Dirty Back Road

Dirty Back Road

By The Deadly Hook

Rating: NC-17
Pairing: B/S
Summary: Buffy POV, alternately fluffy and angsty, sort of a combination of a road trip fic and bedroom farce, with Buffy and Spike traveling to Bakersfield to visit a demon for Anya. It's set during Season 6, between "Gone" and "Doublemeat Palace."
Disclaimer: This universe not mine. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and characters property of Mutant Enemy, 20th Century Fox, etc. No profit being made here, just the love.

***

Part One

"So, are you interested?"

Buffy just blinked. Anya was smiling cheerily, expectant look on her face, as if she'd made a terrific announcement and was just waiting for congratulations.

They were in the Magic Box. Of course, because where else would she be if she wasn't at home? She'd come to the store with half an idea about talking to Xander, no real thought about what she wanted to say… but then had remembered that duh, it was daytime, and like normal people he had a job. So here she was, talking to Anya. Who was offering her some kind of job.

Buffy sighed. "You want me to go talk to this Ken demon thingy?"

"Kendrun demon. He's one of my Magic Box suppliers. Or more specifically, he's the boss of a consortium of magical product purveyors. You know, rare items—sorcerers' stones, eyes of Agamotto, mummy hands—high end stuff."

"Uh-huh. And you need me to deliver—"

"This." Anya whipped out an object from behind the counter, plopped it into her hand. It was a red cotton lunch bag, decorated with dancing Snoopys. Surprisingly heavy.

"It's my quarterly tribute from the Magic Box."

"Tribute," Buffy echoed.

"Kendrun demons are very hierarchical. All business associations have to be very carefully prioritized based on personal associations and financial gain. Like the Sopranos."

Buffy took a breath, held it. Counted to ten. "You want me to play messenger to a mob boss?" she managed, finally.

"He's not a mob boss. Just a demon with a profitable enterprise. It's a very respectable organization."

Buffy snorted.

"It's true. Kendrun's organization is the contact to have for any real purveyor of mystic arts. I can get the bulk of my inventory from human businesses—the usual crystals, candles, tarot cards, tantric sex guides—but for anything with real power you have to speak to the Kendruns. They even hold tradeshows."

"Tradeshows," Buffy repeated. "For demons."

"For those interested in the latest magical products—witches, warlocks, independent suppliers. Traditionally, they meet in Vegas." She let out a wistful sigh. "I've never attended myself. But from what I hear they have some wild weekends. All that magic flying around, horny conventioneers… things can get kinda crazy."

"Right." Buffy shook her head, handed the bag back to Anya. "Not my style."

"Oh, the delivery won't be anything like that. Their home office is in Bakersfield. Lower rent and more convenient shipping."

"Right, fine. Look, it's nice of you to offer, but—" she sighed. "Why did you offer this to me anyway? I mean, I wasn't exactly the best Magic Box employee—"

"Oh, that." Anya waved a manicured hand. "Xander said we should be looking for more ways to include you in things. To distract you from thinking about heaven. Plus with your poor financial situation, you could probably use the extra money. So I thought, hey, here's a pathetically simple job that fills both bills." She smiled brightly.

"That's—" Buffy's face froze in an imitation of a smile, and she struggled around an intense urge to grab Anya by the neck and start choking. "—very considerate of you. Only… it's not like I could even get to Bakersfield if I wanted to, because while I was busy pushing up daisies my friends sold my mother's car."

"Oh, you could ask Spike to drive you." Anya offered another sunny expression. "After all, I typically would have offered him this job. But since he loves you and would do anything for you he probably won't even complain about the loss of petty income."

Buffy kept the smile frozen on her face. "No, thanks."

Anya shrugged. "Okay. Well, then can you ask him to do it for me?" She held out the bag.

Buffy made no move to take it. "I'm… kinda busy right now," she faked, then halted, somehow managing to hide her internal wince. Oh, good one, Buffy. Not like you didn't just show up ten minutes ago saying you had nothing to do. She took a breath and regrouped. "I mean, can't you ask him? I wasn't planning on… seeing him anytime soon."

"Oh, he never comes around here anymore. And you see him all the time on patrol. Which you do every night." Anya leaned forward further, waved the Snoopy bag.

"Look, Anya—"

"He's done it for me before, so you won't even have to explain anything. Just give him this and tell him I need him to go to Bakersfield. I'd do it myself but that would involve going to the cemetery, possibly after dark and with dangerous encounters with newly risen vampires, and Xander will be expecting me home ordering takeout pizza." She gave the bag another meaningful wiggle.

Buffy sighed and took it.

Anya beamed. "Thank you! I knew I could count on you. And to show my appreciation, I'll even deduct part of Spike's profits for you to compensate for making this delivery."

"That's… uh, thanks." She turned to go.

"Be sure to let him know the usual bonus system applies!" Anya called as the Magic Box door closed with a jingle.

.........

Bag in hand, Buffy trudged through the cemetery. It's just a job. Some dumb job to go see some dumb demon mob boss in dumb Bakersfield. Nothing to do with me. She kicked at a drift of leaves, eyes squinted against the fading sunlight.

"I do not see him all the time," she grumbled to herself. "Don't know where she gets that idea."

She actually hadn't seen Spike for awhile. It'd been even longer since he'd seen her—well, unless he'd been doing his stalking thing again more stealthily than she was used to. The last time they'd been… together, she'd been invisible. And then he'd gotten all snitty at her and thrown her out.

Which, hello, so not the way to win her over. She'd been avoiding him ever since.

And what had he expected, anyway? He'd been so smug and stupid with his whole brag about "you're gonna crave me" …well, she hadn't exactly come crawling to him on her hands and knees, but she had come to him, right? You'd think that would have been flattering enough for him, made him happy.

Well, she'd been happy. For a couple of hours or so. Being invisible had made her feel so relaxed and giddy and free that they'd had… fun. Good, sweaty—okay, she was the only one who sweated—sexy fun. Not like there was a law against that, especially for the recently risen from the dead—she had a right to a little enjoyment in her life, didn't she? The universe was cruel, but it couldn't be that cruel. Could it?

But no, he had to ruin it. With his big mouth, as usual. Okay, true, if she hadn't left there and gotten Xander's phone message she would have dissolved into a puddle of goo, which would have solved some of her problems, but the original point still stood. He'd been a jerk to her. A big stinky fangy jerk.

Just give him the bag and go, she told herself firmly. Don't hang around. Not like anything good will come of it.

He was inside his crypt when she got there. Of course. Where else would he be during the daylight hours but slouched in his chair in front of the TV, chin on his chest? The whole beer-swilling bachelor thing really wasn't a turn-on for her, not even slightly… although he did get a few extra points for fixing up his place kinda nice. For a tomb, anyway.

She stomped down the entranceway stairs to him, and he looked up at her in amusement. Leaned forward and flicked off the TV to give her his full attention. She shifted uncomfortably, feeling pinned, as always, under his stare.

"To what do I owe your visit this time, Slayer? Sister go missing again?"

"What? No—Dawn's fine." She frowned, really not liking the tone of his voice. She reminded herself she was here on business. Business. That's all.

She squared her shoulders and held out the bag. "This is for you."

His eyes drifted from her face to her outstretched hand. "What's this then?" he chuckled, extending one finger to touch the rough cotton. "Didn't know I rated presents, Slayer."

"You don't." She drew her hand back, irritated. "It's from Anya. She wants you to deliver it to some demon in Bakersfield."

"What, Kenny? That time again, is it?" He took the bag from her, weighed it in his hand. "Little heavier this time. Demon girl must've pulled in some favors in the last few months."

Buffy slid her hands into her coat pockets. "Guess you've done this before then."

"Couple of times. Demon girl needs a go-between from time to time, someone who can chat up the right element. Her being all humanity-impaired and all." He looked at her as if to gauge her reaction; she just stared back.

He shrugged then, and continued. "It's nothing special—just a ride out to the boonies, make nice with some demons, shoot a little pool, ride back." He balanced the bag on his knee, looked at her sideways. "Might as well. Could do with a quick trip out of town, few extra quid to spend. Not like there's much keeping me busy around here."

She sighed. "Don't start." Not my job to keep you entertained, Spike.

"Not starting anything. Just saying there's less than usual to do around here, is all. And how'd you end up playing messenger anyway?"

Buffy shrugged. "Well, to be honest, Anya offered the job to me. But not like I have a car, so—"

"I could take you," he said quickly.

She rolled her eyes.

"Could be a change of scenery's just what you need. A new place, some new demons. Be good for a laugh." He was looking at her seriously now.

"Yeah, right," she scoffed, ignored the way her heart gave a little skip in her chest. "Because it's such a good idea to leave the Hellmouth all footloose and Slayer free."

"Oh, but you'd do it if you had your own car?"

"I didn't say that. Anyway, she gave the job to you, so—"

"So? We'll go together. C'mon, Buffy. You know you want to. You're bored off your nut right now, anyone can see it. Not like anything's keeping you here. Let it go for one night."

"Nothing keeping me here? Other than the Hellmouth? A-and Dawn, and—"

"Your friends can watch her."

She blew out an irritated sigh. Right, my friends. The ones who aren't recovering addicts or obsessed with wedding plans? Yeah, those friends. "Forget it, Spike. Just… forget it. Not gonna happen."

He blew out a sigh to match hers. "Fine then. Suit yourself." He produced a cigarette, positioned it in his mouth. "Guess it'll just be me hitting the open road all on my lonesome for—"

"Don't," she heard herself saying.

Cigarette hanging on his lip, lighter in hand, he looked at her. "Don't what?"

She crinkled her nose. "Don't smoke."

A slow smile formed. "Getting worried about me, luv? Don't know how to break it to you, but I'm not gonna get cancer."

"Of course not! It's just… disgusting, that's all." Plus it makes your mouth taste like ashes, not like I'm thinking about having anything else to do with your mouth again, ever, and why am I even thinking this?

Grinning, Spike flicked his lighter closed, plucked the cigarette out of his mouth and tossed it aside. "You don't have to do anything, luv. In fact, you've made your little delivery," he said, folding his arms over his chest. "Why are you still here?"

"Don't get any ideas." She shifted her feet, avoided looking at the nicely defined muscles in his arms. Showoff. "I just haven't gotten around to leaving yet. I mean, hello, we've been talking."

"Um-hm. Thought you were all about staying away from me these days."

She blew out a puff of air. "Get over yourself, Spike. I'm not avoiding you. I'm not anything you. It's just that… Anya tried to give the job to me, and—"

Then he was on his feet, walking toward her as she took a startled step back, and he had that look on his face. The one that went right to her stomach.

"Went over that already," he murmured. "And yet you're still here."

Buffy dropped her eyes. He was closer now, his T-shirt-clad chest filling her field of vision. They'd be touching if she moved even just the tiniest bit. Her hands twitched.

"You sure there's nothing else that you… want?" he said, his voice silky. A trickle of heat ran through her, even as a part of her cringed. She tried to hold onto that part.

"Not a thing," she said, feeling pleased with the calmness of her voice.

"Yeah?" he whispered. And then he leaned in to kiss her.

Buffy didn't move. Their bodies were less than a hand's width apart, but she stayed still, kept her arms at her sides. He wasn't touching her yet, but she knew exactly what it would feel like when he did. What his mouth would feel like on hers, hungry and open.

She closed her eyes.

And he stepped away from her.

Buffy blinked in surprise. Suddenly, Spike was all the way across the room. It was like something out of one of those time-lapse documentaries, or that distorto clock-spinny-thingy that had happened to her on campus.

She watched him moving around the crypt, her mouth hanging open. Only a heartbeat ago, he'd been standing right next to her, his lips hovering over hers. Now he was stuffing things into a scuffed backpack. A mason jar of blood from his fridge. Some random weapons. A paperback book. Ignoring her as if she wasn't even there. It left a confused feeling in her gut that did not in any way resemble panic.

"How long will you be gone?" she heard herself ask in a tiny voice. God, I sound pathetic.

"Day or two maybe." He shrugged. "Won't really know until I get there, check out the lay of the land."

"Fine," she grated. "Have a nice trip."

He heaved the backpack to his shoulder and paused again. "We can get there and back in one night, you know. Have a little adventure. Be home before daybreak. No harm done." His eyes searched hers.

She opened her mouth to once again tell him no, but before she could speak… she began to think about it.

A night not here. She bit her lip, considered. It was business after all, she reasoned. Just business. Slayer business. With demons, and… well, it wasn't real responsible of her to just send Spike out of town on some errand without checking things out, was it? Her heart beat a tattoo, nervous and somehow giddy.

Why not?

She lifted her chin. "You're sure we can get there and back in one night?"

"Cross my heart."

"And hope to die?" she guffawed. "Nice try, Spike."

"Didn't say that, did I?" A real smile now, one that lit up his whole face. "Need to check in at home? I can come by in a few minutes, pick you up." He pulled on his coat.

"Yeah, I—" She hesitated, suddenly unsure what she'd just agreed to.

He nodded. "Right then. See you in a few."

Dazed, Buffy turned then and walked out the crypt. And wondered if coming back from the dead had driven her insane.

Part Two

That feeling, of having lost her mind, only grew stronger on the way home. What had she been thinking, to agree to go with Spike on some out-of-town trip? This was another one of his ploys to get her alone, no doubt about it… and she'd walked right into it. Crazy, she must have been crazy.

Then again, if she was crazy, who could blame her? Considering what she'd been through lately—dancing demons and bank robbers and memory spells and invisi-rays and frost demons… yeah, her life was just one big picnic.

She really needed a vacation.

Dawn and Willow had their best and brightest shiny faces on when she arrived home—the moment she walked in, it was one big smile fest. Lots of cheerful chatter meant to make Buffy happy, drown out what nobody was talking about.

Sorry we pulled you out of heaven.

Buffy kept her own smile pasted to her face. Was she ever going to stop feeling like this, her mood plummeting without warning, chest crushing in despair in the presence of her sister and friends? And she'd thought—for awhile, anyway—that she'd been getting better.

Can't we all just forget it and—oh, wait. Tried that.

So she told them about the trip. Of course they'd hate it—seriously, it was a bad idea anyway, she'd realized that much on the walk home.

Only, surprise, they all agreed it was a great idea. Sure, an out of town getaway would be good for her, a change of pace. No, no problem with Willow looking after Dawn. Have a totally swell time. No big deal. Even the news that she was going with Spike didn't even raise an eyebrow. Like Anya said, they patrolled together all the time. Who'd ever think there was anything more?

Well, not like there was more, not now. And she'd long since lost her nerve to talk to Willow about… what there had been.

Feeling almost disappointed, Buffy wandered upstairs to gather a few things, then drifted ghostlike down the stairs with her bag, said her goodbyes. It was just a little after sundown when she sat down on the front porch stairs to wait. She could hear Dawn and Willow moving around inside the house, right where she'd been just a minute ago, watching TV, talking and laughing.

They might as well have been thousands of miles away. The front porch felt as remote as the moon.

She was staring blankly out into the darkness of the street when Spike pulled up on his motorcycle some ten or fifteen minutes later. He made a big show of pulling into the driveway, all roaring noise, then cut the engine and sat there, arms draped over the handlebars, like something out of a black-and-white movie. Her mother had liked those kinds of movies. Rebel without a clue, she thought distantly.

"Where's your car?"

"Um, haven't had that car for awhile, luv."

She let this sink in. He'd traded his car for a motorcycle, great. And then she just felt stupid, because the comfortable car trip she'd been expecting had suddenly turned into a motocross event, and she'd been wearing a perfectly good pair of jeans but had changed to an ankle-length floral skirt because… well, meeting a demon mafia boss had sounded kinda dressy.

"Well, how was I supposed to know that?" she bristled. It felt very important he understand this somehow. "I was kinda out of the loop for a few months there, with the whole flat on my back thing. Remember?"

He flinched. "Yeah, I remember." He straightened up, held something out to her. Looked like a pee-wee football helmet.

She laughed. "I'm so not wearing that."

"You so are. State helmet law." He shook it.

"Uh-huh. Don't see you wearing one, Easy Rider."

"Yeah, and unlike you, I'm not gonna stay flat on my back if I fall." He tossed her the helmet in a sudden violent motion; she caught it one-handed and they locked eyes, glaring. There was no sign of him backing down.

She sighed and put the helmet on.

He turned a shoulder to her, kickstarted the bike and gunned the engine. "Hop on!" he shouted.

She tried. Between the big tires and the exhaust-spewing engine and the vibrating and rumbling, the bike was actually sorta scary. She knew she'd gotten on it before, when she'd ridden with him to that demon bar, but she'd also been pretty plastered then. She couldn't remember how she'd done it.

