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“You two are disgusting, all you do is boink like monkeys on crack. He’s supposed to be healing, not boinking.”

In her dream, Buffy was eating cheese that spoke to her in the voice of classic Annoyed Dawn.

“Not boinking,” she protested around what felt like a soggy sponge in her mouth, and pulled her eyes open. “Boinked. Past tense of the verb to boink.”

Buffy wasn’t sure if she should have admitted the boink thing to Dawn, but what else was she supposed to do? It wasn’t as though Dawn was blind, deaf, and stupid – she knew that Spike didn’t sleep in Buffy’s bed because he needed his feet kept warm.

Dawn was standing by the bedside and pulling at Buffy’s wrist like an angry puppy. Spike was snuggled up to her back with a boneless arm around her waist and his face buried into the back of her hair, where he was emitting a series of light snores that Buffy didn’t usually associate with the undead. The room was still hot and wet from Willow’s spell and Buffy had the strange sensation of waking up under water.

“Boinked. Whatever. And I am so sure that you shouldn’t have told me,” Dawn amended. “It’s after two. Don’t you think you should get up?”

An eyebrow of teenage superiority waggled at Buffy.

“I guess some of Spike’s body parts are back in working order.”

“Go away,” Buffy warned, intensely aware that she was naked in bed with Spike, his legs tangled in hers, and Dawn was smirking at them.

“Didn’t you read the directions Ashley left? He’s not supposed to resume normal activities until tomorrow.”

“Too long,” Buffy admitted, and tried to untangle Spike’s arm from around her middle without flashing her sister. “The directions, not the waiting until tomorrow. I’m not a total horn-dog. Shouldn’t you be in school?”

“Teacher training. Anthrax, terrorists, school shootings, and snipers. You *are* a huge horn-dog. The horniest of the horn-dogs. You guys deserve each other.” Dawn flicked her hair and made her leggy way to the door. “Half an hour or I send up a search party!” she warned and shut the door behind her.

It was a good thing Buffy hadn’t tried getting out of bed until Dawn left because the bedclothes had gotten involved with Spike’s arms and legs and unwrapping everything caused a lot of nudity. As she exposed his body to the air, Spike grew restive and burrowed into her now-abandoned pillow.

“Hey you,” Buffy said and poked him in an exposed piece of milk-white ass, “I’ve got to get up.”

“Come back,” he muttered and made a blind grab for her with his good hand.

“No, I have to shower. You should too, just cover up the bandages with some plastic wrap. It’s under the sink. Pays to keep it handy, Slayage and all,” she babbled and made a quick exit to the bathroom.

Quick shower, cool water, shampoo and condition, get rid of all the debris from a day at the Café and a night of Spike and Spike’s blood. Feeling a bit more sanitary, Buffy wrapped herself in a towel and dripped her way into the walk-in closet. What was she supposed to wear the morning after her supernatural – what? Lover? Too skanky, too Eurotrash. Boyfriend? That had the hand-holding thing written all over it. Significant Other? Major ew. Buffy had long suspected that there wasn’t a really good way to describe Spike.

While Buffy was still pondering the signs and portents of her closet, Spike groaned and hoisted himself out of bed. Naked Spike, even covered with bruises, scratches, and random squares of gauze, padding carefully into the bathroom, wasn’t all that bad of a thing to have around, Buffy realized, and went back to wardrobe hunting with a self-satisfied smile on her face.

She heard the shower start.

Okay, weirdness was reaching a high-ish level since Naked Spike in the shower didn’t seem abnormal. The thought of seeing if he needed his back washed flitted quickly through her mind and then was swallowed up by thoughts of clothes. The faded low-rise jeans and the indigo cropped sweater would hit the right note of comfort and fashion, and with any luck there wouldn’t be any further blood vomiting on the day’s schedule. Brown suede boots would be good. Buffy didn’t get to wear them that often and they had been expensive.

Buffy found Dawn and Willow at the kitchen table eating an assortment of leftover baked goods from the Café. Grabbing a muffin and a cup of coffee, Buffy joined them at the table.

“Looks like you got a good night’s sleep,” Willow observed.

“That’s not all she got,” Dawn mumbled around a mouthful of muffin.

Under the table, Buffy kicked Dawn’s shin, not Slayer hard, but sister hard. Hard enough to make Dawn spit out muffin chunks.

“We really have to get cracking on this spider thing. I don’t think I can handle Spike getting any more body parts lopped off.”

Both Dawn and Willow rolled their eyes and giggled. Buffy couldn’t help but join in.

“I can’t get the fuckin’ shirt fastened,” Spike’s voice broke through the group girl snicker.

“Oh dear,” Willow said and dropped her muffin.

Mostly shirtless Spike, doing a Hamlet in a pair of Buffy’s low-slung black sweatpants (low slung so they wouldn’t be floods) and a big white shirt that Buffy vaguely remembered stealing from her dad. He looked good enough to eat with his hair all wet and floppy, the tease of his pelvic cuts above the pants, and the stomach on which you could bounce a quarter. Even though she knew that she was radiating smug happiness that this magnificent creature had a season pass to her bed, Buffy sighed and got up to fix Spike’s shirt. He smelled sweetly of shampoo and soap over his essential Spikiness and he was smirking at her as she buttoned up the front placket of his shirt.

Buffy’s legs went all silly string and it was just about all she could do to keep herself from leaning over and planting a big, wet PDA smooch on his mouth. And what would the harm in that be? It wasn’t as though Dawn and Willow didn’t know what was what.

So she did kiss him, but it was a cheerful little kiss full of humor and affection, not totally naked lust. For a moment afterwards, she was treated to the unusual experience of bewildered Spike, just before the smirk came back in full force.

“It’s disgusting,” Dawn drawled from the table. “He walks into the room and Buffy totally goes into heat.”

“Dawn!” Buffy snapped and turned around.

“Whatever,” Dawn snarked and went back to her muffin.

“Which one of you pink-lunged wenches nicked my smokes?” Spike demanded in cranky nicotine-needing vampire tones. “After losin’ m’finger I think I deserve a coffin nail or two.”

Dawn stuck her tongue out at Spike from her place across the table. “Your cigarettes are in the pocket of your coat, which I cleaned all the blood off of last night. All of it’s waiting for you in the basement, and I cleaned the ashtray. You’re welcome, by the way.”

“Thanks, pigeon,” Spike said and favored Dawn with one of the higher-powered charming smiles in his arsenal.

Preening, Dawn swept muffin crumbs up into her hand, as if this was going to garner her more Spike favor. Buffy managed a smile, but just barely. For some reason, seeing Spike and Dawn there in the kitchen, she was aware of a change or three in her little sister. First, instead of having her shiny, shiny hair pulled neatly back in a pair of clips, Dawn’s hair was hanging in her face like a curtain, letting her peer disdainfully out at the world. Second, Dawn was wearing a ratty, torn pair of black jeans with shit-kicker motorcycle boots, the kind with what looked like bondage rings on the sides, along with a black T-shirt with an evil looking kitty cat on it. Third, Dawn’s eyes were ringed like a raccoon with black eyeliner and her normally sparkly pink nail polish had been replaced with something the color of grape jelly.

It looked like Dawn had been dipping into the Winter Collection of the House of Spike. This was not something that was likely to go over well with Dawn’s teachers and social worker. Buffy wasn’t too sure that she liked it herself. But to draw attention to it was just to ask for an argument, and Buffy wasn’t in the mood for any more drama.

She was in the mood for a muffin. Banana nut. She’d work off the fat grams when she tracked down the spiders later.

Spike emerged from the basement, redolent of cigarette smoke, slouched into a chair and reached across the table and took Buffy’s coffee cup away from her and started drinking out of it himself. The causal intimacy of the action made her head whirl. It spoke of spit swapping at the most basic level, but she supposed that there wasn’t any point in trying to stick that skeleton back in the closet.

“So what exactly happened?” Willow asked. “They just jumped out from behind a bush and dropped a gunny sack over your head? Because, way lame and Bugs Bunny.”

“Left the Slayer in Harris’ garage, headed home. That’s when I ran smack into some of the Maths Mistresses’ teachers pets, dusted them and got a lift from Harris to m’crypt. Somebody’d tossed the place, broke everythin’ worth breakin’ includin’ my new telly which I just got the cable hooked up to, and left some nasty shit lyin’ around. I mean actual shit. Truly repulsive demon excrement.”

“Getting the picture here, Spike,” Buffy said and put down the muffin she had been eating.

“Came back out an’ the lot of ‘em jumped me. Had to be thirty, forty demons. Demons and vampires. Mixed nuts. Four score, easily.”

“Or Elmer Fudd with a gunny sack,” Willow said and grinned at deflating Spike’s ego.

“Spiders. Did they say anything to you about the spiders?” Buffy asked.

“No, they were just posturin’ and posin’ an makin’ grandiose statements and whatnot. The usual demon schtick.”

“Whole bunch of not helpful. Apparently the local demon population is being decimated by spiders. There was a spider in Rick’s Café yesterday, but I can’t say that it was big enough to eat demons, unless they were really small ones. Maybe the spiders have a poisonous bite or something.”

“I looked the spider up on arachnids.com. That guy you got out of Rick’s basement seems to be what they call jumping spiders, Salticidae. Known for the spectacular leaps the spiders make pouncing on their prey. There are about four thousand kinds of Salticidae worldwide, many of them in the tropics. Except – all of those are small, usually less than half an inch long.”

“It was the size of a housecat,” Dawn sniffed. “You can’t believe everything you read on the Internet.”

“Jumping spiders don’t spin a lot of webs, but hunt prey by sneaking up and pouncing on the victim.”

“Tried and true method,” Spike agreed.

“Many are brightly colored, sometimes with iridescent mouthparts, which is kind of the spider equivalent to lipstick I guess.”

“C’mere, luv, got eight arms to hold you,” Spike joked and finished Buffy’s coffee.

“Yeah, and black widows bite and kill Mr. Widow after they do it, which kind of gets rid of morning-after regrets,” Buffy said and took her now-empty coffee cup away from him with a meaningful look and went to the coffee maker. “But a housecat-sized spider isn’t going to completely destroy a bigger sized demon.”

“Maybe the spiders *were* just eating baby demons,” Willow pondered and Buffy wondered if her life was just going to keep degenerating into a Monty Python skit or whether it was just a matter of time before someone put a penguin on the TV and blew it up. The penguin, that was.

“Well we need more 411 on the spiders, figure out where they’re hanging out and make like a big smashy rolled up newspaper on them before they eat some humans in addition to the demons and vampires.” She looked over at Spike. “I am not a racist, by the way. You can broadcast that really loud and clear on W-UN-dead AM. Okay?”

“Whatever you say, luv,” he agreed and made his way back to the basement to smoke more.

Spike gone, Buffy sat down at the kitchen table again and looked into her coffee cup for some kind of inspiration.

“Sometimes I’m glad that Giles is gone, glad that the Council of Watchers doesn’t get too involved in what I do. I mean we’re kind of breaking lots of rules, protecting demons from spiders, harboring vampires and, and whatever Clem is.”

“They’ve had time to get used to the sleeping with vampires part,” Willow pointed out, which Buffy needed not at all.

“Spike is cool,” Dawn said, as if that made any difference.

“Did you talk to Xander?” Buffy asked.

“He said he came home late last night and went to bed with a headache, and called in sick at work. Bad headache, apparently.”

“Probably from playing that music so loud,” Buffy offered and hesitated, not sure if she should bring up to Willow that her oldest and dearest friend was taking a trip on the Looneyville Express. During Spike’s longer-than-average recovery periods, he’d mentioned that Xander had pulled a Rodney King on some humans, which was cause for serious freakage. Racist or not, she still couldn’t quite value demon lives like human ones. But it appeared that Xander was not microwave-safe around either kind. “About Xander, I think there’s some sort of problem.”

She proceeded, stumblingly, to explain what had happened the night before. As she finished, Spike returned, freshly smoky, and gave a fuller account of his adventures with Xander and the amazing talking car.

“You should have told me before,” she chided.

“Other things on me mind, pet,” he leered and Dawn groaned. “Anyhow, you know now and we can go fix His Floppyness.”

“Yeah but we’ve already got the problem of the spiders, which is why you ended up a day late and a digit short.” Buffy smiled at her own funny, but Spike wasn’t amused.

“Spiders are a problem? Why? They kill demons so you don’t have to.”

“Yeah but not all demons are bad. Clem is a pleasant, loose-skinned demon. I would be upset if someone hurt Clem.” Buffy stopped in shock and clapped a hand over her mouth, feeling her eyes widen fit to pop out of her head. “Did you hear that? Totally against the whole Slayer thing!”

But Spike was wrapped up in a drama of his own, pulling a cigarette out of the pack stuck in his breast pocket and lighting it in the forbidden area of the kitchen. “You’re all live and let live, and Xander Harris, International Man of Mystery, is all ‘Kill ‘em all, let God sort ‘em out.’ Might help if you got your stories straight. You lot are about as on-message as a bunch of fledglings on crack.”

“So what are we going to do?” Willow asked.

“Kick spider ass,” Buffy said. “Provided spiders have asses. And if they don’t we’ll kick them anyway.”

“Actually, spider silk is excreted through the anal -“

Groans from all around silenced Willow.

~~~~

Out of deference to Spike, they’d postponed any actual spider-smacking until true night fell. Willow spent the day researching and Dawn was on pie detail. He didn’t know where Buffy had gone, but he was glad that she didn’t get back in time to intercept him when he went on a minor errand at dusk, leaving only a note on the kitchen table.

Lovecraft’s was thick with couples, since it was Ladies’ night (although with some types of demon, discerning the female of the species was blind luck more than anything else). Vampire plied gargoyle with drink and slime demons’ bodily fluids ran with amorous intent. The air was alive with pheromones and the possibility of getting laid.

The lustful ambience was cut by the stroke of the double-bladed battle-axe that cleaved into the polished surface of the bar.

“All right, you motherfuckers,” Spike announced and hoisted himself atop the bar next to the axe. The heels of his boots clattered on the scarred surface.

“Word to the wise, fuckin’ with William the Bloody shows a’lack in the brain cell department. You wanna take me on mano a mano, fine, but don’t be ambushin’ a body in a man’s own cemetery like a bunch of fairies.” He crouched down and grabbed the T-shirt collar of the nearest vamp. “Right then, Martin?”

“Uh, yeah,” the nervous vamp agreed.

Spike dropped the vamp’s collar and wiped his hand on his jeans as though he’d touched shit.

“Slayer’s got my back, all right, but you’d best remember I got hers. I’ve killed more in one night than you lot together in your lives, an’ I’ll be rulin’ this town when your grandkids’ eggs hatch. So if you got a problem with my personal life –” he paused and swept the room with his eyes – “I don’t give a bloody fuck an’ I advise you to rethink your immorals or your commitment to living.”

All eyes were on Spike, even the eyes of the beings that had more than two, and no one else noticed Buffy as she slipped into the demon bar and loitered near the coatrack. From his vantage point atop the bar, Spike sensed her before he saw her, felt the familiar fresh milk warmth of her skin in the funk and acid of demons and vamps.

“Do I hear any objection to the proposal? Good,” he finished and jumped down to the floor, sending a pair of Velka demons scurrying out of his way. The bar’s inhabitants followed his gaze to Buffy, and a path between them opened like a tornado had cleared the way.

“Spike,” she said clearly. “Didn’t mean to bother you at your little club -“ she fluttered her hand dismissively to indicate that Lovecraft’s was not a concern of hers – “but I’ve got a line on the spiders. I thought you might like to come along.” Oh, and this was the best ever, Buffy playing along with his posturing and not willfully attempting to diminish his status with the other demons. He could deal with private capitulation if she gave him public respect. No man, alive or undead, wanted the world to know he was whipped.

“Right then. Shall we?” He offered his arm as if they were going on a stroll in the park. Actually, going off to slaughter bad guys was probably their equivalent of a date.

Buffy favored him with a full-out smile. He was so dazed he almost walked into the door on the way out.

They approached Willow, who was lurking in the shadows. Not wise for an ordinary human around Lovecraft’s, but the demon who tried to molest Willow was in for the shock of its extremely shortened life.

“I still think we ought to be doing something about Xander,” Buffy worried. “I wish we knew -“

Spike made a sound generally written as “feh.” “Boy’s fine for the nonce. Little random violence is good for the soul.” Beside him, Willow made a pinched face.

“Do you think he’s all right, Will?”

“I did a little warning spell that will go off if he’s in real danger. Though from what you’ve said, maybe it should have been if he’s a danger to others. That would be a real technical challenge,” she trailed off with the abstracted air of a professor who really needed to be working in a heavily insulated lab far away from other people.

“Don’t suppose there’s any chance o’ you puttin’ the mojo on these spiders,” Spike suggested, since magic had already entered the conversation.

Willow sighed, but without quite as much self-pity as had been her habit of late. “I know I can’t give up the magic completely,” she said, which was the most direct she’d been since she’d returned from the coven in Devon. Spike carefully increased the distance between them. “My magic has saved lives and it’s part of me now. I need to control it, like Oz controlled the wolf, and I need to be able to use it. I mean, I won’t die without magic – probably – but someone will. If you overeat, you don’t starve to death to fix it.”

“Beggin’ your pardon, but you’ve not been a regular Solomon decidin’ when use of magic is appropriate to date.”

Willow glanced at Spike, then at the sky. She was keeping her face turned away from Buffy. “You’re telling me. I’ve been studying, meditating. I – Tara was real Wicca, trained to it from the time she could talk. I treated magic like another computer language I could program in and I didn’t listen to her when she told me to limit myself to things I could live with when they were returned to me threefold.”

Buffy dropped back a few steps, perhaps sensing that Willow would have an easier time explaining herself to someone other than a best friend, or ex-best friend, or whatever they currently were.

Spike made an encouraging noise, and Willow was suitably encouraged. “I won’t be trying to make anybody happier. Threats to life and limb are apparent and the only judgment I have to make about other people’s wants and needs is that they should have wants and needs as opposed to getting killed.”

He noticed that Willow’s beige silk top and russet skirt were from the era of her magical overconfidence, the time when she was so sure in her powers and her self-righteousness that she actually began to dress like a girl who wanted to be noticed. If the clothes didn’t change, would the woman? Then again, Buffy’s clothes changed all the time and she was never the same girl twice.

“What if Buffy decides to run off into danger? You gonna stop her for her own good?” It was a bit odd to encourage Willow to explain her life philosophy to a fellow whose moral compass was sitting on a magnet, but “a bit odd” was “eight o’clock and all’s well” by Sunnydale standards.

Willow’s thin shoulders hunched underneath her top and then relaxed. “No. I shouldn’t define the mission parameters. I have to respect Buffy’s choice to face danger.”

Which raised the question of whether Buffy had a choice. Some might say it was a duty, a destiny.

“Well,” Spike said at last, “I can’t say as I oppose anythin’ that gives the Slayer a leg up in battle. But if you mess with her head again -“

“Spike,” Willow said. “If I fall off the wagon again, you’ll be the first to go. You’re not burdened by sentimentality like the rest of us and I’m not stupid enough to let you stay on the loose. So I really wouldn’t worry about the threats if I were you.”

Well, after *that* warning he’d have to stay on her like red on blood. Willow might be confident she could take him, but two Slayers and countless vamps and demons had thought similarly and it was the last thought they’d had. He rather thought Willow might have said it deliberately, sort of a choose-your-own mentor thing for Evil-Doers Anonymous.

Buffy cleared her throat. Surprised, Willow and Spike whirled around, Spike already in a combat crouch. “We’re here,” she pointed out and opened the door to Rick’s.

****

The café smelled like breakfast and safety. Rick’s dirty blonde head was bent over the cash register as she counted out change. Normal, satisfied customers were scattered around the tables, enjoying coffee and worrying about their normal lives.

“Buffy!” Rick called from behind the counter. “I thought I told you to stay home. Hi, guys.”

“I realized we didn’t really finish up that job in the basement,” Buffy said in what she hoped was a meaningful way. Willow smiled her fake-innocent smile, looking for a moment like the shy sophomore Buffy remembered, and gave Rick a little wave. Spike merely exuded leather-clad cool. The customers, after appreciative glances at various members of the hunting party, turned back to their beverages of choice.

“Oh, okay,” Rick said casually and moved to open the door through the counter. “Brownie before you go down?”

Still licking brownie crumbs from the corners of her mouth, Buffy scrutinized her corner of the basement, looking for spider-sized holes. Rick had cleaned up from previous owners, but various suspicious-looking cardboard boxes of indeterminate age and metal objects of dubious provenance still littered the areas not actively in use for café-related storage. She pushed a pile of boxes allegedly holding pipe cleaners away from the wall and had to pause to clean her hands of the dust that coated them like paint.

“I think there’s a hole behind these pipes!” Willow called. Still rubbing her hands against her thighs, Buffy went over to look.

Spike was already there, nodding his head. “Can’t see how far the tunnel goes, but it’s not part of the sewer system. Looks to be natural rock.”

“Oh goody, a new kind of underground trauma.” Ducking under the crusty pipes stuck like spaghetti to the wall, Buffy moved toward the alleged tunnel, then stopped when she realized that all she could see was darkness. “Anyone bring a flashlight?”

Willow whispered a few words and three ping-pong sized globes of light appeared, one in front of each person’s forehead. “Like a miner’s hat,” Willow said cheerily. “Or, you know, a baseball cap with an antenna sticking out, only invisible except for the light.”

Spike made a noise that managed to be both derogatory and innocent enough that Willow would look like a complete bitch if she complained, so Willow just gave him a superior look. The tunnel was big enough that they could almost stand upright; it helped that they were all reasonably short, though Buffy wasn’t about to say that to Spike.

They crawled for what seemed like hours. Buffy’s PowerPuff Girls watch told her that it had been just over thirty minutes before Buffy’s reserve of cool hit empty. In an instant, the close rock walls transformed into a giant’s throat, and Buffy was sure they were about to be eaten whole. The rocks were teeth waiting to crunch her like a Brillig demon’s molars. She felt again the suffocating staleness of coffin air, and her heart jumped in her chest like a mouse being chased by a hungry cat.

“Hey Buffy,” Willow called from the front of the crawling line. “You know that magic signature I picked up at the house? When I asked you if you’d been casting spells?”

“No spelling in the house!” Buffy agreed.

“Explains a lot, that does.” Spike grumbled.

“That magic, I picked it up in the café. Not as strong, but still pretty magic-ey. I’m thinking that Rick might be our spellcaster.”

“Well, she totally wasn’t phased by vampires. She’s – I still don’t know what, but she’s something.”

Ahead of them, the tunnel seemed to narrow further, even though Buffy’s rational mind told her that it was just the effect of perspective. The witchlight bobbing in front of her turned the rough rock walls a sickly gray-green.

“Slayer?” Spike’s voice seemed very far away, even though she knew his head was only inches from her feet.

“I’m fine,” she said.

“That would explain why we haven’t moved in five minutes and you’re breathin’ like you just went three rounds with the Big Bad.”

Trying to decipher whether that was a reference to sex or fighting cleared Buffy’s head a bit. “I didn’t realize we were on a schedule.”

“Yeah, got a box o’ peroxide waitin’ at the crypt.”

Buffy sniggered and kept crawling forward. “Any idea where we’re going?”

There was a muffled scraping from behind. “There’s a cave system west of town. My guess is that we’re following an offshoot from that,” Willow said.

“Cave system? Connected to the Initiative caves?”

“No,” Willow said, “the Hellmouth has many different flavors of cave.”

“I heard of these caves,” Spike said. “’Parently some Black Wizard blew himself up there a few years back, preparin’ for an assault on the Slayer.”

“I don’t remember any Black Wizard.” Ethan Rayne was black, a blackhead on the skin of life really, but she didn’t think he counted.

“That’s on account of he *blew himself up*,” Spike repeated. “A bloomin’ magical Chernobyl, they say. No one I know’s gone out there since. At least, not gone and returned.”

“Wild magic,” Willow said contemplatively. “Wild magic, could be the source of the sucking-whirlpool thing I was telling you about.”

“But Spike said it happened a few years ago.”

“The instability might have been growing all this time. Maybe the relative magical drought we’ve been experiencing has something to do with it. Magic’s not really well-theorized in a lot of significant ways.”

“Thanks, Professor,” Spike prodded, just for the annoyance value.

At that point, the witchlights flared blue-white and popped like light bulbs, and it was dark.

~~~~

“Ow. Uh-oh.”

“*Uh-oh*?” Spike repeated incredulously. “Look, witch -“

“Shut up, Spike,” the girls said in unison. Willow’s tone was much more reasonable and pleasant. “This could be an eddy of that wild magic. Um, anyone bring a flashlight?”

Spike heard Buffy fumbling in the darkness, and then she had a tiny penlight. He wished he could tell where she concealed all her Slayer supplies in her skin-tight outfits. Perhaps she had a portable hole.

The pinprick of light was useless even to him, with his enhanced night vision. But the darkness did make Spike pay attention to the slight breeze he hadn’t noticed before. Inhaling deeply, because the sense receptors still worked even if the oxygen didn’t, he smelled rotting meat.

“There’s something dead up ahead. I’d say about forty yards.”

“Now that’s just icky,” Buffy said.

Reaching out, he hooked his right hand in her waistband. His finger hurt and the bandage prevented him from feeling the silkiness of her skin, but it left his good hand free for fighting.

“Hey!”

“Gotta stick together,” he pointed out. “Glinda, grab on to my belt and we’ll move forward.”

Willow made a few swipes and then latched on to him. Spike skipped the comments about groping and followed Buffy as she edged forward.

They were lost to time in the darkness of the cave. He could hear Willow muttering to herself, her throat barely vibrating as she repeated what sounded like another spell. Once, the witchlights flickered back on just long enough to blind them, then vanished with a flatulent sound.

“Okay,” Willow said a minute after that, as they shuffled in their elephantine chain. “I’m getting an idea of what’s up. Something in the area is making magical energy more difficult to move around. I’m betting that it also increases the stored magic potential of objects – or animals – in the area, which might explain very large spiders.”

“What does that mean slay-wise?” Buffy inquired and cursed as she stumbled and they all wobbled in tandem.

“If you think of magic as flowing along invisible wires like electric current, the wires in this area have a higher resistance, which means that they can’t handle as much magic as normal.”

“You’re sayin’ your fuse blew?”

“It stings, all right? And I’m not going to be doing any major workings around here. The electricity stuff is just an analogy, but I don’t really want to find out if my melting point has changed. But I think I can compensate -“

Just like that, the witchlights were back, this time with a greenish glow. The theatricality of the gesture made Spike certain that, even if Willow was no longer on her magic power trip, she was at least considering a short power jaunt.

Willow released his belt and pushed past him, sticking closer to Buffy. No regrets there; he didn’t trust her and if she was going to set herself on fire by overdoing magic he’d certainly rather not be attached when it happened. The girls disappeared around a twist in the tunnel, out of Spike’s line of sight, and he took the opportunity to scratch at his healing finger through the heavy gauze and elastic bandage around his hand. Vampire healing was a wonderful thing, provided that he didn’t gnaw his skin off from the tremendous itch of the knitting skin and muscles. He game-faced and used the edges of his fangs to rub though the fabric, which helped, but not enough.

A short, sharp screech sent him running into the darkness, still fanged and ridged. Buffy was nowhere to be seen. Willow was wriggling against an untidy macramé of thick white fibers, wrapped around her arms, in her hair, twined around her ankles. The witchlight bobbed madly around like an angry firefly, missing its mistress. Spiderweb, and Willow was caught like a rusty moth in the strands. “Buffy!” No answer.

He couldn’t leave the witch like this. Spike felt in his pocket for a knife, and, instead, encountered a pair of Buffy’s earrings. Swearing, he reached for the web next to Willow’s flailing hand and set his fangs to bite through the strands.

Born and raised in Sunnydale, Willow cringed away from the shiny sharpness of his demon teeth, which would have made him laugh under other circumstances. Maybe she wasn’t as tough as she liked to make out.

The web tasted strangely of paper and stuck to his skin. Piece by piece, he bit through the strands until they were both covered with short lengths of spider silk, as big around as Spike’s thumb, clinging to their skin, hair, and clothes.

