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This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series The Heart's Filthy Lesson (by MustangSally and RivkaT)

*Note: No spiders were harmed during the making of this story. All spiders were professional, well-trained stunt spiders, and proper safety precautions were taken. The chairs – well, that’s another story.

AU/Deviates from canon right after Fool for Love. (If you read the story wearing your special disenchantment glasses (patent pending), you will see that the plot events of season 6 happen. This takes place between seasons 6 and 7. Since Spike already has a soul, obviously he didn’t have to go to Africa, right? And we have a whole other take on the bathroom debacle)

*RATING: NC-17 for rape, adult language, violence, poor automotive maintenance, sex acts so erotic your cigarette will need a cigarette, gratuitous insects, coffee, and brownies. Mmmm, brownies.

*DISCLAIMERS: Shipping and handling not included. If symptoms persist discontinue use and consult physician. Void where prohibited by law. Offer good while supplies last.

DEDICATION: For everybody who (im)patiently waited. Love, apologies, and we hope you like it.

“Look,” the demon bouncer said in a voice that suggested that he was repeating himself more times than he was comfortable with. “Only way we serve your kind is as the Happy Hour special.”

Spike had seen many strange things at Lovecraft’s over the years, but nothing had quite prepared him for the sight of Xander Harris, human, having a suicidal argument with the Hopshtal bouncer. The bouncer had a foot on the boy in height and was easily twice his mass, but it was the fangs and claws that would do the kid in before the demon sat on him.

“Yeah, and my money’s not good enough? Genuine American dollars, buddy. Not kittens, not magic beans but In God We Trust Samoleons.” Harris moved into the Hopshtal demon’s personal space. “You don’t serve me and I’m going to get a lawyer and sue your hairy ass for racism. Got it, monkey-boy?”

The Hopshtal demon munched his fangs together and Spike decided he had best step in before Xander was smashed into soup.

“He’s wiv’ me,” Spike said and slung an arm around Xander, trying to avoid actual contact. The boy grimaced, but didn’t flinch away.

“Dark meat for a change, eh?” The bouncer smirked and got out of the way.

Annoyance, and a darker emotion, flashed in Xander’s eyes. “Oh, thanks. Shouldn’t you be out screwing other people’s girlfriends somewhere?”

“With you so near? Perish the thought.” Spike waved for the bartender and turned his back on Xander.

Satan’s knickers, Spike thought, I make two fuckin’ mistakes (*recently*) around these Scooby humans and all of a sudden I’m Ted Bloody Bundy. Served him right for trying to do Xander a good turn by keeping the Hopshtal from tearing him limb from limb.

“Eat hot death, deadboy.” Xander said and wobbled a bit. “You fuck Anya and I’m supposed to be your fucking friend? Your dead brain must have finally quit working. You know, the brain in your head, not the one in your pants.”

“Glass houses. You bugger off and leave her at the altar, so don’t go blamin’ me.” Spike pushed through the throng of Saturday-night demons, snarling and smirking as appropriate, until they were at the bar. The lamia was on duty again and, without a word, poured him a whiskey and A positive.

Xander, pushed against Spike by the crowd, stared at the bar top, stained and so waxy with repeated cleaning that even ichor tended to bead up on it — and this Spike knew from experience. Xander smelled strongly enough of beer that Spike was fairly certain that any vampire draining him would have a hangover in the morning. Of course, there had been a lot of drinking and sulking around SunnyHell as of late and he figured he had Xander beat in both experience and amount.

“Beer for m’friend here,” he told the lamia, who half-smiled at Xander as she served the drink. Xander did his best not to look at her breasts, even though her Harley Davidson t-shirt looked as if it had been tattooed on.

“Thanks, asshole,” Xander muttered at Spike, and tossed back a good third of his brew.

“There are human bars around here, d’ythink you could off yourself in one of them instead? I’m not likin’ the idea of bein’ the one to tell your friends that you got polluted in a demon bar and ended up as a late-night snack.” Spike took a deep swallow of whiskey and blood and felt the burn slide down his gullet. “Or how ’bout goin’ for a dance on the railway tracks before the half eleven goes by. Not as many witnesses and Amtrak has to clean up the mess.”

“She won’t talk to me,” Xander told his beer, obviously having slipped from the belligerent into the morose stage of drunkenness. “She says words, but she doesn’t talk. She hates me, Spike. She hates me and I’m never going to be able to fix it.”

“Join the club, mate.” Spike sighed and pulled out a cigarette. “Join the bloody club.”

Xander slumped into his beer with the universal posture of man wronged by woman, and Spike realized that his own body posture was the same as Harris’s. If that didn’t take the gold-plated biscuit Spike didn’t know what did. Sure, there had been moments of camaraderie while Spike had been incarcerated in the Harris family dungeon, but he’d assumed at the time that it was nothing more than Stockholm Syndrome after he’d agreed with Harris that the acting talents of Ah-nuld were sadly underrated. Naturally, Harris had begun nursing a powerful hate for him after the melodramatic revelation that Spike and Buffy had been making the beast with two backs behind Harris’ back. A hate that had almost culminated in Spike being on the wrong end of a stake after the mess with Anya and the bigger mess with Buffy.

Apparently, being the only two in the immediate social circle with penises and parallel castration by the women in their lives was a greater bond than Spike had ever imagined.

“Pruebo humano!” At the roar, Spike’s shoulders slumped momentarily, and then he turned to face the Thing of the Week. It was a gray, lizard-like demon, one he couldn’t immediately place.

“Lay off the boy, mate.”

Mouse-breath in his face; Spike put up a hand to wave it away. The thing’s tongue flickered in and out, tasting the air. Its fangs were substantially more impressive than his. He remembered that snakes could dislocate their jaws — the demon quite possibly could swallow him whole. “Que?”

Oh great. Wetback snake. Weren’t water snakes extremely venomous? Maybe he could turn it in to the INS and watch the Feds go mad.

“Listen Snake-o. He’s practically one a’the family. Comprende?”

“Me vale madre! Humans no belong here.” The tongue flickered out again, near Xander’s face. To the boy’s credit, he didn’t flinch.

“Used to shag a vengeance demon. She let him live after he dumped her. I got no explanation for why, but it’s a fact.”

“No mames!” The lizardy thing looked at Xander with widened vertical pupils. “Bunea,” it said and smacked Xander on the back so hard the boy had to hang on to the bar counter for dear life. “Las chicas ser mas puta que las gallinas.”

“Yeah and she don’t quit talkin about it, ” Spike muttered, but not loud enough to annoy it. Always better to see new folks in action before seriously pissing them off.

Especially when said new folks were about eight feel tall and looked like a minor god had stuck a cobra head atop a professional wrestler’s body and a thick tail to his ass and then spray-painted the whole thing in gray and coffee-brown scales.

“What did he say?” Xander shouted over the music.

“He said you were lucky to escape with your balls intact,” Spike lied, since Xander really didn’t need to know what the snake had said about his former fiancée’s sexual appetites.

Xander downed his shot in a gulp and shuddered. “That’s what he thinks,” he said.

Xander was drinking as though he had a fire in his belly that only alcohol could put out. Spike knew the fire, the smoldering burn of heartbreak. Alcohol was an unreliable method for dampening the embers. Spike figured that the boy didn’t quite have it in him to go for the more satisfying mayhem and murder method.

“What happened? You guys were, I don’t know, happy maybe? Next thing, you’re banging Anya in the Magic Box and then you run off to Vegas right when all Hell broke loose.”

“Not a what, a who, a great big sack of potatoes and his Stepford Wife. The overgrown Prefect shows up and Buffy sees what could have been with a bloke with a pulse. So she chucked me like last year’s shoes.”

“And you banged Anya, why?” Xander’s voice sharpened up again, swinging back from morose to belligerent.

“Because I’m a sad bastard.”

Seeing that his glass was empty, Spike waved down the bartender for a refill. Even the carefully edited version of the truth that he was handing over to Xander was no less painful than the far more emotion-laden narrative in his brain. Two dumped and lonely demons, male and female, too much of Giles’ private stock and a pity shag. A pitiful pity shag at that, with Buffy’s face swimming over Anya’s the entire time. He’d been so pathetic and such a big girl’s blouse that he hadn’t even given Anya a proper seeing to. She hadn’t been Buffy, too fragile and smelling wrong, but her skin was soft and warm, her breasts were about the same size in his hands, and her breath in his ear was hot and human, which was all he had wanted at the moment, just to steal some second-hand warmth.

“A sad bastard who attacks girls in bathrooms.”

The lamia passed him another glass of blood and whiskey which Spike made disappear far more quickly and efficiently than David Copperfield could ever do.

“You *bruised* her,” Xander said with the tone of a boy who just saw mommy shagging the delivery man. Like he’d been betrayed, and he didn’t have that right.

“I bruised her? She broke the toilet over my head. I was more than bruised after that!” he pointed out.

“Do you know how much damage you guys did to the bathroom? Broken sink, toilet in the hallway in pieces, a Spike-shaped outline in cracked porcelain tiles, chipped the fuck out of the bathtub and gouged up the floor. It took Tito a month to fix it all.”

“She drives me mad,” Spike admitted and lit a cigarette, fighting back the residual grudge he was still holding against the terminally stubborn Slayer.

“So you hit her.”

“She threw the first punch, Tool-man. That girl hits first and asks questions later. I figured I’d had enough and took off to Vegas,” Spike took a long drag off his smoke and noticed that his fingers were shaking. “Thought I’d just stay the fuck away from SunnyHell after that.”

“But you came back.”

“Yeah,” Spike exhaled smoke and looked down at the shiny bar surface. “Because I love her and I’m a sad bastard.”

“We are so screwed,” Xander breathed, finishing his beer and reaching for the replacement the bartender had brought.

“Don’t want to close my eyes/I don’t want to fall asleep/Cause I’d miss you baby/And I don’t want to miss a thing.”

There were times that Spike wondered if the jukebox at Lovecraft’s wasn’t possessed by a demon of undue introspection.

“Give me a double, and get a move on!” he snapped at the lamia, who smiled like a bartender who had lubricated too many broken hearts.

“I’m buying. Paycheck man has the power of cash. ” Xander reached into his back pocket for his wallet and his mouth fell open in shock. “Somebody took my wallet.”

Spike scanned the room, spotted the snakeman a few feet away at the bar. The look on its face might have qualified as a smirk, in snakeland.

“I’m thinkin’ it was our big and scaly buddy.” Not that he had any evidence other than the fight-hunger growling in his belly, but it was a start.

Flapping his duster around his legs, Spike made his way over to the scaly asshole.

“Oi, snake-boy. Knick my human’s wallet, did you?”

Its tongue lashed out at Spike, testing for fear, probably, and instead got a tonguefull of slightly drunken attitude.

“Su ser humano está viendo cosas. Your human is seeing things,” the snakeman seethed.

“What? Like scaly buggers makin’ off with his wallet?”

“The snake picked his pocket?” a big leathervamp asked, pushing his barrel chest up to snakeman. “Not here, this is neutral territory. None of that shit here.”

“Against house rules.”

“Vete al carajo! The human’s drunk, doesn’t know what he’s saying. Los seres humanos no tienen ningún lugar en aquí!” the snakeman returned, lashing his tail from side to side.

“I asked you a question,” Spike tapped the snake in the chest, with an arrogant finger, forgetting that the thing was pretty much twice his size, “Hablo Ingles, puta?”

The snakeman leaned down and glared at Spike, his slitted pupils contracting to knife blades of hate.

“Puta? You call me puta, vampirito?” the thing rumbled.

The back of Spike’s neck crept agreeably.

“Hey,” the lamia bartender interrupted. “Back off, Spike. You know half the things in town want a piece of your ass since you started fucking the Slayer.”

Like they always said, neither love nor a cold could be hid, and certainly not when said love had been outed in front of half the demons in town, back when it was too new to be believed and they were just trying to survive the Wirtschaftsministerium. Those were the days.

Leathervamp snickered.

“Think the Slayer knows that her undead fucktoy’s cheating on her with the fat faggot here?”

From the look on Xander’s face, Spike couldn’t tell if the problematic word was fat or faggot. Either way, it was enough for Xander to whip out his handy-dandy Black and Decker Vamp Wrecker stake and swing. He was fast enough that the vamp had to stumble backwards, in the process knocking a Darth Maul lookalike out of his chair. Darth Maul grabbed a handful of the vampire’s jacket and pulled his fist back for a punch.

“Just give the wallet back and we’ll call it a wash, right?” Spike said in the most reasonable tone he could manage.

Snakeguy tensed and in a flash his tail had whipped out to send Darth Maul sprawling into the nearest table, knocking over a couple of pitchers of beer onto the Calensis demons’ ongoing card game. The Calensis, correctly aiming their anger at the thrower instead of the throwee, rose in a group and pitched themselves onto the snake like a rugby scrum of hairy midgets. The snake bellowed and the tail lashed out some more, sending Xander down under his barstool. Spike stomped on the tail as it whizzed past.

“Chinga tu madre! Mayate vampiro! ” Snakeguy shouted between flinging Calensis bodies across the room.

“Go fuck yourself, rat-breath!”

A flying Calensis headed in Spike’s direction, so he grabbed the smaller demon by the mane and flung it back at the snakeman, where it gave a howl of pleasure and dug claws and fangs into the scaly shoulders of the snake. The chaos demon near the dartboard took up the side of the snake demon and began shredding Calensis like dustbunnies. Darth Maul and Leathervamp were engaged in their own argument, which was vigorous enough that the floorboards splintered when Darth Maul missed his target.

Demon innards began to fly and the lines of demarcation in the argument disintegrated. For no good reason other than a sickening joke on Fate’s part, Xander’s battered leather wallet rolled out of a pile of bodies and landed at Spike’s feet. He tossed it to Harris, who was beating a Calensis demon with a barstool. The human caught the wallet with one hand and bashed the Calensis with the other. Apparently, the kid had actually learned something from growing up around the Hellmouth. Leathervamp tackled snakeman into a table like a guest on Jerry Springer. A gremlin latched onto Spike’s head and he had to pry the screaming and spitting creature from his scalp before crushing it underfoot. The lamia, now thoroughly annoyed with her clientele, leapt up onto the bar and screamed for order, firing a shotgun into the ceiling for emphasis. Part of a Calensis bounced off Spike’s chest, leaving an ugly wet stain. Xander took the opportunity to get a double-handful of Spike’s duster.

“Yo! Let’s make like a shepherd and get the flock out of here!” Xander shouted.

“Mula vampiro!”

“Just gettin’ interestin’.”

“Death wish gone now. Let’s scram!”

On the way out, Spike punched the chaos demon in the face, since he was never one to forget an old grudge.

They ran across the poorly lit parking lot. The floppymobile was parked discreetly beyond the dumpster, and Spike jumped into the passenger seat. He spared a moment to wonder at Xander’s level of sobriety, but the growling roars from behind made him desirous of taking his chances on the road. Flying through the windshield was unlikely to do as much damage as the snake guy.

The floppymobile gave a consumptive cough, shuddered and died. Xander banged the dashboard, gunned the engine and wove a tapestry of obscenity that impressed Spike.

“Great place, kind of like Mos Eisley,” Xander said and kicked the dashboard.

“A more wretched hive of scum and villainy you will not find.”

“Obi-Wan quoteathon much, Spike?”

A body went crashing through the front door of Lovecraft’s, followed by a wave of irate demons.

“Now would be good, Xander.”

“It’s not starting! Fuck!” He punched the steering wheel.

“Gotta make a runner, c’mon.”

Spike was halfway out of the car and dragging Xander out through the passenger door when the first wave of demons hit the side of the Taurus. A Calensis dove over the roof of the car and landed on Spike like a Velcro medicine ball. Spike flung the demon back into the fray and shoved Xander away from the car.

“Run!” he suggested and took off.

Spike reached the edge of the parking lot and looked over his shoulder, Xander was only about fifteen feet from the car, and the demons were clambering over it. Cursing, Spike turned around and ran back towards the fight. He hit Xander low in the stomach in a classic rugger tackle, and hoisted the human over his shoulder in a sloppy fireman’s carry. Xander let out a whoop of surprise and grabbed at Spike’s duster. The Darth Maul lookalike – whose makeup was running, revealing himself to be that lowest of creatures, the demon fanboy — had the same idea and Spike skipped out of his grasp and bolted at a dead run.

A vampire running at top speed, even encumbered by a carpenter, would make a cheetah sit down in the dust and give a wistful sigh. Spike made it well past the center of town and the Magic Shop before he finally stopped and plopped Xander down. Whatever part of his body that hadn’t yet accepted the fact that Spike had been a vampire for well over a century was making him pant and gasp for air. He leaned over and propped his hands against his thighs, and when he touched his forehead he found that he’d been sweating.

“You’re a fat fuck, Harris,” he panted.

“Sheer muscle, scrawny one. Well, sheer and beer.” Xander looked over his shoulder and didn’t see any sign of pursuit. “You didn’t have to do that, you know.”

“No, right. Just leave you to be eaten by vampires and demons,” Spike made a vague gesture and coughed. “That would go down well wiv me tryin’ to get back into the Slayer’s good graces.”

“Try begging. Used to work with Anya.”

“Some of us are too proud to beg.”

“Does Buffy know about that place?” Xander worried, pushing his hair back from his forehead only to have it promptly flop back again.

“Not from me she don’t,” Spike said and wiped some demon blood off his shirt. “Figure the weekly fights in there keep the demon population down.”

“What about my car?” Xander asked.

“Utter washout. Whatever the Calensis demons can’t eat will be smashed, and whatever can’t be smashed will be burned. Got good insurance?”

Under the pale light of the streetlamp, Xander paled.

Spike lit a cigarette and watched some bats fly overhead. Being a bat might have been fun. Stoker had gotten that wrong, too.

“I better swing by Buffy’s to tell Dawn I can’t take her to school tomorrow.” He shot Spike a challenging look. “Wanna come with or are you too much of a pussy?”

“Eat me, Harris.”

****“

Spike’s invitation hadn’t been revoked. That shouldn’t have made him feel guilty, but he had to swallow hard before following Xander into the blue-lit living room.

The TV was playing something with lots of lush landscapes and people in elaborate antique costumes. Spike could only narrow the time period to Before His. Willow, Dawn, and Clem were huddled around on the floor, a partially devoured feast of ice cream, popcorn, nachos, cold sesame noodles, Krispy Kreme doughnuts, sushi, assorted Chinese takeaway boxes, and pizza spread out before them like carnage after battle. They ignored Spike and Xander as the valiant warriors took possession of the sofa and the loveseat, helping themselves to food en-route.

“Demons ate my car,” Xander announced.

“Shhhh!” Willow warned.

Spike snuck a glance at the rapt faces staring at the television.

“How could you begin? I can comprehend your going on charmingly, when you had once made a beginning; but what set you off in the first place?” the dark-haired girl in a yellow dress asked the dark-haired man, who looked a bit like Angel around the protruding brow.

“I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.”

“Where’s Buffy?” he asked.

Anya was missing as well, but that was only to be expected.

“Shhhh!” the witch admonished him again.

“Now be sincere; did you admire me for my impertinence?”

“For the liveliness of your mind, I did.”

“Did this bloody Jane Austen pap run Buffy off?” Spike asked and reached for another doughnut.

“Shhhh!” hissed the voices, and Dawn punched the top of his foot for emphasis.

“This is where the helicopter comes in with the Delta Force, right? Shoots up everything?” Xander asked.

“Romance is dead,” Dawn sighed as the credits started rolling.

“Why don’t you get Willow to resurrect it?” Spike threw the question into the group like one of those ninja-star things.

“Not funny,” Willow said and began shredding the napkin in her lap.

The air tightened and thinned.

“I hope Romance gets revived before I start dating,” Dawn announced and flicked her shiny, shiny hair over her shoulder. “I mean, what’s the fun without the romance?”

“Sex,” Willow, Spike, and Xander said in a ragged and spontaneous chorus.

“Eew.” Dawn scrunched up her face.

“But only with the person you love,” Xander added, a moment too late to be convincing.

“Companionship,” Clem offered, his ears flopping with emotion. “Two people, or demons, of the same mind and matching dreams and goals. That’s love. Friendship with a twist of passion. Hormones may fade and sex goes in time, but friendship and companionship are what makes a relationship.”

“That’s really beautiful, Clem,” Willow said with a sad little smile.

“’Scuse me for ruinin’ the morality lesson here, but where’d the Slayer bugger off to?” Spike tried for the third time.

“She said she needed some private time and went upstairs about an hour ago,” Dawn explained and began gathering up the debris of the feast.

“How’s she doing?” Xander asked with a quick glance over at Spike.

Spike looked at Willow, who looked at Clem, who reached for the doughnut box.

“She said she was tired,” Willow said and pushed the doughnuts over to Clem. “I don’t know if that’s tired tired or leave me the hell alone tired. You know how she gets.”

“What am I going to do without my car? How the hell am I going to get to work tomorrow?” Xander moaned.

“You can borrow Spike’s car. It’s not like he drives it during daylight hours,” Willow suggested.

If possible, the blood in Spike’s body dropped below room temperature.

“No,” Spike informed the universe in general.

“Wills–, a man’s car is his-“ Xander started.

“Penis,” Willow finished from where Clem was helping her close the Chinese food boxes. “It’s well-known that a man’s car is a penis equivalent. It becomes the external manifestation of his masculinity, or how he would like his masculinity to be perceived. Hence the teenaged boy with the big, noisy car which announces his sexual maturity, and the middle-aged man who drives a sports car as an attempt to reestablish his identity as a sexual being as his prowess begins to flag.”

She glared at Spike and Xander.

“And you just need to get over it.”

“Not going there!” Xander announced and held up his hands. “I want nothing to do with the penis of Spike!”

“Don’t knock it if you ain’t—“

Dawn spoke up. “Why don’t you take mom’s Jeep? It’s just sitting there and nobody drives it.”

It was all Spike could do not to give her a grateful look. That would have been uncool in the extreme. He didn’t want Floppy boy anywhere near his – car.

“I’ll check with Buffy. She won’t mind Xander borrowing the Jeep. ’Night!” Dawn trilled, pausing only to look significantly at Spike. There was much undone between them, he knew, but at least she was talking to him. Possibly just to irritate Buffy, but talking nonetheless.

While the rest began making domestic with glasses and dishes, Spike took the opportunity to look at the stairs that led to the second floor of the house. He supposed he should just be grateful that Buffy let him in the house at all. Maybe it was because she was still tendering a feeling or two for him. On the other hand, maybe she just didn’t trust him not to embarrass her if he had been disinvited. One thing was for damn sure, he wouldn’t be setting foot upstairs without an engraved invitation.

But if he had to apologize to Buffy one more time, Spike was pretty sure that his tongue was going to dry up like a loofah and drop out of his head. He had lied to Xander, he had begged Buffy to forgive him both Anya and roughing her up in the bathroom. But Lady Disdain had been – disdainful.

“Buffy’s gone!” Dawn bawled, clomping down the stairs.

Spike was out of the loveseat in a flash, rounding on her with his face barely controlled into staying human.

“What happened?”

“The window’s open and her stuff’s everywhere!” Dawn gasped and grabbed at the front of Spike’s coat. “Something’s gotten into the house and got her. I know it has.”

“Oh shit,” Willow sighed and there was something in her tone that made Spike turn and look at her.

“And?” he prodded.

“It’s Angry Chick Night at the Bronze. She’s gone the past four weeks.”

“Yeah, Ladies’ drinks are half price, the music is all Angry Chick music and all the local bottom feeders show up to see if they can score off girls who are mad at their boyfriends or husbands.” Xander looked around the room at the quartet of angry gazes. “Not that I, personally, would know. But I’ve heard things. Okay, shutting up now.”

“Vampires too. Very popular with the vampires,” Clem helpfully added.

“Cellphone?” Xander asked.

“Turned off for non-payment. Again.” Willow frowned.

Someone, Spike thought, ought to go over to England and give the Watchers’ Council what-for. America had been better equipped for World War II than the Slayer was for her job. Trouble was, the Slayer couldn’t just raise taxes and run deficits to get the latest weaponry, even if he would have put Willow up against Oppenheimer any day. The Council were self-important blatherers who considered controlling their deadly dolls slightly more important than saving lives, and they were reacting badly to having a Slayer more than ten years past the age of reason. He wasn’t used to the sense of frustrated injustice that filled him.

“She’s been goin’ to this greet and eat for a month and nobody told me?” Spike asked, wrenching his attention back to the immediate problem.

Willow’s expression was a mixture of pity and disgust.

“Maybe it’s because you’re the reason she’s an Angry Chick.”

****

”I hate myself for loving you/Can’t break free from the the things that you do.”

Darrin or Daryl, whatever his name was, Buffy realized, was a pretty good kisser. Just the right amount of teeth and tongue, a gentlemanly way of sleeking his hands down her sides and brushing the sides of her breasts as though by accident. He wasn’t mauling her the way Brian – was it Brian? – had the week before. Brian had also been slobbery. With her back to the pillar, she shifted a little so her thighs clamped even more tightly around his leg so she could grind down against him.

The music battered down the walls around her head and moved through the sluggish blood in her veins. Lights flashed across her eyes, burning into her brain, registering in her nerves as though they were flickering down her bones. Blood thinned with alcohol almost felt normal, almost like she wasn’t wrapped in a thick cotton blanket. Better, with the tequila she didn’t care how normal she felt. Tequila worked like static in her brain, canceling out the memories she didn’t want. She was just a normal girl on a normal night, getting herself off against this helpless guy’s leg. Under the velvet of her skirt, beneath the thin silky fabric of her thong, Buffy’s body reacted to the pressure she was creating against his leg. It was easy to forget and just wrap herself up in him and the light and the noise. It didn’t take much to get her off these days: a few moments of rubbing herself against the mattress, or a warm body in the Bronze. She just had to think about one thing.

Milk glass skin, cold blue eyes, black leather and blood spilling onto white tiles . . .

She opened her mouth to gasp and he kissed her, lips not right. He tasted like beer, and his mouth was entirely too wet, but by then she was too far gone. Buffy’s body obediently responded to the male body pressed up against hers, the planes of his chest, the indefinable man-smell and she came in a sharp glassy burst that was like a single mouthful of water when she was dying of thirst.

“Wow,” Darryl or Darren said with the slightly disappointed air of a guy who has just figured out the Kleenex-like nature of his usefulness.

“You’re really sweet,” she said, beaming a friendly smile up at him while reaching around for the stake in the back of her skirt. “But that doesn’t cut it around here.”

The shocked look on Maybe Darren’s face disintegrated with the rest of him as he made an ash of himself in the dark corner of the Bronze. Buffy brushed his mortal remains off her hands and blouse, and tucked the stake back in the loop sewn into her waistband.

She heard applause, sarcastic applause at that.

“And the East German judge gives the little girl from California a five point nine,” a familiar voice drawled with a double-shot of contempt. “And it looks like Buffy Anne Summers is goin’ t’ get the gold medal for bein’ a sad, fucked up dolly bird.”

“Fuck you,” Buffy said and pushed past Spike, her shoulder clipping a leather-clad upper arm on her way back to the bar.

“Thought that was the point, luv,” he said, spinning slightly from the contact.

“I don’t *fuck* them.” And she didn’t let them bite her, either.

“That’s junkie talk,” Spike said, sounding far too serious. “You don’t fuck ‘em, you don’t let ‘em bite you -“ Buffy winced at hearing her own thoughts aloud. “You don’t use needles, you don’t drink alone. Until the day you do, an’ then there’s something else you don’t do, right up to the end. It’s excuses, pet, and you’re better than excuses.”

“Don’t you have anything better to do but stalk me?” she asked since he didn’t seem to be getting the hint that his presence wasn’t needed.

“Not really, but then I could just go ’round pickin’ up little baby fledglings, get my goolies off an’ dust ‘em.”

“You’re pathetic.” She waved a twenty at the bartender, who obediently lined up another sequence of tequila shots for her.

“Use the mirror much, Slayer? ‘Course you may want to be dressin’ like a slag and inviting every little bad in town to the all you can eat Buffy.”

The bartender, unsurprisingly, automatically poured Spike a scotch. Of course the bartender was a cute girl with a Louise Brooks hairdo and a crooked smile who probably kept track of what evil blonde vampires liked to drink. Buffy wondered: if she bribed the bartender to use holy water ice cubes in Spike’s drinks, would the ice burn up Spike’s evil tongue? She tossed the tequila, licked the salt, and bit down on the lime, which was as bitter as the rest of her. After all, she was still officially Mad. At. Spike. Big time mad. First there was The Anya Thing, and then there was The Bathroom Thing and she hadn’t made up her mind if she was ever going to stop being Mad. At. Spike. What kind of asshole screwed a girl’s friend – acquaintance, okay – after being dumped? And then he trashed her bathroom, which she was still making monthly payments on.

Of course, he vanished when Willow was trying to destroy the world. Typical, she was just starting to trust Spike and he had to go and be a nuclear-powered asshole.

Six weeks of apologizing and offering ill-gotten cash to pay the plumber was far from enough. Six months wasn’t going to do it either. Maybe six years, which was kind of silly since she’d probably be dead before she was twenty-five.

“Go back to your crypt, all the rats and other creepy crawlies like you are waiting.”

With a Spikey smirk, he sipped at his scotch. “Sub-standard wit, Slayer. It’s going to come off your performance points.”

“I’m crushed,” she snapped and went through another tequila, salt, and lime ritual.

“What you are is ridiculous. You’re comin’ here, pickin’ up nasty little fledglings because you won’t admit that you still want the Big Bad.”

Despite the fact that she wanted to grab his pretty white throat (not going there, Buffy, stop it) and squeeze until his eyes popped out of his sockets, she let herself laugh.

“Big Ego, not Big Bad.”

Quick as a striking snake, Spike grabbed the back of her barstool and whirled it around. She squeaked in surprise and quickly found herself nose to nose with her sometimes-favorite, sometimes least-favorite vampire. Spike was looking steadily into Buffy’s eyes and she could see things moving around in his head behind the frozen denim of his eyes. Strange, she took Spike for granted in so many ways, not the least of which being the gleaming cold lines of his face. It was nice to let her gaze slide down a cheekbone, rebound up over his jawbone and go back to rest on what she knew was an entirely too talented mouth, even if it was set in a thin, hard line. She could sit there on her barstool and feel herself in his orbital pull, which was like one of those dead star things. Maybe she should have paid more attention to science class so she had a better idea of what he made her think of. Bones, stars, ice, glass, something that sucked the light and life out of everything around it, dangerously beautiful. Sharks, snakes, poison, the surface of the moon? It was on the edge of her mind and skittering out of reach every time she grabbed for it.

“You still want me, I can tell,” he purred at her, while maintaining his steady gaze. “I can see it in your eyes, I can hear it in your voice even when you spit bile, and I can smell it on you.”

Buffy sucked air in through lips that were entirely too dry. It wasn’t right that Spike could know she couldn’t control the woozy rush she felt whenever he was within arm’s reach. It wasn’t right to for him to know that when she didn’t know that about him.

And she was mad at him, anyway.

It was then that she realized that their little scene was attracting some attention from the Angry Chicks sitting at the bar. It was mostly because Spike attracted women like a 75% off Carlos Santana shoes sale at Nordstrom’s, though the fact that she and Spike were fighting didn’t help any. Being able to yell at a man who was as fuckable as Spike gave her a little rush of superiority.

“Get lost, William.”

The use of his living name was a deliberate insult, and she flicked her hair over her shoulder in a patented Cordelia Chase move for emphasis.

He shrugged black leather and the ice clinked in his glass. “I am already, terribly.”

There really wasn’t a good come-back for that painfully poetic comment, so Buffy just ignored it, something she was good at.

“You know you miss me.” Now he sounded like an abashed little boy, his uncertain tone making the arrogant words almost endearing.

A crumb, all right, she could give him a crumb because she was a Warm, Generous, and Giving Person.

“Sometimes.”

Because of the six or so shots of tequila that she’d downed over the course of the evening, Buffy reached into Spike’s glass and pulled out a pair of ice cubes, which she popped in her mouth.

“What? You never say somebody eat ice before?” she said to his narrow-eyed glare.

Compared to the ice, his mouth was almost warm. And like the ice, it seemed to melt away under her tongue, giving her the cool liquid thrill she remembered and craved the way she craved chocolate and really great shoes. But it was too scary, raw and bruising. Sex with Spike was like being pulled over broken glass and barbed wire. Unusually, he was behaving himself, just sitting there on his barstool, leaning in a little for the kiss, letting his tongue tease her overdry lips. The asshole was going to put the whole thing on her head, make her be the one to make the first move, because it would be okay then.

“Let’s dance,” she whispered into his breathless mouth. Buffy hopped off of her stool, landing with a grace that would not have impressed Giles, and wriggled her way into the crowd. Warm human bodies, smelling of sweat and beer and perfume, surrounded her. The occasional scrape of jewelry or a piercing reminded her that these girls wanted to be seen, and all she wanted was – not to want.

Spike’s hand, warmed by the ambient heat to human temperature, clamped down on her shoulder. He pressed the length of his body against her, hooking his chin over her shoulder as he gave a few experimental pelvic thrusts against her ass.

God, she’d missed this. She closed her eyes and gave herself to the music.

This was perfect, Buffy thought. She didn’t even have to look at him. Reaching her hands back, she encountered soft cotton under the leather coat. Once she had her hands anchored in his jeans pockets, she began rubbing up and down like a cat in need of a back-scratch. Spike grunted and brought his hands to her waist, sliding upwards on her sweat-slick skin, his fingers edging under the handkerchief top to brush her breasts. Opening her eyes just a bit, Buffy watched the other dancers watching them.

Sliding her hands away, she spun and stepped back, into a fighting stance. Spike’s nostrils were flaring with the hunger of the hunt and his eyes were strobe-bright, like the prickling of her skin where his hands had been. He moved towards her, liquid as mercury and twice as deadly.

“You wanted to dance,” he growled as he reached out.

Buffy felt the crowd shrink away from him, their reptile brains recognizing what their rationality would not admit, that there was something really wrong with the guy in the long black coat. The wrongness ran up her spine like a finger trailing a nail against her skin.

When he pulled their bodies together, one of Buffy’s legs sliding between his thighs, she couldn’t avoid a gasp, but he looked dazed too. They began to move, the pleasure moving through her like ripples on a pond.

“I could take you right here,” Spike said into her ear. “Just push those little panties out of the way. Ever been fucked with an audience?”

Panting, Buffy hiked her free leg higher, almost to his hip, and leaned back to get a little more leverage to shimmy against him. Her body felt as if bubbles were bursting from the points of contact. Spike bent to follow her, one hand on her back to keep them nominally standing, his mouth hard and wet on her throat. Her hands fluttered over his shoulders, his softer-than-usual hair, the vulnerable line of his neck. She could rip his head off right now, she realized as the hand at her back turned into a hand on her ass, scraping her tiny cut velvet skirt up enough to feel his fingertips and the hot Bronze air on places she didn’t normally show to strangers.

Pushing upright by force of will and progressive undulation, Buffy turned her head to nip at Spike’s ear. “Hallway. Now.”

“No need to travel,” Spike complained, but followed.

The back Bronze hallway was traditionally reserved for heavy petting, pot smoking, and makeup repair, but it was empty tonight. She didn’t know if she cared. Spike pressed her up against the wall, lumpy gray industrial paint over concrete, and she felt him fumbling with his jeans, unwilling to pull away for enough to do the job easily. His hand was ripping at her panties – the sting of elastic against her hips made her claw at his back – and without further ado he pushed inside her, lifting her off her feet as her legs rose to wrap around his waist.

“The pretty things are going to hell/They wore it out but they wore it well.”

“Every person in the Bronze knows what we’re doin’ right now,” he told her. “All imaginin’ it, imaginin’ how good it feels.”

