spike was linked to her, and fighting for his right to live was all the same, now.

Xander stared at her in amazement… and then his face went blank and he sank slowly back down to the couch, looking thrown.  “I guess I… never thought of it that way.  It was just simple.  Vampire kill, vampire die.  The end.”

“Yeah,” Buffy answered flatly.  “I hear that.  And it’s dumb.  Because this vampire doesn’t just kill people for no reason.  And I can’t just make a blanket rule like that.  Not with him; not with any of the demons around town.  Not anymore.  I have to look deeper.”  She realized only then that she had balled up her fists so tight that her nails had dug bloody holes into her palms.  “And I can’t  believe  he asked me to give him a black-and-white answer last night.  That he  did  that to me, when he knows…”

“M…maybe that’s not… what he meant?” Tara put in quietly.

“Oh, that’s what he meant,” Buffy answered darkly.  “And when I couldn’t give him an answer, all put on the spot like that, he just… left.”  /You  bastard .  You know what it means to me when someone leaves./

Giles had a hand up.  “Let us all just hold on for a moment.  I’ll admit that I’m not Spike’s greatest fan, but this… doesn’t sound remotely like something that he would do.  I believe there has to be more to it, and we ought to reserve judgment until we’ve had a chance to talk to him…”

“Yeah?”  Buffy sighed into her hands, defeated.  “Fat chance of that, when he’s completely gone off the map.  I can’t even feel him.  He’s doing some kind of vampy reflecting thing to turn my claim on him back on myself so I can’t reach him or whatever.  He probably figured out how to do it to Dru, or maybe Angel, years ago, so he could get some time alone, and now he’s using it against me like a complete jerk.”  /And when did I start calling his ex ‘Dru’, like he does?/

“Fascinating.  Do you think I could perhaps…”

Buffy shot a glare at her Watcher.  “Later.  When I’m not dying inside.”

“Right.  Sorry.  Ah, well, perhaps we could…”

“Maybe he’s over at Willy’s…”

Another pointed glare for Xander.  “As if that wouldn’t be the first place I’d look.”  And she should be nicer.  It was, after all, a peace offering, and she was glad that Xander was trying, but, dammit, /I came here for  help , not stupidity!/

“Or the Fish Tank?” Xan tried next, gamely.

Buffy shoved down her frustration with an effort.  “A bust,” she managed through her teeth.  “Look.  I’m not trying to be a bitch, seriously.  It’s just… d’you think I’d come in here and admit this to you guys if I hadn’t already checked there?”

Xander let out a high-pitched noise that almost sounded like a titter.  “Okay, fair.”

Wil exchanged a brief glance with Jonathan, caught Tara’s eye.  “I know a spell.  One that shows all the demons in town, on a map.  Maybe if we…”

“Oh.  Yeah.  I know that one too,” Jonathan spoke up for the first time, and came to life to stand eagerly.  He sounded glad for something to do.  “We need tansy, and rue, and…  Uh, Mr. Giles, I know you have a map around here somewhere…”

“Oh, yes, quite.  Over there by the Nausiccus…”

“Okay.”  Dodging around behind Buffy, the nervous boy started rooting through the top of the bookshelf for the folded-up piece of paper.  

“Uh, how can you find one specific vampire with a spell like that?” Buffy demanded, feeling the tiniest shred of hope bobbing to the surface of her growing despair.

“Probably with something of his,” Anya put in easily, as if she were only vaguely interested in the proceedings.  “I’m sure you must have something.  Goodness knows with the way you two carry on you probably have some of his hair on you.  Or if necessary, we might be able to separate the components of your blood, though that might take a certain amount of side-spellwork…”

“Uh,” Tara broke in, “I actually have to go.”  She sounded oddly jumpy out of nowhere.  “You, um, can do this with Anya helping, right Wil?  I just remembered I have this…  This thing…”

Wil glanced up at her partner, looking startled.  “You okay, baby?”

“Yeah, I just…  R…remember, I have to go get that…  That g…grimoire back to Becky over on campus.  They really need it for tonight’s invocation in the Wash, and if I d…don’t get it to her in time they’ll get kicked out at nine when the d…drum circle takes over…”

“Oh.  Right.”  Willow frowned.  “I don’t wanna miss the Invocation, but…”  She glanced anxiously over at Buffy.  

Buffy bit the inside of her cheek.  She wouldn’t beg.

“Oh, y…you should h…have plenty of time to make it,” Tara stammered.  “You know it’s not till seven.  It’s just, you know, they need the b…book first, to g…get ready.  So I’ll go first, and m…meet you there.  This shouldn’t take long.”  She turned her eyes to Buffy, pleading and regretful.  “I’m sorry, Buffy, and I know it’ll work.  If it doesn’t, we’ll f…figure something out, okay?  I’ll come back if not, and we’ll do a search or something.”

Buffy nodded her thanks.  Tara was an odd girl; incredibly warm and genuine, but oddly nervous at the weirdest times.  “Okay, thanks Tara.”

The Wicca girl made her escape, looking strangely pursued.  

“Okay, well, I guess you’re our fourth, Anya,” Wil put in, concerned gaze still on the door.  

“I wonder if I’ll show up on the map,” Anya put in as she grabbed up a leather bag of something and sat, cross-legged, at one side of the map Jonathan had laid out on an open segment of carpeting.  “I’m obviously not a demon anymore, but it would be flattering if the spell still considered me to be an honorary one by some means.  Perhaps my aura’s still demonic; do you think?”  She sounded brightly hopeful.

“Ahn, if you had a demonic aura, it would mean you still had your demon soul, and whenever those jerks at the Council showed up they’d probably wanna capture you and study you.”

“Oh.  Right.  Well then.  No aura for me.  Let’s see if I don’t show up.  Giles, c’mon.  Don’t be a slowpoke.”

Wil glanced up at Buffy as she sprinkled something smelly around the edges of the map.  Her voice was already doing that misty thing it did when she started to lose the thread of her concentration with the outside world, while she sank deeper and deeper into witchyness.  “Did you have something to bring to the spell, Buffy, to offer in supplication and connection with the essence of the demon we wish to identify within the bounds of this locale?”  And then she was back briefly, with a little shrug.  “Which sounds kind of portentous and oogy.  You’ll get it back.  We just need to touch it and stuff.  No big.”

/Not very reassuring, Wil./  Pulling in a deep breath, Buffy tugged the chain out of her blouse and over her head.  She hadn’t taken it off in a long while.  Her chest felt naked without the bobbing weight of it.  “Here.”

Wil blinked a little as she regarded the slowly-swinging, silver object.  “Is that…”

“It’ll work, right?  I mean, he says it’s mine now, but he wore it for at least fifteen, twenty years, so…”

“Oh, yeah.  It’ll work.  But, um… take off the chain, okay?  That’s yours in the way where it was never his.”

“Oh.  Right.”  Inserting her nails in the loop, Buffy maneuvered the clasp open, slipped the thin, silver chain out, and reluctantly passed the heavy silver ring into her friend’s hand.  The skull motif gleamed fitfully in the lamplight, back in the open in the room where she had first been gifted with it.  /If it helps me to find you now, you idiot, then that’s just poetic justice, right?/

/Doofus./

Willow held the ring out in between herself and the other members of the witch-brigade.  Anya and Jonathan reached out to lay their hands on it, murmuring something about aspect and knowledge.  Giles, moving to take his seat on the far side of the map, threw Buffy a slightly incredulous look before he moved to do the same.

/Don’t judge me.  Just…  find  him./

***

Buffy shoved the ring-necklace back over her head and turned for the door, a complex wave of pain-anger-betrayal-embarrassment washing over her in repeated breakers.  If she didn’t go soon, she’d burst into tears or something.  /Not in front of everyone./  “Thanks, you guys. I’ll…  I hope you have a good invocation, Wil, and…”  /Kingman’s Bluff?  Really?  This whole time you’ve just been kicking it at Kingman’s Bluff, just, what?   Avoiding  me?  Did you feel me out here freaking out, or…/

Xan stood, approached her.  “Buff.  I just want you to know that I…  What I said?  It’s not because…  I mean, I like the guy now.  I do.  As much as anyone can who…”

Buffy bit her lip hard to keep from crying.  “I don’t know if I can right now, Xan.”

“Or you’ll cry.  I get it.  And that’s okay.  Since when can you not cry around us?  We’re your friends.  And you’re allowed to have, you know, relationship issues.  I’m not hating on him, I swear; or you for loving him.  I am so way over that.  I just wanted you to know that.  It’s more just a… you’re the Slayer, and we’re not…”

/And that means it all falls to me.  I have to kill him if he misbehaves; I get it, okay Xander?/  And that they didn’t get it that that was her worst nightmare, after Angel, was just absolutely beyond her comprehension.  Or maybe they did, but they just didn’t want her to… to run away again after, or...

Xander held up one hand, as if reading her closed-off expression.  “Which means we’re not strong, like you.  We have to be… wary, no matter what.  It’s like… we can like him, okay?  But he’s still always gonna be like this half-tamed jaguar you’re keeping as a pet, do you get what I’m saying?”

/A  pet?   You think he’s my… my  pet?   What  even …/  

A faint, half-embarrassed smile tickled the corners of her friend’s mouth, as if he had correctly read her incredulous, probably heading-toward-pissed-off expression.  He did a little diffident shrug, but stood his ground.  “You know how they say that no matter what, even if you raise a wild animal from a baby, they’re still wild?  Much less an adult one.  They’re never gonna be domesticated, because that takes breeding or whatever.  At any time, they could turn on you, because they have all these wild instincts.  So yeah.”  He did one of his little self-depreciating shrugs.  “You’re the expert; the zookeeper.  You two can, like, wrestle around, and not get hurt.  He can play-bite with you and it’s all good, and you don’t even have to really be scared, unless, I dunno.  You’re disabled that day or something.  Asleep.  I dunno.  Because he adores you, and he’s all imprint-y on you.”

Buffy was having serious issues with this analogy.  It was like some bestiality thing, instead of a cross-species, sentient… whatever.  Like, she got what Xan was trying to say, but…  Ugh.

“But that’s it,” Xander went on quietly, eyes focused firmly on hers.  “That’s just you.  For the rest of us mere mortals… he’s still the wild animal, and he only doesn’t eat us because you love us.  Because we belong to you, we smell like you.  Any second, he could change his mind and pounce, and none of us are strong enough to stop him.  So yeah.  I like him now; as much as anyone can like a beautiful, half-tamed jungle-monster that can turn around and rip my head off at any moment, and only care about it so much as it would make you sad, and make you maybe put him in a cage, or put him down, or stop loving and petting him because he hurt one of your friends.”  

The scenario Xander was painting sounded ludicrous to Buffy.  Did he not get that Spike would never do that, because her pain was his?  Because he would actually feel it as if it was his own?

Apparently not.  But it opened up her world to realize the apparent emotional high-wire her friends had been walking in this last year in order to hang out with her and her vamp.  

“To you,” Xander went on softly, “he’s safe.  But we can’t ever put away the awareness that he could kill us all.  And the worst part is, he wouldn’t care.  Not really.  Because no matter what he pretends, he doesn’t give a damn about any of us.”

/Oh./  “Actually, he does, Xander,” she told him softly.  “He doesn’t want to, so he puts on a big show, but he does.  People get into his heart if he spends time, gets close.  It’s why all the trying stay away; to keep them all faceless, nameless cattle.  But even if he didn’t… he feels what I feel now.  It isn’t just being afraid of how I’d react that keeps him from hurting any of you.”  /Don’t you get it?/  “He’d not only lose everything…”  /Mom, Dawn, his place here as Master, friends, family, a sense of belonging, be branded as a traitor…/  “He feels my affections.  And he’d  feel  it, if he hurt you.  He’d feel what I felt.  He couldn’t live through that any more than I could live through feeling it if I had to dust him.”  And turning away, she reached for the door.

Behind her, a vast silence.  Disbelief, confusion, maybe a little awe.   “He’s not an animal, you guys.  And he’s not wild.”  And she let the door close behind her as she stepped out.  /He’s dangerous, he’s primitive, and he’s a little unpredictable if you don’t get it, if you don’t know how to read him; but he’s not…  He’s not what you think./

/And, dammit, I’m all those things too, and when are they gonna  get  that?/

Back turned on Giles’ apartment, she headed for the DeSoto and Kingman’s Bluff.  

***

She pulled up slow and carefully, having navigated the sunset streets of her town with extreme caution, considering a driving slit and a downed window had been her only companions.  /You’re lucky I haven’t wrecked your precious car, you idiot./  She’d had to drive it home last night, and now this.  /Asshat./  Putting the giant, blacked-out boat into park, she peered through the slit into the red light of sunset, seeking him.  And there he was, emerging from the shade of the straggly pines there over to the right to peer out into the horizon like a giant, stupid child, and she was going to kill him.  Just pick him up and huck him right over the cliff, because what  was  this?  The reverse version of what Angel had done in the sunrise?  ‘Uh, I’ll just stand out here and pretend I don’t brood, because that’s what my ‘poncy’ gransire does, but I don’t, thank you very much, and anyway, I’m doing it at sunset, not sunrise, so it’s different because it’s at the other end of the day’.  Right.  

