In League With Serpents

In League With Serpents

By WeyrWolfen

Rating: PG-13
Summary: When Spike wins something unexpected over a game of cards, he ends up with a most unlikely crypt-mate and a mission to help a newly resurrected Buffy. With an empathic serpent setting up shop in his head, a scheming warlock on his tail, and a bothersome change in his relationship with the Scoobies, Spike finds himself in the position to save the slayer he loves, the world, and maybe himself in the offing.
Warnings: violence, adult language

***

Aces and eights. There’s some irony for you.

Spike’s lips twitched, trying to curve into a sardonic smile around his cigarette. Tells were less of a problem for the vampire, what with his lack of breath and pulse, but none of the other players would miss the significance of a smirk. The card game was going well; there were more kittens in his box than when he had started, and a few trinkets lined his pockets. With any luck, his streak would hold and his winnings would keep him in whiskey and smokes for the next couple weeks.

It was Sept’s night to deal, which was regrettable because the m’bwoga demon had an uncanny ability to notice if too many cards went missing from the deck. Cheating at poker was a fine art that Spike took pride in having cultivated over the years.

“I’ll start the bidding at one,” Sept announced in a watery voice, making good his statement by dropping a skinny tabby into the center of the table. The other players followed suit, adding kittens of various breeds and colors to the pot.

Leaving the cigarette dangling from his lips, Spike snaked one hand under the table and pulled out two Siamese kittens from a litter he had found behind the Bronze the night before. They joined the growing mass of mewling fur on the table. Spike propped his feet on top of his battered cardboard box to keep the rest of his “cash” from escaping.

“I’ll see that and raise you one,” he drawled. Then he took a long drag off of his cigarette and sank back in his chair to observe his opponents’ reactions.

Clem was the easy one. When he had a really good hand the trailing ends of his ears twitched. Spike was fairly certain that the loose-skinned demon did not know about that particular reaction and friendship only went so far. Spike would not give up his edge in their weekly poker games. Two hands ago, Clem’s ears had virtually hummed and Spike had smartly cut his losses early in the bidding before his friend revealed a straight flush. This hand, the dangling folds of skin remained still even as he added an Egyptian Mau to the pot.

Pro’bly has a pair.

Sept was much harder to read. M’bwogan culture demanded stoicism and this calm extended into poker as well. However, if Sept had a particularly good hand, Spike was fairly certain that he would have opened the bidding a little higher than at a single kitten. Sept was slow to add another tabby to the pile.

Even odds he has two pair or three of a kind.

The new guy, Wha’s his name, McLain, Mr. Clean… Maclin!, had been steadily loosing all night long. The human’s features were as memorable as his name compared to the other players, demons all. Maclin was the one tossing in magical trinkets and charms instead of the usual feline fare. He was also roaring drunk and seemed not to notice that he held his cards angled so low that the entire table could see the pair of sevens he held.

Oh yeah, no problem there. This one's definitely worth seeing through.

Carl and Xirus had already folded and were sipping at their drinks disinterestedly.

Sept looked around the table and, when no other bids were forthcoming, laid his cards down: tens and fours. As predicted, Clem revealed a pair of kings and the warlock laid down his sevens.

“Looks like this round goes to me, mates. Dead Man’s Hand for the dead man.” Spike flashed a triumphant smile as he tossed his cards face up on the cheap folding table. Clem sighed good naturedly and Carl shook his head in disgust as the blond started scooping kittens into his box. The handful of magical baubles made their way into the pocket of Spike’s coat.

The drunken warlock pushed back from the table and stood unsteadily. “Well boys, I’m afraid y’all have cleaned me out for the night. It’s been real fun, but I’m thinking I should head out.” With that, he knocked back the rest of his beer and staggered to the door, followed by farewells and some good-natured teasing.

Good riddance, kittens'll get me more dosh than cheap jewelry with simple cantrips anyway.

Sept silently collected everyone’s cards and started shuffling, so Spike turned all his attention back to the game.

*****


Ten hands and at least twice that many shots later, Spike made his way out into the streets of Sunnydale. He had traded his kittens to Clem for more traditional cash. The weekly poker games provided him with much more money than his occasional attempts at petty robbery. Not that scaring the daylights out of unsuspecting teenagers wasn’t fun, but it was almost too easy and the amount of cash he typically got wasn’t really worth the effort.

With money filling his pockets and his veins running with roughly equal parts whiskey and blood, Spike was thoroughly enjoying the evening. The haze of alcohol tempered his anger at his sometimes-allies' duplicity and his worries about the slayer. Spike had reached that stage of drunkenness where all men were witty and all women were beautiful. Given his state of inebriation, some of the witty men were probably women and at least a few of the pretty girls may have been sporting beards, but that was beside the point.

The point was that his slayer had returned from the dead, his pockets were full of cash, and all else seemed right in Spike’s world. The night sparkled with possibilities.

The only thing that would make the evening even better was a good fight. Unfortunately, Sunnydale’s demonic population did not seem to want to oblige. Spike covered two graveyards and most of the alleys in the warehouse district without even the smallest hint of violence. It was more than a little disheartening.

For the past half hour, he had been humming an old tune from his early days as a vampire. Angelus, Darla, and Drusilla had once taken the newly turned William to a seedy, dockside bar to teach him the fine art of the kill. Angelus in particular had imparted a variety of tactics and strategies for luring out victims to the newest member of the Aurelius line. William had listened to the advice attentively and, once out of earshot, promptly disregarded all of it. Three hours after entering the bar alone, he had drunk more ale than an entire frigate’s crew, picked up a large repertoire of bawdy songs, and started a fight with the roughest group of sailors he could find. The fact that he had won the brawl, killing four men in the process, did little to impress Angelus and Darla, who had been waiting for their share of William’s first solo kill. Drusilla, on the other hand, was delighted with her childe's antics. Long after picking up the moniker “Spike,” he had often used those old shanties to drive Angelus to distraction. The song and his memories gave Spike an idea about how to get his nightly dose of brawling.

Upon reaching his own cemetery, Spike scaled the tallest grave marker he could find, a stone obelisque carved with the name of some local notable, long dead. From his vantage, he perched like some crazed crow and launched into an off-key, raucous rendition of "Spanish Ladies." The slurred strains of the sea shanty shattered the silence of the cemetery.

"Farewell and adieu to you fine Spanish ladies."
I wish Peaches could hear this all the way in L.A. Cor but Angelus hated this song!
"Farewell and adieu you ladies of Spain"
Bet Dru didn't think I'd still be singing it over a hundred years later to start fights.
"For we've received orders to sail for old England"
C'mon, I’ve got to have interrupted someone's kip with this.
"But we hope in a short time to see you again"
Ah, there you are!

Three female vampires burst out of a nearby crypt, looking more than a little displeased for being disturbed. The bones of Spike’s face shifted and realigned as he watched the approaching trio. The transformation served to make his voice even rougher and more obnoxious as he launched into the chorus. The leader of the group looked particularly incensed at the interruption. Spike promptly dubbed her Alecto, and her two compatriots: Megaera and Tisiphone.

“What is your problem? Some of us are trying to relax around here!” shouted Alecto.

“Yeah!” cried Tisiphone.

“Shut the hell up before we drag you down here and stake your ass!” added Megaera.

“Yeah!” echoed Tisiphone.

Obviously not the brains of the operation.

All three stopped mid rant when the singing abruptly ceased. “Well, since you asked so nicely,” Spike said in honeyed tones, “I suppose I can find something else to pass the time.”

With that, the peroxide blonde threw himself from his perch and landed on top of Alecto. Both went down in a tangle of fists, fangs, leather, and torn flesh. With her two friends watching, mouths agape, Spike grabbed the writhing vampiress by both ears and great handfuls of blond hair before twisting her head violently around. There was a sickening crack and Alecto went limp beneath him.

Spike rose and arched an eyebrow at the two staring fledglings. “I could be mistaken, but I think I broke her,” his innocent tone of voice was completely ruined by the wicked glee splashed across his face.

That shook the two from their paralysis. With twin shrieks of rage, Tisiphone and Megaera threw themselves at him. Never one to avoid dramatic flourishes, Spike spun under Tisiphone’s wild punch, coat flaring as he swept her legs out from under her. Glancing to watch the vampiress fall, he then turned just in time to catch his remaining opponent midair.

Rolling backwards with the collision, Spike managed to plant one booted foot right in Megaera’s stomach, launching her far behind him and into a nearby headstone. Both quickly regained their footing. Spike was on her in an instant, launching punches and kicks in rapid succession. The fury of his assault rocked the fledgling back on her heels. She managed to block the first few attacks, but a strong uppercut sent her stumbling backwards. Retrieving a stake from his coat pocket, Spike plunged it into the heart of the dazed vampiress.

Spike stood among the ashes of his first kill of the evening and waited for Tisiphone to attack. “’S just you and me ducks.”

Teeth bared, his last opponent reached up and snapped a low hanging branch off of one of the cemetery’s many trees. She then broke the limb over one knee, held the make-shift club above her head, and charged, shrieking like a banshee.

Well, this might be a bit of fun after all.

Coming from a fledgling or not, Spike had little interest in taking a blow from a cudgel. He widened his stance and flexed his grip around the stake. He waited until the last possible second, when the vampiress had completely committed to her attack, and dove to the right. Tisiphone pressed her advantage and swung her branch one-handed at his head as he rolled to his feet again. Instead of dodging away from the blow, Spike closed the distance, jumping within the arc of the club. His left hand wrapped around the vampiress’ wrist while his right hand, stake leading like a hook, slammed into the side of her neck. With a pivot that brought his entire strength and weight to bear, Spike spun the vampiress away and neatly disarmed her in one move, stripping the club from her loose hand as she fell.

Maybe not.

Letting the broken tree branch fall, Spike casually strolled over to where Tisiphone was staggering, clutching her throat where the stake had torn through the thin skin. With barely a sideways glance, he slammed the stake into her back and continued to where the ringleader, Alecto, still lay. He quickly dispatched his fallen target and started brushing the dust from his black clothes, features shifting back into human guise. Three dead fledglings made for a slow evening, but sunrise was only an hour away. It was time to call it a night.

Spike took a quick look in the crypt the trio had exited. The remains of a few past meals lay like broken dolls across the back wall. Spike sniffed and wrinkled his nose in distaste.

Little ripe.

He could muster very little respect for anyone, living or undead, who would foul their nest so. Despite the decaying remains, the nest looked fairly new. He managed to salvage a nice Oriental rug, a couple pillar candles, and a set of shot glasses from amongst the clutter and trendy junk. Hidden under a truly hideous bean-bag chair, he also found a small, slender dagger, ornate and far too small for his hands.

I bet the Nibblet would love this. Not a bad haul.

Rolling all of his loot up in the rug, Spike carried the bundle across the graveyard to his own crypt. He nudged the door open with his foot and dumped his burden next to the recliner before continuing towards the entrance to the chambers beneath.

After a joint-cracking stretch, Spike ambled to the dresser that stood opposite from his bed. He removed the stake, smokes, cash, and assorted magical knick knacks from the trench’s pockets and dumped them unceremoniously on top of the battered piece of furniture. The jacket itself was then carefully folded and placed in the top drawer along with his silver Zippo. He shed the rest of his clothes and tossed them haphazardly to the far side of the room. The feel of new silk as he slid into bed earned a soft hum of approval. The black and red sheets were spoils of a late night raid on the local Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Tucked beneath his pilfered linens, Spike soon slipped into the deep slumber of the undead.