The orgasm hit like a bullet to the brain, snapping her head back. The pain from hitting the wall only made the pleasure better, pulsing through her body like broken glass. Spike’s eyes, when she could see again, were entirely too knowing, so she concentrated on the graffiti on the far wall as their hips moved like pistons. June Wu sucks dick, she learned. Katelyn Carter takes it up the ass.

“Slayer,” Spike ordered, and she looked back at him. “Stay wiv’ me, it’s only just getting’ interestin’.” His hips swirled against her in slow, lascivious circles as his hands cupped her breasts, pinching her nipples between thumb and index finger. His face was set with the furious concentration of a baby just learning to walk.

“Now touch yourself.”

“Unnh … what?” Buffy managed, feeling herself twitch around his cock.

“M’hands’re a bit occupied, pet, ‘n I wanna see you make yourself come like this.”

Oh, okay. Some tiny part of Buffy’s brain, the part that didn’t believe in Spike one bit, reminded her that sex made her stupid, but she unclenched one hand from Spike’s shoulder – causing a slight shift in position that sent shockwaves up her spine – and reached between them. She avoided her clit directly but stroked the flesh around it, and down to tickle Spike’s slick cock for a moment, then back to kneading herself. Spike was still thrusting in and out of her with the controlled motion of a metronome.

“Faster. Harder.” The words could have been French as far as she was concerned, but they seemed to work. Spike redoubled his efforts and she could swear he was going to get too far in to come out.

One last wriggle of her fingers and she was off again. Electrocution, thermonuclear meltdown, turning her brain into a fizzing puddle of goo. Spike hurriedly freed a hand to cut off her shout of ecstasy and outrage, not that screams were notable in the Bronze but it was a nice thought anyway.

“You’re still breathing but you don’t know why/You’re still breathing but you just can’t tell,” the music boomed.

As her shudders subsided, Spike pulled away from and out of her. After staring at his cock for a few befuddled seconds, Buffy managed to bring her eyes to his face.

“On your hands and knees,” he said, still using gravelly Danger Voice.

Buffy couldn’t quite process that yet.

“I want to have you on your hands and knees in this hallway,” he repeated, each word distinct and falling on her ears like heavy silk.

She began to bend down.

“No. The other way, so you’ll see if anyone finds us.”

God. Her shoulders twitched once, convulsively, and then her palms were pressed against the dirty floor. Under her right knee there was a raised patch, someone’s old gum probably, and she could see people’s feet as they walked past the blackout curtain that hid the hallway from the Bronze proper.

“Yeah, you like that,” Spike said, his voice dripping with filthy satisfaction, and dropped over and into her like a sudden storm. This was all about Spike, his hands clenched around her wrists, his thrusts threatening to move her skidding across the floor. Spike covering her like his duster covered him, hiding not a multitude of evils but at least some.

“I could drain you right now and you would love it,” he continued, making her grind back against him. “I could sell tickets to watch Buffy Summers get fucked and drained, and you’d just ask me for more.” Was he vamped? She couldn’t tell from the brushes of his mouth against her shoulder; all her nerves had migrated between her legs. The third orgasm was building, nowhere near the strength of the others, coaxed by his voice and the feeling of his hips slamming into her ass. She was grunting the way she did in a serious battle, and her fingernails scraped harmlessly across the floor.

“I love how you love it. You won’t say it, but it don’t matter ‘cause it’s in your eyes. You’d spread for me in front of all your little friends, on your kitchen table. You’d -“ Spike’s voice ended in a choke and his thrusts sped up to vamp-speed. And oh she was close, and he was going to come and leave her hanging, the bastard.

“Touch me,” she ground out, since she couldn’t move her own hands. Somehow he heard her and released her right wrist to run his fingers across the general area of her clit. And then he groaned like an overstressed bridge and bit down on her shoulder as he came. Buffy arched into the bite, a wide human bite and not the twin suns of a vampire bite, but it was enough and she shuddered out her orgasm while Spike was still hard inside her. She could feel his chest heaving, whether from sensation or habit, against her back.

Her senses returned to her and the music made the floor shake. “Don’t hold your breath but the pretty things are going to hell.”

“My hands are filthy,” she said quickly. “Meet you outside in ten?”

Spike shifted away, settling on his heels without apparent care that his dick was still hanging out. “Soon as m’limbs work,” he said. “Not gonna run out on me again, are you?”

She chose to ignore the “me.” “Don’t worry,” she said and almost did a hair flip before she remembered her dirty hands. “The night’s just getting started.”

Spike might have muttered “That’s what I’m afraid of” as she left, but she wasn’t sure.

The girls in the bathroom, some of which had been at the bar, all stared, even after Buffy splashed her face and combed wet hands through her hair. “What’s the matter?” she snapped. “Never seen a girl comfortable in her own sexuality?” The glances dropped away.

****

Buffy was silent the ride home from the Bronze and Spike was grateful. Whatever evil spirit had provoked her to lay her hot little hands on his cold body that night deserved a thank-you note, even if it was only Jose Cuervo.

Only the lamppost at the sidewalk was burning at Casa Summers. Spike pulled up in front, carefully avoiding the now brick-encased Lightfoot mailbox, and killed the DeSoto’s engine. Doing a quick check to make sure his shirt was tucked in and his fly closed, he cast an eye over Buffy to make sure that she wasn’t gaping in any obvious places. Other than the fact that she was holding her high-heeled sandals in her lap, she was decently covered as her clothes would allow, and nursing a pout of brick and mortar strength. This didn’t bode well for slipping her into the house under watchful eyes.

“Right then, home again home again, jiggity jig,” he said and slid out of the car.

“And we’re home, why? It’s only one,” Buffy whined and began to pick her barefooted way up the front path. Apparently his 9 _ Weeks strategy had not provided a sufficient shock to her system to eradicate Lady Disdain.

“’Cause the Niblet is waitin’ up for you, an’ she’s got school in the mornin’.”

“Big Bad becomes Big Dad. How friggin’ cute.”

“Suppose a good shag was not the cure for what’s ailing you.”

“One shag isn’t going to cut it.”

Lamprey-like she attached herself to his mouth, which was a bit of all right even though she was pulling his shirt out of his pants and rubbing hot hands over his skin. Spike had his back to the door as Buffy commenced rubbing herself against his pelvis. It was just about all he could do to keep from shoving her skirt up right there and then. He’d been too long without the intoxication of her touch and his body was screaming “more, more, more!” even if his brain, unusually, was suggesting caution.

The porch light flicked on like a klieg light at a movie premiere and the front door popped open, sending Spike staggering backwards into the entryway with Buffy still attached to his front. Dawn and Willow trained tired expressions on the both of them.

“Who picked the twenty-fourth?” Willow sighed.

“I think it was Anya, damnit,” Dawn groaned, darting for the kitchen. “I should know better.”

“What?!” Buffy demanded, finally detaching herself from Spike.

Pajama clad and superior, Willow folded her arms over her chest. “There was a betting pool. Money was bet, days were picked, the winner was whoever picked the day you got back together.”

“We’re not ‘together’,” Buffy huffed, pulling her skirt down enough to cover her naughty bits. “We never were ‘together’. And Dawn’s too young to bet.”

“It’s after midnight, so this makes it the twenty-fifth.” Dawn came back into the hallway with a sheet of paper in her hand. “Which means that Giles wins the pool.”

“Giles?” Buffy glared at Spike as though the whole thing had been his idea, which it hadn’t, and he would have bet earlier, which just fucked him off to no end.

Sniffing, Buffy flicked her hair over her shoulder and started upstairs. Dawn was staring ice picks into Spike and he fought the urge to fidget.

“Don’t send Giles his money yet, right?” he advised.

“Spike!” Buffy shouted from upstairs.

He was so whipped.

Shrugging, he headed up the steps, breaking his vow to wait for an explicit invitation upstairs. Good thing he hadn’t told anyone who might have been disappointed in him.

Buffy’s voice wasn’t coming from her room, but the one that had been occupied by Willow and Tara, and before that Joyce. It only made sense that Willow wouldn’t want to sleep in the room where her love had been killed. Carefully, he pushed the door opened and stepped into utter chaos. The bedroom had been tossed as though clumsy burglars had searched the place, only with an un-burglar like plan. There were clothes trailed in a clear path from the closet to the mirror, lying in configurations that suggested discarded outfits. Make up, hair things, and bits of jewelry were strewn all over the dresser, and there was a shoe hanging from the headboard, as if thrown in a fit of disgust.

The window was open, the curtains shuddering in the breeze. The escape route, no doubt.

The bare wood floor, stripped of the carpet that had soaked up Tara’s blood, was white with scrubbing but Spike could still smell blood under the layers of disinfectant and perfume. Buffy’s clothes were piled in heaps on the floor, as if she hadn’t yet put them away from the move, and a half-dozen boxes from the liquor store sat half-open and vomiting their contents on the floorboards.

Unexpectedly, something tightened in Spike’s chest, thinking of Buffy moving her things into the room of death so Willow wouldn’t have to face the memories of Tara dying there in her arms. How utterly like her. Buffy stood at the mirror, propped precariously against the dresser and the wall, looking at her reflection as though she couldn’t quite recognize it, and the tightness in Spike’s chest drew even tighter.

“Y’know, the whole back together thing don’t mean nothin’ if you don’t want.”

She stripped away her jewelry and flung it in the general direction of the jewelry box. He watched the muscles move in her arms and wondered if he was the only one who’d noticed she’d gotten too thin. Maybe he could convince the others to tie her down and force-feed her Twinkies for a month.

“I got fired today. World savage doesn’t go with the DoubleMeat team plan. Too many absences,” she said, with her back still to him.

“Ah, shit,” Spike said and leaned against the door and felt the catch click into place.

He knew that the stupid job had been important to her, something that kept her tied to the normal world and at least gave the impression that she could take care of herself and the Niblet. She was too good to be flipping burgers for the fat asses of SunnyHell.

She came creeping across the floor to him, her lavender-tipped toenails flashing like gems.

Shutting his eyes, he felt her fingers run over his forehead, down over his cheekbones to his neck, leaving trails of human-heat trailing behind. This close, he could smell himself on her, the sticky, musky mess that coated her thighs, combined on his own skin as well. Buffy’s heart banged frantically, trapped in skin and bone. He wanted to close her heart in his hand and squeeze it, so it would only beat at his pleasure.

“Come to bed,” she hissed into his ear.

This just cemented that Spike was dealing with Dirty Girl Buffy. She’d tied him up and dribbled half a candle’s worth of wax over his bare skin before. This was one of his favorite versions of the Slayer, even though she didn’t tend to stick around very long. A nagging at the back of his brain reminded him that Dirty Girl wasn’t necessarily the one he wanted that night.

“I think you missed me,” she said from somewhere deep in her throat before she dragged the flat of her tongue along the skin just behind his ear.

“You missed me,” he corrected.

Never one to look a gift horse in any orifice, Spike grabbed at her shoulders and pulled her in for a vicious kiss. She pressed her whole body up against his, her tongue like snakeman’s and her stomach grinding lasciviously against his once-again awake cock. He couldn’t keep the smug chuckle back. This was all because of him. The pouf may have gotten her virginity and Captain Cardboard may have given her a workout from time to time, but neither of them had ever shagged this Buffy. Not the one who was rubbing her stone-hard nipples against his chest while her breath was hitching in his mouth. Her hands danced down his body, trailing fire, pushing his hipbones away and working the buttons on his fly open. With a little smirk on her lips, she pulled his cock out of his pants and gave it a squeeze.

“Go on then,” he said and gave her a meaningful push on the shoulder.

For a moment she hesitated. Her tongue wet her lips as she looked from his cock in her hand to his face.

“Won’t bite,” he said and gave her one of his better leers.

Buffy rolled her eyes but sank to her knees anyway. For a moment, Spike was in pure heaven, or at least as close as he was ever going to get, with her hot mouth around his tool, her little tongue flicking away like —

“Uh oh-“ she mumbled and made for her feet like an avalanche in reverse.

In a flash, Spike had stuffed his dick back into his jeans, had Buffy by the scruff of the neck like a mama cat with a kitten, and was propelling her into the en suite master bathroom, where she was sick, Exorcist sick. The Gods were with them that night and the majority of what looked like Krispy Kreme donuts and whatever booze she’d gulped down didn’t get on his duster.

There was no point in running through his head what had happened the last time they’d been alone in a bathroom together, but Spike hoped that if Buffy retained any memory of nearly throwing up on his dick that she’d be a bit more forgiving of other bathroom encounters.

Sighing, Spike shucked his duster, tossed it into the bedroom, grabbed a washcloth, and ran it under the tap of the sink.

“Oh God,” Buffy groaned and hung onto the toilet seat as though it were a life preserver cut loose from the Titanic.

“Bacchus. It’s Bacchus you want to be prayin’ to, pet,” Spike said and settled on his knees next to her. ”Or maybe Dionysus. Dependin’ on whether you’re bein’ Greek or Roman.”

Her face was suffused with blood, and he swabbed at her face and neck, reflecting that it was not half as nasty as the time Dru had drunk a headwaiter and a magnum of champagne and gotten sick in their hotel room in Venice. Blood all over the white sheets, without even a body to show for it.

“Of course, those bloody clever Romans invented the Vomitorium, which has the same Latin root for what you’re doin’ now.”

“I hate you!” Buffy choked and was sick again.

Spike laughed and hit the handle on the toilet so the mess was flushed away.

“I’m just expandin’ your sad education. You can call it vomitos, eructo or evomo. But my favorite is ‘technicolor yawn.’”

“Garfrg,” Buffy sighed and sagged limply against the toilet.

Sensing that the worst was over, Spike sprawled comfortably against the wall and wished that he could smoke. Besides the Summers house’s designated non-smoking status, he imagined that the smell would just make her sick again. Buffy’s hair was plastered straight to her scalp with nauseous sweat, and she was trembling fit to shake herself apart. He smoothed her hair back from her face and noticed that she was still a pale shade of olive, which didn’t coordinate with her tiny blouse.

“Y’know, I was thinkin’ tonight that you were the most sublimely beautiful thing I’d ever seen.” He patted her shoulder, as gently as he could. “Thanks for the reality check.”

“I hate you,” she repeated and opened one baleful green-brown eye to glare her patented Buffy glare at him. “This is all your fault.”

“How so? I wasn’t the one pourin’ drinks down your throat, love.”

“Who you are, what you are, what you do. All your fault.”

“Right, evil undead fiend who just held your head out of the loo. Go on, abuse me more.” He couldn’t help but smile at her. “Can you stand?”

“Maybe.”

It looked as though Joyce Summers had bought the house on Revello Drive for the master bathroom. Some intelligent soul had enlarged the room to palatial standards and installed an oversized Jacuzzi tub and a tiled shower stall big enough to dance in. It was entirely too easy to imagine Joyce in the tub with a glass of wine in her hand, trying not to think about the trouble that her eldest daughter was getting into even as she soaked. Poor Joyce, Spike thought with an unusual pain. She would have never gotten out of the tub if she’d seen the state Buffy had gotten herself into.

After making Buffy brush her teeth, forcing her to take aspirin, and waiting while she drank an entire Super Slushy plastic cup of water, he helped her to her feet and aimed her tottery steps over to the shower stall where he turned the shower taps on full and lukewarm. While the water ran, he stripped her out of her clubbing clothes and undressed himself while she hung onto the tile wall. This wasn’t quite how he planned on getting her starkers that night, but a part of him was reveling in the fact that she was helpless and needed him. Decades of practice dealing with a catatonic or distracted Dru served him well as he hoisted her into the shower stall. She giggled and pushed her face into the spray. Apparently, she was enough over her nausea to put her hands up into the water and hum with pleasure. Spinning her around, Spike made sure that she was uniformly wet all over. He grabbed a washcloth and a bottle of flowery shower gel and made a stiff lather, which he began using to scrub the sweat and cosmetics from her body and face. She sighed happily and leaned into her body. Between the sweet soapiness of her skin and the warm water, Spike’s cock began to harden of its own will.

So many times they had been like this, skin to skin, face to face, and Spike found himself wanting to crush her body against his and re-memorize every inch of her flesh. She burned her head between his neck and his shoulders and her hot little hands began roaming over his back and drifted town to his ass. With his cock rubbing against the softness of her belly, Spike let her pull his head down and into a heated kiss. Her mouth tasted almost entirely of toothpaste. She pushed in back into the corner of the shower stall and bit at the long tendons of his neck. He slid his hands over her body, spreading the soap over her and feeling her heart pounding against his fingers. Her tongue worked its way through his mouth, slowly and languorously as the soap that dripped between them. Her hands roved over his hip bones, fingers combing through the wet mat of his pubic hair until her string fingers closed around the base of his cock. He could hear himself groaning into her mouth.

Spike hadn’t had actual scruples since before Queen Victoria died, and gaining his soul as a side effect of helping out a Keshonte demon a few years earlier hadn’t done much to revive his atrophied sense of scruple, so the idea of taking advantage of a drunken Buffy didn’t even make him pause. Instead, he let allowed her to tug away at his cock, jerking him off with practiced strokes. Under his hands, she was terribly thin, the knobs of her spine were as sharp as stones, her ribs has sharp as glass, and her collarbones fit to cut paper. But her breasts were still hot and soft in his hands as he rubbed soapy thumbs over her nipples in time with the stroking of his cock. He kissed her harder, feeling the pressure starting to fill his balls. Even though he’d come inside her in the Bronze, he wanted her again, wanted to feel her hot, living flesh around him, wanted to inhale her.

With a barely contained shout of surprise, Spike climaxed like a teenager all over her hand, shooting spunk over her fingers and splattering the fine skin of her belly and breasts.

“Missed me?” she murmured even as his cock throbbed and twisted in her hands.

“Oh, every moment,” he mumbled and leaned up the cool and forgiving tile of the shower stall.

Swallowing in a dry throat, Spike let his eyes run down her body, watching the jism slide down her wet skin, mixing with the soapsuds, pearly white mixed with frothy white. He reached out and dragged his fingers through the pearly splatter of his spunk, running into the peach gold of her skin. With a wicked look, she swirled her index finger through the jism as well, her finger brushing his, before she brought the finger up to her mouth and licked it clean like a child with melted chocolate.

The sight of that went right straight to his cock again with a sharp pain. He wanted to split her open and sink himself into the hilt in her sublime pussy. He shut off the water and dragged her to the bed. They were kissing, stuck together at mouth, chest and belly, as they stumbled backwards to the mattresses. Still entwined, they fell onto the unmade sheets, Buffy pressing Spike into the mattress, rubbing her bone-hard nipples up against his chest, She devoured his mouth, nibbling on his lower lip and sucking it between her own. Her fingers raked his scalp, tangling in the messy curls even as she ground her burning pussy into his pelvis.

Grunting into his mouth, Buffy reached between their bodies and stroked his once-again-hard cock, running her sharp little nails over his balls and the inner sides of his thighs, making him gasp. He shoved his own hand between her legs and pushed her fingers away and used the opportunity to guide his cock into her. The moment he slid into her, filled her, Buffy’s head snapped back and she let loose a groan that should have roused the whole house. Spike reached up and clamped a hand over her mouth, but she twisted her head aside and sucked his thumb into her mouth.

With her hot little tongue working away on his thumb, Her hot cunt clamped down around his cock, and her breasts swaying seductively just out of reach, Buffy gave Spike such a watnton, lascivious look over his fingers that he bucked up into her. It was enough to make Spike’s jaded vampire nervous system overload. Rocking and grinding against him, Buffy looked like every teenage boy’s fantasy come to life. Grabbing her hair, Spike pulled Buffy down so he could kiss her again, locking his hand on the base of her neck, and using the other hand to press the small of her back. She gasped as her clit slammed into his pubic bone. Then she gave a feline yowl and dug her fingers into his arms, their skin sliding against each other, slick with her sweat and his spunk.

Finally, her cunt tightened around him like a mousetrap and he could feel the muscles inside her throb with the power of her climax. He fell headlong into the pit with her; shuddering and watching the sliver sparks explode behind his eyelids.

Moments laqter, Buffy was sleeping the sleep of the drunk and well fucked. Spike pulled the coverlet over their bodies and stared at the ceiling, determined not to think about it. After a bit Spike heard a faint knock, so he pulled his jeans back on and opened the bedroom door to find Dawn big-eyed and shaking in her nightshirt.

Spike supposed that the logo shirt was the closest she was going to get to sleeping with NSYNC.

“Is she okay?”

Running a hand through his hair, Spike glanced over his shoulder to where Buffy was curled in a ball on the bed.

“Your sis just had too much to drink. Not to worry.”

The Niblet’s big blues got bigger and filled with tears. Quick as a rat, she wrapped her arms around Spike’s waist and sniffled into his shoulder. Normally, this wouldn’t have been an issue, but Dawn was pressing her rapidly ripening body against his and there was only a blasted NSYNC nightshirt and a pair of jeans between the two of them. Part of Spike’s brain registered that Dawn was now taller than Buffy.

“Hey,” he said and gave her a businesslike shove away. “None of that. She’ll be cryin’ tomorrow when she wakes up with the mater and pater of all hangovers. Now go to bed. School in th’mornin’.”

Nodding like a tragic mute, Dawn made her way back to her bedroom. Spike headed back to the bed, nearly breaking an ankle tripping over a high-heeled sandal. The Slayer was curled in a protective ball at the edge of the bed but stirred when he slid in next to her.

“You all right, then?” he asked.

“Why are you so good to me? And then so mean?” she said, her voice slurred and tremulous.

Spike didn’t have a really good answer for that, but he did reach out and pull her to him, her face hot against his skin, while her wet hair was cold on his face.

“’Could ask you the same thing, I expect.”

~~~~

It was a demon with a voice like a chain saw cutting through her brain. The sound was making the fillings in her teeth vibrate and the roots of her hair hurt. Blindly, Buffy reached out for the Demon Masquerading as an Alarm Clock and slew it with a quick swipe of her hand. Silence returned, and she snuggled back down in her warm bedclothes and sighed. Sleep was pulling her back into his arms again where she was warm and safe and happy as she’d been in Heaven and the bad headache wasn’t there anymore.

Time passed.

“Shift your shapely ass.”

“Oh God,” Buffy whined and pulled the pillow over her head. “I died, I’m in Hell.”

The mattress compressed under Spikeweight.

“How you feelin’?”

“Like I sent my mouth out to be dry-cleaned.”

“Worked just fine last night, luv.”

Opening one eye, Buffy was sorry to see that the blinds blocked enough light to keep Spike from burnage, but let in enough light to let her enjoy the sight of Shirtless Spike. So pretty! Eyelashes too long and dark, all rumple-haired and sleek-muscled like a sportscar. But he was leering, which detracted from the whole picture and made her feel icky besides. It also looked like he was wearing her sweatpants. Either that or he’d recently gotten a pair of UC Sunnydale sweats of his own. She stretched, feeling the usual muscle groups in her arms and legs whine while the muscles between her legs screamed. He was looking at her with bright intensity which made her drop her gaze to the rumpled quilt and sigh.

“Can you pass me my bathrobe?” she asked and sat up, pinning the covers up over her chest with her arms like somebody on TV.

“Luv, there’s no one here but you an’ me. Not like I haven’t seen you starkers. An’ you did just about puke on m’boots last night.”

“Bathrobe,” she insisted and waved her hand at the garment bundled on the vanity chair.

This earned her a look of Maximum Spike Disdain, but he did grab her ratty chenille robe and toss it at her from the other side of the bedroom. She felt vaguely guilty, but bumbling around naked in daylight where he could see her was a little more comfortable than she really felt.

“Did Dawn go to school?” she asked.

“No, I drained her dry and stuffed her body in the deep-freeze in the basement,” he said with an ‘are you fucking stupid’ tone and face to match.

Her sinuses burned, her throat tightened, and the world swam in front of her eyes. Swallowing hard, she fought back the urge to cry and rubbed her hands through her hair. Across the room, she saw Spike’s entire body tighten and that just made her feel worse.

“I had to much to drink last night,” she said as though it explained everything. “I shouldn’t have — you know – with you last night.”

“Coffee’s downstairs if you want it,” he said and his words dropped onto the floor like tacks.

The door closed behind him and Buffy found herself looking at the blurry painted wood.

She had let him take her in the Bronze like he was the only thing in the world, after everything that had happened. Of course he would catch her in the middle of the action with the fledgling.

Like she should have felt bad? After what he had done with Anya? It wasn’t like she was having sex with the fledglings, she’d just found an easier way of getting rid of them than hunting around graveyards all night. The local boys usually ended up at the Bronze because it was the familiar meat market, and all she had to do was feign a little interest and poof! No more fledgling.

Okay, getting off on it was a whole bunch of no good, and verging on seriously unhealthy, but all it meant was that she probably should apologize to Riley the next time he was in town.

It was all Riley’s fault, anyway. If he hadn’t come back to town with Wonder Woman, showing Buffy what life could be like with an equal partner who actually kept a normal body temperature and didn’t have sunlight issues, she wouldn’t have had to break up with Spike, blow up the bottom of his crypt and send him into Anya’s jilted arms. Of course, Spike didn’t have to run to Anya and then he didn’t have to make everything worse by trying to force Buffy into having sex with him again when she’d made it clear that it was over.

Yeah, so over that she’d boinked him in near-public in the Bronze.

It was the tequila. Tequila and Riley. They had much to answer for. So did Spike.

And now she had to find another job!

Buffy flopped back onto the bed and groaned.

Somewhere, a girl was having the simple, normal life that should have been hers, and Buffy hated this girl with a passion.

Showered and dressed in a comfortable pair of jeans and a soothing sweater, Buffy went into the kitchen for coffee and found Spike reading the newspaper at the table with a cup of coffee in front of him and an unlit cigarette in his mouth, looking so normal and human that she almost dropped the coffee mug. He looked, she realized, tired. Tired wasn’t a look she was used to seeing on Spike, but as usual, he carried it off well. There were dark smudges under his eyes and his hair was an unruly morning mess, and Buffy wasn’t sure if she was actually seeing dark roots or if it was a trick of the light.

“They’re hirin’ dancers at Delilah’s Den, if you were thinkin’ about changin’ careers,” he said without looking up.

“Covered with grease or covered with greasy guys? I’ll stick to the fryer, thanks.”

“Might cut into your evenin’ patrollin’ too, I expect.” He turned the page. “Oh look, the stock market’s gone tits-up again.”

“Anya’s going to be upset,” Buffy agreed and sat down at the opposite side of the table. “Wherever she is. I guess I can just do the rebuilding and restocking full time until she and Giles figure out what they want to do and I get another job. A job with medical benefits.”

This finally made Spike look up from the newspaper with annoyance sharpening up his already sharp face.

“That’s fuckin’ unbelievable. Those fuckin’ tossers at the Council ought to be payin’ you and payin’ to have you fixed up if you get hurt. You’re only savin’ the world! I’ve got half a mind to go over there and set the lot of them straight!”

“You against the Council of Watchers? Right. The only reason they haven’t sent one of their death squads after you is because you were chipped and impotent, and now because you have a soul and are supposedly redeemable.”

He blinked at her the same way he blinked when she punched him in the face.

“Right,” he said and the brief flash of hurt in his eyes evaporated, replaced with an icy cool she’d seen too often in his ‘I’m going to rip off your head and drink your fountaining blood’ phase. “My mistake.”

If he was going to be snotty, Buffy could return the snot in kind. She got up from the table and flounced over to the sink.

“I guess you expect me to thank you for last night,” she said and dropped her coffee cup in the dishpan. “To thank you for protecting me from myself and the dangerous fledglings. And to thank you for the pity fuck.”

Standing with her hands on her hips, Buffy waited for the inevitable Spike!Explosion, but he just went back to looking at the remainder of the newspaper.

“Did you hear me?” she asked.

“Heard you just fine, pet. What I’m doin’ is ignorin’ you,” he said and turned a page.

It was a fight Buffy wanted and it was a fight she was going to get even if she had to smash the kitchen table over his head. She snatched the newspaper out of his hands and violently crumpled it into a ball. Spike merely gazed up at her with a familiar burning in the back of his pretty blue eyes.

“It’s not all okay, Spike. You haven’t wormed your way back into my life with one measly little good deed and some sex.”

“Didn’t think that I had.” His voice was low and even but he’d tightened his jaw enough for Buffy to see the actual muscles holding his face together.

“Right, which is why you’re sitting there all calm and normal like nothing happened. I was starting to trust you, I was starting to like you and you go and try to sell killer demon eggs. I mean, the eggs were downstairs in your crypt and we were upstairs. That’s not cool. That’s bad. That’s evil stuff. Evil action.”

“Yeah, I fucked that up good an proper didn’t I? And?” he prodded.

“And then you have to go and have sex with Anya. Which not only hurt me but Xander as well. As if we didn’t have enough to deal with at that point with the Nerds of Doom.”

“Done smarter things than that,” he agreed.

“What the fuck was that in the bathroom? Did you think in that twisted dead brain of yours that forcing me to have sex with you when I clearly wasn’t interested was going to make me finally fall in love with you?” Buffy could tell that her voice was getting shrill and bitchy, but she couldn’t control it any more than she could control the fact that she was shaking like a cement mixer and her eyes were burning from unshed tears of frustration, “Like that was going to make the Anya thing go away? Like it was going to make the demon eggs go away? As if it was going to make me trust you again.”

“We’ve been over this before, Slayer. I lost my temper. I said and did things that night that I don’t have any excuse for. I shouldn’t have done it, and I wish that I hadn’t.” Again with the cool voice, only this time he crossed his arms over his chest, mimicking her posture, glaring back at her with an unnatural vampire stillness.

“Just to really make things better, you run off to Las Vegas, leaving me to deal with Willow freaking out and trying to nuke the whole world. I could have used your help. Between the two of us I think you and I could have brought her down in the Magic Shop before things got really bad.”

“Ashamed and embarrassed, exit Spike down Route 15, leaving you in the lurch to deal with yet another apocalypse. Buggered that up too.”

Reasonable acceptance was not acceptable as far as Buffy was concerned. She threw the wadded up newspaper at him, only to have it bounce weakly off his folded arms and fall to the floor, where it rolled under the table. As an angry gesture, this lacked drama.

“You have a soul, Spike, you’re supposed to be doing the right thing now. You’re supposed to do not-evil things and that’s a long list of evilness right there. You’re supposed to know better!”

Clearly, she had now become possessed by the spirit of her mother, and Buffy could hear the ‘I’ve had it and I’m sending you to reform school’ note in her own voice. She could really feel for her Mom, that combination of anger and frustration at not being able to get through to somebody why something they had done was wrong. Buffy had been on the receiving end of this often enough but being the giver of the ‘I’m disappointed in you’ speech was new. It was like moving from the passenger seat and into the driver’s seat without really knowing how to work the car. At least that was a feeling with which she was intensely familiar.

“And where, exactly is the list of actions and reactions suitable for the soul-owning vampire?” Spike was out of the chair and padding towards her on bare feet, all lean muscle and seductive menace. It was enough to make her breath stutter in her throat.

“I’d like to make the acquaintance of the person responsible for compiling such a list. Who is that arbiter of all things right and good? You? Let she who is without sin cast the first stake, Slayer.”

Oh that was great, he was getting all fancy and quote-y with her, and he’d even gotten out the Giles voice to boot. Did he think he was a Watcher or something?

“If you can possibly look beyond the realm of your own narrow experience, you should consider the following. For whatever perverse reason, I happen to be in love with you. Although I wish on an almost daily basis that I weren’t. I sat with your sister for a hundred and forty seven nights while you were dead. When you came back I was your confessor, your whipping boy and your whore. I was certainly good enough for you to beat bloody the night I hid Katrina’s body for you.”

Spike stopped and took a deep breath, which Buffy knew was more to plan what he was going to say rather than any need for oxygen.

“When dear Riley came back, I wasn’t good enough for you anymore. I was a bad and evil thing again, and sneaking off to shag me was a guilty little pleasure you saw fit to end, as though you were somehow going to be absolved of that particular sin by cessation and penance. I suppose I should have just kept a stiff upper lip over that rejection, but it wasn’t the case. Almost immediately thereafter I embarked on a series of actions which were ill-conceived and foolish in the extreme. I’ve apologized for these actions and I’ll be even more damned if I’m going to apologize again.”

Prowling a little closer, Spike was only inches away, close enough to touch, close enough for her to run her fingers over the gleaming white muscles of his chest. All the time his eyes were sparkling with blue fury. Self-righteousness made a squeaking noise and ran away because Lust was bigger and badder. Buffy sucked in a few panicky breaths and forced herself to look into his eyes even though it meant that her brain was going to be sucked dry with need.

“Now if you want me gone, out of your life, just tell me. I’ll go. Just say it like you mean it, Slayer.”

Okay, that was just about enough. Her legs were shaking and she was leaning back against the sink for support. Nerves jangling, and not from Slayer senses, but from Girl senses, Buffy bolted away from him, dashing over to the kitchen island to grab her purse.

“Going to the Magic Shop now. Unemployment means more time for reconstructiony goodness. Lock the door on your way out.”

Babbling, she fled into the bright morning, leaving Spike, creature of darkness, trapped in the house.

~~~~

It was dark in the Magic Shop, with the windows hung with sheets so passers-by couldn’t see the damage and only two of the light fixtures fully operational. “I can’t believe we’re wrapping orders,” Buffy complained. “I had to pick broken glass out of the rosehips yesterday. Isn’t, like, ‘store closed for rehabilitation’ an excuse on eBay?”

“Anya’s very worried about her seller reputation,” Willow said softly, with the same gingerness she brought to any discussion related to the events of several months back. “She says that if we don’t fulfill online orders, she’ll lose ground she’ll never get back. Once your reputation is gone, it doesn’t ever come back the same way.”

Silently, they contemplated the implications of that, for both of them, as Willow efficiently identified and weighed various occult ingredients and Buffy wrapped them in paper, bubble wrap, and/or styrofoam peanuts as required. Since Anya wasn’t around, she didn’t worry too much about wasting packing material. Once they were packaged, Willow finished the labeling and generated proper postage from the metering machine.

“That’s the last of them,” Willow said at last, handing over a fertility icon. Peanuts, Buffy decided, looking at its rather distorted curves. With a few movements, she assembled a properly-sized box, dumped an initial layer of styrofoam in, added the icon, and finished filling the box. Actually, for all her complaints, working at the Magic Box was a much better job than DoubleMeat. Anya was paying her non-union wages for the reconstruction, and Buffy had the sneaking suspicion that Xander’s crew would have made more, but Anya had threatened to subcontract out to the Mexican demons who hung out on the corner by Lovecraft’s and she’d caved.

She really ought to be nicer to Willow, who was trying so hard. Look at Spike, who’d been doing so well until she decided just not to believe in him. She wasn’t going to lose Willow through mistrust. “Okay,” Buffy said, handing the sealed package to Willow with a you’re-forgiven smile, “so today we’re going to put the second floor back together, right?”

It wasn’t really a full second floor, more like a runway on one side of the store, reached by way of a flimsy ladder, but Anya liked having a sign at the front of the shop explaining that grimoires etc. were on the second floor. “Like Borders, only occult!” she’d chirped and Buffy had wished that transatlantic rates had stayed high enough that Anya wouldn’t call so often. Also, she’d heard a really disturbing noise from Giles in the background during one of those update conversations, and although she knew that Anya would eventually Tell All, every day she remained ignorant was a good day.

Willow pulled out the blueprints, because it was her job to understand them, and nodded. “Then we can maybe put all the new books there and you can have your training room back.”

Buffy walked over to the pile of lumber that would form the new supports and hoisted the first beam. She thought that, if Willow was really serious about atonement, she ought to put things in the Magic Box magically aright, but apparently the coven in Devon believed that physical labor was more atone-y. And it wasn’t as if Buffy had better things to do with her time.

****

“We’ve missed our true calling, I think,” Willow announced from where she was re-shelving some paperbacks in the “Magic for Dummies” section.