He swung the backpack off his shoulder and held it out to her. Duh, if she was going to ride behind him, she'd have to wear it. Grimacing, she shouldered the dirty canvas pack and tightened the straps. Hitched up her skirt, tucked the loose ends around her legs like a pearl diver. Tried not to notice the way Spike watched her as she gingerly lifted one leg, and then the other, frowning, and finally somehow managed to clamber aboard. And then she was settled in the seat right behind him, pressed up tight, her bare thighs hugged around his legs.

This part, Buffy thought, she remembered.

Over his shoulder, she could see Spike's hands as he revved the engine and opened up the throttle all the way. And then his thigh muscles tensed under hers, she felt his feet move, and they were off and flying, popping a small wheelie on takeoff, laying down a squeal of rubber on the street.

Buffy pressed her face into Spike's back. The leather was cool and smooth under her cheek and her hands were warm, her arms wrapped around his waist, shielded from the rushing wind under his coat and a twist of his T-shirt. The roar of the engine and the speed were exciting, and after a few moments of dizzying disorientation, she began to love the feeling, of hanging on for dear life as they sped through the night, seesawing crazily from side to side.

She laughed out loud in sheer delight. He couldn't see her, she was behind him and they couldn't really talk, not over the roar of the engine, so it was okay. And Buffy was happy then, just totally happy in the moment.

They zoomed through traffic lights, ignoring the blaring of horns and screech of brakes and sped off, leaving the city behind.

.........

It was after midnight before they pulled into Bakersfield. There'd been a long stretch of riding through a lonely forested area, then a couple hours more on a huge divided highway buzzing with trucks. Buffy'd had to stop once or twice, tugging hard on Spike's sleeve until he'd pull over and let her catch her breath, pat some feeling back into her face, nearly frozen by the rushing wind. At one gas station she'd stumbled to the restroom like a drunken sailor, her trembling legs so numb she could barely feel herself pee.

Long distance motorcycle riding, check—not as easy as it looked. She breathed a huge sigh of relief when the city limits sign swam into view.

The Kendrun demons' headquarters was a farm on the extreme outskirts of the city. Spike turned the bike onto a long dirt road where low outbuildings that looked like stables were clustered, screened somewhat from the nearby highway by open fields and a scraggy line of trees.

"We should probably go over some ground rules before we get there," Spike yelled to her over the engine as they roared along in a path of gutted tire tracks, kicking up clouds of dust. "These demons are a little different than what you're used to. Not so much with the claws and fangs."

"So what are they?" she bellowed in his ear. The helmet made it extra hard for her to hear.

"You want to avoid giving offense," he yelled back. "Just remember they're intelligent creatures—language, opposable thumbs, the works. Don't make any cracks about them looking like animals." He paused momentarily, then added. "Definitely don't mention glue."

They pulled up to the main building—it looked like a barn. Floodlights illuminated a large open space that was bustling with activity—trucks being loaded with crates, fork lifts busily moving back and forth. Buffy yanked off her helmet and looked around for the demons but once her eyes adjusted to the light all she saw were—

"Horses?" Buffy blurted. She blinked, as if to make sure of what she was seeing. "Kenny demons are horses?"

Spike held a finger to his lips. "Not exactly. They can blend if they want to."

"Huh. I always thought Bakersfield was a cow town," Buffy snorted, enjoying the look of alarm on Spike's face.

"They're a bit sensitive about it," he hissed. "Their boss might make jokes, but… don't make them back, yeah? It's like the race thing—you can make fun of your own group, you know?"

"Right, right." She rolled her eyes.

Spike made a big show of dismounting the cycle then, all dramatic swirl with his duster. Demons trotted up alongside to greet them, and Buffy studied them with amusement. They did really look like farm animals… well, right up until they stood up, after which they were just startlingly tall. She gaped up at the gathering circle of vertical horse figures and had to give Spike credit for not flinching even slightly. Compared to the Kendruns, the two of them were the size of tiny little dolls.

She slid off the back of the bike, her mouth tightening into a painful "o" as her stiff muscles tried to comply. Her butt was really, really sore.

There was an embarrassing search for weapons—an experience that mostly involved having horsey noses poked in places where they had no business being—and then they were led inside the main building.

The center of the barn looked like a massive sultan's tent. Pillows piled everywhere, silk hangings and Oriental rugs. A massive featherbed was the centerpiece, and the Kendrun's leader lay on it, lounging like… well, like a demon mob boss would, she supposed. It actually looked a little bit like Spike's crypt, only much bigger and with a horse in the middle of the bed. Then she shook away thoughts from her head that really didn't belong there, mostly involving the concepts of "Spike" and "bed."

Anyway, the lead demon was dressed, not… well, naked, like the demons outside. He wore the equivalent of a white silk suit. An overdose of jewelry was looped around his neck, and as they got closer, Buffy could see that his hooves were plated with gold.

"Let me do the talking," Spike said quietly, then raised his hand in greeting to the leader, who neighed.

"Come in, come in," the reclining demon called out. His voice was loud and boisterous and somehow… horsey. His teeth were plated with gold too, like a rap star. "Spike! Long time, no see! Still hanging around in Sunnydale? Would have thought you'd have gotten bored with that place by now."

"Yeah, well, you know the Hellmouth, Kenny. Always something to do." Spike stalked over to the bedside and performed a sort of intricate handshake with the demon. Opposable thumbs. Buffy tried to look for thumbs, couldn't spot any. Whatever.

"Whatcha standin' way over there for, filly? This isn't The Godfather, you know. Although I bet you wouldn't want to find my head in your bed!" Kenny whinnied. Buffy winced.

"That joke never gets old," Spike laughed, and Buffy frowned. Wow, way to be a suck-up, Spike.

A hoofclap from Kenny brought minions out of hiding, who began bustling everywhere, seeing to their comfort. It was a lot like being surrounded by trotting horses at a circus. Buffy was offered comfortable sitting spots, goblets of fresh water, lumps of sugar in silver dishes. She gratefully plopped her sore bottom down on the cushiony hay, thirstily gulped the water and even took a few sugar lumps just to be polite.

Spike ignored everything, got straight down to business, striking up a conversation with Kenny in a low, unintelligible voice. They seemed to be using some kind of demon language of animal grunts and clicks.

Sucking on a sugar lump, Buffy watched with mild interest as Spike handled the presentation of Anya's gift, putting on more of a show than she was used to seeing out of him. She might have been kind of impressed… well, if he hadn't looked so darned small next to the demon leader. Really, Really Not So Big Bad, she snorted to herself. Kenny seemed pretty pleased with Anya's gift anyway, or the ceremonial fussing or both, raucously neighing and swishing his tail. Then there was more talking.

Munching sugar, Buffy let this go on until she got bored with it.

turned to her, wearing identical irritated frowns. Which was a neat trick, considering Kenny's horse face.

The demon whistled, lips pulling back from his teeth. His gilded teeth flashed. "Your filly's pretty spirited there, Spike. Looks like a jumper."

"That she is."

"His filly?" Buffy blared. "Excuse me?"

"Never mind, luv. No worries." Spike smiled at her, then shot Kenny a look and came over. She glared down at him from her perch in the hay. His expression was mild, pleasant.

"Don't mind Kenny, he just likes to joke. Doesn't mean anything by it," he said softly. He was using his bedroom voice, she realized with a start, then flushed at idea that she should even know what his bedroom voice sounded like, all chocolate and cream.

"I'll just be another minute, luv, then we can be on our way." Spike purred, then reached up and patted her knee.

She jerked her leg aside angrily. "I told you to stop calling me 'luv'—and why is he talking about me like I'm your girlfriend or something? Did you tell him that?"

Spike sighed, ran a hand through his hair. "No—we all look damn near alike to the Kendruns, Buffy," he said patiently. "Kenny just—don't take it personally."

"Personally? Some… demon gangsta thinks I'm your floozy, and I'm not supposed to take it personally? And what do you mean, 'we all look alike'—what, have you brought some other chippie here before?"

"No. God, what'd I do to piss you off this time?"

Everything you do pisses me off!" she huffed, chest heaving. Really, why does everything have to be such a big deal with him?

"Now, now—save the horseplay for your own stable, you two," Kenny interrupted. "Spike, we've still got business to attend to here. Or aren't you interested in your bonus?"

"Right." Spike shot Buffy a sharp look, then spun away from her. Buffy's mouth fell open.

"About that," Spike said. "I'd say that I've earned something special this time, wouldn't you?"

Kenny laughed. "Ah, I like you, Spike. Always straight to the point." He clapped his hooves, and a pair of minions trotted out with a burlap sack slung between them.

"Fell off the back of a truck just last week." The demon made the equivalent of air quotes with his hooves.

Spike looked into the sack, looked up again with a startled expression. "You're a generous demon, Ken."

"Anyanka's always been a good customer. And you know the saying—you brush my tail, I brush yours..."

"What is it?" Buffy frowned, curious despite herself. Still seething over being… well, ignored, she hopped down from her perch and strained to see over Spike's shoulder, hopping a little. The sack writhed, as if filled with something alive. "Those better not be kittens."

"Kittens?" Kenny laughed, swished his tail. "What do I look like, a cheap loan shark? Those are mummy hands."

Buffy blanched. "M-Mummy hands?"

"Fresh from the tomb. You can't get quality like that just anywhere, I'll have you know."

"Oh no, these are obviously top shelf. Just check out the wrappings on this one." Spike dug into the sack, produced a hand that flexed and curled sensuously as he held it up by the wrist. Spike fairly glowed with pleasure, studying it, and the hand made reaching motions toward him, as if trying to caress his face. "Now that's some excellent magic. You certainly know your product lines, I'll give you that, Ken," he chuckled, then he and Kenny exchanged some quick sentiments in clicking voices and shared a companionable laugh.

Buffy's stomach dropped. It hadn't escaped her that anything they wanted to take back to Sunnydale would have to be carried by her on her back, and even touching that wriggling sack sounded like an invitation to something out of a horror movie. A bad one, where the blonde girl gets it via mystical choking hand.

"I'm not going anywhere with those crawling things," she announced.

Spike shot her a distracted look. "It's fine, Ken, really," he hastened. "She's just… not aware that they're worth a lot of money." This last was directed at Buffy through a clenched jaw.

"Uh, excuse me! I know exactly how much Anya charges for one of those. I can even tell you how much it costs to deliver one because it got taken out of my pay, so don't you try to lecture me about—" She stopped suddenly, eyes shifting to Spike's face, his expression contorted into a plea for her to just play along, please, for god's sake, would you? Her resolve faltered for a moment, then her eyes narrowed in suspicion. Oh, forget it, Spike. Here's where I pay you back for making me look like your biker date or something.

"Why is this guy paying you a big sack of mummy hands?" Buffy asked, sweetly poisonous. "Spike? What is this 'bonus' thing for?"

"Just business, Buffy," he said calmly, eyes locked with hers. "Mummy hands can't be that dangerous, can they, if even you've helped Anya sell them in her shop?"

"Oh, you're one of Anyanka's staff! Well, good to see customer service taking such an interest," Kenny broke in. He swished his tail in pleasure. "Say, you want to score a few points with the boss, you might want to let Anyanka know about some crystal skulls I, ah, happened to unearth recently. Special price while the dirt's still fresh, eh?" He waggled his eyebrows meaningfully.

Buffy ignored him, kept her eyes fixed on Spike. "You haven't answered my question. What's he paying you for?"

Spike sighed. "For news of the world," he said tiredly. "Beyond the barnyard or the racetrack, there aren't too many places the Kendruns can go. Not without getting all totted up in special event drag, like those parties in Vegas. And then they have to perform tricks—you know. For humans." He ignored Kenny's offended snort from behind him. "So I bring him up to date. He pays a little extra. End of story."

"So he's paying you to be a spy?"

"No. More like—"

"A stoolpigeon?"

"I was gonna say reporter."

"Wow, there's a picture," Buffy snorted, wicked smile on her face. "Hey, maybe you've found your new career, Spike. William the Bloody, Demon Daily News."

"Well, I gotta do something for dosh, don't I?" Spike shot back. "Since you and your pals don't like me scaring it out of the unwary anymore—"

"Ooh, poor Spikey—"

"You're one to talk anyway, all boo-hoo, I can't keep a job. People won't give me money unless I do stuff." He snorted. "'Course when I do things for you, that's all for free, isn't it?"

Buffy's mouth fell open. "What did you just say?"

Scowling, Spike looked down at the ground, rolled his shoulders in frustration.

"So," Buffy panted, chest heaving. "What kind of tattletales make the headlines in the demon underworld, huh? Don't suppose it would have anything to do with what's going on in the Hellmouth with the Slayer, would it?"

Spike's mouth drew into a hard line.

"Ah, the Slayer," Kenny waved a hoof. "She's strictly local, right Spike? Only kills what comes knocking on her door. We stay out of her way. Tangling with the likes of her just adds too much to the overhead."

"Is that so," Buffy grated.

"Pity about the Hellmouth, though. Property values are so cheap there. Normally we'd try to base close to it but...." He shrugged. "Whatcha gonna do?"

Buffy stared at Spike. "Yeah, what are you gonna do? Because guess what, Kenny? I'm the Slayer, and right now, I'd like to spend my little trip off home turf kicking some horsey demon ass."

"Slayer!" A whole chorus of whinnies around them.

Spike put a hand over his face.

"That's right! Who wants to go first?" Buffy slapped a fist into her palm with a smacking sound.

"The Slayer in my peaceful pastures? What is this?" Kenny howled.

"She, ah, gets delusions, is all. Poor unfortunate girl." Spike twirled a finger near his head, then pitched his voice low for Buffy's ear. "If you're trying to get us sealed in cement you're doing a great job."

Buffy laughed. "Oh, don't worry about it, Spikey. I got everything under control." She titled her head up and yelled at Kenny. "Spike's got a real thing for Slayers, did you know that? He's a total sicko!"

Kenny's lips skinned back from his huge, horsey teeth. "You brought the Slayer here to kill me."

"Nope, he's just along for the ride. Oops, did I make a joke about riding? Sorry about that." Buffy bounced on her heels. Her earlier tiredness was gone, thanks to either the promise of a good fight, arguing with Spike or both. Whatever it was, she felt perky. Like she'd had a giant cup of a coffee. Maybe four giant cups. "So what're you gonna do, huh, Mr. Horse Demon and your… Horse Demon Army?"

Kenny bellowed for guards.

Grinning madly, Buffy stepped forward, intent on choking stupid laughing chauvinist jokey Kenny with his own swanky horse collar when something jerked her backwards, and she whirled around to see Spike holding her by the elbow, peering at her closely.

"Did you… Buffy, tell me you didn't eat the sugar," he said hoarsely.

"What? Yeah, I had a little, so what?" She angrily shook his hand off. "I was being polite! Not that you'd know anything about—"

"Polite?" He grabbed her arm again. "You're on an industrial strength sugar high, that's what. Those cubes are for demons, juiced up special. You're stoned, Buffy."

Her mouth fell open. "I so am not."

"You so are."

She waved a finger in his face. "That's beside the point! Who do you think you are, trying to… pass off secrets about me and, and what demons I'm not killing?"

His hand tightened on her arm. "Not the best time—"

"Don't tell me what to do!" she yelled, but even as she said it she felt the truth of what he was saying sink in—she did feel high, giddy and floating. Her head swam. And then there was the not insignificant matter of a lot of pissed-off horsey demons to deal with. This probably wasn't the time to get into a big argument, which she realized at just about the same time that a pair of hooves hit her solidly in the back.

Reeling, Buffy stumbled into Spike. His big boots tripped her and she fell against him, bumping his front with her ass. One of his arms circled her waist, holding her up.

"Back to back!" she yelled, and the arm around her waist disappeared. She staggered forward like a drunk even as she felt Spike move behind her, take up a solid presence at her back. Then the Kendruns charged, and it was all Buffy could do to keep her eyes focused as she lashed out with windmilling arms.

She couldn't reach any higher than the demons' knees. Kicking instead, her foot connected solidly with a foreleg, and a Kendrun went down, howling.

"My leg! She's broken my leg!" he wailed.

She kept kicking, heard more demons go down, both in front of her and in back. But there were plenty more coming, bells ringing and… lights flashing. Buffy's vision trebled and she swayed on her feet, bright pulses of light sparkling behind her eyes. Once again, she felt an arm around her waist, steadying her. Then the world moved in a blurry lurch.

Spike dropped the burlap sack. He'd been trying to hold onto it while he fought, but when Buffy drooped suddenly like a puppet with its strings cut, he swung a second arm around her waist, whirled her away from the circling crowd. Hooves pounded hard into him from every side, and he staggered, reeling. Buffy hung limp in his arms as a rag doll.