*****


As per his custom, Spike rose from bed many hours before sunset. His dreams had been strange, full of flashing feathers, dark forests, and dappled sunlight. The unusually sharp edge to his hunger rushed his hands as he donned a clean pair of pants and scaled the ladder to the crypt’s main floor.

With a mug of blood warming in the microwave, Spike wandered over to the far alcove where he lit candle after candle until the main room was filled with flickering light. After giving Dave a cheerful thwack, Spike threw himself into his easy chair and turned on the television.

Dave had been a constant companion since Spike had claimed the crypt as his own. The name Dave was short for David, the patron saint of poets. The little statue was one of the crypt’s few original decorations and Spike had named him in a flight of alcohol induced whimsy. Upon sober reappraisal, the name was simply too ironic to pass up and, as long as he remembered to avoid the tiny carved rosary, Dave was a favored fixture of the vampire’s decidedly eclectic décor.

At heart, Spike was simply too talkative, too social a creature to deal well with solitude. When Spike was feeling particularly down, Dave had become the recipient of tirades, confessions, and rants, especially over the long summer of Buffy’s absence. The only person who knew this little secret was Dawn, who had surprised the vampire while he was shaking his fist at the statue and raving about Harris, of all people, the year before. Dawn had teased him mercilessly while Spike sat in sullen silence until the teenager finally relented and swore to take the secret of his "Wilson" to her grave. As if he would ever sink to talking to a volley ball.

Well, not unless he got really desperate.

Or bored.

Or really, really drunk.

Thankfully, Spike had Dave to keep him from sinking that low. After all, speaking to saints, though not popular in most demonic circles, was fairly common among humans, and therefore much more excusable for one who had once been among the breathing. At least that’s what Spike told himself when it occurred to him that he was addressing a little stone man.

The microwave buzzed and Spike hurried to retrieve his meal. Downing the mug in one long gulp, he was confused to find that the blood did little to alleviate his hunger. Three glasses later, his stomach felt both completely full and echoingly empty at the same time.

Huh, that’s new.

Choosing to ignore the disconcerting sensations, Spike returned to the rooms beneath the main crypt. He had baubles to trade, smokes and whiskey to buy, and a newly resurrected slayer to check on. His misbehaving stomach would just have to be ignored for the time being. Donning t-shirt, coat, and boots, Spike only paused long enough to refill his pockets with the objects on his dresser before setting off down one of the many tunnels that connected his crypt to the sewers of Sunnydale.

As it was, he did not notice the pair of red eyes watching him from the shadows behind his dresser.

In League With Serpents - Fallen

Spike sat very still as he watched Buffy walk away. Even if the afternoon sun had not prevented him from following her, there was no guarantee that his legs would have obeyed even the simplest of commands.

Heaven. She’d been in heaven.

The revelation was too much to wrap his brain around, and so he sat, staring stupidly as the slayer’s petite frame disappeared around the street corner. He sat as the shadows around him lengthened and continued to sit as the alley fell into semi-darkness. At length, his unnatural stillness broke and his head sank slowly into his hands.

Of course she was in heaven, you stupid git. Where else would she go after sacrificin’ herself to save the world?

Suddenly, the slayer’s behavior since her return made perfect sense: her lost expression as she stood on the steps of her house that first night, her unwillingness to make eye contact with her friends, her flinches whenever any of the Scoobies tried to touch her. These were not the actions of a grateful escapee from hell. This was the behavior of someone who had touched perfect happiness and had it stripped away. These were the crippled reactions of someone whose soul had been violated in the worst possible manner.

God Red, what did you do to her?

On shaky legs, Spike rose and made for the back entrance of the Magic Box. He wandered through the training area and slipped into the main store, still lost in thought. Functioning on autopilot, his feet carried him to the front counter where Anya was dusting the shelves behind the register.

The ex-demon turned, caught sight of Spike standing not three feet away from her, and squealed in surprise. Her piercing shriek startled Spike out of his dark thoughts, and the two stood for a moment staring at one another.

“Spike! I wish you wouldn’t do that. I make embarrassingly loud noises when I get startled. And look! I might have broken these jars and then you would have had to pay for them!” Anya scrunched up her face in an attempt to appear stern and angry, but succeeded only in looking like a small child who had smelled something unpleasant.

Spike stood for a moment longer, desperately trying to think of what had brought him to the Magic Box in the first place. Suddenly remembering, he reached into his pockets and started piling charms on the counter.

Act normal! The Slayer doesn't want the others to know!

“Won these off a warlock, luv. Thought you might like a look. I sure as hell don’t want ‘em, but I figured you might be able to sell a few.” Spike started spreading the trinkets out, untangling chains and arranging them so that the former vengeance demon could get a better look.

Over the summer, Anya and Spike had entered into a kind of unofficial business arrangement. Spike brought Anya any strange objects he picked up while on patrol or in the demon bars and Anya would sell them in the Magic Box in return for a cut of the price. The deal suited them both very well because any returns Anya received were pure profit and Spike ended up getting much more money with less effort than he would have hawking them on the black market.

Anya poked around some of the pieces, holding one pendant up to the light before replacing it in the pile and turning her attention to the next piece. After a few minutes of examination, she collected most of the baubles and put them in a plastic shoebox she kept under the counter. Four she shoved back towards Spike.

Seeing the vampire’s questioning glance, she launched into a long-winded explanation. “I’ll take all of the rest. Those four you can get rid of. See that one, with the funny squiggle and the purple gem? That’s a Frixian courtship broach. It’ll dissolve into dust if a kid touches it and you would not believe the number of parents who allow their children to paw all over the merchandise. Shameful. I’ll never manage to sell it before one of them gets their grubby little hands on it.

“Now those two black ones there look like Atlan curse beads. You don’t need to worry, being a vampire and all, but those make human men impotent after prolonged exposure. I’m not risking those around Xander, even if they would fetch a good price. Those used to be quite popular in my vengeance work, let me tell you!

“And that one. Honestly I don’t know what that one was. Doesn’t matter now since it’s broken. You might as well throw it in the trash on your way out.

“I’ll stick with the usual deal. They’ll be priced and out on the floor by tomorrow. I still want fifteen percent of whatever they sell for. That’s pre-discount just so you know. I’m thinking about having a sale for our repeat customers. No arguments over the prices this time either. I know what I’m talking about.” Anya continued to prattle on about supply and demand, laissez faire economies, and perceived desirability, but Spike finally managed to tune out the sound of her voice.

He slipped the broach and beads back into his pants pocket. Any normal evening would have ended with the beads becoming the focal point of some particularly nasty pranks, but Spike was too distracted to care much about getting involved in malicious mischief. He picked up the last charm and looked more closely at it. Sure enough, the large pendant appeared to be broken. All that remained of what had once been a hollow, green orb the size of a small orange was a shattered fragment held to the chain by a delicate gold ring. He tossed it in the trash can behind the counter.

Must’ve fallen on it during the fight.

He patted down his jacket and found a few more green shards in one pocket. They joined the piece still attached to the chain in the wastebasket.

The tingle down the back of his neck that warned of the sun’s unwelcome presence had disappeared sometime during Anya’s appraisal of his winnings. No longer paying the chattering ex-demon any mind what so ever, Spike made what he hoped was an encouraging sound in her general direction before wandering out the front door of the shop.

Spike walked the streets of Sunnydale, going through the motions of his usual routine. First he went to the butcher’s for blood. The friendly smile and quizzical expression on the shopkeeper’s face went unanswered. Then he made his way to his favorite package store for two bottles of Jack Daniels. Instead of responding to the cute cashier’s flirting with his usual leer, he simply laid down his money and walked away in silence. Turning his steps towards home, he made a final stop at a seedy gas station for a few cartons of cigarettes. Even the teenaged attendant, who had been completely engrossed in his Batman comic just moments before, asked if he was okay and was ignored in turn.

Spike was a creature of action. He was impulsive and rash and he always had an answer for any problem, even if it wasn't always the right one. For once in his unlife, Spike was at a complete loss as to what to do. Should he attempt to comfort the slayer or give her space? What would he say to Red and the others if the subject of Buffy’s resurrection came up? Would he be able to hold his tongue the next time he caught them congratulating one another on a job well done? And Dawn, could he keep this big of a secret from her as well?

These and many other questions swirled through Spike’s mind when he finally returned home. The jars of pigs’ blood made their way into the mini fridge. The cigarettes and one of the whiskey bottles went into the small adjoining cabinet. He dropped the last bottle next to his easy chair before facing the television, intending to turn it on.

It was then that the faint smell of blood permeated Spike’s senses. He snapped his eyes towards the far alcove and tensed at what he saw.

There, lying across Dave’s stand, were three dead mice, arranged neatly like an offering.

Drusilla!

But no, even though he and his dark princess had made a practice of giving one another rodents for snacks, he could catch no trace of her distinctive signature. Come to think of it, Spike could not sense the recent presence of anyone but himself, the Nibblet, and Clem. Smokes, booze, and dust, yes. Even the earthy aromas he associated with small birds and bats, but no characteristically human or demonic scents. The realization did little to reassure him.

He strode over to the little statue and grabbed one of the mice. Four bleeding gashes marred its throat, two on either side of the neck, and it appeared to have been partially drained. The legs and ribs were broken, as if someone had grabbed the little animal and squeezed. A quick inspection revealed similar injuries to the other two as well.

Okay, this is just… weird.

Spike scooped up the remains and walked to the doorway. After tossing them outside, far from the entrance, he slammed the door and turned around. He no longer trusted his nose, so his eyes raked over every corner of the crypt’s main floor, searching for anything that seemed out of place.

Nothing.

He turned his attention downstairs. The only unusual things he could find were small shards of the broken pendant on his dresser. Those he tossed into a bronze funerary urn that he used to collect ashes and cigarette butts. Finally satisfied that no intruders were waiting to leap from the shadows, Spike returned to his recliner to think.

His nose told him that no other demon or human had entered his crypt in some time. His eyes attested to the fact that the dead mice were the only objects out of place inside the crypt. He could feel no tingle of magic, no hint of its presence.

Angelus loved to leave dead animals lying about his victim’s homes, but as far as I know, Peaches is still all soul-having. No dice there. Not the Scoobies’ style. Too creative for Harm. Looks like Dru’s work, but how could she mask her presence from me? Who the hell else could it be?

Spike sat in the easy chair, the bridge of his nose pinched between thumb and index finger, thinking. He could come up with no ideas as to who would, and could, have left the mice in his crypt. Most of the enemies he had made were more the type to kill first, build cryptic shrines later. The lack of scent or magic removed a great many other people from the running, foes and otherwise. At length, Spike finally gave up. The prankster would reveal him or herself, or not. Then Spike would pound in the trespasser's face, or not. He would just wait and see.

Spike retrieved the bottle of whiskey from the floor and leaned back in his recliner. Thoughts of the dead mice tucked firmly away, there was little else to do but return to the subject of the slayer. If any topic was worth getting drunk over, that one certainly fit the bill. Spike sat in silence for a long while, only stirring when he had finished the first bottle and wanted to trade it out for a full one. On his way to the cabinet, Spike started muttering to himself.

"I bet she had wings. Wha' d'ya think Dave? I bet she had wings and a halo and a little gold harp like in a stained glass window. Wouldn't that just beat all?" The second bottle forgotten, Spike moved to confront the little stone saint. "Not that you care, I bet you find the whole situation most amusin' don't you?" Spike waved the empty bottle menacingly at Dave. "Cellar-dweller worryin’ himself sick over the high, mighty vampire slayer. Well fuck you." He paused and squinted his eyes at the tiny bloodstains that still marred the statue's base, "And fuck you're wee, little mice buddies too." With a dismissive wave, Spike lurched over to his cabinet and grabbed the other bottle of Jack before stumbling down the ladder to his sleeping area.