“How’s that?” Buffy asked and gave the carriage bolt that anchored the bookshelf to the wall a final Slayer-powered twist.

“Two woman demolition team. We could get t-shirts with a logo or something, tool belts, and maybe even hard hats.”

“Not doing the protective headgear thing ever again, Wills. But what would a hat with a cow on it protect you from anyway?”

“Unwanted sexual advances. And wanted ones to boot.”

“Never stopped Spike,” Buffy muttered and started on the next bolt.

“Speaking of Spike–”

“Let’s not. I’m at maximum Spikeage for the week already.”

“I think you’re not getting your Recommended Daily Allotment of Spikeage these days.”

Okay, so Willow went to the Coven in Devon for magic rehab and had been replaced with Doctor Phil.

“Hey, Buffy good, Spike evil. Remember?”

Amazingly, Willow laughed, laughed hard enough that she had to hold onto the ladder to keep from falling off. Buffy didn’t find this amusing in the least and stopped messing with the bolts long enough to give her a dirty look.

“Guess I brought the funny, huh?” she asked.

“No, it’s just – Spike evil? Spike would like to be evil. He’s been with the soul for about two years now. Killed how many people? Done how many dastardly deeds? Buff, he’s reduced to misdemeanors and traffic violations.” Willow’s nose crinkled in merriment, “What the chip didn’t take away from him wayback, the soul’s pretty much wiped out.”

“Grand Theft Auto, attempted molestation of a Slayer. That’s not evil lite.”

Willow waved her hands in the air with annoyance and the ladder wobbled. “No that’s just Spike screwing up again. Yet again. Spike’s the king of bad ideas. St. Vigeous, the gem of Amara, dating Harmony, getting himself captured by the Initiative and chipped, and that creepy robot? Since he got to Sunnydale Spike’s been of the stupid rather than the evil.”

Falling in love with a Slayer wasn’t the smartest thing in the world either, Buffy admitted to herself, but decided that she wasn’t going to share that with Willow.

“Can you pass me that box of books?” Willow asked and pointed.

“Okay, dumb Spike,” Buffy agreed and hefted the box of beginners’ magic books and brought them over to where Willow was wobbling on the ladder, “But still with the bathroom ambush. Not happy about that, Willow. That was all kinds of bad.”

“Worse than trying to destroy the world?” Willow reached down and fished a few books out of the box. “You’re willing to forgive me for doing a colossally dumb thing and you can’t forgive Spike?”

“You’re my friend, Willow, and you were mega-wigged. Everybody takes a ride on the freakout bus from time to time.”

“Even hundred and fifty year old vampire can take a ride or three on that bus. The freakout bus is a common carrier. Losing the only person you love –” she trailed off and then shook her head, bringing up a brave smile.

All Buffy could do was narrow her eyes at Willow. “You’re the Spike fan club today. Is he bribing you with chocolate?”

“I wish.” Willow shook her head. “I’m in the Buffy fan club, and I thought you were happier when you guys were together.”

“We were never together. We were just kind of in the same place at the same time. Like beds and floors and–” Buffy cut herself off. “Is it time for lunch yet?”

“Good lack of segue. Xander would be proud.”

~~~~

Spike didn’t remember falling asleep, which made being shaken awake that much more disturbing. He managed to fight back the reflex game-face and settled for growling at Xander, who clearly had no idea how dangerous waking a sleeping vampire was.

“Hey, dead boy, get up. I need you to come and look at a car with me,” Xander said and thrust a newspaper at Spike.

The Sunnydale Press, a local newspaper with an amateur style so hideous that Spike cringed away as though from a cross.

“You found a car already?”

“Yeah, ad in the paper, got to go check it out. Need a second opinion. I’ve only got a grand to play with.”

“A thousand dollars? Don’t expect a lot for that.”

“Yeah, well, that’s why I want you to look at it.”

“The only thing I know about cars is how to steal ‘em.”

“Liar. I’ve seen you with that De Soto. It’s the only thing you love more than the sound of your own voice. Come on. Sun’s going down.”

A short few moments later, Spike was hunched under a flowered bedspread in the passenger seat of the late Joyce Summers’ Jeep. At a stop light, Xander smirked at him.

“New look for you, Evil Dead, kind of gay hairdresser thing.”

Of course, Spike had slept through the end of the washer cycle and his clothes were still wet. He’d cursed for five minutes, and thrown them in the dryer, which meant that he was venturing out in Buffy’s clothes – sweatpants, pastel flannel shirt, and T-shirt. The T-shirt, in better light, had turned out to be pink. He hoped that nothing he knew saw him. He’d be laughed out of Lovecraft’s for the next millennia.

“What’s the matter, carpenter-boy, am I turning you on?”

“Yeah right,” Xander huffed and turned a shade of red that was somewhere between chilli and tomato.

“Just warnin’ you,” Spike twisted the knife a little further into Harris’ machismo, “the Slayer might be inclined to kick your ass if you make an attempt on my virtue. Although she’s been acting a bit queer these days.”

The look on Xander’s face showed that he’d clearly misinterpreted.

“Not Willow queer, odd, strange. Not herself.”

“I don’t know if you noticed or not, but Buffy’s a girl. Which means she is one with her mood swings.” Xander let out his breath in a gusty sigh.

~~~~

Just as Buffy slid a box into place on top of its basement stack, Willow’s head appeared in the doorway, with a halo of light from upstairs.

“Buffy! Telephone. It’s a woman calling about Dawn.”

“Dawn?!” Buffy blurted and began charging upstairs.

“She isn’t hurt or anything. I asked. But-“

Buffy grabbed the phone out of Willow’s hand.

“Is Dawn all right?” she blurted.

There was a pause at the other end of the line.

“Yeah, she’s fine. She just made a series of bad decisions.” The voice was female, sounded fairly calm and slightly annoyed. “Look, why don’t you come down to the café and all three of us can talk? It’s Rick’s American Café? Other end of the street.”

“Yeah, I can do that,” Buffy stammered. “I’ll be right there. Which one is Rick’s American Café?” she asked Willow.

“What’s wrong?” Willow asked from where she had been hovering over Buffy’s shoulder.

“She didn’t say, just that I should go there. What is it?”

“Bookstore turned coffee place turned sandwich and coffee place. Rick is the woman who owns it. She’s nice, she brought a plate of brownies over last week while Xander and I were working on the storefront. I think she opened while we were – uh- busy last spring.”

“God, I missed the terrorist attacks, Survivor and a new coffee shop opening. Why didn’t anybody tell me about these things?” Buffy muttered and stormed out the door.

The afternoon sun was bright but cold, making her squint. Buffy couldn’t remember the last time she’d been outside in bright daylight. It seemed like the sky had been overcast for months. Or maybe it was her. The sun must have been out; it had faded all the American flags, and now the brightest reds were the sale signs. Rick’s American Café was on the corner next to the used record and CD store, which Buffy was pretty sure was run by demons, but couldn’t prove, and the lettering across the café’s front window was so new and fresh that it made her eyes hurt. Stores and restaurants had a short life cycle in Sunnydale, right along with their owners.

A jangle of bells rang when Buffy walked into the café. The place was small: only ten mismatched four-seat tables and a counter with complicated coffee equipment behind it. The walls were varying shades of butter yellow, papered with funny posters and comics clipped from the newspaper. Plants hung or sat on any free surface that wasn’t associated with food. Dawn was slumped at the table in the far corner with a sullen look on her face, nothing new there, and across from her was a blonde woman with funny dark-framed glasses wearing jeans and a tie-dyed shirt. Other than that, there were a couple of old ladies sitting near the window, drinking what looked like tea, with their shopping bags clustered around their feet. The woman with Dawn stood up and looked over at Buffy.

“Buffy Summers? I’m Rick Petersen. Wanna come join us? Can I get you coffee or something?”

“What did she do?” Buffy asked and sat at the table, which pinned Dawn up against the wall and made the sulky face change into something angrier.

“Well, I was out here waiting on those ladies over there, and when I went back into the back room to check on the pies I had cooling, there were some kids in there. About five of them.” Rick ran a hand through her hair that was shorter, blonder and shaggier than Buffy’s. “The rest of them got away, but your sister didn’t move fast enough. Now I’m down six pies, three dozen scones, and an entire sheet of biscotti.”

“You stole? You stole from here?” Buffy demanded.

“I didn’t steal,” Dawn said and frowned. “If I’d stolen I’d have the stuff, wouldn’t I?”

“Well, you could be hiding stolen merchandise in your stomach,” Rick said. “Biscotti don’t go for much at pawn shops.”

Rick, as far as Buffy was concerned, was way too cool and too calm about all this. Most people would have been freaking out over that much stuff being stolen. Anya would have needed sedatives. But then, Rick seemed to know what she was doing – and she was old. She had to be at least thirty.

“You can’t do things like this!” Buffy’s ears were buzzing with the embarrassment of this latest Dawn Trauma. “You know stealing is wrong, you know helping your friends steal is wrong. Mom’s spinning in her grave right now, you know that? And what are you wearing?”

Scrunching her face up into pure evil teenagerness, Dawn glared at her sister.

“Mom was spinning in her grave last night when you came home all drunk with your boyfriend.”

If Buffy had been wearing a blood pressure cuff, it would have blown off right there and then.

“He’s not my boyfriend,” she hissed between her teeth.

“Then you shouldn’t be fucking him,” Dawn snarled back.

The two old ladies by the window looked up.

Rubbing her nose, Buffy fought down the burny-throat feeling of crying, again. This was just FUBAR’d to infinity. Dawn was stealing again, had gotten caught, and had to mention The Spike Thing in front of a complete, and possibly sane, stranger.

“Hey, hey, TMI, guys. Really,” Rick said and tapped the table between the sisters. “Above and Beyond the Call of Pies. Look, Dawn, you screwed up, you screwed up big time. Your friends are a bunch of losers who were willing to let you hold the bag here, which means they’re crappy friends. What are you going to do for me that will make up for those pies?”

“I don’t have any money,” Dawn said and scuffed her feet under the table. “I had some from babysitting but I spent it.”

The check was coming at the end of the week from her last hours of burger-flipping, but all the funds were earmarked for groceries and utilities. If she paid Rick for the pies, there would be a food shortage. If Rick decided to call the police, Dawn would have a juvenile record and Buffy would lose her to foster care, which didn’t seem that bad for the moment, but she’d promised to take care of Dawn and that was it.

It must have shown on her face. “Okay,” Rick pulled a pen out of her back pocket and grabbed a napkin from the shiny dispenser on the table, and began scribbling numbers. “We have six pies at ten dollars each, thirty-six scones at two dollars each, and twelve biscotti at a dollar each.”

“A hundred and forty-four dollars,” Dawn said just as Rick finished speaking.

Buffy gaped at her sister. “Since when are you Math Girl?”

“A hundred and forty four dollars. Divide that by minimum wage, which is six dollars and seventy five cents an hour and you get–”

“Twenty one point three three hours,” Dawn finished.

“Good. So you come in here on Saturdays and help out for twenty one and a half hours and we’ll call it even on what you and your friends stole.” Rick looked up from her napkin. “You weasel out on me once without producing an actual dead grandmother or a note from your doctor that you have the plague, and I call the cops. Understand?”

“And you are completely grounded for the next two months,” Buffy added, “and if you have to be at the Magic Shop you have to do your homework. Willow, and Xander will not talk to you. Go over to the store now.”

Flipping her hair over her shoulder, Dawn stalked out. She stalked a little too well. She’d picked it up from Spike. Next thing she’d be smoking.

“I am so sorry about my sister. She didn’t used to be like this.” Buffy worried the edge of the table with her fingertips. “I drove my mom crazy. But Dawn’s like the master of bad teenageness.”

“I don’t know about you, but I need weapons-grade chocolate,” Rick said.

~~~~

The car owner was waiting for them outside her apartment complex, the art deco monstrosity where Glory had hidden her skanky self and her crusty minions. The last time Spike had been in this particular building, he’d had a near-lethal ass kicking. Of course, there weren’t a lot of vampires who’d escaped being beaten into jam by a god, so there was some brag-value in having a tramp with a bad perm smack him bloody.

“Oh wow!” Xander breathed.

At the curb sat a car that gleamed black in the setting sun, highlights swimming over the high-gloss and aerodynamic surface. Spike tried to hide his interest. How could someone be asking less than a thousand dollars for a car that looked that good? Of course, there probably wasn’t an engine inside it. It was a good-looking vehicle, though Spike hadn’t genuinely liked an American car since the muscle cars of the early 1970s. Standing alongside the car was a trashy-looking blonde in painted-on jeans, who was infinitely more interesting than the car.

“You the one who called about the car?” she asked as they got out of the Jeep.

“Yeah, I did. Xander Harris. This is Spike.”

“Yvonne Nocturno. This is the car. 2000 Pontiac Trans Am. I don’t know a lot about it. It was my husband’s car,” she said in a voice that was more Brooklyn than Santa Barbara.

“He took off and you’re selling his car?” Spike asked.

“He died.”

“Not in the car?” Xander asked and a brief bit of panic hardened his soft face.

“Outside a bar in town. The cops said a wild animal attacked him. Ripped his throat out. I just want to get rid of the car and get the fuck back East.”

Less than five feet from the woman Spike could smell Poison and gin. He wasn’t sure which she’d drunk and which she’d slathered on herself. The combination was nauseating and he retreated to the other side of Xander.

“Wolves. Come into town sometimes,” Spike drawled.

“Kind of a lot of wolves. The detective told me that they get up to three unexplained deaths a week around here, lots of people missing. All those graveyards. And the teenage gangs on PCP. Sunnydale gives me the fucking creeps.” She shuddered and it did strange things to the mass of her well-sprayed hair. “I’m going back to New York where it’s safe.”

“So what’s wrong with it?” Spike asked. “You’re sellin’ it awful cheap.”

Xander, pulled in by the mesmerizing shine of well-polished automotive paint, was circling the car with a look Spike usually saw on a vamp sizing up prey. It was disgusting to see such naked car lust.

“Nothing’s wrong with it. Michael loved that car. It was his hobby. He’d come home from work and go straight to the garage and work on the car. Spent all his weekends working on it.”

Spike could understand why.

“I just want to get rid of it. It’s too expensive to ship it home. God, I would have fuckin’ buried him in it, he loved that car so much.”

“There’s all kinds of weird stuff in the dashboard,” Xander announced.

“He liked to tinker, you know, with computers and stuff.”

“Is it street-legal?” Spike asked.

“Guess so,” she said and shrugged. “Like I said, I don’t know a lot about it. It was his car. Passed the California inspection so I guess it’s okay. You wanna test drive it?”

“Yeah!” Xander enthused so she threw him the keys.

Floppy-boy missed the key-toss and had to scoop them up off the ground before piling into the car with a blissful expression. The engine started with a healthy roar and Xander pulled away from the curb looking like a man struck by Cupid’s lightning.

Turning on her heel, Yvonne gave Spike a blatant and analytical once-over.

“So, you two been together long?” she asked.

Acutely aware of the fact that he was wearing Buffy’s clothes and looked an utter pouf, all Spike could do was shrug his shoulders.

“Feels like forever.”

~~~~

Just to add another secret to Buffy’s growing list of Things Not To Tell, Rick’s brownies were a million times better than Willow’s. Between the four brownies and the glass of whole milk, Buffy nearly had an orgasm. Of course a brownie orgasm and a Spike Sex orgasm had two completely different guilt values. Calories versus conscience. Hips or hypocrites?

There were dark chocolate chips in the brownies, which seemed to make the difference.

“These are so good,” Buffy said and bit into brownie #5.

“Linnaeus, the guy who decided that everything had to be classified, called the cocoa plant Theobroma cacao. In Greek theobroma means food of the gods. The Aztecs discovered chocolate and made hot chocolate that they gave to warriors, kings, and priests. They also fermented it into chocolate liquor and used that in their religious ceremonies where it was associated with Xochiquetzal, the goddess of fertility.” Rick ran her finger over the plate and caught the last crumbs from the brownies. “Those ol’Aztecs got that one right, because the key chemical ingredient in chocolate is phenylethylamine, a naturally occurring trace amine in the brain. It releases mesolimbic dopamine in the pleasure centers and peaks during orgasm.”

Buffy enjoyed it when science agreed with her.

Rick flashed Buffy a grin. “Which means that when your not-boyfriend gives you a ration of shit, you can tell him he can be replaced with a couple of bars of Hershey’s. So what do you do when you’re not riding herd on Dawn? Are you still in school?”

“No.” Buffy shook her head and took a swig of milk. “I had to drop out when mom died. I have – I had a lame job at Doublemeat Palace. The hours were good, even if most of the minutes sucked. I got to work while Dawn’s in school, and I got my nights free. You know, to make sure Dawn does her homework and stuff.”

Only the last part was an actual lie, but telling a complete stranger that you were the Chosen One and had a cosmic calling to slay vampires and other evil supernatural creatures was a real conversation stopper.

“Doublemeat?” Rick shuddered. “I wouldn’t feed my dog Doublemeat. That stuff’s just nasty.”

“And you never get the smell out of your hair. Still, it’s better than living in a cardboard box. In a cardboard box there’s nowhere to plug in the hair dryer. Now that Doublemeat kicked me out, I guess I’ll try and transfer my skills to McDonald’s or something.”

“Buffy, you seem like a nice kid with a run of bad luck, and I can always use the good karma. So why don’t you come and work here for me daytime during the week. I pay eight and a half-dollars an hour because the tips are lousy.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No. Right now I only have Rachel working with me weeknights and I need somebody for the lunch and breakfast crowd.” Rick made a wry face. “If only to keep the high school kids from robbing me blind.”

Straightening up, Buffy gave the other woman a look that Spike would have recognized as her ‘too proud for charity’ face.

“You don’t have to do this. I’m – we’re – not that pathetic.”

“Yes you are,” Rick said with another flash of her grin. “I need help, you need a break, and Dawn needs the fear of God put into her. Seems like a perfect solution to me. I’ll even give you Saturdays off while your sister’s serving her term here. Give you some Dawnless time with your not-boyfriend.”

In Sunnydale, things were just not this easy. With her luck, Rick would turn out to be another flesh-eating demon and both she and Dawn would end up in the brownie mix. But Rick was offering more than Doublemeat.

Coffee and brownies would make a nice change from vegetable matter mixed with rendered beef fat and from dried toads and sawdust.

“When do you want me to start?”

****

“Is this a great car or what?” Xander enthused.

“Yeah, brilliant. Slayer’s house? My clothes? Remember?”

“Totally smooth ride. Like ice.”

Spike yawned. It was just a car, for fuck’s sake. No need to get a hard-on over it. Harris was obviously suffering from jiz build up in the brain.

The sleek black machine purred at the stoplight, and Xander’s face was frozen in a mask of bliss. Once the light had gone green, Xander peeled out in a haze of exhaust and headed out to the freeways outside Sunnydale proper. The rush-hour traffic was mostly gone. Xander put the pedal down and the car zoomed well above the posted speed limit.

“Hoowah!” Xander yelped and Spike yawned again.

“Good evening, Xander,” the car said.

“Gaah!” Xander ripped his hands from the wheel as if it had turned molten. To Spike’s surprise (but not significant relief), the car simply pulled onto the shoulder and the stick shift went into park. His urge to yawn had fled like the rest of him wanted to do.

“What … what do you want?” Xander asked as Spike took a gander at the locks out of the corner of his eye. Yes, the locks were flush with the door, and he didn’t see a release mechanism or any way of opening the windows.

“To champion the cause of the innocent, the helpless, the powerless in a world of criminals who operate above the law,” the car replied. Its voice was feminine, a cross between Tori Amos and Dana Scully. Attractive, as demon-car voices went.

“Oh good, a righteous demon,” Spike snarked, figuring that bluster was likely to go further than panic.

“I am not a demon.” The car sounded offended.

“Right, you’re just one a’ them interactive cars. Let’s take a poll. I say you’re a demon. Xander?”

“Demon.”

“I am not a demon.” It – she? – was beginning to sound annoyed.

“Seein’ as how all the other non-talkin’ cars don’t get a vote, seems you are a demon. Accordin’ to the democratic way ‘n all.”

“I am the Knight Industries Two Thousand Enhanced. You may call me KITTE.”

“Kitty?” Man and vampire exchanged incredulous glances.

“I have been searching for an appropriate human companion with whom to fulfill my mission. You, Xander Harris, qualify, based on your school and work records and your Internet postings.”

“School records?” Xander said, horrified.

“Internet postings?” Spike waggled his eyebrows at Xander.

“I like Spiderman,” Xander said as if that were some sort of explanation.

The car soldiered on. “I have not been able to identify your companion, however. Fingerprints and voiceprints show no match. Please identify yourself.”

A talking car with a hard-on (or whatever the girl car equivalent was) for truth, justice and the American way might not like “vampire,” especially one without proper INS paperwork.

“Name’s Spike.”

“Wait a second.” Xander’s eyes were practically glowing. This was his chance to be the Great American Hero. “You want me to help you go around righting wrongs, dispensing justice, stuff like that?”

“Yes.” The car practically purred the word.

“Are you privy to the details of what happened to your last ‘human companion,’ eh?” Spike didn’t know exactly why he was looking out for the boy’s best interests.

There was a pause. “Michael Nocturno was killed by wild animals. I was waiting in the parking lot at MacMillan’s at the time. I will make sure that the same thing does not happen to Xander Harris.”

The determination in the car’s voice made the short hairs stand up on the back of Spike’s neck. Xander licked nervous lips.

“Doing right can be dangerous. But inaction means complicity.”

“Hunh?”

“She means, d’ya wanna be a hero? Kitty-cat, we’re heroes already, an’ we don’t need a new sheriff in town.”

“Shut up, Spike.” Silence descended in the car.

“We’re gonna continue this conversation further,” Xander finally offered. “I’m thinking that the whole talking car thing is something that we don’t share with the rest of the class. KITTE, you can, you know, not talk, right?”

“Pretty big thing to ask of a girl car,” Spike said over KITTE’s Spock-like “I will wait until you identify trustworthy individuals.”

“Your so-called friends are gonna go spare if they hear you’ve got a girl car and you’re keepin’ it quiet,” he continued. “This car’s gonna be nothin’ but trouble.”

“I’ll cross that bridge when it gives way underneath me.”

“Your bloody funeral, mate.”

It was a matter of time before the shit hit Xander’s fan. Spike hoped he would be able to watch the fallout. There was precious little in Sunnydale to give a vamp a laugh.

“Can we get my clothes now?”

~~~~

There were sodas and the remains of a pizza surrounded by books on the plywood and sawhorses that had replaced the Spike and Anya sex-sullied research table. Buffy sipped at her Diet Coke and looked around at the circle of heads bent down over the dusty old books. Too bad that Giles was gone again. Having him there would have made it entirely normal. For a moment, she was almost able to forget that she’d spent a summer dead and the year after that wishing she were.

“Explain to me again what we’re doing?”

“Seasonal anomalies,” Willow said and looked up. “Sunnydale is historically calm over the summer, you might even say placid, supernatural-wise. But we’re well into fall now and there’s still nothing.”

“Yes, and the lack of problems is a problem because?”

Willow pushed a strand of hair behind her ears. Her expression, enthusiastic and determined, reminded Buffy of how things had been, back in high school. “Might not be. But it might be something worse than normal coming, like the water drawing back from the beach for a big wave. I have a theory -“

“No song, right?” Dawn asked hastily.

“Just a theory,” Willow said snippily. “You know how global warming is disrupting weather worldwide, changing the seasons and altering things like the ice shelves of Antarctica and the currents of El Nino.”

Buffy, who didn’t know, nodded.

“None of that harm to the earth is supernatural, but it doesn’t have to be to have supernatural effects. Lots of powers, like the Hellmouth itself, are tied to the natural world. Deforestation in the Amazon, killing the tree and animal spirits and so on. My hypothesis is that the magical weather is changing too.”

“Bullet point summary, Will, what does it mean for slayage?”

“The result in the natural world is more extremes. Longer droughts, bigger storms.”

“This is so unfair,” Buffy complained. “I didn’t even use hairspray that destroyed the ozone layer.”

“I got the car and it is way cool!” Xander blurted as he and Spike came through the bell-ringing door of the Magic Shop.

Buffy tried to look casually at Spike, which was impossible because he was giving her his cat outside a mouse hole look and Willow was watching Spike give his look. Giving up, Buffy reached for another piece of pizza. Spike prowled nearby, making most of Buffy’s skin feel dry and hot.

“The car is completely awesome, it’s all black and shiny, and-“

“Let’s go see!” Dawn said and leapt up from her chair.

“I’ll catch the car later. I need to swing by the Pilgrim’s Rest Cemetery tonight. Ms. Burdock, the Algebra teacher, was buried today, and if anybody’s going to rise from the dead, it’s her.” Buffy said and grabbed a couple of stakes she had on the tabletop.

“Ms. B was creepy,” Willow agreed. It was just solidarity speaking, because Willow had probably learned algebra in kindergarten and her math classes hadn’t even been in the same part of the building.

“Come on, admire the car!” Xander urged.

While the Willow and Dawn headed out the front door of the Magic Shop to admire the new car, Buffy let herself out the back and aimed for Pilgrim’s Rest. Too many people in the Magic Shop, too much noise, too much movement. Outside the night was cool and quiet, smelling like cold dirt and wood smoke somewhere. Aside from sleep, patrol was the best time, with no one who wasn’t supposed to be slaughtered around. She was very clear on the mission, and the kind of thinking required could be adequately provided by the Slayer part of her.

She pulled her jacket around her and was secretly grateful that she was still wearing her comfy jeans and sturdy workboots. In years past she’d patrolled in a mini and high boots, which made winter nights a chilly proposition, not to mention the shame of flashing vampires with high kicks. How could she have been so young and silly?

Also young and silly enough to fantasize about marrying Angel. Aside from the age difference and the vampire/Slayer business, no one married the first guy she slept with. Especially when that guy went evil the next morning. She really couldn’t see herself in a sexless marriage.

Being spelled into thinking she was going to marry Spike had been embarrassing. It was bad enough that she was fucking him, but marry him? Even if he hadn’t been dead, and English, and a hundred-odd (very odd) years older, he smoked, his taste in music sucked, he was obsessive-compulsive, or maybe just obsessive, and he had really disturbing neat-freak tendencies.

there’s so much to decide ceremony guests reception well first thing i’d say we’re not having a church weddin’ how about a daytime ceremony in the park fabulous enjoy your ‘oneymoon with a’big pile a’dust under the trees indirect sunlight only warm breeze tossin’ the leaves aside and again you’re registerin’ as mister and missus big-pile-a’dust

Her chest burned so brightly and painfully that she had to sit down on the park bench outside the library for a minute and shake.

No future with Spike. No future period. Spike could go on forever, not really live forever, but he could be forever. Slayers died before twenty-five. She’d already died twice. The third time might be the charm. Dawn would grow up, finish college, have a career that actually paid money, get married and have children. Xander and Anya would eventually make up, get married and have children and a pool in the back yard. Willow would find a nice girl and love her. Maybe they’d be able to get married and have children. Buffy would be dead again, planted in the ground, rotting away.

The streets were dark and quiet en route to Pilgrim’s Rest. Overhead she could hear the bats singing. The leaves rustled and the wind blew stray paper along the sidewalk. Something was chewing at the back of her mind, the vague feeling that she was being followed, not strong, just a general followness. It could be an owl or a raccoon – or something really bad with some kind of masking spell.

She darted beyond the arches guarding the entrance to Pilgrim’s Rest and into the shadows.

Or maybe just a vampire being lazy, Buffy realized as she grabbed a handful of leather.

“Can’t keep your hands off me, eh?” Spike sneered.

“I could have staked you,” she warned and let go of the front of his duster.

The moonlight was glimmering off the silver around his throat and it was so pretty.

“Did everythin’ but trip over m’self makin’ enough noise for you t’hear me,” he said with offended dignity and straightened his lapels. “So we’re here to check on the Maths teacher?”

“I thought you were playing with Xander’s new car.”

Grabbing his arm as though they were walking into an expensive restaurant, Buffy headed into the overgrown bushes lining the cemetery. Pilgrim’s Rest was old by Sunnydale standards and not as well maintained as some of the others. Spike was sending out signals of confusion but didn’t stop her.

“That car’s gonna’ be a bellyful of trouble in no time.”

“It’s just a car.” She sighed and flicked her hair back over her shoulder.

“’Parently, it’s also his penis.”

They came around the corner of an ugly row of decapitated angels and slaughtered lambs of God — Pilgrim’s Rest being mostly Catholic and thoroughly vandalized — and stumbled into a vamp meeting. Buffy stopped short and Spike ran into her, nearly sending both of them headfirst into the newly opened grave.

“Buffy Summers?” A familiar voice made Buffy cringe inside.

A quartet plus one (what was five anyway?) of vampires clustered around the torn grave of Ms. Burdock. Four teenaged geekazoid boy fledglings who looked as though they’d been spending months trying to drain blood out of the Playmate of the Month. The fifth vamp was something entirely different.

Spike nudged Buffy in the back. “That’s the Maths mistress, then? They didn’t build ‘em like that when I was in school,” he said, with an ugly leer in his voice.

The Amazonian algebra teacher had been the advisor to the Karate Club and coached the girl’s soccer team. At a statuesque six feet even, she towered over both Buffy and Spike, dressed in funerary finery of a navy blue Talbots Tall trouser suit and an unlikely buttercup yellow shell. She straightened her sleeves and stared at Buffy with the contempt the mathematically adept reserve for the inept.

“Larry and Darryl tell me that you’re the Vampire Slayer,” she said with a little lip-curl and shrugged at the geeky boy vamps. “You know, I don’t think they covered that one at career day.”

“Get over yourself,” Buffy suggested. “High school is just petty dictators with a little bit of power over kids who would rather be anywhere else.”

She pulled her stake out of the back waistband of her pants and assumed a defensive pose. Ms. Burdock looked at her as though she’d caught Buffy macking with Spike behind the cafeteria.

“I would have thought you’d be a cocktail waitress.” The math teacher snapped out a long leg and Buffy barely leapt back in time to avoid having her nose flattened.

“Algebra has nothing to do with life,” Buffy announced, taking a quick swing at the other woman with her stake that merely grazed the vampire’s arm. “You should have taught us how to balance a checkbook and fill out income taxes. Something useful!”

Over to her right somewhere, she could hear Spike taking on the geeky boys in a flurry of curses and the sound of flesh pounding in an unfriendly fashion against other flesh. The distinctive sound of a body exploding into ash warmed the cockles of her heart, whatever they were.

“Tile replacement? Bathroom rehab?” Buffy demanded. “I should have gone to Vo-Tech and become a plumber. I would be making more money than you did!”

The teacher circled her own headstone, never taking her now-gold eyes off Buffy. The difference between Ms. Burdock in her classroom face and game face was minimal. Burdock growled and grabbed Buffy’s hair, flipping her over onto her back into a nearby headstone.

It hurt like hell. Buffy wiggled free and clambered to her feet. For some reason the air was feeling very thick and she wasn’t seeing Burdock’s moves as she should be – the teacher seemed too far away and too fast.

“So why’d they bring you back as a vamp?” Buffy asked and then oofed in surprise after as Ms. Burdock landed a hard kick square in the middle of her back.

The teacher shrugged. “Teenage boy fantasy. And you know, they do have *stamina*.”

Rolling to her feet, Buffy caught the flailing arm of the nearest geek vamp, spun him around and drove her stake into his chest. He obligingly exploded into dust.

“That’s disgusting! You were a teacher, you have obligations and responsibilities! You can’t molest students, that’s just wrong!”

“Did Rupert Giles know that while he was playing Humbert Humbert with you?”

“Huh?”

“She just said you were shaggin’ Giles,” Spike shouted from where he was fighting geeks of his own.

“You bitch!” Furious, Buffy lashed out with her stake and managed a clipping blow on Burdock’s left arm.

A second geek vamp flung himself at Buffy and she flipped him neatly into the air in Spike’s general direction. The vamp’s body flew through the air like a cream pie, and Spike only barely managed to get the stake in position so that instead of being knocked down he just got a faceful of dust. Spitting, he whirled to take on the next one. “A bit o’ warning next time’d be nice!” he yelled over to Buffy.

“Incoming!” she yelled back, figuring he’d understand that as an apology.

Buffy landed a series of sharp punches to the Math teacher’s face, forcing her backwards. Falling gracelessly over her own headstone, Ms. Burdock managed to snap the cheap marble gravemarker in half. Coming around the stub of the headstone, Buffy caught a kick to her kneecap from the teacher and went sprawling into the rucked-up soil around the re-opened grave. The next thing she knew, she was looking up at Ms. Burdock as the vampire teacher swung the broken top of the gravestone up over her head with two hands and brought it down in a deadly arc aimed at Buffy’s head.

Buffy screamed.

~~~~

The scream made Spike freeze with one hand full of a geek vamp’s shirt and the other poised to flatten the vamp’s nose into jam.

“Ah fuck,” he said, tossed the vamp aside like a rag and ran towards Buffy’s screams.

All he could see was the vampire teacher with a bloodstained bit of stone in her hands as she snapped around to face him. Contempt registered on her now-bestial features.

“I’ve heard about you,” she said.

“Yeah? Larry, Moe, and Geeky brief you on the Big Bad in town?”

“Big Bad Spike is toothless Billy now. The Slayer’s housetrained fucktoy.”

That was about enough for Spike.

“I’m not housetrained,” he said and punched the math teacher straight in the face, knocking her flat on her ass. “And don’t call me Billy.”

Popping up like a spring, she lashed out and kicked him in the chest. Spike went with the blow, spun, and punched her square in the face. The bitch was quick, he could give her that, far quicker and smoother than any fledgling had any right to be. Must have been some kind of jock. But she was fighting fair, and Spike had a century plus of dirty tricks. He tripped her, and when she fell, he kicked her in the torso. There was an audible crunch as fragile new-vamp bones gave way. The bitch had hurt Buffy and she was going to pay. What should have been joy at the opportunity to pound fists against flesh was only an empty determination, a hollow revenge. He broke the teacher’s fingers, both hands, her nose, and her jaw. She was spitting black blood into the night-dark ground and Spike was considering crushing her skull, when the sound finally broke through his concentration.

Buffy, her breath hitching in her chest as though she were about to come – or to cry.

Dropping the bleeding vampire teacher to the ground, Spike surveyed the general area.

“Slayer? Where you hidin’?” he called.

He left the Math teacher vampire on her ass under a tree, her very presence reduced to background noise. Buffy needed him.

Spike couldn’t see Buffy anywhere. The cemetery was a moon-washed boneyard of headstones and deep shadows. A few paces away, the ground was rent in an uneven hole. Spike peered down into the open grave that had previously housed the new vampire.

“Hey,” Buffy said and looked up at him.

She was sitting in the teacher’s casket, her arms wrapped around her knees and her best little girl lost look on her dirt-smeared face.

“An’ you’re doin’ what down there?”

“She has a pink lining. Mine was white.”

Her voice was tinny, as though coming over an old tannoy, and she was stroking the torn and dirty scraps of fabric streaming out of the smashed wood and metal casket. Typical American casket, built like a tank, expensive as a new car, and stuffed in a metal and concrete vault. No wonder half the fledges made it out half-mad and starving. Nope, the old pine coffin was the only civilized way to go. Maybe the undertakers in the States should cotton on to the fact that some of their clients didn’t stay where they were planted. Of course, the vamps who turned Ms. Burdock had come back for her, so her coffin was broken from the outside. No bleeding fingers for her.

Spike was seriously doubting that Buffy was doing research into funerary customs of the new millennium. Once again she was wearing her ‘just visiting’ face while the rest of her was far away. This was a relapse into Resurrection Buffy, probably not surprising because that was her last actual coffin experience, but it was none too pleasant to watch.