“Big spiderweb,” Willow gasped, her face flushed with struggling. “Which kind of indicates a really big spider.”

“Where’s Buffy?” Spike didn’t know how loud he could afford to be, so he kept his voice just below an annoyed yell.

“Over here,” her strained voice came from the further darkness and he closed his eyes. Not in relief; there was just a speck of tunnel grit in his eye.

“You weren’t much help,” Spike complained, picking sticky chunks of silk out of the ACE bandage on his hand.

“Spike.”

In a flash, he was beside her, watching the enormous spider whose bulk probably explained why she hadn’t come to Willow’s aid. The spider hadn’t attacked, but he understood why Buffy wouldn’t turn her back on it. The thing was as big as a Ford Explorer, each eye the size of a beach ball, each hairy leg as thick around as a trashcan. Spike knew inhuman, but the look in the spider’s eyes was more than inhuman. It was utterly alien.

“Hello then,” he said, because it hadn’t attacked yet. “Don’t suppose we can persuade you to stop eatin’ the locals, at least the ones as can complain about it?”

The spider shifted its legs, which was impressive but uninformative.

“Do you think it understands us?”

As if in response, the spider shifted, twisting its body so that its eyes disappeared behind its abdomen.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Spike muttered just as the first strands of whitish goo shot their way. Buffy and Spike dove for opposite sides of the tunnel, and the line of spidersilk splashed down on the tunnel floor as if dividing it into driving lanes.

The spider’s abdomen was still exposed. Buffy dove between two flailing legs and stabbed it, drawing a three-foot line down its front before she retreated. Black and glistening innards spilled from the cut, but it wasn’t dead yet. Spike checked his pockets for knives again and found himself with only a spare stake, good enough in a pinch but not nearly as edgy as he would have preferred for a non-vampire situation.

“Go for the legs!” he told Buffy, and dove for the thing’s body, bouncing off yet another leg as he went. The leg felt as soft as pine and about as yielding. Once he was close in, though, the legs would have a harder time reaching him.

The spider was still attempting to move its spinnerets back into position, but Spike found the hole Buffy had made and pulled at it with gusto, ignoring the slime that spilled over his hands and stung his scabs. The spider was silent, which made him extremely nervous. Was it screaming on some frequency he couldn’t hear?

Meanwhile, Buffy had managed to sever three of the four visible legs. The other four, trapped behind the spider’s body, were less important, and Spike backed away from the dying thing, stumbling against Willow, who’d been watching the battle gape-mouthed.

“Well, come on then,” he said and pushed forward. There was just enough room between the spider’s near-corpse and the tunnel to squeeze through, though he’d have to clean his duster carefully after. Faces wearing near-identical moues of disgust, Buffy and Willow followed.

It wasn’t far before the tunnel opened up into a real cave, and Spike found the source of the dead things he’d smelled. The cave was heavy with the sweetish smell of rotting meat, littered with large whitish lumps Spike presumed were previous spider meals. He turned in circles, trying to understand the layout. There were five separate entrances big enough for humans, and he could see holes in the darkness that might conceal numerous smaller tunnels.

“Look,” Willow pointed. Piles of smaller silk-wrapped bundles – dinners for smaller spiders, Spike thought, or maybe takeout. “Those are eggs.”

Sure, he would have thought of that next.

Enhanced vampire hearing, which Spike had always assumed was for the purpose of hearing human prey at a distance, was also applicable when one might become prey. The crashing of stone and gravel in the far tunnels suggested that more web spinners were coming to check on the status of the eggs. Spike looked down and saw the thin lines of silk running like guide wires along the floor. The vibrations had set off a spidery alarm.

“I’m feelin’ a bit vulnerable wivout enough weapons, get my mental?” he asked.

Willow’s face scrunched cutely, and suddenly he was holding a knife. “Feeling any better?” she asked sweetly.

“Why couldn’t you do that in the web? Stuff tastes vile, like rotten tea leaves.”

“When the web’s intact, it has some sort of magic-inhibiting properties. And I’m still having problems. That was supposed to be an ax.”

Great. As they’d talked, spiders had shuffled and hopped through at least three tunnel entrances. They ranged from German shepherd-sized to garage-sized.

A situation this grim demanded attitude. “They’ve got us surrounded – the poor bastards.”

“We still don’t even know if they *mean* to be harmful,” Buffy said, a little wistfully.

Buffy had picked up a thighbone from a corner and Spike imitated her, holding a bone like a club in his right hand and Willow’s bespelled knife in his left. He lacked finesse with his right, but this didn’t seem like a situation in which finesse was required. He’d never killed anything with someone else’s bones before. It promised to be interesting.

With their backs to one another, they formed a small scared triangle in the middle of the cave. The spiders were massing by the eggs, leaving the tunnels slightly less well-guarded.

“We’ve got to destroy the eggs,” Buffy said. “Otherwise Sunnydale’s going to be Spiderdale in a day or so.”

Spike didn’t look away from the gleaming black eyes of the spiders surrounding them. Their leg hairs looked like porcupine needles, only bigger. Legs rustled in the darkness, and he didn’t know where to watch for an attack. “Discretion,” he said, “is sometimes the better part of valor.”

Buffy, bless her bloody heart, could be practical and decisive in matters not pertaining to clothing. “Go back the way we came. Will, if you come up with any magic, just yell. Spike, keep Willow between us.”

She was off, and there was nothing to do but follow.

Spiders moved through the darkness like the endless unkillable armies found in video games, only worse-smelling. Spike kicked a basketball-sized spider into a larger one’s face. A slash of his knife cleaved another smallish (relatively speaking) one nearly in half. Ahead of him, Buffy was hacking like a Columbian peasant harvesting coca, and Willow was emitting a thin distressed noise. Spike wished they’d known about the magical dampers in the area before bringing her along.

There was only one largish (again, relatively speaking) spider in their way. It was the size of a thoroughbred, really very ugly, and an unpleasant-looking substance dripped from fangs as long as Spike’s hand.

A line of spider silk shot from the darkness, knocking Willow over. She began to scream and beat at her legs, where the stuff was tangled. Buffy turned back to help, and was sent sprawling by the largish spider’s massive legs. She dropped and rolled and Spike turned his eyes away, back to the girl who needed his help.

Three cheetah-sized spiders tiptoed towards Willow. Her face was contorted with fear and what looked a lot like self-hatred, for her helplessness most likely. Spike struck out with the thighbone in his right hand, sending one of the spiders tumbling, and picked Willow up with his good arm. He got only a few feet before the tug of the spider silk brought him up short.

“Keep pulling,” she said, her face sickly green under her witchlight.

Another backhanded swipe sent a second spider splatting against the cave wall. They were lucky that the spiders seemed to have a sense of personal space preventing them from simply crushing the humans (and vampire) under their combined weight. Spike tugged harder, and Willow screamed, digging her fingers into his arm. He saw her shoe, stained red, shoot off into the darkness and there was a thud as the spider on the other end overbalanced with the sudden release of tension.

“You okay?” he said, dropping her so that he could use his knife on another spider, sending two of its legs flailing into the air to smack the snout of yet another, waiting enemy.

“I think so,” she said, trying to stand and promptly staggering, nearly turning another spider into a tuffet, before he caught her up again. “Okay, me and the walking, not in harmony.”

“Don’t use that word,” he muttered and swung her around, towards the corpse of the big spider. Buffy seemed to be holding her own, and he hauled Willow over to her. “Get over and make sure the way’s clear,” he suggested, and Buffy examined Willow briefly and nodded. During her moment of distraction, a spider – this one black and red, and looking substantially more armored than the others had been – pushed itself at them.

Spike yelled defiance, dropped Willow, and swung the knife as the spider leapt at Buffy. The shock of the contact ran up his arm and sent him staggering back, but he’d half sawn through a leg and the spider stumbled. Buffy grabbed the wall and kicked out, pulping two or three of the spider’s eyes with a sound like a sack of tomatoes hitting the ground.

“Go!” he screamed at Buffy, jamming the bone he was holding deep into the spider’s clacking jaws, hopefully into its tiny spider brain.

Buffy clambered over the spider carcass and vanished from view. He trusted that she’d clear the way for the retreat. Willow looked at the hairy mound of monster with something like despair. If he grabbed her and jumped, unfamiliar with their combined weight, he’d like as not fall short or bash his head in against the top of the tunnel. Behind them, spiders rustled with a sound like curtains in strong wind.

“I’m not getting paid enough for this,” he muttered and reached out to grab a handful of spider hair. The spines were thick but not, as he’d feared, slippery. Slinging his right arm around Willow, he kicked into the spider’s side, making himself a foothold as he pulled them up.

There was a bad moment when he had to let go and cling to the spider’s corpse with just his legs, but then he managed to push Willow over the hump. He followed over just as a leg the size of a lamppost connected with his back, and tumbled down onto soft, moaning girlflesh.

“Sorry,” Spike said and pulled himself off of Willow, who was cradling an arm to her chest and biting her lip as if trying not to cry. “Can you walk?”

From behind the bulk of the big spider, Spike could hear further rumbling. The juvenile spiders could come over, and while they weren’t as scary as the Monster Truck spiders, Spike had no desire to test their ability to work in tandem to net their food. “Scratch that, can you run?”

Willow shook her head. Spike picked her up, like a bitty Scarlett O’Hara, and then tried to erase the mental image. “We’ll never speak of this.”

Willow’s laugh was choked as she bounced in his arms. The floor was rough and even her slight weight was a hindrance. Normally he wouldn’t have noticed, but he was still recovering from the last beating. Her warm breath stroked his cheek as he ran. She was chanting in what sounded like French.

Her thrice-damned witchlights went off again. Spike hoped that Buffy still had her flashlight, and that he and Willow could catch up to her. He slowed and would have asked Willow for more light, but she knew it was dark as well as he and she seemed to be in the midst of something.

Kicking out in the darkness, Spike shuffled forward, relying on the faint air currents and shifting Willow to his shoulder so that he could put his hand out in front of him. He chose the right, because it was already battered. Willow’s mumbling prevented him from hearing whether the smaller spiders were approaching.

Spike thought he saw a pinpoint of light a dozen yards ahead. “Buffy?”

Willow’s voice rose in pitch and her fists beat against his back, as if she were fighting the magic physically. The darkness grew blacker, and his stomach twisted as if he’d dropped twenty floors on an express elevator.

“Guys?” It was Buffy, coming back down the tunnel. “What just happened?”

“I did it,” Willow panted. “Heh. Bottling-up spell. One-way. Takes advantage of the higher resistance …” she said and passed out.

***

The helpless look on Spike’s face wasn’t worth Willow’s ill-health, but it was like chocolate sprinkles on bitter medicine -a distraction from the pain.

“Rick might know if Willow’s okay, magic knowing magic and all that,” Buffy worried as they carried Willow’s limp body through the tunnel. Because of the low clearance, Buffy had to crouch and tug with her arm around Willow’s chest, Willow’s hands flopping to the sides, skittling backwards and hoping not to fall on her ass. Not that there was far to fall, all hunched up. Spike followed behind, holding Willow’s legs and grumbling. The witchlight had failed when Willow did. They just had to hope that she’d made her cork-bottle spell a bit more durable, because there was, as Spike would say, “bugger all” they could do if it wasn’t. So, on top of everything else, Buffy had to hold her penlight in her mouth, inevitably drooling, trying to see past Spike’s hulking form in case the spiders were following and trying equally hard to ignore the stream of gross innuendo sparked by the sight of her with a long hard metal thing in her mouth.

She couldn’t even respond without losing the light. She tried to communicate with her eyes that every joke at her expense was one less blowjob in Spike’s unlife, but he wasn’t taking her seriously. Or, maybe, he felt the need to joke because he didn’t like carrying an unconscious and who-knew-how-badly-hurt Willow any more than she did.

Emerging into the café basement was a gargantuan relief, even if it let Buffy really see Willow’s face, so white and still. She picked Willow up and strode upstairs. Rick kept a cot in the manager’s room, and the customers wouldn’t see if she just went straight from the kitchen.

Spike followed, grumbling and swiping at his duster to clear it of spider bits and debris. Buffy noticed, though, that he took it off and laid it over Willow, glancing up at her defensively to make sure she wasn’t going to say anything.

She didn’t.

Buffy left Spike fussing with Willow’s comfort and went into the heavenly smell of brownies, coffee and love. Rick was chatting with a customer, who seemed to disappear as soon as she noticed Buffy.

“Girl, you need a mirror in the worst way.”

“Omigod!” Buffy tried to hide her face, and then her filthy shirt, with her hands. “I’m so sorry!” It would be just her luck if the health department showed up and shut Rick down for employing spidery employees. “Look, I’ll clean up, but can you take a look at Willow? She’s kind of, I don’t know, down for the count.”

Buffy scrubbed at her face, cleavage and hands with the non-antibacterial soap Rick insisted on using, because it didn’t promote antibiotic resistance. Even Rick wasn’t enough of a saint to have paper towels that didn’t scratch. She scraped as much gray goop off of her shirt as possible and went back to check on Willow, who was still unconscious.

“That was a big ball of suck,” she commented to Spike as she stared down at Willow’s too-thin face.

“Yeah, I’m thinkin’ we ought to take some big guns next time we go on reconnaissance. Like that rocket launcher jobby you used on the Giant Smurf.”

“What’s going on?” Rick asked as she came into the room, wiping her hands on her blue apron.

Buffy sighed and pushed Willow’s hair out of her face.

“Wills got stuck in some magic inhabiting spider web. Sucked all the power out of her, I guess.”

“Quiet night in SunnyHell,” Spike grumbled. “I expect we need to get her home and tucked in with her cuddly toys.”

“Hang on,” Rick said and disappeared. They looked at each other and Buffy had a sudden hot wish for a vacation, somewhere bright and sandy where the water was turquoise, the drinks fruity, and the bad guys absent. Spike looked at her as if he were trying to read her mind by the bumps on her skull.

Rick returned carrying a big white box and a bottle of something yellowish, stored in one of the Aquafina bottles they sold to people who insisted on paying for their water.

“Cookies and cake, for the bruised and bloodied defenders,” Rick explained, holding out the box for Buffy to take. “And this will help your friend.” She walked over to the cot and knelt by Willow’s head, cradling it in one hand to raise Willow up enough to drink.

“Wait, what is that stuff?” Buffy could smell something like pumpkin pie in the air.

“It’s just a little herbal concoction that will help her rest and recharge. Now you get her out of here and get yourselves some sleep, too.”

Still puzzling over what Rick was and why she might be helping, Buffy complied.

Spike was mostly silent while they laid Willow in the back of the Jeep and she let him drive back home. For once, it didn’t make her nervous. In fact, it was neat, kind of, to be able to have a comfortable silence with Spike. She could do that with Riley, at least post-sex, and she realized that it was good to have back.

They even got Willow into her room without more than a few grunts and nods, working almost as well together as if they were in actual combat. Then Buffy, remembering the abandoned cakes and cookies, ran back out to the Jeep for them.

When she went back into the house, Spike and Dawn were sitting in the kitchen. Dawn was making coffee and Spike was taking his cigarettes out of his pocket.

“What did we say about smoking in the kitchen?” Buffy asked in a faux-teacher voice.

“Don’t know about you, love, but I say it’s bleedin’ relaxin’.” He smirked, but tucked the pack away.

“Cookie?” she offered, and Dawn squealed and came to hover over the box like a vulture over a battlefield, trying to prioritize amidst such abundance. Buffy snagged the chewy chocolate chip and macadamia nut cookie for herself before Dawn could decide, which led Dawn to retaliate by grabbing for the drool-inducing slice of German chocolate cake. “Get a plate,” she warned, putting the box on the kitchen counter and going to the refrigerator for a soda.

“You’re in a good mood,” Spike pointed out, around a mouthful of cookie.

“You’ve been a lot less annoying today.”

“Oh stop, your romantic words are overwhelming my poor heart.”

“Oh stop, your endless sexual banter isn’t anywhere near as funny as you think,” Dawn intervened.

“Don’t you have a bed to be in?” Buffy asked.

“I was just finishing up my homework, and now there’s cake. You can’t send me to bed without letting me finish my cake. It’s in the Geneva Convention.”

She sighed, but without real aggravation. “All right, but then it’s bed, bed and bed for you.”

Dawn rolled her eyes, and Buffy felt a wave of love roll through her like an ocean tide. Standing here, in the warm kitchen, with her sister and her vampire, was almost – was – good. She couldn’t be sure, because she had so little experience with the feeling, but she thought she might be contented.

“C’mere,” Spike ordered and snatched at her arm.

Feeling a little silly, Buffy let Spike pull her into his lap and put her head on his shoulder.

“You guys are the ones who need a bed,” Dawn said and rolled her eyes again.

~~~~

The next morning, Buffy bounced downstairs, taking two steps at a time in her haste for coffee and leftover cake. She’d found a cute yellow top with lace-applique roses in the back of her closet, and pants the color of the discontinued tan M&Ms. Of course, Spike was still asleep upstairs, buried so far under the covers that the only thing visible was a tuft of brilliant hair. The poor guy was still worn out from the poison and losing his finger, the night before he’d only managed three—

“Whoa,” she said and stopped the thought before it ran away into the Dirty Zone.

Dawn was already in the kitchen, pouring herself a rather large cup of coffee and dumping a few ounces of sugar into it. Buffy swooped in and snatched the mug.

“Hey!”

“Coffee’ll stunt your growth.” Buffy sipped carefully, saw that it was good, and took a heartier drink.

“Guess it’s too late for you,” Dawn grumbled, reaching for another mug.

Oatmeal raisin cookies were like oatmeal, right? An important part of a complete breakfast.

“So how are you doing?” she asked as she broke off chunks of yummy cookie.

Dawn looked at Buffy, her hair almost obscuring her eyes. After a moment, she brushed it away from her forehead. “Okay,” she said carefully.

“Are your friends settling in to high school all right, or have they run off screaming in horror?”

“I thought that *was* the normal reaction to high school. In Sunnydale at least.”

Buffy chuckled as Dawn broke each of the remaining cookies in half, assembling them on her plate like petals of a flower. Then Dawn plucked a butterscotch half and took an enormous bite.

“’Mokay,” Dawn added around a mouthful of cookie. “The teachers talk a lot about you.”

“That must suck,” Buffy sympathized, thinking about all the lectures on “potential,” “opportunity,” and other sucky, you’re-not-good-enough words she’d sat through in high school.

Dawn shrugged. “Teachers make assumptions about everybody. How you dress, who you sit with, whether you sit in back or front.”

Maybe that was part of Dawn’s attitude and wardrobe transformation – if the authorities were going to be suspicious of Dawn, she might as well justify it with her own behavior.

“And who do you sit with?” Buffy prodded.

Dawn shifted in her seat and took another half cookie. “Maybe the wrong people. I’m not … popular like you were in LA. And I don’t have friends like Xander and Willow. Which, right now, does not seem like an unmitigated bad thing. But, you know, when your big sister’s friends are willing to die and kill for her, your standards get a little high.”

“Your friends might surprise you. Not that they should ever, ever have to,” Buffy amended. “You need friends who make you laugh, and friends who know what the homework assignment is. Ideally who can help you with it, and in a perfect world they would even do it for you.”

Dawn smiled, possibly the first smile she’d directed at Buffy for months. “Good advice, and not about clothes, coming from you? I’ll have to call the Guinness Book of World Records.” Her tone contradicted the insult. “So when did you get all Prozac Girl? Have you been secretly shooting antidepressants or something?”

“I don’t know,” Buffy admitted. “Maybe it’s all the sugary goodness from Rick’s. Aren’t you supposed to work there today?”

Dawn nodded. “In the afternoon. Speaking of which, does your good mood extend to, maybe, lifting the grounding so I can see a movie with Janice? I promise –“

“No,” she said, as gently as she could. “I’m feeling good, not lenient. And I have to set firm boundaries or you won’t respect me.”

“Like I respect you now.” Dawn tossed her hair over her shoulder, but she didn’t sound angry. Maybe the advice books were on to something and Dawn really was just testing to see what she could get away with, hoping that Buffy *would* set limits.

So the experts were right. Who would have thought?

~~~~

Spike spent most of the day resting – he was still healing, after all – and checking in on Willow in between bouts of tidying the house. He hadn’t planned it that way. There hadn’t been any clean mugs for his morning cuppa blood and he’d been forced to wash one, which led to washing the dishes, and the next thing he knew, Spike was rummaging around under the kitchen sink looking for a tea towel. What he found instead was a baby nuisance demon, which was why the dishwasher hadn’t been working. After ejecting the nuisance demon with a Beckham-worthy kick into the backyard, Spike filled the dishwasher and ran it.

How three women, all obsessed with personal grooming the way every American woman these days was, could live in a place this messy escaped him completely. There wasn’t even a dust mop to be found, and he couldn’t go out during the day to get one, so he was reduced to using rags. The dust was so thick some places that one could almost mistake it for carpeting.

He wouldn’t have been surprised if some new demon had evolved out of the depths of the refrigerator. The yogurt was practically old enough to vote, and mites had spoiled the rice. He scrubbed the cabinets out, washed all the containers, and put everything still edible back in while he waited for the zillionth load of laundry to dry.

Near evening, Willow regained consciousness. He heard her calling for Buffy or Dawn over the sound of the vacuum, and switched it off to run upstairs.

“You’re up,” he said with significant relief.

“How long have I been down?”

“Most of a day. That Rick person gave you a draught, said it was herbs and suchlike.”

Willow frowned and swung her feet over to the floor and made as if to stand up, then wobbled. Spike hurried to catch her, because he never knew what kinds of things made it back to the Slayer.

“Whoah. Head rush.”

The goofy look on Willow’s face was confirmation that she was not in an upright and locked position, nor would be for a bit yet. He helped her to the bathroom, waited outside the door, and then helped her back to bed. She remained mostly silent throughout, preferring not to acknowledge her dependency just as he preferred not to acknowledge his assistance.

Later, he heard her dial the phone and ask for Rick, but he had to go downstairs for more laundry – bred faster than fruit flies, that stuff did; it must be the high number of white and light-colored things, because he never had this problem with his own clothing – before he heard much more than a recitation of the witch’s wild-magic theory from the night before.

When the Slayer returned home from a hard day of working and shopping, things became a bit more interesting. Naturally, she failed to notice his house cleaning efforts, which annoyed him somewhat.

With the spiders bottled up and Willow still out of commission, Buffy demanded that they search for Xander. Because they’d seen multiple tunnels in the spider caves, Spike recognized that this was an excuse, but he accepted it, since he didn’t give a flying fuck what the spiders were doing to the demon denizens of Sunnydale. Demons who were happy to see him beaten and sliced like a bloody sausage in order to coerce the Slayer to act were just not at the top of his list of Beings to Save. Even if Xander hadn’t almost been a friend, he would have helped Xander first.

Spike decided to tour the various Sunnydale bars, to see if Xander was looking for trouble in any of the right places. He took along Giles’ third-best sword, plucked from the remains of the Magic Box, in case of spiders or easily intimidated demons. Frankly, having a scabbard down the back of his duster was a bit Highlander for him, but it was much better concealed that way.

He tried all the human bars first, and found nothing but leather boys, bad attitudes and broken hearts, all of which he could have had much closer to home. So he headed to where he knew in his silent heart that Xander would have gone.

From the shadows to the left of Lovecraft’s, KITTE’s light pulsed, a digital heartbeat, bloodless and bloody. The loony bint had gotten her last master killed at a bar; it looked like she was getting used to it.

Given the display he’d put on earlier in the night, he could afford to swagger in to Lovecraft’s without too much reconnaissance. He brushed past the bouncer with barely a look, and walked straight up to Xander’s side at the bar. The boy was leaning onto the bar’s surface, uncaring how dirty it was, which was understandable given that his lean took him about a foot closer to the lamia’s cleavage than he otherwise would have been.

“… not saying I could have done it alone,” he heard before he clamped a hand on Xander’s shoulder.

“Evenin’,” he said and smiled at the lamia, who didn’t respond.

Xander swiveled and looked him up and down. Then back up. Absurdly, Spike was glad that he’d got clean jeans on.

“Well, if it isn’t the Living Dead. Come to yell at me for Buffy?”

“Oh, I don’t need to yell,” he said menacingly. “Look, I’m certainly not the demon to get mad about a bit of killin’.” He still had his hand on Xander’s shoulder. Ordinarily the boy would have shrugged it off by now, but tonight’s Xander leaned into his hand.

“Heard about the spiders scarin’ the locals?” he asked, a bit unnerved but unwilling to back off.

“Deanna,” Xander indicated the lamia (Spike was surprised to learn that she actually had a name), “was telling me about all the drained non-vamp victims that have been turning up.”

“Ah, and was she part of the group that decided that I’d make good ransom material?” he asked, his tone light.

It didn’t fool either of them. The lamia turned a paler green and Xander grinned, throwing back the remains of his beer in a single gulp. “Nah, Deanna wasn’t in on that, were you, babe?”

She nodded carefully and backed away from the two of them to get the orders of the Calensis at the end of the bar. They all looked alike, so Spike couldn’t tell if that was one of the ones who’d bitten him. It was well enough; he didn’t really need the distraction.

“So, the spiders knocked the witch about a bit, and I was thinking you an’ the car might want to help with the extermination process.”

“Willow?” Xander finally turned to face Spike fully. Spike dropped his hand and looked straight into the boy’s dilated pupils.

“She’s gonna be all right, but I’d say we’ve got a personal grudge against th’arachnid contingent now.”

Xander nodded and tossed a few dollars on the bar. The lamia’s glance as they shouldered their way out of the bar, leather coats flapping disturbingly in tandem, was almost grateful.

“KITTE,” Xander ordered in exactly the same tone he’d used when Anya was being socially inappropriate, “we’re looking for some giant spiders outside of town.”

Spike outlined the situation and general location of the spiders, though he skipped the part about Willow using magic to close off the tunnel they’d used and just said it was no longer usable. He still wasn’t sure what the car thought about magical creatures, though its phlegmatic response to giant mutant spiders was promising.

They cruised down the highway, toward the cave system. KITTE was popping and squealing at the edge of his hearing, and wondered if it was subliminal programming designed to give Xander a backbone.

“Electromagnetic scans have revealed a more direct entrance into the main cave whose location you identified,” the car purred and slowed for a turnoff.

The car was good at her job, Spike had to admit. They followed progressively more minor roads until they were in what passed for deep woods in Southern Cali. KITTE bumped off-road with only a minor protest from her undercarriage, which was probably as well-armored as the rest of her, and they proceeded through (and occasionally over) the foilage until the car rumbled to a halt in front of a large rock formation.

“Can you look for signs of spider habitation, KITTE?” Xander asked.

“Of course, Xander,” the car said coyly, and the night lit up with blue light. “Scanning.”

“What’re we going to do once we find them?” Spike asked. He felt odd about asking, almost unmanly, but no one else had brought it up.

“KITTE’s flamethrowers might be helpful,” Xander said like a proud daddy.

“I have detected lifeforms approximately one hundred meters inside the rock formation. There is an entrance large enough for me on the other side,” the car announced.

If it was large enough for the car, Spike wondered what else it would admit.

Nonetheless, he sat in silence as KITTE wheeled around, bumping over offended shrubbery until they were facing a darker hole in the dark rock. Without instruction from Xander, the car flashed her high beams into the darkness, illuminating more dark cave, carpeted in leaves.

“What’s that?” Xander pointed at a line of white that lay on the ground.

Spike squinted. “Looks like more of that spider silk. Nasty stuff, tangling you up for spider snacks. The witch said it interfered with her magic, but I suppose we don’t need to worry about that.”

“Magic?” KITTE asked, but he ignored her.

The shining line of spider silk clearly disappeared into the darkness of the cave, glimmering in KITTE’s headlights.

“Do we just get out and pull on it?” Xander asked, peering over Spike’s shoulder.

“I say we drive in. I don’t think the spiders can gift-wrap an entire car, not before we can set them on fire anyhow.”

“KITTE, proceed into the cave, slowly, prepared to open fire.” Spike smirked; the boy couldn’t have been more pompous if he’d had a waistcoat and a paunch to go with it.