Pacing the length and breadth of the subterranean chambers, Spike started taking out his frustrations and fears on whatever lay at hand. He kicked furniture and punched the wall until his hand bled, drinking all the while. When he paused for a moment to identify his next target, a strange sensation flooded him. A sense of calm, of acceptance and love suffused his mind. The emotions were so unexpected and foreign to the enraged vampire that he clutched his head wildly, confusion writ large across his features.

Arriving at the only conclusion his liquor soaked mind could settle upon, Spike hurled the rest of the whiskey into one shadowy corner of the room. "Bloody booze!" Even the angry satisfaction of hearing the loud crash and subsequent wet splash of violated alcohol soon faded in the midst of the stream of positive emotions. He shook his head violently, trying to rid himself of the unwelcome feelings, but succeeded only in making himself dizzy. Staggering from the alcohol as much as from his emotional disarray, Spike fell face down on his bed. Wrapped in feelings of comfort and security, the vampire soon fell into a deep sleep.

In League With Serpents - Taking Up The Serpent

When Spike awoke the following afternoon, it was to a splitting headache and a queasy stomach. Vampire constitution or no, over three liters of good Tennessee sour mash bourbon was enough to leave even the heartiest demon hung over.

He would have clutched his head, but the idea of moving made his temples throb just that much more. He would have groaned, but the sound stuck in the dryness of his throat. Knowing from experience that the worst of the sickness would soon pass, Spike concentrated on lying perfectly still.

Not quite ready to open his eyes yet, Spike took a moment to mentally size up his situation.

Nothing broken or missing, good. Where am I?

He carefully tested the air.

Home. Right. What’s the last thing I remember? Came home, got pissed, um… Trashed the bedroom, felt some weird warm fuzzies, passed out. Wait, warm fuzzies?

Spike struggled to part the fog of his memories. It was then that he noticed two things almost simultaneously. One – something was pressing down on his chest that could not entirely be explained away by his tangled sheets and clothing, and two – a soft bundle of affection, not of his own making, pressed against the back of his mind.

Someone was playing around inside his head.

Alarmed, Spike’s eyes flared wide for which he was instantaneously regretful. The light from the few candles still burning felt like brands in his eyes. He rasped out a curse and shut his eyes again. When the pain retreated from blinding agony to a dull throb, he gingerly opened his eyes again.

Bloodshot blue eyes met tiny, red ones.

What the bleedin’ hell!?

The vampire froze, muscles held perfectly still and taut, as he observed his unexpected bedmate. A crimson snake, no longer than his forearm, lay coiled on his chest. At least he thought it was a snake. No normal animal would voluntarily disturb a sleeping vampire, and were those feathers on the creature’s back?

Spike blinked, not entirely convinced that the little serpent wasn’t a hallucination. When his eyes opened again, the snake remained, but this time the bundle of affection touching his mind expanded. The vampire’s eyes opened impossibly wide as tendrils of curiosity and hunger shot through the strange knot of emotions.

Spike jerked a hand up, intending to toss the snake from his chest, but the sudden motion sent waves of pain through his much abused head. He found himself clutching his temples instead. A soft rustling prompted him to peer out through his fingers. The little serpent had reared back and three thin rows of feathers had fanned out to form crests running down the animal’s spine, but this was not what caught Spike’s attention. The subject of his fascination was the pair of feathered wings that the snake had unfurled.

The little creature uncoiled and launched itself into the air. With a flash of red feathers, it was gone.

Spike struggled into a sitting position, still holding his aching head. For the unlife of him, he could not figure out what he had just seen. He was still trying to make some sense of his encounter when a red streak caught his attention.

The little serpent had returned, struggling to fly under the weight of a still squirming rat. It flew over to his bed and hovered briefly before shaking the rat vigorously and dropping it in his lap. It then came to rest on the foot of the bed, forked black tongue lolling, and managed to look extremely pleased with itself.

Huh, ‘s been a long time since someone served me breakfast in bed.

Spike picked up the stunned animal and sniffed it. It was definitely just a rat, and he could smell no poisons on it. He shrugged and brought his demonic features to the fore before sinking his fangs into the little, warm offering. He grimaced as the blood hit his empty stomach, but his body immediately accepted the snack and started using it to mend the worst of his aches and pains.

Feeling much more charitable towards the tiny creature now that he had a little fresh blood in him, Spike tossed the remains of the rat towards it and watched as it dove on the torn rodent and started to feed.

No, not ‘it.’ She.

There was something indefinably feminine about the bundle of emotions in his head, even if physically, Spike had no way of knowing. The serpent had deep crimson scales; the vampire would have called them blood red. Bright red eyes glittered at him like rubies. The feathers along the creature’s back were a darker shade of red, as were those of the wings, which shaded to black at the tips. Hints of blue and yellow dusted the wing feathers and a smooth row of yellow scales protected her underbelly. The coloration, and the serpent’s scent, earthy with a tang of rust, reminded him of the tropical birds he had seen in South America.

The feathered snake lifted her nose from the rat’s torn stomach and licked her muzzle. His throat soothed enough from the blood to function again, Spike spoke to his strange companion, “Well, I guess I know who’s been leavin’ me presents upstairs now, huh?”

The little reptile’s mouth fell open again and little puffs of air came out. Partnered with the flashes of humor coloring the touch in the back of his mind, Spike was fairly certain she was laughing. Spike chuckled ruefully.

“Right, jokes on me. I was expectin’ some big bad come to play. Instead, I get room service.”

He cautiously rolled out of bed and performed a joint cracking stretch. The little serpent watched his every move intently. Somewhere between being offered the perfect hangover relief when he woke up and being able to laugh wholeheartedly at the ridiculousness of the situation, Spike had decided against evicting the little creature outright. Part of him wanted to be angry that something else was lurking around inside his head, but at that point, the vampire was more curious than anything else. Also, though he would never admit it out loud, the untainted adoration coming from the tiny creature was a balm over his much abused self-respect.

“I don’t know what you are or where you came from little one, but if you keep bringin’ me snacks, I might just have to keep you around.”

His head still ached and his body felt like he had lost a fight with a Grnalt hunting party, but Spike still managed to climb the ladder to the main floor of the crypt and get some blood warming in the microwave without any major incidents. The crimson serpent fluttered along behind him before settling on a perch: Dave’s head.

Mug of blood in hand, pig as usual, Spike eased down into his recliner and looked at his reptilian guest.

“I don’t suppose you’ve got a name, little one?” he asked after taking a careful sip.

The serpent cocked her head to one side and confusion flickered through the mental link.

“No? Well I guess we’ll have to take care of that.” Spike thought for a moment, after all, what does one name a telepathic, flying serpent? His thoughts brought him to his human years, to the college education he had received long before being turned. He had particularly enjoyed studying ancient religions and literature. A name from lectures long past popped into his head.

“What about Meret?” he queried. The little snake rustled her feathers and flexed her wings. Whether that was an agreement or an armless creature’s approximation of a shrug, Spike could not guess, but he hoped it was the former. “Meret it is then.” He toasted the serpent before downing the rest of his blood.

*****


The rest of the day was spent repairing the damage to the crypt’s lower level under the watchful, but unobtrusive, eyes of Meret. Spike righted overturned furniture and tossed out anything too broken to salvage. When he finally had his sleeping quarters in some semblance of order, he collected the loot from his brawling two nights before.

The rug itself was added to others like it around his bed. The pillar candles replaced those that had burned to mere puddles of wax behind Dave and the shot glasses joined his other assorted dishes in a small cabinet under his microwave. Once everything else had been settled, Spike picked up the little dagger.

It took a few minutes of rummaging around in his dresser, but Spike eventually found a whetstone and oil cloth. Meret watched him curiously from a nook she had found in the rock wall as the vampire sat on the edge of his bed. He started sliding the dagger back and forth over the stone, honing a keen edge on the delicate blade.

After a while, the silent observation became too much for the vampire. He paused in his sharpening just long enough to meet the little serpent’s unblinking gaze.

“Where did you come from little one?” he asked, not really expecting an answer. “Not a local, not with that scent. Reminds me of Brazil…” he trailed off. The feathered snake settled her head down on the ropes of her coils to listen. Finding a receptive audience for once, Spike started relating a story about his travels in South America with Drusilla. Even though the little serpent could not speak, her presence and the sound of his voice seemed to make the time pass more quickly. The dagger was sharp and oiled in no time at all.

Returning his tools to the dresser, Spike replaced the blade in its sheath and slipped it into the top of his boot. Then, he stood for a moment, head cocked to one side, watching the little serpent.

“Well, c’mon little one. I think I’ve got someone you should meet,” he said at length.

Curiosity and a little excitement flickered through his mind and Spike grinned at her. Maybe Meret was not able to tell him what she was, but he knew someone who might be able to help. He couldn’t wait to see the expression on Dawn’s face.

In League With Serpents - Fearful Symmetry

The night sky was clear and still as Spike walked through the graveyard. The cemeteries of Sunnydale were large enough that the early evening sounds of the city did not penetrate the acres of graves and carefully tended grass.

To Spike’s vampiric hearing, the night was far from silent. Insects hummed, birds called to one another, and tiny creatures burrowed through the earth beneath his feet. The rustling of feathers and the occasional hiss or puff marked Meret’s presence as she darted around, exploring this strange new world.

Spike kept his eyes and ears open for other vampires and demons, but most of the lesser evils had gone to ground after the Hellions’ abrupt arrival and expulsion. There would be little sport to be had for some time to come.

The blond vampire sighed as he reached one of the cemetery’s small side exits.

Soddin’ cowards.

The gates were closed and locked, not unusual after dark, but this proved to be little hindrance. He quickly scaled the wrought iron fence and stood for a moment on one of the large stone dividers. The crisp night air held an array of interesting scents: people, car exhaust, burnt grilled cheese in the house across the street. Spike often chose this route when he wished to avoid company.

It wasn’t that he was afraid of humans, far from that, but some nights their presence only served to remind him of the life he had lost. The chip had effectively stolen his old world and thrust him into an awkward position: a predator bereft of the kill.

Spike had visited the Sunnydale Zoo once, after his second return from South America, after the military had seen fit to neuter him. He had stood for a long time in front of the tiger enclosure, locked eye to eye with one of the great cats. The animal had paced the fence, watching him with golden eyes. Spike had seen wild tigers in China before the Boxer Rebellion. They had virtually hummed with barely controlled fury at the vampires’ interruption and the desire to hunt, to kill. Drusilla had asked Angelus if she could try to turn one, a request that thankfully was denied. Spike remembered feeling like he had found kindred spirits. He had never before seen such a raw example of savage freedom.

On the perfectly kept walkways of the zoo, Spike had come face to face with another dark mirror. The cage, as large and well appointed as it was, had broken the great cat’s spirit. Years of captivity had made the animal accept its fate, to be stared at and fed cold meat by puny beings it could have killed with ease had it been free. The fiery spark that had so captivated Drusilla had long since been snuffed. Spike thought of tearing open the cage door before realizing that to do so could only result in the great cat’s death, either at the zoo keepers’ hands or the animal’s own inability to live in the outside world. He had wondered if the creature would have chosen a quick death after feeling freedom or if it even would have taken the chance to escape. He had the sinking feeling that the once proud hunter had been so thoroughly gentled by its captivity that it would have chosen to stay within the confines of the only home it could remember.