“No accountin’ for taste,” he hedged and leapt lightly into the grave with her.

Metal and wood crunched underfoot. Studying her in the moonlight, Spike could see that there was a nasty scrape on her forehead over her left eye, and a matching splotch of blood on her sweater over her left forearm.

“You all right, then?” he asked, trying to sound nonchalant.

“She accused me of cheating on the Algebra I final exam,” Buffy said and rocked back and forth on her little bum like a child. “I barely passed. That fuckhead Principal Snyder made me take it again, all alone in a room, and they took my handbag and my bookbag and patted me down like I was under arrest. I did a couple of points better. Boy were they mad.”

Spike held up a couple of fingers.

“How many fingers am I holdin’ up?” he asked.

She made a ‘are you fucking stupid?’ face. “Twelve.”

Her wits, such as they were, seemed undamaged. Spike sighed and watched her get up, smoothing dirt and debris off her clothes. She looked like she’d been pulled through a hedge backward. Not that Spike was in any better shape. There was a tear in his T-shirt from one of the geek vamps and Spike toyed with it for a moment, remembering that he really had to get around to stealing some replacements before he looked utterly tatty.

“Right then, time for a cold one. There’s a pint of A neg waitin’ wiv’ my name on it, though I suspect you’ll be wantin’ somethin’ with a few less corpuscles. Come on, let’s out of the grave.”

“Not yet,” she said and latched onto his mouth, all hot breath and teeth with her burning arms locked around him.

Her nails scraped the back of his neck, fighting through the finely clipped ends of his hair. Her tongue looked for secrets between his teeth, hot as tea fresh from the kettle. Slaying boiled her blood, the same way a good hunt blurred the line between violence and desire. He hung on, kissing her back as hard as she kissed him. Even standing there in Burdock’s open grave, covered in vamp dust, Spike couldn’t keep his hands from sliding down to squeeze the soft peach of her ass.

He felt her little foot snake around his calf, caressing him through his jeans, and then she tugged and twisted and he was falling the short distance into the ruined casket. He landed hard on Buffy, in more than one sense of the word, and she wriggled against him in a way that threatened to explode his brain cells.

So much for the grave being a fine and private place. Spike pushed himself up on his elbows to get a better look at Buffy. Her eyes were as flat and unreflective chips of blue plastic. His demon salivated, but his stomach clenched.

“Come on, deadboy,” Buffy taunted, pulling him down by the lapels of his duster. Spike had never liked Resurrection Buffy, and even more didn’t like her adoption of Xander’s nickname for him. Her clever little fingers wormed their way under his clothes and fingernails scraped the skin at the base of his spine. He braced his hands on the clammy dirt and pushed himself off of her, despite the protest from further south.

“I spent enough time in graves,” he chastised. “There’s a bed back at the crypt.”

“This is where we should be,” she said, staring past him to the sky.

“What?” he demanded and rolled to a sitting position. “You don’t belong here, not before your four score and ten.”

Something colder and more frightening than himself started crawling up Spike’s spine. The vapid shine in her eyes was entirely too much like the vapid shine he’d seen in Dru’s for over a century. Maybe the Maths teacher had whacked her too hard on the head.

Yeah, right.

“Get out,” Buffy said in a voice like granite, standing so that he had to follow as well or stare up at her like a conquered opponent.

“Slayer — Buffy –”

“Don’t you get it? We aren’t friends, Spike. If you don’t want to fuck, get the hell out of my graveyard.”

His palms itched to slap her.

“I’m leaving, all right,” he said and could hear the fury in his voice. “But you might think about whether you really want to be playin’ Nastier Than Thou with me.”

Bending his knees, he leapt with vampire energy to ground level. As far as he knew, Buffy was still standing in the grave when he left the graveyard.

Fifteen minutes of stalking later, Spike had thought of fifteen crueler things he should have said, and five detailed fantasies of what he might have done instead. The very trees seemed to shrink away from him. Lovecraft’s was what he needed, a little blood, and then a lot of blood, the former from the bartender and the latter from the patrons.

When he pulled out the keys to the DeSoto, Spike realized that he’d been clenching his hands so hard that his nails had cut through his skin. He watched as the healing took place, so intent that he didn’t hear Xander come up behind him until it was too late.

“Hey,” Xander said.

Spike spun and tried not to look surprised.

“You’re not wiv’ the other Stooges,” he accused.

Xander sighed. “Willow’s doing inventory. I’m not allowed to help because of that time I thought that E came before D. And that other time I spilled soda on the keyboard, which was totally not my fault. So, I was thinking I’d take KITTE for a spin. Wanna come along?”

He considered for about four microseconds. If he could find something to kill outside Lovecraft’s, he wouldn’t need to bribe the lamia to let him back in just yet.

“Let’s ride.”

~~~~

“Quicky Mart,” Spike instructed. “I need a pack a’smokes.”

“Tobacco is a known carcinogen,” KITTE warned. “Not to mention its triggering role in bronchitis, emphysema, heart disease, and premature wrinkling.”

Spike snickered. “Somehow I ain’t worried.”

“Secondhand smoke -“ she began.

Spike rolled down the window and blew his carcinogenic haze into the night.

“What I need right now is a Slushy,” Xander announced, playing peacemaker.

What you need right now is a smack upside the head, Spike thought and stiffened in the passenger seat. He had no desire to experience KITTE’s means of defending her chosen driver.

The Quicky Mart was nearly deserted, only one other car in the lot, slung out over three handicapped spaces. There was a petty viciousness worth admiring. Sadly, KITTE parked like a perfect lady off to the side.

Piles of magazines, potato chips, and fizzy drinks filled the plate glass windows. The enormous American flag on the door was faded from the California sun. The proprietor, a Sri Lankan fellow, probably felt the necessity of patriotism more than the average California blonde. Through the window at the side, Spike could see someone moving down the snack aisle.

The bells over the door jingled as Xander moved, but underneath that was another sound, one Spike couldn’t place. Not until he stepped over the threshold, just behind Xander, and saw the sawed-off shotgun pointed at Xander’s chest.

Ahilan, Mr. Arulanantham’s teenage son, cowered behind the counter, looking about three millimeters away from total nervous breakdown. The cash spilling from the plastic bag on the counter indicated that the gunman was nearly finished with his business.

“You had to fuckin’ have your Cheetos,” the man – late teenager, Spike revised as he began to see something other than the big gun — yelled at the guy in the aisle, who turned out to be holding a smaller but no less serious revolver, along with a Big Grab of Cheetos.

“Get inside,” Shotgun ordered, jerking his weapon for emphasis. Ordinarily, Spike would have taken the opportunity to tear out the guy’s throat in the moment before the barrel pointed back at him, but he wasn’t sure what Revolver would do to Xander in the interim. Imitating Xander, he stepped into the store with his hands raised to his shoulders, trying to look harmless. They edged into the store, clearing a path for the robbers to the door.

As the robbers grabbed candy bars and soft drinks to stuff into their jackets, Xander glanced longingly at the Slushy machine, with its churning electric blue and fuschia dispensers and a decal of Señor Slushy twirling his rakish mustache, and shuffled a bit closer to it. Seeing the boy’s single-minded pursuit of pleasure made Spike respect him more.

Spike glanced over at the trembling Ahilan, who blinked at him in terror. Human criminals were relatively rare in Sunnydale, because they were often out late at night and therefore dinner on the hoof. Spike could hear the subsonic hum of the silent alarm.

“No funny stuff.”

“Yeah!” Revolver echoed Shotgun, waving his gun hand. As he gestured, he got the jump on Chekov’s rule by a few acts – in other words, he accidentally fired. The bullet put a sniper-quality hole in the forehead of Senor Slushy. Blue crushed ice and syrup began to leak down over his mustache as everyone stared.

“Cool!” Revolver began to laugh. His eyes were almost pupilless. The machine’s slow grinding changed, getting rougher and louder.

“Stop wasting time.” Shotgun grabbed the bag of money from the counter, pausing to lean over to see if there was anything left in the cash register. “Fuck! He fuckin’ tripped the alarm!” He must have seen the flashing light, Spike surmised. Shotgun raised his namesake so that it rested directly over Ahilan’s heart.

“Please,” Ahilan wept.

Then, from behind them, the Slushy machine groaned and exploded. Everyone jumped at the noise. Spike saw Shotgun’s look of terror as he reflexively pulled the trigger.

The surprise on Ahilan’s face disappeared into a shower of blood. The blast tore his body nearly in two, sending it tumbling back against the lottery tickets, slumping to the floor with a paintbrush smear of gore. The shotgun blast followed so hard upon the machine’s explosion that Spike couldn’t tell the two apart.

Time resumed. A pack of cigarettes dislodged by Ahilan’s fall tumbled to the floor onto the spreading pool of blood. Ice was trickling down the back of Spike’s neck. Xander gagged, and Revolver actually vomited into the candy display.

“Come on!” Shotgun yelled, grabbing his co-felon’s arm and dragging him past Spike and Xander. Xander still had his hands over his mouth while Spike was pushing him to the floor, moments before Shotgun realized that leaving live witnesses was supremely stupid and sent another blast through the closing door. The safety glass shattered, peppering them with green glass confetti and shards of the American flag poster on top of the cold Slushy coating. Distantly, behind the sound of the robbers’ car starting, Spike could hear KITTE revving up as well.

The roar of a departing engine gave Spike the confidence to look out at the parking lot, where KITTE waited, her engine turning, reminding him of a cheetah poised to leap. Xander stuck his head out and assessed the situation.

“Let’s go!” he ordered, obviously realizing that this was his first chance to be a knight in a shining car. Never one to avoid fanfare, Spike leapt across the hood of the car, leaving an icy smear, and slid into his seat as Xander was closing the driver’s side door. Without waiting for further instructions, KITTE charged out of the lot and onto the freeway ramp. “I am tracking the killers’ car, proceeding northwest at approximately 75 miles per hour,” she informed them as she blew past the “25 MPH” on-ramp sign.

Spike would have laughed at the sight of Xander desperately trying to untangle his seat belt if he hadn’t been a bit involved in a similar endeavor. He had no intention of testing which would give first, his bones or KITTE’s bulletproof windows. KITTE was accelerating so fast that the other cars on the road, going the California standard 10-miles-over-the-speed-limit, looked like they were stalling.

Aided by the computer map, Spike could see that they were rapidly overtaking the other car. When the robbers noticed this as well, the passenger leaned out of his window and began firing a gun at KITTE. None of the shots came close. These kids had obviously seen way too many movies involving inexhaustible ammunition and bullet trajectories indifferent to the laws of physics or the limits of the human aim.

Shortly, they were alongside the other car and KITTE was slowing to keep pace. “Pull over to the side of the road,” KITTE advised the robbers through a loudspeaker. Spike could see them cringing, but the driver – Shotgun — didn’t comply. Instead, he rolled down the window and shot point-blank at Spike. Spike almost controlled the flinch, but still had to blink against the sparks that flew from KITTE’s super-enhanced windows.

Shotgun’s attempt to shoot while steering was, at best, indifferently successful, and KITTE had to weave back and forth to avoid a crash. Beyond him, Spike could see Revolver trying to reload his revolver, but his hands were shaking too hard to get the bullets in. Spike could sympathize.

“Pull over to the side of the road and you will not be harmed,” KITTE warned again. Revolver was jabbering at the driver, but to no avail. Showing some intelligence, Shotgun pointed the gun at KITTE’s front wheel, but his brief flash of sense was wasted on her reinforced tires.

After thirty more seconds, KITTE pulled ahead again, pushing Xander and Spike back into the seats with the G-force. She dodged in front of the other car and then began to slow. As the following car tried to swerve around her, she shimmied back and forth on the road like a salsa dancer. Relentlessly, she forced the other driver to choose between slowing down and crashing into her rear (and still slowing down). Given that the robbers’ car was a Chevy Camaro whose rear bumper was held on with clothesline, Spike thought the driver was wise to skip the crashing part. That car would have crumpled like aluminum foil before scratching KITTE’s paint.

The chase, or lead, became a mid-speed chase, then a low-speed chase, and then the driver and the passenger jumped out of their respective doors with the car still rolling forward. KITTE screeched to a halt, and the shock of the crash threw Xander and Spike against their seatbelts even though it had to be about 5 mph by then. Her wheels spun for a moment, and then they were off the road, following the running humans.

As KITTE charged across the field, Xander and Spike bounced up and down like a yo-yo tied to a seesaw. Spike dared a look at Xander, who was turning the color of seafoam.

“You will have to finish the apprehension,” KITTE informed them, and slowed, her doors popping open in a blatant invitation. Xander fought free of his seatbelt and jumped. Spike followed, already tasting the maiming.

The kids were fast for humans, but not that fast. Spike took the first one, Revolver, with a solid blow to the back that sent the boy tumbling to the ground, then kicked him hard in the thigh to keep him put.

Meanwhile, Xander was almost on top of Shotgun, who turned to face him. Spike saw the gun and sped up, but Xander was already throwing a solid punch to Shotgun’s shoulder, knocking the gun out of alignment. Spike arrived in time to wrench the weapon out of Shotgun’s hand as Xander followed up with a solid gut-punch.

“Not bad,” he congratulated. Behind him, Revolver was moaning. Spike guessed he’d broken a rib or two, and possibly inflicted some kidney damage.

“Let’s take ‘em back to KITTE,” Xander suggested. “She’s probably more experienced with delivering human baddies to the proper authorities.”

Spike took custody of the driver, who seemed to be the leader of the two and more dangerous, while Xander wrenched the passenger to his feet, and they frog-marched their respective prisoners back to the car. Purring on the dried-out grass of the field, under the stars, KITTE looked almost like a visiting spaceship, all gleaming black and throbbing red lights.

“I have identified the killers,” she informed them as they approached. “The one who killed the young man behind the counter is Ralph Boyd, and his companion is Alec Stallings. Mr. Boyd has a history of convenience store robberies, but this is his first murder. Mr. Stallings has been stealing cars for years. To the best of the state’s knowledge, he only just now graduated to crimes of violence.”

“Hey, man, I didn’t know Ray-Ray was going to shoot that guy!” the passenger protested.

“Under California law, both the shooter and his co-felon are eligible for the death penalty for killings committed in the course of a felony. It’s known as felony murder.”

The newly identified Alec and Ralph exchanged nervous glances. “Who ~are~ you?” Ralph asked.

“The hand of vengeance,” KITTE said. “You may administer the penalty now, Xander.”

“Whoah, rewind and go to frame by frame,” Xander said.

“Their guilt is undeniable,” KITTE pointed out. “My review of their records suggests that there are no mitigating factors in their past histories. Forcing them to wait for their deaths is cruel.”

“I think I like your definition of cruelty,” Spike said. “Waste not, want not, I always say.” In an instant, he was at Ralph’s throat. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a mouthful of hot human blood, seething with life, streaming into him. Licking slow dribbles, even of the Slayer’s blood, wasn’t the same. The rhythm of it, the beat of a living heart as the system struggled to compensate, rallied and failed; the subtleties of taste that indicated upbringing, location, even temperament; the wondrous joy of killing. It wasn’t that he’d forgotten, more that he had not let himself think of it for too long.

“Spike! Down! Don’t eat the bad guys!” Xander shouted.

Spike stopped, his teeth just above the throat of the human piece of shit he was holding. The kid was bad, he had killed, and was going to end up in the gas chamber anyway. On the other hand, Xander was sure to go screaming back to Buffy to tell her that Spike had drained somebody. It wasn’t so much fear that she’d stake him that made Spike pause as much as knowing that Buffy couldn’t take the additional stress.

It might have been his new-ish soul or it might have been common sense that made him stop. Or the realization that he could kiss fucking Buffy good-bye.

He straightened and sighed.

“It’s true that the lines between right and wrong get a little blurry in Sunnydale at times, but we’ve always drawn the line at killing human beings,” Xander babbled.

“An’ look where that got you,” Spike interjected, shaking Ralph a little harder to make sure that the kid got the point. “A big snake mayor who killed your friends. I got no problem wiv’ killin’ humans. Fact of the matter is I could use a snack right about now.”

Ralph whimpered and wept in Spike’s grip.

“Listen to me you worthless piece of crap!” Spike roared in his best ‘been doing this for a century’ vamp-voice. “Ahilan got a 1600 on his SATs and a full ride to Berkeley, you miserable fuck. You killed him and all you’re gonna do is be a drain on th’ taxpayers a’the State of California until they gas you good an’ proper.”

Throwing the guy to the ground, Spike adjusted his duster and then kicked him for good measure.

“So what do we do, tie ‘em up and leave ‘em on the road for Juliet Bravo?”

Xander blinked.

“Who?”

“Po-lice, ignorant Yank nit.”

“Actually –” Xander said in a thoughtful tone and headed back to the car.

What’s his name, Ralph, moaned and squirmed.

“Don’t even think about movin’. Give me a reason to rip off your head an’ drink the blood out of your skulls.”

“Hey! Got it!”

Spike turned to see Xander walking towards him, two pairs of handcuffs dangling from his hand like a refugee from one of his more bizarre erotic dreams. Spike shook his head at the strangeness of it, devamping at the same time for dramatic effect. He watched, bemused, as Xander cuffed the young criminals and shoved them into the back seat.

They got into the car again. Only in California, Spike mused, would crime fighting be punctuated by getting in and out of the car. KITTE rumbled across the field, jolting them but not as badly as before.

She rolled back onto the road at a speed limit sign, and Xander decamped to cuff Ralph and Alec to it. Spike could hear sirens in the distance, the cops finally noticing that something had gone awry on the outskirts of Sunnydale.

“Let’s get out of here before we have to answer any inconvenient questions,” Xander advised, sliding back into the car. Spike followed, still wondering when he’d become the sidekick and straight man.

Driving back, Spike smelled artificial sweetness. There was a splash of blue on the back of his hand, and he licked it experimentally. It was too sour for his taste.

Xander looked over and paled beneath his own coating of pink and blue splotches. “I’m never gonna be able to look at a Slushy again.”

“I still need smokes. Smokes and half a bottle a’anythin’ wiv a high alcohol content.”

~~~~

Buffy couldn’t sleep, small surprise. Insomnia was probably part of the whole Slayer package, along with the accelerated healing and strength. The insomnia was probably one of those mutation things that was supposed to help her survive better by keeping the same nighttime hours as the things that she was supposed to hunt and kill. But she was restless, and itchy, feeling like there were hundreds of millions of tiny things crawling around under her skin, and nothing she did was helping. The pillow was too hard, too hot, the sheets wound too tightly around her legs and the worn cotton of her sleep shirt felt like fiberglass.

So it was no small amazement to Buffy that at two she was dressed and locking the front door behind her on her way to Spike’s crypt.

It was a drug thing. At least she thought it was, but couldn’t be sure since drug awareness week had coincided with an invasion of Velga demons in the recycling center her junior year of high school and she’d dozed pretty much through all the seminars and classes that week. There was some drug, she couldn’t remember which one, that had you pretty much addicted after the first time you used it. Crack, speed, or heroin? Buffy’s money was on heroin as being like Spike because of the whole pointy needle and sticking it into the vein thing. She’d gone without him the entire summer, feeling proud of her self control and trying really hard not to bite Dawn’s head off every five minutes, but after the Bronze the other night, she was craving another fix.

The cemetery was quiet. Spike had always made it a point to drive out squatters and discourage fledglings from having their noisy beer and blood bashes in between the crypts and graves. Spike’s idea of discouraging usually ended with the other vamp as a small and crunchy pile of grit, so his cemetery was reliably the only quiet one in town. Buffy had a sudden and bizarre vision of Spike stomping out of his crypt to break up a fledgling party like a typical suburban homeowner shouting at the kids to get the hell off his lawn.

She was punchy, just because she was getting closer.

The upper level of the crypt was quiet, even though the television had an infomercial for a food dehydrator which the empty chair was watching with rapt attention even without sound. But from the trap door leaked light with the yellow flickeringness which indicated candles. Spike was probably down in the lower level with enough candles to bankrupt Wicks-n-Sticks, a bottle of something nasty, and a Gothic attitude.

She’d gotten the candle part right.

Spike was sleeping, sprawled out naked and barely covered by the brilliant red sheets that covered an incongruous futon sofa. The sofa had a definite list to one side and Buffy noticed that one leg had been replaced by a pile of hardback books. The futon must have been a replacement for the bed that had gotten blown up when she and Riley had grenaded the lower level of the crypt. There was still some lingering guilt about that, like a bruise that hadn’t quite healed. But she pushed the thought out of her head (something she’d always been good at) and crept across the floor to the side of the futon. It really was colossally unfair for something like Spike to be so *pretty*, with his porcelain doll skin and illegally long eyelashes. At times like this, there was something so tight and heavy in her chest that Buffy wasn’t sure how she managed to breathe.

But at that moment the most pressing thing in her mind was that only if she managed to press herself against his cool and smooth skin would the irritating itchy heat under hers finally go away. Standing there with the light of the candles flickering in the corners of her eyes, Buffy stripped off her clothes, the spiders in the corners the only audience. Finally naked, she moved onto the uneven surface of the futon. This movement finally snapped Spike out of his doze and his eyes flashed open, nearly black in the untrustworthy light. He hitched himself up on his elbows and considered her with a cool expression that indicated neither surprise or pleasure at the fact that she was naked on his bed. Somewhat stung at the lukewarm reception, Buffy rested on her hands and knees and leaned forward so she could drag her face across his, like a cat marking territory. He barely moved back, just eyed her with calm acceptance, as though he’d been expecting her.

After a moment of stillness she finally managed to speak.

“What’s blue in your hair? Demon blood?” she asked.

“Super Blue Slushy.”

“How did you get Super Blue Slushy in your hair?”

“I’ve had a very bad night, Super Blue Slushy bein’ the least of it.”

“You drained a Slushy machine?”

“Nah, scared the kids who were knockin’ off the Quicky Mart. Gave ‘em a bit of the old—“ Spike shook his head like a dog in the rain and changed.

Vamped. Game-faced. All bumps and animal protrusions over his eyes, and a mouth full of needle-sharp teeth smirking at her. The skin on her spine stood at attention and suggested that she run like hell, right there and then. Eyes like gold button earrings shone out at her even as her heart started to pound with either trained or instinctual fear. He was half-hard, she saw. Naked, vamped Spike was even more bizarre. She stared at the sculptured whiteness of his body, all smooth and solid curves, except for the twisted flesh of his face.

“Did you forget?” he asked and smirked with more teeth than before.

Okay, yeah, a little. It was easy to forget when he was sitting on the sofa and watching TV with Dawn, when he was kissing her, touching her in the dark, and when he was looking at her with the blue eyes she always wanted.

“This is why you can treat me like a chew toy, Slayer. This is why you can’t outrun or outfuck me.”

His lips still felt the same, cold and smooth against hers. His tongue was the same, invading as if it had a geographic survey to do. His teeth cut into her flesh, not biting, just razored sharp, and she flicked her tongue across an incisor. Spike groaned into her mouth and ground his hips into hers.

“Open your eyes,” Spike said, pulling away and wiping his hand across his mouth. Buffy didn’t remember closing them. His eyes glowed almost like a cat’s in the gnarled mockery of his human face. The perfect cheekbones were the same, the only unsullied remnant of the man she liked to think he was. He was inches from her face. No vamp had gotten as close to her like this without drinking from her. As she stared, he slid a hand between her thighs, rubbing her, holding her down when she wriggled against him.

“Ready for it, then?”

Her mouth was a desert, except for the blood still flowing where he’d nicked her. Yes, she was pretty sure he’d fucked her in game face before, but that time he’d been behind her and the bathroom mirror kept his secrets. Spike closed the distance and licked her mouth, not touching her with his lips. Two cold fingers slid into her, twisting and warming themselves from her. When they abruptly pulled away, she whimpered. She straddled his lap, brushing up against his erection. Her hands were on his shoulders and if she only looked in his eyes, they were almost beautiful. Spike’s hands moved over her body as if he were polishing tarnish off of her, covering every inch. She reached between them, found his cock, and began to rub it over and around her clit.

“Why the bloody hell don’t I just toss you out for good?” he grumbled, almost to himself.

Spike growled deep in his throat and pulled on her ass in a clear command. Instead of complying, she moved her head forward to lick at the lower part of his face. The blue gunk was sweet and tart over Spike’s usual cigarettes, beer and old blood. She moved down his cheekbone and then across to his mouth, biting on his lip until she tasted the thick metallic tang of someone else’s blood.

Spike flipped her whirlwind-fast so that she was beneath him, still on the edge of the bed. Her feet brushed the cold stone floor as he wrenched her legs apart and drove home, keeping his guiding hand there to maintain the pressure she needed. All Buffy could do was catch her breath in a chest-searing gasp and grab at the sheets for some traction.

“Because I’m a fucking stupid wanker to fall in love with you.”

He said it as though he was blaming her for it.

The bed was low enough that he could actually get his knees on the floor, tugging at her ass until it was in the air and Buffy had to brace herself with her arms on the bed and wrap her legs around his waist. The angle was different, shallower but in a good direction, and she grunted in time with his thrusts.

She would never stop loving the feeling of taking him inside, squeezing around him until the world went black and red behind her eyes. Spike lowered his head to her breasts, suckling at the thin lines of blood his teeth had raised, running his rough tongue along the wounds to keep them open.

Buffy was so close that he must have been able to feel the muscles in her thighs jumping, because he increased the pace and the pressure just enough. It felt almost like the big jump had, when she was still falling and not yet fallen; every inch of her skin tingled with little lightnings rushing past.

She really couldn’t be expected to keep her eyes open for that, and when she looked again, Spike looked human again. From the wild look in his eyes, she thought he hadn’t been able to keep the vamp up, and shouldn’t it have been the other way around? But they were good at this, and even his desperate so-close-so-close moves sent ripples of pleasure through her, so she tossed her head back and let him groan out, “Oh, luv,” as he came.

After a moment, she pulled him fully onto the bed and twined herself around him like ropes around David Copperfield. The crypt was silent except for the sound of her breathing and the occasional scrape of Spike’s stiffened hair against silky sheets.

Buffy watched the candles flicker shadows on the wall, little candleflame shadow lives that were like her life now compared to the true flame she’d left behind. Eventually Spike shifted, twisting so that he could hook his chin over her shoulder.

“Anythin’ happen after I left?” he asked in the most careful of tones.

“Not really.” There had been two other vamps, and she had been quick and good and fine, still feeling the shame of letting the math teacher hurt her. “What did you do? Other than see if Blue Slushy outperforms Brylcreem,” she asked, putting her hand behind her to run it along his sleek cool flank.

“Durin’ the Quicky Mart hold-up the one idiot shot the Slushy machine. It – well – blew up.”

Turning in his arms, Buffy rubbed at his chest. Smooth Spike face, smooth Spike chest, it was nice. He made a little sound that was somewhere between a groan and a sigh. She started nibbling on his earlobe. He tasted like Super Blue Slushy with hardly any cigarette at all.

“You’re not listenin’ to me, are you?”

“Holdup. Shooting. Collateral Slushy machine damage,” she summarized. As she laid her head on his ice-sculpture chest, she realized that there was no way she could stay there. She’d just snuggle a little, until he dozed off.

Instead of obliging her, he slid on top of her, pressing her into the mattress with his greater weight and imprisoned her face between his hands. She wiggled, a token effort to free herself.

“I love you,” he said with an expression that was fierce, almost angry.

Buffy sucked in a breath and let the panic smack her in the face.

“No you don’t, you can’t.”

“Think I’m doin’ this for my health?”

“It’s lust, it’s just lust,” she said and was horrified to hear that her voice had come out in a choked little baby-whisper.

“What can I do to convince you otherwise?” he asked.

She had to push him away and sit up because the look in his eyes was too raw and too needy – too human for her to stand. Having him look at her like that just made her feel even worse, and even more confused and clutching the sheets over her breasts as though he hadn’t just been running his mouth over her nipples didn’t help either. The fact that he was tracing his too-talented fingers over the jumping skin of her back just made things worse.

“I love you and I mean it.”

“You can’t.”

“Can’t you just accept it? What do I have to do now, Buffy?” His voice sharpened a little, even though his fingertips were still smoothly seductive. “I’ve got the soul now, haven’t made an effort to get free of it, haven’t been able to kill humans for goin’ on three years now – not countin’ Egypt. What have I got to do to make myself the bloke you’re willin’ to love?”

The shiver and goosebumps moved over her skin like a cold wave. She pushed away at his cool, smooth chest, and rolled away from him as quickly and as neatly as if they’d been fighting.

Fighting would have been easier.

“I don’t know, don’t ask me. I can’t talk about this, okay?”

She was on her feet and scrabbling around next to the bed for her panties. Spike could go commando, but there was no way that she was going to run across Sunnydale with no underwear on. It was time to go. It was late and there was no way that she was going to let Spike trap her into the conversation he was gearing up for.

“You are the most infuriating woman. Tryin’ to kill you or tryin’ to shag you is equally frustratin’.”

“This is me not talking to you!” She couldn’t find her bra, so she just buttoned her cardigan over her bare skin and shoved her feet into her shoes. “This is me leaving.”

“Oh yeah, go on, you’ve had your shag, now run away little girl. Run on home!”

She bolted for the ladder, feeling her heart pounding in her ears.

~~~~

Six in the morning was mighty early. Buffy usually saw the sunrise from the other side – the staying up all night side, not the getting up to see it side. Years of being the Slayer had played havoc with her natural sleep cycles and she was pretty sure that she’d never get jet lag, provided that she ever got to go far enough away to worry about having jet lag. But Rick had stressed the importance of the pre-work crowd and Buffy was due at the Café at seven thirty. Shower and hair were easy; figuring out what to wear took a little longer. The dress code was casual, sneakers were encouraged, but she wasn’t really sure what was the appropriate thing to wear for coffee and baked goods. A tie-dyed baby tee and suede skirt seemed to be of the good and didn’t look completely stupid with white sneakers.

One thing was for sure: polyester and an animal hat were never going on her body ever again.

Feeling close to human, Buffy made her way down to the center of town and the café, and found that there were already business-y looking people going in empty handed and coming out looking happier with cardboard cups of coffee in their hands. This could be just the lift that she needed, doling out caffeine instead of death and/or meat by-products. The warm smell of coffee and baking wrapped around her like a fuzzy pink blanket of goodness as she went into the café. Behind the counter, Rick gave her a grin and ushered her into the back room.

“We’re running at Maximum Yuppie Velocity right now, so the orientation’s gonna be vague at best. Put your coat and stuff here in the closet, grab an apron, and smile the best that you can. Help yourself to whatever you want to drink and we’ll get cracking,” Rick looked around at the two other women who were wearing the big tie-dyed Rick’s Café aprons and serving coffee and baked goods to the suits who lined up at the counter. “Hey guys, this is Buffy, she’s the new day peon. Buffy, this is Rachel and Marianne.”

To Buffy’s surprise, Rachel was the flapper/Goth bartender that Buffy remembered she’d seen at the Bronze. Marianne was an African-American goddess, tall enough to play pro-basketball and curvy enough to make Marilyn Monroe look like Calista Flockheart. She had well-tended dreads and a selection of silver hoops in her nose, eyebrow, and ears.

“Hey chickie!” Rachel said as she snapped a plastic lid on a cup of coffee. “How’s it going with that to die for boyfriend of yours?”

So that was a confirmation on the Bronze and, oh God, had Rachel seen her *dancing* with Spike? Strike “dancing,” insert “fucking with clothes on.” Rolling her eyes and blushing, Buffy slipped the apron over her head and tied the ties at her waist. “Got a time out for bad behavior.”

“Girl, any guy with fuck-me eyes like that is gonna live in the time out corner,” Rachel agreed.

“Who’s got fuck-me eyes?” Marianne asked. “And when do I get to teach this boy some respect?”

“Buffy’s boyfriend. Punky Billy Idol Bowie kinda guy with shitloads of leather and attitude,” Rachel announced to the entire store. “Massive snackage with Tabasco. Muy Caliente and knows it.”

Since she’d already gotten on the Blushville express, Buffy decided it wasn’t even worth the effort to try to act cool.

“Leather and attitude?” Rick rang up a customer and handed the suit guy his bag of doughnuts. ”Oooh, Miss Buffy’s walking on the wild side.”

“What can I do?” Buffy asked, since she was there to work, after all.

“When Rachel makes the coffee, she writes it on the cup. Just yell out what it is and the person should come for it. They’re pretty well trained,” Rick flashed one of her brilliant smiles at the line in front of the cash register. “Next victim!”

After the lunch crowd, the phone rang and Rick spent a couple of minutes with the cordless phone in the back room. Finally, she emerged with a pained look on her face.

“Buffy, I know I promised you weekends off, but Anna just called and said that she has a stomach bug. Can you come in tomorrow? I’ll have her cover Monday for you so you have two days off in a row.”

“Anna’s sick?” Rachel asked and then laughed. “Beth must be in town. Rick, you have to let people start calling in ‘horny’ instead of sick.”

Rick scrunched up her face. “As if. If I could call out horny, I’d never be here.”

Blushing, Buffy went back to building a chicken salad baguette for the older, suited businesswoman at the counter.

~~~~

The demon barber had “Rocco” stitched over the pocket of his shirt and hairy forearms. As always, the steel scissors and combs reminded Spike of some of his favorite torture devices. The big blue glass jar of Barbicide had an eyeball floating in it.

Rocco body slammed Spike into the chair, wrapped the poncho thingy around him like a tortilla around burrito fillings.

“Whaddya want?”

Spike could out-macho a barber even without the use of his arms or legs. “Off the top and the sides.”

Rocco attacked his head with a steel comb and Spike tried not to wince. There was a foot of hair on the floor and seven or eight demons and vampires waiting in the seats, reading newspapers and getting shoeshines. The M’Fashnik demon in the other chair was having the fur between his horns shorn with an electric razor. Rocco’s reflection in the mirror looked funny, hanging over an apparently empty chair.

“D’jou see that game th’ other night? Fuckin’ A, Dodgers ain’t been the same since they left Brooklyn in ’58. LA fucks everything up.”

Spike shrugged, not a big baseball fan.

“Yo, you still want the color shit?”

“Yeah.”

“Makes you look like a fuckin’ fairy.”

“I’m payin’ for it, so you do it, right?”

“You wanna look like a fairy? I don’t give a shit.”

“An’ do it right this time, only lasted eight months last time.”

“Hey, even magic has its limits. You don’t like it, you go somewhere else. You tip like shit, Spike and you fight with the other customers. Go to Curl up and Dye with the rest of the girls.”

“Remind me again why I don’t drain you, Rocco?”

The barber looked in the empty mirror and grinned at Spike with more teeth than really fit in his mouth.

“It’s my fucking sweet personality.”

“That and the short lifespan of most of your other clients,” the M’Fashnik demon in the other chair said.

“It’s a Hellmouth, ducks,” Spike drawled. “You’ve got to box clever to stay alive ‘round here.”

The other demon snorted, causing his barber nearly to nick a horn. “Fuck you, Spike. There’s worse out there than you or your little Slayer.”

“Oh yeah?” he snarled and sneered at the demon’s reflection. “Name it.”

“I can’t. All’s I know is my sister’s friend’s husband was found drained last Wednesday, and it wasn’t no vampire. All the juices gone, not just the blood. He was mummified, they said. And he was a Rheuthgoth, and you *know* what it takes to kill one of them.”

“Evidently, just a good draining,” Spike said and settled himself back into his chair as the magic dye-goo began to seep down the back of his neck. As far as he was concerned, the world could use a few less Rheuthgoths, and he certainly had no truck with mummies.

“Yeah, you’ve got your ass covered as long as you’re shtuppin’ the Bimbo the vampire Slut.”

Spike levitated out of the barber’s chair, sticking his finger right in the M’Fashnik demon’s face.

“I’ve had just about enough a’you. Shut your fat gob ‘bout the Slayer.”