The car’s wheels spun and they moved forward. When they got to the spider silk, the tires stopped making as much noise. In fact, everything was eerily quiet, except for KITTE’s electronic babble.

KITTE’s headlights penetrated only a few yards ahead of them. They passed through sheets of grayish silk, fluttering over the windshield like the world’s least competent car wash.

After a few minutes, the car stopped. “I cannot go further; the passage narrows. My sensors indicate the presence of many life-forms of varying sizes, beginning approximately twenty meters further in.”

“Spike,” Xander said and handed him Giles’ third-best sword, which he’d propped on the seat between them, “get out and see if our spider is in there.”

“Send the vamp into the cave to see if the monster’s there? That’s rich.”

“You’re dead already. And if it does try to eat you, you could maybe poison it.”

“How can he be dead? He seems to have an extraordinarily low metabolic rate, but corpses cannot move.”

“When you gonna’ explain the dead birds and bees to this heap?” Spike asked.

“Later, when she’s older.”

Giles’ third best sword felt comfortable in his hand, but he had a sneaking suspicion that he looked ridiculous.

“Just ‘cause I’m wearin’ a red shirt, it don’t mean I’m expendable,” Spike warned Xander before opening the door and getting out.

Maybe the Niblet was right, maybe he did need some wardrobe variation.

Xander, unable to leave a good thing (or a bad thing, really) alone, popped out of his seat as well.

“And when we find the spiders we do what? I don’t think my shoes are going to be big enough to crush them.”

“We destroy any egg sacs that it might have lyin’ about an’ maybe lop off as many legs as possible.”

“Gotcha.”

Xander disappeared around the back of the car for a moment and returned with what looked like one of those Supersoaker things.

“Fried eggs,” he suggested. Great, the boy was going to have a free-fire zone; Spike himself was more supportive of fire-free environments, but he didn’t actually have a better idea.

The cave was cooler than the night air, and he could feel a breeze moving through it, a sure sign that there was another opening somewhere. Xander crept quietly along at his side.

“Those aren’t twigs we’re stepping on, are they?” Xander asked.

Underfoot, things crackled and snapped. Spike looked and saw that the floor was littered with a variety of delicate bones. Animal bones. Probably rabbits and squirrels, dogs and cats, smaller than human. Maybe the creatures had started out on smaller prey and moved up the food chain, as they grew bigger and more aggressive.

“No, they’re not.”

“Eww.”

Twenty feet into the cave, it took a sharp turn and blocked the light from the entrance. Spike squinted with effort as he used the low-level infrared vision that came standard on all vampires. The silk was thicker on the floor here and draping around the rough cave walls like decorations in a cheesy haunted house. Xander moved a little closer, his hand grabbing the wall for guidance in the darkness. The whelp was frightened, but covering well. If he hadn’t spent a century sniffing human fear, Spike might not have been able to tell.

“What’s that?” Xander asked.

Swallowing hard, Spike fought back game face and looked up ahead. Streamers of web were hanging from above like a beaded curtain.

“Retro interior decoratin’?” he asked.

“I think those are eggs.”

“They look like the eggs in the main cavern,” he confirmed. If there were eggs out this far, then there were going to be enough baby spiders around to do for the population of China.

“Charlotte’s Web was really not enough preparation for this,” Xander said and moved close enough to touch the hanging strands of pearl-like eggs, if pearls were the size of cantaloupe.

As if reacting to his touch, the egg split like a wet paper bag, and a cat-sized miniature version of the huge spider crawled out and looked around with its weirdly sentient eyes.

It happened so fast that Spike’s vampire-eyes almost didn’t register the movement. One moment they were standing in front of the eggs, arguing, and the next they were engulfed in a white wave.

“Aaaaaagh!” Spike yelled, or something very like that, when the flow of spider silk wrapped around him.

He slashed at it with Giles’ third best sword, but the white wave kept coming, wrapping him from head to toes like a bobbin in a sewing machine. Somewhere, Xander was yelling, not screaming a girly scream, but yelling in frustration and terror.

****

After a quick patrol, searching more for Xander than any fledglings, Buffy hurried back home. Dawn was downstairs, watching videotapes, and Buffy stayed away because she didn’t want to infect her with nervousness. Willow said she was feeling better, but she wasn’t trying to get out of bed yet. She said it was just because it was easier to concentrate on building her mental/magical strength back without having to worry about the physical too, which made Buffy wonder how bad the mental/magical weakness was.

Willow also said that she’d talked to Rick and that there was more to talk about, but the sweet liquid stuff was helping and there was no short-term reason to be concerned about Rick. Given the implication that there was a long-term reason, this didn’t reassure Buffy as much as Willow obviously hoped it might.

So she sat beside Willow’s bed and they chatted desultorily, broken by long, contemplative silences. Willow talked about England, and Giles, and the way he moved among the coven in Devon like a butterfly among a pack of tigers. This led to musings on Giles’ general out-of-placeness, and how it wasn’t really a British thing so much as a deep skittishness, which made Buffy think that Giles must be very lonely. She wished that there was something she could do for him, but she didn’t think a bouquet of demon heads would help.

“Buffy!” Willow’s wail brought her out of the light doze she would have sworn she wasn’t in.

“Hunh?”

Willow sat up on her bed and struggled to her feet. “My watch just started buzzing at me, which is strange because it’s analog, and then I remembered that I’d enchanted it to look after Xander. Which means he’s in danger! The watch is pointing in the direction of the spider caves.”

Buffy was already running down to grab a duffel of edged weapons and firestarting materials. She skipped the crossbow because it didn’t seem exactly high-yield in spider terms.

Willow came shuddering down the stairs as Buffy prepared to leave. “I’m coming with,” she said.

“Are you up to it? Be sure, because I don’t need another person to protect.”

“I’m sure. I’m rested now, and I’ve got my wicca on.” She brandished a bag, presumably filled with useful ingredients.

They trooped out to the Jeep, waving to Dawn as they went. If Buffy had to drive as often as she’d been doing, she might actually improve.

“I’ve figured out what to do with the waves of wild magic,” Willow confided as Buffy ground the gas pedal into the Jeep’s floor. Sparing a glance at her friend, then hastily looking back on the road, Buffy saw that Willow’s face had lost the deep-set misery of the past few months. Maybe lethal danger returning to Sunnydale on its seasonal schedule had its upsides.

“So, spill, Will.”

Willow giggled. “It’s going to be kind of like heart surgery, actually. Suturing one artery into another, like with a malformed heart. The magic inside the caves is feeding into itself like an ourobous or a moebius strip, with no beginning and no end. What I’m going to do is cut into it, sort of, and give it a way to drain into the greater magical environment.”

Buffy nodded uncomprehendingly.

“…This really doesn’t mean anything to you, does it?” Willow’s voice was more serious than Buffy thought the situation demanded. After a moment, and another lane shift, though, she realized that Willow had been explaining the way she would have explained things to Tara. Tara, however, would have understood. Willow had lost her Giles and her Spike and, really, her Willow all at once, and Buffy as audience just highlighted the absence.

“No, really,” she said, mind spinning like Amy on her wheel. “But, um, couldn’t you drain the magic into yourself and be all … powerful again?” Oops. Intelligent question, on a really stupid topic.

Willow sighed and then stamped the imaginary brake on the passenger side. “I probably could. It’s easier to drain off magic when it’s already in processed form, like the grimoires or, well, other people, but I could do it. But it would need to be used, or drained off into the land again, and all things considered it’s better if I just send it straight into the Earth. I … I don’t really want to feel that power again.”

“So how long will this magical surgery take?” she asked, trying to keep the conversation on a professional Slaying level.

“I’m pretty well set up,” Willow said and patted the Kate Spade knockoff bag on her lap. “Once we get close in, it should only be a few minutes.”

“And will it take care of the spiders?” Buffy said over the honking and wove through a series of laggardly SUVs that seemed to think that mere size gave them the right to stay in the left lane.

“Oh, no, sorry, didn’t I say? No, it will just drain the magic that created them, so there shouldn’t be extra surprises, and also I’ll be able to use magic directly against them.”

“Oh, goody.”

Following Willow’s danger watch, they crunched through the woods near the caves, becoming perhaps the second set of Californians ever to use a Jeep actually off-road, until they came to a set of large boulders surrounding a black hole that, in the headlights, looked like it was upholstered in white spider-silk.

Willow jumped out and began drawing patterns in the loam and sprinkling various powdery things. Buffy took out an axe and stood guard, watching for spiders trying to get into or out of the cave.

Just as Willow began to chant, she saw movement on the left side of the cave. Dashing forward, she brought the axe down on a spider the size of a recliner that was dragging a mummified something behind it. Spider guts squirted out of the two-foot long tear in the spider’s side, and it dropped its burden and twitched around to point its spinnerets at her.

A Slayer high jump took her out of the path of the gooey white stuff (which reminded her that the Spiderman movie had been suggestive in a way that, in retrospect, seemed both bad and wrong). Landing behind the spider, she leaned in for a chop that took off one leg and left another only half-attached.

The spider shuddered a little. The silence of the fight was eerie; she didn’t even know if spiders had ears, much less vocal cords. Its next lashing of silk was smaller and easier to avoid, and another dodge in took two more legs out of commission, so that only one side of its body was working. Behind her, Willow continued to chant more or less steadily. It was good to have a combat magician on her side, even with the risk of world-destroying outrage.

With a mighty thwack that sent the axe all the way through the spider’s body, she finished the job. Blackish oozing innards coated the axe all the way down the handle, and she picked up a handful of leaves to keep her hands away from the goop as she extracted the axe.

“Blecch,” she said, not really expecting an answer, and went to get a bigger edged weapon from the Jeep.

The ground shook, branches broke and rained down, and a fork of lightning arced down to Willow’s circle with a brain-splitting crack. Willow jumped back, her expression indicating that she’d got rather larger results than she’d expected, her face washed out as Buffy blinked through the afterimages.

Willow’s circle was gone; it looked as if some of the rocks she’d used to make it had actually shattered.

“Did it work?” she called out across the clearing.

“One way to find out,” Willow said and gave her best Brave Little Toaster smile.

“We’re going in?”

“We’re going in.”

Buffy took out Giles’ last gift to her, a long Japanese sword called a heera zakery (she thought), and shouldered the weapons bag.

The spider silk was thick on the ground. She wondered how the lines that shot out of the spider could be turned into the sheets on which she trod. There couldn’t really be a loom involved.

The light from the Jeep’s headlights faded quickly. Willow whispered a few words and cheery yellow balls of witchlight appeared.

“Good,” she said, almost to herself. “My watch says Xander’s only about forty yards ahead.”

But the sheets of spider silk hanging from the rocks were sticking to Buffy’s clothes and even to the sword.

“Can you do anything about the stickiness?” Buffy complained, pulling a hunk of goo off of her shirt and then shaking her fingers vigorously until it flew into the darkness.

“Wind and water, sun and fire, do the thing that I desire. To free us from the spider’s taint, let us walk without restraint.”

Not really good poetry, in Buffy’s opinion, but a wash of lavender light traveled over their bodies, so apparently the Mother Goddess was a forgiving critic. She stepped forward, onto a matted clump of spider silk, which crumpled like a staked vamp. “Much better than WD-40, Will,” she congratulated and pushed forward into the cave, hacking like a deranged baton-twirler as she went.

Little spiders, smaller than her fist, flowed over the cave walls and floor like ripples of sand. She ignored what she couldn’t squish, though she did spend some energy brushing at her shoulders and hair.

Distantly, through the cotton candy-like threads that crackled and burst as she moved forward, she could hear cries of terror.

Ahead of them, an enormous bulk lurked.

“That spider is the size of a car!” she said to Willow as an aside.

“I think that *is* a car. Xander’s car.”

The witchlight bobbled up to the driver’s side window, which reflected

black like some fancy limousine.

“Hey!” Buffy stepped up and tapped on the window. “Where’s Xander?”

A voice issued from somewhere at the front of the car. “He and his

companion are trapped approximately thirty feet ahead, after a turn in

the cave. This is a dangerous area, Ms. Summers.”

“I know. I’m about to make it a lot safer.”

To prove it, she brought the Japanese sword down on a spider the size of an overfed schnauzer, cleaving it in two on the car’s windshield. The sword bounced off the blackened glass, but the spider left twin smears as it tumbled downwards, so it wasn’t entirely wasted effort.

“Buffy!”

Willow’s annoyed voice made her remember that there was a bigger, if not blacker, bad to be dispatched, and she followed further into the cave.

After a sharp turn, the tunnel opened up into the same cavern they’d been in earlier, though this time it was even more heavily coated with drapes of greyish white and round things that looked like tapioca pearls probably looked to a mouse. Off to one side, two largish lumps were thrashing, looking like human-sized maggots but likely just Spike and Xander. A supersized spider was prodding at one of the lumps, using a trunklike body part to poke through the protective silk wrapping.

“It’s going to eat them!” Willow cried just as Buffy figured that out herself. Hurrying forward, she swept the sword down in an arc that severed the trunk-thing neatly in two, then reversed for a strike that went between two of the spider’s eyes and a few feet in. Pulling the sword out with some effort, she resolved to go for the legs in the future, so as not to get stuck in spider guts.

Willow was bending over one of the spiderfied bodies while Buffy watched to make sure the big spider actually collapsed. It would make a good blind while they got Spike and Xander back on-line, and then they could set the place on fire and get out. There was nothing like a good bonfire to warm a Slayer’s heart. Though the spiders would probably burn stinky; so many demons did.

The human panting behind her had to be Xander; it was too tall to be Willow. He spat off to one side, which was gross but excusable under the circumstances.

“Hey, Buff,” he said tentatively.

“We’re not going to have the ‘running-off-alone-just-to-make-my-life-harder’ discussion now.”

“Good,” he said, and sounded as if he was turning away.

“We’re going to have it later.”

He stopped and sighed. “Fine. How are we going to do this?”

“I’ve got gasoline. We’ll put it all around the cave, then set it on fire as we leave. Willow and Spike will guard us against eight-legged interruptions while we work.” She reached into her pack and handed Xander a can. This would be good work for him; he built stuff, so he was probably good at figuring out how best to destroy it, right?

Amazingly, cobweb-covered Spike didn’t protest his assignment. He went hacking at the scurrying spiders with unholy glee. Then again, unholy was pretty much his mission statement. Willow went around the various cave entrances, figuring out how far the egg sacs went into the tunnels and sealing them against large defense spiders. Buffy, meanwhile, was splashing gasoline over everything that looked like it might not be a rock.

Willow shrieked and fell back from the second-to-last tunnel, barely outpacing the elephantine spider emerging from it. Skittering backwards, she tripped over a silk-wrapped husk and fell, her face contorted with fear.

Buffy dropped her gas can and Spike turned, but they were both halfway across the cave. Witchlight buzzed green around Willow’s hands and then flickered out, as if her batteries were drained.

Xander was there, standing over Willow and unstrapping something bulky from his back. Buffy was bounding across the cave floor, crying out, and Spike was rushing to fight as well, his sword swinging through hanging threads as if they were trails of smoke.

Then Xander pulled the trigger and a lance of flame shot out directly into the spider’s eyes. It reared onto its back legs, flailing, as Buffy scooped Willow up and dragged her out of the line of battle.

“Eat flaming death, bugboy!” Xander crowed and fired again, throwing a line of flame across the spider’s body and onto one oak-like leg.

“Xander! Don’t –“ Buffy yelled, but it was too late. The thrashing, burning spider’s leg connected with a row of egg sacs.

Gasoline-soaked egg sacs.

The rush of heated air hit her like an enormous hammer, and Xander was knocked to the floor. Not a good place to be, because of all the gasoline trails lighting up like the power coming back on after a citywide blackout.

With fire spreading across the cave in 3-D, Buffy couldn’t identify the tunnel from which they’d come. And Spike – flammable Spike, who had much more to fear than first-degree burns – was invisible in the growing chaos.

Leaping over a patch of sizzling spiders, Buffy reached down and pulled Xander to his feet, then found Willow.

“How do we get out?”

Willow’s firelit face seemed older, changing with every flicker. “Over there.” She pointed to a place about a third of the way across the cave.

The thick, oily smoke was beginning to interfere with her breathing. Xander and Willow were choking, leaving it to her to drag one with each hand. She stepped through fire, heedless of the heat biting at her feet and pants.

Coughing and unable to free a hand to shield her face, Buffy saw a patch of darkness in the wall of flame. With one last rush of speed and strength, she pulled them all into the tunnel. The air was still hot, oxygen being sucked out to feed the fire behind, but after she stamped out the small fire on Xander’s sneakers, they weren’t burning any more.

“Go back to the car,” she ordered, trusting that it could get them to safety.

“Buffy –“ Willow said.

“Spike.” She turned and headed back into the fire.

Slayer-sense, slayer-sense, find me a vamp. It was hard to focus, with dying spiders dripping down her back and the smell of burnt hair filling her nostrils. Eyes scrunched against the sting of smoke, she gathered her attention, focused like Giles always taught her, and let awareness spread around her like ripples in a pool.

There, on the left side. Buffy charged straight through the fire, wincing only a little as a flaming patch of spider silk landed over her ear and fried a patch of hair.

Spike was cowering behind the bulk of the dead spider, head bent and hands thrust beneath his duster, smoldering.

She paused as she realized that she had no actual plan to get him out. Then, looking at the bulk of the dead (or as near-dead as to make no difference) spider, she knew what had to be done.

“Spike!” she yelled as she thrust her fist deep into the spider’s squishy, bristle-furred body.

His head snapped up. “Slayer! Get out of here!”

She slopped a handful of spider guts in his face.

“What the –!” Spike spat and raised his hands to wipe away the mess.

“No. Cover yourself – it’s wet, it should protect you.”

Face vamped in instinctive disgust, Spike nonetheless complied, reaching into the spider’s body for another helping to coat all his exposed skin and hair. He finished quickly. “Close your eyes,” she said, and, because she had no intention of touching his spider-slick hands, grabbed a corner of his duster and led them out into the inferno.

Her lungs were burning by the time they reached the tunnel again, and she paused just outside the range of the flames to lean over and cough. Spike backed further away, and she could hear him pawing at his face and hair.

“M’bloody clothes are bloody ruined!” he raged as she straightened to face him.

“At least they’re not in hell,” she pointed out, and he cocked his head, considering.

“An’ you think that’s a good thing?” He shook a fist coated in slimy brown and purple things at her, and she squeaked.

“Snark later, leave now.”

He grumbled, but complied.

*****

“I don’t think I’m ever going to get this stuff out of my hair,” Buffy complained as she limped into the kitchen post-shower.

“MJ never had that problem when she was going out with Peter Parker,” Xander observed.

“You have to figure that all Spidey’s webbin’ must have disintegrated after use, or New York’d be a bigger, stickier mess than regular.”

“I didn’t know you were a comic book fan, Spike,” Willow said with a little smile. “There might be hope for you yet.”

“Get bored enough and you’ll read anythin’.” Spike, despite the fact that he was wrapped in a pink bathrobe, threw back his shoulders and visibly switched into Ultra Cool mode. “An’ I got decades more experience bein’ bored than you lot ever will.”

He looked so cute and defensive that Buffy had to stand on her tiptoes and kiss him on the tip of the nose. Spike couldn’t have been more surprised if she’d poked him with a spoon. Dawn snickered and gave them an ‘aren’t they cute’ look. It only made Spike go back to picking webbing off his duster, which he’d hung on the back of the kitchen door, with the concentration of a brain surgeon.

“That was a good fight tonight,” Willow said and got spring water out of the refrigerator.

“Almost like old times except for the whole high-tech talking car thing.”

“An’ wiv’ Dirty Xander nearly fryin’ our goolies with his flame-thrower.”

“Say the word, Dead Boy, and you can be spider snacks next time.”

“There isn’t going to be a next time. There isn’t going to be another giant spider incident forever,” Buffy said with her best determined face. “And we really have to sit down and talk about that car, Xander. That car’s out of control.”

“The car isn’t out of control, my friends are control freaks,” Xander said and his face hardened over his silly leather coat. “And since this is turning into the Hate Harris Association meeting, I’m out of here.”

“Xander,” Willow said and her face crunched up with unhappiness, “we just worry because you’ve changed since you got the car. You’re not our loveable Xander anymore, you’re all tough and scary.”

“Tough and scary?” Xander demanded his hand on the doorknob, just about to storm out into the night. “What’s tough and scary is trying to destroy the world. What’s tough and scary is when your best friends turn against you because they’re jealous.”

The café curtains on the back door bounced as the door slammed shut. Buffy took a deep breath and put her face against the coolness of Spike’s chest.

“PMS Xander,” Dawn said and rolled some webbing between her finger and thumb. “I say we just throw some Midol and tampons at him with really good instructions on what to do with them.”

“The rest of us would love to be normal and Xander wants to be special,” Buffy said and sighed.

“Well that just casts a pall over an’ otherwise stunnin’ evenin’,” Spike said and pulled open the refrigerator door. “Is there any beer?”

****

The bath water was hot and sweet with sandalwood and patchouli. This bath was for relaxation, though getting rid of remaining spider bits wouldn’t be untoward. Buffy had made a concession to Spike’s masculinity by not using the vanilla or raspberry bubble bath. Although he was edible, she didn’t think that he wanted to smell like food.

At the moment, the Big Bad was slumped in the far end of the tub, up to his shoulders in bubbles only slightly more white than his perfect skin, looking pretty much at home. Then again, silk sheets and candlelight Spike was a – what was the word – hedonist. He had his eyes shut and seemed to be dozing. No surprise there; the world in general knew that William the Bloody liked nothing better than to be warm, and, like a reptile, he had to soak up exterior heat since he generated none of his own. The humidity from the bath was making his hair frazzle into unruly curls that made him look even more decadent than usual. Buffy wanted to giggle. She knew that she was punchy with tiredness and that the hot water was relaxing her into an even greater state of loopiness. Her feet poked out of the bubbles on either side of Spike’s head and she realized that she really, really, really needed a pedicure. Her toenails looked like a Zagros demon’s. Zagros toenails or not, she poked Spike in the ear with her big toe. His eyes popped open and he gave her a sleazy, lazy smile.

“I’m tryin’ to catch some shut eye and the lady’s all het up from slayin’ spiders,” he said and slid his good hand up her leg.

“Slaying is good. Slaying humongo mutant spiders is a no-brainer, no moral dilemmas. Spiders the size of cars are against the neutral order of things.”

“Natural order of things,” he corrected. “Yeah, you’re all about keepin’ the natural order of things by killin’ spiders and bein’ in the bath with a vampire.”

“New Anne Rice novel ‘Bath with the Vampire’. Research,” she joked and eeped in surprise when Spike surged up out of the water to press her into the side of the tub.

Hot kisses from his bath-warmed mouth over her face, neck and shoulders. Buffy giggled and put her arms around him. Water and bubbles slid down her forearms and stuck to the sides of his face, making him look like a perverted Santa Claus. She wiggled happily against his hard hips between her thighs while his chest pressed, wet and slippery, against her breasts in the best way possible.

“You’re daft Slayer. Barkin’ mad.”

“Woof,” she agreed and kissed him hard, feeling him smile into her mouth.

With his crinkly plastic bagged hand behind her head, Spike slid his other hand between her legs and made Buffy gasp with pleasure as he stroked her with his clever fingers. How could she have even thought that she could live without this? Sweet Spike mouth, silky Spike skin, and Spike touch making her squirm against his body in the hot water. A moment later, he used his talented hand to guide his cock deep inside her. The water must have washed away some of her wetness because it hurt for a moment as he slid in, but in a sexy way, like the way that his teeth hurt on her nipple at the same moment. Her feet flailed in the water for a moment and she was dimly aware that water was splashing onto the tile floor. That was going to be a mess . . . The combination of cock, mouth, and water made Buffy gasp into Spike’s shoulder, while each movement of his hips sent the water slapping against the sides of the tub.

“So beautiful,” he murmured and bent his head down to lick water from her neck.

“You never said that before,” she said between gasps as he skimmed her clit with a stab that went straight to her brain.

“I haven’t?” he asked, sounding slightly dazed.

“No. You haven’t you –“ she arched against him, the water reducing their body weight to nearly nothing.

Buffy felt that she was floating except for her legs sliding against the sides of the tub and his body holding her down. Slick with soap, she drew her hands over the hard muscles in his back and his ass.

“So gorgeous. Tight and hot. I could live sunk in you, love.”

Moaning, she grabbed the wet hair at the back is his head and pulled his mouth down on hers. She tangled her tongue with his, tasting ashes and the unique taste of Spike. He had his good arm wrapped around her waist to keep their bodies locked together while he pumped in and out of her cunt with languid strokes.

“Gonna shag you seven ways to Sunday, gotta make up for lost time,” he muttered staccato between kisses.

But Spike could have been speaking Aramaic for all Buffy cared. She was caught in her body, feeling him inside her and all around her, smelling sandalwood, hearing the water splash and slop onto the floor and feeling each and every needle sharp jab of sensation.

When her climax finally hit, Buffy stiffened and arched up against him, stifling her cry against his shoulder. The water surged out the tub in gallons and her head bounced off the bathtub faucet. Coming when it did, the pain just sharpened all her senses and she could feel every muscle in her body shudder in the water. As she pulsed through the aftermath, Buffy could feel Spike come himself, a surprised noise falling from his half open mouth.

After the water had calmed and they lay dazed and sated in the cooling bath water, Buffy ran her hands over his skin, feeling the warmth that he’d absorbed from the water. It was so quiet and peaceful that Buffy could imagine that nothing in the world existed outside the bathtub. She wrapped that feeling around herself and willed it to last. But after a bit, her body betrayed her when she became aware of the fact that Spike’s knifelike hips were digging into her inner thighs.

“C’mon, you sharpen your bones, don’t you?” she complained and pushed at him.

“Glass houses,” he grumbled back and slid off her.

“I’m the Slayer, not a mattress.”

“Bloody bony mattress. You should consider eatin’ every so often.”

“Says serrated hipbone boy.”

Smirking good-naturedly at one another, they decanted themselves from the bathtub and reached for towels. Spike wrinkled his nose in distaste when Buffy used the dirty laundry to sop up the tub’s overflow. What was the difference? The clothes were going in the wash anyway, which involved water. Sometimes Spike was such a tight ass.

“You’re a bleedin’ slob, Summers.”

“You’re an old lady.”

“Show you old lady.”

Yelping, Buffy let Spike whisk her into the bedroom and fling her onto the unmade bed. With a wicked grin, he dove between her legs and set his cool mouth on the hot flesh of her pussy. All she could do was stretch out and purr with pleasure and contentment as he licked and nibbled away. His hands were hard on her hipbones and held her down even ash she began to buck and shudder under his touch. Too good. Decadent, triple chocolate, sugar, and loaded with butterfat good. At least sex wasn’t fattening that she knew of. She could die happy this way, with Spike’s long and skilled tongue alternating between her clit and her cunt until she saw stars.

Buffy had long suspected that she’d die from a vampire’s mouth, but not like this.

She came again, a stadium rock light show behind her eyelids, biting down on her lip to so as not to alert the entire household that she was coming her brains out. Once the feelings had drained away and left her as limp as lettuce in a Doublemeat special, Buffy let Spike slide her between the sheets. He slid up around her like a snake and pressed his face into her wet hair.

A sliver of light oozed from under the door, enough for Buffy to be able to see the clear line of stitches around the forefinger of his right hand. The skin around the stitches was healing pink as a living man’s, even though that healing was a million times faster on dead skin. She placed her palm to his, noting that her fingertips nearly touched his. Small hands, so much for that old wives’ tale. Spike had nice hands, when he wasn’t wearing ass ugly rings, strong and pleasantly bony. Perfect hands for holding a pen or a cigarette, or driving her insane with a touch. Angel and Riley had farmer hands, big and square and blunt-fingered. At the time she had thought them strong and masculine, and now all she could think of was baseball gloves. Spike and his tidy paws had spoiled her forever.

Trailing her fingers down his forearm, she asked The Question, the worst question to ask a man besides “Do these pants make me look fat?”