Spike had backed away slowly before breaking into a run that did not end until he had reached Willy’s bar. That night, like many more to come, had ended with him drinking heavily, reaffirming his vow to find a way to remove the chip at any cost. Since that day, he had studiously avoided the area surrounding the zoo, unwilling to face the horror it held for him.

It was the memory of that tiger that had prompted Spike to try to take his unlife that night in Harris’ basement. That evening, dressed in one of the whelp’s tacky Hawaiian shirts, marked one of the lowest points for a vampire who had survived decades of highs and lows. Had he not discovered that he could fight other demons just a few hours later, he was sure he would have finished the job that same evening. The short battle over the Hellmouth had given him hope and a returned feeling of self-worth. He had started thinking of the chip as less of a cage and more of a hindrance, something that could be lived with and endured. He still hated the little knot of silicon and wires, and he would react violently to reminders of its presence, but he no longer thought longingly of embracing sunlight.

For a time, he had convinced himself that he was free again, but that turned out to not be the case. Having sought out their aid in his time of need, Spike found himself in the company of the Scoobies at every turn. They came to him when they needed extra muscle and he traded information and his fighting skills for the money he used to keep himself fed and entertained. The situation was far from perfect, but it helped him retain some semblance of independence. That was until he realized something that bound him with chains stronger any governmental chip.

Spike had fallen in love with the slayer.

A pariah among his own kind and enamored with the one woman in the entire world who had cause to hate him the most, Spike had desperately sought acceptance among her circle of friends. He needed the companionship, the contact, but mostly he needed to be around her. He often wondered how she really felt about him before she had jumped from Glory’s tower and died, closing the rift only her blood could seal. He had fought beside her friends all summer, but they had always kept him at arms length. Their cold behavior after the slayer’s resurrection made it perfectly clear that any headway he thought he had made meant next to nothing to them.

In the darkest days of his depression over the long summer of Buffy’s absence, he had come to question the circumstances of his life and death. As a human the strict protocols of Victorian England had kept him constrained, a willing slave to society’s rules. Then his obsessive love for Drusilla had guided his existence for over a hundred years. When fate had thrust him into a truly independent role, he had return to Sunnydale to be effectively muzzled by the Initiative. Even without the chip, his love for the slayer and a promise had kept him bound to Southern California and her battles. Had Spike ever truly been free?

He did not begrudge his position as Dawn’s protector because he loved the girl deeply in his own way, but his tenure as her guardian had forced Spike to make a terrible realization. If he did manage to remove the chip one day, if someone threw his cage door open wide, he would sit inside his prison of his own accord. He had walked so far down his current path that there was no turning back.

That was why Spike refused to visit the tigers. That was why this night, and so many before it, he went out of his way to avoid contact with human strangers. He knew that the slayer had managed to tame him, and some part of him cried for the loss of something he wasn’t sure he had ever truly possessed.

Love’s bitch truly, to the bitter end.

*****


When Spike arrived at 1630 Revello Drive, it was to an empty house. Knowing that all of the residents tended to pop in and out at all hours of the night, he decided to wait. He leaned against the tree in the front yard, the site of many such vigils, and lit up a cigarette.

The few cars that had passed them on the road had frightened Meret and the little serpent had taken refuge inside the less cluttered of Spike’s deep coat pockets. He could feel her trembling against his thigh and offered a gruff pat to the outside of the leather. It was a little difficult to tell where his feelings left off and hers began, and her nervous emotions were quickly becoming contagious.

Thankfully, he did not have long to wait. A green SUV pulled into the driveway and Dawn leapt out of the nearest sliding door. He recognized the vehicle as belonging to Janice’s mother. Dawn walked to the porch and waved as the huge car backed into the street and pulled away.

Only then did Spike step out of the shadows. “’Lo Nibblet.”

Dawn, who had been unlocking the door, jumped a little, but a huge smile spread across her face. “Hey Spike! Shoulda known you’d be lurking around. C’mon in. I was going to make myself some dinner. Wanna take over fire extinguisher duty?”

Spike smiled indulgently as he walked up to the teenager. “As I recall, the last time I watched you cook, I suggested you start chargin’ admission.”

“Fine, that’ll be five bucks. Now come on, I’m starved!” Dawn grabbed the sleeve of Spike’s coat and tugged on the still grinning vampire, who barely had enough time to throw the butt of his cigarette into a flower pot before being drug across the threshold. “If you’re looking for the others, they’re all at the Magic Box.” She dropped her book bag on the dining room table before continuing on to the kitchen. “Buffy is training with Giles, and Willow and Tara are skimming some old books, looking for any prophesies about a slayer being… Well, you know.” She trailed off for a minute, face scrunched up in anxiety. The moment quickly passed and she started pulling various foods out of the refrigerator. “Anyways, they’ll all be here later if you want to stick around. As for me, I’ve got math homework.” She stuck out her tongue at the prospect and started dicing green and red peppers.

Spike stood in the doorway to the dining room, wide smile in place. It was good to see Dawn so animated. She had buried herself deeply in her grief over the summer, hardly talking and prone to sudden teary outbursts. With her sister’s return, Dawn’s normal, bubbly energy had returned in force. Spike envied the resilience and optimism of the younger Summers.

“Jus’ checkin’ on you, Nibblet. Would like to know how your big sis is doin’ though.”

Dawn eyed him critically. “You’re hopeless, you know that? Buffy’s fine. I mean, not skipping and singing show tunes fine, but much better than before.” She tossed the chopped peppers into a skillet before bringing the blade to bear on a chunk of beef. “Giles is working with her on the slaying stuff and Willow’s talking about getting her back into classes, ‘cause you know, more school is the number one way to cheer me up. She’s still not very big with the chatting, but I think she just needs some time.”

The meat joined the peppers in the skillet and Dawn turned up the heat before tossing in some spices and a little oil. Despite her protestations and Spike’s jokes, Dawn was actually a decent cook. Some of her concoctions ran towards the bizarre, but most proved to be surprisingly palatable. She was certainly much better than her sister, but that wasn’t saying much.

Spike watched Dawn leave the food to simmer on the stove while she put cold tortillas between paper towels in the microwave. He wondered how much of Buffy’s “recovery” had to do with the slayer’s renowned ability to close herself off from her friends when the going got really tough, and how much was the real deal. He hoped for the latter, but suspected the former.

Spike stood, head bowed in thought, as Dawn transferred the sautéed mixture into the tortillas and grilled the folded pockets in a second skillet. The teenager hummed a few bars from “La Cucaracha” as she retrieved a Coke from the fridge, switched off the stove eyes, and sat down to eat. The melody drew Spike’s attention back to the present.

“You know that song’s ‘bout a cockroach, right?” Spike tsked at Dawn’s horrified expression.

“Um… Ew?” Not to be deterred, Dawn took a large bite out of one fajita. “Want some?” she mumbled around the mouthful. She tore off a piece and offered it to him.

“Nah, you eat up.”

Dawn shrugged. “More for me.” She popped the piece in her mouth and washed it down with a gulp of Coke.

Spike reached down and pulled his present out of his boot. He turned it over in his hands a couple times before placing the ornate dagger on the table in front of Dawn.

“Um, what’s that all about?” She looked up from her dinner.

“’S for you. Pulled it off some dead vamps. ‘S too small for me.” Spike tried to act nonchalant, but he secretly hoped the little blade would be well received.

Dawn didn’t disappoint. She squealed loudly and grabbed the weapon, food momentarily forgotten. She admired the carvings on the sheath and handle before drawing the blade and wielding it inexpertly before her.

“Easy there Bit, I got it good and sharp for you. You lay yourself open and I’ll never hear the end of it,” he cautioned.

“You got this in a fight? And it really belonged to some vampires? That is so cool!” Dawn abruptly dropped the blade on the counter before running around the island to engulf Spike in a hug. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

Spike stood frozen for a second before carefully returning the embrace. He still felt a little odd, hugging someone in simple friendship. Such gestures had been taboo during his human years, and after being turned very few physical acts had been initiated without leading to either fighting or sex, sometimes both. Dawn’s tactile exuberance had taken a little getting used to.

Suddenly, Dawn stiffened in his arms. “Spike, I think there’s something alive in your pocket.” She released him and backed up with a funny expression on her face.

“What? Oh. Bloody hell! That’s the other reason why I came over tonight. Here, l’me show you.” Without further preamble, Spike pulled a very confused and slightly squished Meret from his pocket. “Nibblet, meet Meret. Meret, this is the little Bit.” He held out his hand and the little serpent, hearing the reassurance in Spike’s voice, cocked her head at the girl and flicked out a forked tongue.

Dawn stood staring with comically round eyes. As the silence stretched out, Spike started to worry. “She showed up at my crypt and took a shine to me. Thought I could talk you into doin’ some research. Maybe bribe you with some more shiny weaponry…” He trailed off as Dawn continued to stand there, eyes impossibly wide.

“Spike?”

“Yeah Nibblet?”

“You have a snake in your hand,” she noted in a flat voice.

“Thought you’d notice that, yeah.”

“It has wings.”

“That threw me at first, too.”

“You’ve been carrying a red snake with bird wings around in your pocket.”

“We’ve already covered that.” Spike started shifting his weight from foot to foot. This was defiantly not going as he had hoped.

Meret uncoiled a little and fanned her wings.

“It’s pretty.” Dawn sounded uncertain.

“She,” he automatically corrected.

“Huh?”

“She. Meret’s a she and yes she is.” The serpent fluffed up her feathers at the attention.

Slowly, Dawn extended a hand. When the little snake made no move to strike, she ran a finger down its scaled head. Meret leaned into the caress, feathers rustling in pleasure. Emboldened, Dawn traced a finger over the creature’s neck and the curve of one tiny wing before snatching her finger back as if burned.

“She’s not a demon is she? Because Buffy has a very specific ‘no-demon’ rule for houseguests, minus you of course, and I guess I can see where she’s coming from. Slayer popularity and all,” she trailed off.

“Meret’s not a demon. At least I don’t think she is. Doesn’t smell like one. Smells like a bird actually. I was hopin’ you’d help me suss out what exactly she is.”

“Oh, well that’s okay then. I’d love to help you out, but the others still won’t let me do research. I might, I don’t know, accidentally learn something interesting,” she groused. “Don’t think I haven’t tried.”

“Oh,” Spike was crestfallen. Plan A was defiantly a bust.

“You could get Willow or Tara to help you out.”

Spike grimaced. He didn’t have the heart to explain that her friends would as soon see him dust as help him with a little recreational research. Also, the circumstances of Buffy’s resurrection made him even more leery of confiding in the Scoobies. He would keep Meret a secret for as long as he could.

“’S okay. ’Ll just do a little breaking ‘n entering sometime. Get in some late night reading at the Magic Box,” Spike tried to sound enthusiastic.

“Right, whatever,” Dawn said, letting the subject drop. With that, she returned to her dinner, but her eyes never left the little serpent cradled in the vampire’s hand.

Spike joined her at the counter and slid Meret on to the faux marble laminate. After a brief look to orient herself to the new environment, the serpent set off exploring the various utensils and other objects scattered on the island.

Spike could not count the number of times he had sat in this exact spot, sharing a cup of hot chocolate with Joyce. Even though the woman had been dead for months, her scent still lingered in the air of the house, permeating every object. His eyes grew wistful as he watched Dawn devour her meal. Joyce had been one of the few people who treated him like somebody instead of a rabid animal or a science experiment. He would miss her presence until the day he dusted. Until then, he silently promised to watch over her children.

Lost in thought, Spike did not notice the front door opening. However, the sound of a familiar voice sent a shot of panic through his body.