“Right. Like she ain’t done what’s his name, that Angelo guy, and Dracula got a shot at banging her as well. I hear she’s crazy for Undead dick!”

Since Spike hadn’t been much for virtues, at least not since he’d been turned, Patience wasn’t his normal mode. The Barbicide jar exploded into glass and blue liquid when he smashed it over the M’Fashnik’s head. Seizing Spike by the shoulders, Rocco shoved him towards the door.

“Get the fuck out of here. You’re a fuckin’ disaster waiting to happen, Spike. Get your fuckin’ vamp ass over to Curl up and Dye and get Newt to finish. And don’t come back here, you stupid gavone.”

Stiff-legged with rage, Spike stalked down the covered alley behind the building, his vision gone dark with fury. Who the hell did that M’Fashnik think he was talking to? He wasn’t a lap dog, he wasn’t domesticated, and he wasn’t going to let a useless git like the M’Fashnik talk about Buffy like that.

Spike’s pace slowed as he remembered that he had a headful of magic bleach and the barber’s cape flopping across his chest, no doubt to the amusement and delight of anything that happened to be out and about. Who knew what was likely to happen to his hair if the goo was left on too long or not long enough. The thought of being transformed into a dead ringer for Carrotop was enough to make Spike wish he hadn’t lost his temper with the M’Fashnik. He stumbled down the alley another block and finally found the back door for Curl up N’Dye.

It was awfully pink. Pink walls, pink floor, pink chairs, and the customers were all wearing pink salon capes around their necks. The Chirago demon having its mane re-braided was wearing a red dashiki which clashed with the rest of the décor. An overwhelming aroma of femininity washed over Spike like a tsunami. The girl vamp getting her nails done gave him a familiar nod, even though he couldn’t swear he’d clapped eyes on her before. Fledglings all looked alike to him anymore. Feeling awkward, he sent around his best Big Bad glare.

“Is Newt around? Rocco sent me.”

“Omigod. It’s Spike!” a young Trictnar demon leapt to his side, her tail lashing back and forth with excitement. “I am like such a fan y’know. You are just the coolest thing in Sunnydale.”

Normally, Spike would have preened under the recognition and praise, but normally he didn’t have a head full of bleach and a black plastic bib around his neck.

“You Newt?” he asked.

The Trictnar was a brilliant shade of jade green and had drawn shimmery gold lines around her eyes and tiny horns, which coordinated with the gold and purple metallic floral pattern on her velvet blouse and her cream velvet bellbottoms, and she looked very trendy and polished for a four foot tall lizard. Something about the outfit tugged at Spike’s brain for a moment before he realized what it was. He was pretty sure the Slayer the same outfit. Which just went to prove that it had to be something in the water in SunnyHell. Of course the Trictnar looked like she’d been guzzling espresso by the gallon, bobbing her head like a noddy car dashboard dog and shifting from foot to foot in a hopping lizard dance.

“I totally am Newt. I’d even say I was if I wasn’t, y’know, Newt. Rocco sent you? What’s with the half-doneness?” she reached up and ran her little green claws through his wet hair.

“Had to leave. Can you finish?” he asked.

“Totally. No sweat. Not of the big. Sit here, wash out, cut and color.”

She skipped. She bloody well skipped as she forced him into a silly backwards-bending chair and turned on warm water.

“You know, the eighties are totally over. Billy Idol called and he wants his hair back. You need an update, big time update. What you need is a deep conditioning treatment, a fresh base color application and we should probably pull it back a shade or two because even Madonna isn’t this blond anymore, and then maybe a highlighting glaze.” Newt yammered on, her skill at getting in the maximum amount of words on a single breath was nothing short of awe-inspiring. “That would be really nice. Get you nice and spiffy.”

“Abso-bloody-lutely not.”

She slathered some sweet-smelling stuff on his hair, and Spike wiggled in the chair in protest, but Newt continued to chatter on and scrubbed at his hair like a little girl washing a puppy.

“You know, I can give you a coupon and you could send the Slayer in. Do the whole dayspa thing here. Yes we do. Love to have the Slayer in here. I hear she’s nice? Is she nice? Of course you’d think so because she’s your girlfriend.”

Almost without pausing, Newt cocked her head to the side and looked above the shampoo bottles. Quick as lightning, her long, frog like tongue lashed out and grabbed a fly, which had been circling the bottles. Just as fast, she chewed, swallowed and returned to yammering.

“Love to have her. Just love to. Whole treatment from pore cleansing to pedicure. You don’t have to worry about your pores, vampires always have the best skin. No sun damage. I get too much sun and my scales get all dry and peely. Not of the good. Not at all.”

“You don’t know anything about some big snake-type demons come around recent-like? I understand you reptile lot are clannish.”

Newt snorted and her delicately pointed snout wrinkled in disgust.

“That’s the Quetzacoatl wannabes. Total losers, the King Cobra Gang from LA who are so more Monty Python or Three Stooges. They don’t do anything except drink beer and break things, think that they’re really dangerous and scary but totally not that. Smelly and noisy, really bad breath and no interest in grooming, they came out here last week on a road trip, looking to mess with the Hellmouth and one of them disappeared a few days ago. One of the Zagros demons probably got him, because the Sierpiente demons are pretty yummy once you get the skin off.”

“Would a Zagros suck the innards out and leave the skin?” Spike asked as Newt shifted him upright and wrapped a pink towel around his head.

Spike was pretty sure his testicles were never going to unshrink.

“Are you kidding? Zagros demons like to tear their prey up into bite size pieces. Like stuff that’s begun to decompose better, like crocodiles sticking their food under logs in lakes and stuff like that. At least that’s what the Crocodile Hunter thinks. He’s the best, isn’t he? Love humans who appreciate reptilian charm. He needs a haircut, though. Always looks kind of ratty, I think. So what’s with the Zagros sucking the innards dealie anyway?”

“Apparently a Rheuthgoth got sucked like a juicebox.”

“My cousin Gekko, who’s in the O’Malley pod outside Santa Serena came in to get his claws done last week and he told me that there were a couple of his podmates who’d disappeared when they came to Sunnydale for the Flaming Fungus concert. Now that I think about it, Pete, the Zagros that lives in the Dumpster behind the supermarket hasn’t been seen for awhile. But he’s usually drinking Mad Dog so he could just be passed out somewhere or got captured by reporters for the National Enquirer again”

Still skipping, Newt propelled Spike into a chair and rubbed at his head with the pink towel until his scalp whined for mercy. Spike watched the towel rub over nothingness in the mirror for a moment and thought. Trictnars ranked about equal to humans in terms of toughness, but Rheuthgoth and Zagros demons were damned tough to kill, and the Sierpiente snake guys hadn’t been creampuffs either so whatever was thinning the demon herd in SunnyHell had to be a bad ass. Possibly a bad ass as bad as Spike himself. This promised to be an interesting fight if he ever found the Mystery Demon who was knocking off demons.

“Time to get beautiful!” Newt trilled and brandished a pair of scissors and a comb over Spike’s un-reflected head.

***

Buffy spent the day in a blur of coffee and food. Doublemeat had been hell on her appetite, all the uncooked fake beef and chicken, the deep fryers, and the cow hat had been enough to put her off food for the rest of her life. The fact that her uniform pants had clung to her thighs in an unattractive way that made her feel fat hadn’t helped any. But Rick’s was different. Besides being a polyester-free zone, there was no brainwashing talk of teamwork, the music was good, and Rick didn’t mind if her workers stood around and talked during the odd ten or fifteen minutes when business was slow. Rachel taught Buffy how to make cappuccino and steam milk and there wasn’t any scolding over the resulting foam-flicking fight afterwards.

It was nice to work someplace where she didn’t loathe every moment of it. But the bad thing about working at Rick’s was the fact that every broken cookie or lopsided muffin was fair game for the employees. If this kept up, she’d eat herself into a huge old size four before the end of the month.

Around the time the high school kids started trickling in after class, Buffy realized that she’d felt more normal and happier than she had in years. She just didn’t know if it was from the friendly vanilla magic that infused Rick’s American Café or the fact that she’d eaten half a dozen brownies.

While she was refilling the jugs of cream, milk, and skim milk over on the counter where they lived along with the sugar and artificial sweeteners, Rick came up to Buffy and poked her in the shoulder.

“So, are you coming back tomorrow?” she asked.

Buffy wiped up some dribbled milk on the Formica and couldn’t help but smile.

“If you want me to. I’m sorry about giving that guy regular instead of decaf this morning.”

“Decaf is like kissing your sister,” Rick said and made a face. “It’s nice, but there’s no buzz. Sister-wise, how’s Lightfingers Summers today?”

“Sulky,” Buffy admitted. “But she should be sulky. She did something wrong and now she has to suffer the consequences.”

“Sounds to me like you’ve got some experience in the consequence-suffering department.”

“No, I mean, no more than anybody else. Maybe a little bit more than anybody else,” Buffy began backpedaling as fast as she could. “But she should suffer, it’s how you learn not to do it again, right?”

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

“That which does not kill us steals our underwear.” Buffy muttered.

“I don’t get it.”

Realizing that she was headed into the country known as Do Not Go There, Buffy recapped the milk jug and flashed her best plastic smile at Rick.

“Hey, you’re like the bartender that everybody tells their troubles to, only without the bar.”

“Oh damn, thanks for reminding me.” Rick stood on tiptoe and caught Rachel’s eye behind the counter. “Rache, can you get the caf and decaf ground and the cookies for the AA meeting tonight.”

“You go to AA?” Buffy asked.

“I do the coffee and cookies,” Rick said. “I limit myself to one addiction at a time. Right now it’s sex.”

“Oh.” Buffy said and blushed because Rick was a real adult and real adults didn’t get addicted to sex.

“Burns calories, firms muscles, no hangovers, and everybody leaves happy. Two consenting adults, good communication, and good fun. Humans are designed to enjoy sex, in all its forms, the body is wired that way. All the rules, sin, and bad PR were just made up by people who weren’t happy with themselves. I’m not going to let some silly Right Handed White Man’s idea of what’s dirty kill my buzz.”

This was something that Buffy was going to have to think about. It sounded reasonable, and Rick sounded as reasonable and assured as Giles had when he’d told her that getting personally involved with vampires could only lead to death and destruction. But she’d noticed that there were times when Giles had been wrong. Besides, Giles was English and a man and just didn’t understand Buffy’s American girl-ness.

No, this was definitely worth thinking about.****

Willow was restocking the candle racks when Spike walked into the Magic Shop. The moments she saw him, her eyes went as round as soup bowls.

“What happened to your hair?” she asked.

“Bloody hell!” Spike swore and ran both hands over his head. “That stupid bint! If she made me – damn inconvenient not havin’ a reflection!”

“It’s not bad, just sort of – floppy.”

“Shit!” Spike looked around for something, anything, he could use to stick his hair back down in place, “Look, you’re the girl, haven’t you got girl hair stuff in that ruddy great rucksack of yours?”

“Hairspray?” Willow asked and removed a small pump bottle of something from her knapsack along with a brush. “What happened to you? Were you attacked by a hairdresser demon or something?”

“Got thrown out of the regular barber’s ‘cause of a small disagreement ‘bout the Slayer.”

“Oh-kay,” Willow handed over the brush and spray and watched as Spike furiously squirted his head and began to brush his hair flat. “ I guess you didn’t know that Dawn’s been waiting for you.”

Spike was confused. He didn’t remember Dawn watching being planned.

“Why?”

“You have to walk her home. No side trips and no stealing.”

Over at the research plywood, Dawn tried for embarrassed and didn’t manage it.

“Didn’t Buffy tell you?” the Witch in Recovery asked.

“Enlighten me.”

Feeling his head, Spike decided that his hair was where it ought to be and handed the spray and hairbrush back to Willow.

“Dawn stole six pies from Rick’s American Café. She’s grounded. But Rick offered Buffy a job and Dawn has to work off the pies on weekends,” Willow explained.

“Dawn stole pies?” Spike echoed.

“Six,” Willow said with relish, as if gratified that someone else was in trouble for once. “And assorted scones and biscotti. Total retail value a hundred and forty-four dollars. Total retail grounded.”

“Right then, let’s get the prisoner transferred.” He sighed. At least this would be a good opportunity to talk with his favorite budding young felon. She looked up at Spike as they headed down the twilight streets and her face glowed. He enjoyed being the only one who could still get that expression, but he didn’t want the burdens it implied.

“What were you plannin’ on doin’ wiv six pies?” Spike demanded by way of greeting, and she collapsed back into surliness. “Is Bill Gates in town or what?”

“It was just for fun,” she mumbled, looking down at the ground. “Don’t tell me you never did something just out of a raw appetite for destruction.”

Spike steered her towards the ice cream store. A chocolate milkshake with coffee syrup would enhance his persuasive power. When Dawn realized his direction, she gave him a superior half-smile, thinking he approved of her shenanigans.

“Two rules, pet,” he continued when they were sitting down, Dawn with her shake and Spike with a blend-in. “First, if you’re gonna be a fun lovin’ criminal, set yourself a decent target. Little coffee shop and pies? Pardon me while I yawn. Police station, now, stealin’ the donuts, that’d be a right bit o’ pastry banditry.” Dawn had stopped sucking on her straw and was openly staring. “Second, don’t shit where you drink. You walk past that café twice a day, more for ice cream.” He waved his cup of melting goodness for emphasis. “You go where you look like you belong but you don’t ordinarily frequent. Case in point: Baker Street where the dot-com kids hang out has its own funky coffeehouses. Think, Niblet,” he reached over to poke a finger at her temple. She pushed his hand away, but she was grinning.

“Dawn?”

Spike spun in the booth, locating the speaker a few yards back. Pimples, combat boots, bad-boy leather jacket, nervous sneer – no bet that this was one of Dawn’s partners in pie crime. “Who’s this, then?” he asked, turning back to Dawn.

“Jerry,” she admitted and blushed down into her newly fascinating shake.

“You okay?” Jerry asked, stepping closer. “We were worried -“

“Not worried enough to ~stay~!”

They were attracting attention from the other teens and the mommies with toddlers. Spike rose and gestured for the kids to follow him outside. What he had planned didn’t look as good seated at a booth. Jerry and Dawn argued in tense whispers as Spike led them to the alley.

“Jerry,” he said at last, turning to face the boy. “Short for Gerald, is it? Kinda nancy-boy name, I can see why you’d avoid it, but Jerry’s not precisely your manliest of names either, right?”

“What’s it to you?” The boy squared his shoulders and deepened his sneer. If he curled his lip any more, he was going to need to iron it to straighten it back out.

“Well, Jerry, I think you’ve been unconscionably rude to a dear friend of mine,” Spike began in the accent of his human life, stepping closer. Unease flared in the boy’s eyes, but adolescent bravado commanded him to ignore his instincts, and he even shifted forward on the balls of his feet. Spike could smell cheap cigarettes and the not-entirely-cleaned-away remnants of Jerry’s last jack-off session. “To translate into American, you screwed my best girl over. She coulda gone to jail, an’ when I’m done with you you’re gonna wish you did.”

“Spike, leave him alone,” Dawn said in a tone he knew too well, one that meant, “Spike, hurt him for me.” He couldn’t deny a Summers woman, so he slapped the boy twice, once across each cheek, and watched the tears of pain and humiliation gleam in his eyes. Jerry tried to punch him, but he grabbed the boy’s wrist and twisted hard.

“You don’t run out on your friends an’ leave them holdin’ the bag,” he instructed. “’Specially not this one. You get her in trouble an’ fail to get her out, you’d best keep runnin’, ‘cause I ain’t gonna be nice next time.” Releasing Jerry’s wrist and grabbing his neck, Spike choked the boy a little for good measure, until he saw fury turn to surrendered terror.

“Now disappear,” Spike said, releasing Jerry. The kid’s black leather jacket, so cool when he’d been swaggering, suddenly looked a few sizes too large for him as he scurried away.

“You didn’t need to do that,” Dawn said, looking up at him with huge liquid doe-eyes. He could smell more than her blood and cherry lip-gloss.

“We aren’t doing right by you, Dawn,” he said, and had to look away when she took his arm to be escorted home.

Willow was deep into her incomprehensible research by the time Spike got back from delivering Dawn home. From the number of books piled up on the research plywood, the witch was willing to read through every book in the store if necessary. Her hair looked as though mice had tried to nest in it and then gave it up as a bad idea, and there was a pencil stuck behind each of her ears.

Xander had arrived and was drinking one of the beers Spike had stashed in the small fridge. “Is this all really necessary?” he asked.

“Oh no, of course, ignore the magical intuition of the most powerful witch on the continent,” she snarled. “But I forgot, we don’t ever *prevent* catastrophes, we just stop them mid-cataclysm. There’s something *wrong* in Sunnydale and I’m going to find it.”

“Tense much?” Xander asked. “Maybe you ought to start hitting the decaf Snapple, Wills.”

The witch glared holes in her childhood friend. Spike wondered if what was wrong in Sunnydale might not be Willow herself.

“And on that note, I’m just going to grab deadboy here for a chat.”

Xander half-dragged Spike out of the shop, ignoring Willow’s face collapsing from angry to wounded.

Spike shook him off and ostentatiously straightened his jacket. “Careful, mate.”

“Wanna go out again?” He’d seen the look on Xander’s face before. That exhilarated “hey, I’m a hero!” look promised reckless actions until, without fail, he got in over his head and needed saving. Spike thought he might save some time by going along. Also, maybe the car could convince Xander to look away while he drained a miscreant or two.

“You know, you’re not right about Kitty. She’s not a woman, she’s a car.”

“Car or not, she talks like a woman an’ that means she thinks like a woman, right? One woman is bad enough.” Spike took a deep drag and tried to distill his thoughts into a few sentences that wouldn’t utterly confuse the whelp. “One woman is a thousand women dependin’ on the moment.”

“Sounds like there’s trouble in Buffy Paradise,” Xander said with a smile that was a little too knowing.

“There is not!” Spike returned, faster than the speed of truth, and then shook his head. “Trouble don’t begin to cover it. It’s like-“

“Whoa whoa. Speak of the Slayer. Hey, what’s she doing over there?”

Spike followed Xander’s eyeline across the street. Through the front window, he could see Buffy behind the counter at the coffee shop.

“New job. I could use a cup, couldn’t you?”

“Your woman, your coffee, your problem. I’ll just get the car.”

“Coward.”

The café gleamed gold inside with the night settling in around it. Yolk and butter yellow walls, plants, and some black chicks rapping coming from the speakers. There was also magic inside, crawling all over his skin like a million ants. He itched, from the back of his brain down to his toes. It wasn’t threatening, or familiar for that matter. He got the distinct impression that he should watch his step.

“Lick him like a lollipop should be licked/Came to my senses and I chilled for a bit/Don’t know how you do the voodoo that you do –”

Then again, it might have just been the music.

Full of people, the café hummed with life and heartbeats. He should have fed before he went out, he realized. There was just too much happy blood around, and the smell of blood, coffee, and baking was making his mouth water. The queue at the till was short and in a matter of moments he was standing facing a woman with shaggy blonde hair, a wide grin and dark-framed glasses.

“What can I getcha?” she asked.

“Coffee?”

“Latte, Americano, espresso, capuccino?” She raised an eyebrow.

“Plain old coffee,” he said and whipped a little of the old SpikeCharm on her. “Is Buffy around?”

The reaction wasn’t quite what he was used to; SpikeCharm was almost guaranteed to reduce women to a manageable mush, not have them crinkle their noses in amusement.

“Oh, you’re the guy,” she said and passed him a heavy paper cup of something that smelled more like heaven than what was brewed at Chez Buffy. “What’s your name, sweetie?”

“Spike.”

“Of course it is.” If anything, her amusement increased until she was practically incandescent. “Buffy’s around back, I’ll send her out. Brownie?” She held out a plate. “Leave the gun, take the brownie.”

With a mental sigh, he took a brownie and Rick disappeared into the back. Spike had the distinct impression that he’d been made a fool of but wasn’t quite sure how.

“Can I get some fries with that shake-shake boobie?/If looks could kill you would be an uzi!”

Or it could have been the music.

Buffy finally ambled out, wearing a tight little tie-dye top that bared a slim slice of flesh above her suede skirt and gave the world a good view of her cute little belly button, which irked Spike. Her belly was his and she shouldn’t have been showing it to the whole world.

“Nice of you to tell me about the great pie theft an’ your new job, pet.”

“Go away. I don’t want you here,” she said. There was a smile somewhere on her face but it didn’t want to come out and play.

“You want me someplace else?” he asked and ran his tongue over his lips in an obnoxious invitation.

“You’re a pig,” she said with one of her ‘you asshole’ eye-rolls. “I like it here, don’t ruin it.”

“I ain’t stayin’. Floppy boy an’ I are gonna do your patrol for you tonight. Take the night off and do some girly thing like shave your legs for a change.”

The sweetest red blush crawled from the slashed-down edge of her top up over her lily throat and face to her hairline. There was powdered sugar on the tip of her nose, as cute and precise as could be. He wanted to lick her. Or smack her stupid. Maybe both.

“Spike,” she said in the voice of crisp efficiency, “I can patrol on my own. And it’s not like I’m going to sleep tonight because I had four cups of coffee since I’ve been here.”

“Maybe I’ll drop by at bedtime an’ make sure you’re good and tired.”

Eyes narrowed, she examined him as though he’d crawled out of one of the sewers. “Do you come up with that sleazy crap on your own or is there a book?”

So much for the attempt at titillation. Spike pushed himself away from the counter and gathered up his brownie and coffee. She wasn’t going to take those away from him.

“We’re goin’ on patrol. Do whatever you want. You always do anyway.”

He took himself out of the coffee shop. At least, he reflected as Xander flashed KITTE’s Close Encounters headlights at him, the brownie was good.

~~~~~

Buffy watched Spike go through the glass of the window, all straight shoulders and flapping leather duster. The Spike Shell hard at work. Hiding the little bites she’d taken out of him. Why was she so compelled to be mean to him when eighty percent of the time he was good to her?

I am such a bitch, she thought.

And was there something different about Spike’s hair or had it been the light in the café? If he’d changed it and she didn’t notice, she would be nominated for honorary guy-hood.

Still caught in her thoughts, which were as sticky as honey, Buffy barely registered Willow fluttering into the café like a redheaded moth.

“I figured out what’s been bothering me about all the evil that’s not happening in Sunnydale.”

Buffy shook her head free of Spikethoughts and focused on Willow.

“So tell me how bad all the nonbadness is.”

At a corner table, Willow poured out what she had discovered with her hands wrapped around a cup of decaf. “I was partially right about the global magical weather patterns, but I missed a big localized event. Kind of a magic-sucking whirlpool. I wasn’t able to pinpoint it, just sort of sense it by the disruptions in the local ley lines. Really it’s more like a black hole, and I almost got sucked into the event horizon, and none of this means anything to you, does it?”

“I’m more of the ‘where is it and how do I kill it’ school of explanations.”

Willow smiled into her coffee. “I can probably find it pretty soon by bouncing some null-spells …” She trailed off and tried again at Buffy’s blank look. “Give me a few days to find it. As for the killing, it gets a bit trickier…”

“Hey, did somebody say killing?” Rick asked and plopped herself down at the free chair at the table Buffy and Willow were sharing.

Buffy froze and Willow’s eyes grew big enough to turn a bus around in.

“Yeah, killing a, a sixpack. Of beer,” Buffy blurted.

“Beer is the mind-killer. Beer is the little death that brings total obliteration,” Rick said and looked over at Buffy. Willow laughed as if there were some sort of joke, while Buffy wondered whether Rick could see into her past into the whole beer-cavewoman-regression mess. “Before I forget, that not-boyfriend of yours could make a good dog break her leash. Has he got an older brother?”

Buffy choked on her coffee.

“So, I’m taking it that’s a nyet on the older brother? Too bad, he’s the kind of guy I’d have had washed and brought to my tent, back in the day,” Rick said.

“That image is -“

“Hot,” Willow finished, when Buffy couldn’t. “What?” she said off Buffy’s look. “Gay, not blind.”

And now Buffy could really see it, filling in the details of the setting from Egypt, human Spike half-naked and arrogant, wearing black chains like pagan jewelry against the solid ripples of the muscles of his arms and back, coarse linen pants with thin rope keeping them from sliding off of his hips. Smirking, but sweating so that he was edged in golden light, half-hard with apprehension.

A sharp pinch on her shoulder brought Buffy back to reality. “Even the look on your face was too much information, missy. I think it’s time to make some more pies.”

All the blood that wasn’t between Buffy’s legs rushed to her face, and she hurried to comply.

~~~~

“What do you think?” Xander asked and did a three sixty, looking like a man who had patterned himself on Home Shopping Network-caliber models.

“You look like a bloody idiot.”

“Hey, you’re not the only one who can wear black leather.”

“But I look good in it. You look like you’ve been raidin’ His Broodfulness’ castoffs. I better not see anythin’ I know while you’re wearin’ those leather pants.”

Xander snorted and gestured at the passenger side of KITTE.

“Just get in the car, Slim Shady. I’m in no mood – I fell asleep in KITTE last night and my back still feels like a pretzel.”

“And was he a good lay?” Spike asked the car. The low growl of the engine was his only answer.

“Check this out. KITTE has an awesome stereo.”

With a showy flick of his hand, Xander slid a CD into the player.

“The Compact Disk player is to be used for program upgrades and information only,” KITTE bitched like a substitute teacher.

“Music is information,” Spike said, if only to tweak her spark plugs.

A moment later the opening bars of the song pounded out of the speakers, loud enough to make Spike’s upgraded vampire ears pound. Brian Johnson’s voice’s rasped out into the Sunnydale night.

“She was a fast machine/She kept her motor clean/She was the best damn woman I had ever seen/She had the sightless eyes/Telling me no lies/Knockin’ me out with those American thighs.”

Behind the steering wheel, Xander laughed like a man who had the world by the balls, not like a pathetic loser who’d spent the night sleeping in a car because he didn’t want to go back to his empty apartment. Like a happy little moron, he was singing along. “’Cause the walls start shaking/The earth was quaking/My mind was aching/And we were making it and -“

But because it was the Testosterone National Anthem, Spike was obligated to join in on the chorus, even though he’d never be caught undead or dusted at an AC/DC concert.

“You! Shook me all night long/Yeah you shook me all night long!”

Heads bobbing in unison, Spike and Xander motored through the dark streets. The music grated against his ears; he wondered whether KITTE’s speakers were up to the job of playing classic rock.

They passed by one of Sunnydale’s gated communities, one where Spike had hunted on more than one occasion. Heknew that the whole gate concept was fuck-off useless against vampires, and Xander nodded at the buildings behind the iron bars.

“That’s where the porn house is. The owner supposedly is a Porn King in LA and this is his weekend house. We’re doing a bathroom renovation in there. Master bath, that’s what we’re doing, hooked up to a master bedroom with mirrors, big steel bed, velvet and silk everywhere, and eye-bolts that aren’t for hanging plants. You wouldn’t, you know, sleep in there. Five bedrooms and they all look like porn sets.”

“And they say industry is dead in Sunnydale.”

“If I may interrupt, I have intercepted a police report stating that one Tyshauna Wallace is five hours late returning from her job at Cookie’s Coffee and Hot Dog Shack.”

“And this matters because?” Spike prompted.

“Tyshauna Wallace is a highly responsible mother who has never before failed to retrieve her children from evening care. I suggest proceeding to her place of employment and attempting to retrace her movements.”

“Rock on KITTE,” Xander said and gave an ultra-cool nod.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t understand the significance of ‘rock on’.”

“Make it so,” Xander tried instead.

“You’ll be shavin’ an’ waxin’ your head next. Might be an improvement over the leather wardrobe.”

Xander ground his teeth. “Which way?” he asked as they cruised down the street. Unperturbed, the car gave directions, which made Spike think that mechanical girls might have been the way to go all along.

“I’ve been thinking,” Xander said as the car purred down the side road. He rubbed the back of his neck as if an ache there wouldn’t go away. Spike refused to take such an easy shot and just waited. “KITTE was right about those guys yesterday. They killed an innocent kid. We should have just saved the state some time and money and taken them out.”

“Far be it from me to speak for nonviolence, but it’s not as if every killer gets gassed, no matter what your politicians say they’ll do. Never know, ol’ Ralphie and his mate mighta had childhoods that make yours look like Ozzie ‘n Harriet. Make a jury cry.”

“Evil is a choice – for people, at least,” Xander added hastily to shut Spike’s opened mouth. “Like you said, I had a sucky childhood and I don’t go around robbing and shooting people.”

“Yeah, but money and love never *increased* the chances a bloke’ll go bad,” Spike pointed out. “Anyhow, you don’t go ‘round robbin’ and shootin’ people but you do slaughter a fair amount. Without Buffy you could be just another JD.”

“Jack Daniels?”

“Juvenile Delinquent. Beetlin’ around in a possessed car don’t make a bit’a difference.”

“I am not possessed,” the car said crossly. “I have a fully functional voice synthesizer.”

Xander snickered. “She said ‘fully functional.’”

“More Next Generation jokes? I was expectin’ better from you,” Spike said and turned back to the car. Underneath the music, the car was emitting a series of beeps and hums, just at the edges of Spike’s hearing. It was aggravating, like having his skin rubbed with sandpaper at random intervals.

Cookie’s Coffee and Hot Dog Shack was located on the outskirts of town. The building was entirely made of plastic whose cheery red, white and yellowness was only dimmed slightly by years of neglect. There was a conspicuous sign on the door about how little money was kept on hand. Sunnydale was no L.A., the bank robbery capital of the world, but the nearby interstate did tempt a fair number of criminals into the old smash-and-grab.

As Spike unbuckled himself, he saw Xander pull something small, black and metallic from the side of the door. Automatic pistol. Himself, he wouldn’t have trusted Xander with a fork, much less a gun, but KITTE seemed to have a different opinion.

Xander looked back at him with a quick nod that could have meant anything at all. Apparently this time it meant “let’s sneak up on them,” because Xander bent to a half-crouch and started crab-walking forward, along the side of the tiny building so that he wouldn’t be as visible. Spike sighed and strode toward the glass door. He didn’t see any obvious robbers as he entered; the people in the short line at the counter were relaxed, and a girl in a cap and headset was off to the side, filling drive-through orders. Only one person smelled of fear, the employee who was filling cups with french fries and sticking hot dogs into buns, filling the orders shouted back by the guy at the counter.

Finally, Xander entered, looking sheepish. Spike joined the line out of lack of a better alternative. The counterman was chatting up the customers, complimenting the ladies on their clothing or jewelry and asking the men about their days. Several even left tips, a minor miracle at a place like this.

Spike ordered french fries; he wasn’t going to throw crap coffee after good.

“You aren’t from around here, are you?” Counter Guy asked. His nametag said he was Tyshauna.

Spike blinked. “Nah. I’m English.”

“How do you like the weather around here? I hear it rains all the time over there.”

“California’s a mite sunny for my tastes, actually.” He accepted his change with a nod of thanks and stepped aside for Xander. The boy eschewed hot dogs, most likely out of his homosexual panic, and ordered a Coke.

The scared employee darted up and put Spike’s fries on a tray, next to Xander’s Coke. Spike jerked his head, indicating that they should sit next to the window, out of earshot of the counterman.

“Well, this looks like a waste of good justice-dealing.”

“Not so fast. Notice anythin’ funny about our talkative friend up there?”

“Yeah, distinct lack of surliness despite his minimum wage. So what?” Xander had already drained half his Coke. He’d be an insatiable vampire. Spike found himself not wanting to think about turning Xander.

“I really doubt his name is Tyshauna like his nametag says. My guess, him an’ the girl at the drive-through window busted in this mornin’, when no one was around, and locked up the real employees. Not much in the cash register to start, but he’s not workin’ for minimum wage.”

“Enterprising robbers,” Xander mused. “Sunnydale does attract the weirdos.”

“So, Justice Man, how’re we gonna play this out?”

Xander frowned, putting on his seldom-used Thinking Face. “We need to get the civilians out of here.”

“Right then.” Spike reached under the table and, as Xander squawked in aforesaid homosexual panic, extracted the gun from the boy’s jacket pocket. “Word to the wise, mate – holster. Ruins the line, otherwise.”

He stood up and, as the cops said, brandished his weapon. “Everybody stay cool! This is a robbery!”

As intended, the customers panicked and dove for the exits. Spike paid no attention to them, nor to Xander’s choked-off curse. The counterman looked absolutely blank for a second, and then his face contorted with rage. This was *his* robbery, dammit, and no English punk in black leather was going to take it away from him.

As Robber the First ducked under the counter, Spike charged forward and made a showy vampire leap onto the black plastic surface. He cursed as his foot slipped on a puddle of Coke, but he flailed his arms and managed to regain his balance just as the counterman began to raise his retrieved shotgun.

Spike kicked the counterman in the head, and he fell backwards into the soda machine, which spewed a few chunks of ice onto his head and went silent. He was still clutching the shotgun. Spike noticed the other employee – the only real employee, he thought – cowering against a metal door.

He turned his head just in time to see Xander slide over the counter, into the path of the girl with the headset, who was waving a nasty revolver of her own. Xander put his hands up placatingly. “Look, I don’t want to hit a girl -“

She snarled and raised the gun to fire, when an object hurtled past Spike and Xander and smacked her in the cheek. Startled but not staggered, she turned to look in the direction from which it had come, and Xander delivered a beautiful roundhouse that dropped her like a basketball slam-dunk.

“-But you can’t always get what you want,” Xander finished, panting with excitement.

“Buffy been teachin’ you banter?” Stepping over to kick the shotgun away from the counterman’s hand, Spike looked for whatever had hit the girl, and saw a hot dog on the floor. Disbelieving, he turned to the cowering employee, who gave him a sheepish shrug.

“Where’s the real Tyshauna?” Xander asked, and the employee jerked his thumb towards a large metal door, either a pantry or a refrigerator. Spike saw a ring of keys at the counterman’s waist and bent to free them.

“Oh, by the way,” Xander continued, “this isn’t a robbery.”

“To be robbed once in a day is unfortunate, twice seems like carelessness.” Spike sauntered over to the door – the nameless employee gave him a wide berth, despite the reassurance – and found the proper key, releasing a shivering Tyshauna and someone else who must have been the manager.

“We’ll just clean up the mess and get out of your way,” Xander said and grinned a rather too Jack Nicholson-like grin. He bent and slung the unconscious girl robber over his shoulder, and Spike grabbed Mr. Tyshauna, taking a moment to toss the false nametag on the counter for the real woman to find.

They headed out through the back, ignoring the warnings on the doors, and Spike thought it delicious that this was what finally set off the alarm. He dumped his burden on the sidewalk surrounding the Shack as KITTE started up.

“Here.” He walked over to Xander and relieved him of the girl, who was stirring and groaning. She’d have a right proper bruise inside of an hour, but right now there was just a trickle of blood from her nose. He got her mostly upright, then extended a finger and used the nail to draw a bleeding line down the girl’s collarbone. The blood scented the air like musk or chocolate. He bent his head, still human, to her damp skin and sucked at the life leaking from her. There was no metaphor that could have matched the deliciousness of it. She screamed until he tightened his hand on her throat, and then her protest fell to a gurgle.

“What are you doing?” If Xander’s eyes got any bigger, he was going to be mistaken for a Bill Keane painting.

“Agreein’ wiv’ you and Miss Kitty. The only thing this one’s good for is hunger pangs.”

“I don’t think -“

“What did you think it looks like? You don’t want her to bleed, it won’t be any prettier wiv’ her head bashed in or her neck snapped. Waste not, want not.” Spike felt his eyes yellow and his teeth extend. Under his hands, the girl jerked and pissed herself. He hated when that happened. “Now look what you made her do. It’s cruelty, extendin’ the process like this, is what it is.”