“What are you thinking?”

“I worry about my soul. Sounds stupid, innit?”

“What do you mean?” Buffy asked. Times like this she felt about as brainy as Britney Spears. Obviously Spike was looking for something from her, and if it wasn’t love she would try to give it to him, but she had the hollow feeling that she was about to get it wrong.

“I knew I’d go to dust someday and the demon would go back to hell. All right, the demon knows hell, it’s not a problem. But now I got this soul, my old soul, an’ I dunno whether it goes there too. ‘Cause I think hell’s a bad place for souls.”

“The things you did — before — it wouldn’t be fair to count them against your soul –“

“An’ death’s so fuckin’ fair, right?” Spike’s sneer brought Mom back in a breath-sucking wash of pain. “An’ demons don’t go to heaven, but it ain’t two of us in here, it’s one person, and what if the soul is good, do They split me up like a wishbone an’ whoever gets the bigger part wins?”

Buffy could only gape. Spike stared at her a moment longer, then brought his fists up to rub at his eyes. “Ah, never mind. You don’t want to hear that.”

For some reason, she wanted very much to say that she did. But Spike wriggled and settled himself more firmly against her, and she knew that the conversation was closed. How was she supposed to communicate with him when he didn’t talk to her? Buffy sat upright and poked him in the ribs.

“Hey you,” she prodded.

“What now?” he asked, sounding slightly aggravated.

“I’ve been talking to Rick because she’s, you know, all adult and everything and she’s way cool. I told her about you and me and some of the problems we’ve had in the past. You know, the whole yes and no thing? She says we should try a – a ‘safe word.’”

Spike rolled over onto his back and stared at her. “She did? Slayer’s been talking out of school.” Buffy wondered what that meant, given that she’d dropped out of college a while back. “And did you have a word in mind?”

“’Safe word’?” she suggested, smiling at him.

He sighed and settled back into the chair. “Points off for originality. But we can work on it.”

“It was either that or ‘noodles’.”

“Safe word is just fine,” he said and pulled her back down into the mattress. “Now I’m safe wordin’ this conversation. I need my beauty sleep.”

Feeling somewhat better, Buffy curled up closer to him and closed her eyes.Spike awoke alone. No surprise there, it was mid-afternoon and Buffy was no more capable of sleeping late than she was of translating Attic Greek. Smiling to himself, he grabbed the Sunnydale U sweatpants and white shirt he’d commandeered from Buffy’s wardrobe and ambled into the bathroom. Their clothes from the night before were still strewn and sodden on the floor. He groaned and shoved them in a pile to take down to the washer. Dru hadn’t exactly been tidy, but she’d been mad, which was a fairly good excuse. There was no excuse for Buffy living like a slattern.

The domestic reality of the blue toothbrush next to Buffy’s yellow one set a little fire of pride burning behind his breastbone. A toothbrush meant that she was anticipating multiple occasions where Spike needed to brush his teeth. Or maybe she was just suggesting that he had bad breath. It seemed to be the former since she’d suddenly come over all nice. While he brushed his teeth and watched his non-reflection in the mirror over the sink, Spike thought about this new change in Buffy’s mood.

“Spike!”

Dawn’s cry brought him running downstairs, toothbrush still in hand, looking for what had scared her.

She was standing at the front door, letting sunlight in so far that he had to bring himself up short three steps from the bottom of the stairs. “What the bleedin’ hell?”

“There’s a goat on the front porch.”

“Close the door over, let a fellow look.” When Dawn complied, he went to the windows and peeked out, avoiding direct sunlight. Sure enough, there was a big, unhappy-looking goat tied to the right-side banister. It was chewing the grass around it, making a hole in the lawn.

“’S not on the front porch, pet. ‘S in the front garden.”

“Spike. Pay attention to the problem at hand! Why is there a *goat* just outside the door?”

“See anythin’ else?”

He backed away as Dawn opened the door and stuck her head around for a look. “Ooh!” She left the house entirely, which made Spike’s fangs itch at the thought that she could be hurt or taken while he was helpless to react, and then came in bearing three baskets of varying shapes and sizes.

“A stress reduction kit from Bath and Body Works!” she squealed and snatched the top basket to her chest as if he were going to take it away from her. “And – nuts and chocolates, mmm. And –“ Her pause was rather longer. “A basket of kittens.”

“Sounds like the demon population is expressin’ its gratitude in traditional and modern ways. Bringin’ tribute to the Slayer. Proper manners, that.”

“Lucky they don’t know what Xander did to those demons who kidnapped you.”

“No, I don’t suppose they’d be givin’ little treats if they did know. I’ll call Clem; he’ll take the kittens.”

“What about the *goat*?”

Dawn could stop using that shocked emphasis any time now, Spike thought. “Dunno. Maybe the witch can do something with it when she comes back from her classes.”

“Spike?” He stopped on his way to the kitchen. “What’s Clem going to do with the kittens?”

“Demons love kittens,” Spike said with perfect, if misleading, truth.

Clem did come over, and shared some of the chocolates – he was the rare demon who actually enjoyed the coconut ones, and he was too nice to mind Dawn’s nail marks from when she’d identified the fillings. The gifts on the porch had grown to include a bicycle pump, a big stack of National Geographics, four dead mice, a disreputable looking throw rug, and a badly wilted poinsettia plant.

To pass the time before Buffy returned, Spike read over Dawn’s English homework. Ridiculous, what the kids were getting as education these days. Why, at Dawn’s age, he was expected to know his Latin and his Greek, and philosophy too. He was as PC as the next vampire (which was to say, not at all), but I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was just not on the same level as Paradise Lost. Clem just sat and watched TV, contentment emanating from him like flaps of skin.

He’d sent Dawn upstairs to work on her revisions and was completely involved in “I’m Dating My Dad’s Girlfriend!” on Ricki Lake when Willow came home. It was after sundown, usually a dangerous time to be out walking, but then Willow was probably #3 on the not to fuck with top twenty list of all the creatures on the Hellmouth. Right behind Buffy and himself.

“Spike?” she asked in that shy little tone that she’d lost over the years and then regained after her little Shiva trip.

“Yeah,” he grunted.

“Did you know that there’s a *goat* outside?”

“Yeah. Present from a grateful demon community. You could use it for something spell-like.”

“No. Done with the blood sacrifices, thanks. No hornless goat, no horny goat, no goat at all. There will be no getting of the goat.”

“Kid, that is, baby goat, can be prepared just like lamb,” Clem piped up. “But that goat’s pretty big, you might just want to stew it. Onions, garlic, crushed tomatoes.”

Willow went a little green.

“Does the ASPCA take goats?” she worried.

“Hey guys. Hi Clem,” Buffy said as she barged in, both hands completely full of the handles of shopping bags from numerous clothing stores. “Did you know that there’s a *goat* outside?”

The goat, probably at least as annoyed by the repetition as Spike was, at last began to bleat. It sounded like it was complaining: “I’m a GOOOOOAT! I’m a GOOOOOAT! This suuuuuucks.”

“Oh, Mrs. Lightfoot next door is totally going to call the police on us. Again.” Buffy sighed and flopped down on the sofa next to Spike.

“Maybe she’ll be deterred, ‘cause of that time when I magicked her garden urns back together after the Lei Ach mating ritual incident. The cops looked at her like she was the crazy one, and they never even noticed all the feathers.”

“You know,” Buffy said, “I should feel bad about that, but somehow I just don’t.”

Dawn clomped down the stairs; for a being who hadn’t existed a few years ago, she was awfully unwilling to be left out of any conversation. Or maybe that was why she had a compulsion to butt in.

Outside, the goat continued to complain.

“Spike, I bought you clothes.”

What was he, a Ken doll for her to dress up? Not likely, as Ken was a bit more sexless than Buffy liked her men to be. Women – always trying to change a man, regardless of the fact that he’d been dead and changeless for five times as long as Buffy had been alive.

Still, he took the cream cable knit sweater she pulled proudly out of the hateful Abercrombie and Fitch bag, holding it out in two hands — as far away as he could get it from the rest of his body. This level of wardrobe acceptance raised the issue of whether he really was a eunuch. Especially when, under the combined weight of the girls’ stares, he put the thrice-damned thing on. Cotton was bad enough, but cable knit? In cream? He’d never be able to get blood out of it. What had the silly thing been thinking? He couldn’t offhand remember what he’d done – recently – to deserve such a fate.

“Nice sweater, really brings out your eyes,” Clem offered.

Spike let his eyes promise Clem torments undreamt of in his imagination.

“I guess I should be going,” Clem said and got up out of his chair so fast that his skin jiggled and his pocket let out a strident meow.

“Are you carrying kittens?” Buffy asked.

“Spike said I could take them,” Clem babbled and looked to Spike for help.

Spike shrugged.

“Can’t let you do that,” Buffy said with resigned authority. “Give me the kittens, Clem.”

Sighing, Clem removed a tiger, a calico, and a mottled gray from his pockets. Buffy passed the kittens to Dawn, who promptly began to coo as the handfuls of fur swarmed over her. Defeated and sans kittens, Clem let himself out the front door.

“So what are we going to do?” Willow asked, looking to the Slayer for directions. “About the goat and everything?”

“Oooh, chocolates,” Buffy said and dove for the box. “Ugh, Dawn always pokes her fingers through each one.” Nonetheless, several chocolates immediately disappeared into her pert little mouth as she ignored Dawn’s protest. “Hey, why chocolates?”

“They came with the goat,” Spike explained, but Buffy still looked confused. “The demons are payin’ tribute to you for killin’ the spiders. Givin’ gifts and whatnot.”

“We are totally keeping the kittens,” Dawn interrupted. “I never got to have a pet because Buffy the Brat got everything. I was deprived of so much as a child because of her. No wonder I’m a delinquent.”

“Not dealing with this now,” Buffy said and picked another chocolate out of the box. “I am feeling too good for Mom Duty.”

The doorbell rang over the sound of the goat and Willow got up to get it.

“I really like that sweater on you,” Buffy said and gave Spike a little flirtatious look from under her bangs.

“I can’t wait for you to get me out of it,” he said with genuine sincerity.

“Oh puke!” Dawn groaned.

Fortunately, knocking on the door interrupted before he had to rehash the subject. Willow went to see who it was while Buffy gulped down another chocolate.

It was the Trictnar demon who’d done his hair. Of course, because she hadn’t been annoying enough the first time.

“Hi!” she burbled, hesitating at the threshold. “I’m Newt? I cut Spike’s hair?”

Willow looked back at him over her shoulder. “Thanks.”

“Hey!”

Buffy looked up, paled a bit when she saw the green scales of the Trictnar, and relaxed when Spike gave her a reassuring head-shake. Newt, he realized, looked not unlike the animated lizard from the car insurance commercials, but longer about the snout. She was also wearing the same outfit as Buffy, though there was rather more fabric required for her, and also a hole in the back for the tail.

Buffy eyed Newt, then looked down at her own outfit, and assumed a slightly haunted expression.

“You do know there’s a goat out there, right? Might want to find it some more grass to eat. Anyway, with the spiders? I thought I’d drop by and show my appreciation. Here,” she said, handing Willow a handful of colored paper. “And for you.” She stepped in and held out another set of slips to Dawn. “And most especially for *you*.” Buffy took her set gingerly, as if they might have contact poison.

“Free facials! And haircuts!” Dawn squealed.

“Ohhh,” Willow said, her face lighting up. Buffy, for her part, brightened considerably, so Spike swallowed his snide remark.

“Curl Up and Dye?” Buffy asked after a moment.

“It’s my salon? Well, not mine you know, but my cousin’s and I have a station there and she said I could come over and give you coupons. As thanks for the spiders? And also,” she leaned over to confide in Buffy, her tail swishing with excitement “it wouldn’t be bad for business if you came by. I mean, most of the demons in town see your haircut on a weekly basis, right? So you’d be doing us a favor! And I’d be honored to cut your hair, maybe change the highlights, get a darker undertone? Your choice, of course.”

“Do you think I should dye my hair?” Dawn inquired, and Newt was off again. Mercifully, Dawn dragged her to the kitchen, where they could chat about color and layers and other frilly things without causing Spike’s head to explode.

Spike sat down next to the Slayer and pinched a chocolate from under her questing fingers. “Nice outfit the girl has.”

Buffy snorted. “So glad you noticed.”

“Oh, I *always* notice,” he leered, and tolerated her playful shove, which could have sent a human halfway across the room.

“Okay, it’s nice you two are getting along and everything, but I like my PDAs electronic and palm-sized,” Willow warned.

Buffy blushed even before Spike said, “Your means of self-gratification are not particularly interestin’, witch.”

Fortunately, the doorbell rang again before either of the women could put the smackdown on him.

“What is this, Grand Fuckin’ Central?”

“It’s Xander!” Willow said as she opened the door, while Dawn and Newt popped out of the kitchen to see the latest visitor.

“Hey, Will. Did you know that there’s a –“

“Goat! It’s a bloody goat, all right! Yes, we know, no, we don’t know how we’re going to get rid of it, any suggestions gratefully accepted.” Spike slammed his mug of congealing blood down on the coffee table for emphasis.

“Well, I came here because I need to show you and Buffy something, and I guess we could take the goat and dump it somewhere first.” Xander sounded reasonable, even though Spike had just yelled at him, and he could tell that Buffy would want to hear the boy out.

“What is it?” she asked, while Willow pouted because she’d been left out of the invitation, and Dawn just pouted.

“Nest of Glabrezu demons. The Demons, Demons, Demons database says they’re magic-resistant, so Willow gets to sit this one out.”

“Glabrezu?” Buffy asked, sounding the word out.

“Think four arms, head of a Doberman pinscher but a slightly less pleasant disposition and much bigger fangs.”

“Well, I guess we can’t have that running around,” Buffy said, but she sounded dubious, as if recognizing another attempt by Xander to avoid the inevitable “hey, why are you such a psycho these days?” conversation.

“Which is why I’m all loaded for Glabrezu,” Xander said smoothly. “You, me, Spike, some weapons – big fun for everyone.”

“Except the demons,” Dawn interjected chirpily.

Xander smiled at her, and it wasn’t a nice smile.

“Glabrezu?” Newt echoed, grateful for her turn. “No Glabrezu that I know of. Would have heard, y’know? Hear just about everything at work. There’s a new nest of Velga demons in a warehouse down by the waterfront, but I haven’t heard anything about Glabrezu being around. Nothing at all. Last Glabrezu next was about three years ago, in the subdivision off Orloc street.”

“There are Glabrezu,” Xander said in a cool voice. “You going to take my word over a *demon’s*?”

“And you’re wired into the demon cable network, Monkey-boy?” Newt shot back with an angry click of her sharp little teeth. “You couldn’t find a Glabrezu if it was chewing on your ass. Don’t you give me your homo sapiens attitude. Reptiles ruled the world while you *mammals* were chasing your own tails! And whoever cut your hair should be taken out and shot for cruelty to *animals*.”

Xander moved a bit sideways and Newt leapt back with a sharp yip, grabbing at the tip of her tail with her front claws. She glared at Xander and rubbed at the trodden-upon appendage. Xander looked down at her with an unusually blank expression.

“All right, there may be Glabrezu, and if there aren’t – great. We have to look anyway.” Buffy said, and turned to get her weapons duffel.

Spike, for once, felt no burning need for another fight so soon, but there was some chance that these Glabrezu could ruin the sweater, so he shrugged and went to get Giles’ third-best sword, to which he’d become rather attached.

While Buffy and Xander discussed strategy, he used the sword to slice through the rope tethering the goat and walked up to KITTE, purring at the curb like a great mechanical jungle cat.

“Hey,” he said, rapping on the passenger side window. “Open up, got some passengers.”

“That is a goat,” KITTE said, and didn’t roll down the window or unlock the door.

“Yeah, and you’re a bloomin’ genius. Look, open up and let’s get the goat in.”

“I am not designed to transport livestock.”

“On the Hellmouth, car, we all do things we’re not designed to do.”

“The goat will leave hair. And scent, which I can detect.”

“Might cover up the lingerin’ scent of spider guts,” he suggested. He heard Buffy and Xander coming down the walk. “Harris, get your car to open up for the goat.”

“KITTE,” Xander said, and the car bleeped resentfully and opened the back passenger side door. Then there was a debate about the proper arrangement of everyone else, which Spike lost.

“I don’t know how I get into these things,” Spike mused to himself as Buffy looked at the dashboard and respectfully listened to Xander natter away in the front seat. Next to him, the goat gave him a nasty glare and turned itself around so that its head looked out the window and its ass brushed up against his ear. Disgusted, he pushed at its legs and the goat turned to bare its teeth at him.

He vamped, and the goat turned back to the window. At least it stayed a few inches further away from him.

Fifteen minutes from what Xander said was their destination, they stopped to push the goat out. Well, Spike pushed, and Buffy ended up pulling. The goat, which had complained so much about getting into the car, seemed equally miffed to be asked to leave.

Leaving the goat groaning on the side of the road, they continued on, toward one of Sunnydale’s gated developments. KITTE must have messed with the electronics, because the iron gate swung open for them without protest. The place seemed familiar, but then all these cookie-cutter places looked the same. Spike missed the good old days, when craftmanship went into every house. The ones that weren’t hovels, anyhow.

“Wow, these demons sure are living the good life,” Buffy said, eyeing the enormous houses.

“Yeah, the thing about that –“ Xander said, punched a button on the dash, and the world went white.

****

Buffy skipped the returning-to-consciousness groan as passe. Instead, she raised her head, which felt as if it weighed a thousand and a half pounds, and took a quick personal inventory. She was naked, fastened to a bed, the cuffs on her wrists weren’t cuffs but a half-inch wrapping of duct tape that was also looped around a sturdy-looking headboard. She moved her legs and realized that her feet had received the same treatment. Spread-eagled and naked except for the chenille throw that covered her from collarbones to thighs, so she wasn’t exposed for the world to see.

Duct tape?

Just once she would like to regain consciousness in a luxury hotel, wearing comfortable cotton jammies, with a full breakfast spread.

Xander was pacing, off to the side, in making-a-decision mode, which meant that she had time to look around.

At least this place was an improvement over the dungeon and basement routine, even if the bedroom was odd. The dressers were weird in a way too modern black and brushed aluminum way, the lighting was all focused on the bed, and the only colors in the room were black, white, silver, and bare skin.

Slayer-sense told her that it was still nighttime, which meant she hadn’t been out for dangerously long. But why was she naked?

Nervously, she looked around again and saw that Spike was watching her from a chair on the other side of the room. Xander had taped Spike’s hands together in front, with a line of wound up tape going down to the duct tape on his feet. All that was missing was the orange jumpsuit and he could have passed for a federal prisoner. In fact, his duster was missing, and with the cream sweater she’d bought him, and his hair flopping oddly over his forehead, he looked like somebody else.

Spike wasn’t just looking at her, he was *looking* at her as though he were trying to send his thoughts into her head by the sheer force of will. Buffy didn’t get it other than the obvious – she wasn’t going much of anywhere without either a box knife or someone else’s assistance. The good news was, even crazy Xander probably wouldn’t kill her.

She hoped crazy Xander knew that too, and concentrated on him, trying to figure out what was going on in that zoo he called a brain.

Xander’s hair was standing on end. Apparently invisible hairstylists visited all those who went nuts in and around Sunnydale and redid their hair to match the internal hullabaloo. His face was shiny with sweat and his eyes seemed to be farther apart from whatever was swelling inside his head.

As if her attention had kicked him into action, he approached. “So, the Buffster has finally decided to grace us with her presence.”

He sat on the side of the bed and smiled creepily down at her, and Buffy’s naked skin crawled under the throw. Xander was shirtless under his new leather coat and he was giving off a mixed aroma of sweat and musk that smelled like trouble.

“My clothes. I would really like my clothes back now. And my boots. I liked those boots. They have a great heel and they’re really comfortable. Do you have any idea how hard it is to find stylish shoes that you can slay in?” Buffy realized she was babbling and bit down on her lower lip.

“What is it with women and shoes?” Xander asked.

Spike shrugged.

“Dunno. Always wondered ‘bout that.” He indicated the room with a jerk of his head. “This is the porn house, ain’t it?”

“Porn house?” Buffy could feel her voice climbing into the upper registers where only dogs and Zagros demons could hear her. “There had better be a good explanation for this, Xander. What’s a porn house, anyway? Am I supposed to know what a porn house is? Is a porn house where guys sit around and watch porn? Because I was not invited to that kind of party in high school, thank God.”

Was the bedcover underneath her actually crunchy or was she just wigging?

“Didn’t it all make sense in high school?” Xander asked. “Things were a lot simpler. Bad was bad, good was good, and nobody asked any questions.”

“Right, hyena boy,” Buffy said and even surprised herself with the amount of sarcasm she managed to fit into three words.

“Buffy—“ Spike began in a tone that could only be described as “shut the fuck up.”

“Hey, we all know that it’s ALL ABOUT BUFFY, right?” Xander called back over his shoulder at Spike.

“Totally not getting it here.” Buffy admitted, and hoped that Spike would forgive her for speaking.

“You never looked at me!” he accused Buffy. “Angel, Owen, Parker, Riley – I was always there for you, and you always looked over to the next guy!”

This didn’t process at first. Buffy stared up at Xander’s weirdly foreshortened face. Was Xander jealous? Xander? Xander *liked* her? The thought, honestly, had never crossed her mind. Was there something that she’d done to make him get all aggressive and creepy with the duct tape and everything? Was she sending out a ‘tie me up, I like it’ vibe?

“Xander, you know I never meant -“ Buffy said and realized too late that her tone was guaranteed to send Xander further into his frenzy.

“Yeah,” he interrupted, bitter as only a man whose masculinity has been completely ignored could be. “And that makes me feel so much better.” Xander ran a shaking hand through his sweaty, spiky hair and winced as if his head hurt. Buffy thought about the headache she’d gotten in the car, about Xander sleeping in the car, and about all the television shows he’d seen in which someone had been brainwashed. Mostly soap operas, but brainwashing was brainwashing. But the jealousy riff had to be an unintended side effect, unless KITTE’s idea of justice was extremely flexible.

“No, it’s all about the vampires for Buffy. A normal guy can’t make the cut. You even ditched Riley when he got all de-superfied. Not good enough for Buffy.” He straightened up and stuck out his chest like a cartoon hunk. “Now I’m good enough. Good as a vampire, good as a demon, I am better than that.”

“Floppy-boy,” Spike began, letting only the dryest of sarcasm into his tone, “I can tell you, the ride is great but it might cost more than you want to pay.” Buffy’s mouth worked and there was a funny feeling in her chest, like being staked but more diffuse.

Xander’s focus turned to Spike. Picking up a knife that was probably part of KITTE’s overendowed armory, he moved to Spike and thrust it so the point hovered over Spike’s left eye. “I don’t really want to hear from you, Dead Man.” Then, fascinated by his own violence, Xander trailed the knife down, tracing Spike’s face from a centimeter away. “I could give you another scar, make you symmetrical again,” Xander said, quietly enough so that Buffy knew he was seriously considering it.

As Xander brought the knife to Spike’s lips, Spike’s tongue slipped out and caressed the blade. Xander’s eyes widened and his breath caught as he watched Spike mar the shiny silver of the knife. Buffy was oxygen-challenged herself. She knew Spike got off on violence. She’d just thought she’d cornered the Spike-smacking market.

Spike’s lips were smudged blood-black as he licked them, staring into Xander’s eyes. “If you want to play, all you ever had to do was ask.” For a moment, Buffy wished that Spike really did have the power to put people in thrall. He was pretty fucking sexy on his own, though.

Xander’s punch knocked Spike mostly out of the chair and back onto his half-healed hand. Buffy’s exclamation distracted neither man. Spike’s face clenched in agony for a moment and then relaxed.

“I can show you what it’s like,” Spike continued, pitching his voice so that Xander had to lean forward to hear. “We can show you everything you wanted to know.”

Xander spun around and stalked across the floor, running his hands through his hair again. Buffy opened her mouth to hiss at Spike and ask him what he thought he was doing, as if Spike could actually think, but Spike caught her eye and shook his head. Buffy was no good at passive, but she could pull off waiting for her moment. Spike had experience with people who’d been driven nuts. She decided to give Spike’s method a chance, at least until Xander hurt him again. Spike gave her a tiny smile, recognizing her decision in her expression.

“What are you goin’ to do with us, Xander?” Spike called. “We can be good friends. You’ve proven you can run with the wolves now.” He raised his duct tape-bound hands a bit for emphasis. “Don’t cut us out o’ the picture.”

Xander was back, his hand pulling up on Spike’s joined hands, bringing him upright. “Have you been in the picture?”

“We can be,” Spike promised, focusing on Xander’s eyes. Xander’s hand went to Spike’s left wrist, fingertips sliding over the knobs of bone. Spike’s own false breath sped up and Buffy felt a hot stab of jealousy at the thought that it wasn’t entirely due to calculation. She’d seen him this focused only a few times — long ago, on Drusilla, and then on Buffy herself and once or twice on Dawn.

There was something about having Spike stare into your eyes with his own laser-blue ones. Like he could see into the darkest corners of your skull, like you were the only thing in the world. Now he was staring like that at Xander.

Her freak-o-meter had entered the red zone about two minutes ago. In retrospect, the jokes she’d made about Xander’s special relationship with Spike seemed much less funny (and Xander’s similar reactions to Angel and Riley had a whole different tone).

Buffy realized that her lower lip was bleeding and deliberately stopped biting it.

“Prove it,” Xander said. Buffy followed Spike’s gaze to Xander’s crotch and then wished she hadn’t. Spike blinked and his shoulders relaxed, waiting for orders. Xander frowned. “You’re flexible, Deadboy, but I don’t think Buffy wants to play.”

This was clearly her cue to talk, but Buffy didn’t think she could be convincing. “I’m scared,” she said, and that was the truth. Both men looked over, their faces surprised – and hopeful. Spike was hoping that she’d play along, and Xander wanted to be convinced. “You know I’m not good at this – relationship stuff.”

“I don’t think Xander here is interested in the part you’re not good at,” Spike said and smirked.

“Shut up,” Xander said mildly and grabbed Spike’s neck. Spike blinked up at Xander. No, he was staring at Xander’s mouth, leaning in over Xander’s grip. Buffy watched as Spike’s tongue flicked against Xander’s lips, just a graze. Xander wasn’t paying attention to Buffy, so she pulled harder against her bonds. Unfortunately, KITTE was up-to-date and hadn’t gone in for the cheap duct tape that she might have been able to rip apart. With time, she’d probably be able to destroy the headboard, but there was a sad lack of time right now.

Xander wasn’t kissing Spike back, but that didn’t stop Spike, who licked down Xander’s jaw, his own throat still in Xander’s grip. She couldn’t see what Spike’s hands were doing exactly, but she could see his shoulders move and Xander was panting in a definite sex-rhythm. His head turned and his eyes met Buffy’s.

It would have been better if she hadn’t seen the Xander she knew still in his face. But this was the man who loved her, who’d almost died for her a dozen times, who loved Willow and Anya and crullers. Whose very being had been used by hyenas, Dracula, irate Indian spirits, and now by a demon car. A wave of tenderness swept through her, or it could have been residual dizziness from the taser.

“Spike’s mine,” she said, and she could hear the invitation in her voice. “But I might let you borrow him.”

Xander smiled, dark and dangerous. She was a bad person for finding him, finally, sexy. She put the guilt aside for later moping. She let the corner of her mouth curl up, taunting.

He used his knife to cut the tape leading to Spike’s feet and holding them together, and dragged him, stumbling, to her. She could feel her nipples hard against the chenille throw, and she tensed further when Xander swept burning eyes over her body. “I never knew you could play with the big boys,” she whispered. Good thing she’d had plenty of practice stopping the automatic eye-roll when it came to saying stupid porn dialogue to make Spike happy.

His brown eyes gleaming with satisfaction, Xander released Spike, who staggered but stayed on his feet, and put his hand on her throat instead. Sunnydale could encourage a serious neck fetish, she thought as Xander’s thumb caressed her windpipe and lingered in the hollow of her throat. Buffy’s head tilted back and thunked against the headboard, not entirely voluntarily.