“Dawn, are you home?” Tara called from the front foyer.

Fuck!

Spike reached for Meret in a desperate attempt to hide her again, but his alarm had sent the little creature aloft, hissing her distress.

“Dawnie?” Tara walked into the kitchen and froze, mouth wide.

So much for secrecy.

Feeling the fool, Spike finally gave up trying to catch Meret and turned defiantly to face the staring witch.

“Hey Tara. Like Spike’s new pet? Kinda weird, huh?” Dawn mumbled around a mouthful of fajita.

“Look Glinda…” Spike started

“Is that a coatl?” Tara spoke at the same time.

“I don’t know what you... Wait. You know what she is?” Spike stared in disbelief.

“A, um, a cccoatl?” Tara stammered, obviously flustered.

Spike sank back into one of the kitchen stools. “And what, pray tell, is a coatl?”

In League With Serpents - Care and Feeding

Tara stood for a moment, still gaping at the scene before her.

“Glinda?”

“Oh, um, they’re feathered snakes,” she offered up a weak smile.

Spike blinked, expression stony.

“They, uh, were the favored familiars of ancient Mesoamerican warlocks,” she looked at Meret, who had chosen the top of the refrigerator as a good hiding spot, in awe. “They’re supposed to be extinct.”

Now we’re getting somewhere.

“Anything else you’d like to share with the class?” Spike asked sarcastically.

“Yes. I mmmean, I think there’s a book upstairs. Give me a second,” Tara quickly ducked out of the kitchen. Spike could hear her rummaging around in the master bedroom upstairs moments later. The blond witch returned with a huge tome in her arms. She placed it on the counter before taking a seat next to Dawn. In gold leaf across the leather cover, Spike could make out the title: Hadrian’s Bestiary of the Exotic: Third Edition. Opening the book to the back, the witch started skimming through the index.

Tara apparently found what she was looking for and started flipping pages back towards the front cover. Spike watched in amusement as Dawn leaned over, surreptitiously trying to read some of the pages as they turned. She glanced up and realized that Spike had caught her, a wicked twinkle in his eyes. In response to her arched eyebrow, Spike gave the smallest of smiles. The two were far from strangers to conspiracy.

Scoobs are gonna have to let the Bit do some research soon, or else she’ll start lookin’ on her own.

Spike affected a bored expression and Dawn went back to her discreet spying.

After a few moments, Tara reached the page she sought. “Here! Willow mentioned it when we were researching that snake demon over the summer.” She started skimming the yellowed page. “Want to see the entry?” She shoved the book towards Spike.

Tara returned to staring at Meret until Dawn tugged on her sleeve and asked what had brought her home so early. The witch blushed and said she had been nominated for homework duty, to which the teenager winced and made a sour face. The two retrieved Dawn’s backpack from the dining room and settled down to work. Both of them pretended to concentrate on the math problems, but Spike caught their glances towards the fridge.

Spike turned the book around and quickly found the relevant section. He skimmed the first part, which covered the discovery and naming of the species, before finding the good stuff.

…Coatls display some telepathic and empathic talents which, while resembling similar magical spells, are actually an inherent trait of the species. A hatchling will imprint upon the first adult coatl it sees. A mental bond forms between the newborn and the adult, a link through which the hatchling will learn everything it needs to know to survive in the coatl covey. In time, the mental link will spread from the young coatl to other members of the covey through the connection with its chosen parent.

If an adult coatl is not present at a hatching, baby coatls have been known to form similar links with humans. The bond lets the human host and the coatl communicate with thoughts and strong emotions. These bonded coatls learn the habits of their human partners, such as diet and general disposition, much like they would have in the wild. Similarly, the human host will quickly develop a strong mental and emotional connection to a coatl hatchling. Once this bond is firmly established, the mental link has been known to extend to the person’s family and close friends, the bonded coatl’s approximation of an adopted covey. This connection only seems to function in one direction because the linked humans can sense the coatl, but not one another through the other bonds. However, since the coatl tends to echo the emotions of its original bond mate, the feelings it projects to other linked humans often, but not always, represent those of its host...


Sensing his interest, Meret flew down to land on Spike’s shoulder. She wrapped her tail tightly around the vampire’s throat and peered at Tara and Dawn with trepidation. All work on the equations stopped as the girls watched the tiny creature, but Spike paid them no heed and continued with his reading.

…A bonded coatl’s lifespan seems to be connected to the life energy of its human host. While a coatl can be killed, it will not die of disease or old age until its human companion does...

Spike skipped some of the more technical theories attempting to explain the mental and physical link. The esoteric “whys” were not as important to him in that moment as the “whats.” He soon found another interesting section.

…When it was discovered that coatl feathers vastly strengthened mind reading spells in the early eighteen hundreds, the creatures were hunted to extinction by black market bounty hunters. The last sighting of a wild coatl occurred in 1862 and the last known bonded coatl died with its partner, a Mr. Charles Hurst, in 1897...

From that point on, Spike only picked out interesting snippets from amongst a sea of technical jargon and admitted speculation.

…highly intelligent, more so than dogs or even chimpanzees...

…able to fly and carry proportionately heavy loads from birth...

…subsists on insects and small mammals in the wild...

…will fight bitterly to defend its covey or human partners...

…hermaphroditic, starts laying eggs upon reaching maturity...


The following page held a drawing of an adult coatl and its nest.

Well, I’ll be damned.

“Glinda, I’ll be borrowin’ this book.” Spike’s tone of voice was pitched to dissuade argument.

She snapped her attention away from the tiny creature coiled around his neck. “I dddon’t think Mr. Giles would… I mean, I’d have to make sure that Willow is…”

“Look ducks, I’ve got a beastie who shouldn’t even exist knockin’ around inside my head, thinkin’ I’m her mum. I’ll return the book safe and sound to Red and Rupes as soon as I get a handle on the situation. I think I need it a little more right now, yeah?” Spike’s posture dared the witch to disagree. “Also, I’d appreciate it if you kept this little secret among the three of us.” He held up a hand when Tara and Dawn both opened their mouths to protest. “Don’t you have more important things to worry the others with, like recently dead slayers? Meret here would just be a distraction.” For someone with a decidedly warped conscience, Spike knew the mechanics of a good guilt trip by heart. The two girls shut their mouths with audible snaps and twin guilty expressions. “They’ll all find out in time, not to worry.”

But not for a very long time if I can help it.

“Right, be seein’ you Bit, Glinda,” and with that, he turned to go.

“Bye Spike! Thanks for the dagger!” called Dawn.

“The what?” blurted Tara. Spike beat a hasty retreat, tome in hand, making good his escape through the back door and into the yard beyond.

Time to test a theory.

*****


Spike sat on the floor of his crypt, a pile of ashes and cigarette butts piled in front of him. He pulled out the shards of the broken pendant and lined them up neatly next to him before shoveling the remains of the cigarettes back into their urn. He dusted off the fragments as best he could and carried them over to where the huge book waited, open on the stone sarcophagus.

Sure enough, the shards shared the same green swirls described in the entry and sticky bits of membrane still clung to the inside of some of the pieces. If the scale in the drawing was to be believed, the size was about right as well. It wasn’t a charmed pendant he had won off that drunken warlock.

It was an egg.

He deposited the eggshell in a little broken dish from his cupboard, unsure as to what to do with it. Then he vaulted on top of the sarcophagus and crossed his legs, head bent to read.

Starting from the very beginning of the entry, Spike read the entry with careful detail. The only section he skipped over described the various magical spells that used coatl feathers and scales as components. He’d get to that with the ex-demon bird once Meret started shedding.

I bet two of Meret’s feathers would keep me in smokes for years.

He felt a questioning tendril of thought from Meret. He glanced up to find her wrapped around Dave’s chest, nose a hair’s breadth from the statue’s mouth as if wondering why the stone figure did not speak to her.

“Sorry little one. Dave’s conversations tend to be a little one-sided.”

Meret glanced at him before turning her attention back to the marble saint. Spike snorted with amusement. If the little serpent was supposed to learn proper behavior from him, she was doomed to failure from square one. So far he had managed to start her off eating an all-blood diet and trying to communicate with a stone monument.

William the Bloody Role Model, that’s rich.

He finished the section on coatls before reading it through a second time. He had learned little more for his efforts except that Meret was in fact from a Central American subspecies. South American coatls were green and the African ones had more leathery skin to better handle the dry desert air. He even attempted to cross reference related species, but to no avail.

Spike found it disturbing which details he had not found in the entry. There was no mention of coatls bonding with vampires or other demons, no hints as to what changes that might create in the link. And the bonding with friends, did the emotions have to be returned or did his feelings alone mark those that Meret would contact? Things could get really awkward with the Scoobies if that was the case. Too many questions would arise that Spike had little interest in answering.

The only plus side was that the detailed descriptions of coatl behavior gave him a good idea of what he needed to do to care for the little creature. In a small side cavern, hidden from direct view from the main sleeping chamber, Spike found an ornate bronze brazier among his loot from past battles and discreet thefts. Using the head of a battered axe as a hammer, Spike pounded the anchoring chains into the bare rock of the main chamber’s ceiling. When he was satisfied that the shallow dish was secure, he tossed the remains a red silk shirt, torn in one of his recent fights, into it for bedding. He promised himself that he would steal Meret a birdbath at the first opportunity. Not one of the cheap, concrete ones either, one of the fancy metal ones he had seen in the yards of some of Sunnydale’s wealthiest citizens.

“Meret, got somethin’ to show you!” he called from the lower cavern. In a moment, the little serpent fluttered through the hole in the ceiling and sailed to his side. “Like it?” he queried.

The coatl’s mouth dropped open with a happy puff before she darted to her new bed. Spike smiled and wondered where she had been sleeping before she had awakened him from his drunken stupor. Meret landed in the dish and nosed around in the shirt. Spike chuckled when she poked one of the chains with her snout and hissed with surprise when the motion sent the brazier swinging.

“All yours little one.” Meret fluffed up her crest feathers in happiness before flying to Spike’s shoulder and rubbing her jaw along his cheek in appreciation. “Oi, none of that!” he complained, but the smile never left his face.

It went completely against his tough guy façade, but on a very basic level, Spike craved feeling needed. As a human, he had found his place tending his ailing mother. As a vampire, he had waited on Drusilla hand and foot, catering to her every whim. If the slayer had let him, he would have spoiled both her and Dawn rotten. After months of solitude, Spike had found a new focus for his care. He fully intended to lavish as much attention on Meret as he had any of the other women in his unlife.

“Now, how about findin’ you a bath?”

In League With Serpents - Distrust Fund

Wednesdays were paydays.

Spike had managed to convince Meret to stay at the crypt while he ventured into Sunnydale. It hadn’t been too difficult because the little creature still found sporting in the copper birdbath new and exciting. He had left her splashing in the water, probably soaking the Turkish rug that lay nearby. He tried to feel irritated, but amusement kept ruining his attempts. No matter how much trouble the young coatl managed to get into, it was far preferable to the seething boredom that had dominated many of Spike’s evenings before her hatching.

Walking towards the main entrance of the graveyard, Spike was interested to note that the link connecting his mind to Meret’s did not seem to fade with distance. If he concentrated, he could almost feel the cool water. Her delight was infectious and he found himself wearing a genuine smile, something that few among the living, or the dead for that matter, had ever seen.