Asshole.

She knew he had sensed her by the way he leaned all nonchalantly against the side of the motorcycle without acknowledging her; by the way he appeared relaxed, the way he kept his head turned and gaze on the scarlet horizon, but tensed infinitesimally around his eyes, his shoulders, his arms and hips.  “You’re lucky you taught me to drive better,” she informed him acidly as she approached to play her fingers lightly over the one scarred and pitted concrete picnic table.  “I could’ve turned your precious ride into a big steel pancake so many times since last night, looking for your dumb ass.”

He nodded slightly, looked down over his crossed arms, and spoke to the rocks at his feet.  Scuffed a little, looking darkly amused.  “How’d you find me?”

“Witches Incorporated.”

“Interfering little twats.”

Buffy kept her temper under wraps with serious effort, considering he was still blocking her out like a dick.  “Helpful, you mean?  Considering I didn’t know whether you were dead or alive, or left town, or…”  She was giving away too much, bit off the rest of her words and swallowed them before they could come served with a bitter sob.  /How  could  you?  You  promised  me!  You swore…/

He shot her a burning look under his brows, head tilted sideways.  “You think I’d leave you?  Slayer, you know I couldn’t…”

Buffy cut him off with a hard slice of her hand, away across her body.  “I don’t know  anything!”  she blazed.  “How  could  I?  What are you letting me feel?  Nothing!  I…  I was so  scared  that maybe you were dust and I…”  She wouldn’t cry.  She wouldn’t, but…

He dropped his arms, cast his eyes up at the branches over his head.  “Oh, bloody hell.  Fucksake, Buffy, sometimes a bloke just needs a moment alone.  You’d bloody well feel it if I’d snuffed it, even if…”

She wanted to fly at him, beat him up, punch him so hard he was one big giant bruise.  How  dare  he act like she was the one overreacting when he…  “You think I wouldn’t  give  you that?  You think you need to… to shut me out like this to get it?  Am I such a horrible burden that you have to scare me half to death just to prove that you’re Mr. Independent Guy, just because we had a fight?  I mean, dammit, you’re the one who pushed me into a corner; like there’s ever just one answer!  I can’t believe you  did  that to me, when  you’re  the one who taught me there’s  never  only one answer, that nothing’s black and white, that I have to look at everything based on the situation, and then you just…  You just put me on the spot, and then got all pissed off when I couldn’t…”

“What the bloody hell are you talking about, Buffy?” 

How  dare  he sound so honestly bewildered?   “You  know!”  She really was crying now, because he was a bastard, and what did he  want  from her?  “I can’t just…  I’m never gonna be able to just say, fine.  Yeah.  Sure.  I know if it happens it’ll probably be for a good reason.  I’d like to think it will, because I know you, and I trust you, and you have to know that’s what I’m praying for when it does.  That there’s… mitigating circumstances or whatever.  That it’s because you’re protecting yourself, or me, or Dawn, or Mom, or fighting to help us stop an apocalypse, or whatever; I don’t care, as long as I have an excuse to write it off, because I don’t believe you’ll ever just throw us away just to have a nice bite sometime.  I have so much more faith in us than that, and I believe in your self-control so much more than that.  But how can you ask me what I’ll do in some future that hasn’t even happened yet when we’re not even  there , when you  have  to know that the last thing I ever want to have to do,  ever , is take sides against you, because I  need  you.”  She needed him, she was telling him she needed him, and he was just  standing  there.  “Dammit, I  need  you, Spike, and you’re just standing there staring at me like I’m insane, and will you  say  something?”

“Oh, bloody hell, Buffy,” he whispered, and then he  was  there; up against her, holding her in his cool, perfect arms.  “Fuck.  Love, that’s not why I asked, and that’s not why I left.  It’s because sometimes I feel like I can’t…”  His voice actually cracked a little.  “It’s because it’s hard, Buffy.  It really is.  I haven’t let you feel it, but it’s unbelievably soddin’ difficult; every day.”

/Oh./

“So I do worry about doin’ it right, pet; livin’ up to what you need of me.  I’m terrified of cocking this up and makin’ it harder on you; and it almost happened, right then.  It brassed me right off, and I s’pose I wanted you to see.  To know I’m  not  strong…”

Her stomach clenched at the naked recital.  /Oh.  Oh God…  Why didn’t you  tell  me, all this time?  Did you think I’d judge you, or…/  

/Oh, man; you must be feeling so  lonely!

“And, Christ,” he whispered into her hair, “that was cruel of me.  I’m not sure why the sodding hell I felt like I needed to do it, except maybe to salve my own fears.  That was bloody well unfair of me.  I’m so bleedin’ sorry, love.  You mated a right inadequate sod, alright?”

“What?”  He was being crazy again.  “You’re not.  You’re allowed to be scared.  This is scary stuff.  We’re both trying to change everything about who we are and how we work just to be… this.  That’s scary.  Neither of us know if we’re gonna make it work.  We’re both probably terrified all the time, except…”

He lifted his face away, tugged her chin up to look into her eyes.  “Except when we’re feelin’ each other, or when we’re inside each other, and we know it’s right.”

“Yeah,” she breathed.

He sighed and dragged her close again, wrapping his arms around her.  “Except, is it?  Sometimes it feels like something has to be wrong, yeah?  Even though I refuse to believe something’s wrong with how I work.  I’m not gonna put it on me.  I am what I am.  Have been for over a century.  Don’t wanna be the wrong one.  And I won’t stand for you bein’ the wrong one.  But does that mean  we’re  wrong?”

Her arms tightened around him in fierce, automatic denial.  “No.”  She could never believe that.  Nothing that felt like this—like  them —could ever be wrong.

“Well then,” he told her, all gruff with emotion, “if it’s not us, then it must be you or it must be me.  And we’ve established it’s not you…”

She managed a thick half-laugh, because a lot of people would probably beg to differ on the wrongness of a Slayer mated to a Master vampire.  “Tell that to the Council.”

“Wankers can go hang.  And if it’s not you and it’s not us, then that leaves me, gone sack of hammers for loving the Slayer…”

They’d been over this so many damned times in the last ten months.  This was crazy and they both knew it… and none of that mattered.  Not even a little bit.  “Shh.  You’re not allowed to say you’re wrong for loving me or you’ll break my heart.”

He made a faint choking noise, a cross between a chuckle and a sob.  “See, then?  No way to fix it if no one’s wrong and no one’s right.”

She shook her head against his chest.  “We don’t fix it.  We work at it every day.”

He went still.  “That it, then?”

“Yeah.  That’s what Mom says.”

Cue the vampire non-breathing thing.  “Oh, Christ.  You talked to Mum?”

“I’ve been kind of frantic.”  

Very, very slowly his head fell till his cheek was cushioned on her hair.  “Bloody hell.  I’m gonna get it square on the arse when I come back with you, innit?”

“Probably.”

He lifted his head to stare longingly out over the Pacific.  “Think it’s too late for me to catch a boat out of here?”

She wormed a fist in between them and thumped him on the chest, as hard as she could considering the room she had to work with.  “I’ll send my witches after you.”

He leaned back and narrowed his eyes at her.  “Yeah, let’s talk about that.  Using magicks against me is dirty pool, pet.”

“Tough.  I own your ass.  You dick.”

He exhaled in that way that said he was conceding a point.  “Didn’t mean to worry you, Buffy.  I wasn’t thinking clearly.  I just…”  He trailed off, looking troubled.

Buffy hesitated, but…  “Then will you let me back in, dammit?”  And, bracing herself in case the answer was no, “I promise… if you ever need, you know, time alone to think without me in there, I can always just…”  She cast about in her head, grasping at straws.  She didn’t remotely have the language for this, had no idea how it worked.  “You can teach me how to turn it off, right, to give you space?  You don’t have to…”  She heard the quaver in her voice, fought it to a standstill.  “Just; please.  Don’t do that to me ever again.  I can’t deal with it.  I lose my mind thinking I’ve lost you.  I can’t…”

“Oh, love.  I’m so bloody sorry.”  Regret filled his tones.  “And the worst bit is, I made sure I couldn’t feel what it was doing to you so I didn’t have to bear the punishment for what I did to you by it.  Here.”  And something… turned, or spread, or irised… and he was wide open again, and it all rushed back.  His shame-dread-fear-adoration, the guilty peace he felt when he held her body to his, his never-ending arousal at the scent and feel of her…  And he staggered, feeling all that she had carried, near drowning, since he had vanished last night.  “Oh Christ.  Oh, Buffy, love, c’mere…”  And he was carrying her to the table, and she was pulling him down, and there was nothing else but feeling him, and needing to feel him more, to know he was really there.  Nothing else, and her skirt was up, her underwear were probably hanging from a tree somewhere.  And then he was inside of her, and she was around him, and he was breathing her, and she was breathing him, and that was the only thing.  The  only  thing.  

They barely even moved, was the deal.  They just rocked, and breathed, limned in red light.  That was all.  But it was the most  intense  experience she thought she had ever had with him; like some kind of communion while their reconnected sense of one another exploded through brains and bodies, shimmered along nerve pathways, and…  And she was tightening… hitching up, breath and legs, around him, and everything inside; stomach muscles and her pelvic floor were…

“Oh, love,” he whispered, and his hand moved to drift between them.

“No,” she managed, through her teeth.  “Just… keep…”

He did, cupping her butt in his hands, eyes on hers, forehead pressed to hers.  And rocked, and rocked until she just… couldn’t…

“Christ,” he whispered, and dissolved with her.

And then they were just there; motes on the vanished sun and the growing dusk, while moths fluttered around them, attracted to their light in the spreading dimness.  Released, Buffy let her head fall finally, turned it toward the cliff and the spreading sea.  Out there, the combers moved, mostly silent, but she thought she could hear them swishing, crashing into the bluff below; endless and inexorable.  /Or maybe that’s my heart, crashing into you; breaking you down, taking you into me piece by piece.  But you’re still here, and we struggle against each other, right?  But we’re partners, just like sea and stone.  You can’t take one away from the other or they’ll both be just… formless.  Nothing.  Neither one would mean anything./

“What are you thinking, pet?” he murmured, and kissed her shoulder.

She let the smile show, so that he could see it in the growing dark.  “Do you think the sea knows that without the land it wouldn’t mean anything?  And the land knows without the sea it would just be this dry husk?  Do they mind that one breaks the other one to pieces, and the other one disturbs the rhythm?  I mean, it’s worth it, isn’t it, as long as they aren’t just this endless… nothing.”

She thought she heard him chuckle into her neck.  “You stay in that class too much longer, pet, and you’ll be in danger of writing better poetry than I ever did.”

Turning back to look at him, Buffy rolled her eyes.  “Don’t be stupid.  I’ve seen your poetry…”

He jerked back to view her with some pretty intense worry.  “Please say you’re joking.”

“Hidden in between the Emerson and the Keats, in that one little black journal…”

“I am going to drain every drop of blood out of your whole sodding body, you invasive little…”

“Shh.  I’m enjoying my vampire blankie and looking at the moonrise…”

Grumbling something about nosy Slayer chits, he crawled up between her legs—which uncoupled them, and who gave him permission to do that?—caught her up against him, and rolled them over on the incredibly hard, pitted surface of the table so that she was pillowed against his hard-but-still-softer-than-concrete body.  “C’mere.  Lay your head, relax, develop convenient amnesia…”

She smiled at his hopeful tones… and yawned.  She had not remotely gotten anything that looked like sleep last night, worrying about his missing ass.  “Are we sleeping here?  Because, indecent exposure, much.”

“Any police come by, I’ll eat them for you.  Will just have to get my trousers up above my ankles first so I can catch them without tripping full-length in the dirt.”

She giggled mazily, and yawned again.  “My Big Bad vampire, who just wants cuddles…”  She trailed her fingers down his chest, found herself mildly irritated that he was still in his t-shirt, and settled for shoving it up to slide her hands around underneath it.  Once she had them seated appropriately against his flesh, she smiled more, snuggled her face between his cotton-covered nipples, made a satisfied ‘mmmm’.  “Just for a little while.”

“Mmhm.”

She stroked his skin again.  “Not a cat.  Not…”   Yawn .  “Furry.”

“Beg pardon, love?”

“Purr, though.”

He lowered his head to her throat and made that pleased thrumming noise he made that wasn’t quite a purr, but was really, really close; a slowed-down, happy growl of contentment.  “Purr all you want.  Go to sleep, pet.”

“Pet,” she answered, slurring it, and half-laughed.  “Both…”  

The night faded out.