With a last regretful look at the abandoned bag, Spike scooped Buffy up and threw her over his shoulder, then ran as hard as he could for the exit, ducking and dodging the furious Kendruns on the way.

Buffy mumbled and drooled nonsensically as the night went rushing by.

Part Three

Some time later—she had no idea how long—Buffy woke.

Woke dazed and blinking to total darkness, the kind that made a person feel completely blind. She was flat on her back in what felt like a mound of prickly hay, but she couldn't have seen her own hands if she'd been holding them in front of her, which she wasn't.

Only suddenly a hand was in front of her, settling briefly on her face, over her mouth, and she stifled a scream of fear, squirming violently. The hand pressed down harder, and she felt the tickle of lips at her ear.

"They're right below us." Spike's voice, barely audible. Panting, she forced herself to still, and the hand lifted. "Hayloft," he said quietly. "Couldn't really fight or handle the bike with you conked out."

Seconds ticked away before Buffy trusted her voice enough to answer. So she'd been unconscious. Great. He must have carried her up here like a dead weight. The emotions that flooded her at that thought weren't ones she wanted to name.

"What now?" she mouthed quietly. Now that he'd mentioned it, she could hear the movement below them, the sound of hooves clopping on wood, back and forth.

"If you feel up to it, we can go." His disembodied voice carried to her, as if on the wind. "Looks like you'll get your wish for a fight—we'll have a hard push just to get to the bike, assuming they haven't moved it or messed with it." He let out a soft sigh. "Gotta hand it to you Slayer, when you feel like getting yourself into a pickle, you do it up proper."

She put a hand to her forehead. The total darkness was disorienting, and worse, she still felt floating and woozy from the aftermath of the sugar. Stupid demon sugar.

"This isn't my fault," she whispered. "You—you're the one who—"

"Got high, insulted the head of a demon gang, got an angry mob howling for our blood?" A soft snort. "Yeah, that was me, alright."

Buffy swallowed. Okay, he had a point. "You… told them stuff about me." A wave of disappointment washed over her and she struggled to hold onto her anger instead. "You told them—"

"I told them not to come to Sunnydale." His voice was sullen, flat. It drove her crazy that she couldn't see him, only feel the tickle of his presence, very near. "I told them not to come to Sunnydale, or the Slayer would have them on toast. Because she was the toughest Slayer I'd ever seen, and they wouldn't want to mess with her." He paused. "Been here three times before, said the same thing every time. Which makes me look like a pretty spectacular loser, as demons go. Not that you'd care."

Silence fell again, and Buffy blinked into the darkness. The lack of light was stifling, oppressive, almost like...

the stale air in her grave

"That's… that doesn't sound too bad," she said shakily, torn between déjà vu panic and a kind of blurry relief.

"Not for you."

"Well, if it's your reputation you're worried about, Spike, why don't you just kill me. Bag your third Slayer." Her voice trembled a little. She couldn't stop it. dark dirt rotting stifling no air can't breathe

"Not funny, Slayer." It sounded almost like a growl, a low, rolling sound that made her shiver. He might have fanged out; she had no way of knowing in the darkness except by the sound of his voice. The image came to her of him leaning toward her with fangs ready for ripping. Pinning her down and tearing at her throat...

like I just asked him to

She gasped in a sudden thrill of terror. Her head spun as if she was falling through space.

There was no other sound. The demons below them seemed to have stopped their motion for the time being, and the silence was smothering.

like the grave

She couldn't even hear Spike breathing. Of course, because he didn't breathe. For all she knew, he might not even be there anymore.

Terrified at the thought, she struggled to sit up. Her arms refused to cooperate; it took her a second or two of blind panic before she realized her arms were pinned underneath her by her own body. Panting, she finally managed to scrabble upright and began to flail her arms blindly, fingertips outstretched into absolute emptiness.

"Spike?" she whispered. "Are you still here?"

"I'm right here, Slayer," he said, and she jumped a little at the sound, very close to her, low and dangerous. She realized in a rush that with a vampire's night vision, he could probably see her clearly even if she couldn't see him.

"Where?" Buffy bit her lip, waved her arms again, swung them in a circle. She hated the way she was acting, panicked and helpless, hated him even more for just sitting there watching her do it, letting her struggle. Tears burned at the backs of her eyes as she groped in the darkness, and then her fingers brushed against something cold and firm.

His hand. She stilled, stopped all movement but the saw of her breath in her chest as his cool fingers slid along her wrist, clasped her palm, weaved his fingers together with hers. Her breathing calmed and slowed, and she clung to his hand, squeezing it like a lifeline, an adult's umbilical cord stretching into nothing.

"I'm right here." And her heart began to pound again as she recognized the voice he was using now, the one that not so long ago she'd ached to hear, sought out for comfort when she couldn't bear to even look at her friends.

Every night I save you.

She pulled her hand back as if it had been burned.

"We—we should get out of here," she whispered urgently.

A soft grunt. "Like I said, anytime you feel up to it. Ready to go then?"

She sobered up then, turned her awareness inward, assessing. No, actually, she didn't feel ready to go. She felt shaky and weak, and nowhere near ready to take on some several dozen oversize demons. Her heart was going a mile a minute and her skin was hot and flushed. Sugar is evil, she told herself, and promptly felt a surge of crushing despair. No more chocolate bon-bons or ice cream.

Stupid demons.

"Not yet," she spoke up, flinching a little bit at the sound of her own voice—it seemed terribly loud in the stifling space. The silence was again absolute, and she'd lost the momentary fix on Spike's position from their brief contact. She might well have been totally alone, floating in space or buried in some deep, dark cave.

Buffy swallowed, and shifted a leg this time, searching. Several tense moments passed before she made contact, a bumping touch with her knee that created an instant mental map, radiating out from the area she'd touched like sonar.

His thigh.

She shifted her knee again. Her skirt-covered leg pressed up against him once more and she let the length of her limb slide over his, anchoring herself in the solid feel of firm muscle under cotton cloth. Then she brushed up against something hard and ridged and withdrew her leg in a panic before realizing that what she'd felt had been one of his hands. She kicked herself for her own reaction.

Subtle much?

A low chuckle in the darkness. "Just let me know whenever you're ready, love."

Whenever you're ready. She cursed his keen senses—he'd be reading every sign her body put out, and it wasn't exactly her fault the way her heart was beating or that her skin was prickling with fine sweat. He'd probably take it all wrong. Eyes wide, Buffy stared into the darkness, alert for the smallest sound, afraid that any minute he'd lean in, and—

"Any ideas on how to pass the time till then?" She jumped. His breath had touched her cheek lightly as he spoke, and she shivered, turning toward the sound.

"No," she whispered, and felt her lips ghosting against his. Right there, his mouth is right there.

"No?" he said, his mouth moving over hers, lips brushing soft and cool, and then they were kissing.

And oh, it felt right, that was the terrible part—how right it could feel to be with him. Unmoored in the darkness, there was nothing but his mouth on hers, licking kisses into her lips… and then his hands sliding up her arms to hold her by the shoulders, soft little sounds as he shifted position. She could feel the slight displacement of air, hear the rustle and creak of leather. She groped in the dark with her fingertips, found his chest, and pressed her hands against its still weight.

And then she knew exactly where he was, every point and position of her body and his, because they were touching, each place a hot and flaring point of contact. His body fit just so with hers, his arms drawing her forward until their slim hips aligned, one hard thigh nudging her knees apart. Her own body's heat baked up through her clothes and seeped into him; he warmed under her hands, and she wrapped her legs around him just as she had on the motorcycle, every inch of her body trembling with her pulse.

In no time at all, Buffy was gasping, and Spike lifted his head away to let her breathe, the line of his cheek sliding along her neck, nose nuzzling behind her ear, into her nape. His arms were around her back now, holding her up, hands splayed on her shoulder blades he held her suspended in the air, her knees spread as wide as her skirt would allow, a taut pull of fabric binding her legs. Her elbows were pinned between them, and she scrabbled helplessly with her trapped arms, fingers digging into the tense cords of his neck as they kept kissing, greedy, desperate and needy, pasted together like two wet pages in a book...then froze wide-eyed as the sounds from the floor below rose to a sudden roar.

The lights went on.

Buffy blinked furiously at the sudden brightness. Spike lay atop her, looking just as blinded and confused, his hair sticking up in tufts. She stared up at him, paralyzed to realize that her skirt was nearly twisted around her waist from all her frantic motions—she was lying in a hay pile with him pressed into her hard, only a couple of layers of flimsy fabric from the Buffy and Spike Full Body Contact. She shoved against his chest hard, face burning, and he fell backwards onto the floor with an ungainly thump.

"Think they know we're here," he groaned then, rolling away from her. She gulped big air and just stared at him, furious.

"No, really?" she spat. "You think so?" Was I moaning? Oh god, please let that not the reason they knew where we were. Not that me kicking up a racket doing the trying-to-get-my-skirt-off mambo is much of an improvement. What was I thinking? Her chest heaved, and she wildly glanced around the surprisingly large loft space—nothing but hay and plank walls as far as she could see. Anything was better than looking at him.

Then there was a heavy thumping sound, and the world shuddered sideways then with a sickening lurch. Timbers creaked and groaned.

Buffy dug her fingers into the slippery hay. The boards under her knees shook. "What's going on?" she yelled. The sound repeated and so did the shake. And again. Thump. Shake. Thump. Shake. This definitely can't be good. Her heart sank as she realized that their brief rest period was over, ready or not. The last fiery remnants of her arousal guttered and went out.

"Sledgehammer, maybe," Spike said. He climbed slowly to his feet, swaying like a sailor on the deck of a tilting ship. "Kendruns aren't much for climbing—must be trying to knock the loft down."

Buffy stood up herself and staggered toward the edge of the loft as the floor continued to rhythmically shake. The throb between her legs was still exquisitely painful; just the brush of her thighs against each other made her shiver. Spike moved to stand next to her, and they both stared down. At least thirty Kendruns stared up.

The floor was swaying alarmingly now, like a ride at a fair.

"So," Spike said. "Jump for it and start kicking ass, correct?" He looked at her for confirmation, eyebrow quirked, and a laugh bubbled out of her before she could remind herself why she hated him.

Buffy squared her shoulders. "More or less," she said, then leapt.

Part Four

Spike and Buffy rode the cycle in silence.

The fight with the Kendruns had been… tough, Buffy thought, but nothing they couldn't handle. It had been—

a blur of violent motion, like when Spike and I fought in that building

—kind of liberating, in a way, to just let herself go, have nothing on her mind at all except getting through the next opponent and then the next and the next. She'd been almost sad when it was over, when they'd managed to make it to the motorcycle to get away. Although duh, getting away was certainly a good, obviously she realized that. Definitely better than losing or getting caught.

Only… it had been… amazing, in a way, how smoothly she and Spike had worked together. How they'd fought side by side, with no need for signals or cues, just their own internal rhythms, natural, perfect. Even their retreat from the battle had been absolutely in sync; leaping on the cycle together just ahead of a last horde of reinforcements, Spike kickstarting the bike while Buffy fended off the last of the Kendruns trying to assault their backs, half-standing on the motorcycle seat and spin-kicking one last demon as the engine roared to life and they screeched away, clouds of dust flying in their wake. She'd dropped into the seat behind him as the rear wheel spun on a dime, her hands locking around his waist just before the acceleration snapped her head back, laughing out loud with sheer, unadulterated joy.

That had been about an hour ago. Since then, her adrenaline had more or less evaporated. Buffy was thoroughly tired, worn out and sore. The steady drone and vibration of the cycle had long since become monotonous. Her head throbbed. Her stomach ached. Her butt really, really hurt.

And they weren't going to make it back to Sunnydale on time.

She'd been watching, for the last several minutes, the sky in the east growing brighter with a feeling of sickening dread. All that fighting, and her passing out—hours gone from the schedule. She thought back to the ride to the farm—forested area, long stretch of highway. They were still on the highway.

They weren't going to make it.

Oh, Spike had tried, she had to give him that. In fact, he kept driving until the sky was nearly orange, pushed it as far as he could. But eventually he was forced to stop, turn the bike around in a screech of wheels. He shot off on a new trajectory then, bulleting off the freeway at an exit advertising gas, food, lodging. Spike pulled into the first driveway available, launched himself off the bike and into a motel office with the sunrise licking at his heels. No more than seconds to spare.

Buffy kept her seat on the bike, just breathing in the sudden quiet, the cooling tick of the engine as the first rays of sunlight spilled across the road. They were in the parking lot of some trucker motel, one of those cinderblock places without a courtyard or a pool, just rows of parked big-rigs, the shady overhang of some trees, the morning light painting the whole thing in gold.

She didn't know what she was going to do.

Because this—this wasn't spur-of-the-moment gropeage in a hayloft. This wasn't a heat-of-the-moment decision while her adrenaline was pumped up, a choice between kissing him or killing him. This was checking into a motel together.

She wasn't even going to kid herself about that.

They'd have sex. Probably a lot of it. Probably all day. Her sore muscles were yearning for a bed, and wow, the picture just drew itself from there. Maybe there'd be taunting, some kind of banter, and she'd complain about her aching butt, and he'd...

make her forget all about it

Really not too likely that they'd spend the whole day not looking at each other and staring at the TV.

The office door opened, and Spike emerged holding a key. Stared across the sunny parking lot toward her and frowned. Rolling her eyes, Buffy got off the bike, pushing it toward the shady area in the back. He edged along a rusty cement sidewalk to join her, carefully skirting around interruptions in the shade where the sidewalk was broken up by a protruding newspaper box or soda machine. It was the first time she'd actually watched him do that, dodge sunlight, leaping from one shadow to another like a little kid playing hopscotch.

Step on a crack, break your mother's back.

"Got us a room," he said, holding up the key.

"Right," she heard herself say. His cheek was scuffed, a bloody scratch right on the sharpest point, and there was a ugly bruise near his forehead that didn't quite manage to look like a hoofprint. She wondered if people who got beaten up by Kendruns liked to claim they'd fallen in a horse pen and gotten trampled.

They walked together in silence, Buffy still pushing the motorcycle. Their room was tucked securely into the corner of the building's "L" shape, shielded from the sun by two intersecting overhangs. The room's door was metal, and made a protesting screech as Spike keyed the door open and swung it wide.

Still fumbling with the cycle's kickstand, Buffy peered inside. Typical ugly room. Mud-brown carpeting, cheap furniture, small TV. Stale air sighing from a battered air conditioner. Floral print bedspread in garish yellow and orange.

King-size bed.

Spike stepped over the threshold, tossed the keys on the nightstand. Shrugged out of his coat and threw it over a chair. Hands still on the handlebars, the bike parked in the sun, Buffy shivered as if she were frozen.

"Buffy? C'mon love, come inside. Make yourself at home."

God, look at him sitting there, all still with the bed hair—no, tufty, that was it, mussed up from the fight—unlacing his boots on the edge of that big bed like the whole thing was a foregone conclusion. That she'd be all, sure, honey, why don't I just come on in? And then with the—

being cooped up in a room with him for hours and hours with nothing else to do but get with the hot monkey sex

It just seemed so… premeditated.

"Nothing with two beds, huh?" She winced even as she said it. A smarter question might have been whether or not they could get two rooms.

He widened his eyes a little, then bit his lip in that cute way he sometimes did, slowly shook his head. Bounced a little as if to say, Umm, comfy. Feel the quality of that box spring.

Buffy still couldn't bring herself to move.

God, how did she get herself into these situations, anyway? He'd said one night. One night, and then they'd be back in Sunnydale, no harm done. That had been the original plan. To roll back into town at dawn, so she could climb the stairs to her own cozy bed, lie there in the sunlight and sleep soundly from a night of righteously enjoyable adventure.

It wasn't part of the plan for her to be standing here, on some sidewalk halfway between Sunnydale and Bakersfield, listening to the drone of sixteen-wheelers while her vampiric sidekick tried to lure her in to share his dark and secret den.

Her mind ran through the possibilities again. She'd come inside. The door would shut. She'd stay there, at the door. Not trying to be seductive or anything. Spike would get up and he'd walk toward her with that pantherish prowl. Door and curtains closed, the room would be dark. He'd be a shadow, nothing but glints and highlights—his bright hair, his eyes, the reflections from his jewelry. He'd started to wear those rings recently, she didn't know why, but they were kind of weirdly exciting. Distracting. Then he'd lean in, brace his arms against the wall on either side of her face. She'd see the rings glittering out of the corners of her eyes. Then he'd pin her body with his, and—

There was no way she could do this.