“You can’t do much with me tied to the bed,” she pointed out.

Xander laughed. “You’re creative.” And he kissed her, his tongue plunging into her mouth as if it had every right to be there.

“But I’m not stupid,” he muttered into her mouth.

Buffy suppressed her impulse to bite down and tried to relax. Her body didn’t have a “relax” setting, though, and as he pressed the hot weight of his body along hers, she opened her mouth and responded to the kiss. Her fingers curled around the duct tape holding her to the bed as she arched her back. Xander put a knee between her legs, and she ground her crotch against his thigh.

“Hey!” Spike objected, sounding somewhere between miffed and outraged.

They tore themselves from the kiss to look at him. This was his fault, mixing violence and shame and sex like he did, Buffy thought, and blushed anyway. He’d shuffled close. “Slayer’s right, it’s not so easy with two out of three all tied up. But I’ve an idea.”

As they watched, Spike got on his knees on the bed, making it look graceful even hampered by the duct tape, and edged in closer, putting himself next to Xander and Buffy. He looked up at Xander, the dark blue of his eyes promising all kinds of filthy things. Xander laughed and crawled off Buffy. The mattress jumped and Spike’s head smacked into Buffy’s elbow while Xander laughed again, high and brittle. He had the knife out again, and straddling Spike’s hips, began to cut through the front of Spike’s brand-new cream cotton cable knit sweater. Buffy would have wept over the loss of the sweater if she hadn’t been too far into the freak zone. When the sweater had been reduced to rags on the bedspread, Xander leaned over Spike’s bare upper body and his sweat dripped onto the healing pink scar from the demon attack..

“Undead creature of the night, coming into my town, driving the property values down and screwing all the women.”

“Dirty job but somebody’s got to do it.”

“Not so fucking tough now, are you, Big Bad?” Xander snickered and ran the knifepoint over the taut white skin of Spike’s torso, a thin line of black blood welling up behind the tip of the blade. “You know it took me over a year to realize what as scrawny-ass little runt you really are.”

“Don’t bother you much, though,” Spike returned from somewhere deep in his throat.

“No, it doesn’t.” Xander said and drew another neat line, this time casually slicing through Spike’s left nipple.

Buffy cried out in shock the same moment Spike hissed, but Xander was pretty oblivious to her at that point.

“You’re a fucking little twerp, if you were human I could break you like a fucking stick. But you’re a filthy demon, a filthy, disgusting demon. There’s nothing special about you.”

Buffy watched Spike grind his hips up against Xander’s.

“You tell me. You tell me that while you’re not thinkin’ about shaggin’ my milk white ass ‘til I bleed.”

It was the sinuous sex of Spike voice. There as no doubt about it. Buffy’s body was already trained to respond when he purred in her ear in that tone. God, she was getting wetter just hearing him. Xander’s pupils were large enough to cover the dark brown of his eyes and he looked down at the vampire he had pinned to the mattress.

“I don’t *want* you.” Xander’s voice was something other than steady.

“Bullshit. I can smell it on you. Could hear you beatin’ the Bishop back at your place. Know you were wankin’ when you saw me n’ Buffy in the garage few nights back.”

Spike’s voice dropped about an octave and he pulled his head so he was angling in for a kiss.

“C’mon, Xander, you know you want it.”

For a moment, Buffy couldn’t even see Xander breathing and she was holding her breath as well.

“I *hate* you,” Xander panted into Spike’s mouth.

With a sudden, savage move, Xander plunged the knife into Spike’s chest just as he smashed his mouth to the other man’s. Spike groaned and arched up into the blade. The expression on what little of his face Buffy could see was so much like the one she’d seen so many times when he came inside her that she felt a primal need to see Xander dead. She pulled on the duct tape bonds and still couldn’t free herself, and could feel her eyes start to burn with tears. More blood bubbled up around the knife blade as Xander twisted it, and Buffy could hear the steel grinding on bone. Spike groaned and brought up his bound hands as if to stop the pain, but Xander just batted them away. Leaning back on his knees, Xander turned his maniacally bright eyes on Buffy.

“See, he’s not so special. Your dead demon boy.”

I am not going to cry, Buffy reminded herself. I am not going to cry or fall apart. I am going to get out of this duct tape and clobber Xander senseless even if I have to fuck him first.

“You liked that, didn’t you? You liked seeing me stick my *knife* in this animated corpse.”

Xander twisted the knife in Spike’s body again and Spike went limp. Between the Tribeam demon bite, the cutting off of his finger, and getting carved up like a turkey, Buffy was pretty sure that Spike wasn’t operating at full capacity. She didn’t know if he was conscious or likely to regain consciousness anytime soon. Xander had really set himself up for a good ass-kicking.

“You know what your problem is, Buffy?” Xander asked, casually taking the knife from Spike’s limp body and putting it to one side. If she got her hands on it, Xander wouldn’t be molesting any more helpless Slayers. In fact, she was going to become a charter member of the Lorena Bobbitt fan club.

Not trusting herself to speak, Buffy shook her head.

“You are a necrophiliac. You like having sex with the dead. You need some warming up.”

Buffy closed her eyes and let Xander kiss her. It wasn’t that bad if she concentrated on the sensation and didn’t think about the situation. It was strange because his mouth seemed so hot and wet to her in comparison to Spike’s cool dryness. Even when Xander peeled the chenille throw from her body and started squeezing her breasts his hands were too big and too hot. She felt like she was being molested by a golden retriever. His hands were everywhere, like the tentacles on a Nitraw demon, and when he shoved one hand between her legs, she gasped at the work-hardened skin against her tender flesh.

“You like this, don’t you,” he paused to mumble in her ear as he shoved two fingers inside her.

All the muscles in Buffy’s body went rigid in shock and she bitterly realized that Xander would just take her involuntary movement as an expression of pleasure. Even as her stomach knotted with fear and loathing, Buffy could feel Spike moving against her hip, squirming between her body and Xander’s. She hummed in her throat, hoping to fool Xander into thinking she was enjoying his mauling so he would be distracted from Spike’s movements. After an eternity of fumbling and squirming, the back of Spike’s head bumped against her stomach, and she gasped at the feel of his gelled hair scraping at her oversensitized skin. His mouth was level with Xander’s waist.

Xander picked up his head and looked between Spike and Buffy, his eyes huge and glazed.

“Give us a hand here,” Spike demanded, his voice muffled against Xander’s body.

A pause that was several years long passed and Xander withdrew his fingers from Buffy’s body and reached down to fumble with his own clothes. Buffy closed her eyes. She could feel this, but she thought if she had to see what she thought was happening she might go all the way mad. Xander’s bulk was too much like Angel’s. She’d shared Citalia’s memory of the two of them, and the vision of silk and gaslights almost disguised the sound of a zipper in the here and now.

She was almost glad when Xander put his mouth over hers again, so she wouldn’t have to think about what the wet sounds were. His hands were hot on her breasts, squeezing with casual violence. Buffy didn’t know if she should moan as well or start crying. Instead, she kissed Xander back as though she meant it.

“No!” Xander choked and reared back from her.

“Xand—“ she started as he heaved himself off her body, grabbing at Spike and hauling the other man to his feet.

“Do you think I’m fucking stupid?” Xander demanded, the sweat now flowing freely down his face and chest.

In comparison with Xander’s tanned bulk, Spike seemed suddenly small and white. With his hands taped in front of him, he looked terribly helpless. Xander slammed Spike into the wall, hard enough to knock the mirror over the dresser onto the carpet, where the broke into a dozen jagged pieces, none of which reflected Spike.

“You asshole! Do you think I’d let you do that? Do you think I’d waste myself on you instead of fucking her?”

“I am a very pretty man,” Spike said with a trademark sneer.

That was about enough for Xander, and he slammed Spike up against the wall again. Spike writhed in Xander’s grip, but he was hampered by the duct tape and in a moment of two both men crashed to the floor and Buffy heard the familiar sound of fists on flesh. She wanted to scream, but that wasn’t a very Slayerly thing to do, so she waited, breathing as quietly as possible, so she could hear the progress of the fight. In entirely too short order, Xander popped up from the floor, and Buffy tried not to notice that his erect cock was still sticking out of his jeans. She didn’t want to think about the Dick of Xander and what he was intending to do with it.

Obviously, Spike was down for the count, but at least she hadn’t heard the telltale woosh of the vampire to dust conversion. Xander advanced on the bed, looking three times bigger than life and four times as scary.

“Didn’t think we needed an audience anymore.” Xander announced and climbed back onto the bed.

Buffy closed her eyes for a moment. How bad was this going to be? Xander couldn’t hurt her during sex, she figured. He was still human and whatever he was likely to do would heal eventually. So she should be able to just endure the sex thing with Xander. She could endure it and not enjoy it, fangs or a stake or a bullet stuck into her. Just another sucky out-of-control thing, after which she would engage in a major beat-down. She would not enjoy having sex with Xander while she was duct taped to the bed with Spike out cold nearby because that would be sick and wrong and she was not that twisty or perverted.

“Buffy?” Xander asked, his breath warm on her face.

She opened her eyes.

”I know you want me, I know you always have,” he said with a puppy-needing-attention smile that was so normal Xander that Buffy wanted to cry.

But Slayers didn’t cry.

“Xander, you’re my best friend,” she admitted, avoiding the question and hoping that some kind of guilt would sink into his brain.

Grabbing a handful of her hair, Xander yanked Buffy’s head back so she was forced to look up at him. Her eyes stung at the petty pain.

“Tell me how much you want me,“ he insisted in a not-Xander voice and twisted her hair some more.

“I want you so much,” she lied. “I want you so much that I’ll die without you.”

It really was sad exactly how much guys liked lame porny dialogue. The next thing, he’d want her to compliment him on the size of his penis.

Bad thought – penis. Penis of Xander. Penis of Xander that was pressing at the outer entrance to her vagina. Somehow the situation required high school Sex Ed words, mostly because Xander had been in her class. Never, during those sleep-causing classes had Buffy ever imagined that Xander Harris’ penis would be starting to slide into her vagina. A vagina that was not happy, having refused to produce any more lubrication once Spike had left the scene. Apparently the vagina of Buffy was more partial to the cock of Spike than the penis of Xander, an idea Buffy found frightening yet reassuring.

A bit post-lubricated, Buffy hissed with pain as Xander shoved partway into her. He was big, uncomfortably so compared to Spike who fit into her like a foot into a Manolo Blahnik pump, and she stretched unpleasantly around him.

“Oh baby, you’re so good, so tight.”

Buffy wanted to scream, not from pain but from the sheer tackiness of it all. She gritted her teeth and wished it over quickly.

While Xander was sweating on top of her, Buffy heard a familiar sound that made her skin crawl. It was the low animal growl of a very pissed-off vampire. Because of the noise, she wasn’t entirely surprised when Spike surfaced like a shark from the water in that shark movie. Spike’s face had gone into demon and his eyes burned with a golden feral anger. Xander must have sensed Spike as well and he turned his head to see Spike glowering down at him like a nightmare.

Peeling his lips back from a mouthful of fangs, Spike growled again, and Buffy’s blood turned into frozen slushy sludge.

Xander stared up at Spike in disbelief even as the vampire smashed his taped-together fists into the side of Xander’s head with an unearthly roar. Buffy cried out as Xander was knocked to the ground and Spike fell upon him. She couldn’t see what was happening on the floor, but heard Xander’s terrified, pained scream, more vampire growls, and the gnashing of fangs. After a few moments of thrashing, the room grew quiet again except for the painful pounding of Buffy’s heart and she pulled against the duct tape, feeling her muscles strain beyond their normal range as she fought to see what had happened on the floor.

“Spike?” she called and her voice cracked and broke.

Only a growl came in response.

“Spike, don’t hurt him, don’t kill him.”

He growled again and a fresh flock of goose bumps marched across her skin. What if he had pushed aside any bit of control his soul had given him and reverted to sheer evil vampire? For her. Her fault. If Angel could go bad again from being happy, couldn’t Spike go bad again from being angry?

As if reading her mind and taking a perverse pleasure from her fear, Spike rose from the floor, spattered with what was clearly Xander’s blood. His mouth gleamed wetly in the tasteless room. Xander’s knife was sticking out of his side, and he wasn’t paying any attention. Buffy held her breath as she watched him slowly lick the excess blood from his hands, even rubbing the backs of his hands over the bony ridges of his face like a cat cleaning itself and then licking that blood from his skin.

As he did this, Spike kept his inhuman eyes on her.

Slayers didn’t cry. It was a rule.

Slowly, Spike used his fangs to chew through the duct tape on his wrists, his gaze never wavering from hers. Buffy didn’t know what she could do, other than feel even more naked and vulnerable than before. She kept as still as possible, forcing her face and body into a calmness that she didn’t feel. Not very convincing, since he could hear her heartbeat and smell her fear. There really was little use in lying to a vampire.

“Is Xander all right?” she asked, trying to sound concerned but not unduly so.

Spike growled again, like a tiger eyeing a zoo patron from behind the cage bars and trying to decide whether she’d taste sweet or salty.

“Spike!” She sharpened her voice into something more normal. “Get me out of this tape so we can get the hell out of here.”

Growling again, he spat the last of the duct tape aside and delicately licked at the small smears of blood that had seeped underneath the tape. Too many bad memories were wrapped up in the look he gave her, too many vampires, including Spike himself the first time he’d promised that he’d kill her.

“Safe word!” she yelled. “I mean it, Spike! Safe word!”

He paced around the bed, blood on his chest drying in inky black trails down his white skin. As he paced, Buffy counted her own heartbeats. Finally he stopped pacing and pulled the black-handled knife out of his chest and it made a wet sucking sound. Buffy had to swallow bile as he casually tossed it on the pillow near her head. Spike retreated to the bottom of the bed and stared at her with demon eyes. Without warning, he dropped to his hands and knees and crawled up the mattress, sniffing like a hound on a hunt. She shuddered when his nose brushed the arch of her foot as he sniffed her. In his deliciously liquid panther crawl, Spike made his way up her legs, sniffing. Despite Xander on the floor, possibly dead, the sight of the muscles moving across his arms and back thrilled Buffy to the core. Literally. Her heart was beating between her legs and the need to have him inside her was nothing short of painful.

God, she was sick. There wasn’t any doubt about it.

With a quieter growl, as if he were trying to reassure her, Spike reached the apex of her thighs and stared down at her cunt. Where she was now heated for him. He stared at her spread open cunt as though he was memorizing every furl and curl of hair and flesh. God, she’d gotten wet again. This time his sniffing was so urgent that she could feel her public hair move with every exhalation. She pulled at the duct tape again, not to escape but to get close enough to touch him.

In a flash, he buried his face between her legs, his nimble lips and tongue working against her clit and into the cunt, making her toes curl with the unholy pleasure of his touch.

“Oh God,” she muttered and flung her head back so she could only see the ceiling. At least the Porn King of Sunnydale hadn’t seen fit to install a mirror. “Please.”

Please what? Please stop? Please don’t stop? Please free her so they could fuck like bunnies no matter if Xander was really dead on the floor because the hell with Xander at this point?

She was a terrible person.

He was licking at her, licking as though he was removing every trace of Xander from her cunt, thighs, and the lower portion of her belly. All Buffy could do was thrash and moan and try to telepathically force him into pulling down his jeans and jamming his cock into her.

After a moment, he backed away, making her whine with disappointment, But he moved swiftly down to her ankles and gnawed through the duct tape until her legs were free, although she was left with an attractive pair of duct tape ankle bracelets. Then he was pushing her feet up the bed, until her heels met her ass and she was nearly bent double and spread open.

Buffy’s brain never actually registered the action of Spike unfastening his jeans and pulling his cock out, but between one heartbeat and the next he was inside her, cool, smooth, and filling her to perfection. A moan slipped out from somewhere deep inside her guts. It made Spike look down at her with amazement in his twisted vampire features. He shook his head and the demon melted away, returning his face to its usual porcelain planes and brilliant blue-eyed perfection.

“Oh Slayer,” he muttered under his breath, sounding almost regretful.

She shoved her face up to his and they kissed as though they were drawing poison out of each other’s mouths. Moaning into his lips, Buffy tilted her hips forward and pulled him in even deeper. When they were like this, locked together, there weren’t any other people in the world andno emotions but elemental lust.

Smoothly, his face dropped to her throat, drawing an icy hot trail of kisses from her ear to her collarbone. She pulled him closer, wrapping her legs around his so Spike could only manage hard, concentrated thrusts. Half a dozen thrusts in, Buffy came – hard. Her eyes rolled back in her head and she felt like she was falling, only a hair away from losing consciousness. Her entire body tightened hard enough to break bone and all she could do was shudder and shiver around him. Every cell in her body seemed to throb with undulating waves of pleasure that made her see spots on the ceiling.

Spine ground harder into her, moving his mouth from one nipple to the other and she whimpered into his bright hair. After shifting angles with a quick swirl of his hips, Spike moved deeper than before and it felt as though he were hitting the base of her spine with each thrust, sending shock waves down to the tips of her fingers and toes.

“Nobody else’s. Mine,” he muttered.

Buffy grunted an affirmative.

But he caught her head in-between his hands and his eyes glowed down at her.

“You’re mine. Say it,” he demanded.

As if she had any choice with an orgasm waiting to beat her senseless.

“Yours,” she agreed and tightened the muscles of her cunt around his cock.

He groaned and bucked helplessly against her and his movements sent her into another brain-liquefying climax. She yelled as the spasms jerked through her body and Spike finally collapsed with his head between her breasts.

Long moments passed and Buffy tried to gather up all the thoughts that had scattered like frightened birds.

Buffy opened her eyes. “Spike?” she whispered. Her hips were still jerking against him, beyond her control.

She waited a terrible moment.

“Here, love,” he said, quite calmly. “I’m sorry. I should a’managed to stop him – earlier.”

“You -“

“Drained him unconscious.”

“Will he -” Live? End up a vamp junkie like Riley? Remember this? Even Buffy had no idea how the question ought to end.

“Just a mo’, I’ll get you loose and we can take him to hospital.”

He grabbed the knife from the pillow and had to try three times to cut her free with the blade still dark with his blood.

“Are you all right?” she said as he fumbled with the heavy layers of duct tape binding her wrists to the bed. He didn’t look that good.

“Kind of a good news, bad news thing,” he said and freed her right wrist. “Good news,” he dropped the knife into her hand and let her go after her left hand herself, “Xander didn’t do this in his right mind. Car must have pumped steroids and other shit I don’t recognize into him all the time he was in it.”

“And the bad news?” she prompted.

Spike shot her an annoyed look, and then his eyes rolled up and he collapsed half on top of her like he’d been hit with an axe. Okay, so the Xander Energy Drink was all drugged, and once Spike had left Insane Possessive mode, that had kicked in. That was hardly an excuse for collapsing on her, even if he was recovering from other insults as well. With both of them out of commission, she was going to have a bad time getting past KITTE.

At least it would give her something to focus on. She could still taste the mix of coffee and beer from Xander’s mouth, barely covered by the flavor of Spike. She pushed Spike aside and wrapped the blanket around herself. Her clothes were piled on another chair. She dressed jerkily, trying to cover herself as well as possible. Then she had to straighten their clothes, which was too much hands-on dicks for her taste. Xander was breathing, albeit noisily, and his pulse was pretty strong, even if he was still leaking blood from the neck. At least Spike had given him a nice, clean bite that wouldn’t scar, instead of the mess that he’d left on her neck.

Groaning, Buffy slung an unconscious guy over each shoulder and made for the hallway. She didn’t see the car when she looked out the front window, so she decided to leave the guys in the living room and look for a phone, which she found in the eerily pristine kitchen. Maybe there was no eating of food in a porn house. She prayed that Willow was home. She didn’t relish the thought of lugging them back to Revello Drive by herself.

Willow picked up on the second ring. When was the last time, Buffy wondered, that the phone had been a source of good news?

“Will?” she asked and was distressed at the thin, chalky sound of her own voice.

“Buffy! What’s wrong?”

“Um, can you come get us? Me and Spike and Xander?” She read the address off of a pile of discarded mail and managed to get off the phone without crying.

Buffy Summers, lead entrant in the “Why yes, no does mean yes” contest of the year, setting women’s rights back centuries with every breath. God, Xander knew it, too. He saw what she was, a horrible slutty thing who only required a dick, pulse optional.

Heading back to the living room, she found Spike and Xander still separately unconscious. Xander was breathing okay, but if he had a seizure, she didn’t know what she could do. Did unconscious people have seizures, or was that a consciousness-requiring thing? After this many years as the Slayer, she should have known more emergency medicine. Only humans weren’t usually this involved in the slayage.

Maybe it was the slaying that turned her into a full-fledged ho. Pain, pleasure, all mixed up, just like Spike had said. It was a good thing Buffy lived in enlightened California. The way things were going, the next sexual harasser who suggested she suck his dick was going to get a really nice surprise.

Buffy’s mom’s Jeep (the Jeep, she should think, but didn’t) screeched to a halt in front of the house and Willow popped out, leaving the Jeep shuddering in relief behind her.

“Buffy!” She found herself swept into a hug without knowing how. “What’s wrong? Why are you crying?”

Most of the story tumbled out then, like an overturned laundry hamper. She tried to focus on the important details, but kept getting distracted by things like the memory of the heat of Xander’s skin.

Willow checked Xander’s pulse but then just listened, her hand over her mouth as if to keep from interrupting. By the end Buffy was crying freely, and she thought she’d told Willow about getting bitten by Spike and the vamps in the Bronze, though she wasn’t sure if she’d explained the separation between the two properly.

“…And I know you really don’t need to hear this now, and I’m sorry -“

“Oh, Buffy,” Willow said, and she was teary too. She hugged Buffy again, and this time Buffy tried to hug back, but without Slayer strength. “First of all, I’m your friend. I’m supposed to be here for you. Second, don’t you ever dare apologize for anything you do that keeps you alive.”

“Aren’t you listening?” Buffy sniffed back more tears. “I enjoyed it! It wasn’t about survival -“

“Really? ‘Cause I’m getting the impression you were tied up and helpless. Okay, then, say it. Say ‘I wanted to be raped.’”

“I did not want to be raped!” she yelled, and looked at Willow, surprised. “I didn’t want to be raped.”

Willow nodded. “I’m not saying there are no consent issues. I don’t think Slaying and sex mix very well. Maybe that’s one reason Slayers don’t ever – don’t usually get past the teen years. You’ve been in a bad situation for years. If you weren’t all messed up, you’d be a robot.”

“Been there, done that, got the wiring and still had bad taste in men.”

And, looking at each other, ignoring the unconscious men, they burst into giggles, Buffy still wiping away tears and snot and Willow searching her purse for emergency tissues and face powder.

Tissues were dispersed and Buffy snuffled into the paper for a moment before sighing and heading back into the house to transfer vampire and carpenter into the Jeep. Willow followed. Xander didn’t look threatening at all, lying there on the floor, getting dusty.

“I’m leery of trying a spell to de-tox him,” Willow said. “The whole using-magic-responsibly thing, you know. This wasn’t magically induced and so it’s riskier to try using magic to fix him. And I think he needs a transfusion, too. Did Spike say how much he took?”

Buffy shook her head. “He didn’t, but I’m guessing about three pints. Trust me on this, I know my blood loss. A transfusion would be a good idea, but … I’m the Slayer, not a doctor.”

Willow didn’t say anything else on the way back, though her clutching at the armrest and bracing against the dashboard was fairly eloquent. Buffy wished Spike were awake so that he could do the driving. At least the Jeep was big enough that other cars would want to keep out of its way. Especially when they watched her driving.

“It was so much easier when we were in high school,” Buffy sighed at a stoplight, then blanched when she realized she was parroting Evil Xander.

“No it wasn’t. It just seems that way now.”

****

Spike swam to consciousness through a murky sea filled with a headache fit to rival anything he’d had with the chip.

Shaking his head, he looked around and found himself on the much-abused sofa in Buffy’s living room. If he wasn’t careful, the couch would start charging him rent. There were a few haphazard and crooked gauze pads taped to his torso covering the worst of Xander’s handiwork. His ribs ached where the knife had scraped them and all he really wanted was to drink about a gallon of blood and sleep for half a year. But there were things to do and he had to get moving. As he stretched out, still woozy and disgruntled from the mechanic’s brew in Xander’s blood, a folded piece of paper fell from his lap. He reached down and unfolded the note.

“Spike -“ the note said in Buffy’s terrible handwriting. “Took Xander to hospital. Willow = the car is bad. I don’t really want 2 talk 2 you right now. P.S. Willow says I should tell you I won’t go after the car without you. But I’m still upset.”

She hadn’t signed it. He stared at the paper, which was as unresponsive as the girl herself.

Surely Buffy wasn’t mad at him for draining young Xander. He hadn’t taken near enough to kill, and it wasn’t as if he’d had selfish motives.

She was, he realized slowly, upset about the sex part. She didn’t want to know that he’d smelled her as she leaned into Xander’s kiss, that he’d enjoyed feeling her writhe against him as he touched Xander. Buffy didn’t want to know that he hadn’t minded. True, he didn’t want her to have another man, but it didn’t count as long as he was present and participating. And Buffy had no reason to be jealous.

Women were mysteries, and the Slayer was mystery to the fourth power.

On the other hand, what might have been frightening Buffy was the fact that he’d been on the verge of losing complete control of his demon. The double-whammy of Xander’s blood, coupled with the extra additives in Xander’s blood had brought the demon out to play. The soul didn’t have much sway over pure animal instinct. But if he kept from drinking weightlifters and professional athletes, there shouldn’t be any danger.

Spike scanned the room, registering a take-out pizza on the coffee table and Newt sitting cross-legged, eating a slice. The smell made his stomach roil around Xander’s blood. What the hell was the Trictnar demon still doing here, anyway?

“There weren’t any Glabrezu, were there?” Newt asked around a mouthful of pizza. “See, gets you nowhere trusting humans with lousy haircuts. Person doesn’t groom properly just isn’t to be trusted. And what was that with the coat? Was he trying to look like you or something? Because he so can’t carry off the look. He’s too Gap for that. What happened to your pretty sweater? I liked that sweater. Looked really good with your eyes.”

“What the Hell are you still doing here?”

The Trictnar demon rolled her eyes, an impressive sight with the electric blue that now lined her green orbs.

“Duh, eating pizza.”

“Newt is cool. I asked her to stay.”

Dawn’s voice, coming from the doorway, made him jump up from the sofa, which was a bad idea because his brain sloshed around in his skull. Running his hand through his hair too soothe his brain, Spike recovered his composure. “Niblet! What’re you doing awake?”

She pouted. “Duh. Waiting to see if Xander’s going to live. The hospital’s supposed to call here if he’s in trouble.” She crossed her arms over her Gashlycrumb Tinies baby T-shirt.

“Didn’t seem like he was dyin’, although he might wish he had tomorrow. The car’s been pumping him full of psychotropic substances,” he explained to her worried frown.

“Did he get the haircut before or after the car started doing whatever it is to him?” Newt asked. “Because that would really explain things. Did you know that the Chirago pull out their manes when they get totally freaked out? I mean every single strand. Lots of sores and blisters, it’s really gross. Total ew. So, like, creatures who are upset do weird –”

Dawn smoothed back her already smooth hair. “Good. I mean, not good, but – he’s been so weird. And I’m glad it wasn’t really him.”

The girl was twitching like a salmon on a hook. Spike crossed the room so that he could look in her eyes, even though it meant tilting his chin up a bit. “Hey, bite-size. Xander didn’t -“

“No!” She jumped away, flushing. “God! He didn’t touch me. Just – the look in his eyes, the last few days. Some guys, their eyes are like hands.”

“Anyone looks at you funny, you just tell me,” Spike promised.

“Sometimes … I kinda like it,” Dawn admitted, looking down and twisting one strand of hair around another. “But then all of a sudden it feels icky and I don’t know why.”

“Let me tell you a secret, pet.” Spike leaned in close, and Dawn’s eyes widened. “Most blokes, sometimes they see a girl and they have to look. The body stops takin’ the brain’s orders. And they think that someone must be in charge, but since they ain’t, they conclude it’s got to be the bird, makin’ them look. Usin’ her power against them, and them all helpless against it. See, it feels good, lookin’ at a pretty girl, but when they can’t stop it, they get angry. They blame her.”