They were running together, through the familiar desert.  The freedom, the rightness of it coursed through her, making her limbs feel incredibly light as they bunched beneath her over the sands.  The leash that ran between them—between her thin, gold collar and his thick, black, ornately jeweled leather one—flashed in the sun as it linked them, but did not in any way impede their actions, because they moved as one.  He kept pace with her, his shoulder a short breath behind hers, the spots of his body marking him as belonging to the night, while he remained golden, because he could pass from thence to day, and hunt in both, and he was hers.  His rich color was vibrant; the same as that of the collar he had gifted her, to sparkle like a queen’s crown at her tawny throat.

As she made her turn he loped alongside her, no communication needed.  Still, she nudged his shoulder with her own; playful.  He nudged back, batted her with one velveted paw.  And then they were rolling, snarling; play-fighting in the sands, and it was glorious under the sun.  

Another presence broke into the moment, drew her to her feet to look up.  And there was the other.  The First Of Her Kind; standing alone, ever alone, on her stony promontory.  Buffy had expected a lioness, but she was all black instead; a part of the night.  A panther, hugely muscled and proud, but solitary.  Patches of russet color shone just beneath the darkness of her fur, under the sun, with every move; rippling with the heat, so that she nearly vanished with the haze.  But the regal head turned to them, feral and sharp in her movements, and pinned them where they stood.

The mated ones stilled momentarily.  He came slowly to his feet next to her then, and waited, in case the First One wished to pounce and destroy him.

She moved between them, watchful.

But it wasn’t her mate the First One wished to take.  

The sky darkened.  Night fell.  And the thing which came instead was oddly put-together, and moved incorrectly.  It smelled like a vampire, but also it did not.  Felt like a vampire, but did not, because it did not need to.

This one was in no way hiding.  

It shambled near; a figure dressed in rags and skins, furs and hides, gray-fleshed and be-fanged, drawn and sallow and starving.  A plague in one being.  It snarled vicious rage, an endless hatred, at the first of the Line.  Buffy resonated with the recognition of it, somewhere deep within, at a place below where her human brain existed.  Where there was nothing but the fight, and death.

And, as if answering for them both Sineya hissed back, teeth bared, mouth wide.  And leaped, claws spread.

Even together, they two could not have taken that ancient blood-drinker in the way she did.  It was powerful, and it thirsted without care for the spreading of its kind, or the preserving of foodstock.  It had come merely to destroy.  It was a weapon, nothing more, and it was fearsome.  But she, the first, the primeval… she was as much monster as it was, in her own way; in touch with things that those who would come after would be forced to forsake to survive.  She was greater than they in the same way that this one was greater than those of its ilk who would come after, and in the same manner; and like it, she needed no weapon.  She fought it on its own terms; by tooth and claw, flashed in moments from dreadlocked, feral woman to clawed cat, back again.  

And tore it apart.  

Its head was off, by her bare hands.  In moments, it was dust, and Sineya had dropped to all fours, glanced around her through painted eyes…  And streaked away, across the desert, the panther once more.

They followed, the mated ones.  Needed to see.  Found her, as the sun returned, inside a wide cave, with a trench for ordure, and a basket holding food. 

She was chained, about the neck.  Bound to the stone.  A woman and a panther by turns.  Chained animal-like and pacing in her short track, while a man stood at the entrance, holding a staff, ever Watching her.  And, squatting at his feet, a younger man held a roll of some paper-like substance, pasted together out of strips of grass.  He scribbled on the roll with a reed, dipped in sooty water… and Watched.

“...She is driven by that which is inside her,” the elder of the two quoted, “by her power and her weakness.  We gave her this, and so she is ours.  She guards the villages by night…”  A dramatic pause.  “Then the Stealthy Ones came.”

The younger of the Watchers dutifully scribed this down, then lifted his eyes to meet theirs.  “She hunts by night,” he told them, stern.  “But by day, she must be bound.  At first because she is too like them, and then… because she might join them, these new ones who have come.”  A shake of the head, disapproving.  “She struggles against her new nature.  She is torn, and she is too close.  Too close to them.  Too close to the Animals.”  And he lowered his head again, dipped his reed, scribbled fiercely.  “Defender, or Destroyer?  She must be our instrument, or she will be our downfall.  She must never know… that to be enough like them to defeat them, she must be enough like them to want them.  To hunt them is to become them.  So she must be kept thus.  She must be…”

Sineya rose to her feet, hand clutching at the collar at her throat, and stared at the end of her Line.  At the both of them, standing near, in the cavern, between her and her captors.  She reached out, head cocked at the leash that lay between them.  “Always alone,” the voice rang in the cavern, through the unmoving mouth.  “So long alone.  I was made to be alone.  Why was I made like this?  One girl in all the world.  She alone…”  And one dark hand reached out, touched the strand which joined them.

A peal of such, immense loneliness, of vast, utter anguish rang through Buffy’s very being, knocked her off of her feet.  She found herself sobbing, curled up on the sands outside, paroxysms making her cough as the winds blew the particles around.  And then  he  was there, wrapped around her.  “Not anymore.  Not anymore, Slayer.  Never again.”

And then the First Slayer was there once more, standing before them, head tilted in that curious way; as if she was studying them.  She reached out, touched first Buffy’s neck, on her bite (Buffy flinched away, expecting more of that terrific agony, but felt nothing), and then Spike’s neck.  He remained still, though he must be terrified of her prowess, as she touched the mark Buffy always renewed on his throat.  And then that hand drifted to the empty air between them, touched… something.  And Buffy felt a wave of massive, personal envy, coupled with… relief?

Thousands of years, thousands of generations of relief.

“Too late, for all of us.  Too late for me.  But  we  are glad.   We  are finally free.  We are no longer alone.”

/We?/  

It hit her then.  The individual Slayers, as girls, as women, had all died alone, used and abused and tossed aside.  But the Line itself, that singular entity?  It was finally mated, through her.  It was finally freed from its gessa, bound to something else.  

It was finally given expression in something other than the endless round of killing its own, and death, and coming back again to do the same, world without end.  

It finally knew love given back, and not simply given away without return.

Sineya turned away, looked over her shoulder, her painted visage calculating.  She pointed, mouth unmoving.  Somewhere there in the rocks, the cave mouth beckoned again.  

Buffy glanced at Spike.  He shrugged.  

They struck out across the sands.  The instant they moved, they were cats again.  Which, okay, sure.

Sineya was gone when they reached the rocks.  There, at the entrance to the cave…

No.  Wait.  It wasn’t a cave, but it was cavernous.  The door of a warehouse.  The sand drifted up along a fence.  Chain link.  The warehouse loomed amidst the rocks.  Against the fence, a security guard eyed them, leaned over.  “You forgot your… glow ball?”

Delighted, Buffy caught the diffuse, shimmery thing in her paws, batted it to Spike.  He batted it back.  They were all set to play with it, to share it forever—it felt precious, felt like theirs—when something loomed.  Some dark presence.  Enormous, dangerous… and a voice said, “Someone has my key, and I want it!”

Spike snatched the effulgent ball close to his chest, his golden eyes sharp on hers.  In full agreement, they ran full-tilt, away toward the rocks, to hide the glowing thing.  It had to be kept safe.  

They batted it back and forth between them as the shadow loomed; a desperate game of keepaway while the thing stooped from one to the other of them, seeking, seeking, ever grasping.  And then there it was; the cave again.  Surely the Line could…

But this was a different cave.  Gray and craggy and grown all around with straggling undergrowth.  But it was good enough.  They dove inside with the ball of light.  

And outside, the shadow passed by.  “I can’t see it.  Where did you put my key?  I’m getting really put out.  I’m running out of  time , you know!”

They huddled inside, in the dark.  From somewhere deep within, an insane-sounding, accented voice—a woman’s voice—giggled, “Oh, it’s so pretty!  So shiny!  But we won’t let her know.  If we do, she’ll take it away, and we won’t get to love it.”

Then the darkness faded out, and they were back in Sineya’s cave.  But Sineya wasn’t there, and all the First Watchers were all around.  And it was them who were looming; circling ever closer, in a noose around Buffy and Spike.  “You must know that we’ve come to help you.”

/Sure.  We can tell, with all the looming./

Tilted, curious, concerned faces.  “You fight a thing you cannot face alone, without us.”

That sounded fun.  /Good to know./

Lined visages around them, going stern as the noose tightened.  “But first we must punish you.”

/And, less with the fun.  Also, no thanks./

Every face darkening with fury.  “You’ve broken the rules.”

Okay, but the thing is … Buffy began.  Except, of course, now the dream was doing that thing where she opened her mouth, but she couldn’t talk.

Fury turning rough, building to a chorus.  “You belong to  us .”  

And, why not.  She couldn’t really move either.  Not even to back away.  It was like trying to escape through syrup.

“You’ve removed yourself from the Proper Way.”  Looming, the noose ever tightening.  “You’ll have to be destroyed.”

She and Spike were back-to-back now, and they weren’t cats anymore.  Except, they still had the leash and the collars on, binding them together.  

“It’s unacceptable.  Your leash goes there.  To the floor.  To the wall, where we can control you.”

/And, fuck you too!/

Pointing fingers, from all sides.  “His goes to his own kind.”

Spike’s mouth, open in a soundless growl of denial.  Buffy joined him, ready to yell it.  /He belongs to me now, not  them .  We belong to  each other .  Screw you;  all  of you!/

“Destroy them, or you Destroy us.”

Buffy doubled her fists.  It took forever, and more effort than fighting the Master had, but she somehow managed it.  And glared her defiance at them.  /Oh, go to hell.  It’s not that simple.  It was  never  that simple./

Around them in a circle, staves rose high, and faces of a dozen Ancient Watchers bloomed with outrage.  “This is unnatural.”

/Uhuh, tell me something we don’t already know.  But it’s  ours,  and you won’t take it from us!/

“You will not keep it.”  A moment of decision; of concert.  One of the staves swung down, struck at their link, their claim.

Buffy screamed, anticipating the agony of the severing.  

And then Sineya was there; a raging ebon panther, tearing at them all, jaws agape and ferocious; doing what she had always wanted to do to her tormentors.  “No,” she told them, mouth unmoving, even as she wreaked havoc on those who had enslaved her.  “We have been given this.  We have fought for it.  It is Ours.  You will not take it from us.”

“See what you have done!” one of the old men shrieked, swinging his staff.

There was a gap in the circle.  An out.

The whole mass of the Ancient Watchers were shrieking now, like steam engines, eyes bulging in horror.  Shouting in a chorus, one which followed Buffy and Spike as they dove away, through the flailing masses.  “You have freeeed her!  It will end!  It will all ennnnnd!”

Outside, in the free air, under the sun, the panther lazed on the ledge above them and licked the blood from her paws.  “I can decide to hunt now when and because I wish to, not because I am chained.  They no longer own me.”  Lifting one paw, she extruded her claws, licked each one clean, one by one.  “I am my own instrument.”

Buffy shivered, remembering the carnage within that tiny, blind cave.  Such a small, protected, hateful little world.  But faced with this…  /All this, without any guides?/  “Can we handle that?  Can we walk that line?”

Yellow eyes met hers, so like a vampire’s that it made her almost want to quail.  “You are full of Love.  Just remember that it belongs in more places than one.”  And standing, stretching lazily, the panther turned and sauntered out over the rocks, made a swift jump and, as Sineya now, vanished behind them.

Buffy turned to ask Spike what he thought of that… and had to laugh.  He was all leopard-y again; wrapping around her legs, purring loud as a small motorcycle and twining amorously through her knees.  He brushed her crotch with his spine at every circuit, all the while gazing up at her with adoring eyes.  “You’re gonna tangle your leash.”

He butted his velvet head pointedly against her crotch and purred even louder.  

“Not even.  Not when you’re in big-cat form.  Human face, definitely.  Vamp-face, on special occasions.  But cat-face…”

He bared his teeth.  Fangs, check.  “Okay, but still.”

A huge, rough tongue ran out and nudged her insistently.

She gave his head a shove.  “Oh my god, you’re even worse in the dreams than you are out there.  Seriously.  Wake me up first, at least…”

“I’m tryin’, pet.  Have to admit, this is probably the first time you’ve actually pushed me away…”

“Huh?”  Sitting up, Buffy blinked around her, startled at the low, diffuse light, the moist, briny chill in the air.  And lifted her eyebrows at the very determined vampire settled between her legs, which were currently thrown over his shoulders.  “When did you get down there?”

He was crouched on the ground at the end of the table, doing his level best to wake her up with some, ah, predawn surprise.  

He gave her a little nuzzle and jerked his chin at the pearly sky over toward Montecito.  “I slipped.  And then I figured it was a hint.  We’ve about twenty safe minutes before I’ll have to make a dive for the car…”  And he nuzzled her again.  “How about it, then?”

She dropped her hand to his head and tugged him up to eye him.  “Did you sleep?”

“A bit.  Why?”  But he was studiously avoiding her gaze.