Spike could almost see Xander’s internal debate. He waited for the outcome, because he had a thought that Buffy might be less than appreciative if Xander decided to tell tales out of school. Evil should be punished swiftly and surely, Dark Xander said. But they’re people, Poofter Xander said.

Spike’s stomach rumbled loudly. The girl in his arms squeaked and fainted, and Spike had to hold her carefully to avoid her soiled pants.

“… They didn’t kill anyone,” Xander pointed out.

“Not for want of tryin’, if you remember.”

“Look, with the alarm going, the cops are going to be here within minutes. Let’s just hit them again so they stay unconscious and let the long arm of the law handle this one.”

Sighing, Spike let the girl crumple to the ground. “Don’t be givin’ me all that bollocks about justice and the death penalty if you ain’t prepared to do it. You don’t know fuck off anythin’ about killin’ so don’t make like you do.”

Spike regarded the unconscious girl for a moment, hating the fact that he knew damn well that he wouldn’t have killed her. He was going to have to think of better reasons than “Buffy wouldn’t like it” if he wanted any semblance of manhood. Which would, in any case, entail moving further from demonhood. He was a fucking house divided.

“She was startin’ to smell bad anyway.” The contempt in his voice wasn’t mainly for the girl.

Xander went over to the male, unconscious against the wall of the Shack, and knelt. He took the man by the hair, like a headhunter waving his trophy with the body still attached, and slammed the man’s head into the brick of the building. Spike winced despite himself. “That oughta hold him for a while.” The body slumped to the ground, leaving a wad of blood and hair on the brick like a misplaced comma.

Spike decided not to make noises about brain damage. Instead, he kicked the girl at his feet, pulling back a bit at the last moment so she wouldn’t lose a kidney.

“I got too used to killing demons,” he complained. “Humans are too easy.”

“Come on, Great White Hunter,” Xander urged, opening KITTE’s door. “I’n sure we’ll find something you’ll enjoy killing if we keep patrolling.”

Spike followed. He didn’t necessarily like Xander with Batman’s above-the-law morality. He certainly didn’t want to have to be the voice of reason. But if Xander was going to make noises about being some justice Superhero, the boy had better be prepared to actually dirty his hands, and his bout of graffiti with a human paintbrush would be good for that.

Morality aside, the thing that was really getting on his nerves was the fact that he was pretty sure that he’d been cast as the sidekick. This, Spike did not like.

~~~~

Outside the Café, the air was full of cool breeziness; the closest Southern California got to winter was a nip in the air and the ghost smell of snow somewhere else. Buffy tied her sweater-coat around her waist and wondered if she shouldn’t have worn her black leather jacket instead. No, black leather jackets were all Spikeish and thus couple-ish. Too I’m Fucking Dead Man Walking. And was that wrong? Aside from the conflict of interest. Rick thought he was cute, Willow thought he was hot – and Willow knew all the varied aspects of Spikeness.

As if summoned by Buffy’s thoughts, Willow popped out of the Magic Shop, her shoulder dragging low under the weight of her backpack.

“Hey,” Willow bubbled in something like an old Willow-like fashion. “Heading home?”

“Nah, I thought I’d hop a tramp freighter to Bali. Get myself a tan, find a guy who can get a tan without bursting into flames, and pretend I’d never heard of Sunnydale.”

“Got room for me? Ixnay on the tan though, I’d just freckle.”

“Ixnay on the guy too? Or do we find you a tropical chickie?”

“Whoever wants little ol’ magic junkie me. I can’t afford to be too picky these days.”

Shady Rest cemetery was coming up on their left, the bushes on the other side of the low stone wall were rustling in the breeze. At least Buffy hoped that it was the breeze. Walking in Sunnydale after sundown meant that certain precautions had to be taken. Buffy took twelve inches of pointy wooden precaution out of the pocket of her sweater-coat.

“Self-pity much, Wills?”

Shrugging in a lopsided, book-heavy way, Willow gave Buffy an equally lopsided grin. “Life gives you lemons, make lemon chiffon pie.”

“Pie. The p-word. What the hell am I going to do with Dawn? I’m going to have to ground her until she’s old enough to vote!” Buffy gestured at the night sky with her bag of chocolate chip scones and brownies. “And I totally understand how wiggy I must have made mom. But you know, pie stealing and averting the end of the world – no comparison. I’d chain her up in the basement, but I don’t want Amnesty International coming after me. Although it might make a nice change from demons.”

“Dawn’s whole problem is that you cast a really big shadow. You know? My sister, the Slayer.” Willow stepped over a crack in the pavement as though she cared about the safety of her mother’s spine. “I mean, all through everything, there’s Buffy being all brave and hero-girl while we’re all just doing the fetch and carry around you.”

Pinging like a cheap cell phone, Buffy’s Slayer Sense made her stop and peer at a dark shape behind the bushes.

“Like I wanted any of that?” Buffy asked. “Like I wouldn’t have given my left arm to not be the Slayer and just be plain old Buffy? Believing that vampires just existed in the movies and that Hell was a swear word, not a zip code.”

She held up her hand for silence and scrambled neatly over the stone wall.

Sure enough, it was a freshly risen fledgling, not half as nice to smell as freshly risen bread. This one was strictly low rent, with dirt all over the split-back fake suit his family had buried him in. A class ring flashed on one dirty hand, and there was no doubt in Buffy’s mind that it said Sunnydale High School. Under the thick mortician’s make-up and below the brow-ridges, Buffy could see a pretty bad breakout going on. Had the kid decided to go vamp because of a promise of better skin?

This looked like one of the Ms. Burdock specials. Typical. She’d turned yet another geek and hadn’t had the class to hang around while her fledgling rose. According to Spike, letting a fledgling rise alone, confused, and frightened was a serious faux pas. This statement usually led to a lengthy tirade about the sad state of vampirism at the beginning of the new millennium with interjections of “back in my day” and other old-fogey-isms that made Buffy’s eyes roll up in her head. But she couldn’t expect better from a guy whose personal style hadn’t changed since VCRs were a cool new idea.

“You know,” Buffy began. “I’ve got some sympathy for you guys with the whole rising from the dead thing.”

The vampire snarled and showed her a mouthful of fangs that were still spangled with metal braces. Hungry and stupid, it lunged for her, which just made burying the stake into his embalmed heart easy and he exploded into a small pile of surprised dust.

“But not that much sympathy.”

“Did you get it?” Willow called over the wall.

“Yeah, no big. Even the new vampires are lame these days, what’s with that?” Buffy said and clambered through the evergreens and back onto the sidewalk. “So you were ripping me a new one about feeling sorry for myself?”

“Look.” Willow stopped and took a deep breath before going on. “You know, the Hellmouth thing hasn’t made any of our lives easier. You might have a bigger plate of badness than Xander and I do, but we all have our plates, and we just kinda deal with the brussel sprouts the lunchlady of life dished up. Yeah, I feel your pain, but there’s times when I wish I didn’t have to hear it. It’s not All. About. Buffy. Sometimes it’s All. About. Dawn. Dawn’s just looking for some press and negative press is better than no press at all.”

Willow was right, Dawn had been shoved into the ‘deal with it later’ folder recently, and that hadn’t been exactly fair, since Spike was already taking up most of that space in Buffy’s mental filing cabinet. No, Dawn needed some TLC, because Buffy remembered that nothing felt quite as bad as letting Mom down after Mom had been really nice to her.

“Well, I’ve got chocolatey goodness, we can get a chick movie, and have ourselves an All About Dawn evening,“ Buffy decided. “At least Xander and Spike are patrolling tonight.”

“Which means they’re going to get captured and beaten up and we’ll have to rescue them.”

“So we don’t do our nails. Rescuing is hell on wet nail polish.”

~~~~

Margaritas were definitely the shit, Buffy decided, taking another big sip from her glass, a lime Slushy with a kick. The pitcher from the blender was sweating onto an old copy of Cosmo Girl on the coffee table and had reached the halfway mark. Willow was on the floor, making a dent in her own margarita and methodically eating her way through the chips and salsa Dawn had brought out. This was nice. This was the way things should be, a night with her home girls with an assortment of junk food and a mindless action movie playing on the TV.

“He’s totally macking on her. They’re going to end up doing the nasty before the end of the movie,” Dawn announced while Chow Yun Fat wriggled on the bed with Mira Sorvino.

Magic monk generated memories or not, Buffy could still remember being asked to leave The Usual Suspects after Dawn blurted out her (correct) theory of the identity of Kaiser Soze during the scene where the suspects were brought in for a line-up. Buffy supposed that she was just lucky that Dawn had been too young to sneak into The Crying Game.

“Major duh,” Buffy agreed. “That’s totally required in movies like this, unless the guy has a wife or a girlfriend elsewhere that he has to keep safe, but even then they have to give each other long and lustful looks to keep up the suspense that something could happen.”

“Just like real life,” Willow agreed in a voice so dry and disgusted that Buffy couldn’t help but start laughing.

“And the guy you think is going to be the baddie really has a code of honor and a heart of gold,” Buffy continued. “As if!”

“Nothing like Spike, right?” Dawn said in a semi-snarky tone, looking over her shoulder at her older sister to see how well the comment went down.

Lulled by margaritas and Chow Yun Fat, Buffy only snickered and made a ‘duh’ face, her feet wiggling happily on the coffee table.

“Nothing like Spike. Spike doesn’t have a heart – a dried-out-prune-jerky-size-of-a-pea-one maybe – and it’s totally not made out of gold and he probably thinks that code of honor is an old cop show.” Buffy kept her teasing tone intact. “And can we not talk about Spike for a little while? I am so tired of talking about Spike.”

“You never talk about Spike,” Willow said with a face that was heavier than needed in the conversation.

“I talk about Spike all the time. We were talking about Spike with Rick – chocolate, tentage, and leashes.” Buffy realized that she’d totally told Dawn things that she did not need to know.

“You don’t talk about him. We’re all supposed to just pretend that he happens to show up in the morning looking like he’s been mauled by lions, or that he’s not taking showers at strange times, and we have to sleep with pillows over our heads to drown out the noise you two make.”

Even with the crushed ice of the margarita, Buffy’s face burned. Her heart thumped away in her chest as though she’d been chasing a vampire up and down Main Street. Cornered by Willow and Dawn, and the only way she could fight her way out was by taking the high moral ground, which was too bad since her ground was neither high nor moral.

“Major change. Riley this Riley that. Riley Riley Riley. And before that it was Angel Angel Angel.” Dawn did a reasonable impression of Jan Brady. “Spike? Spike who? Oh, that guy I just happen to be fucking, is his name Spike?”

“Nice mouth, Dawn,” was all she could say.

“Speaking of mouths, do you let him use your toothbrush? ‘Cause like blood – ew. But I guess if you’re going to kiss him.” Dawn’s face brightened with malicious glee. “But I bet your mouth doesn’t just go on his mouth, right?”

“Oh God,” Buffy groaned and put her hands over her face. “You’re pod people, torturing me. Spike’s an evil undead bloodsucking fiend, can we not forget that? I can’t afford to talk myself into – caring about him.”

“I don’t know about the whole evil thing,” Willow said with an owlish blink over her now-empty glass. “Since he got chipped – what – three years ago? All his blood’s been take-out. He could be the Master of Sunnydale since he is the oldest vampire around these days. So, I’m thinking evil light, if not actually darker good. He’s been hanging around with Xander, which I think qualifies Spike for sainthood in some of the more relaxed Protestant sects.”

Buffy felt safe enough to take her hands away from her face and drink margarita.

“We all know you’ve been dating — or whatever — him for almost a year now, not counting the time you spent dead, and the breakups. Dontcha think that it might be time that you stood up on your hind paws and said ‘dating the dead guy’ and got it over with?” Dawn pontificated with the air of a fifteen year old who knew everything.

“Come out of the casket,” Willow suggested.

“If I had known that this was going to be a meeting of the Spike Fan Club, I would have gone on patrol instead,” Buffy grumbled.

“The Watcher’s journals are specific about how to kill a vampire and all the badness of vampires, but kind of un-specific about vampire mating rituals.” Willow reached across the table to refill her glass, spilling some green goodness on the much-abused surface of the coffee table. “Inquiring minds want to know. I’ve heard things about the refractory period of the vampire male. Just for academic and non-personal reasons. Gay now, you know.”

Realization went off in Buffy’s brain like a very faint Fourth of July sparkler.

“You’re drunk!”

“No way!” Willow shook her head and went all big eyed over her glass.

“Way,” Buffy protested.

“I’ll give you, driving now would not be of the good.”

For some reason, this struck Dawn as being slightly funnier than Jim Carey making his butt talk and she rolled across the floor in a wave of hair and giggles. Buffy goggled at her sister, noted that Dawn was drinking Diet Coke out of a can and shoved her suspicions aside. But Buffy’s glass was empty so she slopped the remainder of the margarita pitcher in her glass and slurped happily away. Since Willow was still staring at her, Buffy wiggled her feet on the wet surface of the table a little harder.

“Okay, refractory period. Totally true. Zero to sixty in five minutes,” she mumbled. “Usually less and sometimes not at all, but no stopwatch involved, okay? Your mileage may vary.”

Willow whooped and caught Dawn’s giggles like the chicken pox. Dawn, on the other hand, sat up and frowned at her sister.

“What’s a refractory period?”

~~~~

“Can you come and get Spike?” Xander’s voice jarred Buffy out of the second-hand rush she was getting from watching Chow Yun Fat and Mira Sorvino make a tender good-bye at the airport. After almost two hours of gunplay and great camera angles, and another pitcher of margaritas, having the phone ring right at the payoff was not close to fun.

“Huh?”

“Spike and I have been … fixing up the car. My new car,” Xander clarified, in a tone thick enough to make Buffy realize that he, too, had been enjoying the wonders of fermentation as the night wore on. “The car is really cool. You didn’t see it earlier. You should come over, and we can look at the car.”

“Xander, I am so not interested in the car, okay?”

“But we want you here,” Xander broke off into a remembrance of high school past giggle, “Spiiiiiike wants you here. Spiiiiiike misses you!”

“You bloody great git!” Spike protested somewhere in the background and Buffy could make out scuffling sounds.

“Spiiiike misses Buffy kisses!” Xander crooned.

“Fuck!”

The scuffle got louder and Buffy winced at the loud crack of a cellphone hitting the ground while still on, after some shuffling sounds and a yelp and giggle from Xander, Spike’s voice was in her ear, like a tongue.

“Buffy?”

“Yeah,” she agreed, sitting straight up on the sofa and noticing that her nipples did exactly the same thing.

“He’s drunk is what he is, drunk an’ more stupid’n usual.”

Xander laughed in the background and Spike snorted with annoyance.

“You don’t have to see his car,” he said in growly-purr tones that indicated dirty deeds in the offering. “You could always see mine.”

“Er,” Buffy looked over at Dawn and Willow, “Give me ten minutes.”

“I have to go see Spike and Xander,” Buffy said and pulled her jacket off the coat tree next to the door. “Don’t wait up.”

“Keep the dog on the leash!” Willow counseled.

Which was pretty funny, but when Willow and Dawn launched into an impromptu and off-tempo version of “Who Let the Dogs Out” it just got silly and annoying. She shut the door with some relief.

The cool night air slapped some sense into her, like a mean nun. The nun asked her to compare and contrast Angel and Spike.

Angel had a soul.

Spike had a soul.

Angel was working towards his redemption.

Spike occasionally looked like he was working on something.

Angel was distant and weird with Dawn (the memories the monks had implanted).

Spike possibly liked Dawn more than he liked Buffy (real-time actual witnessing).

Angel was dependable, honest, and truthful.

Spike . . . wasn’t.

Angel was dependable, honest, and truthful.

Spike . . . fun. Like a condemned roller coaster on a rickety pier.

Buffy was fairly clear-headed by the time she made it to the apartment complex where Xander lived.

Boys would be boys, regardless of whether they’d been dead since the calendars read eighteen something, and boys and cars were not soon to be parted. Buffy found the miscreants in the covered parking area allotted to Xander’s apartment. Sure enough, they were lounging around the car, passing back and forth a bottle of something alcoholic that was mostly empty. Xander, for some reason, was wearing a black leather coat that made him look like a loveseat. There was something different about Spike’s hair – it wasn’t quite as helmet like.

“Oh Xander,” Buffy sighed, “to what depths you have fallen. Don’t you have to go to work in the morning?”

“Hanging drywall tomorrow. I can lose a couple hours sleep,” Xander protested.

“So that’s the car?” Buffy asked and looked at the vehicle.

“Great, huh?” Xander asked and puffed up to twice his normal size.

Buffy stared at the car but didn’t feel the magic. “Well, it sure is black and shiny,” she said.

“And big,” Spike offered helpfully, blowing smoke out of his nose.

Buffy thanked God the parking garage was dark and Xander couldn’t see the furious blush that plastered itself across her face. Why did Spike have to go and say that? Did he want Xander to know or, shit, had he already told Xander? They were probably laughing at her, Spike telling Xander all the things-

“Deadboy, you explain all the special features of the car to the Buffster, I’m heading home.”

As soon as Xander was out of sight, Spike turned to Buffy.

“Blondie, you’ve got a passin’ strange look on your face.”

“What do you and Xander have in common all of a sudden? You guys are all buddy buddy now and it’s weird. What are you out here talking about? Me?” she said in a rush before her nerve evaporated. “Do you tell him – stuff?”

“Stuff?” he said and raised his wickedly scarred eyebrow at her. “To what stuff are you referring?”

It really wasn’t fair, this way that he could look at her and she’d melt like butter in a microwave. That sideways head-tilt, that glance out from under eyelashes so long and black they didn’t seem possible without mascara. He could send her best intentions away like Jehovah’s Witnesses at the doorstep on a Sunday morning. She told Angel she wasn’t in thrall to him in the vampire way, but nobody had asked about the regular boy/girl way.

Buffy took a deep breath and since she couldn’t look at his face without getting stuck in it, she watched the toe of her sneaker draw a line on the dirty cement floor.

“You know, private stuff. You and me stuff.”

There was a pause, a pause in which Buffy could hear Spike throw away the smartass comment that had dropped from his brain to his tongue.

“Not that Harris couldn’t use a’bit a’education –”

She was there first, licking and sucking and clawing at him with her hands, hating his power over her and hating every minute she’d been away from him. Spike didn’t take long to acclimatize to the new circumstances. His cold, beer-tasting tongue worried at her teeth as if he wanted to sharpen them into fangs of her own. One hand cupped her head, holding her in place as if she could change her mind, and the other slid down to her ass and pulled her body against his. Purple lighting bolts traveled through her body, following the veins and driving her into a greater frenzy.

God, it had been hours, nearly twenty-four, since he’d touched her like that and her legs were shaking with need. The bumper of Xander’s new car pressed up against the backs of her knees and his thigh went between her legs, pushing her backwards.

“Missed you-“ he mumbled into the side of her head.

“Mmm,” she agreed.

Twenty four hours could be a long time.

“You’ve been drinkin’ again,” he mumbled into her mouth, while his own was as cool and refreshing as cold water.”

“Two margaritas does not drunk make,” she mumbled back.

Buffy finally managed to get her hands inside the leather coat and began fumbling with Spike’s jeans. “Button flies?” she broke off kissing to ask, and Spike grimaced and recaptured her mouth. He had an easier time of it, with his hand sliding the few inches required by the short suede skirt and finding her as wet and ready as a tropical hurricane. She threw her head back to moan as he slid a finger inside her, testing, and the working part of her brain was gratified that he had to muffle a cry of his own against her shoulder.

“Not in front of the car,” he whispered.

“I was kind of thinking on the car, actually,” she hummed against him.

Buffy ended up with her panties missing somewhere, the cool hood of the car pressed against her ass and the cool length of Spike’s cock pressed inside her. Her feet were hooked on the bumper and she was stretched across the hood like some strange ornament, while he lay over her, squeezing her breasts between his cool fingers. His coat covered them both and his hands had simply circumvented her shirt and jacket. They were barely moving, but the sensations couldn’t have been stronger if they were doing the full-body slam. She was reaching for it, reaching for the total nerve meltdown that would wash her brain clear of every last bit of thought, fear, anger, and unhappiness, blown away in pure sensation and release.

“Godamnit,” he said between clenched teeth and the flash of gold in the depths of his blue eyes heralded the arrival of a demon.

“What?” she asked, between caught breaths, her fingers feathering his hair into the unruly curls that he hid under gel.

“At it again. You an’ me. Shaggin’ like minks, not talkin’, not-“

“Later. Now not good for talkage.”

Well-trained creature of the night that he was, Spike fastened his cool mouth to the hot skin of her neck and the nerves thrilled straight down to where he was tempered steel inside her. But no amount of training was ever going to make Spike shut up. Possibly nothing short of a good staking could. Maybe duct tape.

“More love or more disdain I crave;/Sweet, be not still indifferent,” he purred into her ear with his usual honey and sand tones.

God, only Spike could quote poetry to her while he was boinking her atop a car in a parking garage. And he was managing to thrust in time with the rhythm of his words, hitting her brain and her clit at the same time. Her breath was burning in her throat; her hands and feet were on fire; she was going to go up like a firework in a heartbeat.

“O send me quickly to my grave,/Or else afford me more content!/Or love or hate me more or less,/For love abhors all lukewarmness.”

His heavy silver rings were clinking on the shiny surface of the car next to her head. Spike the thief, stealing other’s words, stealing rings, blood, campers, clothes, lives, into her house and into her life.

Thief, liar, murderer.

Oh God. The force of her climax grabbed Buffy by the neck and shook her like a wet rag. Splattering like blood spilled by violence. Clutching onto the slippery lapels of his coat, wet from the sweat of her hands, Buffy groaned into the cool paper of his throat where her lips should have been feeling a pulse and found none.

But Spike was concentrating on finishing the poem before he finished.

“Give hopes of bliss or dig my grave:/More love or more disdain I crave,” he hissed and she saw the tell-tale flash of fangs in the dim gray light.

Slayer-sense shrilled a warning scream, even as her nerve endings were still buzzing from the terrible pleasure that he had wrung from them. Her head fell back, offering, wanting him to go ahead and take – steal — it all from her. She grabbed the back of his head, forcing his fangs down into the thin skin on her throat.

The pain of sharp teeth this time burned into her neck like broken glass. Buffy couldn’t stop the surprised cry that fell out of her mouth like an ice cube. The pain opened a door somewhere, and it she could feel her body beginning to spasm and convulse around his, around his cold, hard cock, under his cold, hard hands, around his cold, painful fangs and her brain began to sparkle around in an ice storm. She couldn’t breathe as the second, devastating, orgasm dragged her over the edge. She could feel her blood answering the suction, spilling over her shoulder in his greedy haste. She was vaguely aware that the long-dead vampire was shooting his cold, dead seed into the depths of her body, and he was breathing, why she didn’t know, like a man who was trying to break the three-minute mile. She was making a high, keening sound, dragged out of the bottom of her belly, crying out in pleasure and in pain. Her blood, energized, finally with something to do, leapt into his mouth, around the stinging wounds. Convulsing, she pushed her throat against his teeth, begging him to take more.

With a growl that spoke of game-face and clawed fingers, Spike dragged his mouth away from her neck, pushing himself away in a slow-motion wave of black liquid leather. She slumped back against the car, feeling her heart beating within the cage of her chest, throbbing in the burning wounds of her throat, pooling hotly in the tissues between her legs. Alone and cold, she lay there and looked at the ugly underside of the cement and steel of the parking garage. Cupfuls, pints, teaspoonfuls of blood away from death. She had just fucked death himself and he carried a lighter rather than a scythe. Death loved her.

Shaking, she pulled her shoulders up from the car hood, one hand automatically pulling down her skirt to hide the wet happiness of her cunt.

“Spike,” she said in a crumpled tissue voice.

Spike sprawled on the floor, his mouth smeared like Dawn with their mother’s lipstick.

His face was already melting into human as she looked down at the long charcoal line of his body, the disarrayed bone-whiteness of his hair that matched his skin, the drowning indigo and ink of his eyes. Somehow, despite the madness, he’d managed to tuck his cock back into his pants, but the open vee of his jeans showed a delicious slice of white skin.

She sat on the hood of the black, shiny car, and shivered as though she were trapped in the middle of an iceberg. Spike’s expression was as close to frightened as she’d ever seen him. He moved a hand to his mouth, as if to wipe himself clean.

“Don’t,” Buffy ordered. She could feel the blood still trickling down her chin and ruining her blouse, the Slayer healing not quite at work yet.

She was panting, and her heart was expanding and contracting in her chest, so that she thought it might burst out like a red rose.

“I shouldn’t have -“ he began, with the expression of a man who had picked up a pair of live wires and shocked himself into surprise.

“No,” she agreed.

“I’m not safe, I’m not a fuckin’ lapdog,” he flared.

“You never could be.”

Moving without thinking, pushing him to the concrete, Buffy jerked the rough denim down from intoxicatingly smooth vampire skin, burying her face into the soft hardness of his belly, feeling the muscles jump and twitch under her cheek.

“Luv, love, I – . I love . . . Damn you for a black-hearted evil bitch!” he choked out.

Abruptly, Spike wrenched away from her, crawling backwards across the ground, leaving her splay-legged and bare-assed for the world to see. She gawped for a moment.

“What are you doing?” It came out as a vicious shriek.

Spike climbed to his feet with fluid grace that made him seem to slither upright.

“Getting’ a’bit of my self-respect back,” he said, pulling his raggedy black clothes back around his body like armor.

The anger burned bright in her head and she turned the light of it on him, leaping to her feet and feeling in her jacket pocket for a stake.

“What the fuck are you talking about?!”

“See, here’s the thing,” he said. “All we’re doin’ is shaggin’.”

He looked as surprised by his own words as she felt. Had he been watching too much Oprah? The woman had to be some sort of demon.

“You haven’t been complaining,” she sneered.

Spike’s pretty mouth set in a hard, thin line. He pulled away from her and turned his back, his duster flourishing to add to the drama. “Maybe I am now. Maybe I’m tired a’bein’ convenient.”

“Maybe I just understand what’s going on with us – and what’s not going on – a little better now.”

Spike turned back, and now his face was so tight that she thought his cheekbones might rip through the skin. “If I just wanted a shag, I’d go find Dawn. At least she’d be nice afterwards.”

Fury, white and gold, nearly blinded Buffy. “You -“

“She’d just be a few months ahead of how old you were when Angel got your cherry, right? An’ I won’t be goin’ all evil seein’ as I’m already -“

The punch sent him back against the car with a solid thud. Spike raised his fingers to where she’d split open his lip. His blood mixed with hers on his chin. “Like to see me bleed, Slayer? Is it getting’ you off ? Part of the ol’ matin’ dance?”

She hit him again, spinning him around so that his chin hit the roof of the car. Spike pushed himself upright and laughed. Preemptively, Buffy kicked out, catching him below his shoulderblades, and sent him past the car. He almost fell into the garage wall, but kept his balance and shook his head like a wet dog.

“We used to have actual conversations. An’ a bit of takin’ the piss as well. Now it’s slap me, shag me, an’ don’t let the door bang you in the ass on the way out.”

“I know what you’re trying to do,” she grated, even as she kicked his knee and he fell to a crouch. “You’re trying to-“ She lost the end of the sentence because she needed to breathe as she kicked him in the small of the back, where a human could have died from kidney damage from the same blow. Spike grunted but made no other move.

“You’re not fighting back. You’re trying-“ This time she got him in the chin. In her experience, Spike was not a patient vampire. Hit him hard enough and the vamp would out. Reaching down, she grabbed handfuls of his duster and hauled him to his feet. His eyes were open, clear, and focused on her. His face was human, like marble, marred with streaks of blood like melted wax.

This time she only slapped him. How dare he – And a knee to the balls was in order, too, she decided. “You’re-“

Spike made a whuffing sound and sank to the oil-stained concrete, folding himself into a black ball as he went.

Buffy stood over him, her whole body shaking like a level 10 earthquake, her hands opening and closing as if she could conjure a stake and get rid of him forever.

The choking breaths tore out of her chest as if her heart had exploded. She put her hands over her mouth to make them stop, then put them over her ears when they didn’t and she couldn’t stand to hear herself. She was shaking and it felt like pieces of her were going to fly off and shatter on the cold concrete of the parking garage like a plate thrown on the floor.

She was on her knees next to Spike. She felt him uncurl and then close around her again like a Venus flytrap, cool and hard and smelling like smoke and the earth. “Love me or hate me, just make up your mind, pet,” he whispered to her, rocking them as she pushed her head against his chest. Cold fingers ran through her hair, soothing.

“I’m not crying. I’m not crying, I’m not crying.”

Some time later, when she was breathing again and almost asleep with her nose pressed into his throat, she realized that she was cramping up and that they should stand, maybe even move.

“Oh fuck,” she groaned. “And it was a really good day, you know? I don’t smell like fried dead cow.”

In her arms, he stiffened. No sharp remark, no put-down, no Spike snark. Something did a painful flip inside Buffy’s chest.

She couldn’t stop laughing and Buffy realized that it wasn’t because Spike was funny. It was just some way to push the terrible hard lump out of her chest, the way that sex would have. Spike wasn’t laughing, but at least he wasn’t grimacing in pain. Finally, she calmed down from her crack-like hysteria and took a deep breath.

“What is it?” she asked in a voice that wasn’t loud enough to be called a whisper. The feeling of dread moved up from her chest to her throat where it began to squeeze.

“All I wanted,” he began in the same faint voice, and quickly pulled away from her, climbing to his feet. “All I ever wanted from you was for you to love me.”

“Don’t say that!” She shook off the dread and found anger underneath. “Don’t you ever say that again. You’re just blackmailing me with emotions and stuff.”

Looking down at her, Spike’s face was oddly composed and he continued to speak in the same low tone. “But you can’t. Obviously, you can’t.”

He took a deep breath, probably just to speak, but it only served to remind her that he really didn’t need to breathe.

“Look, I took care of th’ Niblet. I did what you asked, and I did it willingly. But I’m startin’ to think that I’ve stayed too long at the party.”

“Huh?” Buffy asked, her hand at her throat, feeling the warm blood trickle down her now-cold fingers.

“I’m thinkin’ that it might be a good idea if we quit – doin’ this for awhile.”

Realization came with each throbbing of her heart that sent more blood over her fingers.

“Wait. You bit me and now you’re dumping me?” her voice bounced, unnaturally shrill, around the concrete of the parking garage.

“I’m sorry I bit you. But you weren’t exactly unwillin’ . . . “ He looked up at the beams overhead as if the answer was waiting for him there, exposing the pretty white length of his neck.

God, he was so – dangerously sexy, and her nerves were still screaming for him like a child wanting the candy at the checkout counter. The thought of not having access to his fine white skin and hard body filled her with a far worse panic than running out of money before the end of the month. How could he take all that away from her?

“Don’t -“ was all she said.

“Fuck,” he said and raked fingers through the crunchy strands of his hair, ruining the plastic perfection of it. “See, it’s gotta be different. I’m not a fuckin’ vibrator for Hell’s sake. I’ve got feelings.”

“Oh, so you leave unless I tell you that I love you?” Buffy’s free hand clenched and she was torn between the urge to ram a stake between his fine ribs or throwing him to the floor and unbuttoning his jeans.

“Oh the hell with it. Forget it. Just forget about it,” he said and she could see his shoulders slump under the leather armor.

“Spike-“

“Later, Slayer.”

Headlights flared at the entrance to the garage, blinding Buffy for a moment. The lights swerved to the right as the car sought a parking space. When she had blinked the spots from her eyes and could see again, Spike was gone.

I can’t take much more of this, she thought.

~~~~

I can’t take much more of this, he thought.

Bloody fucking – motherfucking Hell.

Stumbling blind around the streets by Xander’s apartment, vision blurry from cracking his head on the pavement in the garage (because goddamnit, he wasn’t crying), Spike knew he made a ridiculous figure. A short, black scarecrow with stick arms and legs moving herky-jerky with joints that wouldn’t bend. The last time he’d been this fucked off and shattered by a woman he’d ended up with Dru’s teeth in his throat and a completely different lifestyle.

He hadn’t planned on biting her. In fact, he’d promised himself long before that he would never push that particular part of his demon upon her, not unless she asked. The Master had bitten her, Dracula had and Angel had. Even though Angel had been poisoned and dying the final death, that didn’t make for an extenuating situation. And how was it that he was besotted with a woman who’d been bitten by two master vampires, and the wanker-sad-ass-excuse-for-a vampire pouf, before Spike had made a claim on the real estate of her neck?

Clearly Buffy was a fang-hag, a vampho, an undead groupie getting round heels around anything that could get up a game face. Suck slut. Vampire Shagger. An evil temptress out to lead young vamps astray. The logic in that was severely flawed, Spike realized as he stopped to light a cigarette since she was good, he was eviI, and the idea of William the Bloody being lead astray by a twenty-one-year-old blonde chit from California was nothing short of absurd.

He must have Battered Vampire Syndrome. He should leave, this he knew. She ran hot and cold faster than a motel shower, and she burned him and froze him. Yet he’d beg like a slinking dog for a few of the good moments. He was here in Sunnydale because there had to be something he could do for her, if only he could figure it out, for all that it might be that the only thing she wanted from him was killing.

Slayer blood. He was still buzzing and weak in the knees from the intoxication of all that power in her blood. Power, light, strength, with the sweetness that was Buffy when she wasn’t being an utter bitch.

Spike’s hands were shaking and it was no wonder that he dropped the lighter, watching it slide out of sight behind one of the garage support pillars. Cursing, he chased it, only to find the shiny silver had come to rest in a puddle of something white and watery. Spike picked up the lighter and sniffed it, recoiling as his brain registered the odor of human spunk.

Some fucking wanker had been wanking behind the pillar, no doubt watching the Spike and Buffy show on the car. Satan’s knickers! Why couldn’t the sad bastard just rent porn like everyone else? Spike wiped the lighter off on his much-abused duster and lit a cigarette. No surprise that Sunnydale had more than the normal number of freaks in residence.

The sticky web of his thoughts almost made him ignore the twinging of the extra vampire senses. Turning, he looked back over his shoulder. Ten of them, still smelling like earth and embalming fluid, turned before the leaves lost their green and died. Probably the rest of the Maths Mistress’s private harem.

“Hey, it’s Billy the Drippy!” one taunted.

Spike threw his cigarette to the ground, where it exploded into a mini meteor. This was exactly what he needed to thoroughly destroy a Mongolian clusterfuck of a night. He took a moment to come up with the proper stinging retort.

“Fuck off.”

At the end of ten minutes, the ten vamps were down to two and Spike was aching in half a dozen new places, rounding out his collection. The last two vamps were loitering near the entrance of the garage, pale over their game-faces and looking very much as though they would prefer to be elsewhere.

“I’m willin’ to let you two losers go, providin’ that you go back and tell your bitch of a boss that William the Bloody is still the Biggest Bad in town. You got that?”

The pair of fledglings showed their consent by turning tail and running like hell, which was just fine with Spike because he’d had just about enough fighting for one night. His crypt seemed about a million miles away. Buffy-musings had just taken him in circles, back to Xander’s garage, but he couldn’t smell anything alive inside. He hadn’t really thought she’d collapse there anyway.