“But really, guys don’t have to look.”

“Don’t have to touch. Don’t have to get angry,” he corrected. “You get a man’s parts, spend a week with ‘em, then tell me again that we don’t have to look.”

Dawn looked at him skeptically, perhaps thinking that guy solidarity required him to exaggerate the contingencies of the situation. Newt snickered and finished the last of her slice of pizza, licking each of her claws and front digits with her pink tongue.

“Much more civilized for scaly folk. Breeding season comes around, you do your thing, lay your eggs and don’t have to talk to each other ever again. Less complicated that way, and everybody knows what’s going on? Less confusing. I swear sometimes I feel sorry for you humans with all your relationship stuff, because it’s just too much work most of the time, and the males are generally not worth the trouble. All arrogant, bobbing around with their dewlaps out, just trying to prove who’s got the biggest lap. As if the size of the lap really mattered, well, beyond a certain minimum –“

“Newt, luv, you’re givin’ me a headache,” Spike grumbled and rubbed at his temples.

“It’s late so Newt’s going to stay over,” Dawn announced.

“You’d best check with your sister when she gets home, pet,” Spike said, unwilling to make any decision that would upset Buffy any more than she was already.

She gave him the Summers Look of Disdain.

“You ask her.” He hardened his tone so she’d know he was serious.

Dawn snorted and turned on her heel with theatrical grace. Her black jeans were rather tight, now that Spike noticed it. Someone really ought to speak with her about that, and about the company she kept. Maybe that Rick person at the café could do a better job than the twenty-year-olds and demons who’d been trying recently. Newt wasn’t going to be any help, not with her tail hanging out of her pants that were stretched tight across her lizard rump. With the amount of flesh girls bared these days it was a small wonder that more of them didn’t get molested. Not that such things hadn’t happened in Spike’s warm-blooded lifetime, but at least drawers and a corset slowed down any potential molester for a few more moments than a thong and a miniskirt.

Spike looked around himself indecisively. He had a bad moment when the taste of Xander’s blood seemed to fill his mouth again, and he itched to shift into game face. What he really wanted, possibly more than blood or Buffy, was a cigarette, so he took himself outside. On the front porch he dug the semi-crushed pack of Marlboros out of his duster pocket and his fingers encountered Buffy’s note.

He lit his cigarette and breathed the poison smoke into his dead lungs while he read the note one more time, still failing to find anything other than annoyance in between the loopy swirls of blue ink. So she didn’t want to see him, she didn’t want to think about what had happened. So she wanted to stick her head in the California sand once again. No wonder she never listened. Buffy probably had a pound of sand packed into each of her pretty little ears.

What if the touch of warm hands had reminded Buffy of the irrefutable, ugly truth – she’d been fucking a dead man?

Three cigarettes later, Spike was no closer to feeling any better and snapped out of his almost-brood by the sight of the Summers jeep zipping along Revello Drive (too fast) only to come to a screeching halt half on the curb in front of the house. Obviously, Buffy was behind the wheel.

Sure enough, the Jeep disgorged one brassed off Slayer who slipped past him into the house without making eye contact. This wasn’t a positive sign. She looked exhausted, and she moved as though weighted down.

“How’s Harris, then?” he asked, trailing after her and double-locking the door behind.

“They think he overdosed. Typical Sunnydale. Willow’s staying with him. There’s nothing worse than being alone in the hospital. God, I have to call Rick. There is no way I’m making it into work tomorrow.”

“Slayer—“ Spike began and took a half step towards her.

“You didn’t get the note,” she said and stopped him dead in his tracks with the Summers Look of Disdain he’d gotten earlier from Dawn.

“You thought I’d stay away ‘cos you told me to?” Spike couldn’t keep the amusement out of his voice.

“Stranger things have happened.” She shrugged, her thin shoulders puppetlike under her sweater. “I don’t want to talk about it. I just want to take a shower and go to bed. I need to sleep.”

“Pet, not to come over all sensitive, but we really oughta talk about what happened.”

“No,” Buffy said and pushed past him, headed for the stairs.

“Buffy—“ he said and followed after.

“Not talking. Don’t push me, Spike, it isn’t going to help.”

She had a determined set to her jaw and stomped along as though the floor had been personally responsible for what had happened.

“The important thing right now is figuring out how to kill that car. Before it can do anything to anybody else. Willow is going to track down the widow of the guy who built it and see if he left any kind of plans or diagrams to show us where the weak spots are.”

“Good plan, that.”

Someone had put one of those blasted baby gates at the top of the stairs, and Spike nearly broke his neck trying to step over it and avoid the kittens gamboling in the upper hall. Buffy slammed the bedroom door shut in his face. Taking a deep breath, he reminded himself to remain calm and patient, even if his brain exploded from the strain of an unfamiliar mode. The door was locked, which was pretty much only a token gesture to keep him out.

“Slayer! I’m going to stand out here and yell unless you let me in,” he warned. “Or I can just break the door down. It’s your choice.”

It took a few moments, but she finally pulled the door open. She’d taken off her clothes and was now wrapped in her appalling yellow toweling dressing gown, and her face was pink with fury.

“God Spike, don’t you have any—“

“Pride? When it comes to you? No,” he admitted and pushed past her into the bedroom, which had somehow completed its transformation back into a rubbish tip. “I just need to know if you’re gonna take this opportunity to remind me what a filthy dead creature I actually am.”

“What you are is a stupid dead creature who doesn’t know what ‘go away’ means,” she fumed and turned her back on him and stomped towards the bathroom. “I’m going to shower. I have to wash this off me.”

“You’re cuttin’ me out again. Keepin’ your thoughts up in your thick head so’s you can beat me up for it later,” Spike accused and followed her into the bathroom.

“Spike, I don’t want to talk about this, I don’t want to talk to you, I don’t even want to look at you right now.” She flared like the surface of the sun, one hand on the chrome handle of the shower stall. “Go away!”

“You liked it. You liked it and you can’t face up t’the fact because Bitty Buffy doesn’t feel nasty dirty things like that. Sweet Slayer wouldn’t even dream about havin’ two men at once at her wildest.”

“I don’t need to dream about it. I have Citalia’s memory of it. Remember? You and Angelus? Only she ended up dead.”

Gobsmacked. Spike was gobsmacked. He’d forgotten that Lucinda had somehow shoved her memories into Buffy’s head. That was why she was so angry at him. Somehow she’d linked the thing with Harris with something she never should have known about. Fury grabbed at the base of his brain, making his fangs itch and his demon face burn to be set loose. Draining had been too easy of a death for that slag, he and Angelus – Angel – should have given her the old work-over first.

“That was over a hundred fucking years ago, Slayer!” he shouted. “It doesn’t have a bloody thing to do with tonight!”

“It was the same thing! Two men, being helpless, not knowing what was going to happen and—“

“It was that damn car. The car played games with Harris’ tiny brain and made him come over all Ted Bundy. I didn’t have nothin’ to do with it. I was tied up in sticky tape the same as you!”

“Just get out of here and leave me the hell alone!” she yelled back at him.

Well this was turning into a right throw-down, Spike realized, and figured he was just waiting for her to throw the first punch.

“No such bloody luck, pet. We’re havin’ this out here an’ now.”

Even though his hands were shaking, Spike turned around and locked the bathroom door with a click that seemed unnaturally loud in the room.

“You unlock that door right now!” she warned, her face going white.

“No. We ain’t leavin’ this room ‘til it’s over. I’m not lettin’ you shut me down again. You’re the one who started all that bollocks about safe words. Well I’m callin’ a safe word here and demandin’ that you talk to me ‘bout what’s going on!” he warned and felt the scratches on his chest re-open and start oozing blood down his bare skin.

Damnit, what he really needed was a feed and a kip, not a bleedin’ emotional drama right then.

“I thought I could trust you again. I thought it was okay, and then you and Xander –“ her voice was tight and her entire body was shaking. “How do I know that every man on the street doesn’t want to throw me down and stick his dick in me?”

“Any man in his right mind would want to shag you, Slayer, you’re damn shaggable.”

“What is wrong with me? Do I have some ‘Hi, My Name is Buffy, Rape Me’ sticker on me that I don’t know about?” Her voice was rapidly moving into the ultrasonic range. “I trusted you, and you tried to rape me. I trusted you, Spike. I trusted Xander and he knocked me out and taped me to a bed so he could rape me. How do I know you’re not going to try to hurt me again?”

“I didn’t try to hurt you the first time. Don’t let’s hash that out again!”

“And you — you were enjoying it! I could tell!”

Spike ran a hand through his hair and couldn’t repress a smirk. “Well, compared to bein’ crushed under a pipe organ, getting beat half to death by two goddesses, havin’ a pop star crush my hand, an’ havin’ my finger chopped off, suckin’ Harris’ dick was a bloody walk in the park!”

Stepping forward, Buffy telegraphed her punch, no doubt from exhaustion, and it was no challenge for Spike to grab her striking arm and jerk her towards him.

“Slayer, don’t even try to pretend that the whole bloody mess didn’t get you hot an’ bothered. You’re as kinky as can be an’ if you’d just admit that you’d save us all a bit a’trouble.“ he started.

“Don’t touch me!” she shrieked and thrashed in his grip.

It was happening again, he realized, the whole fucking unreal thing was happening again. In a moment, he’d throw her to the floor and —

“I tried,” he said with broken glass in his throat. “I tried to keep him away from you. I’d give up my finger again, my whole fuckin’ hand for it not to happen.”

“It’s all your fault. You with the sex and the violence and the handcuffs and the hitting and the bruises and the bites and now I don’t know if you’re kissing me or kicking me.” Her voice spilled out, jagged and choppy with self-loathing. “Because it all feels the same and it all feels good and I’m a horrible person who does these things to you and I deserve to be hurt and I should be punished because I’m horrible and I shouldn’t even be alive. I should have stayed dead. I wanted it, I still want it because this is all too complicated. I just want to be dead and not have to deal with this anymore.”

“Don’t say that. Don’t ever say that,” he warned her. “So help me, I’ll break your bloody neck just to stop you from sayin’ it again!”

Shaking in his grip as though she’d been thrust into a deep-freeze, Buffy’s face twisted into something empty and hopeless. This was almost too much for him to bear. Stitched together, stabbed, and poisoned by Xander’s blood, Spike didn’t know if he was going mad or she was. A long moment passed while they stood staring at one another, her wrist trembling in his grip, and her eyes gone impossibly large and liquid. For a moment, he thought she was going to pass out or tear his head from his shoulders until she collapsed against his chest with a moan of such abject misery that the tiny hairs stood tiptoe on his skin.

Sobbing. Like a child, her hands fisted against his chest, tears leaking down her face and onto his skin, boiling hot tears that stung his various cuts with their salt. She was drowning both of them in her tears while she gave out great tearing sobs that seemed fit to tear her tiny body apart. Who would have thought that someone so small would have so much water in her? Her face against his shoulder was burning hot, practically sizzling any tears between them. She was like an overheated kettle that had burst.

By all that was unholy, he hadn’t an inkling what to do with the normally stoic Slayer collapsing into heartbreaking sobs. It was like another knife in his chest. No matter what he did, no matter how he tried, there wasn’t any way that he could make her happy, or even peaceful. Dru, even in the depths of her madness, could be distracted by a pretty bauble or a pretty victim, but Spike suspected that Buffy’s problems wouldn’t be easily solved with a new dress or doll.

Mentally swearing at whatever supernatural forces governed the lives of Slayers and vampires, Spike petted her hair and took up the singsong soothing tone that had always worked so well with Dru.

“Sweetheart, you’re just upset now. Get a good night’s sleep and you’ll be in top form tomorrow, you’ll see.”

“I’m just so tired. I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m so sick and tired of – I never wanted to fall in love with Angel, have him betray me and turn into Angelus. I never wanted Riley to turn out to be a vamp junkie because they could give him something that I couldn’t. I never wanted to sacrifice myself to save the world. I never wanted to fall for you and have you break my heart. I never wanted Willow to go all evil and try to destroy the world. I never wanted Xander to get all psycho and horny over me.” She picked up her head and looked up at him with beseeching eyes, as though somehow he could answer her questions.

Fall for him? Break her heart? He wasn’t touching that one with a stake, not now.

“Why does everybody I care about end up all possessed or taken over or decide to be the ultimate evil? I never wanted to be the Slayer. I just wanted to be a normal girl, be a cheerleader, have a nice, normal boyfriend, go to college and get a dumb degree and a stupid job and have a nice, boring, ordinary life.”

“But you’re not ordinary, love.”

“No, I’m extraordinary,” she said as if it were a curse. Well, and it was. “My life sucks,” she moaned. “There’s nothing good about it.”

“You’ve got me.”

Buffy’s reaction wasn’t quite what Spike would have expected, or wanted. She snorted and rubbed at her red nose with the back of her hand, giving a grimace that was half a smile.

“Glad to see you find me so amusin’.”

“No, I’m sorry, I just –” She straightened her face out with an effort and tried to look somber. “You say that like it’s a good thing.”

Buffy snorted again, this time with a little more vigor. Ignoring the twinge that couldn’t exist in his unbeating heart, Spike kissed her forehead and pushed tear-soaked hair out of her face.

“C’mon, you mad bird. Sod the shower, go to bed.”

“Okay, yeah,” she agreed and let him tug her towards the bathroom door. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to go all psycho bitch on you.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time.”

“Buffy!” Dawn called through the closed bedroom door.

“What?” Buffy yelled back, her voice so amplified by the glass and tile that Spike winced.

“Newt’s staying over. Okay?”

“Is that a good idea?” Buffy asked Spike, her eyes round with worry. “I mean she’s a lizard demony kind of thing.”

“Newt? Talk both your ears off at the worst. ”

“Okay!” Buffy yelled back.

Once the stomp stomp of Dawn’s feet passed out of the bedroom, Spike decided it was safe to emerge and unlocked the door.

Buffy shuffled after him like an invalid. With her free hand she scrubbed at her face with the sleeve of her bathrobe and looked down in horror at the mucus she’d wiped off her face.

“Oh God, I cried all over you. I cried and snotted!” she moaned in that ever-so-charming post-cry congested voice.

Spike looked down at his chest and rubbed at a spot right below his collarbone. Sure enough, Buffysnot.

“Expect I’ll get all your body fluids on me eventually,” he said and tried a smile. A smile that just made Buffy start crying again.

With a muffled curse, he wrapped his arms around her again, and she just cried harder. It was as if she’d busted an internal pipe somewhere.

“I shouldn’t be all stupid and weak and girly,” she choked, muffled against his chest.

Speaking just upped the water pressure on her tears and she had to lean into his body to keep upright.

“’Sall right. Just get it all out. I won’t be tellin’ anybody. Don’t want to let it get out that the Slayer has feelin’s.”

He petted her hair some more, inwardly pleased that she’d finally broken down and let him be somewhat useful for a change. Damn improvement on the whole tough and brittle routine that usually ended with him sporting fine bruises. He’d rather be cried and snotted on than beaten any night of the week. Well, Saturdays aside.

“Oh God, what am I going to do?” she blubbered. “That damn car and I know I’m going to lose my job because I don’t care how nice Rick is I’ve only worked twice.”

While she continued to cry, Buffy stood like a rubbery doll and let Spike slip the now-wet dressing gown off her burning hot body and bundle her into bed. Once she was covered, she curled into a ball of misery, which didn’t stop her outflow of tears and self-pity.

“And I know Rick’s something. Probably something bad. There’s never anything good around here. Willow’s all freaked out over whatever that herb stuff was that Rick gave her the other night. And Rick made a vampire go poof without a stake. I mean, poof, not even any dust. That can’t be good.” She hiccuped.

“We’ll figure somethin’ out in the mornin’. Get Xander and his car sorted an’ then deal with Rick, whatever she may be.”

“Did you see that stuff she gave Willow? Did that remind you of anything?”

Sitting on the edge of the bed, Spike kicked off his boots and pulled off his socks, noticing that one had a hole in the toe, which annoyed him. They had been good socks, good cashmere socks he’d knicked at Nordstrom’s while getting the Niblet a birthday gift. Small chance Buffy’d know how to mend them, either. No, he’d have to do the five finger discount again sometime soon.

“Spike?” she prodded.

“Reminded me of somethin’ m’mum used to give me when I was sick. Honey an’ vanilla, an’ milk. Don’t know what else.”

“She said it was herbs and stuff, but I’m still thinking that there’s magic or something too.” She sniffed and half sat-up. “We have to look into the whole Rick thing once we get the car out of the way. Nobody’s that good.”

“Well, maybe she’s just good cos it’s fun. Know plenty who’re evil just cos it’s fun.”

Buffy sniffled with disdain and flopped back into the pillows. Spike tucked his socks into his boots and stood up, unsure as to whether she wanted him in the bed with her or she would feel better with just Mr. Gordo.

“Good because it’s fun? And monkeys might fly out of my butt,” she grumbled and looked up at him. “Where are you going?”

“Nowhere?” he asked.

“Damn straight.”

Somewhat dazed by the domesticity, Spike shucked the remainder of his clothes and climbed into bed with her. Buffy turned and put her burning hot face into his shoulder and sniffled for awhile before falling into the sleep of the utterly knackered. Spike offered up silent thanks for whatever supernatural force that had kept the night from turning into a complete shambles. It was almost enough to make a vampire start believing in God.“What happened? You look like you’ve been mugged!” Rick said as Buffy hurried into the Café.

“Rough night last night,” Buffy said, taking off her coat and grabbing an apron off the hooks on the far side of the cash register.

“More spiders?” Rick asked,

“The spider infestation is officially over. Sunnydale is a spider-free zone, except for the regular sized non-man – uh – non-person eating spiders,” Buffy babbled and finished tying a perky bow in her apron’s waist strings.

“Buffy—“

“It’s all good. Just a little tired. Give me an espresso and set me loose,” she lied and darted behind the counter.

She fixed the fist customer in line with her very plastic Doublemeat smile. “What can I get you?”

“Double latte and a banana nut muffin, please,” said an earnest Yuppie type with Harry Potter glasses and a power tie that was so 1998.

Spike liked banana nut muffins. Spike was still at home, in her bed, sleeping the daylight sleep of the undead while the wounds from Xander’s knife healed. For a moment, Buffy’s world was reduced to a flash-cut MTV video of the events of the night before. Sander kissing her, Xander kissing Spike, Spike sucking on Xander’s dick, Xander’s dick inside her, Spike’s dick inside her. The images skipped through her mind with a Nine Inch Nails soundtrack underscored by the pounding of her heart.

“Buffy? What’s up with you?” Rachel demanded.

Rachel’s voice snapped Buffy back into awareness. Awareness that she had managed to dump an entire double latte all over herself and now was scalding her skin with hot coffee from the neck of her T-shirt to her formerly white sneakers, and the go-cup was still hanging limply from her numb fingers. Rick pried the cup out of her hand and started to pull her away from the counter.

“What’s wrong?” Rick asked.

Buffy forced down a quick breath and answered into an unfortunate silence in the café. “I had sex with Spike and Xander last night.”

Oh crap, she thought, I should have just taken out an ad in the Sunnydale Press.

“Was that one after the other or both at the same time?” Rachel asked. “’Cause I gotta know.”

“Shh!” Rick hissed and hustled Buffy into the tiny interior room she used as an office,

Buffy collapsed onto the threadbare cot where Willow had been a few nights before. She put her head in her hands and waited for the pounding in her head to go away.

“I am so sorry. It’s all my fault,” she moaned.

“I think Latte and Muffin Man is asking Rachel for your phone number, but don’t worry about that.” Rick joked and handed Buffy a cup of herbal tea. “So this happened how?”

The tea was good, which surprised Buffy, since herb tea usually tasted like boiled spell ingredients in her experience. But she could almost feel the sweet and cinnamon-y tea seep into her muscles and melt away some of the tension. Once she was finished with the tea and Rick had given her a second cup, she explained everything that had happened the night before. The mess at the porn house, the scary sex with Spike, and her meltdown in the bathroom afterwards. Rick listened with a sober expression and didn’t interrupt or ask questions until Buffy was finished, which was a pleasant change. Somehow, the urge to cry had passed and Buffy merely wiped at her teary eyes with a café napkin and wondered if her eyes looked like uncooked meatballs.

Once Buffy was done with her story, Rick leaned back in her desk chair and gave her such a look of concerned worry that she almost looked like Giles for a moment. Or it could have been the glasses.

“And you feel how about all this?” Rick asked.

“Angry, confused, guilty. The usual.”

“Angry at who?”

“The car, for doing whatever it did to Xander, Xander for wanting me, Spike for not stopping sooner, and me for having sex with Spike while Xander was out cold on the floor. He could have been dead. That wasn’t a very nice thing for a friend to do, right?”

“It wasn’t nice of him to knock you out and duct tape you to a bed, either.”

“But it wasn’t his fault. It was the car’s.”

“So none of this would have happened if it hadn’t been for the car.”

“Right.”

“So you shouldn’t blame Xander, Spike, or yourself. You need to blame the car. It was a situation that was out of your control. Xander obviously had some issues with the fact that Spike had sex with his girlfriend. The car just gave him an opportunity to act on what shouldn’t have been acted on.”

“The wrong is me. The wrong is me having sex with Spike while Xander was out cold on the floor. Nothing makes that right.”

Shrugging, Rick poured herself another cup of tea. “Like you’re the first person who’s ever done that. Plenty of people have had sex while their roommate was passed out on the floor. It’s practically a rite of passage in the big universities.”

“I’m supposed to be the Defender of the People Against the Forces of Darkness!” Buffy blurted. “I’m not supposed to get all hot and bothered when vampires go all vampy!”

“According to who?”

“The Watcher’s Council. Sacred duty, into every generation a Slayer is born. One girl to save humanity from vampires. Nothing is said about getting turned on by vampires.”

Rick made a dismissive gesture. “Watcher’s Council. Now that’s an upright and honest organization. The check is in the mail, we’re from the government and we’re here to help, and I won’t come in your mouth. Tell me another one.”

While Buffy’s mouth worked, producing nothing more intelligible than a stammering noise, Rick leaned over her desk and gave Buffy a hard look.

“It’s all about positive reinforcement, sweetie. When you kill a vampire, your heart rate rises, your skin flushes, and you feel tingly and alive. Classic arousal response. They used to call it fight or flight, when they should have been calling it flight, fight, or fuck. I think that whatever supernatural forces give you your vampire slaying abilities also make it physically pleasurable for you to kill them. An added incentive, if you want. Like a runner’s high. “

Buffy nodded. This made much sense.

“So you have the linking of violence, slaying vampires, with pleasure. It’s a baby step to linking violence itself with pleasure, with sex, and having sex with violence with vampires is right next door.”

“If that were true, all the Slayers would have been dating vampires,” she protested.

Shrugging, Rick picked up her teacup and considered Buffy over the rim. “Who says they weren’t? Are you going to trust the Watcher’s Council’s word? That’s probably the last thing that they want – for Slayers to start seeing the vampire side of things and having any kind of sympathy for them. It might make slaying too much like murder.”

Although Rick was nice, and she did make sense, Buffy’s head was starting to hurt from all the thoughts and ideas that were crammed inside fighting for room. Rick seemed to sense this and flashed Buffy another one of her grins.

“Go home and get some rest, smack your vampire around a little and have a good time. Your sex life is your business. Just communicate with him because men, even if they are close to two hundred, can be pretty clueless.”

****

Sleeping in Buffy’s bed, Spike was so surrounded by her scent and her essence that he nearly didn’t notice when she slipped into the sheets with him. Her arms were warm around his chest and her breath against his neck smelled pleasantly of coffee and chocolate. So she had gone to work after all, to play with Rick and the other girls at the Café. Her attitude had undergone a sea-change for the better since she had started there. Spike opened his eyes and found himself staring into her wide hazel eyes. Her nose brushed against his, and her expression brightened.

“Hey,” she said.

“Hey yourself. What are you doing home?”

“Rick kicked me out so I could get some rest. After last night’s weirdness, I could use it.” Buffy’s expression changed, softened. “Are you okay? With the stabbage and everything?”

“Been better, been worse. What about you?”

“Tired. Mad at the car, looking forward to killing it.”

Spike wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do. Buffy’s whole demeanor was confusing him – friendly and somewhat flirtatious. If the fact that she was rubbing her bare thigh against his cock was any indication. She was blinking doe-eyes at him even as her toes caressed his. It wasn’t much of a surprise when she finally pressed her mouth to his in a delicious chocolate-flavored kiss.

“Slayer—“ he began, when she finally came up for air.

“Yeah, the Xander thing, I was there, remember?” she said with a little sigh. “Can we just skip the part where we fight about it and just go straight to the making up part?”

“Quickly then, I shouldn’t have let my demon get the better of me. It’s happened before and it’s likely to happen again. I had no right to force myself on you.”

“Not complaining about that. Just saying that you were all fangy and horny and loaded up on Xander’s espresso-type blood and it was like being drunk. No different from me getting drunk and acting like a skank – not that I would do anything like that.”

“Of course not.”

“C’mere,“ she said and dragged his face back to hers. “So who’s the big bad anyway?”

They entwined under the sheets like knots of white and gold cording, kissing and caressing, cotton sidling over bare skin with a faint hiss. She ran her hands over every bit of his skin that she could reach, tangled fingers into his hair, dug her nails into the muscles of his back, while making tiny birdlike noises of pleasure into his shoulder. She was like melted honey barely contained under her skin. Somehow they linked, interlocking, hipbone to hipbone, lip to lip, her legs wrapped around his waist. He slid into the intoxicating depths of her, so slippery slick that there was barely any friction in her warm body.

She moaned and rose to meet him, her head flung back and her neck arched towards his dangerous mouth. Complete and utter trust with her throat bared to him and offered up to him like a gift. It just made him harder, more needy, and he lifted her hips so he could thrust even more deeply than before. He sunk his flat human teeth into her skin right above the spot he had pierced days earlier. She let out a noise like a cat with a trodden-upon tail and thrashed against him, clamping down around him and scissoring her legs hard enough around his waist that he worried about his ribs.

Biting her lower lip, Buffy let her eyes roll back in her head and Spike couldn’t help but explode as she dragged him over the edge of the cliff with her. His brain seemed to fragment into a snowglobe of glittery sensation.

Afterwards, she cuddled up against him with the contented smile of a cream-fed cat.

This would have been worth losing multiple fingers for.

****

“C’mon, shift your ass, haven’t got all night,” Spike announced and flung the armful of clean clothes on the hospital bed.

All he saw was a flash of Xander’s now-red face as Harris pulled the sheets over his head.

“Not you. Go away, I can’t look at you.”

“Save your brain from fryin’ by that tin bitch of yours and this is gratitude? Get up, mate. We’ve got to scarper.”

“Speak American. Actually, go away.” The sheet trembled.

“Not in your wildest dreams, need you for KITTE bait.” Spike smirked at his own pun and leaned against the wall. “I’m not coddling you through your crisis with your tiny masculinity. On the clock here.”

“Thanks, Spike, I feel so much better.” Xander sounded more like himself, a combination of anger and embarrassment.

“Speakin’ of your willie–” Spike began with malicious glee.

“No! No speaking about that. Never. It was a mass hallucination, it never happened.”

“It amazes me that you don’t need a pair of tweezers to pull it out to take a slash. I’ve seem some freakishly tiny dicks in my time, but yours is Ripley’s Believe It or Not material.”

Only a small portion of Spike’s annoyance was feigned. He’d woken up with a delayed-effect splitting Harris headache right before dark, and had found the Slayer crashed out on the sofa in the living room. The fact that she hadn’t seen fit to crawl back into bed with him was enough to make him want to crack Xander’s head open to look for the toy surprise inside.

“I hate you,” Xander announced and pulled the sheet away from his face with a furious jerk.

“Good, the entire universe isn’t utterly fucked up.”