With a light heart, the vampire wandered along one of the winding paved roads leading out of the cemetery. He kept an eye out for any stray demons, but the party of Kirkan monks he had found digging up fresh graves the night before had gone far to fill his violence quota for the week. The brawl had been brilliant. Alone a Kirka wasn’t much of a challenge, but together they had put up an impressive fight. He had taken down nine of the rat-like demons and still bore their claw marks across his forehead and down one arm. His nose and cheekbone were already starting to set, but his body had yet to turn its healing attention to the deep gouges left by the Kirkas’ poisoned talons. The marks would be gone by the following evening, but for the present, Spike wore them like badges of honor.

The surprise of the evening had been Meret, who had dived on the leader, biting and battering his face with her wings. Her antics had served as little more than a distraction to the large rat demon, but her attacks had both touched and amused the vampire. When the last monk fell, she had hissed over their bodies like a conquering warlord. Spike had spent the rest of the evening lavishing attention on the little serpent.

She might not be much of a fighter now, but wait until she grows up!

The book he had borrowed from Tara stated that while coatls grew throughout their entire lives, most reached a length of at least five feet before adulthood slowed the rate to a crawl. Adding in their uncanny strength, your average adult coatl could crush bones and choke a human, or human-sized demon as the case may be, with ease.

Spike went over the details of the previous night’s fight in all its gory detail, which helped him stave off his disappointment at the current lack of action.

After a few minutes, Spike reached Sunnydale’s shopping district. The streets were full of people, but for once this fact didn’t provoke a bitter reaction in the vampire’s mind. Humming a little swing riff and with a spring in his step, he soon neared his destination.

Tinkling bells announced his arrival at the Magic Box. A quick glance and a discreet sniff proved to the vampire that the whole gang was there. Giles was unloading a new shipment of books onto the shelves in the back while Anya rearranged her crystal display in the front. Xander had pulled out a trashcan and was sitting on the counter, whittling stakes over the bin. The witches sat at the round table with some old books scattered around, and Dawn was sprawled on the floor behind them, homework spread around her. From the sounds, Buffy was in the back working over her punching bag with a vengeance.

“’Lo all,” he offered. His greeting earned slight waves from Tara and Dawn, a grunt from Xander, and brief glances from Willow and Giles.

Why yes, I just beat a horde of demons in hand to hand combat, but I’m just fine. Thanks for askin’.

“Oh, Spike! Today’s your lucky day,” Anya put down the geode she had been situating and gestured him over to the cash register. “Remember that Verulean glaive you brought me a couple months ago? Well this creepy antique weapons collector who works at the museum came in and bought it! Full price too, I never got around to marking it down.” She pulled out an impressively thick envelope from the cash drawer. “I sold a couple other pieces as well, so here’s your cut.”

Spike took the offered packet and nearly swallowed his own tongue when he looked at it. In flowery handwriting, as if by adding curlicues Anya could convey her excitement over the sale, was the amount of this week’s haul. Two thousand four hundred fifty seven dollars and sixty-eight cents. He had been expecting the thirty or so that was his usual take.

Spike stood staring mutely at the stack of cash in his hand.

“So what’re you going to spend it on?” Anya chirped.

“Huh?” Spike replied with becoming eloquence.

“You know, got any big plans that require money that you’ve been keeping secret? I’m thinking about putting my cut aside for a dress, a white one with lots of beadwork and a train,” Anya commented innocently.

The former demon's words were met with muffled curses from Xander. “Nothing, sorry. Knife just slipped.” Anya was on him in a second, fawning over the injury, which was little more than a scratch. Spike eyed the welling blood longingly. Of all the people in the Magic Box, Xander was the only one Spike still dreamed about biting.

Xander submitted to Anya’s ministrations peacefully enough, but the glances he kept throwing Spike’s way were anything but equitable.

“Y’ know Harris, I could clean that knife right up for you,” Spike flashed him a wicked smirk.

“No thanks,” Xander tightened his grip on the blood-stained hilt while Anya wrapped gauze around his other knuckles.

“Spike, that’s just gross,” Dawn added from the floor, wrinkling her nose. The two witches simply shot him disapproving glances before returning to their reading. A long-suffering sigh came from the corner where the watcher was working.

Can’t even joke with these blighters.

Anya kept her gaze fixed on Xander’s injured hand, but Spike could have sworn he saw a slight smile in response to his antics. It was too bad that the former vengeance demon seemed surgically grafted to Harris’ side. Spike would have loved to trade stories about the old days over a pint with the girl, but not if he had to deal with Xander’s assorted insults and distrustful looks.

Spike shoved away from the counter and headed for the far corner where the watcher was unpacking books. On the way over Dawn caught his eye and looked pointedly at his pocket. Spike gave her the barest shake of his head as he passed.

Looks like the Nibblet is keepin’ everythin’ discreet. Good on her.

Upon reaching the bookshelf where the watcher was working, Spike stopped and leaned against an adjoining display case. Spike knew that the watcher knew he was there. To top it off, Giles knew that Spike knew, but it was a common act of rudeness that the overly stuffy Englishman used to convey how much he resented Spike’s presence. The vampire combated the slight the only way he could, by not reacting at all until Giles finally grew tired of the charade.

The watcher finished putting his armload of books on the shelf before pointedly picking up another stack and arranging them as well. When the last book was placed in the row and every spine sat flush with the front of the shelf, Giles turned to the vampire, who was still standing impassively, face studiously blank except for the smallest quirk of his lips.

“Spike, is there something I can do for you?” Giles asked with bare civility.

“Yeah, was wonderin’ what’s got the slayer’s knickers in a twist,” Spike drawled, trying to keep his voice neutral.

Giles eyed him sharply. “I don’t see why I should be telling you anything about Buffy or her current state of mind.”

Spike narrowed his eyes in irritation. “See, it’s like this Rupes: I was going to go back there and share a little demony info with the slayer, and I would like to avoid any topics that would end with me getting knocked about the head. Now, you can give me enough of a clue to help me avoid a nasty scene, or you can have an even more brassed off slayer on your hands while you scrub vamp blood out of your nice training mats. So what’s it gonna be, mate?”

“You can give me the message,” Giles countered.

“Funny, and I thought you were makin’ it pretty plain that you didn’t want to talk to me at all. I’m touched Rupert. Really.”

Giles had the grace to accept defeat when he saw it. He sighed deeply before relenting. “She’s having some financial problems. Apparently the plumbing in her basement needs to be completely replaced and the cost will be rather high.” Giles removed his glasses and started wiping them down with his handkerchief. “The bank turned down her loan application because she is unemployed, and her slaying has been, shall we say, less than superb of late.”

Spike struggled to hide his concern. “So, wha’s gonna be done?”

“Done? I suppose Buffy will have to find a job. I can only support her so much and she has run afoul of the Council so many times that I’m sure they will not offer any aid.” The rate of Giles’ polishing increased, telling Spike that the watcher didn’t like what he was saying any more than the vampire did.

“So l’me get this straight. Somewhere in between gettin’ over her fun filled vacation in” Not heaven! Can’t tell! “hell, playing mom to the little Bit, and savin’ the world from all things evil and nasty, she’s supposed to what? Flip burgers? You’ve got to be kiddin’ me,” Spike was aghast.

“If that’s what it takes,” Giles’ voice grated roughly.

Spike tossed him a dismissive gesture and stormed to the training room door, throwing it wide before striding into Buffy’s sanctuary.

The sight of the slayer literally beating the stuffing out of a punching bag froze Spike in his tracks. She would have stolen his breath away had he real need to breathe. Even as he stood there, transfixed, the small part of his mind that still functioned properly noticed things that he filed away for later.

She’s so thin. She can’t be eatin’. And look at those punches. I’ve never seen the slayer so far off her game. She wouldn’t last five minutes in a real fight against someone like Glory.

Reining in his emotions, Spike struck one of his most arrogant, defensive poses. “Oi! Slayer!”

Buffy stopped hitting the bag and slowly turned to face him. After witnessing the fury of her punches, he was shocked by the blank expression on the slayer’s face. “What do you want Spike?” her voice was equally flat and cold.

Spike took a moment to reclaim his scattered thoughts. “Kirkan demons, nine of them. Caught them grave robbing. Thought it might be important.” He waited for a reaction, any reaction. None were forthcoming.

“I’ll tell Giles. He can look it up,” she commented. Without another word, Buffy turned back to the bag and started hitting it again.

Spike could recognize so obvious a dismissal when he saw it. He stood there for a moment longer, hoping that the slayer would say something else, do something else besides move and speak like an automaton. Hell, he would have even welcomed a swift punch to the nose, but the slayer was completely ignoring him in favor of the bag, which was swinging violently again under her powerful blows.

“Better” Dawn had said. This was not better; this was much, much worse. Spike’s mind cast about, grasping for ideas on how he could help the slayer when she was so thoroughly shutting out everyone around her. His mind latched on the only real thing he had to offer.

Spike burst back through the practice room door. “Rupes, need a word in private.” Seeing the man’s obvious surprise and the refusal rising on the watcher’s lips, Spike ground his teeth. “Please,” he said through clenched jaws.

That did it. Spike never said the word please, especially not to the watcher. Giles nodded slightly and followed the vampire through the side door and into the alley.

The two men stood facing one another for a beat. Then Spike pulled out the envelope Anya had given him, removed a couple twenties, and thrust the rest towards the watcher.

Giles looked at the money as if Spike was offering him a basket full of adders. “What is this?” he asked roughly.

“In some circles, I believe it is called cash,” Spike ground through clenched teeth.

“Yes Spike, I can see that. What I meant is why are you giving it to me?” Giles let his irritation creep into his voice.

“D’ you really need me to spell it out for you?” Spike asked.

Why do you have to make this so hard?

“Look, Rupert, you know that the only gig the slayer will be able to get is some minimum wage, hellish pit of a job with the hours she keeps and nothin’ but a high school degree,” Spike’s façade of anger melted and worry was painted plain across his face. “Something like that will kill her. It’s beneath her. You know that,” he thrust the money a little further towards the watcher and waited.

Giles stared at him, eyes hard and cold behind his glasses. “I suppose this is some kind of sick ploy to get into Buffy’s good graces. I can tell you now that it won’t work.” The watcher turned to go back inside.

It hurt to have his every motivation questioned.

“No ploys. You can tell her whatever you want about the money. Tell her the Council of Wankers is sending her an early birthday present. I could really give a toss what story you cook up as long as she gets the dosh. You know she won’t take it from me. Just, don’t be a git. Let me help her.” Spike was disgusted with the pleading tone his voice had taken.

Giles stood at the door with his back to the vampire. At length, Spike’s outstretched hand dropped and he stared down at the money in his hand.

“I will give it to her,” Giles said softly, “as soon as I can come up with a reasonable explanation.” The watcher faced the vampire and reached out a hand.

“Thanks mate,” Spike said as he handed the money over. “I’ll pass along more as I come by it.”

The two men stood facing one another, neither making a move to reenter the shop.

Spike nodded to himself. “Right then, I’ll just be leaving. Oh, and if I find out you pocketed any of it, I’ll key your BMW.” That almost earned a chuckle from Giles before the watcher schooled his features back to seriousness. “Night Rupes.”

As Spike walked out of the alley, he could have sworn he heard a faint “Goodnight William.”

Nah, Ripper wouldn’t go all nancy on me now. Must be the little one, messing with my head again.

The excuse was empty though. Spike could feel Meret’s sleeping patterns back at the crypt. It was nice knowing he had done something right for a change.

Given time, maybe he could get used to the sensation.

In League With Serpents - Tomb Raiding

It was amazing how much loot had been buried with Sunnydale’s dead.