“So, were you there, or did I just imagine you there?”  Because if that was a side-effect of mate-bites, then Giles was going to have a heart attack.  But this had been her first such dream since they’d closed the claim—her last Slayer dream had been literally the day before they’d done it—so who knew?  

“Was I where, love?” Spike inquired, and laid his cheek patiently against her thigh.  

Maybe he wasn’t, then.  /Maybe I just… put you there because you’re a part of me now.   “You were in my Slayer dream.”

He frowned slightly, looking bemused.  “Was I, then?”

She made to sit up.  “Yeah, and it was really kind of intense.  I should go tell Giles…”

He gave her a tiny, hopeful shove back toward the table.  “How urgent can it be?  Surely it doesn’t mean I can’t have at your lovely quim for ten, fifteen minutes…”

He was tough on her resolve.  “You do know that no other guy in the entire universe begs for that the way you do.”

“They’re not vampires.  Christ, you smell heavenly.  Five minutes.”  He was already going to work, sensing her weakening.  “Just five… minutes…”  She gave in and dropped back to the table, her hand sifting through his hair.  “Then you can tell… mmm, oh Christ… soddin’ Watcher… he’s been dismissed…”

It took her a second for his words to percolate, since he’d thank god stopped talking finally to make far better use of his mouth—best way ever to shut Spike up, by the way—but the meaning finally did settle in, and she was up and yanking at his hair.  Regretfully, but there it was.  “You complete, lying…”

He leaned back to watch her warily, face gleaming damply in the low light and eyes strangely similar, right now, to how they had looked in the dream.  Like a big cat’s.  “You look gorgeous in gold, pet.”

She hovered on the edge of eruption, unsure whether to strangle him, hug him, or punch him.  /Not alone./  “Oh my God.”

He didn’t answer.  Just ducked back down, hoisting her legs back over his shoulders.  “You said not like that.  But definitely like this.  I’m holdin’ you to that.”

“You… are such… a…”

“Mmhmmmmm…”

“Oh God…”  He shouldn’t be allowed to vibrate against her like that.  “Evil!”

He slipped his fingers inside of her, curled them up tight until she moaned.  And lifted his head again to pin her with a fiercely determined gaze.  “Yours,” he answered.  And he had never sounded more certain, more inspired, as he settled in to prove it to her.  

And to make her his.

*   *   *

 

 

 

 

And we're off to the races.

Chapter Text

“So… getting claim-y with a vampire apparently means they get to share the Slayer dreamscape.”

Giles jerked up in shock at her opener.  “I beg your pardon?”

Buffy tugged Spike in out of the rays of the new sun and lifted up their linked hands to indicate that she had meant exactly what she had said.  Spike popped out of the neck of his duster like a turtle and grinned.  “Hullo, Rupes.”  Exactly like he hadn’t been missing for twenty-four hours and scared her shitless in the process.  “Top o’ the bloody mornin’.  Got any Glen Livet goin’ beggin’?  That soddin’ place was a trip and a half.”

Giles stared at the lightly smoking vampire as if he were a new breed of alien.  “You’re joking.”

Lifting Buffy’s hand in his, Spike kissed her knuckles.  “Gonna go get soused, pet.  Need to forget what it felt like to be a great bloody panther, yeah?”

“Leopard.  Or maybe a jaguar.  I’m not really good with big cats.”  But she let him go, albeit reluctantly, so he could go rummage around Giles liquor cabinet uninvited.  

Giles already had his glasses off and was staring at them in horror.  “Good Lord, are you actually saying that…”

“Spike.  Me.  Slayer dream.  Really serious one, too.  I think there were two, maybe three separate narratives going on in there.  Heck, there might’ve been four; but maybe that’s what happens when you cross the streams and bring a stowaway…”

Spike grunted sourly and clinked some stuff under the bar.  “This all you have right now, Watcher?  Runnin’ right low on the drink, innit?”  He clunked a tumbler down hard on the counter and disappeared briefly from the window.  He reappeared armed with a bottle in the crook of each elbow and one in hand to set up all three half-empty bottles; all lined up across the counter like little soldiers.  “Hell,” he grumbled, “this is barely enough to get me warmed up.  Some host you are.”

“I’ll be sure to spend an inordinate amount of money stocking up on vast amounts of spirits for the next time I don’t invite an inveterate drinker to my home.  In the meantime, I’ll thank you to restrict yourself to one bottle, Spike, thank you very much.”

“Stingy sod.”  In lieu of emptying out Giles’ entire alcohol cache, Spike tugged out a cigarette and shoved it between his lips, and there was about to be a riot in here, wasn’t there?  

A little reason was in order, in the way of soothing the harried beast.  Spike hadn’t acted this unsettled when they’d first come out of the dream… but then, that had clearly been a huge-ass act.  When going down on her hadn’t settled his nerves, he’d recaptured her on her return trip from the tiny park bathroom and tried a nice round of thoroughly screwing her into the backseat of the DeSoto, stray glints of sun glancing off of his duster to make him all antsy.  Except, all that had really accomplished—for him at least—were a few broken springs in the seats.

For her part, Buffy was feeling relaxed and limber and not particularly concerned about much of anything at this moment in time, but her guy’s tension was really kind of putting a damper on her euphoria.  /Though, to be fair, I’m pretty used to Slayer dreams.  My first one did mess me up pretty good.  Looming Lothos and all that crap./  And that one hadn’t even been a full-on, run-around-with-Sineya-getting-desert-portents kind of dream.  /And I guess as a first experience, this one really was a doozy./  She supposed she couldn’t blame him for being a little off his game.  “I thought you couldn’t get drunk unless you ate a drunk guy or something?” Buffy called after her single-minded vamp.  

“Yeah, well, that’s not really an option for me right now, is it pet?” he demanded pissily, and tossed back a generous measure of something amber that was no doubt strong enough to burn off most of his nose hairs.  “Got half a mind to suck down a bloody distillery, considerin’ what Watcher has on offer.”  He made a disappointed face.  “Might just manage to get a bit tipsy if I do away with all his stock.  It’ll be a start.”

“Now, just hold on one bloody minute, here!  I don’t care what you saw or heard, I’ve said you don’t have carte blanche to drink off all of my spirits, you intemperate…”

“Spike, come here.”

Grumbling, he rounded the counter with his half-empty tumbler.

“Sit.”

The commands earned her a set of heated glares promising mayhem soonest, but he did as he was told and plunked himself down in their green corner chair.  She settled herself in his lap, tugged the drink out of his hand, turned to straddle him.  “It’s not gonna help.  Here.  Look at me.”

He did, reluctantly.  Their eyes locked for a long moment.  “I’ve been doing this since I was fifteen.  They’re all like that.  Though… I’m betting it felt even weirder for you…”

He barked out a harsh half-laugh and jerked his gaze away, clearly haunted.  “You don’t know the bloody half of it, pet.  Whole sodding place felt like it wanted to swallow me.  Like it was pulsing.  Like bein’ inside a beatin’ heart.”  His eyes went gray with anxiety.  “Terrifyin’ that.  I bloody well love feelin’ that when I’m inside you.  Love rememberin’ a little, what that’s like.  Like borrowin’ life.  But I can get free.  Escape.  Know it’s not mine; that it’s lent.  There…  There was no way out.  I was inside your sun, your brightness, with it beating all around me.  It was everything I’m not.  Christ, it was…”

“Anathema to your being,” Giles murmured, sounding intrigued.  “How very fascinating.”

Neither of them spared him a glance.  “I get it,” Buffy whispered.  “It feels very ‘at home’ to me.  But…  Being in the sun like that…”  She brushed his face with her hand, cupped his cheek.  He leaned into her touch automatically, closed his eyes.  “You weren’t flinching, or…”

“I wasn’t me,” he informed her in an almost-whisper.  “Was… that.  And  that  could stand it.  Was meant to be yours, there.  And everything about what they told me there said… long as we’re linked like this, I’m fine.”  He straightened a little to eye her, a faint smile hovering around his lips.  “You know I’ve been able to take more chances in the sun now, since we’ve been bonded.”

She had noticed, in a subterranean sort of way.  Less smoldering, and less terror on her part that he would immediately go up in flames.  “It seems to be taking you a little longer to parboil,” she agreed softly.

“Yeah, well; there I knew that I was absolutely safe in the sun as long as I was linked to you.  But when they tried to break it…”

The qualm of terror shot through her in memory.  The agony of it.  If they had…  “You would have… died.”

“Gone right up in bloody smoke.  And who knows what would’ve happened here, on this side, had they managed it.”

Buffy shivered at the very thought.  It had all seemed so real.  Did the ancient line of Watchers also have some kind of mojo in the dreamscape?  Could they have severed the link between herself and Spike then and there, in the dream?  

“The Line fought back,” she whispered, and caressed his face, wonderingly.  “Sineya…”

“You , Buffy,” Spike answered, and his eyes lit, wonderingly, on her face.  “That wild chit out there?  That’s what’s in you, you know that, right?  That’s the part of you that’s primeval.  It’s all one.  All one being, forced to live on since the start.  And it doesn’t want to be alone again.  It’s fought to keep me more’n once, and when those bastards tried to break us apart, it struck.  Tore ‘em to shreds.  Freed itself.”  His hand rose, fingers trailing over her cheek in turn with awe in his gaze.  And his eyes were cerulean again with amazement.  “You’ll only ever belong to you, now.  As a woman, and as a Slayer.  That lot can go hang, when they come.  They’ve bloody well been retired.”

“I don’t…”

“Now, just hang on a tick…”

With a heavy sigh, Buffy turned around on Spike’s lap and faced down her now thoroughly anxious Watcher.  “How about we just tell you the whole thing from the top?”

“Yes.  Please.  Only let me get my notebook first, so I can take it all down.  And for God’s sake, don’t leave anything out.”

They didn’t.  And for the record, it was really interesting to have a new perspective on the dream from an outsider’s point of view.  But also, the vamp’s-eye-view of the Slayer dream was really, really weird.  And it made Buffy seriously rethink some of her positions about her Calling, the Line, her responsibilities… basically everything she had ever taken for granted about herself as the Slayer.

None of which, of course, really sat right with Giles, but then that was kind of fascinating in its own right.  Getting another perspective on being the Slayer was pretty much par for the course in the land of Buffy in this last year, so how this was new to her Watcher was beyond her.  

“So… you’re saying that… that the original Slayer was made to fight this… this ancient breed of vampire which…  Which registered quite differently to you…”

“Like the Master did, kind of, and Kakistos.  Like any other demon, almost, because it wasn’t like it could hide, but also like it… resonated with me, on some incredibly deep level.  Somewhere I couldn’t even explain.  Like I could turn and point to it, and my brain would stop working and I just… would have to fight it.  Like that’s where the ‘kill or be killed’ part of the relationship came from, but I didn’t need to… detect it, if that makes sense?”

“Felt different to me too, for the record.  And you can put that down in your bitty notebook, if you like.  Didn’t feel like another vamp to me; or at least not one I’d recognize.”  Spike tipped back his drink and took another healthy swallow, leaving behind only a faint skim of liquor in the glass, then sat staring into the remains as if he were meditating.  “Felt… a bit like I think it’d feel to meet…  I dunno.”  A short, impatient shrug.  “Never was religious.  But if Maloker or that other asshat ever came back, I’d think this sort would be the ones They’d call in to serve ‘em, while They’d smite our sort down as useless wankers.”  He lifted his eyes to meet Giles’ fascinated gaze, eyes distant and pensive.  “Felt… primal, but powerful.  Wouldn’t want to fight the bastard.  Knew just lookin’ at him he was stronger than me.”  Another head-shake.  “No, not he.  It.  It wasn’t a he.  It didn’t have a gender, or a sex.  It had no need.  It simply… was.”

Buffy stared at her guy, amazed at this vampiric sidebar.  “But it was still a vamp, and vamps are part human…”

Spike leaned back to give her a candid look.  “Not much human in that one, pet.  Just a host.  And if the human doesn’t influence the demon, then it’s all demon.  There’s your difference right there, you want to see what we’re like without any human in us, really.  And why would we need human gender an’ the like, when it’s not needed to reproduce us, unless we’re usin’ it to… fraternize with humanity?  Which,” he pointed out with a faint smirk, “comes along with the territory of feelin’ a bit human, yeah?  In the moments.”

Buffy blinked.  “Oh.”  So, then, all she had been taught about vampires might have, in fact, come from these ancient ones, and been carried over to be put on a newer, different, and later-evolved type, when none of it even applied.  

“How very intriguing,” Giles put in after a moment, and bent to do some scribbling.  “Quite useful, thank you very much indeed, Spike.  Very enlightening.”  His eyes turned back to Buffy.  “And you say that Sineya…  She fought it—I would imagine from your description that the vampire in question was a Turok-Han; as Spike has divined, a very ancient and primitive form of vampire—fought it and destroyed it with her bare hands?”