Snorting with anger, Harris flounced out of the hospital bed on the side away from Spike and began fumbling his clothes on, carefully concealing his body from vampire eyes. Because there was nothing else to do, Spike read Xander’s chart. From what he could make of the jargon and bad handwriting, it appeared that the boy had been pumped full of amphetamines, male hormones, adrenaline, steroids, and a couple other things Spike didn’t recognize. Any of the unknown chemicals could have been what caused him to pass out after drinking Xander’s blood. It looked like there were brain scans scheduled for the next day because of some irregular electrical activity in Xander’s brain. Spike bitterly mused that he didn’t need to be a doctor to realize that something was wrong with the kid’s head. That much science fiction couldn’t be good for a young brain.

The diagnosis had been that Alexander Harris had overdosed, probably on a combination of illegal drugs and a commercially available weight and strength building formula. The bite marks were rationalized as long-term injection sites in an easily concealed area.

“Brain fried. All screwed up from whatever sound mojo thing that KITTE was playing on the stereo. Willow told me all about it. I was brainwashed.”

And it was the cherry on top of the sundae of screwed-up that was Sunnydale that Willow’d been flitting among the three of them like a red-headed owl bringing messages from one to another. Going after KITTE with Buffy and Xander both – even with Willow along as insulation – had to be high up on the list of Stupidest Plans Ever, and this included both von Falkenhyne’s decision to attack Verdun and Angelus’s decision to stick around Sunnydale when carrying out his end-of-the-world scheme.

“Brainwashed, is that what they’re calling it? Shouldn’t take much to disturb a couple dozen brain cells.”

“Buffy must hate me,” Harris sighed and pulled sweatpants on under the hospital johnny.

Not as much as she hates herself, mate, Spike thought.

“Nah, she just thought she’d found Cockzilla before you unzipped and displayed your shortcomings to the world.” Spike folded his arms over his chest and enjoyed watching Harris splutter.

“You didn’t mind at the time, asshole.”

“I’d do almost anythin’ to keep Buffy out of your greasy paws. Almost anythin’. I wouldn’t fuck you with a stolen dick.”

“Jam a stake in it, Champagne Blonde #12.” Harris came around the hospital bed, pulling the sweatshirt straight over his torso. “I’ve put up with your bullshit for years. Give me an excuse and I’ll make an ash out of you.”

“You’re breakin’ my heart here, Harris. After everythin’ I’ve done for you, you treat me like this? If you want ta’ break it off with me, let me know.”

Xander just gave Spike a look that blurred the line between embarrassment and disgust.

“One more thing, Harris.” Spike said in his most civilized tones. “You made Buffy cry. If you do anything that upsets her that way ever again, I’m going to rip off your left arm and beat you to death with it. Don’t think that I won’t. I value Buffy’s happiness far more than I value my eternal soul.”

Blinking, Xander finished straightening his sweatshirt and Spike saw that he’d gone a sickly shade of pale under his construction tan.

“Is that clear?” Spike prodded.

“Yeah, beyond clear.”

The orderly took that opportunity to come in with the hospital-mandated wheelchair and Harris, reacting with long practice from years of Scoobying, slumped into the seat. The orderly flashed a nervous smile from vampire to human while Harris glowered. Spike stalked over to the bed and began stuffing Harris’ dirty clothes and the fashion abortion of a leather coat into the flimsy hospital-provided bag while the orderly wheeled Harris out of the room. As they headed down the hallway, Spike could hear the trailing end of the orderly’s Sunnydale PC voice.

“So, your — uh– boyfriend’s came to pick you up? That’s nice.”

“He’s not my boyfriend!”

The DeSoto was still parked in the ambulance-only spaces outside the ER, and Buffy and Willow fluttered around the car like nervous pigeons outside a cattery. Xander and Buffy made a great show of not looking at one another, and Buffy hovered near Spike and treated him like a vampire shield against embarrassment. Harris made an awkward transfer from the wheelchair to the back seat of the car and it was obvious that the bite still hurt despite the brave face he’d put on. At least the kid wasn’t complaining and Spike wasn’t obligated to point out that Xander was one of the few who’d been bitten by William the Bloody and lived.

“So what are we going to do?” Xander asked, faking hearty concern.

“I’ve set up generators at the mouth of the alley behind the Magic Shop,” Willow nattered, fiddling with Xander’s seatbelt as she helped him into the back seat. Xander growled, and Spike had to stifle a laugh as the witch jumped away as if he’d bitten her.

“And what, pray tell, does that mean?” Spike asked.

Willow slashed annoyed eyes at him. “It means I’ve set up a big electromagnet in order to degauss all the car’s computer equipment. Do you really want me to explain in words you can understand?”

He made a face at her. “Don’t take it out on me, pet, I wasn’t the one who bought the car of evil.”

“Not evil!” Xander protested, and then shrank like his penis under their combined glares. “Overenthusiastic, and a little manipulative, but KITTE really means well.”

“Yeah, that’s why she pumped you so full of steroids it’s amazing you weren’t speaking German. Ah-nuld.” Buffy was still nursing a grudge, it seemed.

“Focus, guys!” Willow frowned and continued, “Xander, do you have a way to contact KITTE? To bring her over to the Magic Shop?”

“Yeah,” Xander acknowledged.

“Good, you can call her from there.” After bobbing about like the monk with the problem of the goose, the grapes and the fox, Willow got in beside Xander, which put Buffy in the front passenger seat.

Spike started up the DeSoto, which at least was behaving itself. Under the circumstances, he restrained himself from asking Buffy to light him a fag, even though his bum hand meant he was smokeless.

“The plan is to wipe the car’s program with the electromagnets. It should even work afterwards, at least after I make sure all the code of evil is gone.” Willow was trying so hard to make conversation that Spike thought she deserved some sort of accolade.

“An’ when the plan goes to shit, what do we do then?” He wasn’t actually the kind of vamp who delivered accolades.

“Well, the target is the CPU. According to the plans I winkled out of the woman who sold Xander the car, it’s in a cabinet under the glove compartment.”

Spike nodded. “Got a slim jim in the trunk. I’ll bring it along. Just in case.”

“What does beef jerky have to do with anything?” Buffy complained.

“It’s a tool like Xander-boy here, only it has a purpose, ” Spike explained, sounding very patient if he did say so himself. “Breaking into cars.”

“Um, the front light is where the key sensor array is, the move-y red Cylon thing–” Willow hurried before Buffy could snark at him for owning burglars’ tools. “If there is a problem, focus on smashing the array and you can essentially blind the car. It’s heavily reinforced, though, in order to survive head-on collisions. Just hitting it with a baseball bat is probably not enough.”

“It’s a really nice car,” Xander said in a weak voice from the backseat.

“Xander.” Buffy spun in her seat to face him, all Alpha Slayer and flashing eyes. “We’ve had plenty of shiny, pretty, nice bad things in Sunnydale. This is just another bad with tires instead of feet or flippers. It did bad things, it made you do bad things, and tried to get you to kill people. It’s got to be taken down. You’re either with us or you’re against us. Get it?”

“With you,” Xander agreed in a hopeless voice.

“The question is, can we destroy the car without getting the Slayer behind the wheel?” Spike asked and earned a dirty look for his pains.

****

They all listened as Xander made the phone call. And how perfectly Sunnydale that the phrase “car phone” had taken on a whole new meaning.

KITTE accepted the order to meet Xander behind the Magic Shop with no complaint, so all there was to do was pile discarded cardboard boxes around to conceal the big electromagnets and then pace.

Red light flashed against the brick wall at the end of the alley, turning the fire escape on the building opposite into an enormous, spaghetti-like mass of light and shadow.

“Showtime,” Xander said as if he were narrating for the blind and took out a handgun. It looked pretty small compared to the car.

Slowly, grinding scattered trash under her wheels, the car approached.

“Xander,” the smooth voice came sliding out from the car, “my sensors have detected dangerous electronic equipment approximately three yards in front of you. Preparing EMP.”

“Oops,” Willow said, though Buffy got the gist of it without tech support.

There was a sharp pop, and coppery-smelling smoke began to seep out around the piled-up boxes.

“Xander, what is the purpose of this ambush?” Even though she knew it was just programming, the car’s seductive tone made Buffy’s skin crawl. A boy car would have been much more tolerable.

“Uh, ambush?” Xander shrugged nervously. “I don’t know what you mean. If we were going to ambush you, why would we be in a dead-end alley with nowhere to run if things went bad?”

“Good bloody question,” Spike chimed in.

There was a piece of discarded piping, nearly ten feet long, at the ground by her feet. She spared a moment to be grateful for Sunnydale’s lack of garbage collecting prowess, then snatched it up. “Run!” she ordered and suited action to words.

Two black and shiny things, sort of like stereo speakers, erupted from the sides of the car and swiveled towards her. Then a wave of – sound? — swept over her with the force of a troll’s punch, knocking her a few yards back. Buffy barely kept her balance, shook her head to clear it, and started forward again, pipe held out in front of her like a lance aimed at KITTE’s red smirk. Her ears were ringing and the absence of sound made her feel as if her head were wrapped in cotton batting.

In her peripheral vision, she could see Xander’s mouth moving. The stereo speakers retracted, and something else came out.

When she dodged the first metal arrow, she knew what it was. Sweeping the pipe from side to side, she knocked the next few out of the air, then had to bring the pipe back into position.

She felt the crash in every cell as pipe met sensor array. The array didn’t break, and neither did the pipe. To avoid being skewered, she had to move to one side, still holding onto the pipe as it bent, shivered, and flung her into the air.

Okay, the pole vault was unplanned, but she could work with it. The fire escapewas at this end of the alley, and if she stretched at the top of the jump she just might make it, and be behind the car.

Extending her arms as far as she could, Buffy managed to get one hand on the second-floor part of the fire escape, which up close proved to be more rust than metal. She could feel it shake and settle as she swung back and forth, trying to kick her legs up so she could stand on it.

“Oh good,” she muttered as more weapony things came out of KITTE’s trunk. “What now?”

What now was light, too-bright-to-look-at-light that went through the fire escape’s struts like a lightsaber. Scrambling up to the third story, she dodged more laser flashes and wished she still had her pole. The car’s roof was within jumping range, well, within extended jumping range anyway.

Five feet of rusted ladder fell to the ground with what she assumed was a big clang.

Willow, apparently willing to try magic as a last resort, was creating something multicolored and whirly between her hands when one of KITTE’s arrows went through her shoulder, knocking her to the ground. Xander dove after her, shielding her with his body.

By the fourth floor, the lasers seemed to be losing force. At least, they were taking time to saw through the fire escape, which gave her a few moments to think while the car backed towards her. She didn’t notice the lasers going up to the fifth floor until the fire escape rumbled and she looked up at the block of metal heading towards her.

“Oh, f–“

****

Seeing the little body with a veil of blonde hair fall from the fire escape made Spike die again. He remembered dying the first time with his hands full of Drusilla’s hair and the smell of the horses in the stable, but the pain of having the life sucked out of him was nothing compared to this. Leaping out of the cover of the dumpster, he sprinted to where Buffy had fallen, and being a vampire, it was a fucking impressive sprint.

Not as bad, not as bad, not as bad as her leap into death on Glory’s tower, only four floors up. A human could survive four floors, a Slayer should bounce. He skidded next to her, dropping to his knees and tearing the hell out of jeans and skin. No blood, all Buffy’s body parts seemed to be at the right angles, no look of broken doll. Pulse, still fast and angry at her throat. Her heart was beating at him, pissed that he hadn’t saved her.

She moaned and stirred slightly. Xander was there in a moment, grabbing Spike’s arm.

“She’s—“

“Out cold. Get her out of here.”

Supporting Buffy between them, Spike and Xander, followed by Willow, dodged back into the alley behind the Magic Shop. Spike could see the reflections of KITTE’s lights, white and red, in scattered puddles in front of the alley entrance. After a moment, there was a whirring sound as the car pulled back, and the lights went away.

“Will,” Xander said, more self-loathing in his voice than Spike had heard yet from him.

“I’m okay,” Willow lied. “If we leave the arrow in, it’ll be okay. For now.”

“What about the Slayer?”

“I think she’ll be all right,” Willow said and used her working arm to push some of the blood-wet hair back from Buffy’s forehead.

Spike swallowed the stone in his throat and tried not to remember Buffy’s broken and dead body in the wreckage of Glory’s tower. He couldn’t allow himself the luxury of going over moment one of those feelings not now – not ever, really.

“Right. You lot get her inside and to hospital. I’ll get Miss Motor City out of the way and deal with her myself.”

“No, I’m here too. Willow, you go with Buffy. I fucked this up and now I have to help end it.” Xander sounded almost heroic.

Spike was almost impressed.

“You do that, Red, don’t fuck about.” He suspected that Buffy wouldn’t want them to leave the wounded Willow on her own, but the witch had the strength of character required to help Buffy even one-armed.

Leaving Willow to drag Buffy into the Magic Shop and call the paramedics, Spike strode out into the main alleyway, Xander shuffling nervously beside him.

“Okay, you, me, car. Strangely enough we are without a rocket launcher or guided missiles, so your plan should be cunning and brilliant, right?”

“Plans are overrated.”

“Spike–” Harris whined.

“Oh please, kindly remember that it’s me you’re dealin’ with an’ not Montgomery.” The red glow at the end of the cross alley might have come from KITTE, or it might have been an innocent motorist. In California the latter was unlikely; in Sunnydale, doubly so. “The car’s got infrared vision, am I right?”

“Yeah.”

“So she can see you in the dark, but she maybe can’t see me. I’m thinkin’ that you distract the tin-plated bitch, and I make a smash and grab for the computer whatsit.”

“A brilliant and original plan. Has that ever worked?” Xander’s delivery indicated doubt.

“I’ve done it before. Now just point your big, manly gun at the pretty red lights and make them go away. Played enough video games, ain’t you?”

“Hey, I’ve still got soldier reflexes,” Xander protested, then stood up and went to the corner of the alley. Spike followed, half a foot behind.

“I’m going to try to talk to her first, man to car.”

“You really are a girl,” Spike accused, but Xander had already stepped into the path of KITTE’s headlights, the gun held loosely behind his back. Spike hugged the wall and began sidling towards the car.

“KITTE, this isn’t right. All we want to do is make some modifications in your programming, so you won’t be dosing me with drugs without my consent.”

“Your physical and psychological profile was not in complete conformity with mission parameters,” the car explained, sounding oddly reasonable.

“That’s not good enough,” Xander said. “You didn’t tell me. And it made me violent, made me — hurt — my friends. That was wrong.”

“As wrong as betraying me?” As the words came out, ports on the car opened and ugly-looking guns popped up. Before the question was finished, she’d begun to fire, sending Xander rabbiting for cover and forcing Spike into a run.

KITTE’s guns were tracking, faster than movies suggested they ought, and he was going to be multiply perforated if he didn’t think fast. Then, as if things weren’t bad enough, what looked like a row of wooden stakes came out of the hood of the car. He dodged and rolled out of the way of the first few, but he couldn’t keep that up long, especially with the guns on him as well, sending bullets towards the ground to make him get up and dance. At least the stake launcher turned more slowly than the automatics. Zigging when the guns zagged, he headed towards KITTE at speed.

The guns swiveled inwards, as if the car were crossing her eyes. He barely made it onto the hood, knees bracketing the stake launcher, tipping his body forward to get away from it. Clambering up as a hot trail etched itself along his left calf, he splayed himself out on the roof. As he’d thought, she couldn’t swivel the guns to that angle. Now, if he could open the passenger side window from above, he could reach in and –

The heretofore unnoticed sunroof opened, and he fell in.

He could hear Xander yelling as the roof closed like a maw snapping shut.

Inside the car was a haze of bitter-smelling smog, presumably some antipersonnel gas that didn’t work so well on the already-dead. He grabbed onto the passenger side headrest and tried to keep from falling onto the seats, given KITTE’s ability to bind any recalcitrant passengers. His legs scissored around the driver’s side headrest, and only unnatural balance prevented him from falling ass over teakettle.

“Xander Harris, you’ve proven unequal to the task set before you,” KITTE’s sex-kitten voice boomed in his ears. Whirling red numbers on the dashboard cut through the smog. With Spike’s luck, they were tracking young Xander preparatory to delivering the traffic ticket of a lifetime. He reached out with his good hand to brace against the glove compartment, feeling for some seam underneath that would show him the location of the CPU.

A jet of flame shot from the middle of the dashboard. Spike yelped and twisted back. Fucking backup security measures. Using the headrest as a pivot, he scrabbled backwards until his feet were braced up against the back window, less exposed to whatever else the damned car had on her dash. This was turning into fucking Mission Impossible, without the useful gadgets on his side.

Carefully, he transferred the slim jim from his right hand to his left. It should be just long enough to allow him access without turning him into barbecue.

KITTE rolled over something big, bouncing him like a kitten in a tin drum and almost causing him to lose his grip. When that didn’t work, she began shimmying from side to side.

At least he’d diverted her attention from Xander. He kept a death (or whatever) grip on the headrest as he reached out to trail the slim jim down the glove compartment. “I’d say I was sorry to be feelin’ you up, love, but you’re not the kind of girl who needs seducin’.”

“Vampire,” KITTE said, not as a prelude to talking. As he found the crack that hid the CPU, laser light blinded him. Then the pain began.

The bitch was etching a cross into his forehead! Letting go of the headrest and ducking his face down, he brought his leather-clad arm up to block the laser. Crosses being what they were – even, apparently, when wielded by machine intelligence – the leather began to smolder, along with the arm underneath it. He grimaced and prodded more diligently at the cover for the CPU. There had to be a catch, so it could be opened for maintenance, and with one last twist of his wrist, he found it.

KITTE squealed shrilly and drove herself into a wall, throwing Spike into the backseat. Only vampire reflexes saved him from the steel bands that lanced out to catch him, and one actually pinched his duster. Snarling, he threw himself back onto the headrest.

Now would be a really good time to have Spiderman’s sticky hands, he thought as he once again wriggled into position, plastered as close to the roof as he could get. The CPU panel was hanging open, but he didn’t get much chance to look at it, because the lasers were battering at him again.

The roof reopened, nearly causing him to lose his balance, and he had half a second to wonder why before he was hit in the chest and legs with what felt like two sofa cushions filled with quarters.

Ejector seats. Of course. Wouldn’t be a trick car without them, he realized as he flew upwards, the slim jim knocked from his hand and spiraling back down into KITTE’s interior. Had to give the car her propers, she didn’t give up. The car’s wheels screamed as she backed up, the better to run him over as soon as he landed.

Xander came from out of nowhere, like a demon descending, a two-by-four in his steroid-pumped hands. Instead of smashing KITTE on the nose, which was obviously useless, he drove the wood like a javelin into the side of her sensor array, at the point where it disappeared into the car.

Spike landed, poorly cushioned by the seat cushions, just as KITTE screamed like a wounded horse and a shower of sparks threw Xander back into a dumpster.

He bounced back to his feet and ran towards the car. Her guns were swiveling randomly, firing into the sky and the alley and everywhere in between. Xander scrabbled behind the dumpster.

Again, he did the belly-dive onto the roof, which was still open, so the dive turned into a somersault of sorts. The car’s dashboard was a riot of blinking colors, and there was a shrill extended beep coming from somewhere. He reached down and felt plastic-coated wires surrounding a solid object.

When he pulled out a handful of wires, a surge of current went through him, sending every muscle spasming. For a moment, he could feel his undead heart try to remember its beat. Another handful, and the solid thing in the middle of the wiring was too tightly connected to the rest of the car to rip out one-handed.

The guns ceased firing.

“Xander?”

He sensed rather than saw the boy struggle to his feet and approach.

“Yeah, babe?”

“What is happening? I cannot see. My internal processors are failing.”

Spike went for more wires, using both hands now, as Xander put a hand on the hood. His voice was quiet, respectful. “Don’t worry about it, KITTE. You’ve been fighting for so long. It’s time to rest.”

“Xander, I –”

The rest was silence. Gently, ignoring the way that torn wires scratched and bit at his hands, Spike pulled the CPU core from its tangled nest and put it in the back seat.

“How did this happen?” Xander asked no one in particular. “All she wanted to do was the right thing.”

“Getting mixed up with humans, I expect.”

“Thanks.” Xander scowled at him, but there was rue in his expression as well. Yeah, Spike knew that drill, road to Hell, good intentions, knew it inside out and upside down. The problem was, it wasn’t as if the road to Heaven were paved with bad intentions.

Xander finally broke the silence. “I’m pretty impressed that we made it.”

“Yeah, me too. Didn’t think it would work.”

“You said you’d done it before!”

“Didn’t say it ever worked before.”