Now that Spike had proper motivation, he brought his fertile mind and boundless energy to bear discovering new ways to amass money. The night after handing over the envelope of money to Giles, the vampire had revisited the catacombs that had once held the Gem of Amarrah. Most of the gold and jewels there had been removed by his former minions and other latecomers to the trove. However, he was able to fill a small duffel bag with little pieces that had been overlooked. Meret had proved to be very good at finding tiny rings and delicate chains of silver and gold from amongst the dust and debris.

The ones that smelled even faintly of magic went to Anya. It was difficult for Spike to differentiate between those with stronger or weaker charms, all magic felt the same to him, but some of the pieces of jewelry made the ex-demon’s eyes open wide. The vampire was amused to note that Giles himself had purchased three of the rings, after much haggling with Anya over the high prices, before putting them into one of his slaying-related stashes.

The other baubles, while lacking enchantments, were well endowed with precious metals and gems. Spike used his contacts in the black market to hawk the vast majority of the remaining valuables for a significant amount of cash. One gold pair of earrings with tiny teardrop cut sapphires he palmed into Dawn’s purse with a note about their origin. The next evening he had found an ecstatic thank-you scrawled on notebook paper, slipped under his crypt’s door. The letter had gone into a little box Spike reserved for his most treasured items. A delicate silver choker, loosely linked and resembling metallic lace, he put aside for the day he figured out a way to slip Buffy a present.

An amusing side effect of his tomb raiding was that Meret started collecting “treasures” of her own. Anything that caught her eye, including broken glass, shiny rocks, and bits of metallic foil, made its way into her hanging nest. She let Spike lift anything of real value, like an engagement ring someone had dropped in the cemetery, and took great pleasure in rearranging her precious collection.

Spike took this as further proof that even though the Bestiary claimed that coatls were genderless, Meret was at least girly at heart.

The next night was poker night. Spike spent the early parts of the evening combing the allies for stray litters and the later hours increasing his feline collection through cards. The bids only included kittens this time around, no more mysterious eggs to be had, and his winnings were not as impressive as they had been the week before. However, the cash he earned could keep him in the necessities, freeing up his other monetary endeavors for the slayer.

He contemplated turning to slightly more illegal means of obtaining cash, but decided against it in the end. Grave robbing was one thing; holding up a 7-11 was something else all together. Spike knew that in order to keep Giles as a viable go-between for his discreet donations, he would have to keep his activities in the paler shades of moral gray.

Life was pretty good for the blonde vampire. In a week’s time he had acquired a new roommate and a mission to counteract his feelings of boredom and uselessness. When the next Wednesday rolled around, Spike turned over an envelope with a little over six thousand dollars in it to Giles and listened from a distance as the watcher added some of his own money to the pot by writing Buffy a check for ten grand. The only thing that could have made his evening better was if Spike could have replaced Giles in the grateful hug the slayer had offered her watcher.

Easy avenues for money exhausted, Spike became more creative. He had Anya compile a list of spell components he might be able to find around the Hellmouth. Some were odd plants and minerals, while others included various body parts and secretions from demons. After realizing that Clem and his kind were included on the list, he crossed off any species he thought of as harmless or even benevolent to humans before adding actual hunts to his usual patrols. He stalked the subterranean caverns and seedier locales of Sunnydale, picking off some demons as he went and following others to their lairs where he wiped out entire nests. Word spread quickly in occult circles, and the Magic Box started earning a reputation as one of the best stores in the state for acquiring rare, fresh components. Sales skyrocketed, much to Anya’s delight. Demonic activitiey plummeted, much to Giles’ delight.

Weeks passed.

Anya and Xander announced their engagement. In true Summers’ fashion, Dawn shared her first kiss with a vampire before staking him. Spike commiserated with her over cups of hot chocolate. Clem met Meret over buffalo wings and beer one night. The loose-skinned demon was charmed. Tara visited a couple times a week to see Meret. She often shared new bits of information that she had uncovered about coatls. Spike was surprised to find himself enjoying her company more and more.

A musical demon named Sweet came to Sunnydale and Spike ended up spilling his feelings on the floor in front of Buffy. The entire fiasco was so embarrassing that after saving the slayer from self-immolation, courtesy of her admission to having spent the summer in heaven, he fled to his crypt to forget his woes in alcohol. Buffy had chased him into the alley, but he did not stop and she did not follow. From that night on, Spike did everything in his power to pretend that Sweet’s spell had never happened.

With Buffy’s terrible secret out in the open and business booming, Spike was completely blind-sided when Giles pulled him aside one Wednesday in the Magic Box.

*****


“Spike, Anya, a word?” Giles said before retreating to the training room.

Spike looked up from his seat at the table. He had been looking up old burial records, tracking down the final details about the particularly powerful item he hoped to find next. He had touched upon the first clue three weeks ago, and the tip had been simply too good to ignore. When he was so close, he was loathe to stop his search, even temporarily.

Anya put down the set of Sumatran fertility robes she had been pricing and moved to follow Giles. On the way past, she paused to swat Spike’s boots where he had his feet propped up on the table. “I just cleaned that thirty minutes ago. I do not appreciate having to waste potentially valuable work hours because you got it all dirty again.” Her light tones managed to be both chipper and severe. Spike smirked before slowly and deliberately removing his feet from the table and rising from his seat. Anya rolled her eyes and aimed another swat at his arm before heading towards the practice room door, the vampire strolling behind her.

The two found Giles waiting for them near the pommel horse. Spike noted that he looked thoughtful and more than a little upset. His features cleared somewhat when he caught sight of them.

“Ah, yes. I have been meaning to talk to the two of you for some time on this subject, but the opportunity never arose. Anya, I would like to bring Spike on as a formal employee of the Magic Box.” Anya made inarticulate squeaking sounds and Spike could only stare in disbelief, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“I know that the two of you have a lucrative agreement going on the side. I’m not completely blind to what I am asking of the two of you, but I’m worried about auditors noticing that we lack records of any kind for much of our inventory. If Spike is a legitimate employee, charged with supplying the shop with certain, shall we say, commodities, matters will be made much simpler for us. Spike can still work on commission, but he would be paid for the items upon their acquisition, instead of after their sale, in addition to a nominal hourly fee for the time he spends… collecting them.” Giles avoided eye contact with the steaming ex-demon during the course of his speech.

“Anya, I trust that you and Spike will be able to come to an arrangement regarding percent commission and time keeping?” Anya’s lips were pressed together in a thin line, but she managed a jerky nod. “Thank you, my dear. Could you bring us the appropriate paper work?” Both men winced at the resonating boom as the ex-demon stormed back into the main part of the shop, slamming the door as she went.

“I’m afraid that Anya will be upset with me for some time to come, but I could think of no better way to handle this situation,” Giles said, gaze on the closed door.

“That’s a pretty worm you got danglin’ there, Rupert. Where’s the hook?” Spike asked. The vampire waited with arms crossed and eyebrow raised as the watcher removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose.

“Yes, I’m sure you’ve noticed that the IRS tends to avoid hassling real magic shops, something about a curse in the late forties. However, that was one of the few excuses I thought Anya might accept. What I am about to tell you cannot leave this room.” When Spike slowly nodded, Giles continued. “The ‘catch,’ Spike, is that I will be leaving for England soon. Your… donations, for lack of a better term, have kept Buffy from having to find employment, and she is even contemplating returning to college. I have convinced her that the funds are coming from the Council, but some arrangement must be made before I leave to maintain that pleasant lie. I’ve taken the liberty of setting up a bank account under the names Buffy Summers and William Pratt through the shop. Hopefully that name will not raise any suspicions, but I find that the best lies contain a grain of truth, don’t you?”

Spike gaped like a landed fish. “How did you…” he stammered.

“Find out your real name? Spike, I have been collecting all the information on you I could since your arrival in Sunnydale. A certain associate, a watcher named Lydia Catchings, has made quite the study of your past. As I recall, you met her briefly last year.

“Regardless, William Pratt will be nothing to Buffy but the faceless liaison to the Watcher’s Council while I am away. It will simply be a matter of you dropping your weekly envelopes in a bank chute rather than into my hands. As for the ‘job’ here, that is an attempt to increase your pay, strictly for Buffy’s sake, of course.”

Having recovered somewhat from his shock, Spike latched onto another part of the watcher’s statement. “And exactly how long will you be across the pond?”

“For as long as it takes,” the watcher replied cryptically.

Spike would have pushed the subject further had not Anya chosen that exact moment to reappear, employment forms crumpled in her tight fist. “Here’s your contract. Some capitalist you turned out to be.” She stood impatiently, tapping her toe as Spike and Giles signed the appropriate lines. “Come on then. I guess I’ll have to start forging addresses and explaining our wages and time cards to you.” Spike’s dark eyes caught the watcher’s as he was led away.

“This conversation isn’t over yet Watcher.”

“Yes Spike,” Giles sighed. “I know.”

*****


Later that same evening, after the vampire had managed to escape from Anya’s furious grasp, the watcher slipped Spike a paper with bank account numbers and detailed instructions on how to make deposits. The Englishman managed to evade all of Spike’s attempts to corner him and ask more questions about his upcoming departure.

Wily old bastard.

He finally gave up and wandered out into the streets. He consoled himself with the knowledge that weeks of research were hopefully going to come to fruition in a few hours. After sending Meret a mental image of the cemetery’s front gates, Spike started making his way through the back alleys of Sunnydale.

He could feel Meret leaving the crypt and making her way to meet him. Their bond had grown and strengthened over the past few weeks. He took care of the little serpent, kept her fed and entertained while showering the creature with sometimes gruff, sometimes touching affection. For her part, Meret helped with Spike’s hunts, for treasure or more mobile prey, and acted as his unofficial conscience, tempering his more violent mood swings and ideas with soothing thoughts of her own. He didn’t always appreciate her interventions, but the thought of not having Meret around felt like the idea of cutting off his own hand. He sometimes wondered how much of that sensation was a part of the bond and how much stemmed from his feelings alone, but he could not begrudge her presence in his life.

He found Meret waiting on him at the gates of Old Gray Cemetery. As the name would suggest, no one had been interred in this graveyard in living memory. With her interest in newly risen vampires, the slayer rarely visited the small plot on the edge of town. Some of the graves dated back to the founding of the Spanish mission that had marked the town’s origin. With his new obsession for ancient gold, Spike had come to this cemetery often in the past month, digging up various graves and searching dusty crypts. His visits were so common, in fact, that he had hidden a stash of tools in one of the better-preserved crypts.

“Digging tonight little one,” he called to Meret. A disconsolate burst flickered through the bond. Without arms or legs, the serpent knew she could be of little help. “Explore on your own, maybe you’ll find some new stash.” Meret had put on a little size over the past few weeks, she was now a little shorter than Spike’s arm, but she could still fit through cracks and holes in search of loot that the vampire never would have noticed without her. Somewhat consoled, Meret flew towards a crypt they had not yet searched.

Even with vampiric strength and stamina, it was well after midnight before Spike finally uncovered the coffin. The crude pine box, typical of a monk’s burial, had not weathered the passage of time well. Spike wrapped impatient fingers through ragged holes around the coffin’s lid and yanked. The rotten wood gave way easily and Spike stumbled back with much of the lid in his hands. He tossed it to one side and bent to look for his goal.

There, clutched in the monk’s skeletal hands, was a heavy golden cross set with various smaller gems and one large ruby in the center. Spike grinned ferally.

Well, hello.

He tugged on a pair of work gloves before pulling the relic from the skeleton’s grasp. His hand felt a little warm, but without direct contact, the cross could not burn him. Beneath that sensation was the faint tingle that spoke to Spike of magical incantations.