Fuck it, the Whelp owed him a ride. Spike headed back to the apartment building to rouse Xander out of bed.

~~~

Spike limped down the stairs to his bedroom. Between getting beat like an American team at the World Cup, getting jumped by fledglings so young they still smelled like preservatives, biting the Slayer, and having to wake up Xander to beg a ride because he was too fucking tired to walk, it was a gorgeous cock-up of a night. At least it couldn’t get any worse.

Until he flipped the switch on the power line he’d spliced into the crypt.

“Fuck.”

His bedroom was a war zone. All the furniture he’d carefully chosen and stolen was broken, upside down, and generally fucked up. His clothes were strewn over the room as if Buffy had been trying them on, and then she’d decided to rip them off and stomp on them with dirty boots. And something funny-smelling was emanating from the futon.

When he stepped closer, he realized that the sheets were smeared with what looked like a cross between birdshit and dogshit – big white smears with turds in the middle – if, perhaps, the bird was a roc. It smelled like ammonia and decay. Spike knew from experience that eau du corpse never really left bedding, and he was guessing that this mattress was history too.

It had to be snakeman and his bizarre snakeshit. He must have ganged up with some demon more familiar with Sunnydale (who was going to find out, soon but at length, why it was a bad idea to narc on William the Bloody). Spike had never seen the need for locks or protection spells; they implied that sheer badness wasn’t enough of a deterrent. Apparently snakeman and his friend or friends didn’t get the whole massive retaliation idea.

Oh, this was just the final indignity.

Well SunnyHell could go and fuck itself, as could Buffy. A cold resolve started forming in Spike’s chest. He’d salvage what he could and get his ass the fuck out of this dead end town. LA was only two hours away and he’d lay low for a couple of days, then he’d call Buffy and she’d beg him to come back. Absence making the heart fonder and all that shit. She’d miss him and maybe even treat him decently when he came back. At the very least, he’d go and hole up at Clem’s place in the trailer park until he’d gotten over her latest beating.

She wouldn’t have hit him like that if she weren’t so scared to love him, which meant that she did love him after all. The Crystals notwithstanding, when Buffy hit him it didn’t feel like a kiss. Only a prelude to one. At least she’d gotten her own back for that time in the bathroom, and in spades.

A few shirts, kicked into a corner, had survived. At least he didn’t have to worry about his more personal belongings, the few things he’d carried around for centuries, since they were secreted in a now-empty casket not five paces from the crypt’s front door. He’d leave those for the moment.

Grumbling to himself, Spike left the crypt door open in the hope that some of the smell would dissipate over the next week, and stomped off into the night to get the DeSoto. With the week he was having, Spike wasn’t willing to bet the smallest calico on the car actually starting.

Amazingly, KITTE and Xander, presumably, were still idling in the lay-by at the entrance to his cemetery, the red light at KITTE’s front pulsing like a heartbeat, or one of those daft robot things from Battlestar Galactica. Spike could hear cranked-up Metallica whining through the closed windows.

Spike didn’t see whatever hit him hard enough to make his teeth rattle, but he spun and kicked regardless. His vision was still blurry, but there were at least six demon-shaped things. “Xander!” he called out, knowing the boy wouldn’t hear. “KITTE! Under attack here!” One brownish demon went sprawling into the grass, but another grabbed his arm. Spike twisted his hand to grab his opponent’s shoulder and, growling with effort, swung it at an oncoming Phelgar demon. The Phelgar demon went down, but hands like iron bands wrapped around his chest and he could do no more than kick helplessly as he was lifted off of the ground.

“KITTE!” Bitch was deliberately ignoring him, Spike was sure. A rough cloth sack, smelling as if it had been used to carry Griflar eggs and banana peels, dropped over his head. Something planted what felt like a size 32 boot in his stomach. He would have groaned if the shot to his head hadn’t interfered.

True darkness called, and he fell in.

~~~~

The next day was cool and bright, just the right weather for the cool weather wardrobe. But somehow the thought of sweaters, boots, and jackets failed to cheer her. She had new pants, suede, the color of amber and embroidered with something vaguely Indian. Her last Doublemeat check was in the bank, the bills were paid and she’d bought the pants thinking that they might make her feel better, but they didn’t. Suede wasn’t good for slaying or for pushing coffee.

It hadn’t been a good night. She’d gotten home at one and Spikethoughts had ruined the five and a half hours she should have been sleeping. Instead, she’d been playing mental volleyball and snuffling into Mr. Gordo’s stomach. Now her eyes were puffy, she had shadows under the shadows under her eyes and the bite-

Ugh, the bite.

The bite had been ugly, as sloppy and torn as any starving fledgling’s, bruised around the edges and she looked more as though a big dull staple gun had attacked her than a vampire victim. She’d seen Spike bites before and they’d been as clean as ear piercings. Ice for the eyes, Neosporin and cover stick for the bite, but nothing was going to mask the big hole she’d gnawed in her own mind.

The Buffy Good, Spike Evil thing was holding about as much water as a paper bag with holes cut in all the sides. He loved her, or at least said he did, and now that he had a soul, didn’t that make his love as valid as Angel’s had been? Angel, not going there. The Angel thing was about as avoidable as a four-car pile-up of Angel blocking one lane and a three truck pile up of Spike blocking the other lane of her mental highway. And the Spike trucks were tankers leaking beer, blood, and hair gel all over the freeway, and there was a gaper delay as well.

Under lots of concealer and a black turtleneck and jeans, Buffy made her way downtown, glad that she had a reflection in the storefront windows and sad to see that she looked as though she could have matched early Kate Moss for heroin chic.

I’m the girl who’s getting suckjobs from her vampire whore.

If she ever saw Riley again, she totally owed him an apology.

Slayer stamina and a gallon of coffee got her through the morning and lunch rushes, after much teasing from Marianne, Rachel and Rick about keeping late hours with bleached blond leatherboys. But by seven, Buffy was flagging badly even as she wiped down the tables to get ready for the after-work crowd. Her mind was sneaking peeks at the Technicolor replay of Spike’s Greatest Hits. Spike sleeping with his illegal eyelashes, Spike naked and looking almost fragile, the ebb and flow of his muscles when he was poised over her, his eyes penetrating her one way while his cock penetrated her innermost depths.

She was shaky as she ran the rag over and over the cheerful Formica surfaces while Courtney Love wailed in the background.

She really should just put her foot down and send him away. Buffy knew that if she tried hard enough, made herself clear, he would go. Spike wanted too much. He had to be greedy and ask for her heart as well as her body. She didn’t feel like giving away her heart. Most days she wasn’t even sure she could feel it herself.

It was pretty pathetic. Everybody she loved vanished. Her dad, her mother, Giles, Angel, Riley, Coco the daschund who’d disappeared when she was ten, and Dawn constantly threatened by Child Protective Services or mad monks. If she gave up, gave in, agreed to love Spike, he’d end up vanishing as well. Or worse, he’d do something that would make her have to stake him. Buffy didn’t think that she could face having to kill another guy she’d slept with.

Normal girls didn’t have these problems.

Normal girls didn’t fuck vampires.

“I make my bed I lie in it/I make my bed I die in it,” Courtney chanted.

Like Courtney Love was anybody whose advice Buffy should take. Although she had been looking really good lately. Fashion advice, not relationship advice.

“You’re going to scrub the finish right off that table,” Rick advised and put her hand on Buffy’s shoulder.

Buffy jumped and blushed, her hand jittering to a stop.

“Kinda daydreaming there,” she admitted.

“Is that snackable not-boyfriend if yours giving you trouble again?”

It was suddenly clear: Rick was a Busybody Demon. If there was such a thing.

Picking up the rag, Buffy went to work on the next table.

“He says he loves me. I should be jumping for joy since guys usually don’t say that kind of thing. He wants me to say that I love him and I know he’ll be able to tell if I just say it to make him happy, and he and I are really not the most compatible since we have what you might call radically different lifestyles – er, styles — and there are major conflicts over food.”

Sighing, she worked on a brown coffee spot on the red and white checked table surface.

“And the music thing. Totally irreconcilable differences there.”

“My husband still hasn’t outgrown his Beavis and Butthead Heavy Metal stage. Music can be worked around, all you have to do is buy headphones.”

“You’re married?” Buffy blurted.

“I don’t wear my ring because I get sick of picking dough out of it.” Rick grinned under her glasses. “And I kinda like flirting. Flirting without intent is harmless. And married is not a synonym for dead.”

“I can’t imagine being married. I used to dream about the big Barbie wedding and everything, but it just doesn’t seem likely now.” The coffee stain was pretty much gone, but Buffy went for the final polish of the table. “At least anything other than a candlelight wedding and some pretty nontraditional vows.”

“You’re – what, twenty-one? I wouldn’t -“

Whatever Rick wouldn’t do was lost to posterity as muffled cries from the kitchen made Buffy’s head snap up. The countertop that doubled as an exit was flipped down, so Buffy vaulted it and pushed through the swinging kitchen doors to find that the source of the noise hadn’t reached the kitchen yet, but was still on the steps up from the basement/storage room. Closer now, she could tell that it was Rachel screaming, and how disturbing was it that she was excellent at connecting screams with the normal voice of the screamer? Still, Rachel’s voice was healthy enough, and the scream sounded only fearful, not wounded.

Buffy reached the door to the stairs and flung it open. Rachel nearly fell onto the off-white linoleum. “There’s a big spider in the storeroom!” she screeched, forming words at last.

“Oh, Rachel,” Rick, who’d just arrived, sighed. “It’s just a spider, another living creature from mother earth. Can’t you just shoo it out the way?”

“No, I mean there’s a REALLY BIG SPIDER in the storeroom!”

“I’ll get a newspaper, ok?”

Marianne stuck her head out of the stairwell just as they heard a crash of breaking glass from downstairs. “This motherfucker’s gonna need more than the Sunday New York Times,“ she suggested.

Buffy grabbed the long breadknife from the counter and pushed past Marianne. Warily, she crept down the stairs, keeping her back to the wall. “Big” could mean anything from baseball-sized to snake-Mayor-sized. The spray of ex-cookie-jar fragments on the ground showed her where the spider had been.

Out of the corner of her eye, Buffy saw something brown and fuzzy scurry into the shadows. She flipped all the lightswitches at the foot of the stairs, illuminating the entire storeroom in a blaze of fluorescence.

Rachel peered down the steps.

“I swear to God, I saw it, big as a pony.”

“I believe you,” Buffy reassured her.

Movement caught her attention and Buffy homed in on the spider scuttling out from under the hot water heater. Years of fighting vampires and demons had hardened her nerves against supernatural creatures, but the spider made goosebumps break out all down her arms.

Its body was the size of a human head, with legs like dreadlocks flying out around it. After watching it move along the right wall for a few seconds, Buffy launched the breadknife. The knife nearly split the spider in the center and pinned the still-wriggling body into the drywall.

“Buffy?”

She spun around, looking for more threats, and found only Rick, standing on the stairs with one Scully-like eyebrow raised. “Something you want to share about your prior career with the circus?”

Buffy puzzled over that one for a bit and then got the knife-throwing reference. “Oh, um, no.” She shrugged. “Just a lucky throw. It was lucky, right?” Now she remembered Rick’s earth-mother routine. “I mean, I don’t think a spider that size is really, you know, into the pest control business, unless maybe it eats mice …”

“I don’t think that was a normal spider.” Shaking her head, Rick walked closer to the spider-knife montage. “It looks like it’s glaring at me.”

“Yeah, well, I guess I’d better clean up,” Buffy suggested, thinking that Willow needed to see this.

“And throw out that fucking breadknife,” Rachel suggested from her position at the top of the stairs. “I don’t care what you sterilize it in, I am not cutting cranberry loaves with a knife that has spider goo all over it.”

Following Rick up the stairs, Buffy shook off the creepy skin feeling from the spider, and found that the café was starting to fill up again with the post-work crowd. People coming in to get something for dessert, or stopping by for a coffee before going home.

“Giant spiders? I am getting my ass home. You crazy white people can stay in Sunnydale after dark, but I won’t.” Marianne pulled her coat on over her apron and glared around the café, “You wonder why all the Mexicans and Black folk live in Santa Serena? We know this place is fucked.”

Marianne left in a flurry of attitude, leaving Rick with her eyebrow still raised, Rachel eyeing the gooey knife, and Buffy feeling generally stupid.

“Rache, you start dishing out the soup and the pasta. Buffy, can you go in the kitchen and finish up the blueberry muffins Rachel started?”

While mixing the muffins, Buffy’s mind wandered back to Spikeville, population one.

The roar of an angry, stupid vampire, coming from the seating area, made Buffy look up from the blueberry muffin batter. She dashed out of the kitchen and leapt over the counter, reversing her earlier longjump, and landed in front of yet another teen vamp about to get his coffee fix by way of a patron. Reversing the long wooden spoon in her hand with a twist that sent batter flying all around, she plunged the end into its chest and watched the surprised ex-teen disintegrate.

“Go on!” she urged the hapless customer, who didn’t resist being shoved out of the door. The other patrons were already gone. Pressing her back against the wall, she counted two flunkies and Ms. Burdock. One of the flunkies had gotten over the counter and was advancing on Rachel, while Rick pushed open the kitchen doors to see what was going on.

“Get back in the kitchen!” she yelled, and the doors closed. “Don’t wait for me!” She hoped she was loud enough. She heard a heavy scraping at the doors and felt a sense of relief. Some prior tenant had decided to install a security bar across the kitchen doors. Living in a high-risk area had some advantages.

Still holding her spoon-stake, she wrote off the vamp behind the counter for the time being and did a quick backflip away from the other remaining teen vamp. Ms. Burdock was waiting by the door with her arms crossed, looking like she always did when Buffy was struggling with some basic concept. The near vamp advanced on Buffy again, and she needed to face Ms. Burdock without distractions, so she dropped into a spinning kick that sent the vamp stumbling into a table, thence to the floor where abandoned coffee spilled on him. In a flash, she was kneeling over him and the stake went in and out like a sewing machine needle; she was facing Ms. Burdock again before he went to dust.

Then she was reeling backwards, her cheek stinging from a blow she’d barely had time to see. Ms. Burdock was *fast*, and combat-trained. Buffy took a more careful stance, waiting for the next attack.

It came as fast as a shift in fashion. This time, Buffy was ready and dodged the blow, kicking Ms. Burdock in the stomach and sending her off balance.

Ms. Burdock staggered back into a potted plant, which smashed to the floor, showering her with soil. “You’ll regret that,” she snarled. Ms. Burdock alive had obviously not had a life; she’d watched way too many TV villains.

“Not as much as I regret all that math.” Buffy kicked her against the wall again, trying not to break any more furniture. It would be nice to have a job after tonight.

Ms. Burdock windmilled forward, catching Buffy solidly across the shoulder. Buffy turned her motion into a somersault and leapt to her feet facing Ms. Burdock’s back. Buffy stabbed with the stake, but the ex-teacher was so fast that Buffy only penetrated her pants suit.

Buffy grimaced in frustration as another blow nearly took out her trachea. She skittered back over a table, bracing her arms against the plastic surface and hanging on to the tabletop so she could get the full power of her legs behind her kick. Using her legs allowed her to counteract Ms. Burdock’s height and reach advantages, and the vampire whoofed as Buffy’s feet forced the useless air from her lungs.

Buffy leapt off of the table to press her advantage, but skidded on a clump of blueberry muffin batter that had fallen off during her earlier exertions and slammed into Ms. Burdock, whose surprised look melted into rage as she reached for Buffy’s neck. Buffy dropped and reinforced the kick with a solid head-butt to Ms. Burdock’s stomach, but not without taking another near-crushing blow to her shoulder.

Out of the corner of her eye, Buffy saw the remaining minion take the glass cover off of one of the pie stands and reach for a piece of cherry pie. Then she had to look away as Ms. Burdock’s fist nearly gave her a nose job.

There was a flash of incandescent light from behind the counter and both Buffy and Ms. Burdock turned to look. Where the pie-loving vamp had been was only a column of vapor, dissipating quickly.

Buffy took advantage of Ms. Burdock’s surprise to bury the wooden spoon right into the center of the math teacher’s chest. As the vamp dust settled, Buffy’s heart was beating hard enough to crack a rib or two.

Rick looked around at the remains of Ms. Burdock and the math team.

“Right, somebody get the Dustbuster.”

The door to the kitchen opened and Rachel emerged, clutching a frying pan the size of a small house.

“Are they gone?” she asked.

Rick flipped the sign on the door from Open to Closed and fetched the Dustbuster from behind the counter.

“What do you say we call it an early night?” she asked.

Buffy nodded and watched Rick kneel down to suck up the worldly remains of the vamps. What the Hell had that been with the light trick? The room smelled of magic — friendly vanilla and strawberry magic, but magic regardless.

“So, what exactly are you? Wonder Woman or something?” Rick asked from her place on the floor.

“I could ask you the same thing. What was with the turning vamps to dust without a stake?”

Rachel looked from Rick to Buffy and back again. “I’d just like to say that I have no superpowers, no secret identity, just a cat and a really big credit card bill. I’m going now, and I’m going to get really, really drunk, and in the morning none of this will have happened.”

“That girl’s got the Sunnydale mentality down,” Buffy commented with admiration as Rachel’s bobbed hair disappeared into the darkness outside the café.

“Looks like we have some talking to do,” Rick said, crossing her arms over her chest and favoring Buffy with yet another questioning eyebrow.

“What did you do to that guy? And why didn’t you do it to Ms. Burdock while I was, you know, getting the crap beaten out of me?”

“I don’t generally intervene in human affairs so directly. But I really, really don’t like pie thieves.”

Buffy’s tension level, which had begun to spiral down, shot up again like a bottle rocket. “Guess it’s a good thing you cut Dawn a break. And, you know, that guy? Not human.”

“Depends on how you look at it,” Rick said and smiled indulgently. “So, what are you? I’ll show you mine …”

“Vampire Slayer.”

“No kidding! I thought that was a strictly European thing.”

“Surprise.” Buffy’s tone was beyond sarcasm, in that place where nothing was unthinkable and nothing was good. “And you?”

“Oh, I’ve had a lot of names … Been loved and hated, worshiped and obliterated. I was trying for small-scale this time. A nice woman-centric space, some discreet good advice. This town has an aura in need of help like you would not believe.” Rick looked thoughtful. “Or I guess you would. Aren’t you a little old to be a Slayer?”

Buffy snorted. “Long story. Sad one too, but those big-ass spiders? Can’t be normal, even for California.”

“Spiders like the one in the basement?”

“Yeah. I’ve got to do some research.”

“Your portfolio’s expanded beyond vampires, I take it.” Buffy’s confused silence prompted Rick to speak again. “Well, best of luck with that. When you get back, let’s have a real sit-down talk, supernatural girl to supernatural girl.”

Willow chose that moment to come bopping through the door. “Ready for the – Hey, what happened?” she asked as her gaze swept around the room, cataloging upset tables and overturned chairs.

“Ms. Burdock. She won’t be giving anyone detention again.”

Willow’s eyes flickered towards Rick and back. Buffy shrugged. “Rick’s some kind of … something, too. She kinda figured it out when I dusted the math team.”

“Cool,” Willow enthused.

All Buffy could do was shake her head.

~~~~

“Where’s Spike?” Dawn asked from where she was looking at the jewelry display. Buffy watched her hands with the intensity of a cat waiting for a roach to scurry out from under the refrigerator.

Buffy took a deep breath and shrugged.

“Guess he had mysterious Spike things to do, like frighten kids at the Mall and-“

“Bury himself under a glacier of icepacks after somebody beat the shit out of him last night.” Xander leaned back in his chair and stretched his hands over his head, cracking his knuckles. “I had to drop him off at the crypt because he could hardly walk. He said he’d run into ten of Ms. Burdock’s homeroom, but somehow I can’t see ten loser fledglings getting the best of Spike.”

“So?” Buffy asked, and could feel the temperature rise all along her skin.

“So, why’d you bitchslap him around the parking garage, Buffy? Ki – there’s blood on my car, and it really spoils the finish.”

Dawn and Willow all stared at her, wearing the same face of disappointment Mom had so many times.

“Geez, Xander, you know what Spike’s like,” she joked, like trying to cover up a hickey with clear lip gloss. “Smackage is not of the big.”

“This was no smackage,” he insisted. “This was into the intervention time, shelter for the abused zone.”

“Everybody without major relationship issues right now, raise your hand.” Buffy, still harboring her blush, looked around at all the un-raised hands.

“Maybe the rest of us have learned better than to throw ourselves into a relationship with anything that will -“ Xander, looking at Dawn, visibly restrained himself, “-let us feel a little better about ourselves.”

“Oh, like you’re not using that car as a substitute for Anya,” Buffy scoffed and put down the cakebox-cum-spider coffin she was holding so that she could cross her arms over her chest.

“At least the car knows when to shut up.” Xander’s scowl looked real, not like the indulgent frown he usually used on Anya.

“Xander, cars don’t talk,” Willow put her hand on Xander’s shoulder, with the air of someone who knows that her best friend has just gotten on the Disoriented Express.

“This one does.”

“Demon, haunted, possessed . . .?” Buffy asked, glad that Xander’s driver’s hot seat had taken precedence over hers.

“Technology, microchips. Things you don’t understand.” Xander shook off Willow’s hand and moved away from the group of women. “There’s a whole other world out there, where the bad guys are human. They shoot convenience store clerks over a bag of Cheetos and rip off coffee shops. The police can’t take care of it because they’re all loaded down with donuts and paperwork.”

“Talking car and donuts?” Buffy echoed, only able to grasp the more concrete things.

“The people that you save from demons and vampires repay your hard work by killing each other and committing crimes. I’m just closing the circle. Putting the bad guys in the fat lap of the law. Mostly.”

“So you go out every night and play superhero?” Dawn asked. “You and this car that talks?”

“We caught two guys who held up the Quicky Mart and another two who were in the middle of holding up Kiki’s Coffee outside town.”

This reminded Buffy of Spike’s Blue Slushy story. “You’re playing Batman and Robin with Spike? Breaking and entering Spike, blood-drinking, undead William the Bloody, Spike?” Buffy asked, feeling the bubble of a giggle rise in her throat.

“Your boyfriend Spike.”

The bubble popped. “He’s not my boyfriend.”

“KITTE said that I was chosen to help her in her quest for Justice.”

“Kitty?” Willow’s frown deepened. “Who’s Kitty?”

“The car, her name is KITTE. Knight Industries Two Thousand Enhanced. KITTE.”

“But why you, Xander?”

“Hey, I’m not completely talent-free,” Xander said. His tone said he was insulted, but his eyes showed the old pain: This is Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. This is Giles, the Watcher. This is Willow, the computer-whiz-slash-witch. And this is Xander – the guy. It never improved, Buffy knew, no matter who moved in and out of the Scooby circle. But it was true, and so the question remained, and she couldn’t make herself care enough to keep silent.

Xander hunched in his seat, then deliberately threw his shoulders back and managed to give the impression of looming without getting to his feet.

Buffy’s Slayer sense was pinging excitedly. “And how exactly are you going to fight demons like that? They’re going to catch on to hit and run after a few tries.”

Xander glowered back. “They sure keep falling for the ol’ stake trick. And, like I said, there’s evil to fight other than demons. KITTE’s been telling me about it.”

She shouldn’t be annoyed, right? It made no difference to her if Xander ran off to play International Man of Mystery and race the Indy 500. And if he killed a few demons on the way, it just made her life that much easier. Perhaps a change of subject was in order. “There was a really big bug in the basement at work today. I don’t know what a supersized bug means, but it can’t be good.”

“On the upside, Buffy brought us pastry!” Dawn chirped, opened the cakebox, and shrieked.

“Actually, I brought the bug,” she corrected unnecessarily.

Willow peered into the box, which was beginning to soak through on the bottom with fluids Buffy didn’t want to examine. “Spiders aren’t bugs. They’re arachnids, a different order.”

“Anyway, can you take a look and let me know what new and exotic way to kill us this is?”

Dawn was hanging back well out of spider range. “You know, it is so weird that Spike isn’t here. I mean he usually shows up for meetings even if we haven’t told him when. Especially when we haven’t told him when. Even if he and Buffy are fighting.”

“I’ll take a swing by the crypt and see if he’s sulking.”

Without a backwards look, Xander slammed out the front door of the Magic Shop, his coat trying very hard to flutter behind.

“Xander defending Spike,” Willow mused. “It defies supernatural law. Like dogs and cats living together in sin. Only without the sex part.”

Buffy and Dawn turned as one to give her the big glare.

~~~~

The front door rattled with the force of the knocks. It couldn’t be Spike, Buffy knew as she hurried downstairs, because even if he’d lost his key he’d come by the kitchen door, but a traitorous hope rose in her nonetheless. Standing on tiptoe, she came face-to-peephole with a bumpy purple demon. As she watched, its blue eyes were obscured by white membranes, and cleared again.

“Sorry, I gave at the office!” she yelled through the door, since she was in no mood.

The purple guy, who would never be mistaken for Barney even if he did have a tail and a spiked crest, rabbited back onto the walk. Buffy moved to the side window, where she could see three demons, each a different flavor. “Slayer!” the one in the middle called. “Come out! We have a message for you.”

Now Willow and Dawn were crowding the windows to look. “Dawn, get back,” Buffy ordered reflexively. Dawn sniffed and moved back a good inch. “I hear you loud and clear like this!”

“We mean you no harm,” Middle Guy said, and his companions even cringed back a bit for emphasis. “But our message includes – a gift. Come out.”

Buffy sighed and picked up the war axe leaning by the door. She might be dumb, but she wasn’t stupid. As she opened the door, she began twirling the axe, fast enough that it almost blurred in her vision. The demons each took a step backwards, until they were nearly on the edge of the lawn.

Buffy rested the axe on her shoulder. “You were saying?”

The demon on the right scampered up to the edge of the porch steps and stretched its arm to hand Buffy a red satin-covered box. When she took the box, the demon’s arm went back to its original length with a spronging sound.

“It’s not my birthday,” she said, holding the box as if it were full of gelginite.

“It’s a token of our seriousness,” the middle demon said. He had a frog’s bulging eyes and lipless mouth, but swirly purple-yellow-orange skin.

Slowly, Buffy opened the box. It looked like a thick earthworm nestled in a pile of cotton batting. Only, earthworms didn’t wear nail polish. Black nail polish, ragged from gnawing at the nails, and a heavy silver ring that said that punk was undead.

She looked up at the demons as Willow edged over to see into the box and gasped. Buffy’s mouth worked, but no banter came out.

“We know you don’t care what happens to those of us who can’t pass for human,” the middle demon said. “But the spiders, they’re eating our kind and they don’t give a good goddamn about the color of our skin or the number of hands we have. We need the Slayer on our side, for once. Cooperate, and your vampire won’t lose any more significant appendages.”

Her grip on the box threatened to relax, and she passed it to Willow, who darted back inside. After a moment, Dawn screamed.

Buffy stared. And stared. The demon on the left began to shuffle its feet nervously. This sign of weakness was enough to break her paralysis.

“I am *not* a racist – humanist – whatever. You no kill, I no kill. After all these years, I find it hard to believe you don’t know that. I’ll get your spiders – which I would have done anyway, if you just asked – as soon as Spike’s returned. We clear?” As she finished, the porch railing on which she’d been bracing herself splintered, leaving a fist-shaped hole in the wood. Buffy shook her hand to clean it of wood and paint fragments.

The lead demon nodded. The demon on the left swallowed nervously and the group began its retreat.

“By the way,” she called out and they turned back. “Hurting Spike to get to me just got you promoted to Bad Guys. I’m going to braid your spines and use them as a belt.” This caused a flurry of back-and-forth glances amongst the demons. “Spike. One hour. He heals properly, I might reconsider.”

When they were out of sight, she leaned over the porch railing and vomited. Willow’s nervous hands patted her back and pulled her hair out of the way. “That was a nice threat,” Willow commented as Buffy wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “Vivid and creative.”

“I always did want to start a fashion trend,” Buffy said, but her heart wasn’t in it. “Can vampires heal, y’know -“

“From fingerectomies? I’ve got Grrhthylk on Vampires upstairs, I’ll go check.” Willow fled, leaving Buffy alone on the porch.

She was still sweating from the nausea. Spike had touched her with that finger. God, it had been *inside* her. The universe’s random cruelty was without end. Angel’s curse, Mom’s death, her not-so-eternal rest, it all mixed up in her mind with this latest unnecessary loss. She wished, with an intensity that went through her chest like an icepick, that she’d never been resurrected to this.

She’d sweated through her turtleneck and now the California night made her shiver. Buffy went back into the house to see what Willow had found.

Dawn was sitting on the couch, her hands clasped as if in prayer, tear tracks slicked on her face. She looked like Buffy felt. “I put it in the refrigerator,” she said. “I know you’re supposed to use ice if it’s a human, but I wasn’t sure ….” She began sobbing in earnest, her arms wrapped around herself as if that was the only comfort she could find.

Buffy sat down and put a leaden arm around Dawn. “They’re bringing him back,” she said confidently. “He’ll be – fine.”

Dawn raised her face to Buffy’s and Buffy should have recoiled from the blind savagery on it. “You’ll get them, right? You’ll get them all.”

Buffy nodded, once. “Nobody touches what’s mine.” She wouldn’t, really, if they brought Spike back and Willow could fix his finger, but it would help while away the wait, and imagining felt almost as good as doing.

Sniffling, Dawn hugged Buffy to her, her grip hard enough to bruise a human. “Tell me how you’ll do it,” she said in a drowsy, little-girl voice and laid her head in Buffy’s lap. Slayer hearing told Buffy that Willow, who’d been coming down the stairs, had stopped to listen.

Looking forward but unseeing, she stroked Dawn’s smooth shiny hair and began. “Break their ankles first, so they can’t get away….”

~~~~

The first thing he felt was the buzzing stings of the wasps coating his body. He tried to roll away from them, but he couldn’t move. Blinking eyes that cracked and began to bleed again when the lids separated, Spike realized that there weren’t any wasps to flee, just damage reports flooding in from all decks. His ankles were chained together, as were his hands. There was a white-hot hammer dancing on his right hand. He hoped the bones weren’t broken again. What did the world have against his hands, anyhow? First Jane, then Citalia, now this. He tried to flex his fingers and the pain flared like a shock of sunlight.

“You’re awake.” The voice came from behind and to the left. Craning his neck, Spike realized that he was chained to a pole in the middle of a room. Over the smell of his own blood, he could smell dank and mold, which meant underground.

“Any more brilliant observations, mate?” There were other things in the room with him, bulky in the darkness. He could smell at least five different flavors of demon.

His interlocutor stepped forward, into Spike’s line of sight. The demon looked like Kermit the Frog, only not so green and naïve. Hylacinerea, Spike thought, examining the swollen, sticky fingerpads at the ends of the hands wrapped around the large fucking knife the demon was carrying. The knife still had traces of black blood on it; very sloppy, he thought.

“What’s all this, then?” he asked, bracing against the pole so that he could push his shoulders out arrogantly.

“You haven’t made very many friends in this community, Spike. Your – ehem, *dalliance* with the Slayer couldn’t protect you forever.”

Spike grinned and worked his hands within the chains. Big showy iron chains meant there was a chance he could just slip out of them. His right hand was still a meteoric pain, but he was acclimating. “Lemme guess. You an’ thirty of your best friends decided to teach me a lesson ‘bout caring and sharing.”

“Something like that.” The Hylacinerea nodded, and something emerged from the gloom behind Spike’s shoulder. The pain in his hand flared again and then the chains were falling to the ground. Spike half-staggered away from the post and brought his fists up. “Well then, have at me, you bloody co -“ He stopped and looked, truly looked, at his right fist. The index finger was gone, removed, absent, detached, AWOL – chopped off, no doubt with the nasty silver knife in the Hylacinerea’s hand. A clot of black blood bloomed from the severed joint.

“We sent a message to your lady love,” the frog demon explained. Rage boiled in Spike’s chest, like an interior sun threatening to turn him to ash. This was what he was reduced to, hurt for *Buffy’s* sake, not anything he’d done. His finger snipped and sent out like a postage stamp.

His hands fisted again, the right one reduced and throbbing. “I got a message for you,” he said and jumped.

He snapped the Hylacinerea’s neck as a mountain of demons fell on him. Squashed on top of the demon’s body, Spike bit and clawed at anything he could reach. He could hear the Calensis demons screeching for his blood, muffled through the others’ heavy bodies. A meaty hand snagged his upper left arm and dragged him through the pile, on the way shoving his face into a truly disgusting armpit.

Spike’s upper half emerged, and as he spat to get rid of the taste the hand’s owner dealt him a blow to the head that felt as if it had been inflicted by a wrecking ball. With his hands on the floor for leverage, Spike managed to squirm entirely out of the demonic garbage heap, but that only put him further at the mercy of the demon he now identified as snakeman. A kick to the chin sprawled him out on the cold concrete floor, and the other demons were rising now, their growls backing vocals to the snakeman’s cold hissing laughter.

Spike’s head spun as he staggered to his feet. Thirty to one was ugly odds, but by Hell he’d get a few bites in before this was over. And, though his brain was fuzzy with the vampire version of a concussion, he deduced from the finger-severing that he was a hostage, and therefore preferably to be kept alive. If he was going to take a beating, he wasn’t going to be alone.

Then snakeman struck and there was no thought other than the physics of violence.

~~~~

Spike lay in a heap like Buffy’s tossed laundry, almost invisible beneath his stained leather jacket. She could see dried blood caked in his hair. Knowing Spike, not all of it was his, she thought with savage gladness.

“Hey!” she yelled at the retreating demons. They stopped, their shoulders stiffening, and turned back.

“I won’t kill you now. But you lost your Sunnydale privileges.”

They piled into their incongruous blue Volvo station wagon and thundered away as well as a Volvo could. Buffy almost wished that one or two would hang around town.

Two hours later, the only differences were that they’d untangled Spike and Dawn had been convinced to wait in the kitchen, fletching arrows in case they were needed. She’d already prepared enough to turn even an apartment-complex-sized demon into a big porcupine, but it was a welcome distraction as Buffy knew from bitter experience.

Spike lay on Buffy’s pretty new bed. She didn’t think that the stains from the blood he’d thrown up were ever going to come out of her new white and cream bedding. Cow’s blood from Kohlermann’s first, until Dawn demanded they go to Willy’s for human. When that hadn’t stayed down, Buffy had sent the rest of them downstairs and sliced her arm just below the crease of the elbow. The blood dribbled into his mouth with frustrating slowness absent the suction that was the proper way to drink. Spike had choked and vomited Slayer blood minutes later, still red but mixed with shiny black things Buffy couldn’t examine too closely.

“– Puncture marks make me think it might be poison,” Willow was saying into the phone, pacing up and down the hallway. A human might have been sweating, but Spike was paper-dry under Buffy’s fingers. His body was the same temperature as the bedcovers. When he slept with her he breathed, reflex or habit, but he wasn’t breathing now. He was as still as an unrisen fledgling, and she’d have thought he was truly-dead if Willow hadn’t assured her that the presence of the corpse indicated that the demon was still binding body and mind together. The bedroom felt empty of any presence but her own.

“-Want his opinion, I’ll let him know,” Willow snapped. “Spike’s not – no one’s going to die on my watch.” Her waspish voice buzzed away as she strode toward the staircase.

Buffy reached again for the damp washcloth. The dried blood was gone from Spike’s face and hair, and she didn’t want to disturb the still-oozing scratches. They weren’t bleeding, precisely, but they weren’t doing the vampire healing magic either. The gelid blood beaded around the tears in his skin and gleamed like insect eyes in the light. Buffy wiped around them, cleaning the perfect white skin that remained.

“I know this is the part where I make some really poignant confession,” Buffy admitted. “But I think you’d be mad if you missed it. And it’s not like I have one to make, anyway,” she chided as if he’d spoken. “I mean, other than the I’m-sorry-they-beat-you-up-to-get-to-me thing, which I would hope goes without saying…” Buffy had the faint idea that she might be able to annoy him back into consciousness, but it didn’t seem to be working, so she gave up and held his intact left hand. It didn’t feel cold the way his skin usually did, she realized, because it didn’t feel like it ought to be human at all.

A doll’s hand, room temperature and slightly sticky plastic.

“You know, you could consider trying to learn how to play nicely with the other little demons,” she said in a falsely cheerful voice.

He was so small there on the bed. Actually he wasn’t all that big or tall to begin with, but swallowed up in the sheets and even more pale than the dead should be he made her feel clumsy and huge. The silence on Spike’s part was particularly unnerving, since he generally only shut up when gagged.