“Ripped the bugger’s head clean off.  Claws and teeth an’ all.  Like she was in a soddin’ cage match.  Was bloody inspirin’.”  Spike leaned back, crossed his ankles.  “See where you get it now, pet; those times when you go a bit feral, forget to use tools?”  He grinned proudly.  “‘Mind me to never brass you off when you’re channeling that side of you.  Knew you were more’n a match for me, but…”  He flicked furiously at his cheap replacement bic and fluttered his eyelashes lasciviously, eyeing her up and down with his mouth and tongue poised in a contemplative and thoroughly suggestive manner.  “Knew I was right when I called you a wildcat.”

Buffy rolled her eyes at him and fought not to let Giles see the way she responded, wholly involuntarily, to his arousal.  “Save it for later.  Jeez.”

His nostrils flared, and he glanced down at the hand occupied with the lighter.  His lips did something like a cross between a pout and a moue, then he set his teeth solidly into the bottom one and decided to look mischievous and full of ideas for the rest of time, because he was evil, and she clearly wasn’t fooling him.

Giles cleared his throat loudly.  “And you say that these… these early Watchers… kept the poor woman chained in a… a cave somewhere outside their village by day?”

The outrage of it, the horrible, tearing loneliness ripped Buffy away from her contemplation of her personal demonic distraction.  “They were scared of what they made.  They let her out at night to hunt, but they were afraid to give her too long a leash; afraid she’d get loose and turn on them.  And then, once the modern vamps showed up, all stealth with the human faces, I think they were afraid she’d bail on ‘em, so…”

“Oh, surely not…”

Buffy’s head jerked around to glare at her Watcher.  “She… or whichever girl it was by that point, was being kept  chained up , Giles.  Treated like an attack dog, not a person, just because they’d stuffed some demon in her; probably against her will.  And you have no idea what it’s like to be around vampires;  this  kind, anyway.  The pull.  The feeling of… kindred.  Of knowing that someone’s  like  you.  Human, demon; all of it, together.  They’re more demon than human and we’re more human than demon, so we’re opposite… but we’re the same.  And we both have that thing inside, screaming to go out; fight, kill.”  She pinned Giles with her fiercest, most uncompromising look.  “Except,  ours  is enslaved.  They were made and then turned loose; set free.  They can teach us what that means… except we’d have to give up everything we were made to do.”  She closed her eyes then, gripping Spike’s thigh tightly, felt herself riding it; that line she always rode, with him.  In him, because she could ride it nowhere else and survive.  “It tears you apart, if you’re a Slayer,” she whispered, “knowing that.  It’s addictive.  It’s…”

“A siren song,” Spike murmured, watching her.

“Yes.  So… you go to it.  Every night.  And destroy it before it can destroy you.  But if you ever hesitate…”

Giles interrupted harshly.  “It bloody well kills you.  So they had no worries.”

“They clearly had a few,” Spike snapped back.  “It only took one, yeah?  One to get old enough, to feel her power, understand… and one of us to get old enough to tire of the game, question it, ask if there’s more.”  His hand brushed Buffy’s arm, soothing her down from the frustration of her stubborn Watcher’s ferocious determination to misunderstand.  “A century.  Less.  So many chits… but for the Line, so little time.  And they knew… or at least they feared it.”

Buffy’s eyes snapped up to meet Giles’.  “So they started putting in insurance.  Telling them they were completely human; as if that even makes any sense, with what we can do.  Lying to them.  Raising them apart, with a Watcher who would shelter them, and teach them only part of the truth.  And if they lived long enough to question it, there was always the Cruciamentum.”

Giles flinched back as if she had slapped him.  “Buffy, surely you don’t believe…”

She had had a long time to think about it, and it was the only thing that made sense.  “I do.  There’s always another girl, right?  One too young to ask questions, too young to fight back, to want to date, know love, have sex, realize that none of that would ever really work for her out here in the human world… if they could even escape being all sheltered the way Kendra was… which, God.  That poor girl couldn’t even talk to  Xander!   And tell me; what’s the Council’s policy if a Slayer gets pregnant?”

“Well,” Giles sputtered, “that’s scarcely ever happened…”

/Okay, see?/  “Thanks for proving my point.  Thousands of incredibly horny girls, all roofied up on violence and nightly slaying, and ‘That’s scarcely ever happened’?  I smell a rat.”

Spike straightened a little in the seat to lean up close behind her, all lazy lasciviousness vanished.  “They just do away with ‘em, is it, if they get with child?  Watchers are told to see to it they’re tripped up in the field, is it?  Easy enough to do, while they’re discombobulated with the hormones an’ the like, I ‘magine, an’ then, problem solved, innit?”

Buffy stared at Giles as if she had never seen him before, and waited.  

The glasses were off, and he had gone very pale.  His hands were even shaking a little.  “It’s… seldom ever happened,” he repeated in broken tones.

“Nun and a boarhound,” Spike reiterated grimly, and leaned back again, voice laden with a boatload of disgust.  “Slayer’s right.  Do they get out of line, they’re done away with; same as your lot want to do to your girl now.  So, time to pick sides, Rupert.  What’s it to be?”

Giles gaped at them, clearly horrified at this ultimatum, at the implications.  “I’ve… always been on Buffy’s side!”

“Always?” Buffy asked softly.

He closed his eyes, his cheeks now a truly awful putty color.  He looked suddenly very old to her eyes, like he was about to just give in and lower his head to the desk or something.

“They’ve been studying us since the start, Giles,” she told him quietly, firmly.  “But they’ve never asked.  Not like you have.  So the one thing they don’t know is what it’s like from the inside.  They tell.  They instruct, but they don’t listen.  Not like you.  So I can tell you what it’s like, and maybe that’ll give us the edge, if you’re ready to hear.  Because what it’s like, what it was like for Sineya in there, for the Line, and what it’s like for me, out here, now, is this most incredible relief that’s been waiting ten thousand years to come.  It’s like being healed, after being torn in two for all of time.  And I can keep together, keep whole, if I can just balance on this tightrope.  It’s hard, it’s scary… but it’s worth it.  Because… you’d think we’d be all integrated, since this thing is in our soul or our essence or whatever?  But it’s really not.  Vamps are way more integrated than we are.  And let me tell you; being torn between two poles like this, as a single, immortal entity, for an eternity?   Sucks. ”  

“Buffy…  I…”

He had never really considered her as part of a thing that had remained alive and unsleeping, on duty, for thousands of years.  She was one girl, and the previous girl had been another, and so on and so on.  /But I’m not, really.  Not once I was Called.  I’m all of them.  Everything they’ve ever been through, survived…  I am the Line.  So is Faith.  And all we carry—all our personal pains and doubts and fears and phobias and abandonment fantasies… it all just gets mixed in.  We are so messed up, as humans and as that thing that has never, ever really been loved and just wants to rest in someone’s arms./

“You have no  idea .  Personally, she envied us  so  much for having what was stolen from her; but the Line… the Line was just so incredibly grateful that we finally chased away the loneliness.  Paired it, mated it.  It’s been awake and on duty without a rest since it was first Called; for  millennia , Giles.  Do you get that?  It never gets to die or sleep… and it’s  always  been alone.  Killing, with one eye open, crying for any kind of relief… then dying, and coming right back to start all over.  Always alone.  Do you know what that feels like, to be… invested with that, all the sudden?”  

/It drew me to Angel.  I get that, now.  Anyone, anything; any vampire who might give it relief.  But that was only ever a half a fix./  “This is  the first time  it’s ever had  anyone .  Ever been matched.  But to do that, we did the same thing to the Line that it did to Spike, when we took him out of the loop of his nest; and the Council’s gonna be  pissed .”  She felt Spike’s eyes on her profile, assessing, then his nod of understanding and agreement.  It gave her the confidence to go on.  “That’s what she was trying to tell us, Giles.  Because just like a closed claim removes a vampire from the hierarchy of a nest, it removes a Slayer from the hierarchy the Council imposes on us…”  Giles’ head jerked up and he gaped at her, defensive and ready to deny that his compatriots could ever behave like a vampire nest controlling a fledge.  But Buffy had had almost a year to think about it.  To think about how it had felt to be Called… and what it had felt like to be controlled by the Council.  By a Watcher, filled with lies and omissions.  

/I had so much faith in Merrick… because I  had  to.  I didn’t know anything else about this world.  I  had  to trust him.  And I had the Cliff Notes version.  Look at Kendra, taken away from her family, no basis for comparison.../  

She didn’t give Giles a chance to interrupt.  “There’s a reason those bastards in there tried to break our bond, and a reason Sineya lost it, jumped in to defend us.  Because this has gone on for ten thousand years, Giles, and what we did?  It didn’t just free me.”  Certitude filled her now.  “It freed the Line.  Freed us all from their unnatural, outside control, and gave us…”  She thought her way through it, but it felt right.  “Gave me back to myself.  Heck… maybe all of us, ever after.  They’re definitely gonna wanna undo it, if they can.”  /I took away every ounce of power the Council ever had over the Slayer Line./  

“Tore those fuckers to shreds,” Spike agreed, satisfaction oozing from his tones.  “They wanted to keep the status quo intact.  Slayer in the trap, happy in her bitty cage, singin’ for her supper, me bound only to my kind, us as enemies, full bloody stop.  Tried to break it, what binds us.  Mad bint as is the Line dove in like a soddin’ dervish, destroyed every last one of ‘em.  They didn’t stand a bleedin’ chance.”  He grinned broadly, as ever ready to respect the artistry of mayhem.  “Was a hell of a thing to see her get her own back for what they’d done to her for all those centuries.”  His hand tightened on Buffy’s, threaded through.  “She couldn’t do it for thirty-thousand-odd girls before her, but for this one thing, she’d do it, and she’d do it for all the ones who’d died alone.  And make sure all the ones from Buffy on down, ever after, stayed free and clear.”

Giles clearly couldn’t even conceive of it.  “The…  She…”

No way Buffy would let up now.  “She said it’s my choice now, Giles.  And Faith’s, I suppose.  We get to hunt on our own terms.  It’s a big responsibility, to decide how to hold that line, without some ancient, mystical group of old jerks holding our noses to the grindstone… but maybe we can, you know, teach each  other  for a change, since now there’re two of us.  Create an apprenticeship program or something; I dunno.”

Spike brightened.  “Like the Darth Vader and the Emperor.”  He paused.  “‘Cept I s’pose this is the white hats, so it’s more like Yoda an’ that Skywalker tosser, but chits.  Any road, you know what I mean…”  He trailed off when Buffy swiveled on his lap to stare at him in amazement.  “Oh, come off it, Buffy, those films are soddin’ genius and you know it.”

Shaking her head in disbelief, she turned back in time to watch Giles toss his glasses down on his desk and pinch the bridge of his nose hard between finger and thumb.  “I think I might just have an aneurysm.”

“Didn’t drink all the scotch.  Probably a better option.”

“That’s highly debatable.”  

Giles definitely looked like he was getting a migraine, the way he was going all squinty around the eyes.  And maybe she should give him time to digest the concept that his Slayer had gone rogue in the most mature and predictable way possible; but if she did, he might just spin off the handle and run off back to the fold or something.  She couldn’t let him freak out, get all twisted up in his head about it.  /I need you on my side, when they come./  “Giles,” she caught his attention softly, “the thing is, they’re coming.  We already knew that.  Me having a new mindset about it isn’t going to change that.  It’s just gonna change how I approach them.”

His head rose, his hand dropped.  He regarded her balefully.  “Yes, but don’t you see, Buffy; in  this  world, they hold all the power.  You must be conciliatory…”

“Why in the bloody hell should she do that, Rupert?  Handing her power over to those old sods is why the chits’ve been slaves for ten thousand sodding years in the first bloody place!  She should stand her ground right off and tell them all to go right to hell!”

Giles pushed himself away from the desk, shot to his feet.  “And convince them she’s exactly what they’ve always feared?  Are you  mad?

“Just tellin’ it like it is.  She’s the one with the power here, not them, and time they admitted it.”

“You are!  You’re raving!  They already  know  that, you nit!  Pointing it out, letting them know she knows it will just convince them even more that they’ve no choice but to do away with her…”

Spike scoffed so loudly it was amazing that the windows didn’t crack.  “Oh, because being mated to William the fucking Bloody won’t already have them convinced?”

“Well, it isn’t as if we have to let them know about that bit…”

“Will you two just  stop?”

Two English dopes swung around mid-harangue to glare at her completely simultaneously, because they had no clue sometimes how alike they were.  Of course, if she ever tried to tell them that they’d deny it to death, but…  “Look.  I know you’re trying to help, and I appreciate it, but…  Giles,” she finished wearily, “it’s all over town.  How they don’t already know with the spies and whatever you say they have is beyond me.  All I can figure is the guys they have working for ‘em are so happy with the new system here that they’re keeping quiet about it because they like me better right now or something, and they wanna see which way the wind’s gonna blow…”

“No demon worth his salt’s ever gonna stick to a paltry paycheck when there’s change in the air.  You keep the dosh rollin’ in by sendin’ false reports—like some Watchers I might mention—and you ride the tide by it, see if a better deal’s on the horizon.  But the Slayer’s right; they show, start talkin’ to the public, an’ their informants’ll fold, if only to keep up appearances.”