Xander’s look of mingled fear and anger was worth – well, about half of the fight, if not the whole thing. “C’mon, let’s get to hospital, see if the witch can fix my pretty face.”

~~~~

All things considered, the hospital bed wasn’t all that uncomfortable. What was uncomfortable was the pounding in Buffy’s head and foot. She didn’t actually remember falling from the fire escape, which meant that she’d been knocked out, and she wasn’t about to admit to that because being knocked out always lead to an overnight stay. For observation. She could be perfectly well observed at home. She wouldn’t just be observed at home, she’d be hovered over. By Spike. The way Spike was hovering now, or how he was hovering when he wasn’t playing with everything in the room.

“Stop it.”

“Wasn’t doin’ nothin’,” Spike said and pumped the blood pressure cuff thing even harder.

No matter how long he stared at the needle on that thing, nothing was happening. He could have gotten a better reaction wrapping the blood pressure cuff around a chair leg.

“I have no blood pressure. I’m dead,” he announced and rolled his duster sleeve back down.

“No, really?”

“Buffy Summers?”

The Emergency Room doctor stepped into the exam area and pulled the curtain shut behind herself. The woman was small, Asian, and beautiful. Sitting there with her torn clothes and bruised face, Buffy felt ugly and enormous.

“I’m Doctor Lin. So, I see you’re on our frequent flyer program. Your file’s still printing out on the computer,” the doctor observed and pulled up a rolling stool to sit near Buffy’s head.

“What happened this time?” she asked.

“Fell off a fire escape.”

The doctor’s expression indicated that she believed this about as much as she believed that pigs flew south for the winter. She took Buffy’s chin in her hands and squinted at the bruising on the side of her face.

“Walk into a door as well?” she asked, casting a look over at Spike, who was leaning up against the wall with his arms crossed over his chest, looking every inch The Bad Boyfriend Who Beat Girls Up. It didn’t help that the healing burns on his cheek and forehead resembled defensive scratch marks.

“Still with the fire escape.”

“Could you excuse us, please?” Doctor Lin wasn’t really asking. Spike didn’t smirk, just nodded and left, which made Buffy wonder whether he’d hit his head once too often.

“Buffy, you’ve had an inordinate number of injuries for a girl your age. Actually, you’ve had an inordinate number of injuries for a Marine. And I see you have custody of your younger sister.” Buffy stiffened. If the concerned doctor called Child Protective Services, Dawn could be taken away faster than a vamp turned to dust. “Is that the kind of example you want to set for her?”

She swallowed and took a moment to think. “Doctor, believe me, I know my history looks weird. I was a pretty wild teenager, and I took some awful risks. But like you said, I’ve got a sister to look after now. All this was, was a stupid idea we had about having a kinda picnic on the fire escape, only it did a lot more escaping than we’d really planned.”

The doctor stared at her for what felt like Angel’s hundred years in Hell. “All right,” she said finally. “But you should really be more careful. You broke one of the bones in your lower leg, and you’ll be wearing a cast for at least six weeks.”

Buffy groaned in unfeigned sadness and pain. She had a vivid image of herself, poking through Sunnydale’s graveyards on crutches sharpened at the ends to serve as stakes. And how was she going to work? Speaking of which, how was she going to pay for this hospital visit? That wasn’t something she ought to mention to the doctor – she didn’t think they kicked out penniless patients, but she didn’t want to test the theory.

“I’ll send a nurse for some pain meds. And I’ll be back in a bit to discuss cast care and things like that,” the doctor said and rose, still looking dubious. “Shall I send your – friend – back in?”

“Sure,” she said indifferently, trying to figure out what she was going to do about patrolling. And now that she knew the leg was broken, it hurt even more.

Spike wheeled Willow in as soon as the doctor left.

“Buffy!” Willow raised one arm, as if she wanted to give Buffy half a hug. Her other arm was held against her side like a broken wing, underneath a bandage whose bulk on her shoulder looked like a hunchback.

“Willow! What happened?” She glared at Spike. Even if he hadn’t personally put Willow in a wheelchair, she was sure he was involved somehow.

“Just a little collateral damage.” Willow shrugged, then winced.

“Arrow through the shoulder,” Spike elucidated.

“Arrow?” she repeated.

“Car was loaded for bear. An’ vampire,” he added. “Nearly got staked my own self before rippin’ her wiry heart out. ‘Course I didn’t do half as much damage to the car as you might’ve, if the little bitch had let you drive.”

Buffy rolled her eyes. “I just acted my heart out to convince the doctor that you’re not responsible for my extensive collection of injuries, and this is the thanks I get? Speaking of which, how did you explain the arrow, Will?”

“I didn’t,” she said. “I think they were more concerned with how to get it out. Even in Sunnydale, you don’t get impalings every night.”

True enough. “Spike, you’re going to have to go to the ATM and see how much money we have. I don’t even know how I can pay for this –“

“No worries!” Willow chirped. “Total Blue Cross/Blue Shield coverage, thanks to a few minutes alone with the extremely outdated system this place uses.” She wriggled the fingers on her free hand. “I still got it.”

A nurse came in. “Buffy Summers?”

“Present!” She stuck her hand in the air as if he were going to call on her.

“I have some pain medication for you.”

“Bless you and all your children.” Spike and Willow exchanged glances that suggested she’d already had too much pain medication, but they weren’t the ones who were broken. Okay, yes, Willow was perforated and Spike bolted back together, but still, ow!

Buffy took the little paper cup with its friendly pills, gulped down the water the nurse held out to her, and relaxed back into the bed. Over by the entrance, Spike and Willow were having a quiet, intense conversation.

“What are you guys plotting?” she asked as soon as the nurse had closed the door behind himself.

“Just discussin’ who gets to watch Dawn and who gets to watch you. Floppy-boy is pretty much out.”

“Anya is back in town,” Willow confided. “I think Xander’s just overloaded. Retreated to his apartment to sulk and brood.”

Buffy wondered how Anya would respond to Xander’s little dalliance with her and Spike. She could hardly take it worse than Xander had on learning about Spike and Anya. And wasn’t this all a little incestuous? They weren’t even six degrees of romantic separation apart. Super creepy, especially if she counted that time when they all lost their memories and Anya kissed Giles.

She shuddered involuntarily.

After a few more minutes of whispered conversation, Spike wheeled Willow out to put her in a cab back to Revello Drive. Buffy lay back and felt the drugs working. Quick Slayer metabolism made them run through her too fast, but for the same reasons they didn’t take long to ease the pain. She felt as if she were floating on soft, fluffy clouds of cotton. Which she was, really – wasn’t that what a mattress was, after all?

By the time Spike returned, she was giggling softly to herself.

“What’ve you got into now, pet?” Spike asked, pulling a chair from the side of the room and slinging it so he could sit near her head.

“Nothing much,” she said and smiled loopily at him. “Hey, you.”

He smirked. “Hey yourself. I should keep you drugged up regular-like.”

“Not funny,” she said, reaching out her hand to give him a friendly thwack on the arm. Spike winced, but she didn’t think she’d broken anything else.

“Why’nt you get some sleep, love,” he suggested, and the honest caring in his eyes (plus the opiates in her bloodstream) made her blink up at him, overwhelmed by his caring.

“You’re a good guy, Spike.”

“Hey!” he said and reared back, pretending outrage. “You watch that mouth of yours. Might get you in trouble, otherwise.”

“You’ll have to give me something else to do with it,” she said and yawned.

Spike put his head in his hands, smoothing back his hair because he couldn’t help himself even when he was trying to act aggravated, and raised his head with a newfound tolerant expression. “Tomorrow, I’ll do just that.”

“We’re okay, you and me,” she said seriously, wanting him to get the point. Not the stake point, but the point point. “I mean – I was upset, earlier.”

He looked at her, his expression sober.

“And you’re not now?”

“Well, not at you. What is it about spells and mind control things that make you want somebody that you shouldn’t? First it was Willow’s wish spell which made me want you, which was – ew. At the time, anyway. And then Xander has to get all hot over me because of the car. Running out of friends here. Next time I’ll probably be making out with Willow.”

Spike’s grin illuminated the room like a flashbulb.

“Can I watch?”

“Only if you’re good,” she said and yawned, a jaw-cracking yawn.

“You better get some sleep, you’re out of your mind on pills.”

“’Night, Spike.”

“Good night, Slayer,” he said and bent forward to kiss her brow between two healing cuts. “Sweet dreams.”

****

No one tried to roust him from the chair, even after visiting hours, which made Spike wonder whether Willow hadn’t worked her mojo and given him some sort of invisibility cloak. He wondered whether Willow could shield him from the sun, the way the gem of Amarra had. Buffy wouldn’t like it though, wouldn’t like the chance that other vamps would learn that it was possible. Ah well, a vampire can dream.

As predicted, the witch showed up early next morning. He was a bit more surprised to see the coffee shop owner in tow, carrying a warm, fruity-smelling box.

“Hi!” Willow chirped as Buffy, alerted to the presence of possible danger, turned and blinked at the newcomers. “We brought breakfast! Well, actually Rick brought breakfast, but I ran into her and she said I could take some of the credit!”

“Good morning,” Buffy said, smiling about equally at the two women. “But, first, can I get a bathroom break?”

“If you were on the clock I’d make you wait another fifteen minutes,” Rick joked, “but I guess that’s acceptable. Need any help?”

Buffy looked around and frowned. “There aren’t any crutches. Aren’t there supposed to be crutches? Spike, you can carry me to the bathroom and wait outside until I’m done.”

“Yes, mistress,” he muttered under his non-breath. He was pretty sure she heard him anyway.

As he closed the bathroom door so Buffy could brush her teeth and take care of other human needs in private, Willow and Rick were already breaking out the muffins. Spike crossed the room and snagged a chocolate chocolate-chip one so big that it looked as if it were about to spawn a dozen minimuffins. It was moist and chewy, nearly as good as a fresh mug of pig’s blood.

Speaking of which, he ought to take advantage of the hospital opportunity. Buffy banged on the bathroom door, and he went to help her. As soon as she was ensconced in the bed, banana walnut muffin in hand (and mouth), he announced, “I’m gonna take a bit of a walk, let you birds have a chat.”

Spike ducked out of the door before Buffy could protest.

If he recalled aright, the blood bank was two floors down and one corridor over. Blessing the sunlight-free design of modern hospitals, he took the most direct route.

Willow caught up with him on the second flight of stairs.

“What is it?” he asked, annoyed.

“You weren’t, by any chance, going to walk by the blood storage? Because Buffy and I think that maybe you’ve had enough human blood for a while.”

His face itched with the urge to vamp out and growl at her. True, Harris’s blood had roused the old lust. But what Buffy could never understand was that the desire never truly slept. No matter how much he drank, how many he killed, it was always just as urgent. Even draining Harris wouldn’t have made it worse, or better. But all these humans knew was bad analogies to addiction. Even Willow, who’d learned the hard way that magic wasn’t like heroin, wouldn’t get it, thinking that he’d be safer if kept away from easy blood.

He realized that they’d been standing, silent, on the landing for several minutes.

“Fine then. Let’s go back an’ see if the Slayer’s ready to be released.”

“We could get coffee instead,” Willow offered.

It seemed a reasonable proposition.

And yet – “Did that Rick person suggest we leave her alone with Buffy for a while?”

Willow blanched. “Buffy said she’s something powerful. I – it’s hard to think about her. Fuzzy.”

“Can’t be a good sign,” he called over his shoulder as he took the steps three at a time, nearly knocking over an unsuspecting orderly. From behind him, Willow growled something and the orderly, who’d begun to try a lecture, gasped and fell silent.

When Spike threw the door open, he was hit with a powerful wave of spices and dry heat. The room smelled like an Indian bazaar, and a butter-yellow glow surrounded both Rick and the hospital bed.

“Get. Away. From. Her.”

Spike dared an astonished look at Willow, who’d come in just after him. The witch’s eyes were pure black, like oil, and she was floating half a foot off the ground. Little blue lightning strikes coiled around her, hissing and waiting for her to let them off the leash.

Rick turned towards them, away from Buffy, and the glow diminished somewhat. She smiled and held out her open, empty hands.

“I’m not saying it again,” Willow warned, her voice booming in the small room. Her electrified hair spread around her head, which ought to have made her look ridiculous but instead reminded Spike of portraits of Joan of Arc. Black veins throbbed underneath her pale face, and the floor underneath her began to swirl, suggesting that she was drawing a lot of power from the earth.

“Okay, okay,” Rick said hastily and the glow disappeared. Willow’s manifested power, however, did not. At some point, Spike noted, her hair had gone black. He honestly hoped that the witch would control herself; he hadn’t minded missing her attempt to destroy the world, and he found he’d lost the taste for beating up Buffy’s friends.

“You’re going to explain yourself,” Willow warned. Over at the side of the room, something made of glass shattered. “You don’t want to make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”

“Yeah, right,” Spike chimed in, feeling ignored.

“You bet, Willow. Just calm down, all right?”

Willow snarled and a bolt of raw red power hit Rick in the stomach, knocking her back a few feet. “I can feel that trick now. Don’t try it again.”

Rick rubbed her belly, looking queasy. “Got it. Not exercising the powers. Just talking. Um,” she said and paused, tilting her head up and to the side as if she were talking to a God. Which, Spike thought, was not out of the question.

“Okay, it’s like this. I’m an avatar of Jannani,” She sighed at the blank looks she received. “Jannani is the Hindu Mother Goddess, mother of mankind, mother earth. The whole mother deal. I was sent to Sunnydale because this place is a black hole of anger, fear, and all sorts of ugly stuff that Jannani, as a rule, opposes. The idea was to open the Café, give women who needed work jobs, and dispense a little woman-friendly wisdom and magic along with the coffee and muffins. You do know that women are habitually victims of supernatural assault, right?”

Spike considered the toes of his boots for a moment, unwilling to look at Rick. Just what he needed, another female deity/avatar/whatever kicking him around. This was beyond whipped.

“When Dawn came into the shop, I knew that she was close to the center of the problem, and when she pulled her sticky-fingers act, I took the opportunity to get to know her, and she led me to Buffy. Of course, Buffy tuned out to be the real reason I needed to be here. To help her out the best I could without infringing on her life and her free will.”

Rick sighed and looked over at Buffy, sleeping peacefully on top of the hospital bedcovers.

“Buffy’s one sad young woman, you know that, right? Relationship troubles –“ she shot a quelling look at Spike – “abandonment issues, big sister/guardian of a powerful Key problems, and on top of all that the oldest Slayer in centuries. I looked it up after she told me. That Council thingamajig is heap bad news, let me tell you. Nothing worse than a bunch of Old White Men with a lot of power. Anyhow, Buffy needed some help in her own head before she could fight the rest of the world’s battles at top effectiveness, and that’s where I come in.”

“Come in, how?” Spike asked.

Rick shook her head. “This was all so much easier before humans knew science. Skipping the ugly details, Buffy’s been seratonin-starved at least since she came back from the dead. I helped and was trying again just now to help with her brain chemistry. Not putting anything there that’s not Buffy to begin with, just making it easier to be happy Buffy. I just straightened out the chemical balances. Magical Prozac.”

“Why should we believe you?” Willow asked, drifting closer. “You’ve put the whammy on me before. I can taste you on Spike too. Maybe you ought to run back to Jannani and tell him, or her, or it, that we take care of our own in Sunnydale.”

“Right, like bringing them back from heaven so they can continue to fight your battles?”

Willow’s head snapped back as if she’d been punched. Spike was almost grateful that she didn’t treat that as an invitation to get nonverbal. While Rick was watching Willow, Spike sidled in the general direction of the hospital bed, hoping to get between Rick and Buffy if the situation went further southwards.

“I’m sorry, that wasn’t fair,” Rick said, and she sounded sincere. “You were trying to do the right thing. As for trusting me –“

The lights flickered, and Spike had the oddest sensation, as if his ears had popped, or really more as if something in his brain had flickered in and out. Willow collapsed to the floor, her power vanished like a soap bubble, crying out in shock. Spike almost ran to her, but hurried to Buffy’s bedside instead. He didn’t have much chance of stopping Rick, he knew, but Buffy would know he’d tried.

“You can, you know. Trust me.” The smell was back, the one that had been lost beneath the ozone and charcoal of Willow’s powers. Like oranges studded with cloves, or frankincense and myrrh, or a pine forest in summer when the very loam buzzed with life.

Willow looked up, her face raw with helplessness Spike hadn’t seen since – had never wanted to see again. He grabbed at Buffy’s hand and found it limp and boneless, but she made a reassuringly normal snorting sound and tried to burrow into the pillows.

“You’re very brave, Willow,” Rick said gently. “But you don’t always have to be the one who can save the day.”

Then the room, Buffy, Willow and Rick all dissolved into white-gold light. Not sunlight, but what sunlight would bleed if it were cut.

After some time, Spike heard the sound of footsteps behind him. He turned, slowly, finding himself unable to move fast in the syrupy light.

It was Rick, of course.

“Hi, Spike. Is that really your name?”

“What’s in a name?” He tried to look away from her, into the featureless all-dissolving light, but somehow found himself staring into her eyes.

Rick smiled indulgently. “A lot, sometimes. Maybe not so much for Buffy, though.”

“Where is she?” He tried to vamp on her, but the demon was huddled in a ball in his ribcage, refusing to come out. That was bad.

“She’s going to be fine, just like I said. I just wanted to talk to you separately.”

“Tell me I’m not good enough for her, right?” He knew what minions of the Light must think of obscenities like himself. The creatures of Light were like politicians of the Right, in that they didn’t see any shades of gray. He and Angel were abominations, vampires with souls (and he hated to class himself with The Great Poof) neither fish nor fowl, and the Slayer might have one foot in each world but she wasn’t allowed to acknowledge that.

“No. You’re better for Buffy than you think you are. You’ve just got to remember that. Especially with the sex.” Rick said with a terribly serous expression. “Sex creates positive tantric energy, so you should give Buffy as many orgasms as possible.”

It was a good thing vampires didn’t blush, because this was as near to a blushing situation as any time in his undeath. “Been takin’ conversation lessons from Anyanka, have you?”

Rick blinked, her eyes fluttering as if she were accessing some internal database. “No, but that’s one interesting girl there. Pity I haven’t met her. Bring her by the coffee shop when you get a chance.”

“Right, in between bouts as the Slayer’s man-size vibrator.”

“I didn’t say that was all that was good for her about you. You know, her aura does get shinier when you’re around. She really, really likes you! But getting her to admit that is your problem.”

He gaped at her, trying to formulate a response, and then the world went even brighter.

****

“Slayer, if you don’t sit down and rest that leg I swear I’ll chew it off, ‘n then the rest of you can be out and about while the leg gets better.”

Buffy rolled her eyes, tuning out Spike’s grousing. Nevertheless, she hobbled back to the sofa and flopped down. Over on the armchair, Spike barely looked up from the book he was reading.

“I’m bored. All sit and no slay makes Buffy a dull girl,” she grumbled.

And no sex wasn’t helping any either.

Three nights he’d spent in bed with her, about as sexy as Mr. Gordo. Possibly less – Mr. Gordo didn’t have cold feet. Spike was treating her as if she were as delicate as the porcelain angel that went at the top of the Christmas tree and spent the rest of the year wrapped in about two tons of bubble wrap, inside a Tupperware bin with no other ornaments in it.

Buffy always wanted to play with the other ornaments. What was the point of a pretty thing if you couldn’t touch it?

Naturally, Spike was being unhelpful, with his cracks about how she might actually gain weight now that she couldn’t run around like an Olympic athlete. After three days, the worst of the bruises were gone, but she didn’t like the crutches at all. She was going to get fat. She was going to be huge. Six weeks in a cast without being able to work out and all the damn food that Spike was forcing her to eat was going to mean adding doubleknit polyester pants to her wardrobe.

She was fat and that’s why he didn’t want her anymore.

Sighing, Buffy looked out the front window and saw that the house across the street had a Christmas wreath on the door. How was she going to do Christmas gift shopping in a cast? Maybe she could use the handicapped parking spaces. For the first time since her mother had died, Buffy was looking forward to the holidays.

It probably had something to do with the magic brain chemical mojo Rick had put on her. Willow and Spike had explained, as best they could, how they’d all ended up back at Revello Drive, laid out together in the master bedroom, courtesy of Rick and her goddess. Spike had leered for about half a second until he remembered the most recent threesome, and then he’d looked away without saying anything, which was another of his ways of treating her as fragile.

She wasn’t fragile. He should know better.

She was feeling better, in her body and in her head and having Spike treat her like something breakable was threatening to ruin her good mood. Obviously what she had to do was prove to him that she wasn’t damage-able. Frowning, Buffy sat and thought, and a plan gradually came to her.

“I want to go upstairs. I need to nap,” she announced.

Spike came up to the sofa and swept her into his arms. The cast stuck out at a terrible angle, which was funny enough that she deigned to put her arms around his neck. She tried to burrow her face into his neck but he flinched.

“Back in bed, then,” he said, his tone gentle. “Only you could get in a car wreck without even drivin’ the car.

“Too bad we couldn’t manage that,” he added as an afterthought, when they were on the stairs. “Would have saved an awful lot of trouble if Xander’d just let you drive. Killed it quick and merciful-like.”

“Hey,” she protested. “The Jeep’s still there.”

“Mostly,” he pointed out, carefully moving her so her foot wouldn’t dislodge the pictures on the stairway wall.

“That mirror is designed to bend back like that. Besides, I got it back into place, didn’t I?” She didn’t mention the dings, scrapes and scratches, because those were just natural consequences of driving, what with all the bad California drivers and stealthy bushes and the like.

Spike just smirked at her, depositing her on the bed. “Now go get my crutches,” she ordered. “In case I need to get up again.”

She’d never admit it, but she held on to the faint hope that one day he’d respond with “As you wish.” Maybe she’d make him watch The Princess Bride, the better to clue him in. Instead, he looked as though he’d been sucking on lemons.

“And tea. I need a cup of tea, you make the best tea,” she added in a hopefully-invalid sounding voice.

At least he had a rebellious set to his shoulders as he stalked out of the bedroom. Once she heard Spike’s footsteps reach the ground floor, Buffy got off the bed and hopped over to her dresser.

At the back of her sock drawer was a silky slip of a nightgown and matching panties that she’d gotten years ago and never worn. It hadn’t been practical to smuggle it into Riley’s room on campus and it had spent the intervening years still wrapped in pink and white striped tissue paper and smelling of sachet. Nightgown in hand, she hopped into the bathroom, hoping that the water would take a long time to boil and she had some time to get ready. She struggled out of her T-shirt and sweatpants, fought her way into the nightgown and realized that there was no way she was going to get the panty leg opening to stretch over her cast and had to abandon them on the counter. Battling the clock, she brushed her hair, checked her breath, and spritzed some Indian Gardenia body spray on her neck and between her thighs and hobbled back to the bedroom.

She threw herself onto the bed and tried to arrange herself in something like a seductive pose. At least as seductive as she could get with a beige fiberglass cast encasing her left leg from knee to toes. Of course, Spike was taking forever to get the tea and the crutches and he was probably doing it to spite her. He took long enough for Buffy to start second-guessing herself and begin worrying that he’d find her attempt at looking sexy amusing and laugh in her face.

After what seemed like a year, Buffy heard Spike’s feet thumping up the stairs and noticed that her heart was beating loud enough to drown out the noise. Nervous? Why? Just because she was afraid that he didn’t ever want to touch her again. No big deal.

There were butterflies in her stomach. No, vultures. Big, scary, smelly vultures.

About a decade later, Spike finally came through the door. He had her crutches in one hand and was balancing a saucer with a brownie on it atop a teacup. In the doorway, he stopped and looked at her, his head titled like a dog’s who wasn’t quite sure if the hamburger on the floor was his or not. Under the weight of his stare, all Buffy could do was try to smooth the nightgown over her thighs and wonder if she’d made a really big mistake.

“Well now,” he said and blinked.

She blinked back.

“Well,” he repeated in case she hadn’t heard the first time.

“Very deep – well, you know,” she agreed, knowing that it was a lame pun at best.

Unexpectedly, Spike bestowed his biggest, brightest Spikegrin on her. A grin that was only slightly more rare than finding a Betsey Johnson dress marked down to twenty bucks. But there were thrift stores and there was Spike, beaming at her and looking so freakishly human and alive that it made a chill run down her spine. It brought up the question: if both of them had been normal, living human people with no factory-added supernatural abilities, would she even be sitting there on her bed wearing a slip and no underwear while he smiled at her like that? Of course, she probably wouldn’t have had the broken leg either.

“After what happened with Floppy Boy I didn’t think that you’d want –“ he started.

“Oh I want, believe me, I want.”

Spike didn’t need an engraved invitation or even an eVite. In a flash, he was across the room, depositing the tea and the brownie in parts unknown, and slinking up against Buffy’s body on the bed. She could feel every wrinkle and fold in his jeans and T-shirt through the thin fabric of the nightgown and each thread was thrillingly rough against her skin. It must have been the decades of practice at kissing that sucked the breath out of her and reduced her nerves to hot, throbbing noodles. Pushing against him, Buffy twined her arms around his neck and just enjoyed the kissage. But being human, she had to come up for air, and when she looked up at him, Spike’s hair was mussed and his expression dazed.

“You shouldn’t call him that anymore.”

“Who what?” Spike asked, dazed and confused.

“Xander. Floppy Boy. I think we’ve both had an up close and personal at the unfloppyness of his floppy. Thing.”

“I can’t believe that you’ve gotten over . . . “his voice trailed off and he frowned, “– what happened so fast.”

“Not over, around. Still kinda mad, but if I can get around all the times you tried to kill me, the Xander thing is not of the big.”

“Right then.”

How was it that his skin was so cool and he made her so hot? There had to be a physics law against that. But his cool fingers ran over the skin on her neck, her shoulders, the tops of her breasts and she shuddered with the pleasure of it. Shuddered even more when he nuzzled his cool face to the hot side of her neck.

“Like this,” he said, voice low and dancing over the her nerves, fingering the lacy strap of her nightie. “Like giftwrap on a pressie.”

“That’s the idea,” she said, gasping a little.

Rolling over her onto the mattress, Spike brought her with him, until his thigh was pressed between hers and the bulky weight of the cast was just pulling her pelvis even tighter against his hard thigh under his rough jeans. Feeling a little naughty, she pressed her pelvis into his leg and sighed as the thrill shot up from her clit to her brain like one of KITTE’s lasers. It was almost perfect, lolling around on the big bed just kissing and dry-humping. Kissing like they were on the sofa and mom was out of town for the weekend. Big, long, slow, wet kisses where there was no sound but lip on lip and breathing. Buffy’s toes curled up with delight as Spike circled around her ear, her throat, her collarbones, with his mouth while his fingers trailed over and through the nightgown in a tickling, teasing way which made her sigh into his mouth.

No worries, no problems, no need to be anywhere, no Dawn for several hours . . .

“Oh,” she said, surprised because the stealthy climax she had been working on against Spike’s leg bloomed into flame and zipped along her muscles like fire on gasoline.

Fingers digging into his shoulders, she pressed harder against him, gulping down air and her own surprised noise. She was left with her heart pounding in every cell of her body and what had to be a stupid look on her face. To give Spike credit, all he did was let her kiss him hard enough to bruise.

“I uh – wow,” she mumbled into his mouth and could feel his lips turn up into a smile.

“S’allright. Bit het up, then, poppet?”

“Totally and completely het,” she admitted, feeling herself blush even as she cradled her hot face against his neck. Nice smooth and cool Spike.

He stroked his fingers through her hair, watching the strands slip and separate with an absorbed expression on his face.

“D’you think it’s all Rick, then. You think it’s the Rick mojo that’s makin’ you all nice and forgivin’?”

“Constant infusions of chocolate make a happy Buffy. Constant infusions of chocolate and Spike,” she teased and caught the shadow of a frown cross his face. “I’ve been mean to you, and I’m trying not to be. I just want everything to be all right. What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothin’. Just seems to me that most a’my charm is convenience.”

“And you do laundry. Willow told me you cleaned the house the day she was home sick,” Buffy said and began licking at the side of his neck. “I find a man who cleans very sexy.”

“If that was all I woulda’ run the Hoover much earlier.”

“Stay here. Stay here with me, Dawn and Willow,” she blurted, but had to back off because she sounded too raw, too needy. “You know, at least until you get your crypt fixed up, whenever you get around to doing it.”

“Sounds like you want a housewife,” he said and raised an eyebrow, a touch of smirk coloring his face. “You’ll have me wearin’ high heels and pearls next.”

“And nothing else?” she asked. “Because that could be way cool.”

Spike’s growl was decidedly playful, and he began nipping at her breasts and shoulders, his mouth cool and wet through the nylon of her nightgown. Buffy giggled and wiggled underneath him. She kissed his forehead, ran her hands over his back and pulled at the back of his shirt. Spike took the hint and skinned himself out of his clothes with vampire speed (which he seemed to utilize for getting naked more often than for fighting) until he was naked against her. Latching his mouth onto one of her bead-hard nipples under the nightgown, he sucked at it, grazing it with teeth and tongue in a way that sent an arrow of a thrill right to her clit. God, no matter what else bad happened between them, this was always so good.

“Adore you, could live inside you,” he muttered low in his throat as he switched to her other breast. “Just gobsmacked mad about you.”

His hands ran over and over her body, sending tingles and chills over all her nerves. She was trembling and shivering as he worked his way down her torso. His cool mouth worked magic down her breasts, her belly, her hipbones, and finally her cunt, with the nightgown a thin nylon barrier between his flesh and hers. Somehow the fabric seemed so rough that every touch of his tongue against her was magnified tenfold ands he was thrashing and writhing against the sheets in no time.

“Sweet, sweet, “he chanted. “Sweet. Come for me. Come for me.”

Because she was so good at following orders, Buffy did, with a thunderclap and an unending chord that thrummed along her spine forever. While she was still vibrating, she pulled at him, wanting him inside her. Right that moment, possibly forever. He obliged, steadying her heavy cast-covered leg against a throw pillow and pushing the other one up over his shoulder. God, it was heaven, it was almost like heaven when his cock filled her. She pushed against him the best that she could, somehow forcing him in a fraction of an inch deeper that made her see stars. He twisted his narrow hips and she grabbed at his iron-hard forearms, gasping a curse that would have peeled paint. His mouth crashed down onto hers, his hips poisoning wildly, violently, into her trapped body. She was loving it, digging her heel into his shoulder, gripping his wrists so hard that she might have broken the bones of a living man.

“Love you.”

He said the forbidden words and it was all she needed to light the fuse. She pulled her eyes open and stared up into his beautiful human face, saw the terrible, wonderful adoration in his eyes. And didn’t look away. She surged up and kissed him again, feeling her entire body short-circuit like a toaster thrown into a bathtub. Inside her, he stiffened, shuddered and spent. Finally, he subsided against her like a cool, heavy blanket. She wrapped her arms around his neck and hugged him close.

“I’m serious about the pearls thing,” she whispered. “What size shoe do you wear?”

****

Several nights later, Spike found Xander sitting on the steps to his apartment building, shoulders slumped like the before picture in a Charles Atlas ad. In the light from the streetlamps, he looked much older than he should.

“Hey,” Spike said, sitting down by Xander and flipping the edges of his duster over his knees.

The boy flashed him a look that indicated he wasn’t sure that Spike wasn’t about to do a repeat Xander Harris-draining performance.

“An’ what’s this about?” At least Xander had abandoned the leather coat. A man with shoulders a yard across just couldn’t look good in a leather coat. Fetish leather and a Harley, maybe, but — Spike shook the image from his head because Xander was saying something.

“So you’ll never guess the latest installment in ‘Lifestyles of the Poor and Wacky.’”

“Government came, towed the wreck, gave you a brand new SUV an’ warned you never to speak of this again.”

“Hey, how did you –?”

“Watchin’ from the shadows. There was noise from the old Initiative tunnels, made me think Mulder and Scully might be in town.”

“They looked more like Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones to me. I had her, Spike, I had something that made me special. And once again, Xander Harris gets fucked. Except Anya won’t even talk to me.”

Spike bowed his head and wished for greater patience, or none at all. Being stuck in the middle was entirely too frustrating. “Okay, listen up. Seein’ as the only father figure of note ‘round here went back to fair Albion, it falls to me to say this.”

Xander looked interested.

“You don’t need the car to be a hero. Thing you don’t understand is, you’re already the bravest of the lot.”

Xander’s laugh sounded as if it had been ripped from his chest. “How do you figure that one?”

“Look at us. Buffy and me, we can take a stake to the stomach and be in fightin’ form soon after. Witchy-poo can magic herself out of trouble if she really needs to. You’re the only one without any supernatural gifts and you’re still on the front lines. It takes more guts to do what you do than any of the rest of us need.”

Xander’s shoulders were slowly returning to their full upright and locked position. “You really think so?” he asked after a long pause.

“That was a pep talk. I ain’t plannin’ on affirmations all day.”

Oddly enough, that made Xander smile for the first time. “Thanks … in a manly way.”

Spike nodded, and pulled out a cigarette. He smoked for a while, looking up at the few stars bright enough to outshine the light pollution, while Xander brooded beside him.

“I’ve been hanging out with Willow, Buffy, and Dawn for years and I think I’m ready to start to ovulate. You know, and I’ll be denying this if you ever say anything about it — hanging out with you in the car was cool. Another guy and all. Hanging out in a manly way, right?”

“A manly way.” Spike agreed.

In the light from the streetlamp, Spike could see that Xander’s face had gone flushed with blood, and even as part of his mind curled away, he could feel his demon rise and his fangs itch with the memory of the boy’s hot blood filling his mouth.

“And the other thing–” Xander began.

“There is no other thing.” Spike cut him off. “No other thing to speak of, think of, or remember.”

Xander cringed at the hard tone that Spike realized was coming from his own mouth.

“These aren’t the ‘droids you’re looking for. You can go about your business,” he added.

This earned him a wan smile.

“Your Alec Guiness impersonation is craptastic.”

“Better n’yours, bloody yank. Now we’d best be off to Rick’s for the piss-up before somebody pinches all the lager.”

“American. Learn to speak the language!”

“Get stuffed.”

With Xander in tow, Spike headed towards the Rick’s cafe with pleasant anticipation. Maybe, if the soul had caught in him a bit harder, he’d have been more chaffed that Buffy couldn’t be nice to him without divine intervention. Then again, he’d never been inclined to look a gift kitten in the mouth. All of them were subject to the whims of outside forces, he and Buffy more than most, and while this wind blew in his favor he wasn’t going to make any attempt to get out of its way.

Just as the lights and voices began to register in the night, a small four-legged shadow crossed the street in front of Xander and Spike, making a familiar pained bleating.

“It’s that goat again.” Xander marveled. “What’s it doing here?”

Spike lit a cigarette and paused for effect.

“You know what they say: Sooner or later everybody comes to Rick’s.”

THE END.

Notes: RT thanks MustangSally for waiting patiently through her bad moods, job change, move to NYC, and laziness to get this done.

MustangSally thanks RT for waiting patiently through her bad moods, job loss, move to Florida, and lizardness to get this done.

More Notes:

Thanks to:

The ladies at Vulgo Concepti (Herself, Chase, Peasant, Dasha, PtPatricia, Margin, Kalima, Reade, Jordan, Coquette, Honoria, Winsome, Anne Hedonia, Debra Doyle) for all the help and encouragement

Barb for her Zagros demons and duct tape

AnnaS for Newt

Alanna and AnnieSJ for their both insightful and shallow suggestions

Loligo for being there and being in the story

Rachel for being there and being in the story

Vonnie for her medical advice and being in the story

Chase for cheerleading

Ebonbird for cheerleading

Lovesbitca for the therapeutic guilt

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