Crying was not an option. She wasn’t going to think about what her life would be like without his annoying and sexy presence hovering around the edges.

If Spike makes it through this without turning into dust or a vampire vegetable, I am going to be nicer to him, she bargained with whatever higher powers happened to be listening, And I am going to forgive the whole biting me in the garage thing. I won’t hit him anymore unless he really deserves it. I’ll even be nicer to Anya no matter how much she pisses me off. And I’ll floss. I’ll floss every day. Twice.

And she’d been so close to getting rid of him, too. The damned interfering demons, and giant spiders – another thing to worry about – had interfered with her normal Slayer thinking. Okay, yes, she was extremely confused on the Spike front. But if anyone was going to kill him, it was going to be her. She’d do it fast, anyway, so it wouldn’t hurt. Wouldn’t hurt *him*.

She and Willow had cut Spike’s blood-stiffened clothes off him earlier and wrapped a towel around his waist to preserve some semblance of dignity. In addition to missing a finger, Spike was latticed with scratches, a nasty gauge between his pecs and his abdomen, and the meaty part of his left calf was showing what looked like werewolf bites. Something had found William the Bloody a tasty snack, and his clothes were a loss. After she had remade the bed in a set of Mom’s old, dark sheets that didn’t show the blood as much if he started to vomit again, Buffy returned to her bedside sitting, almost wishing that Spike would throw up again. He didn’t seem to have the energy to get sick anymore, and his skin was starting to feel suspiciously dry and hot to the touch.

At around nine that night, Dawn came to sit with Spike while Buffy took the bloody sheets and bedspread down to the washer and dryer. Buffy didn’t even bother to wash them, just threw them in the utility sink to deal with later. The washer and dryer almost reduced Buffy into a blubbering mess. She couldn’t look at it without remembering that weird night – their second time – when she and Spike had sex on the dryer. Now he was upstairs, unconscious and helpless. She hated seeing him that way as much as he hated being helpless. This was as bad as Spike dying as a human after being beaten by that evil bitch goddess Sekhmet in Egypt.

Another knock on the front door. Buffy ran and had the axe in hand in under a second. “Who is it?” Through the peephole, it looked like a woman in a tailored black suit.

“Ashley.”

“I – I called Wesley. He wasn’t there, but –” Willow stuttered, moving to stand beside Buffy. “Anyway, she’s a demon doctor.”

A demon doctor named Ashley, and she probably had a twin sister named Mary Kate. Between Los Angeles and the Hellmouth, it was small wonder that Southern California was the center for all things weird. Buffy opened the door, and the woman stepped in, proving that she was a rude person and not a vampire. She was carrying a black leather bag nearly as big as Buffy’s weapons duffel. She was also clean and cool and un-rumpled in her chic black suit, taller than Buffy and brunette, which usually stood for competence above and beyond the call of blondeness.

“So,” Ashley said. “The clock’s running. Shall we go to the patient?”

Obediently, they all trooped upstairs, where Spike was lying on the bed. Spike hadn’t healed at all as far as Buffy could tell. Usually by now the worst of the bruising would have faded. Ashley picked up Spike’s limp right hand and examined it critically, like Cordelia inspecting a potential shoe purchase. Then she patted around his neck and for some reason felt behind his ears.

“This is a classic Gryscyscme demon bite. The treatment’s complex, but not exotic. Before I start, there is the small matter of my fee.”

“What is it?” Buffy braced herself. Giles could probably get cash, quickly, though she hoped it would be in dollars and not in pounds.

“Someday I will ask you for a favor,” Ashley said, pretentiously, as if that was supposed to mean more than what she was saying. With her tan, freckled face and perfect posture, she looked as if she ought to be out playing field hockey, not inside playing demon doctor. Buffy thought it was pretty good camouflage, almost as good as her own.

“What kind of favor?”

“You’ll find out when I ask, won’t you?” Looking around the assemblage, Ashley raised one well-shaped eyebrow. “You’re not exactly in a position to negotiate, are you?”

“No, I’m not.”

“Buffy!” Willow said sharply.

“No deal. Get rid of her. If I have to look at her smirking, I’ll kill her.”

“Buffy!” Dawn’s cry packed a stadiumfull of guilt.

“I can’t have that kind of marker floating around. Spike knows that.”

“Spike doesn’t know anything! He’s dying!” The words went through Buffy’s gut like a well-placed stake, but Willow had shaken off Dawn and was doing a passable job of giving Ashley her angry Witch look. The woman’s face paled, highlighting the freckles that mapped her face.

“Spike would do it for you,” Dawn wailed.

Yes, Spike would do it for her, but he had no sense, bad planning skills and attention deficit disorder. The world would be a less fun place without Spike in it. Which wasn’t saying that she loved him, because she couldn’t because, after all, he was still a vampire, and she still was the Slayer. A world without shrimp was nothing. A world without Spike was not an acceptable alternative.

“Sure, fine, whatever,” Buffy agreed and mentally crossed her fingers. “I owe you a favor.”

“Done,” Ashley said. There was a flash of purple light, and the bulb in the hall light exploded as the smell of lilacs filled the air.

“What was that?” Dawn asked, letting Buffy stay silent.

“Oh, I have a minor deity under contract to witness my bargains,” Ashley said, returning to the main bedroom. “Not that I doubt your word. It’s best practices, that’s all.”

Buffy wondered what happened if she refused the favor and decided not to. When it came to deities, experience had taught her that the only thing “minor” was the information available about them.

Ashley looked around the bedroom with resigned dismay. “Is there any way we can get it warmer in here? It’ll help with the finger, which I understand you still have.”

“Wet or dry?” Willow asked.

“Ideally, about 78 Fahrenheit, 50% humidity if you have a -“

Willow flicked her fingers and Buffy’s ears popped as the temperature and texture of the air changed.

Ashley did a double-take. “So you’re the little witch with the big destiny. Maybe I should have asked you for the favor.”

“She wouldn’t have agreed,” Buffy informed her. “How about we let the healing begin?”

The other woman flashed her a sly grin and turned to her patient.

“Now, did we retrieve the finger?” she asked.

Dawn proffered the box, doing her best not to look at the contents. Ashley peered in and grimaced.

“I’m going to need nail polish remover. I have to make sure that the blood is flowing to the digit and I can’t do that with the nail polish. The finger will swell, too, so the ring has to go. Not to mention that they’re both terribly declasse.”

Dawn headed to the bathroom while Ashley opened her bag and pulled out what looked like a power drill. Willow went as white as Spike, and Buffy had to agree.

~~

Stomach swirling from the smell of powdered bone and cooked blood, Buffy ran into the bathroom and threw up again. This time her empty stomach only gave up a thin, sour bit of bile and she clutched the cool side of the toilet and shut her eyes.

Head to toes, she was shaking, and the smell from her previously pristine new bedroom wasn’t helping her stomach any. Heaving herself to her feet, Buffy splashed cold water on her face, looking up at her dripping, distressed reflection in the mirror above the washbasin. She really looked like hell, her eyes still shadowed underneath. Her hair was standing out as though she’d combed it with an eggbeater. The high whine of the drill reminded her of the dentist, and the dampness of the air felt like being sprayed with tiny drops of blood.

Without looking at what was going on over at the bed, Buffy rushed through the bedroom and downstairs. She needed a cup of coffee to stay alert and then maybe some tequila to take the edge off the alertness. Better yet, there had to be ice cream in the freezer. Maybe there was some Chocolate Fudge Brownie left from Dawn’s last PMS binge.

Instead of finding ice cream in the kitchen, she found Xander, drinking one of Spike’s beers and leaning up against the counter like a grumpy teddy bear in black leather.

“So do we know which demons did this to Spike?” Xander asked.

“A Tribeam demon bit and poisoned him. But it was a bumpy purple one with spines on his spine and a long tail, and a froggy browny yellow kind of thing driving a blue Volvo station wagon with a ‘I have a Honors Student at Sunnydale High’ bumpersticker.“

“That kind of cuts down the field. Can’t be too many of them around if Mr. Walker is still teaching freshman English. What do you bet it was stolen?” Xander asked.

“Must be losers to steal a Volvo. What a Mom-mobile,” Buffy agreed.

“Wanna kick some demon ass?” Xander asked.

“Let me get my coat.”

~~~

Wrapped in her leather pea coat, Buffy huddled down in the too-soft seat of Xander’s spiffy new car. Lights flashed on the dash, more than normal even to Buffy’s non-automotive educated eye.

“Your car sure is blinky,” she said, feeling that she had to fill up with the blinking silence with something. “Do you know what all these things do?”

“Pretty much,” Xander said and reached over to twiddle a knob.

The knob must have belonged to the stereo because an evil, sinuous music she usually associated with Spike blared out of the speakers. The pulse was throbbing behind Buffy’s right eye and she could feel the muscle twitch underneath her eyelid. Her brain was going to explode, right there in the car and Xander would have to wet-vac gray matter out of his nice leather seats. The thought seemed suspiciously like something Spike would say so she stuffed it into the “pending” bin right behind the headache.

“Live and let die/What does it matter to ya/When you got a job to do–”

“KITTE, can you look up a blue Volvo station wagon, California plates? Look for stolen or missing ones first,” Xander said into thin air.

It was weird watching him talk into nothingness, possessed or high-tech car notwithstanding.

“A Mrs. Stephen Cooke reported her car stolen last night. It has a Lo-Jack installed and the transmitter has been activated. My sensors are superior to those of local law enforcement and I have been able to pick up a signal. It appears to be heading south on Fordham Road.”

“Wow, I guess this possessed car is pretty useful, huh?” Buffy asked.

“The future’s all in the technology, Buffy. Pretty soon KITTE’s going to be able to pick up demons with her infrared sensors and I’ve modified her rocket launchers to fire wooden stakes.”

“Buffy Anne Summers. You have an impressive record of juvenile offenses,” the car said in a smooth female voice.

“Hey! Those were supposed to be sealed when I turned eighteen!” Buffy protested.

“They were,” the car responded and managed to sound smug.

“You see, KITTE’s tapped in to all the law enforcement databases in the country. Not even the FBI does that. Dumb, really, because a killer can go from one state to the next and if the original state didn’t enter his profile into the national system, the other states won’t know about it. Now imagine the same thing for demons. We hook her up with the Demons, Demons, Demons database and she can track them down anywhere her sensors can reach.”

Buffy sniffed. “But not all demons are bad. Look at Clem, and Angel’s big green friend with the loud suits. Don’t you think that it’s better to give them the benefit of the doubt until they do something wrong?”

“True, we can’t exactly use the soul/no-soul divide as a very good guide to good and evil. There’s plenty of humans out there who deserve a good ass kicking.”

“It’s more than that. Spike’s the baddest of the bad on paper. He must have killed over a thousand people. But, you know, different vampire now.” Buffy stopped and took a deep breath. “And you know we’re all confused on the subject of Spike.”

In the darkness of the car, Xander gave her a sly sideways look that didn’t seem like one of his at all.

“I have the car in view. Take a right onto this exit,” KITTE prodded.

Sure enough, a shiny new Volvo station wagon with the Honors Society bumper sticker was sedately doing the speed limit along the desert road leading out of Sunnydale. Buffy rehearsed her threatening speech as they gained on the Volvo.

“I’m looking forward to smacking them around a little – they made me promise to do an unknown favor for a really untrustworthy type. They’re going to leave here crying like little girl demons.”

At times like this, it was good to be the Slayer.

“Leave?” Xander sounded confused, and irritated. “You can’t just let it go like that. Demons will start getting ideas. Who knows which one of us they’ll kidnap next to control you.”

“Yeah, but -“

“KITTE, can you get a read on the tires?” Xander interrupted.

“I have tone and lock.”

“Fire phasers, Mr. Chekhov,” Xander ordered, confusingly.

Bolts of light shot out from the front of the car, striking the Volvo’s tires with pinpoint precision. The tires swelled and exploded, sending melting rubber all over the road and making the car leap up and then thump down with a resounding crash, the inhuman forms inside shaking like dry beans in an empty saucepan.

“Xander!” Buffy yelled in shock.

“Stay here, I’ll take care of them.” Xander was halfway out the door while Buffy scrabbled at the door handle on her side. “KITTE, keep her here.”

To Buffy’s open-mouthed shock, metallic bands shot out from the seat, pinning her in place across her chest, thighs, calves, shoulders, arms, and neck. Slayer strength was a joke in comparison. While Xander removed an object from the trunk, all she could do was wiggle in place like some silent movie ingenue tied to the railroad tracks. Although silent movie ingenues didn’t usually use the kind of language Buffy was.

Even as she swore and carried on, Buffy watched Xander take his burden over to the Volvo. She couldn’t hear a thing save the humming of the car and the occasional beep from the dashboard. That and her pulse pounding hard enough to blow the top off her skull. When this was over, she was going to rip Xander a new one, human or not. Over at the other car, there was some kind of confrontation where all the demons stuck their heads out of the windows and yammered at Xander. Xander postured back. The thing he’d gotten out of the trunk was a two liter bottle of liquid, which he proceeded to splash all over the car and onto the demons. He cast the bottle aside and stepped back, dropping something onto the hood of the Volvo.

Flames raced along the lines of liquid – gasoline — and climbed up the demons like angry, flaming, little monkeys. Demon mouths opened and silent screams burst out. In the car, Buffy’s scream had actual sound.

The demons were burning like marshmallows dumped in the grill. Melting, burning, slapping at themselves with their clawed hands, lashing their tails, writhing in agony as the flames tore over them. The purple one, the one who’d knocked on Buffy’s front door, managed to get his door open, fell out of the car and stumbled over to the passenger side of the shiny black car. It scrabbled against the glass and all Buffy could do was watch it burn like melting plastic. After a moment, it collapsed and fell out of view. Shaking with horror and rage, Buffy shut her eyes and sucked deep, burning breaths into her lungs until the driver’s door popped open and she heard Xander settle his weight into the seat.

“Well Buff, that’s three things off your To Do list,” he said in an appallingly normal happy Xander voice.

It was too much for her to process: fingerless Spike, promises to a demon doctor, a possessed high-tech car, giant spiders, and Xander’s sudden transformation into the Xandernator.

“Buffy?”

“Let me out of this fucking car,” she demanded.

“Buffy, you’re the Slayer. Demons are evil. Demons have to die.”

“*Those* demons were stupid. I was just going to smack them around and send them out of town with a warning!” she yelled in the upholstered confines of the car. “Now let me out of this car!”

“KITTE, let her go.”

With clicks and hissing, the bands that had held Buffy to her seat retracted, and the passenger door opened.

“You’re miles outside town.”

“I’ll walk!” Buffy snapped and slammed the car door shut, barely missing the crisp black-and-purple corpse inches from her feet.

“You can’t lose sight of your mission, Buffy!” Xander called from the rolled-down window.

“My mission, not yours! Find your own fucking mission and keep away from mine!”

Turning her back on the car, Buffy stomped over to the burning wreckage of the Volvo. The other two demons were curled up in the front seat, dead as disco. Okay, yeah, Spikenapping and relieving him of a finger was uncool, but crispy critter wasn’t the payback she had intended. Vampires she preferred to dust and demons – it was just better to kill them as quickly and as painlessly as possible. These demons had died a horrible, painful death. And it was her fault. She never should have told Xander how to find them, but how was she to know that he’d turned all Freddy Krueger?

“I’m sorry,” she said to the burned remains. “This wasn’t how it was supposed to work out.”

A light in the corner of her eye made Buffy turn to see the twin headlights of something big and SUV-like bearing down on her. Just what she needed, a run-in with something else big, scary, and supernatural, or worse, a Good Samaritan to whom she was going to have to lie about the demons. But the vehicle slowed and stopped a few feet away from the ruined Volvo. The door opened and a figure climbed out, but Buffy couldn’t see any features through the glare of the headlights.

“Buffy?” a familiar voice asked and Buffy could see the flare of light on glasses lenses.

“Rick?”

“Deus ex machina, sweetie. What’s going on? Did you have an accident?”

Crunching on the roadside gravel, Buffy made her way over to Rick. As usual, the other woman gave off the sweet smell of warmth and baking.

“I am having the worst night,” Buffy admitted, feeling her knees turn into something like wet string.

Rick caught her by the elbows before she fell to the ground. It was too much. All the events of the past few days raised up in a big tidal wave of awfulness that swept Buffy into the deep wet reaches of despair.

“Spike’s hurt because of me and it’s all my fault. I’ve been mean to him and I shouldn’t have been. What if he’d been killed? What if the last thing I remember is having a fight with him and he ends up dead-er?” Buffy moaned.

“Deader?” Rick echoed.

“Spike’s a vampire. A really old one too, he’s almost two hundred, which is practically middle aged for a vampire.”

“Vampire?” Rick looked over at Buffy with naked shock. “You’re a Slayer and your boyfriend is a vampire? Can we say ‘conflict of interest’?”

“Spike has a soul. And he’s not my boyfriend, not in an official capacity, anyway.” Taking a deep breath, Buffy tried to stop her voice from shaking. “I mean, vampires with souls are like totally impossible, and somehow I’ve ended up dating two of them. Well, dating one, Angel. But I’m not dating Spike.”

“You’re just having sex with him,” Rick finished the thought.

“I’m a huge slut,” Buffy sighed. “It’s been over a year, even with the break up when he had drunk sex with Anya and then tried to rape me.”

Rick leaned back onto her heels and studied Buffy for a long moment.

“Do you have any idea how weird all that sounds? Maybe you should tell me everything while I drive you home.”

Rubbing her nose, Buffy nodded and stood up.

“Yeah, it must be kind of freaky out of context.”

“’Out of context’?”

In the van, Buffy gave Rick the story so far, beginning with Spike’s appearance at the Bronze to threaten to kill her, through the whole Alcathla thing, the Initiative, Spike’s souling, their adventure in Egypt, the return of Angel, Buffy’s death and resurrection, their ill-fated relationship substitute, the break up, the Sex With Anya thing, The Bad Bathroom Incident, Spike’s return from Las Vegas, and how she was “sort of” seeing him again.

“So was he trying to rape you in the bathroom or not?” Rick asked at a stoplight. “Because I’m concerned girl about that.”

Buffy sighed and chewed on her lower lip. “He says he kind of lost it, which I totally get, but I’m just worried that he’s going to think no means yes all the time. Because we do get kind of *extreme* sometimes.”

“Do you do the whole bondage scene with whips, leather, and a safe word or what?”

“Huh?” Buffy choked.

“Well, I assumed that’s what you were talking about. If you don’t want to tell me, that’s cool, but I’d hate to see you do anything that might permanently hurt either of you two.”

The blocks flashed by and Buffy stared at the houses, thinking.

“No leather, well other than his coat, and no whips, and no safe word so I guess we’re okay.”

“No safe word? Honey, you have to use a safe word, even if you’re freaking out and not in bad pain.” Rick peered at Buffy in the darkness of the van. “You don’t even know what a safe word is, do you?”

“I must have skipped Bondage Awareness Class.”

“A safe word is just an agreed-on word or phrase that both partners know beforehand. You can have safe words like ‘noodles’, which means ‘give me a minute’ or ‘spaghetti’ which is ‘stop everything and let me loose.’ You have to talk about it beforehand. Communication is key.”

Communication, something that Buffy knew she wasn’t very good at. She spent so many years trying to hide her Slayerness, how she felt about it, how much it hurt to have to stick a stake into a classmate’s chest. Now she hid her feelings so well that she couldn’t even find them.

“Does it have to be a food word?”

“No, but you know me. Food is life. Sit down with your vampire and establish a safe word. Better safe than sorry, and then you can play all you want! But color me jealous, if I had your endurance and an equally enduring vampire lover I’d never get out of bed.”

“There was this one weekend when Dawn was at Dad’s in LA, I *swear* we never got out of the bedroom, except for the kitchen and – “ she cut herself off. “TMI, sorry. But I had to get Xander to fix the countertop after that and the table’s still wobbly.”

“Kitchen sex.” Rick nodded and parked in front of the house on Revello Drive. “Like Martha says – ‘it’s a good thing.’”

***

“Ashley’s gone. She left detailed care instructions for Spike and a bunch of drugs that aren’t listed on the FDA Approved List,” Willow announced as Buffy and Rick entered.

“How’s Spike doing?”

“He’s still warm to the touch, but Ashley said that should wear off. His body’s fighting the poison in the same way that a living human would fight off an infection.” Willow darted a glance over at Rick, then obviously remembered that Rick had been through the Ms. Burdock experience. “Hey, do you know much about vampire physiology?” Willow was never one to ignore a possible new source of knowledge.

Willow took a deep breath. “I’ve been quizzing Ashley and I’ve learned a lot from her. Just in case, you know? Vampire physiology has some interesting variations on human physiology, what with the organs not working and the liquid diet. He would have needed microsurgery to reattach the finger if he’d been human, but vampire blood vessels will actually seek each other out and join up again. Ditto with the nerves, so she really only did the bones and muscles. And, this is the really cool part, if he hadn’t had the finger reattached, it would have grown back in about a decade.”

“Pretty handy,” Rick said with a crooked grin.

Normally, Buffy might have been able to manage a wan smile from the punnage, but her face still felt stiff from crying and all she could do was shrug. “I guess Dawn’s in bed. Dawn better be in bed.”

“I’ll have a word with the boss and make sure she gets tomorrow off.” Rick looked over her shoulder at the door. “I’ve got some goodies in the van. What do you say we have a snack before anything else happens.”

Taking the hint, Willow scurried out the door and headed for the van parked out in front of the house.

“Let’s go see how your vampire’s doing,” Rick suggested.

Head buzzing with the weirdness of it, Buffy headed upstairs and had to remind herself to go into what she still thought of as being her mother’s room.

“How did you know that I was out there tonight? That I needed help?” Buffy asked.

“Felt a stirring in the force. I like it better when the stirrings don’t happen when I’m trying to get some action. But you do what you have to do.”

Buffy pulled the door to her room open and stopped when Rick let out a sharp breath.

“What?” Buffy demanded.

“Could have worse looking things in your bed.”

Sure enough, Spike was looking a better shade of dead, or at least a brighter shade of pale. His now-bandaged right hand lay on the old gray comforter, and Buffy could see that the heaviest of the bandages were around his right forefinger. The forefinger was back where it should have been, the tip poking shyly out from the bandages, looking a little more pink than normal without the black nailpolish. His chest was moving under the covers, up and down just as though he was alive.

Buffy’s knees did the wet string thing again and she sat down hard on the side of the bed, jouncing Spike slightly, but he didn’t move further. Rick held onto the white iron footboard and looked down at her.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

Taking a deep breath, Buffy put her shaking hands to her face and peered at Spike through her fingers.

“Coming back here tonight, part of me was afraid that he’d be gone. Dead forever. I didn’t like being afraid, and I didn’t like the way the thought of not having him around made me feel.”

“Going back to the my boyfriend loves me and I don’t know if I love him back conversation we had this morning?” Rick asked.

“It seems about a million years ago, but yeah,” Buffy muttered and reached out to brush some untidily curling hair from his forehead. “I loved my father and he left. I loved Angel and I had to kill him. Then he came back and left me. I loved Riley and he left. I loved my mom and she died. I loved Giles, in a father and not sexy way, and he left. And Xander’s gone all Rambo, and he’s one of my best friends. If I let myself fall in love with Spike, he’s just going to end up hurting me too.”

“Unfortunately, every time you love somebody it opens you up to be hurt. Which is why there are so many Country and Western songs. But love is worth the hurt, otherwise there wouldn’t be any love around at all.” Rick perched on the bed next to Buffy and took her hands, eyes intense behind her glasses.

Buffy could feel the subtle creep of some kind of power in the room.

“You have my permission to have fun again. If playing hide the stake with the vampire makes you happy, I say go for it.”

Nose running, Buffy sniffed and snatched her hand away to wipe at her leaking eyes with the back of her hand. She was tearing up and had to get that under control because Slayers Did Not Cry. Her choked sniff turned into a giggle. “Big happies from Spike.”

Rick grinned and ruffled Buffy’s hair. “Get some rest,” Rick advised, ”You have some spiders to deal with, right?”

“Ugh, spiders, I hate spiders.” Buffy muttered.

Rick laughed and gave Buffy a quick squeeze.

“You’re going to be fine. I’ll let myself out. Don’t come to work tomorrow if you’re too tired.”

As Rick left the room, Buffy realized that she totally had the coolest boss in the world.

~~~~

Spike smelled incense, paint, and underneath that – Buffy? Confused, he tried to open his eyes, gummed shut in a way he associated with heavy bleeding on his part. He could also smell the dried blood that covered his skin.

He pushed himself upright on shaky arms and then wiped at his eyes until they opened. He was in Buffy’s bed and the Slayer herself seemed to be glued to his left side. Cuddly Slayer was an infrequent treat and he took a moment to savor the sight of her childlike, sleeping face and the soft snorting noise she made as she slept.

Actually, he felt pretty good, considering what had happened. The events of the abduction and torture were a little blurred by pain and what had to be some really good drugs, but he was pretty sure that he’d -

Frightened, he pulled his right hand up to where he could see it and found his hand was well mummified in gauze and tape. But the proper number of fingertips protruded above the wrapping and the fear broke away. The bastards had cut off his finger and somehow it was stuck back on again. He flexed his hand and felt the pain all across the fingers and bones, especially in the vicinity of his right forefinger. Pain was good; pain meant that it still had some feeling in it. Just to make sure, he rubbed his fingertip across the surface of the bedsheets. The cotton felt like sandpaper, but it was better than not having the fine feeling at all.

Well, that was an improvement, Spike realized, even though he was pretty damn sure that he ought to be grateful to the Slayer. Damnit, he’d been on the verge of driving away from Sunnydale and then she had to go and put him in her debt. So much for a clean break, finger or otherwise.

Feeling about a thousand years old, Spike looked around. The sunlight oozing around the edges of the shades suggested late morning. Oddly enough, Buffy’s rubbish tip of a bedroom had been straightened into an almost acceptable level of neatness. Probably by Willow, bless her tidy heart.

At the other side of the bed, Buffy stirred and slowly sat up. She blinked sleep from her eyes and pushed at the tousled mass of her hair. A tasty morsel, she was.

“Upright Spike, this is of the good. How do you feel?” she asked and ruined her concerned expression by yawning.

“Not unwell, considering.”

Buffy flopped bonelessly into the pillow next to him and stared blankly up at the ceiling overhead for a moment.

“I had the weirdest dream,” she said.

“Was I in it? Was it dirty?”

This earned him an eye roll. “No, it wasn’t dirty. Can’t remember most of it. It was something about being at the Mall and vampires taking over the shoe department at Macy’s. *That* practically makes it a nightmare.”

Rolling over, she pressed her forehead into his shoulder.

“Don’t scare me like that again, being deader than usual,” she said and picked at the edge of the tape of his chest bandage.

Confused, Spike stared down at the curve of her cheek and wondered if she’d been sharing his painkillers. Buffy seemed so – light as if the morning sun’s glow was filling her inside as well as making her skin glimmer. A fucking enormous change from how they’d last parted. Obviously, something had bewitched Buffy into being not bitchy just so he could have his heart and his pride broken into a million shards again.

“You were worried about me? That implies a certain level of affection.”

“I try not to be naked in bed with guys I hate,” Buffy returned with a mischievous flick of her hair, “As a general rule. But for you, I make exceptions.”

All right, Cuddly Slayer was also Cracking Wise Slayer.

“I’m special.”

“Special Ed. God, I need coffee, you want coffee?” she bounced upright in her appallingly perky morning person way and Spike’s initial revulsion at this energy was tempered by the enticing bob of her breasts as she moved.

“Wouldn’t say no to a hot cuppa A positive.”

Ambling naked over to a pile of clothes, Buffy’s skin shone in the light filtered through the curtains. Rummaging done, Buffy wiggled into an unlikely pink Power Puff Girls sweatshirt and some black leggings.

“With my newly acquired barista-type skills, I could put some steamed milk foam on top of that blood for you,” Buffy pulled her hair out of the neck of her sweatshirt and paused, making a face. “Does that sound as gross to you as it does to me?”

“I’ve heard better suggestions.”

“No on the steamed milk.”

He watched her ass as she left the room. Spike flexed muscles, wiggled toes, and checked himself over for damage. Other than the finger and a couple of choice gouges on his torso, the corpus was still intact. The stupid wankers had gone and cut off his right forefinger, not knowing that William the Bloody was a lefty. The thought was almost funny.

He was going to have a good time killing those bastard demons when he found them.

A little bit later, Buffy returned, bearing a tray. She settled it down on the bedside table and handed him a piping hot cup of blood that smelled like heaven. After several restorative sips, Spike put the cup down on the other table and let her hand him a muffin. Banana by the look of it, and slightly lopsided besides.

“I brought goodies home last night,” Buffy said. “The banana nut muffins are my very guilty pleasure. They’re loaded with butter and have about a zillion fat calories in them.”

“An’ here I thought I was your guilty pleasure,” he said and took a bite of the muffin.

“Oh no, you are beyond guilt,” she said and the side of her mouth turned up in an almost-smile. “Guilt just gives up, goes ‘ee ee ee’ and runs away.”

“What exactly happened? After I was knocked out at th’ crypt it gets a bit vague. And I’m confused with the reattachment. You do that yourself or did you call in a vet?”

“Summary as follows,” she said and sat down on side of the bed. “A few demons knocked on the door and gave me a present, which was your finger in a box. Maximum Buffy freakage. I threatened them with Painful Death unless you were returned. Half an hour later we found you on the front lawn, covered with blood and half dead with a Brillcream demon bite. Willow tracked down a demon doctor who stuck your finger back on.”

Spike had to drink more blood to clear the surprised ball of muffin from his throat.

“Stuck it back?” he echoed.

“There was a power drill involved. I think she put a screw in your finger bone. Then stitchage.”

Spike looked at the bandaged mass of his hand and his ass clenched at the thought of a threaded screw breaking into his bones. He reminded himself that it would have been good fun if it had happened to someone else.

“Power drill has a serious ‘ew’ factor,” Buffy admitted with a crunching of her face. “Ashley left some more pills. Do you need more for the pain?”

Spike wasn’t one to turn down drugs if offered, so he swallowed the three pills Buffy handed him and settled back into the softness of the bed for them to take effect. His hand was throbbing, an annoying reminder of the pulse that he once had, and made him wonder why his nerves should be beating to the rhythm of a heart that no longer worked.

Muffin and blood finished, Spike leaned back in the pillows and watched Buffy drink. She had the little wrinkle between her eyebrows that indicated that she’d been thinking. Buffy thinking usually didn’t bode well in Spike’s experience.

“We need to talk.”

Dead or undead, Spike was still a man and this phrase made his testicles want to crawl back inside his body.

“Captive audience,” he said, figuring that it was better to get it over with.

Spike was afraid to move, afraid to think too much lest Non-Cow Buffy vanish into smoke like Euridice.

“I have been a total bitch lately. I’ve been rotten to my friends, mean to Dawn, and especially nasty to you. And I’m sorry,” she looked up at him from under her eyelashes, which she probably didn’t realize was as devastating as a nuclear attack.

At least he hoped she didn’t. Otherwise, she was playing him like a cheap piano.

“All right,” he agreed.

She frowned down at her coffee cup as though there were cue cards floating within.

“You want me to tell you that I love you and I don’t know if I can do that,” she said with stress fractures around every word. “It seems like every time I say ‘I love you’ it’s like waving a magic wand and making the other person go poof! But seeing you hurt last night, being afraid that you were going to die – die for real – I was upset. I didn’t want that to happen.”

She took a deep breath and Spike had a bad feeling, like an imp gnawing at his stomach. He waited for Buffy to continue.

“I can’t do this anymore.”

The imp climbed up into his windpipe. “What do you mean?” he asked, proud that there was only the tiniest of tremors in his voice, barely a Richter one.

Buffy looked away, smoothing her hair against her skull. “I want you, God, I want you so much it nearly kills me sometimes. But we can’t keep having this fight and I’m not going to say what you want me to say. Feel what you want me to feel. If you want us to be – together – then you’ve got to accept that.”

“An’ if I don’t agree?”

“Then you should go. But I want you to stay. I like having you around.”

Give up trying to get Buffy to love him or admit she loved him, or give up Buffy. It wasn’t a choice worthy of a Mensa member, and she damn well knew it. Spike bowed his head in defeat. She didn’t want to fight, but it felt like he was the one suing for peace.

“One thing, Slayer.”

She was looking at him again, her face untroubled. He remembered why he used to hate her so much. “If you fall in love with someone else, I’ll kill him.”

She smiled a little at that.

“I do like having you around. When you’re not being a complete pain in the ass,” she amended.

“Me?”

“There are nuisance demons who are less annoying than you. And I mean that in a Spike the guy way not a Spike the vampire way. I guess we have to start with the whole trust and honesty thing. You be trustworthy with me and I’ll be honest with you.”

“Can only try to be trustworthy, pet.” Spike said with a shrug that hurt. “Been a vampire for something like a hundred and twenty odd years. Hard to break old habits. But I’ll try – for you.”

Buffy frowned. There were demons swimming around behind her eyes, dark and shadowy creatures. It was almost reassuring that they were still there; otherwise he’d have begun to look around for the pod.

But she shut her eyes over them and leaned over to kiss him. This wasn’t a surprise, as Buffy’s actions were far more eloquent than her words. Her words, frankly, were far from eloquent. What was mildly surprising was the soft delicacy of her mouth against his, as gentle and as tremulous as a little girl’s. Her fingers were running through his hair, nails gently scoring his scalp, her breath warming the side of his face, her eyelashes flicking his skin.

So sweet, like candy.

When she finally pulled away from him, it was like pulling a sticking plaster off a wound. “Are you feeling –?”

“Up for this?” He smirked. “See for yourself.”

This time, Buffy’s frown was indulgent and not at all worrisome.

“Is that all you ever think about?” she asked waving a hand at the tent pole his hardened cock had formed under the sheets.

“Nah, sometimes I’m hungry.”

There was something inherently sweet somewhere down at the bottom of Buffy’s nature, Spike acknowledged, when she wasn’t being an utter cow. But sweet she was when she bent down and kissed him again, little melting kisses with her mouth full of everything that she couldn’t say. Her fingers gently skating over the planes of his face as though he were made of something far more delicate than dead flesh and bone. Her burning mouth passed over his cheekbones, the split in his eyebrow, down the side of his nose to nuzzle underneath his left ear, filling his head with the sound of her hitching breaths.

The pills were starting to work, dulling the throbbing in his hand and slowing down the world into something languid and liquid, like drowning in warm honey.

So soft and delicate, she flowed over him, her clothes scattered all over the floor and the counterpane, her skin warming his, her touches pulling groans from pleasure and winces from pain. Her mouth investigated his collarbones, the notch between, the undersides of his arms, the border between the gauze wrapped on his hand and the skin itself. All he could do was lie back and admire the cracks in the ceiling and let her have her way with him. Spike wasn’t stupid. He knew that she enjoyed having him helpless or at least the illusion of it, and he wasn’t about to queer the pitch.

She moved down his prone body, over each bruise and scrape, soothing them with her warm mouth and tongue, her hair drenching his skin behind her mouth. Stretching and sighing under her touch, he felt like a cat on a sunny windowsill, lulled by light and warmth, intoxicated with it. It might have been the drugs, or it might have been Buffy’s mouth closing over the upright attentiveness of his cock. He tried to breathe, some old part of his brain kicking in, and couldn’t. The air was too thick and too warm, like a tongue over his whole body. She was sucking him off in a leisurely fashion, and all he could do was lie there utterly boneless and let her have her way with him.

When he finally burst into her hot mouth, he melted like butter on a hot griddle, hoping she wouldn’t be too disappointed if he fell asleep without returning the favor.

“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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