"Buffy?" His voice sounded a little puzzled now. He was still sitting on the bed. "C'mon inside, will you? Time for a nice rest." He smoothed a hand across the bedspread, gave the space next to him an inviting little pat.

She let her hands drop from the handlebars. She hadn't even realized it yet, but the sun was already getting hot; her hands were sweaty from gripping the warming metal. She walked up to the door. Stood there, just outside the threshold, in a warm patch of sun.

Inside, he tilted his head at her, face open and blank. He did that sometimes—too often, really—looked at her like he was reading her mind, like he could see right inside her. Her worst fears generally revolved around him opening his mouth and saying those things out loud.

What are you afraid of, pet?

With a single swift motion, she put one foot across the doorway, then scooped up the room key from the nightstand, stepped backward through the door and pulled it shut. Stood there panting on the border between light and dark.

.........

On the other side of the hotel there was a coffee shop. Beige vinyl and chrome, country music on the jukebox. Bustling and loud, especially for this time of the morning, stuffed to the gills with truckers getting their cholesterol on and fueling up with coffee for a big day on the road.

Buffy ordered breakfast. Tried not to notice the waitresses in their polyester uniforms, or think of the time when she'd been one too. Shivered in the blasting air conditioning, shoveled in eggs and coffee. Looked out the window at the sunlight and traffic and tried to figure out what to do.

Anywhere else she could go to spend the day? Not really. Even if there was another room available she had no money. There was nothing else much in the area either, nothing but fast food places and gas stations, and even negotiating the distance between those places seemed like too exhausting a task. The heat, even this early in the morning, had astonished her. The night air had been blissfully cool, the sky a carpet of stars. That same sky was now a merciless blue, all that open space nearly taken up by the blazing sun. Just walking to the coffee shop along the side of the road, trying not to flinch at the constant gusting motion of the passing trucks, had been enough to leave her drenched in sweat. She'd dived into the low glass building like a sanctuary, shuddering gratefully at the first blast of frigid air.

Only now, breakfast finished and nursing a big glass of iced tea, she was actually feeling cold. She couldn't stay here—she couldn't take up a whole booth for the entire day just drinking coffee, for one—and the chill of the air conditioning was actually becoming something of a problem. Too hot or too cold, there never seemed to be anything in between.

Well, actually… there was. She stared out the diner's big front window into the shimmering heat and all she could think of was going back to that ugly room and crawling under the covers of that big bed. It sounded like… heaven.

So why don't you? an internal voice asked her. It's not like you know anyone here. No one's going to recognize you. You're in the middle of nowhere in a no-tell motel, why do you even bother to care?

She didn't really know. Well, some part of her didn't. What difference did it make, really, if she added another day to her list of sexual memories with Spike? Because yeah, he'd probably let her sleep before they got to the sex part, but it would happen, she knew that. He'd make it worth her while too—spread her out in the middle of that big bed like she was some precious jewel, give her sore and vibrate-y muscles a massage if she asked him to. Spend the whole day getting her to make cooing sounds.

What's stopping you?

It wasn't guilt that was stopping her, that certainly wasn't it. She didn't feel guilty about anything they'd done together—invisible Buffy had thought going to his crypt for sex was a fine idea, ditto slamming him up against a wall and tearing open his shirt. Not much point in pretending to be a prude.

No, it was the frequency of this thing that was getting to her. One time was one thing. Literally. One thing. Or rather, a lot of one things in one night, but same idea. Twice was… something else, a little harder to excuse, but she could do that, excuse it. She'd been invisible, giddy. And yeah, she'd gone a little nuts with it, dived on him like he was a tasty treat. But that wasn't a habit. That was impulse, like bingeing on a carton of Ben & Jerry's you just happened to find in your fridge.

But going back to that room now, knowing what would happen… that would be like...

Like being his girlfriend or something. Oh, Spike, sweep me into your manly arms and take me now!

She shook off the thought, drank some more iced tea. Outside the window, fields stretched in every direction. On the other side of the highway, there were a few weeping willow trees. She remembered a strong smell of onions in the air.

But it didn't have to be that way, she thought. She didn't have to act like some blushing, swoony girl who couldn't take her eyes off his cheekbones—that wasn't her. She was the Slayer. She was in charge here, not him. And she wasn't going to turn all melty over his blue, blue eyes or his yummy deep voice—she was tougher than that. She was Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, and she'd be damned if she'd let herself be turned into some joke about not being able to keep her hands off the merchandise.

She stood up. A couple of the cowboys in another booth were looking at her funny; she didn't like it. Not that she couldn't have handled them if they'd tried anything, even as tired as she was, but having to deal with creepy leers first thing in the morning? That was a bit much.

He gives me that tongue-between-his-teeth thing, and I'm gonna knock him across the room.

She pushed open the glass door, stepped back out into the baking heat. Gasped as the hot winds stirred her hair, and slowly made her way back to the room.

He'd be sprawled out on the bed watching TV, of course. She paused at the door.

Couldn't keep away from me, could you? Knew you'd come back.

She set her jaw firmly, pushed in the key, and opened the door.

Part Five

Spike was asleep.

Buffy let the door slip from her fingers. The room was dark—well, not totally dark, there was a flickering blue light from the TV set, tuned to some morning talk show, no sound. Which was probably why when the door swung shut behind her with the loud chunking sound of a bank vault slamming, she jumped.

Spike didn't move.

Not even a flinch. He was sprawled out—naked, of course—half turned over onto his face, a thin sheet draped over his hips. He'd kicked the ugly orange bedspread to the floor; it lay in a crumpled heap at the foot of the bed with the untidy pile of his clothes. One arm flung behind him, palm up, one hand curled near his face. And he just lay there, still as… well, the dead. She flashed on another moment, at his crypt, when she'd been forced to throw things at him to wake him up.

He was so… vulnerable like that. She could have crept right up to him and planted a stake behind his shoulder blades.

As many enemies as he had, you'd think he'd be a little more on his toes.

Then again, his being asleep was also a relief. Buffy let out a sigh, a long bubbling laugh. She could relax now. No banter or argument or inappropriate advances would get in the way of her getting some sleep.

She switched on the bedside lamp and wandered around the room. Bad art on the walls, some lame paintings of mountains and wild animals. She fumbled with the air conditioner, turned the fan up. Ignored his still presence on the bed and sat down on the edge. Found the TV remote, flipped channels. Turned the sound up. Settled on a pointlessly cheery infomercial, then tossed the remote aside, went into the bathroom and flicked on the light.

Harsh fluorescents flared. It was a tiny tiled room with only a shower cabinet, no tub. Obviously he'd already showered—the place was dripping with moisture and towels were piled on the floor. Buffy smiled and stripped off her clothes.

She'd have never felt comfortable doing this while he was awake.

She stepped into the cool column of water with a song in her heart. Washed off the evening's dust with the tiny sample bottle of hotel shampoo and melting bar of teensy soap. As toilettes go, it was pretty primitive, but after the heat, it felt like absolute heaven.

Toweling herself dry, Buffy noticed something odd then—a towel hanging high on the wall.

She tugged at it. It concealed a small window, a tiny square of thick glass that opened inward to let in light and air. One end of the towel had been stuffed between the open window and the wall.

She pulled the towel free. The room was suddenly very bright, and she blinked furiously, her eyes watering. East window, she realized. She looked down at the towel in her hands, streaked with burn marks, and let it fall to the floor. Forgot about it then as she spent the next several minutes mopping moisture from the tiny shaving mirror and brushing her teeth with one finger. At least she'd brought a hairbrush in her purse.

Wrapping herself in a bath sheet, another towel twisted around her hair, Buffy flung the bathroom door wide. She'd taken three or four steps into the room before noticing that she was standing in a beam of solid sunlight. Light pouring through the tiny bathroom window nearly lit up the entire room.

She froze, eyes widening. Dust motes floated in front of her, on the sunlit air.

Buffy spun on her heels, wet feet skidding, and scrambled back into the bathroom. Shoved the door shut behind her. Repositioned the towel with trembling fingers and wedged the window shut. Then sat on the toilet for a moment and shook.

She scrubbed her hands over her face. The light hadn't reached the bed, she knew that. Luckily. Spike was okay… but he might not have been. Had the angle of daylight been just a little different, he would have gone up in smoke in his sleep.

And boy, she could just imagine the kind of luck she would have had explaining that one to the cops. My friend had a case of spontaneous combustion Right. She'd be bunking in jail that same night. They'd think it was something out of a made-for-TV movie—jealous girlfriend sets boyfriend on fire. The Burning Bed.

I so don't even know how to ride that stupid motorcycle by myself, she realized. God, I really need to take driving lessons.

Worse yet, Spike had been the one to check into this motel, not her. Which was a good thing, she supposed—no real paper trail—especially if she'd had to suddenly vanish into the sunset to avoid murder charges, but...

I feel like such a fugitive. It's like nobody even knows I exist.

Spike didn't exist. Not legally, anyway. He must have used a fake name to sign in, a stolen credit card. Why had she never thought of that before? Probably that poor schmuck, the card's owner, would be the one who got the call if Spike spontaneously combusted on the hotel's dime. Then she'd probably be up on charges for theft too, an accomplice to whatever Spike got up to in his spare time. Bonnie and Undead Clyde.

She had the near-irresistible urge to go back into the room then and shake him awake. Smack him for scaring her, for getting her into this, for having the gall to even exist.

He's not a real person, she reminded herself. Not in-the-world-real, not by a long shot. He's like… that rabbit only one person can see.

Harvey. Her mother had liked that movie.

Still shaking, Buffy fumbled for the doorknob with her fingertips, stood. Walked back into the darkened room, to the dim lamp glow and the flicker of the TV.

Spike hadn't even moved.

Dead to the world.

She let out a deeply held breath, a low shaky laugh. Sat on the edge of the bed. Found her purse, thrown carelessly on the night table, fished out her hairbrush. Brushed her hair free of tangles, then sat, brush in her lap, and looked at him.

He could look so boyish when he was asleep. Innocent, even. That had been kind of a surprise for her. Everything about him was so wrapped up in that persona—the Big Bad. Hello, cutie. I'll kill you on Saturday. Weapons make me feel manly. I can't wait to see if I freckle. The hair and the coat and the sneer. The fists and the sexy walk. She really hadn't been prepared for what he'd be like when that was all stripped away.

Not so tall. Thin, even. Bed hair—really, really seriously. He didn't have the stoic manly manner or the linebacker's body of the sorts of men she was used to. She wasn't… even slightly intimidated by him. She felt… freer, somehow, around him, because he didn't tower over her. He didn't overwhelm.

And that had been a whole other revelation in itself, that there could be an advantage to that, him being more her size. Sex-wise. It was fair to say that they'd have never been able to pull off some of the positions he'd gotten her into had he been any taller.

Like that night in the abandoned house… it brought a blush to her face, always, thinking about that. But that night had been full of those sorts of revelations. She hadn't been kidding when she said she'd felt degraded—they'd done things she hadn't even known existed. And oh god, the things she'd said! Oh ohhh fuck fuck fuck me, Spike. Please. Oh yes oh yes yes oh yes right there… you're so… ohgod. Oh do it, hold me down, don't let go, oh! Yes, take me take me take me, ohgod bite me if you want to, do it, go ahead, do it! He'd explored every inch of her body that night, pawed her and mauled her and turned her upside down, quested into every single secret place she had with his fingers and tongue and cock...

And—oh god—she'd done exactly the same things to him. That had been the real scary part. How much she'd gotten off on that. Taking him however she liked. Holding him down, positioning him like a doll. Learning him from top to bottom with her hands and her tongue. Keeping him helpless, listening to him cry out, hearing him beg and plead. Oh oh Slayer do it. Oh, fuck yeah… ohgod… luv, you're incredible, you're… Buffy, my, Buffy, you kill me, ohgod oh Slayer oh kill me, I'm yours I'm yours my killer my lover oh love, oh you oh kill me, you kill me oh Buffy love love you.

Talk about a death wish.

There was nobody else who could have had that kind of power over him. Not even another vampire. Nobody but her, because she was the Slayer and that kind of power was her birthright. To be stronger than the likes of him.

How sick was it that he wanted that? Most vampires—no, scratch that, all other vampires—were either smart enough to be scared of her or dumb enough to think they could take her out. Not Spike. He got off on fighting her, on losing to her, submitting. She'd told him that in the house, while they were fighting—how sick that was, that he was in it for the humiliation. That was what was really disgusting about his obsession with her. And it was why his little joke about fucking the Slayer had hurt her so much—it had been like… listening to him say that she didn't even matter to him. Not as a person. Only as a pair of superpowered arms. And a pussy.

Mistress Buffy, Queen of the Night.

She lay down then, still wrapped in the towel, hair wet. Didn't bother to get under the covers—the temperature of the air felt just right. Turned onto her side, away from him, and stared at the bedside light. The mattress was cozy. Mmm.

There was a burst of applause from the TV. Some slicer and dicer was apparently the best thing on the planet you could get, a kitchen device that could make all of your dreams come true.

She closed her eyes.

.........

When Buffy opened her eyes again, she was staring into an expanse of chest. Pecs of Spike. She lifted her head.

He was lying on his side, facing her. The light was still on, the TV blaring. But sometime during her sleep, she seemed to have turned around to face him, planted her nose in his chest. Her hair was spread across his shoulder, between them on the pillow, and he had an arm looped around her waist. She winced. Gingerly tried to extract herself, pull herself back.

He opened his eyes.

Blinked at her, bleary and confused. He looked just like a normal person, doing that. Moving his lips and scrunching up his face. Like a commercial for mouthwash. She tried again to wriggle loose, not liking how close his face was to hers on the pillow.

"Move your arm," she said frostily.

Spike looked at her like she wasn't speaking English. Looked at his arm, like he couldn't figure out how it got there. Then lifted it away with a deliberate movement, raising it into the air like a magician, or a presenter on a game show. Ta da. And for my next trick...

"Do forgive me," he said, his voice a little hoarse from sleep. "Not so used to sleeping with women who don't want you to hold them."

"Is that so?" she said, sitting up. Too quickly—his other arm was lying across her hair on the pillow, and in hurry to get away she pulled her own hair. "Is that just counting the ones you didn't kill?"

"Yeah," Spike said. "Like that." The gentle, sleepy expression was now cold and angry. He sat up then himself, leaned back against the headboard and crossed his arms behind his head. Let his knees fall loosely apart, the sheet barely covering his lap. She looked away.

"Sleep well, pet?" he asked.

"I slept fine, thank you." She stood up. Picked up the brush again and began to stroke it through her hair. Her whole head was a tangled monster—she shouldn't have fallen asleep with her hair wet.

"My, don't you look lovely," he sneered. "The hair is so..." He searched for the right word. "Untamed."

She locked eyes with him, glared. He lifted his chin, stared back. Face frozen into a hard frown, she retreated at a fast trot to the bathroom and slammed the door.

Oh god, he was right. I look like a go-go dancer in a Sixties movie. Big hair from hell. She attacked it again with the brush. Gave up and shoved her head in the sink, wet the whole thing down. Brushed it again. The new short style was cute, when she had enough time to fuss with it, tame it with a blow dryer and mousse… but air-dried like this? Total Gidget flip. She batted at it with her hands, tried to paste the stubbornly sleep-set strands flat against her head. Then leaned over the sink and tried to think what to do next.

First things first—was it time to go yet? She pulled the towel from the window, checked the light. Not even close—the sun was high overhead. It couldn't be later than two o'clock. Hours and hours to go.

I could go back to that diner. Get lunch.

And go back out into that heat to do it, at high afternoon even. Good idea. Not. Plus she'd used up all her pocket change paying for the first meal. No way was she going to go out there and ask Spike for cash.

Stolen cash.

She blew open a sigh, yanked open the door. He had retrieved the remote and was flicking channels restlessly, frown on his face. She adjusted the wrapping on her towel and marched across the room, not caring if she blocked his view of the TV.

"So, decide what you want to do with the rest of your day?" He sounded bored. "Don't mind me love, I'll just be here. Feel free to go out and frolic in the sun." He waved the remote in the general direction of the window. She paused.

"It's… actually pretty hot out there."

He snorted. "Really. Well, too bad. Would've thought that was the peak experience of your existence, the way you all can't wait to rush out into it. Who'd ever think there could be a downside?" He tossed the remote on the bed. "Well, what now, pet? Nothing worth watching on the telly. Soaps are on, but I'll wager you're not too much for those."

"No, not too much," she admitted. She avoided looking at him, sighed. "And could you please knock it off with the stupid nicknames? We went over this already."