Giles groaned and dropped back to his seat.  

Buffy smoothly took up the baton from her guy.  “And we know how they’ll react.  You said it first yourself.  They hear about this, the wetworks guys will come in first, because I’m a spare, Faith’s doing okay, and why not take out the bad bet who’s a bigger rogue now than she ever was?  Heck, if I don’t make a new Slayer when I go and they can’t convince Faith to come back and play ball, they’ll probably knock her off too and start over again with a brand new girl.  Easy peasy.”

“Waste of resources to train a new chit,” Spike agreed blandly, “but sometimes you have to take a hit, innit, to make a profit?”

Giles nodded reluctantly, pushed himself back to his feet, and headed for the bar.  Without a word, he snatched down a tumbler, resolutely cranked open one of the bottles Spike had lined up, and started pouring.  Buffy’s eyes widened when he tugged down not only a second glass but, with a brief hesitation, a third.  He filled all three to at least halfway before plopping the now-nearly-empty bottle on the counter.  “I find myself torn,” he spoke to the room at large without lifting his head at all, “between the host’s duty to avoid blatant rudeness, and a father’s duty to conform to absurd underage drinking laws.  However, since I’ve no doubt you’ve ignored those laws on numerous occasions…”

He would probably be surprised at how seldom, really, she had done so.

“…And since those laws are, in my mind, rather a load of tosh as they’re done in this country, and you being a soldier, not to mention this being a sort of a special occasion…”  He gave his head a grim shake and rounded the kitchen doorway to set down his drink on the desk coaster, then approached to hold the other two wordlessly out. 

Buffy fumbled for hers, stunned, held it with the certainty that she had no clue what to do with it.  The last time she’d held one of these she had had a set of very clear goals in mind, and had ended up chained up in the basement of a crypt enjoying multiple penetration.  As such, being handed hard liquor by her Watcher-cum-father-figure right now was giving her just a slight case of the wiggins.  And why was everyone all the sudden handing her drinks or inviting her to join in on toasts, lately?  Had she passed some kind of invisible adulting test or something?  First Mom, and now Giles.  

She felt like she had entered the Twilight Zone.

Spike, of course, took it all in stride.  He merely set aside his empty glass and took the new one with an odd, assessing look in his eye.  As Giles walked away to pick up his own, he leaned around to tap the new tumbler to Buffy’s.  “To survival, pet.”

Buffy cleared her throat.  “Uh… oh.  Yeah.  Uh…”

She heard the amusement in his voice as he laid his forehead against the back of her neck, felt it rumble through her along their link.  “Whole other sort of toast, love.  Just a sip.  Nothin’ more.  Promise to be good.”  He paused.  “Well.  Not  good , but to behave, at least.”

Giles winced visibly as he lifted his glass.  “I pray you never tell me anything of substance regarding that conversation.  Now.”  And to Buffy’s surprise he tossed back his entire, substantial drink in one vast swig, then lowered the thick vessel to eye her over the top of it, his hazel eyes clear and firm.  “Buffy, I want you to know that I trust you implicitly.  You’ve shown a level of maturity and foresight in the last year, both with regard to the management of the demon population of this town, and in your current relationship, which I can scarcely credit belonging to a young woman not yet twenty years of age.  But then, with few exceptions, and those quite understandable, you have always possessed those qualities, and I have been ever so proud to know you, to have been your Watcher… to love you.  And so I will say, that though I am quite terrified of what you are proposing, and though it runs counter to everything I have ever learned or have been taught, I fear I must trust you again.  After all…”  And he spread his hands… and smiled that one, self-effacing smile of his.  “You have been right before in things which too ran counter to all I had been taught, and look what has happened.  Look at the relative peace which has descended on this literal mouth of hell, by your partnership with a Master vampire, and by your having, against all logic and right action, chosen to reach across the aisle to join hands with any and all demons who wish peaceable intercourse with you.”

Spike snorted dryly, and Giles blushed.  “Oh, do shut up,” he snapped.  

Buffy elbowed her vampire hard in the belly and leaned forward.  “Is this your incredibly Gilesish way of saying you’re still with me?” she asked softly.

He watched her quietly across several feet of open space and over the back of his faux-leather couch.  “I am,” he answered, and his voice was firm when he said it.  “God help me.  I’m with you, Buffy.”

“Good on you, man.  Didn’t have to sound like such a prat when you said it, though.”  Spike tapped his glass lightly once more on Buffy’s, then slugged back his measure of scotch.  “Drink up, pet.  This is the good shite.”

“Oh God.”  She made to sniff it.  

“Just sip, love.  Promise, it’s a sight better than the rubbish you had at Willy’s.”

“Good Lord, you took her drinking that bloody awful…”

“Her idea, Rupert.”

Buffy sniffed cautiously at the beverage in her hand, and found herself faintly surprised at the way the fumes did not sear the life out of her sinuses.  Instead she actually smelled, like… scents and stuff.  “Oh!”

“Yeah,” Spike answered, sounding entertained at her reaction.  “What do you pick up, then?  Be interesting to hear it from a novice perspective.”

She didn’t bother to toss him a glower.  She was too busy parsing all the novel information.  “It smells kind of… sweet.  And also almost…”  She frowned, uncertain if she’d be mocked if she said it.  “Buttery?”  

“Go on.”

He sounded so encouraging.  “Maybe a little fruitiness.  And something… herbal?  Something… wild.  Forest-y.”

She heard the smile in his voice when he answered.  “Well enough to be going on with.  Taste it then, pet.”

A little uncertain still, but at least sure that this would be a slightly less dangerous experience than the one at Willy’s bar, Buffy lifted the heavy glass to her lips and took a teeny sip.  And was assaulted by as complex a parade of flavors as she had been when Spike and her mother had had her try the wine.  

Then the fumes hit the back of her nasal passages.  She choked in amazement, swallowed wrong, and went into a coughing fit.

Spike patted her back, kept rubbing while she fought to deal with the whole breathing experience.  She knew that technically the whole ‘rising to the back of your nose’ thing was what it was supposed to do, and wow.  It wasn’t sizzling on the way down like the other stuff had done.  It was more… trailing down her throat in a warm, comforting blaze to settle in her stomach, cheerful and welcoming. 

Which was precisely when it hit her that she had nothing whatsoever in said stomach, and, /Probably I shouldn’t have agreed to this whole toast thing without food./  

“Alright, is it?”

Clearing her throat with an effort, Buffy regarded the glass with suspicion.  “Okay, that was different.”

“Yeah?  Tell me about it.”  He really did sound fascinated to hear her experience.

The problem was, there had been so much that she wasn’t sure if she could relate it, or even really parse it enough to get it all into separate strands of information.  “Um…”  She almost wanted to sip it again to get it all straight, but she was afraid if she did that she would get very swiftly wasted.  Which was for sure not a good plan in Giles’ house.  “Something fruity, I think?  Almost… like cake, even, which, what?  And… flowery?  And I dunno… almost a little like…”  She frowned over her shoulder at Spike.  “I feel dumb.”

“Go on.”

“Olive oil.  And… kind of… earthy.”

He actually looked proud of her.  “Now you see how the experienced whiskey drinker can tell one from the other, even one year from the other.  It’s a soddin’ Olympic sport.”

Buffy made a face at him.  “Well, if it’s a sport, you’d be cheating.  And I can see how it’d be all fun and games for you, since anything where you can bury your face in smells and flavors is the world’s best hobby for Spike.”  For the first time, she was really getting it, why he drank so much.  It had nothing to do with getting drunk, since half the damn time he couldn’t actually manage it.

It was about the sensory experience.  

He leaned forward, as if to confirm everything she had just said, and whispered in her ear.  “I had a choice between that and your sweet cunny, pet, you’d win every time, but I’ll take what I can get.”  And he leaned back, looking well pleased with himself.

Buffy shivered.

“Some fine artists work to create this stuff,” he went on, aloud, and lifted the glass to eye the amber liquid in the low light that drifted in between the blinds.  “Almost as fine a product as Nature Herself produces.”

Buffy fought hard not to blush in front of Giles.  “I hear it’s all in the water,” she tried, po-faced.

Spike chuckled and set aside his tumbler.  “I bloody well love you, Slayer.”

Giles, over at his desk, made a sour face and clunked his own drink down heavily.  “Right, then.  Well.”  He turned the pages of his ‘Slayer Dreams’ notebook, as if examining them for clues.  “We have a great deal of preparing to do, it sounds like, for an inevitable descent by the Council, if the Line itself is warning you, Buffy, of a visit…”

“Oh!  There was that other thing!”

“Oh, yeah.  We forgot about the business with that glowing thing-mabob, what with all the turnin’ into great cats an’ the like.  Hell, Slayer; you’re s’posed to be good at all this by now, reportin’ in an’ that…”

Buffy half-turned to stare at him in amazement.  “We’re here, aren’t we?  You were all for heading straight to the crypt to…”  She cut off before she could say ‘finish what you started on the bluff’.  It was a narrow thing, though, and really, did one sip of alcohol lower her inhibitions that much?  How strong  was  that stuff?

Spike smirked.  “Yeah.  We’re here.”  He lifted his eyes to Giles, raised and lowered one shoulder.  “Think maybe we got a new portent on the upcoming big bad.”

“Oh?”  Giles turned to rummage around on the desk, fished under a pile of books, and tugged out a completely different notebook which, to Buffy’s eye, looked absolutely indistinguishable from the one he’d just been using.  “So far we’ve had, ah… ‘a flash of a monk’s face; a person in a ritual robe—perhaps the same person, perhaps another, but human-looking, and quite battered; a glowing light which explodes to create other, flaring lights, quite large, creating rents in the sky.  And then creatures exiting from them, of a demonic aspect which you did not recognize’.  Is this all correct insofar as you recall, Buffy?”  

“Yeah, that about sums it up.”  Buffy shifted uncomfortably, not sure what she was supposed to do with her still half-full glass.  She surely shouldn’t drink any more of its contents—she was already feeling just a hair woozy, if definitely still functional—but she couldn’t quite reach the end table to put it down.      

“So, then, what did you see in this latest, ah, excursion?  Aside from turning into great cats and traipsing all about the desert apparently instigating rebellion in the Slayer Line.”

Buffy rolled her eyes at him for his ill-timed sarcasm.  “Look.  I’m sorry I forgot about that part.  It’s just, we were so on the whole ‘Slayer Watcher Turrakhan’ thing…”

“Turok-Han,” Giles interrupted, pronouncing the name more slowly.

“Whatever.  That we forgot to tell you the part about the glowy deal…”  Briefly forgetting that her hand was occupied, Buffy waved it in agitated fashion.  Some of the whiskey threatened to slop out over her thumb.

“Here, pet.  That’s alcohol abuse.”  Spike relieved her of her glass, set it lightly aside.  Buffy promptly felt both relieved not to have to hold it anymore, and partly a little frustrated at her inability to conquer the liquid within; like it had won a battle or something.  “Bit of a side-trip in the midst of the business with the first Slayer an’ that, but it seemed important for all that, didn’t it?”

“Yeah.”  Hands freed, Buffy gave in and leaned forward, arms on her knees, to swiftly sketch out the part of the dream with the warehouse, the precious glow-ball, the massive, looming form demanding its ‘key’, their desperate game of feline keepaway.  She described with some confusion the entirely different cavern where they hid the glowy deal, and the crazy voice inside.  “It wasn’t like any kind of cave or rocks I’ve ever seen in the Slayer dreamscape, and the voice was new too.  It had…”  Buffy frowned, trying to remember.  “Kind of an accent.  And the dangerous, loomy whatever-it-was just passed us right by, yelling about…  What was it, Spike?”

“How it had a timetable to keep or some such shite.  Load of bloody nonsense.”  His oh-so-mobile lips twisted in disdain.  “Are all those dreams that mad?  ‘Minds me of the rubbish Dru used to spout.”

/Oh, buddy./  “Seriously; you wouldn’t believe some of the stuff I’ve had to figure out over the years.  It’s all just a bunch of riddles.”

“Well, doesn’t that lend credence to the whole ‘Dru was a Slayer’ gag…”

Giles lifted a forestalling hand.  “Putting that aside… do either of you realize what you’re saying?”

They turned away from their side-rant to regard the Watcher warily.  “Not really, no.”  Buffy frowned fitfully, because dammit, she was definitely buzzed.

Spike settled his hands firmly about her hips.  “Steady on, Slayer.”

It just wasn’t fair.  “Seriously, am I like, the polar opposite of you in every way possible?  You can’t get drunk at all, and I get drunk if I even walk  past  alcohol?”