"Right, right. Well, you don't hear me calling you Goldilocks, do you." He sighed too; she looked up. He had his arms crossed over his chest, and he was staring at her with an appraising look, one that seemed unusually far away. Not so much with that I-can-see-right-inside-you thing that made his eyes go soft. Bed hair.

"So," he said calmly then. "Wanna fuck?"

She sat silently for a minute, considering. "Yeah," she sighed. "Sure."

Part Six

On her back, TV blaring in the background, Spike's head between her legs, Buffy couldn't help but think, this has got to be the most unromantic moment of my life.

Because that night in the abandoned house? Depraved, sure. Dirty. But at least there had been passion. A sort of mortal-enemies-locked-in-a-deathmatch vibe that translated pretty well into sex. Likewise for everything else they'd ever done. Sexually. They'd both been into it. Lots of drama and heat.

This was more like… something they were doing to pass the time. She shifted, restlessly.

Not that it wasn't working, what he was doing to her—lifting her up to his face with hands hooked under her butt, tongue lashing into her hard and angry. She was into it alright, liquid and slick. Legs looped over his shoulders, she wiggled in his hands like a cat avoiding a bath.

And she'd agreed to this, sure. Yeah, Spike, 'wanna fuck,' geez, why not. But it was the way he'd gotten right down to it, just grabbed her by the thighs and yanked her toward him, that bothered her. He'd pushed her onto her back and slipped a hand between her legs, stabbed his tongue into her with no preamble. Pressed on her clit with his thumb like it was a button, like a lab rat in one of those experiments she'd read about.

She was starting to get the impression he was a little pissed off.

Not that that was so bad in itself—after all, she'd had some of the best orgasms of her life like that. God knew she'd been angry that night in the abandoned house. With all the punching and the kicking and the oh-so-harsh words—he'd barely been inside her before she began to come. Or at least what she'd thought of as coming until that moment. Shoved up against the crumbling wall, legs locked around his waist, she'd shuddered and convulsed… and then ratcheted up higher from there. She'd had orgasms that night that felt like atomic blasts.

A cheer went up from the TV. Talk show host introduction. Applause. Her climax hit her, stomach muscles clenching like cramps.

She reached up to his bright head, trembling. Twisted both hands in his hair and pulled on it. Hard.

He lifted his head. Spilled on her back, legs tumbled every which way, she stared up her own belly at him, past the rucked-up landscape of the towel he hadn't even bothered to unwrap.

"Have a request?" he said mildly. His mouth was glistening. He was still working her clit with his thumb, none too gently; it was sending out pulses like sparks, burning. She squirmed.

"What is your problem?" she demanded.

"My problem?" He slid his mouth up her belly, his nose parting the towel, not quite enough to undo it or push it off. He let her legs fall then, and covered her body with his. Thrust inside her with enough force to make her gasp.

"Can't think of anything right now. Can you?"

She panted, put her fingers on his shoulders and clung. She always liked Missionary; it was pleasant, every time, hip-grindy and deep. She slid her arms down his back, clutched at his ass. Tried to draw her knees up into a better position, one that gave her more leverage. Flung her head back on the pillow, ignored his questing lips, tried not to listen to the stupid chatter on the TV.

Laughter and applause. Then a car commercial. God, she wished she could just shut that shit off.

Weight on his hands, his shoulders arching over her, Spike repositioned them abruptly, hooked his arms under her knees and pushed up. Now he was kneeling in front of her, her ass was lifted clear off the bed. Each thrust made her breath leave her in a sharp little huff.

Applause. The commercial break was over. Back to Jerry Springer or some such. Oh, forget this.

"God, can't you turn that thing off?" she puffed. Her hair was sticking to her face. The noise was really getting into the way of her concentrating.

He stopped. "Your wish is my command," he said, and dropped her on the bed. Got up and walked to the TV. Shut it off. Silence is golden.

Buffy took a deep breath. The room had gotten a lot hotter too, since they begun, and she considered asking him to turn up the air conditioner while he was at it. Then remembered it would make his skin cold. Colder. She shivered a little at the thought.

"Anything else you need?"

She scrunched up her face, looked at him. His voice sounded kinda cold. Still mad, then.

She blew out a sigh, bored with his moods, with him. "Are you throwing another hissy fit?"

"No." But he still remained standing there by the bedside, naked and, well, gorgeous. She had to admit he looked a little scarier when he was mad. It was… kinda cute, if annoying.

She rolled onto her side, propped her head up on her hand. "We don't have to finish this. I can just take another shower, you know."

"I suppose you could at that." Then he abruptly grabbed her by one ankle and pulled her toward him again. Spun her over and positioned her by the hips. Oh, hello. Doggy style. She'd actually done this position before, plenty of times… but it had never seemed so deep as it did with Spike, never so pistony and intense. Her eyes nearly crossed.

"Yeah, you like this, don't you." His hands were gripping her hard enough to bruise. He worked her back and forth against him, his thighs hitting hers with a slap. "Yeah, you do—take it, Buffy, take it, you like to get fucked, don't you, Slayer, like me pounding into you like this—"

"Oh, for god's sake, will you shut up!" she moaned. Her fingers scrabbled into the mattress cover; with all her clawing, the cover sheet was starting to come off the bed. Her cheek was pressed hard into a pillow, and ohmigod ohmigod ohmigod she was coming, coming soon, if only he would just stop talking.

"Nasty, raunchy girl, like to get it on with us creatures of the night—"

"Ahhhhh!!" She was shrieking, orgasm bursting, and that had been yet anotherr big revelation of having sex with him. He surprised sounds out of her. She surprised herself, even, when he found something that could make her scream. She'd never been noisy during sex before.

Buffy shoved herself backward then, bumping him with her ass. Heard his strangled cry as she probably bent his cock backward—whups, sorry, Spike—and reversed their positions, throwing him sideways across the bed. She swung a leg over him to straddle his chest and he peered up at her, his head hanging awkwardly off the side.

"Like this better, do you?" He was grinning now. His fingers crept up her thighs to trace the damp skin, she slapped them away. "Having fun?"

"Shut up," she said again. Because damn him, it did excite her, a whole wellspring of excitement bubbling up in her to see him helpless under her hands.

She reached out and pinched his nipples, eyes dark.

"Don't talk," she hissed, and gritted her teeth. Flexed her knees and began to ride. Underneath her, he moaned and stretched, arched into her. She gripped him tight with her internal muscles, rolled her hips in stroking motions. His eyes rolled back.

"Ohhhh.… Slayer. Ohgod Slayer. Oh you are amazing. You are—ohhh!" She leaned forward, then back, rested her hands on his thighs. His hands crept up to her hips and rested there, not clenching or bruising, just sliding on her skin, back and forth.

And then he was holding her, hands loose around her waist, gently helping her in her motions, guiding her up and down. And then he was making that breathy, helpless sound that almost sounded like crying—she'd made it herself a few times, the pleasure so intense that it was all she could do not to sob.

She leaned forward again. His head had rolled back so far off the bed she could see nothing but the point of his chin, his throat arched.

Then she felt it, another orgasm rocketing through her, spreading through her belly and up into—it seemed like—her hair. She flushed, mewed like a kitten, and screamed.

"You are a miracle," he groaned, his voice drifting up then from someplace over the edge of the bed. She felt his stomach muscles flex, and then he brought himself up into a sitting position, face up near hers. Stared at her with eyes gone misty, happy and smiling. There were actually tears on his cheeks.

Spike was looking at her like she was holy.

"My goddess," he said now in a soft voice. Gentle. He pulled his legs in to nestle around her, slid his hands under her ass for support. She let her arms fall over his shoulders, her wrists hanging limply behind his neck. Kissingly close.

"My Slayer. My goddess." He pressed his forehead against hers, touched her cheek with his lips. Slid one hand up to finally tug her towel off, dragging the rough fabric away in a slow movement that made her shiver, then ran splayed fingers over her sweat-slick breasts. "My goddess," he repeated, voice hoarse. "My Slayer. My warrior. Relentless, imperious warrior queen. My beautiful Bodicea."

She tightened her grip around his neck. They were pressed tight now, torso to torso, her sweat making them both slick. Her every movement made her breasts catch against his skin, taut nipples brushing against him.

"Will you stop?" she gasped. "I'm not your… Xena Warrior Princess fantasy, Spike."

"That so?" he said pleasantly now, but he kept thrusting up into her, short powerful thrusts that left her panting. "So you don't—" thrust "—have any, ah, supernatural kinks yourself then?" His eyes were so dilated an impartial observer might have thought he was drugged.

"Really not."

"Right." thrust "Beg to differ at the moment."

"You're so—" she panted. "—full of shit, Spike."

"And what are you full of?" He bucked up into her, eyes intense. A slow lick of her neck, tongue tracing her bite scars. Angel. Dracula. The Master. He gnawed at the scars with blunt teeth.

Unable to help herself, she shuddered, grabbed at his arms.

His hand slipped between them, dipped into her.

"That's why you're such a little ocean," he whispered appreciatively.

He placed his lips on her neck then and sucked hard.

Buffy screamed.

The memory of an old filmstrip bloomed suddenly in her head. Bikini Atoll, 1946.

Buffy honestly felt like her head might lift off, like a rocket.

She forced him back then, threw him off. His head smacked the headboard, hard. He was laughing.

She climbed atop him, lit up with anger. "You think that's funny, Spike?" Her chest heaved, more out of embarrassment than anything else. It was true that she had asked him to bite her that night—it made her flush just to think of it—but she'd come to her senses since. She didn't know why he was bringing it up now, considering he hadn't done it then. He hadn't even fanged out in front of her, at least not so far.

"I think it's adorable." He reached out a hand and pinched her ass. She slapped it off. And just because he was right there, still hard, and well… okay, yeah, she was still an ocean, she got back on him. Grabbed hold of the headboard and started to move up and down.

"Oh, Spike," he said suddenly, and she was jarred out of a sort of self-induced hypnotic daze to stare down at him, eyes wide. He was grinning, manically, a mischievous twinkle in his eye. Pursing his lips, he pitched his voice again in a high falsetto imitation of her.

"You're biggest, baddest creature of the night there is!" he warbled. "You get me soooo hot! I just can't get enough!"

She slapped him across the chest. "Shut up!" she protested, but began to laugh despite herself. God, what an ego!

"If I weren't so pure, I'd ride you allllll night!"

"Quit it!" She was gasping in between laughs. Her giggles were making her pubic muscles clench with interesting effects.

"When you take me with your massive cock, I just forget my virtue! My bible almost slips from my hands!"

"God, will you just be quiet!" She was laughing hard now, huge convulsive giggles. It was just so ridiculous. The headboard banged against the wall as she continued to work herself against him, rolling motions that made him shudder and rock.

Okay, this is more like it. Her eyes rolled back, and she let out a moan that could have come out of a foghorn.

"Knock it off in there!" a voice drifted through the wall then faintly, followed by a loud banging. The painting over the bed, of a timber wolf baying at a full moon, vibrated and shook. "People trying to sleep!"

Buffy and Spike stared at each other, paralyzed, then exploded in giggles.

Chest rumbling with laughter, Spike lifted a fist to the wall, and pounded it backhanded. "Piss off, ya killjoy!" he yelled, his accent skewing markedly more in the direction of punk-ass. "Trying to fuck a girl in here!"

Buffy squealed, scandalized. "Don't!" She grabbed his fist, held it down. She was still giggling, but some part of her beginning to be fuzzily self-conscious. God, how loud were we? How many other people are listening? With her free hand, she pulled a loose end of the sheet around herself, covered her breasts modestly. Spike snorted.

"Oh, why not? We haven't arrived at the not-fun part of the day yet, have we?" He slid his free hand under her sheet, tweaked a nipple.

She grabbed that hand, pinned it down as well. "He might come over here."

"So? Just some annoying stranger."

"Yeah, but if he does come over here, it's not like you can fight. And I don't want to have to kick someone annoying stranger's ass just because of you and your big mouth."

"My big mouth?" He lifted an eyebrow.

"Fine, whatever. Our big mouths." She'd been screaming too, or mostly, fair enough.

"Speaking of mouths..." he trailed off, looked at her innocently, blinked his eyes. Bit his lip in a way that said aren't I cute? She sighed.

"Don't do that."

"Do what?"

"Get all—" she shrugged her shoulders. "You know."

"You know? How old are you, Slayer?"

"Fine. Get all beggy for oral favors."

"Oral favors. Of which someone's already had their fair share."

"What, there's a quota system now? Tit for tat?"

"Well, could do that too, but somebody's holding my hands." He made a little show of struggling against her hold, then shoved out his lower lip and pouted.

She sighed. Well, that might be one way to keep him quiet. Or me. Whichever. "If I do it, you promise not to yell or anything? Or bang on the wall?" She squeezed both his wrists for emphasis, and he slowly nodded his head.

She took a deep breath then, brushed her hair behind her ears, and dipped her head into his lap.

Part Seven

Late in the afternoon, about 5 or 6 o'clock, Buffy woke up.

She'd been dozing, face on Spike's stomach, her hair spread over his chest. He had one arm thrown over her shoulders; his hand lay heavily on her back.

She lifted her head. Her cheek momentarily stuck to Spike's belly where she'd drooled a little pool. The room was so shockingly hot that her skin felt soaped with sweat.

Feebly, she shoved at his side with one hand. It made a weak little rocking motion. After three or four more shoves and an interim of total corpselike stillness on his part, Spike blinked and stirred. Looked at her, still half-sprawled across him, and smiled like a kid at Christmas.

"Sleep well?" he murmured, shifting his arm to run a hand through her hair.

Buffy quickly sat up. Or rather heaved herself backwards on her hands and knees and slid off the bed. Stumbled on unsteady legs toward the air conditioner and turned the fan all the way up. Her nipples pebbled immediately in the first cool blast and she moaned, clung to the unit like a life preserver. Stood there swaying, lost in the feeling of the wind stirring her hair, her skin breaking out in delicious goosebumps, and didn't even hear Spike walk up behind her.

She gasped, startled, as he threaded his arms around her waist, the taut lines of his body pressing into her back. His skin was shockingly hot, warmer than hers.

"You're hot," she said weakly.

He chuckled, nosed into her hair. "Glad you think so, pet."

"Not like that." She bumped him with her butt. "Go take a shower or something. I'm melting."

"What, like a wicked witch?" "No, like a drippy ice cream cone." She paused. "Shut up."

He was laughing, a rumble into her back. "Don't you want to hear me sing the praises of your drippy ice cream?"

"I've heard you sing." She pushed backward again. "Shower. Now." He stumbled back, still laughing, then she could hear his steps retreating. Buffy breathed a sigh of relief and stayed by the air conditioner until she heard the steady rain of the shower join the whirring of the fan in a blissful blur of white noise.

Unsteadily, Buffy tottered back to the rumpled bed and fell bonelessly onto her back. Her muscles were so relaxed that she practically dissolved into the wet sheets.

Her butt was definitely no longer sore.

She breathed deeply, trailing her hands across her nude body. Her skin was cooler now and drier. She combed her fingers through the damp hair between her legs, idly twirling the locks into a little spit curl.

Being comfortable with own nudity was still new to her. She hadn't really felt it until the invisible thing, when just the knowledge that no one could see her had done things to her courage, made it possible for her to strut around stark naked the way Spike did, all unembarrassed and proud. She'd liked that, being comfortable in her own skin. She'd never felt it before.

She rolled over onto her stomach. Spike had the same cocky posture and swagger when he was naked as he did when he was clothed. She was so jealous of that. She'd never been able to do that, not ever—she'd always needed her Slayer outfits, her best fashion attempts and makeup, to make her feel cool, able to do a kick and a quip and a backhanded staking like something out of a comic book Xander would read. She thought back to all the nights she used to spend teasing her hair and carefully choosing skirts for an outing in the graveyard, just as if they were dates. With dead guys she was then going to kill.

She rolled over again, threw her arms out wide. Then of course there was Spike. Their fights did seem like dates now that she looked back on them, weird getting-to-know-you encounters with banter and punching and inappropriate innuendo. Her first thought, even, when he'd stood up naked in his crypt after their first night of sex—and yes, she'd really, really been in denial right up until that exact moment, even though she'd spent a good hour soaking in the bathtub to remove their combined bodily fluids that very same day—had been something to the tune of that's what I've been fighting all this time, as if all her old memories had been superimposed with Naked!Spike, his clothes gone transparent via X-ray vision. Then she'd wondered to herself if he had done that too, pictured her fighting him naked, and realized of course he did. Duh.

That had kinda taken the modesty problem out of the equation, a bit.

Buffy sighed. Today had gone… alright, she supposed, a pleasurable blur of sweatiness and sex. Not too much arguing. The banging on the wall from the neighbors had not been repeated, thankfully, even when they'd done that sideways thing that was pretty strenuous and had really made the mattress squeak. Plus she'd screamed. Loud. Because at the end of it he'd slapped her bottom like a pony, and oh boy, she'd made him pay for that little trick. After which he'd then let out this shout of Oh God! that, had you heard it in a revival tent, you would have thought he'd found Jesus.

But it was their last round that was stuck in her mind. Missionary. Her favorite, boring as that sounded. She'd felt everything for that one—the sharp climax from her clit and the fuller one down deep, plus the generally good feeling of bodies rubbing together, the press of his full weight, her own curling tension with her legs wrapped around his waist and her hands cupped on his ass. He'd been breathing too, the way he sometimes—no, always did—when they were fucking, his face pressed into her hair, lips just below her ear. And she'd clutched at him helplessly, at his arching back, dragged her own lips across the nape of his neck as her slippery body skidded against his chest and abs like one of those water park fun slides. He'd kissed her at the end of it, slow and deep. She'd kissed back. After which she must have fallen asleep.

The shower shut off. Buffy levered herself up on her elbows, watching Spike as he emerged from the bathroom with that slow, rolling walk of his, toweling his hair.

"All yours, pet," he grinned.

She snorted, stood and brushed past him. Like I don't know that. Tried not to notice that he smelled cleanly of soap while she trailed a sweaty reek. Shut the bathroom door, found a semi-dry towel from the pile on the floor and turned the shower back on.

Spike is a problem, Buffy thought as she rested her head against the cool tiles, water raining down on her back. What am I going to do with him? Indulging themselves on the road was one thing, but when they got back to Sunnydale… well, that was something else. Being with him like this… no matter how good it felt...

Something I can't afford.

Because Spike… Spike didn't do anything halfway. That was one of the first things she'd learned about him. He always wanted it all, was never satisfied with some. She'd told him her secrets, and now he wanted to know everything. Kissed him once, then he wanted it again. Had sex with him, and now he was gonna want it all the time.

She had to pick and choose how much she much she could ask him for. How much she dared to let him in.

Shampooing her hair, Buffy bit her lip, thought. The bad part of it was, she could almost feel sorry for him. He obviously didn't see it the way she did. He probably thought of himself as her rescuer, swooping in to save her from her own boredom and misery. From her own friends that he didn't like anyway.

And yeah, he had rescued her that one time—when she'd been about to dance herself to death. He'd swept in to stop her like the hero in some Technicolor extravaganza, crooned at her like he was the Romeo to her Juliet. Not that that was such a good example, with all the warring families and suicides—well okay, maybe William Shakespeare had been writing about her life after all. And maybe all romantic vibes between her and Spike had come from that dancing demon, considering how he'd sung to her in the graveyard and then that curtain call of sugary-duet-plus-sucking-face. She didn't even have words for how she'd felt about him in those moments, floaty and surreal, a whole universe of wonderful aches blossoming in her chest.

Like any of that would ever happen for real.

She shut off the water, began to towel herself dry.

She wasn't a damsel who needed rescuing, that was the thing. She'd learned a long time ago that the only person she could rely on to save her was herself.

Only Spike… wouldn't think that. If she let him start believing that he could be her savior—

Every night I save you.

—he'd want to do it all the time.

And she'd done it too much already, run to Spike instead of dealing with bills and her friends and the constant drag of slayage, retreated back to his crypt where things were so much simpler, where the worst thing she ever had to worry about was him. And she knew she could handle him.

Only… well, that wasn't exactly true. There were parts of him she couldn't handle. The whole worshipful thing. The my goddess willing slave thing. She could deal with his Spike-the-sex-god act, that was easy—it was just a minor variation on his usual attitude anyway, with the bragging and the swagger and the big plans. You're gonna crave me and I'm all you've got and yeah, Spike, I get it, you're the Big Bad, whatever. Cue eye roll. That sort of thing felt right between them. Normal.

But him on his knees in front of her? That wasn't normal. That wasn't… Spike didn't kneel. Not to anyone. There was nothing about that picture that didn't feel wrong—a vampire, this vampire, kneeling to her.

At least when Dracula put the whammy on, you had his stupid phony accent to let you know his whole I've been waiting for you in the darkness thing was just a put-on, that it was only a line when he wafted in on the wind and called you the most amazing woman ever.

With Spike, however, you could believe it. With Spike it seemed real. And knowing him, the big sicko, it probably was. Like he wanted to play house with her in that crypt of his, or set up housekeeping in her place, whichever. He'd bend over backwards to play normal if she asked him to, put aside the whole evil thing like it was some lifestyle choice. And it scared her to think that she might get used to that.

Because there was temptation there, already—to go to him after a hard day, let him call her queen Bodacious or whatever. Ask him to fix her problems. Oh, Spike. You have to help me. Dawn's whining again and she won't listen to me, and I need money and demons need killing and Giles isn't around anymore, so can I just lean on your big manly shoulders while you take care of it for me like you did when I was dead? We can pretend I still am, except with me being here and offering you oral favors.

It would be like turning into the robot. Just the idea of it made her want to hurl.

Only... Face hidden in the towel, she flushed. Oh, god, she'd already been doing that! She had run to him for help with Dawn and… that night she'd been drunk—that he'd gotten her drunk—she'd sat on his stupid coffin and poured out her problems like a moron! All that was missing was for her to ask him for study help with school. You've lived through history, right?

She clung to the sink, took deep, shuddering breaths.

This so had to stop.

Part Eight

The Buffy who stalked out of the bathroom was an entirely different person than the one who'd gone in. Going in, she'd been a girl who'd spent an entire day having sex with someone she wasn't even interested in having a relationship with. That wasn't something that this new Buffy did. New Buffy was filled with silent Resolve. New Buffy knew what she wanted and what she didn't want. New Buffy wasn't going to be a drippy little puddle of leaning on some man, just because things were tough and he was there.

New Buffy could handle things just fine on her own, just like her mom had.

New Buffy struggled into her skirt and tried hard not to look at the rumpled bed. That was where he was, fully dressed and with his dirty boots up on the sheets. He was watching her dress like a peep-show performance, leaning back against the headboard with his arms folded behind his head.

Brushing her hair at the dresser mirror, New Buffy paused. Saw that he wasn't reflected in it, although she'd somehow gone through the whole day without noticing before.

"You know I can't… do this anymore," she spoke to his non-reflection. "When we get back. I just can't. And nobody… nobody can know about this."

From behind her, a long sigh. "Yeah, yeah, I know. Didn't figure you'd be too big with the sharing. Not yet, at least."

"Not ever, Spike." She still couldn't bring herself to turn, to look at him. "Not ever."

There was a slight pause, then his voice again, very soft. "Of course, Buffy. Whatever you say."

She hesitated then, hands trembling. This wasn't what she wanted at all. He was still just agreeing with her, not convinced. But what else could she say that she hadn't already tried? Today had used up all her arguments from the you're so disgusting and I'll never touch you again school. What else was there, other than to tell him I can't let myself lean on you because if I do, I'll never stop. That wasn't what he needed to hear. Or rather, it was, because it would just encourage him. She couldn't give him that.

"I'm not leaving, you know," he said then. Startled, she stared into the mirror at her own white and shocked face, at the empty bed behind her, as his voice came floated up to her, ghostlike. "Whatever happens, I'll be here for you, Buffy."

She stared into the mirror, at the place he would be.

"I know," she whispered. Then set her jaw and continued to brush her hair.

.........

As the dusk deepened, they stepped out the hotel room together and into the night. The air had grown slightly cooler with sundown, but there was still enough residual heat in the air to make Buffy gasp.

"Ugh, this heat," she complained. "How do people stand it?"

"You get used to it eventually, I figure," Spike said, tugging the door shut, leaving the key hanging in the lock. He looked perfectly comfortable in his long leather coat.

Buffy panted, hooked a finger into the neckline of her top, fanned it away from her skin. "Heat doesn't bother you?"

"No, not really. Not too fond of the cold, though. Slows me down a bit."

"Yeah, okay, but—" She stopped. Why are you talking to him so much, Buffy? Resolve, remember? Stop talking to him! "Let's just go."

Then she halted for an entirely different reason because there were two men standing between them and the bike.

"Excuse us," the older of the two drawled. "Is this your motorcycle?"

Buffy was instantly nervous. The older man looked like one of the truckers she'd seen in the coffee shop that morning—gray-haired and fat-bellied, dressed in blue jeans and a golf shirt and a peaked baseball cap. The other man was a teenager with shoulder-length hair. He also wore jeans, plus an army surplus jacket and a T-shirt that read Death From Above.

"Yeah," Spike drawled back at them. "That's ours. And if you don't mind, we'd like to get on it, and get out of this little two-horse truck stop. You got a problem with that?"

"Yeah, maybe I do," the older man said mildly. "Considering you're the two loudmouths who kept us up all day with your goddamn noisy fuck-fest."

"Um," Buffy cut in, pushed in front of Spike. "We're very sorry about that—the noise." She forced a sweet smile, although she was blushing so hard that her ears were burning. God, this is so embarrassing. "We don't want any trouble. We'll… just be on our way."

"Aw, who says we don't want trouble?" Spike said. He was smiling, lips drawn back into a wolflike snarl, and there was an unpleasant glitter in his eyes. "After they were so kind as to wait for us, and all."

Buffy whirled around, put her hands on Spike's chest. "Are you crazy?" Buffy hissed. "I don't want to get into it with them, Spike, let's just go!"

"Spike?" The younger of the two sputtered. "Is that really your name?"

"Hey waitasecond—you're a vampire," the older man suddenly barked. Buffy spun her head around to look over her shoulder at him; the trucker was giving the once-over glare to Spike, and then he stabbed a finger in the direction of Buffy. "And she's human—what, you like to play with your food or something?"

"Ohmigod, you're vampires. You have got to be kidding me," Buffy sighed then, all at once feeling tired. She let her hands slither away from Spike's chest, threw them into the air in a helpless motion. "Do I have a sign on my back or something? Like, instead of the one that says 'kick me,' it says 'vampires attack me'?"

"Didn't sound like you so much minded being attacked, girly girl, given all we heard next door," the trucker vamp drawled.

"Well, that was a wasted worry about them coming over during the daylight. Coulda been a lot louder," Spike added.

"Would you shut up?" Buffy hissed, grumbling to herself. Great. Now I'm gonna have to chase these jerks around the parking lot and get all sweaty again. Lips pressed together angrily, she swung her purse off her shoulder and began to fish through it for her stake.

"You're Spike?" The younger one asked again.

"Spike, do you know these guys?" Buffy sighed, annoyed. Maybe I can just ask Spike to dust them. No, wait—New Buffy does her own damn slaying.

"What, these gits? Never seen 'em before."

"And we'd rather not see you again," the trucker vamp said sharply. "Vamps keep a low profile out here, mister—we don't need you big-city leather-and-mayhem types to come riding into town and start rocking the boat. All we want to know is whether any of your Goth rocker pals are headed out this way so you can tell them to turn right back around again before we have to arrange for a posse to show them out."

"You're William the Bloody?"

"Jimmy, lay off, okay? Who gives a shit who he is? The point is, we're simple country vamps. We like our music, our jobs, and our local blood. We leave the hellraisin' to the other guys. Tell your friends."

"Hold on a second," Buffy said. She held a stake in her hand now. "You have jobs?" Vampires have jobs and I don't?

"I drive a truck. Jimmy here rides with me, keeps me from falling asleep." He eyed the stake, pursed his lips, and glanced at Spike. "That's one kinky chick you've picked up there, mister.

"Don't I know it," Spike answered.

"You drive a truck?" Buffy echoed. Trucker vampires. She tried to wrap her mind around it.

"Sure, why not? I make night runs, up and down the state. Sure beats driving during the day—you ever been on I-5 when the sun's up? Hotter than hell out there."

"But you're a vampire," Buffy insisted. Her mind was still rebelling.

"So? A man's gotta make money somehow, don't he?"

"But you could just—" she halted, realized she'd been on the verge of saying, But you could just steal, you know.

There was definitely something wrong with the world when the Slayer had to give vampires how-to evil tips.

Buffy squared her shoulders, took a step forward.

"Well, much as we've enjoyed our lovely trip to your little burg, so sorry, can't stay," Spike said pleasantly. He was leaning back against the hotel room door, hands in his pockets, as if expecting to see a good show. "And guess what—looks like you're about to bid farewell to this place too."

The trucker vamp's game face came on. "Call off your chippie there, bud, or I'll have to make a little snack out of her."

"Oh, that's what you think," Spike laughed.

"Dad!" The younger vamp was waving his arms. "Why won't you listen to me? Don't you know who this is?"

"Dad?" Buffy sputtered, momentarily brought up short. "He's your dad?"

"Well, yeah," the teen vamp said in a voice carrying overtones of how dumb are you, you dumb blonde? "It was the least I could do for him. I mean, he loved driving until he got that bladder problem, and now he can drive all night. Plus the whole bitchin' blood-drinking thing."

"You turned your dad?" Buffy gaped, failing to register Spike's miniscule flinch. "That's totally sick."

"It's actually been a huge father-son bonding experience," the young vamp insisted, and both vamps nodded.

Buffy rolled her eyes. "Okay, that's it," she said, and stepped forward again. She and the two vamps did a fast little dance around the motorcycle, keeping it between them.

"I said call off your chippie, mister," dad vamp said again, constantly dancing backward as Buffy advanced, looking considerably more annoyed now. "I'll kill her anyway if you don't pull her back—I'm not into wasting food, which is what this is if all you're gonna do with her is fuck her."

"Wait, wait, wait!" The young vamp waved his arms again. "I just gotta say this. Spike—I'm a totally big fan!"

Everyone froze at this. Purse swung over one shoulder, stake in her hand, Buffy stood rooted in the parking lot as if her feet had been nailed to the ground. The two vamps stood together, the motorcycle between themselves and Buffy. Spike, still on the sidewalk in front of their hotel room, gaped at the teen vamp, his face contorted with an expression she couldn't quite name.

"A fan," he repeated, his voice low and dangerous.

"Aw, jeezus," dad vamp sighed. "Here he goes. Jimmy, you know I don't give a crap about all that vampire culture worshipping-the-darkness shit."

"Dad, c'mon, this is Spike. William the Bloody. He's killed two Slayers with his bare hands! That's just… you've gotta respect that."

Buffy felt as if all the air had left her lungs. Jimmy the vampire was beaming, like he'd just met a rock star. A dead rock star, like Elvis. His eyes were shining like he wished he had the courage to ask Spike for a kiss.

Killed two Slayers with his bare hands. She turned her head to stare at Spike, with eyes suddenly gone blurry. She couldn't not look at him then, not think of how he'd looked the night that he'd bragged to her about those very acts. He'd said being dead had made him feel alive for the first time, told her that she craved death herself. That she love it.

He'd said killing those Slayers had been the high points of his life.

How could she have forgotten that, even for a second?

Spike hadn't moved. He just stared back at her, face grim and closed, eyes wide.

Every Slayer has a death wish. Even you.

Buffy's own eyes narrowed, and she tightened her grip on the stake.

"Wow, Spike," she said flatly. Her voice sounded very far away to her own ears. "Your very own fan club. What every little vampire dreams of."

In the background, Jimmy was still babbling on, oblivious to the sudden increase in tension. "Dreams of, sure, don't I know it. Man, you're like my hero. The way you fixed that broad in New York? That was the first story my sire ever told me. Coolest thing I ever heard." Jimmy turned toward his dad, made violent hand gestures as if to illustrate. "He like, broke her neck just like that. Wham! Didn't even bother to drink her blood. That's just… way too cool."

"Yeah, yeah," the dad said, sounding bored. He looked at Spike and winced. "Sorry, guy. No offense and all, but this big evil bullshit just bores the fuck out of me. Personally, I'd rather do an honest day's work and then tuck into a nice meal of warm runaway."

"Can I get an autograph?" Jimmy burbled. He fished through the pockets of his army jacket, produced a battered address book. "Sorry I sound like such a dork, dude, but I'm just too excited. Although I gotta say—I thought you'd be a lot taller."

"Yeah." Spike's eyes had never left Buffy's. His face was a tight mask of tension, his lips pressed together and angry. He stood up straighter then suddenly, a too-quick motion that made his duster rustle. "Tell you what, kid," he said, gesturing with one outstretched arm. "Let me show you something."

Jimmy stepped forward eagerly. Was met by a swirl of leather, a motion too rapid to follow. The young vampire fell into dust, evaporating along with his held-out address book.