He didn’t answer in words, merely smiled and kissed the back of her neck in what felt like apology.  

Giles appeared to be ignoring their byplay.  He looked thoroughly concerned.  “In effect, having had this particular warning inserted directly into the context of the other, overall dream tells me that the two are related.  And the only reason I can think why the Line should connect the two is because the Council is likely to come here specifically because they’ll at some point get wind of this particular threat and wish to interfere or assist in some way, and decide that in your current state, as the mate of a vampire, you, Buffy, are compromised in your ability to battle this… entity which is en route.  That they would rather risk destroying you than to permit you to continue to fight even an incredibly dangerous threat, as their most senior, trained, and experienced Slayer, if you are not fully and entirely under their control.  Which makes one wonder… what do they think you might do under these circumstances, should you slip the reins and fall entirely away from their influence?”

“Possibly it’s more, what do they fear will come of her being under my influence, innit Rupert?”

Buffy rolled her eyes and, giving in, dropped her head back against his chest.  “As if.  I’m the top of this little food chain, and don’t you forget it, Buster.”

Spike trailed two fingers lightly along the side of her neck.  “Never happen, my love.  But try to explain that to them, yeah?”

Trying not to arch up into that touch was, like, a full-time job on the best of days.  Why did she take that drink again?  “Why does everyone think I have to be under someone’s control?  Why can’t I just be, you know, a free woman?”

Spike’s hand dropped away, suddenly businesslike, to settle back to her hip.  His voice turned crisp and sardonic.  “Dangerous thing, that.  Free woman, out in the world of her own recognizance, aware of her power?  Can’t bloody well have that.”

Buffy would have reacted to his sarcastic response with ire if she didn’t think he was probably straight up right in his analysis.  “Ugh.”  She closed her eyes, addressed her Watcher thus in hopes of garnering another interpretation.  “You really think that’s what the dream’s telling us, Giles?”

When he set down his pen, it was an action so audible as to damn near echo in the quiet room.  “You did report that these Ancient Watchers said they could help you with this business, this grave threat, but only if you severed your link with Spike.  That does rather seem to parallel your current situation.  I’d hazard the Council might at the very least parrot the same line, should they get wind that there’s some great evil en route to threaten us, and take it as an excuse to come here and attempt to damage the system you’ve built in the last year.”

Buffy felt a blast of ire hit her.  With all they had fought for, all they’d sweated over, all the small victories and painful concessions and tiny defeats and setbacks…  Dammit, all the embarrassing faux pas, the endless hours spent in negotiations and debates instead of fights, all the  conciliation …  Ugh.  All the trying to understand instead of just going with her every instinct to lop off heads and let off the charge, all the swallowing of her martial instincts to just walk away, all the sitting in Willy’s just  talking …  /Oh, like  hell  they will./  She would never have made it without Spike around to bang constantly.  And Spike…  He was probably being driven just as nuts, with there being no more illegal fledges to put down, and having to act all ‘sheriff’s deputy guy’ and speak softly and carry a big stick instead of just knocking heads together half the time.  /And people wonder why we have so much damn sex!/  

/We  built  this!  They’ll wreck it over my cold, lifeless body./

/And,  don’t  say that in front of Spike.  Don’t even put it out there; especially since that’s probably maybe their actual  plan …/  “You know, it’s really, really too bad we can’t find a way to disinvite those jerks.  Because this thing we’ve put together…  If they mess it up, I’m gonna be super irate.”  

Spike’s fingers tightened on her hips; an unconscious gesture of fervent agreement as she lifted worried eyes to her Watcher’s.  “Giles, you really think that’s why they’ll come?”

Giles’ voice was bleak.  “I think it very likely.  If nothing else, once one or another of their informants becomes frightened enough to break and speak of this new player, I’ve no doubt they’ll send someone in to have a look.”

“Well, balls.”

“And then, wetworks.”  The alcohol swirled a little in her stomach, mixing with anxiety and rage to make an unpleasant stew.  She toppled back a little against Spike’s chest.  “Damn.”

Spike lowered cool hands to her belly, drew her gently in against him.  “Fucksake, Slayer.  ‘Mind me never to let you drink again unless we’re somewhere a bit more private.”

/Or, you know, never again./  “Okay, but I never got the chance to build up a tolerance.  I was too busy having a serious job no one knew about; and what if I was drunk when someone needed me, or...”

Spike sighed heavily and shot Giles some glare-age over her shoulder that she could literally feel.  “See what happens, Rupert?  Poor girl hasn’t had any sodding practice.  Can’t even be let out into the world like this; look at her.”

Her stomach settled slightly, relaxing as her guy plied her with calming vibes.  Which was an unfair advantage, but she would definitely take it right now.  

It did nothing for the vague, buzzy swirling, though.  No way she could really get anywhere useful with this conversation.  “Ugh, I have class, too.”

“No, you bloody well don’t.”

Buffy exhaled in heavy exasperation.  “You’re gonna have to take me there, and feed me on the way.  Hopefully by then it’ll wear off with the Slayer constitution thingy, because no way I’m gonna take another incomplete.  Slayer dreams and sex on a headland are not acceptable excuses to Dr. Crowder, and Giles can’t write me a note anymore.  He was the high school librarian, not…”  She waved her hand vaguely.  

Giles turned turkey-wattle red and muttered something about how very much he did not need to know about their various escapades.

“Don’t suppose this Crowder bloke will take the excuse that you turned into a great bloody puma along about three AM, and can’t be arsed to come to class till it wears off?”  Spike grinned savagely into her neck.  “Then I can take you home and we can play more kitten games instead, ‘f I promise to help you with your take-home work after.”

Buffy closed her eyes again, pondering food and bed.  “Mmm.  That collar really did look good on you.”

She cracked one eye open with an effort when Spike moved to lean away from her.  “What?”

He regarded her with a sort of speculative interest, his visible eye gleaming.  “That, pet, is an entirely other conversation, and one I’d like to keep outside the bounds of Watcher’s flat, yeah?”  And he reached out one arm and casually tossed back the remainders of her drink.

Something very warm skittered down Buffy’s spine into her belly and spread to parts south with rapidity.

“Alright, then.”  The glass vanished, snatched from Spike’s hand.  The other two were plucked from the tiny end-table, and Giles whirled away.  “Please, do get out of here.  If I may be blunt, you two smell very intensely of sex; enough so that even  I  can’t miss it.  I’d very much like to air out the flat; and since you both insist on continually talking about it, do so somewhere else entirely, thank you.”

Buffy blushed and scrambled off of Spike’s lap, abruptly aware that she had completely lost control of her drunk-ass mouth.  “Uh…”

“Spike is quite right, Buffy.  You are a thoroughgoing, terrible drinker.  Get her out of here, man.  And do please feed her something.”

“Right.”  Spike heaved himself to his feet.  “Come on, then, love.”

Buffy was too horrified to care that she was being practically manhandled out of the apartment.  They were very abruptly outside the door, and Spike was performing his standard mummy-wrapping act with his duster before she had even remotely recovered.  “Where the hell is your blanket?” she hissed, still mortified.

He tugged it off of a nearby planter, pulled it over his head.  “Be a love and don’t trip, yeah?  I’m a bit more resilient in the sun now we’ve bonded, but doesn’t mean I can stand up to an extra minute of prying you off of the sidewalk.”

“Okay, look.  I’m not that drunk.  I’m just a little buzzed.”  /And starving.  Let’s not forget starving./  “I just need, like, a breakfast sandwich or a mexi-burrito and a…”

“Right!  Let’s go to Alita’s!” he exclaimed promptly.  “Get one of those massive sodding breakfast burritos the size of my bloody arm what has a dozen eggs in it.  You can have the side is all tame and loaded with cheese, and I’ll have ‘em do mine full of tabasco an’ the lot…”

It did sound good.  Alita’s did homemade tortillas and everything.  “Okay, you’re on.”  That might even soak up enough of the alcohol to sober her up.  “You paying?”

He grinned at her from under his blanket-cowl.  The oblique shafts of bright, morning light from behind him, over to the east, washed his face out to something unnervingly overexposed, and the odd shadows cast from his cover made him look dramatically-lit, like he was in some kind of stage-play and the lighting guy had him in an over-intense focus.  /I’m used to seeing you filtered./  

She wasn’t used at all to seeing her vampire in full daylight.  Dusk, yes, sunset and lamplight, but…

“You still gonna eat it if I tell you I nicked a wallet to pay for it?”

She pulled away to shoot him a glare.

His hands went up in surrender.  “Kidding, pet.”

Suspicion abounded.  “I don’t know about you.”

“Got the tab at the kitten exchange.”

“Uhuh.  You and I know you don’t get receipts at that place.”  Shaking it off, Buffy set out for the car.  “Whatever.  I’m going to pretend I don’t know that you still randomly rob people to keep in practice or whatever stupid thing, because I’m hungry.  I just hope whatever guy you stole it from wasn’t poor and starving himself today, or I’ll probably die of guilt, and my burrito will taste like ashes…”

There was a profound pause from the vampire she’d left behind, under the eaves.  “Oh, fucking hell, Slayer.”

/Win./  

He still needed practice thinking of them as people with lives, who had to struggle to stay fed.  It was her job to nudge him into doing that.  He could relate now, for one thing, since for the first time in his long unlife he had to trade cash for his meals.  

She was just opening the passenger door to the car when he came sprinting past to wrench open the driver’s side and dive in.  Following, she sat beside him for a moment, the faint, familiar odor of burning vampire and smoking blanket combining unpleasantly with empty stomach and alcohol fumes to make for an unhappy gorge.  “Remind me never to invite you to a barbecue.”

Silence, then quietly, “What do you want from me, Buffy?”

A little shrug.  She knew she couldn’t change him entirely, and she didn’t want to.  “It’s a game for you.  It’s just… not a game to me.  I dunno.  I can’t help but see the consequences.  You don’t.  I’m not sure what to do about that.”

His fingers, tightening on the steering wheel.  Silence, dragging on, then, “There’s one solution.  A way I can make ends meet, if you trust me enough.  One where I could live off of just cards an’ the like, and I wouldn’t have to supplement.”

She heard the hesitation in his voice, felt it over their link.  He was almost afraid to mention it, whatever it was.  But something about recent events was urging him to take a shot.  Something different.  

She turned to him, waited.  His expression was tight.  Everything about him.  He was letting nothing leak; nothing that she could read in body, in face, or in claim.  “Okay?”  

“It’s either take from them… what they need to get on… or take from them what they can spare, and don’t necessarily need.  And the difference is, they wouldn’t know, would they?  They’d just think things got a bit mad in an alley.  All’s fair.  And I wouldn’t be budgeting for black market blood.  Would make the hell of a difference in my bottom line…”

It took her that long to catch up to what he was saying.  /If I trusted you that much.  To hold back.  Oh my God./  “You want me to say it’s okay for you to…”  She trailed off, unable to even finish the sentence.

His jaw tightened.  “How’s it different, Buffy, then them giving a donation at Red bloody Cross?”

/How?  How?  How can you, of all people, even  ask  me that?/   “Consent!”  she burst out, amazed at him.   “Consent , Spike!”

He looked down at the floor between his elbows, his knees, gave one quick jerk of his head… and reached out to start up the car.  He didn’t speak a word.  But his jaw, everything in him was still tight, and…  

/Dammit./  Her hand shot out, touched his wrist before he could turn the car over.  “You know… that it’s not that I don’t trust you, right?  I mean… God knows I trust you more than those idiots at that insane vampire brothel.  I should’ve burnt that place to the ground, but you said they’re sticking to the arrangement.  You have more self-control than all of them put together, so it’s not that, okay?”

He nodded again, eyes still firmly forward and flashing with…

Oh, crap.  She saw the hidden signs now; the wetness, the ferocious battle in him, though he’d cut her off from feeling him.  He was fighting back tears of frustration.  

“But they have consent, William,” she whispered softly.  “That’s the difference.  That’s the  only  difference.”

His mouth tightened.  “So if I found someone who…”  And then he jerked his head sharply once, in negation.  “No.  That’s a relationship.  I can’t do that, Buffy.  It’d be like… cheating.”

/Oh.  Oh; God./  This was all so messed up, because she could totally see where he was coming from, and it wasn’t fair; and yet at the same time, from where she stood, things felt equally immovable.  “I don’t…  I don’t know how…”

The car cranked on, hard enough to make it screech in protest.  And he was yanking the wheel swiftly around, away from the curb.  “Never mind, Slayer.  I’ll get on.  Forget about it.”

She could.  But no.  This was festering, and it was going to get  bad .  Because they were about to go get her something to eat, and she had all these choices; everything and anything she wanted, within reason, and meanwhile she was the reason he was being forced to such narrow options, some of them wholly unappetizing if not practically gross to him.  Blood that was out of date, blood that was full of chemicals, blood from animals that did not give him all the things he needed, and it wasn’t fair.  “I’m not going to forget about it,” she answered softly.  “I want to figure this out.”