Vamp dad's mouth fell open. "Why, you sonofva—" he yelled, and then he was gone too as Buffy skirted around the bike in two quick strides and snapped her stake into his chest. The trucker vamp shuddered into particles that whirled and eddied on the hot winds like a dust devil.

Trembling, Buffy stared at the circling dust cloud for a long moment, and then lifted her head to look at Spike.

He was still on the sidewalk. But for the stake in his left hand, he might not even have moved. His eyes were narrowed, faraway, distant. She couldn't even imagine what he might be thinking.

She watched then as Spike moved slowly and deliberately, pocketing the stake. He took three steps to the motorcycle and got on it. Fitted the key, fired it up. Shot Buffy a single, intense look, then stared forward sightlessly. Sat there revving the engine, stiff-armed, hands open and loose on the handlebars, shoulders tense. Waiting for her.

Buffy stayed where she was. She couldn't take her eyes off him, couldn't move. The look he'd given her, just after getting on the bike, had shot a bolt straight through her, one that had left her shaking. She knew that look. It was the one he'd had on his face the night of the abandoned house, when he'd stepped in her path and refused to move. It was so obvious now, her reaction to that, the way she'd smiled at his stubbornness like a kid being given a treat.

I liked that, she realized with a sinking feeling in her gut. I liked it that he was challenging me. I liked… fighting him—oh, god, it's true. Everything he said about me. Being with him really does get me off. She felt sick.

Because there was arousal swirling in her stomach even now, and she recognized in a sudden awful epiphany that it had always been there—she'd loved fighting him, loved the dance, as he'd called it, loved the banter and the insults and the risk. She was a junkie for it—an adrenaline addict like those bungee jumpers or people who skydived.

She panted, tried to get ahold of herself. The disgust roiling in her stomach was huge—she couldn't believe she'd ever allowed herself to feel like that, that she'd somehow turned a deathmatch with a mortal enemy into turn-on, arrived at some mental compromise that let her think that fucking her great nemesis was just as acceptable as killing him. She was as sick as he was. She was just like him.

Spike still wasn't saying anything. Didn't try to explain or defend. Buffy stared at the expanse of leather stretched tight across his back and thought of walking up behind him, raising her stake.

She stepped forward. Did just that, stood behind him, just out of his line of vision. Clutched the stake tight in her hand, upraised, and thought of those two Slayers, her dead sisters. Then her own sister, Dawn, whose life she had died to protect.

Who Spike had tried to protect with her. Her eyes blurred.

He's fighting with me. He's helped me. I can't… I can't do this. She lowered the stake.

Stomach still jumping from nerves, she put the stake back in her purse with trembling fingers. Reached for her helmet and strapped it onto her head. Then got on the bike behind him and forced herself, with clenched teeth, to wrap her arms once more around his waist.

Wordlessly, Spike opened up the throttle, and they took off, sped into the night.

Part Nine

The ride back to Sunnydale didn't take anywhere near as long as Buffy had remembered it taking on the way there. Granted, they'd already traveled part of the way before setting off, but it seemed like only minutes after she'd reluctantly wrapped her hands around Spike's waist before they were pulling into her own driveway, the time in between a barely remembered blur of hurtling through dark forest roads. It was much like a Disneyland trip she remembered from childhood—she'd thrown up on Space Mountain, dizzy and disoriented in the dark.

Spike cut the engine, threw the kickstand on the bike, leaned forward to give Buffy room to step off. She quickly removed her arms from around his waist and wiped her sweating hands on her skirt as if they'd touched something nasty. Pulled the helmet from her head and sucked in the cool night air, just breathed, shaking the sweat from her wind-tangled hair.

The house loomed up in front of them like something out of a fairy tale.

The driveway was dark, unlit. Across the lawn, though, Casa de Summers was golden with lights, a slight blue-white flicker from the TV showing through the front window curtains. The rest of the neighborhood around them was bright with lights too, little islands of glowing habitation along a dark ribbon of street. Over the river and through the woods.

But sitting on the bike, staring at her mother's house—her house now—Buffy felt a chill.

It was probably about nine o'clock in the evening. Willow and Dawn would no doubt be home, probably studying or watching TV. She could picture them sitting on the couch together, surrounded by pizza slices and coffee cups, books open and spread out. She could hear the same low hum of laughter and applause from the television that she remembered hearing the evening that she'd left. Last night.

A whole day longer than she'd originally told them she'd be gone… and it hadn't even occurred to her to call home. Not once. She hadn't thought of Dawn, or Willow, or Sunnydale. Not at all.

"Home sweet home," Spike said then dryly, and Buffy gave a little startled jump. As if prodded by his voice, she slid off the bike, landing on her feet with a thump. She could still feel the vibration of the road in her butt, even though they'd stopped moving, the way the ground still seems to be moving when you step off a ship. He glanced at her, then looked away.

"Probably want to go inside now, I'd expect, back to your friends and all," he said matter-of-factly, pointedly keeping his face turned aside. "Run along then, Slayer. Don't mind me."

Buffy hesitated. His bitterness was so obvious that she could barely hold back a sarcastic laugh—he was nearly begging for her to tell him how disgusting he was, then march off in a huff. And really, he deserved it—he deserved nothing else. Killer of Slayers and a century-plus-old vampire, who was he to get all upset at the idea that she would send him away?

"Yeah, okay," she heard herself saying then, and how inane was that? "They're probably, you know, worried about me." Since I didn't call or anything. She fidgeted a little. Spike just nodded stiffly in response. Neither of them moved.

The helmet was still in her hands. Buffy studied the pale blue battered plastic in place of looking at him, and realized with some surprise that didn't want to go back inside the house. It almost scared her, the force of that feeling, once she recognized it. She really didn't want to see her friends or get back to her life, already in progress. She didn't want this… interlude to be over.

Because it was an interlude, wasn't it? A getaway from her reality. As long as they were on the road, Buffy had felt… not content, maybe, but...

Free.

It doesn't have to be over, she thought to herself suddenly, a giddy voice of dissent in the back of her mind. We could just go. She'd put the helmet back on and get back on the bike, tell Spike to keep going. Keep going. They'd leave Sunnydale and not look back. Go someplace else, somewhere with no bills to be paid or sisters that needed looking after, or best friends who couldn't look at candles without shaking, or demons to be slayed, someplace...

Over the rainbow.

And if it ended badly, what did that even matter? How could it, when home didn't feel like home anymore, and she didn't even feel like Buffy—if they left Sunnydale, she wouldn't be the Slayer anymore, not really… and he wouldn't be Spike either, not the one vampires looked up to, anyway. He'd be someone else. Hers. And if it ended with her stake in his chest and his fangs in her throat, well, at least that would be a death worthy of a Slayer. Better than some.

"You alright?" Spike asked her then, and she lifted her head, startled. Found him staring at her, eyes shuttered but soft. Her own gaze fastened hopelessly onto his face, the face that could look so beautiful at times, even though god knew she'd seen it look ugly, snarling and bestial and vicious… only not right now.

When he finally dropped his eyes from hers, she felt as if something had been snatched out of her hands.

"This is probably the part where you tell me not to come around anymore, isn't it?" He spoke as if to a point in the distance, facing away from her in near-profile. Reflected lamplight from the house painted his skin pale gold.

She swallowed, registered his every movement, every flicker of his mouth and eye and the angle of his throat, as if storing the pictures away in some dark closet in her mind.

"I don't—" She couldn't quite find her voice.

"It's alright, you don't have to say it," he interrupted. He shifted in the seat, began to fiddle with the ignition key. "I'll just—"

"I do want to see you," she blurted then. She'd startled herself. What made me say that?

He blinked then, looked at her. "You do."

Something in her softened. "Yeah," she said. "I do."

He smiled then, a slowly blooming expression that warmed his whole face. "Why's that then?"

Relieved, Buffy let out a little laugh, nearly a hiccup. "Uh, do you care why?"

"Well, not really, no." He was grinning now. He looked genuinely happy, like a little kid. "So, you want I should just drop by the house sometime, or should I wait by the phone?"

"You don't have a phone." She rolled her eyes. God, he's so hopeless. "Just… don't hold your breath or anything. And don't come creeping around here, either. I'll… come by to see you."

"Right," he agreed, then fired up his bike, still smiling. Revved the engine. "Goodnight and farewell, Buffy," he hollered over the roaring engine, cocking his head just so, tongue between his teeth. "Sweet dreams."

"After this trip?" Buffy snorted, her own voice pitching loud enough to be heard over the roar. "Not likely."

"Well, think about me, then." He threw her a wink, then took off, rumbling off into the distance without even giving her a chance to answer. The taillights of his bike had nearly faded into the darkness before Buffy found an answer.

"You wish!" she yelled. Lame comeback, Buffy, she grumbled to herself, then turned to the house, glum clouds gathering over her mood as she realized that no one had come out of the house, even with the motorcycle making noise in the driveway. Huh. Guess they weren't too worried.

She trudged up the front walk, paused at the door.

Sweet dreams. Think about me.

Yeah, right.

She opened the door, and went in.

Part Ten: Epilogue

Rome, Italy, September 2004

"God, I love these," Dawn said. "I swear, I never get tired of just how fancy everything is." She eagerly arranged her dishes—thick white cafe ceramics—just so on the plastic-coated tablecloth, and began to drop sugar lumps into her cappuccino with a tiny pair of silver tongs.

Buffy just watched her, smiling. They were sitting at a cafe table under a tilted umbrella, not far from the touristy centre, the crowds snapping photos of the Coliseum and Palatine Hill. An espresso cup sat in front of her. Black, with a lemon twist.

They'd been living in Rome for more than a year. It didn't really feel like home—well, nowhere really felt like home, but Buffy liked it. As cities go, and she'd seen a few by now, it was big, cosmopolitan, and old, relentlessly European. The mixture of roaring traffic and historical buildings fascinated her—old pressed up against new. And the shopping. That was nothing to sneeze at, either.

She lifted her espresso cup. Drained it in a single motion, replaced it on the saucer without having touched the tiny spoon. Dawn shuddered.

"I don't know how you can drink that stuff without sugar," she said, twirling a miniature spoon through her cup's thick layer of froth. "I mean, black coffee? Gross. And espresso is just coffee on steroids."

Buffy laughed a little. "Yeah, but you only need a little and you're all revved up. Plus, sugar lumps. Bad."

"Don't," Dawn said, shaking a stern finger. "There is no such thing as counting carbs. I'm sticking to that. I like the pasta here."

Buffy laughed, shook her head. It was true that Dawn had taken to Rome like a born Italian. She already spoke the language nearly as well as a native, wore the latest fashions and rode a mint-green Vespa.

"I wasn't talking about a diet." Buffy rolled her eyes. "It was just… there was this demon thing—"

"Oh, god, not another demon story. Seriously, Buffy, you have to get over the glory days." Dawn rolled her eyes in an expert, unconscious imitation of her sister, then pitched her voice in a high, squeaky parody of Buffy's. "There was this one that got away. I swear, it was this big..." she spread her hands wide apart.

"No," Buffy laughed. "Actually, it was more of a Spike story."

Cup halfway to her lips, Dawn paused. A breeze tugged lightly at her glossy hair. "You… want to talk about Spike?"

"Well… I mean, it wasn't anything big. It was just this trip we went on once, with these horse demons, and there was this sugar—um, you remember that field trip to Bakersfield I wouldn't let you go on?"

"Uh, no? Probably because you wouldn't let me go on it?" Dawn set down her cup, studied Buffy closely. "So how is this a Spike story?"

Buffy blinked. "Oh. Well… it's nothing, really. I just… the sugar just reminded me. It's nothing." She fell silent then, traced her fingers idly along the edge of the tablecloth, stared out across the nearby piazza.

Dawn sucked in a deep breath, let it out as a heavy sigh. "Right. Okay. Sure. Never mind," she said, then went back to stirring her cappuccino, the spoon hitting the edge of the cup with a rapid clicking sound.

Buffy watched this for a moment with a gathering frown. "What?" she finally blurted.

"Nothing. Well, I mean… for a moment there I thought you were actually gonna talk about Spike or something. No big." Dawn shrugged and continued stirring.

Buffy considered these words silently for a moment, chewed on her lip. "Dawn, I know we haven't… I mean, do you… want to talk about Spike?" she ventured carefully.

Dawn pursed her lips, played with the handle of her cup. "I was kinda more wondering if you did," she said slowly. "I mean, people ask me sometimes."

People ask? "About what?"

"About if you're, you know, sad or anything." Dawn drank from her cup, averted her eyes. "It's no big deal. I just tell them I don't know."

"You don't—" Buffy halted, regrouped. "What do you mean, you don't know?"

Dawn looked a little pained. "Oh, c'mon, Buffy. It's been over a year. You haven't even said the guy's name once. What am I supposed to think?"

Buffy was struck silent for a moment. "You think… that I don't care?" she said hoarsely.

Dawn shook her head. "No, just… look… just forget it. Forget I said anything."

"Let's not forget it." Buffy kept her voice even through sheer effort. "You said people have been asking you. Like who?"

"Buffy..."

"Like who?"

"Like everybody. Willow. Giles. God, even Xander called this year to see if you wanted to talk. I didn't know what to tell him." Dawn sighed. "Buffy, really, I wasn't trying to get you upset."

"I'm not upset." Buffy delivered this through gritted teeth. "Xander hasn't said anything to me. When did he ask you about this?"

"Remember what I said about it being more than a year?" Dawn winced, looked away. "I sent him some flowers. He called us to thank. That's when he asked."

"Flowers? You mean for—" Buffy paused. "Oh."

"Look," Dawn waved a hand helplessly. "I really didn't mean to get you upset, okay? If you don't wanna talk about it, that's fine. Nobody's gonna make you talk about anything you don't want to. It doesn't even matter anymore."

The waiter arrived with their salads then, and Buffy sat silent as the plates were arranged in front of her, remained quiet until the waiter went away.

"It matters," Buffy said softly then, voice hoarse. "I did care. And I didn't talk to any of you because I knew you… wouldn't understand. Because I wasn't sad. I was happy. For him." She took a deep breath then, shuddering, and looked at Dawn with brimming eyes.

"It wasn't just me who won everything down there, or Willow, or the new Slayers, it was… I wouldn't have been able to get through those last few days at all if it wasn't for him. And it's what he wanted. He wanted to… to help me. To save me. And he did. I finally let him, and he did."

Buffy dipped her head then, and picked up her fork. Dawn said nothing.

They ate in silence.

.........

It was easier after that. Talking about Spike. Once she'd managed that admission, painful as it was, it was like something in her chest had loosened up, let go. She still didn't believe anyone would really understand, even if she tried to explain it—what they'd been through together, been to each other—but she had her own memories for that, private ones. What anybody else thought wasn't the point.

But it had freed her, finally, to where she could talk about him and not feel judged, or even care if she was. She told Dawn the story of the Kendruns—the demon sugar, the motorcycle ride, Spike's vampire fan club, all of it. Well, maybe not all of it, exactly—she skipped over the NC-17 parts while still letting Dawn know they were there—but all the rest. Dawn hadn't wanted details anyway—"TMI!" she'd laughed—but she'd been entertained, not shocked.

"What I wouldn't have given to see you all sugared up and hyper," Dawn had said. Buffy had laughed along with her and agreed that yep, it had indeed been quite the sight, if hardly her most well thought-out moment. Although, as Dawn pointed out, that could have been said for all of them that year. "Okay, who am I being? 'Get out get out get out!'" She'd flapped her hands, screeching, and they'd both dissolved into laughter. That was one Dawn mannerism Buffy would never forget.

It was late afternoon now. Dawn had gone back to her afternoon classes—she was attending university here, thinking about studying art restoration—and Buffy had decided on a brisk walk after their late lunch. Swinging her handbag in a jaunty motion, she made her way down the Via dei Fiori Imperiali, feeling thoughtful.

She hadn't thought about that trip to see the Kendruns in years. It was as if she'd rediscovered it in telling it, found that time had polished the experience into merely a funny story, a sexy adventure. Even the parts that had seemed so miserable at the time, all tension-filled and conflicted and dire, had taken on the soft sheen of old memory. Her whole history with Spike seemed the same way now—all the hurts and slights and injuries long since placed into perspective, a softening process that let the good moments stand out, fond remembrances she kept like lucky coins. Even the dullest memories had their own secret gleam; she only had to rub them to make them shine.

There were still sore spots, of course. Those times certainly hadn't been easy, and no amount of soft focus could make them pretty. In retelling the Kendrun story, for example, Buffy had realized uneasily just how badly she must have messed up things for Anya with her little sugar rampage, something it hadn't even occurred to her to apologize for at the time. That whole year had gone by in a blur of bad choices, her moods battering her about with the strength of gale-force winds. Hurricane Buffy. And the year after that? Not much better, what with all the pressure and decisions, everyone looking up to her and asking her to fix things. In some ways, she was lucky to have gotten through any of it at all, not that she'd managed it all by herself.

That had been the lesson, finally. The part that she couldn't really explain, even though with Dawn just now she'd tried. It had taken her until the last possible second to figure it out, yeah… but she had gotten it. That she didn't always need to be the hero. Anymore than he always had to be the villain. That was what Spike had finally helped her to understand. That nothing and no one was really that simple. Everyone was more than the roles they played.

You could define yourself, but that definition shouldn't define you.

On the edge of the ruins dotting Palatine Hill, Buffy stopped, hooked her fingers through the chain-link fence and watched the groups of tourists making their way across the grass, taking pictures of the arches and broken columns. She liked coming here, to this place—to all the touristy spots, really. There was something comforting in the thought that great civilizations had risen and fallen, right here. As someone who'd spent the last few years waiting for the next apocalypse to strike, it was encouraging to realize that no matter how bad things got, people would endure. As they had for centuries on centuries. Change was constant but… life went on.

She'd gone on with her life. After Sunnydale, she'd traveled, shopped, moved here, settled in. In theory she was a pivotal member of the new Watcher's Council, but in reality, she didn't have much to do with it. She didn't patrol anymore—Rome's vampire population was nearly nil anyway, all the religious artifacts in the city saw to that. Giles ran things. With the new Slayers, and Xander and Willow. And sure, maybe by not taking a more active role she was letting all those new girls down, but she liked to think of it as the next generation's turn. Changing of the guard.

She was still a Slayer, but the Slayer life wasn't for her, not anymore.

These days, she was… almost normal. She'd started dating again… well, enough to remember what a joke the dating scene was. It had been so long she'd forgotten—the small talk and the awkwardness and unfunny jokes, never mind the extra fun of not speaking each other's language all that well. It was starting to dawn on her why most people didn't find their soulmates through dating—how could you, when all you really had to say to each other was I like how you look in that dress or aren't you pretty darn cute in those leather pants? The whole making-a-connection thing was a lot harder than it looked.

Not that she didn't have fun. She'd gone out with Romeo for a few months—or "The Immortal," as he liked to be called, not that she called him that. Going out with a guy named "Romeo" was weird enough, especially since he pronounced it "ro-MAY-oh," and it had taken her weeks to realize that duh, that was how "Romeo" was supposed to be pronounced, no thanks to freshman English. And there'd been a little part of her waiting, the whole time she'd been seeing him, for Giles or any of her friends to call and protest, complain about his supernatural status. She'd even known exactly what she was going to say. "Little late for me to start restricting the dating pool to humans-only, don't you think?"

But they'd never said a word. Although considering what Dawn had said, it was worth wondering now if they'd thought she was being disrespectful to Spike, and wasn't that a mind-bending idea?

Either way, it hardly mattered now. She'd gotten bored with Ro-may-oh's ego, told him to take a hike. Astonished didn't quite cover his reaction. To hear him talk, you'd think that no woman had ever shown him the door before.

Whatever. She'd had way more practice than the average girl in telling hot supernatural guys to get lost.

And if her future held no more chances for her to do that again… well, that was okay too. She'd been right, in a way, when she'd told Angel she wasn't ready. Normality had just made that clearer for her. Like a diver being brought up from deep water, the past year had let her depressurize. She could look back now and see how normal her life hadn't been—the average person couldn't expect even one great love in a lifetime… and there'd been such intensity in those years, so much passion and agony and heartbreak that it was entirely possible she'd used up her quota. After years of being a lightning rod for drama and death and doomed romance, she was now just another person. Another lightning strike of love would be like winning the lottery. And the average person didn't have great odds for that either.

She started moving again, absently ducking cars and Vespas in the way of a practiced Roman as she crossed the street. Traffic was always fiercely busy in Rome; you pretty much just had to brazen your way across and leave it to faith that the drivers wouldn't hit you. Most of the time it worked. Sometimes it didn't—Rome had a lot of traffic fatalities.

Away from the Via dei Fiori Imperiali and its overbearing national monument—Buffy could never remember what it was meant to commemorate—the streets were quieter. A tangle of back alleys led to the Pantheon—as if on autopilot, Buffy found the colonnaded facade. It always amused her how such a historic place was just sort of tucked in there between some ordinary brick buildings and a parking lot. Suddenly there you were, in a cute little plaza with an obelisk.

On impulse, she went inside.

The moment she stepped over the threshold, sounds became hushed. The Pantheon also doubled as a church—it was the only reason the place had survived from ancient times. The crowd of tourists kept their voices low, showed the same reverence they might in a library or museum.

Buffy craned her head to look at the roof. There was a circular opening at the top of the grand dome where sunlight could stream in to illuminate the building. Indirectly, for the most part, although at certain times of the day a shaft of pure sunlight could make it through to the tiled floor, making the air inside the building practically shimmer in gold. The lighting was indirect now, hazy and dreamlike. Visitors wandered the room with cameras raised, posed for videos in front of the tombs or and statuary, tried not to trip over the stone-faced guards.

For some reason, it was a scene that always made Buffy smile.

Standing out of the way of the milling tourists near one of the monumental tombs, Buffy paused and indulged herself in a little people-watching. Trying to guess the nationalities of the tourists was a fun game she'd discovered recently—it was like a variant of the old spot-the-vampire game, although granted, that had been something more of a contact sport.

German, French, English. Usually you could tell those countries apart by their shoes. Not always, although Germans tended to have better cameras, so that was a good tiebreaker. Americans you could tell by the color of their clothes—typically pastels, with white sneakers, always. Indians were easy. Gorgeous in saris. Men with turbans, although some didn't wear them; she didn't know why yet. Chinese, Japanese, Korean. Those were a little harder to figure out, but she was getting better at it, listening with one ear for the languages to confirm her guesses. Japanese tourists especially always seemed impeccably dressed.

Then her eye caught on one man standing nearly opposite her at the far wall, and the guessing-game was forgotten.

Clothes. These weren't his clothes. Faded blue jeans. A short leather jacket of the type popular in Italy at the moment. Butter-colored leather, cropped just below the waist. And the hair wasn't slicked-back blond, but a close-cropped light brown. But his face...

Of course it wasn't him. She knew that. She'd had plenty of encounters like this over the past year—a quick glimpse of blond hair and black leather, or an overheard snippet of just the right type of accent, and just for a moment it wouldn't matter that she knew it was her mind playing tricks. For a brief, excruciating instant, everything in her would freeze, time would roll back, and her heart would just stop.

This was another one of those. Obviously. A mirage.

But this face… Buffy had never seen a lookalike anywhere near this close before. The same sharp planes, the same curve of throat. The same nose, even. He was just standing there, head tilted up like all the other tourists, hands hooked into his belt. And she just watched him through the hazy dancing motes of sunlight, mouth open in sheer shock—why today, of all days?—and waited for the illusion to fade.

It didn't.

It was a hallucination. Of course it was. Because she'd just been talking about him with Dawn, thinking about him, and her eye had picked out some random tourist that suddenly, through a trick of the light, looked just like Spike. Her mind wanted to see him, so she did.

The argument held until an upswell of panic—a need to know—forced her forward on unsteady legs, heart in her throat, to get a closer look.

The illusion would crack. In another few steps, she'd see the flaws. He'd have a completely different chin. His eyes would be too close together. Or he'd be thirty pounds heavier. A hunchback. With a lazy eye. She kept walking.

She was within ten feet of him when he finally lowered his gaze from studying the architectural marvel of the ceiling and looked directly at her.

His eyes went wide.

Buffy stared. The illusion hadn't faded. This man could be Spike's identical twin. She felt weighted down, unable to move. And meanwhile, I'm standing here in front of a total stranger with my jaw hanging open.

She had no idea what to say. What could she say?

She opened and closed her mouth like a fish until sounds finally came out. "I, uh, excuse me. I-I used to… know someone who looked just like you." Oh, hello, that doesn't at all sound like a pickup line. She cringed inside, her poor tormented brain scrambled to catch up, to think of a way out in case the guy took her up on it, proposed a date.

Spike's twin did almost exactly the same thing she had. He let his mouth fall open, soundless, closed it again. Her mind leaped to fill in the blank. He'll be Italian. German. Lithuanian. Russian. He doesn't understand you. What's your problem, crazy tourist woman? I have a wife and children in Mexico.

"Uh, um… non… capisco," he said, in broken Italian, very, very obviously accented. "Non parlo… inglese." Buffy's eyes widened until she honestly thought they might pop out, like an overbred Pekingese dog.

Every sound, every inflection, even the movement of his mouth, was familiar to her.

His eyes.

"You—you're such a liar!" she hollered, fury and shock giving her voice ear-shattering power. The murmur of the crowds faded, the assembled tourists turned toward them, stunned.

Buffy barely noticed. "You—you—" she sputtered, and took a wobbly step forward on her fabulous striped strappy sandals. Promptly lost all footing completely, her thin pedestal heels turning sideways with the suddenness of a collapsing scaffold. She teetered and lurched forward, and he caught her in his arms.

Time stopped. Buffy hung there, half-suspended, knees scraping along on the stone floor, her arms clamped tight around his. She let her weight sag, planted her nose in the middle of his chest and took a deep breath of that clean, somehow new smell that he'd had ever since he'd come back to her with his soul. A clean scent that she realized suddenly had always been there, even beneath the booze vapors and leather and blood rust and cigarette smoke.

"Spike," she snuffled then, digging her fingers into his shirt. A crisp T-shirt, new. Black, of course. She laughed, tried to haul herself up, but her legs wouldn't work.

"I've got you," he rumbled, then picked her up. Her legs left the floor and then she was hugged up against his chest, her arms looped around his neck, the way a man might carry a woman across the threshold.

If she'd had any thoughts before about him not being real—a trick, or a ghost, or an illusion—they were gone now.

Spike shoved his way through the crowd to one of the grand stone benches. "She's not feeling well," he barked to the current occupants, a group of elderly Chinese tourists, and when they didn't move, he simply shouldered them aside, ignored their loud protests, and began to lay her out on the bench.

"I'm all right," Buffy insisted. She felt… embarrassed, shy even, positive she was blushing like a teenage bride. "Spike, let me—I'm not… having a fainting spell or anything, I was just… surprised." She put her feet up back on the floor, tried to sit up. Spike hovered over her, nearly fluttering, apparently unsure if he should sit next her on the stone seat or continue to stand. The matter was decided for him when the tourists he'd shouldered aside roughly squeezed back into their seats. Bumped by the sudden crush, Buffy struggled to keep herself upright.

"How… how..." Jostled by the tourists, by her own thoughts, by the sight of Spike standing in front of her, Buffy felt completely unable to catch her breath. "You're alive," she managed, finally.

"Not quite," he answered, with a small smile. "Just not all the way dead."

"But you're—" she sputtered, then processed. Oh. Vampire. Right. No, wait.

"But h-how did you get out? I thought—did you—" A horrible image then rose up in her mind, thousands of tons of rock raining down, the entire city crumbling and falling. Spike buried underneath it, entombed. Digging his way out with ruined and bloody hands, endless months of tunneling through rock and dirt. She put a hand over her mouth, suddenly sure she was going to be sick.

I never even thought of that. Why did I never even think of that? Oh god, did we leave him behind?

The world turned a dim gray then, and she put her head on her knees.

"Buffy? It's alright, just relax now. Everything's fine. Just breathe." Spike's voice sounded alarmed. She could feel his hand resting gently at the back of her neck, and the sense memory it brought back was so profound that she dissolved into choking sobs.

It was finally sinking in.

He's back. He's really back. She dug her fingers into her legs until it hurt and just cried, sobs hitching her chest. Her heart was beating so fast she was afraid she might die, right here with every gape-mouthed tourist in Rome looking on, from a heart attack and crying and vomiting all at once. Spike's alive.

"Just relax." Spike, talking again, still with the gentle stroking motion at the back of her neck. She snuffled into her hose, feeling stupid and childish but not caring—oh, yuck, runny nose, and all over my nice stockings—and made herself sit up when she was done, eyes red-rimmed and face aching. Catching sight once again of the face she'd been sure was an illusion.

"I'm not dreaming, am I?" she asked weakly. "I didn't… hit my head on the floor, and any second I'm going to wake up in some Italian episode of ER?"

"No, you're wide awake as far as I can tell," he said, and she drew a deep, shaky breath.

"Then I gotta say—you sure know how to make an entrance," she smiled, rubbing a damp hand over her eyes. His mouth quirked into a soft expression and he reached out, gently tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear.

"Wasn't planning on it being an entrance at all," he said softly, and for just an instant, she saw a brilliant smile, wider than anything she remembered seeing on him before. Then he dipped his head a little bit and it was gone, like a cloud passing over the sun.

"Didn't mean to… surprise you like that," he muttered. "Pretty much the last place I expected to find you."

"Rome?" Okay, that sort of made sense. "I live here."

"No, knew that part. I meant, here."

"In a tourist trap? I love sightseeing."

He blinked. "Oh. Well… hadn't thought of it that way. Was thinking more of, you know, the history. Didn't think that was your thing."

"I like history," she said, faintly aware of the slightly pouty note to her voice. She lifted her chin with some kind of protest in her mind like why do you think I live here anyway, and a manic laugh bubbled up inside her instead.

"I live here. This is my life," she managed between hysterical giggles. "My… amazingly normal life." Where my undead boyfriend comes back to life and comes back to me and I am so not normal there is nothing normal about this and I am so glad.

Spike made a little face, kind of pained. Put a hand to the back of his neck, began to scratch at his collar, as if embarrassed. "Yeah, well, about that. Buffy, I'm sorry. Didn't mean to… intrude on… whatever you've got going here." He was withdrawing from her a little, she could sense it—pulling back into himself, standing a little straighter instead of leaning protectively over her. His hands were finding their way into his jacket pockets; he looked uneasy.

"Didn't mean to intrude? You're sorry? Spike—" She was smiling broadly, even stupidly; he was being dumb and cautious and it was cute and all, but it really wasn't necessary anymore. She reached out to him and caught the edges of his jacket, hauled herself up on it, on her feet. The seat behind her disappeared, taken up by the grumbling tourists, and she just stood there, eyes huge and shiny as those on a cartoon character, hands clenched in his lapels. "Spike you're..." How can I explain this?

"You're here," she said simply.

"There's—" He stopped, started again, kept halting. "A lot… a lot's happened, Buffy. You're… you're not gonna like all of it."

She waved this aside, uncaring, hand flapping in front of her face as if to chase away flies. "Yeah, I'm sure, whatever." Of course there were complications, explanations. When weren't there?

"There's a lot to explain." There he went again. Stubborn. Certain she wasn't going to understand. Well, she could see where he might get that.

"So explain. I'll listen," She kept her eyes locked on his. "I've got time," she insisted, drawing out the words. You gave me that.

He looked like he didn't know what to make of her, of what she was saying.

She felt her way down his arm then, found his hand. Threaded her fingers through his and squeezed. There was no surge of fire, or huge transcendent moment, but there didn't need to be. They were past that now. Way past. They were just… a man and a woman standing in Rome, and what else was there to say about that?

"You sure about that?" he asked, and it was the earnest look on his face that melted her, the look that said please tell me you mean it. Please tell me you meant it.

"You bet I'm sure. All the time in the world." She gave his hand another squeeze, let her head fall forward on his shoulder. She felt his other hand come up to rest lightly on her back, just between her shoulder blades, and she sighed, a sound of simple bliss.

"Let's go somewhere." She spoke into the curve of his neck, her voice muffled in the collar of his jacket. "It's too crowded in here."

"Can't leave yet. Sun's up." His hand kept stroking lightly on her back.

"How did you get here?"

"Been here since opening hours. Needed somewhere to duck in." She lifted her head. He wore a slightly embarrassed smile. "Got a Vespa."

She tried to picture it. "What color?"

"Red."

"Dawn's is green."

"That right?"

"That's right." She laid her head on his shoulder again. "We'll wait for the sun to go down. Then you can take me somewhere."

"Where do you want to go?"

Her eyes drifted closed, and she let her body sag into him. Swayed a little on her feet as if they were about to dance.

"Buffy?" He put a finger under her chin, tipped her head up. "Still got some talking to do, you know."

"I know." She smiled then, and shrugged. "Till then, though? I'm just glad you're here." She slid her arms around his waist, laid her head back on his chest. "I'm just glad."

The End

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