He looked hunted as he swung the DeSoto around the corner and up Main toward Alita’s.  “Dunno if there’s a middle ground for us.”

/Ouch./  When he called her ‘Slayer’, and said things like that, he was getting bleak about the way their relationship crossed the streams with who and what they were.  

It scared her.  “Can I… have some time to just… think about it?  Try to work on it inside my own head?  I haven’t even thought about it that way before.  As something you could…”  She fought not to bite her own lip in parody of the sexy little nibble he always did when he was contemplating mayhem.  “You know how my brain works.  It’s still hard for me to wrap it around live dinner in the first place, much less…”

“Bein’ a party to it.  I know.”  His tones were clipped, harsh.  “Wouldn’t’ve brought it up, except…”  He cut off again, yanked the wheel hard over to bump past the entrance into the mom-n-pop awnings of the tiny drive-thru with its hand-lettered sign.  They were the third car out, hovering near the three small tables with their hard, fiberglass umbrellas, while a dusty little Yugo that had seen better days halted near the speaker pinned to the post.  

He wouldn’t have brought it up if she hadn’t unbent about his having first crack at Uncle Bob at the Magic Cabinet, and if she hadn’t taken the vamp-whorehouse in stride.  She got it.  But.  /But we’ve been in this relationship for almost a year.  I’ve known for almost a year that a vampire can feed without killing.  He’s been so incredibly patient, played by my rules; completely by my rules, and mostly probably because he’s grateful that I got that damn chip taken out of his head.  But he doesn’t  have  to.  He’s  never  had to.  No chip, no muzzle, no restraints./

/The only thing that’s holding him back is how he feels about me.  The  only  thing.  Unless I command him./

/And that would  break  us./

But what was the alternative?  To give him the go-ahead to… to find some way to negotiate his meals on the fly?  And what would that do to him, after a year of being off hot blood?  Would that change how he acted in any way?  Xander had compared him to some kind of half-tamed wild animal.  They worried about feeding lions live food at the zoo, didn’t they, because hunting instinct?  What had they said back during that idiot field trip where the hyenas had taken over her friend?  Back in the day they used to think they had to cook the meat to keep the animals from going all crazy and feral, and all that had done was make them sick because they weren’t getting enough vitamins.  It turned out it was okay if it was raw… but it had to be dead, because giving them something to chase did things to their brains, and they started to chase anything that moved.  

Like the zookeepers.  

/If you start hunting again, even low-key… will you forget what we’re doing, here?  Will you… go through withdrawals when you’re on a slow day and you have to go back to mortuary blood?  Will you start seeing meals when you’re hanging with my friends?/

Well, maybe not them.  He associated with them too much.  /But maybe that was what it was about.  She knew it was scaring him, the way he was starting to empathize with just humanity in general.  /Do you want it to stop?  Do you want to be able to just go back to seeing them as meals?  The people you’re starting to see as individuals with stories, and not just Happy Meals with legs?/  

Because that was the problem.  She was  glad  he was starting to empathize with her charges.  And if he wanted to turn them back into animated bloodbags in his brain… then that was an issue.  If he thought that he didn’t  need  consent from them because they were just cattle, then…

“Buenos Dias!  Bienvenidos a Alitas!*   Can I take your order?” 

“Yeah, can we get one large breakfast burrito, but with one side hot, no cheese, and one side mild,  con queso*?”

“Ai, Senor Spike, mijo, como esta?  Como esta mijita Buffy?”*

Shaking it off for the moment, Buffy leaned over toward the tinny speaker, called through the cracked wind-wing.  “I’m doing alright, thank you, ma’am.”

“I told you,  es Tia Alita* .  You come back every day, you get extra food.  You need it,  mija .  You’re going to school, right?”

“Yeah, most of the time…”

“You need to eat, then.  You kids at college, you don’t eat enough.  How is your mama?”

/I should really come here more just because this lady’s so damn nice./  “She’s doing better, thank you.”

“Bueno, bueno*.   Okay, see you in a minute.”  The speaker cut off as the car in front of them peeled out with a wave.

The DeSoto crept forward.  Buffy closed her eyes.  “That’s my issue, I guess,” she heard herself whisper.  “They  have  to consent, because that means they’re still people to you.  People, like Alita, who treats  you  like a person.  It brightens her day to talk to you, and I don’t know if you care when you talk to her—if it brightens your day that she likes talking to you, or you’re just playing along, or what; like, is she just potential Happy Meal?  I just don’t know—and sometimes I see you creeping closer to ‘they’re all people’…  And I dunno if this is you swinging away from that on purpose because you don’t want to feel that, and it’s easier to just keep them food in your head—and food doesn’t have to consent—or if it’s really just about the budget, or…”

Spike sighed heavily.  Leaned his head back against the low back of his seat.  “If I chat ‘em up for a nip, they’d have to be anonymous.  Nameless, faceless.  Just one of the thousands, even if I’m not takin’ it to the end.”  His eyes cut to hers; just a peripheral shot, but she saw the struggle there.  “But not for the reason you think.  It’s because if I let it get to me—that they’re people; like you, like the Bit, like Mum or Glinda or Red—then…”  He cut off sharply.

“Then you wouldn’t be able to do it?”

That got her not just his profile but a full-on stare.  “Course I’d bloody well be able to do it, Buffy.  I’m not goin’ in to off ‘em, am I?  That’d be the only reason I couldn’t do it, did I see someone I cared about in ‘em!”

Now she was absolutely baffled.  “Okay, then wh…”

The car behind them honked loudly, making Buffy jump.  Her eyes jerked forward, and… “Oh.”  The space in front of them, at the window, was empty.  

Spike pulled forward automatically, under the peeling red awning.  Safe in the sparse shade he rolled down the window to exchange brief greetings with the cook.  Passed over a couple of bills, took change.

In the ensuing silence, his lips tightened.  “When they’re too real, and you bite ‘em, but you don’t do ‘em in, then it becomes intimate, pet.  Best to keep it impersonal.  If there’s no exchange of cash, then it’s got to be a back-alley sort of thing.  One-night stand and best forgotten.  Better the poor bird—or bloke, I suppose—feels a bit dirtied than that they get dependent on me for something I can’t give.”  He turned to her, eyes fierce, hard, and uncompromising.  “I fucking well belong to  you , is all.”

“Oh,” Buffy breathed, and felt her pulse pounding between her legs at the sudden ferocity in his eyes, his tone, the way it beat at her from the link between them.  /I belong to  you ./

“One large breakfast burrito, hot ‘n mild…  Hey there,  mija!”   Alita hustled over to hand them the large, foil-wrapped oblong, dark eyes kind… then paused, arm extended.  “Hold up.  Trouble in paradise, kids?”

Spike handed the overwarm packet over to Buffy, then tore his eyes away to lean back against the seat once more.  “We’ll figure it out.”  

Did he sound tired, though?  Tired of there always being something?  /No./  “We definitely will,” Buffy insisted, and set aside the burrito on the far side of the seat.  The heat seeping from the foil was trying to burn her hand.  Freed for the nonce, she moved to slide her hot fingers firmly in between the seat back and her guy’s nape, caught the back of his head.  Felt him shiver in reaction as she turned his eyes firmly back to meet hers.  “We’ll figure it out.”  And, with everything in her, she assured him of that, eyes burning on his.

There was a long, pregnant pause as he assessed her certitude, her willingness, then, “Yeah,” he murmured.  “We will.”  His eyes glanced briefly away and he flickered a smile at Alita.  “Have a good day, Alita.”

“You too,  mijo .  You take care of that girl, okay?”

“Always,” Spike breathed, and put the car back into gear.

Buffy shivered a little at the tone in his voice as he scrolled up the window and they bumped down over the end of the lot.

*   *   *







Buenos Dias!  Bienvenidos a Alitas!:  Good morning, welcome to Alitas!

con queso:  with cheese

“Ai, Senor Spike, mijo, como esta?  Como esta mijita Buffy?:  Eee!  Mr. Spike, sweetie, how are you?  How is my little girl Buffy?

es Tia Alita:  It's Auntie Alita

Bueno, bueno:  good, good

mijo, mija, mijita:  sweetie / term of endearment

(God, I miss hearing Spanish/Spanglish casually flung about me as I go through my day.  Almost as much as the food.  OMG; miss it like woah.  It's like hearing music floating by my ears.)

 

Chapter Text

They usually started patrols at either Restfield or Willy’s, alternating nights.  Wherever they started them, they tended to end them at the crypt unless Buffy had an early class, in which case they would drive back to the dorm after; an altogether safer bet these days since Willow more or less lived with Tara anymore, over at Santa Rosa.  Officially they were still roommates according to the Housing Office, but realistically Wil was only at Stevenson about two nights a week, if that.

Buffy leaned against the old Calvert monument and twirled her stake idly, hiding her agitation, she thought, rather well while she waited.  It was well past sunset.  Her date was massively late; hence her having resorted to conversation with a hunk of marble.  “What do you think?” she addressed the self-righteous-looking angel pensively.  “Three arguments in however many days…  Was it three?  Two and a half?”

The statue didn’t weigh in.  But then, statues seldom did.

“But also, like, really fantastic fights of the other kind.  The good kind.  Which, you probably don’t get, but there really is such a thing.”

No answer from statue-land; just an unchanging, benevolent, and slightly tragic smile.  Probably heavenly sorts didn’t approve of loving combat, and she was confessing to the wrong guy.  

“And, seriously.  Completely amazing sex,” Buffy pointed out, because talk about a check on the pro-side.  “Or, I mean, we all know my basis for comparison’s a little skewed, but I think it’s pretty fantastic, and he seems to like it…”

Her cherubic companion remained mute.  But perhaps that was to be expected, since cherubim were reportedly ill-suited to conversations on the subject.

“But it’s not all sex,” Buffy hastened to add.  “I don’t want you to get the wrong idea.  I mean, that’s not even a little bit like that’s all we have going for us.  Because, okay,” and here she spread a little perkiness on it, “we also get in, like,  all  the snuggles.  And, you know, I think we’re also crazy supportive to each other in between.  And then there’s the whole dream-sharing thing, which I think has to count for something…”

“You know the sex is bloody well fabulous, Slayer, so don’t start in on that.  Better even than fighting you, which is how this whole mad thing began.”  Spike stepped out from behind the nearby Steinberg mausoleum, a piece of shadow coalescing from the darkness to resolve to dark, swirling duster and bright hair.  “But between you ‘n me, I’ll take snuggling with you any day over any number of activities… up to and including drinking warm blood from a beating heart.”  His face twisted a little, and he glanced away, down at his clenched fists.  “Which is really how we’ve got to where we are, innit?”  And he stabbed his favorite patrolling sword, naked, deep into the ground to free his hands, then stood before her, as naked as the blade and shining as brightly in the low moonlight.  “Because, yeah.  We’re both pretty damned supportive of one another.  But I suppose at some point we’re bound to reach a limit.”  His eyes rose then to meet hers, waiting.  “Time to find out, is this it.”

Everything inside Buffy rushed toward him.  On any standard night she would immediately barrel forward, jump on him, wrap her legs around him, and they would make out for a while to get revved up for patrol.  Maybe spar a little before they finished up on someone else.  Or, of course, if patrol was quiet, they’d finish up on each other.  Then, inevitably, they would finish  with  each other, either way.  But right now, she only watched him, even as she yearned.  

It had been a damn long day since they had parted.  He had dropped her off outside the dorm instead of joining her inside.  No sneaky smuggling him inside the communal showers to join her in hosing off after a long night’s sexytimes.  Leaving him alone and pensive in the car with a quick, distracted kiss, she’d showered solo and with swift functionality, while he had probably done the same back at Revello (that was where he usually showered when she couldn’t successfully sneak him into the dorm one).  She had then dutifully gone to class, though mostly she had spent the hours merely pretending to concentrate on school, while she pondered instead the weird, circular trap that was the love-life of a Slayer in a long-term, committed relationship with a Master vampire.

Finally, by the end of her second class, she had given up on taking lecture notes and had instead made an outline.

1) Problem one:  Spike is having a hard time keeping himself fed on his budget, without supplementing by victimizing people in other ways that I find just as gross.

*Solution one:  he could dig back into the Amara treasure like Mom’s been hinting we should do, get rich (though, how do you even… fence?  Is that the word?  Stuff that old and demony), and theoretically not ever have this problem again.  

*Issue one:  telling him that would be a cop-out, because I would just be avoiding the real question here.  He could still do that.  But that’s not the point.  Not really.  The point is he wants to be a self-sufficient vampire, and for me to trust him to be that without all these… riders.  Which leads to…

2) Problem two:  I don’t want him playing go-fish with the locals instead, because if they don’t know what he’s taking, they can’t consent, and it’s just as much stealing as taking their money.

*Solution two:  he arranges something so that they know what’s happening, so they  can</