A quick scan of the monk’s remains told the vampire that there was nothing more to be found in this grave, not that he was disappointed. This cross would bring in a great deal of money, especially with his new deal with the Magic Box. Spike crawled out of the grave, cross in hand, to where his other supplies waited.

The relic he wrapped in layers of burlap, which he secured with rough cords. Then the bundle was placed in one of the ragged pillowcases he kept around for transporting his finds.

Try to burn me now, you little bastard.

He laid the bag on the ground nearby and set to work refilling the grave. It wasn’t that he cared much for the sanctity of the dead, but scores of open graves would have brought unwanted attention to his nightly activities: attention that he was more than happy to avoid even if it did cost him a little more work.

Shoving dirt back into a hole always took less time than removing it in the first place, and Spike soon had the coffin reburied. After arranging the carefully saved chunks of sod, Spike scooped up his tools and the wrapped cross. The next rain would settle the earth again and then only the most observant person would notice it had been disturbed.

When his shovel, gloves, and the unused burlap and cord were stowed again, Spike reached out with his mind.

Meret!

The coatl soon appeared, a particularly ugly silver pin in her mouth and a gold chain, worked to resemble a vine, hanging around her neck. “Happy huntin’, little one? Best we go now. Sunrise’s under an hour away.” Meret’s additions placed in the pillowcase, the pair set out for the entrance of the cemetery and home.

Spike was surprised to find a large group of robed figures waiting on them at the front gate.

He was even more surprised by their choice of weaponry.

What kind of wankers wander around at night with butterfly nets?

In League With Serpents - Paying the Piper

There were seven of them: six hooded figures in brown robes - two with nets, the rest with clubs - and one apparently unarmed figure in black. Any other time, Spike would have leapt at the opportunity for a good fight, but his senses were screaming that dawn was on the way. Whatever action he took, it would have to be quick.

Meret had landed on his shoulder and was hissing at the group. Spike had come to trust in her judgment of others’ characters. He thought longingly of the shovel he had left behind moments before.

The nets gave him cause for consternation. An unpleasant thought occurred to him.

I want you to go home and hide, little one. Fly fast and high.

The little creature radiated rebellion. She wanted to stay and fight. However, if Spike’s instincts were right, she was in great danger.

Listen to me, Meret! There’s no time!

He allowed anger and fear for her safety to tinge his thoughts. With a hiss of rage, Meret launched herself skyward. Spike broke right, aiming for a low point in the fence.

The figure in black barked a few commands in some demonic tongue Spike did not recognize, and the group scattered as well. As expected, those with the nets attempted to follow Meret while the four armed with clubs came after the running vampire. He smiled to himself as the little serpent swerved in the woods that skirted the edge of the graveyard. If her wickedly amused thoughts were any indication, her pursuers were having problems following the tiny creature among the closely spaced trees.

Clever girl.

Using a tombstone as a launching block, Spike threw himself over the break in the fence, landing in a wild tumble that propelled him back to his feet in an instant, bag still in hand. He fully intended to fight his pursuers; he just needed to find a venue that would protect him from the sun’s rapidly approaching rays.

He soon came to a manhole cover and tore it away from the sewer entrance. He turned and saw that the four robed figures had not given up the chase.

Flashing a smirk and two fingers at his pursuers, Spike leapt into the dark hole.

He landed in knee-deep water, not the best fighting conditions to be certain, but still far preferable to immolation. The smooth plains of his face rippled and twisted, eyes flashing golden so that he could see better in the semi-darkness.

Robes’ll drag them down in this.

Spike had spent many nights learning the layout of the sewers when he first came to Sunnydale. He believed that this line lead to a small room that served as a junction for at least five main pipes. He set out down the tunnel, following the flow of the water. Sure enough, the vampire soon turned a corner and came to the open area. His timing could not have been better; he could hear faint splashes echoing behind him.

Spike tore a length of pipe from the wall and swung himself up to the service walkway that encircled the room. Pipe in his right hand and bag in his left, he crouched over the tunnel he had just exited and waited.

Within moments, the hooded figures stumbled into the room. Their robes were soaked and caught the current like sails, making their struggle against the water much more difficult. One even fell and Spike took that moment of confusion to strike. He landed behind the closest figure, putting all his weight and strength behind the pipe. The robed demon’s head collapsed with a pleasing cracking of bones and splattering of brains. Spike swung the bag containing the heavy cross in a backhanded arc at his next opponent before the first had even hit the water.

The wild swing glanced off of the demon’s shoulder, sending it backwards into one of its partners. The pair stumbled towards the wall, robes and limbs tangling. The one that had fallen earlier was fighting to regain its footing when Spike’s fabric-wrapped fist connected viciously with the underside of its chin. The demon went sailing back into the water and did not resurface, red welling in the murky current.

Huh, fragile. ‘S good to know.

Certain that two of his opponents were down for good, Spike turned to the remaining pair. They had managed to find positions in the shallower water between the mouths of two tunnel entrances. Spike eyed them with curiosity, trying to see under their cowls. He had yet to get a good look at his attackers.

“Don’t suppose you’d be willin’ to tell me why you’re so interested in me?” Spike started twirling the cloth bag in his left hand. The robed demons regarded him in silence. “No? Well that’s upsettin’.”

At the high point of the cloth bag’s trajectory, Spike abruptly accelerated its swing, aiming it at the figure’s head to his left. The attack was batted away by the demon’s club, but his vicious follow through with the pipe was not and glanced downward to sink into soft tissue. That sent the club flying as the demon moved to clutch at its throat in a futile attempt to stem the flow of blood.

The force of the cross’ swing had wrapped the bag around his hand, so Spike tightened his grip around the relic and used it to punch at the last demon. The blow fell short as his opponent dodged, and the vampire took a heavy blow to the back in retaliation. He grunted in surprised pain before thrusting the pipe forward into the demon’s gut, bending it over where its face was better aligned to accept Spike’s knee. Momentarily forgetting his interest in his attackers’ identities, Spike kept hitting his latest opponent until it lay broken and torn at his feet.

Bloodlust abated, he straightened and caught sight of the last demon, feebly grasping at its mangled face. He angrily strode over to its crumpled form, yanking the robe’s hood back before grabbing the demon by the throat in his powerful grip.

“Now you want to talk?” he asked, baring his fangs threateningly.

“I’m sure he would, had he a mouth with which to speak,” came a smooth voice from behind him.

Spike whirled in alarm, dropping the dying demon to face this new threat. He had not heard the newcomer’s approach, which was disconcerting in itself. Knuckles tight around the pipe, Spike stole a glance at the last of his brown robed opponents. Sure enough, underneath the torn flesh and veil of blood, the demon had no mouth, or nose, eyes, and ears for that matter. Its head was a smooth expanse of sickly pale flesh, as if a sculptor had started to form a face, but had left out all of the important details.

Spike turned his attention quickly back to the figure standing in the center of the room. His black robes marked him as the final member of the group from the cemetery, but the fact that he could speak at all meant that he was no relative of the four demons scattered around the room. He tried to catch the figure’s scent, but the all-encompassing stench of the sewer thwarted his attempts. The vampire was surprised to notice that the demon, or whatever he was, stood on a circle of dry concrete. The water swirled down and away from the figure’s feet, as if an invisible bubble surrounded him.

Great, all I needed to make my night complete was to deal with a bloody mage.

“Maybe you can help a bloke out then. What’s so fascinatin’ about me that you saw fit to sacrifice these pathetic blighters?” Spike asked while slipping slowly back into the deeper water.

“If I told, it would ruin the surprise,” came the velvety response. Taking a gamble, Spike launched himself with an angry roar. It was a bet he was doomed to loose though. His pipe bounced off of the same shield that kept the water at bay, and flames erupted from his skin. Underneath the searing pain from the explosion, the Initiative’s chip made its presence known.

Human!?

The force of the explosion sent Spike flying against the far wall, pipe flung from his grip as he instinctively tried to shield himself with his arms. He caught on the walkway for a moment before dropping into the water below, which mercifully extinguished the flames. Knowing that any further attacks would meet with similar failure and wracked by crippling pain, Spike allowed the current to sweep him down another tunnel, carrying him away from the magic-user.

He could hear an echo of panic as Meret sensed his injuries.

I’m fine. Stay where you are!

He could tell through the bond that Meret had escaped her pursuers and was relieved. Despite his reassurances to the coatl, Spike was not fine. His clothing hung in tatters from charred flesh. The weight of the gold cross, bound to his arm by the burned remains of the pillowcase, kept him underwater and slowed his progress.

He lost all concept of time as he drifted. After a while, minutes, hours, he did not know, the water grew shallower and calm. Eventually, he was forced to drag himself upright and continue moving forward under his own power. Every step sent agony rippling through his body, but he would not stop. He could not stop. He could not go to his crypt either. He did not know if he was being followed and he was unwilling to expose Meret and his sanctuary to the warlock and his faceless cronies. Through the haze of pain and exhaustion, only one place came to mind. The vampire had gone there before when he had been in this much trouble. By the time he reached his destination, Spike knew he had to rest soon before he collapsed. His senses told him that it was late afternoon outside.

Unwilling to remain underground where he might still have pursuit, he struggled to pull away what was left of his coat. The garment had come through the ordeal remarkably well, if only because his body had taken the majority of the fireball head on, shielding the leather from the worst of the blast, but it was still in pretty bad shape. Blackened skin cracked open with the twisting motions, but Spike still managed, with a gret deal of pain, to drape the intact sections of leather over his head. He took a moment to let the worst of the pain recede before slowly climbing the ladder to the world above.

He emerged, soaking and slick with the filth of the sewers, into the side street that abutted Giles’ flat. He hunched under the trench coat as he drug himself up the stairs and into the watcher’s garden patio, smoke rising painfully from patches of exposed skin. Propping himself up in the shaded doorway, Spike struggled to make his burned digits wrap around the doorknob before giving up and pounding on the solid wood. His efforts left behind a smear of burned material and blood.

A few moments later, the door swung open to reveal a stunned Giles and Tara.

“’Lo. Care to have a vamp in for a cuppa?” he rasped, and with that, Spike toppled into the watcher’s flat, unconscious before he hit the floor.

*****


The first thing he saw upon waking was a pair of blood red eyes.

The second thing, a shower head and curtains he had come to know quite well.

Fuck.

The third: Giles looking down at him with a mixture of curiosity, worry, anger, and amusement.

Bloody buggering fuck.

It was time to pay the piper.

In League With Serpents - Bedside Manners

Spike tried, he really did, but he could come up with no plausible excuse for Meret’s presence. After Giles’ silence, and his own, stretched out for a truly uncomfortable amount of time, he fell back on his most trusted line of defense: sarcasm.

“What’s wrong Rupes? Never seen a pet snake before?” he forced out past cracked lips.

“Actually I have, but I believe that this takes the term ‘exotic pets’ a bit far, don’t you?” Giles asked mildly.

Spike paused for a moment; the lack of accusations or interrogations was unexpected to say the least.

“How long was I out?” he finally asked, voice weak.

“Long enough for Tara and myself to get you in the shower and hose the worst of the sewage, blood, and burned fabric off of you. Believe me when I say that you should be thankful that you were not conscious when we cleaned out your wounds,” Giles raised the cup of tea he was holding and took a sip.

Spike turned his head slightly towards where the watcher stood in the doorway. His battered coat hung from a hook on the wall and a pile of black, the remains of his other clothes and the charred pillowcase, had been tossed in the far corner. He was surprised to see his jeans there as well, because he knew he was wearing pants. The fabric was rubbing his skin, irritating the wounds. He glanced down and stared in horror at his attire.

“Tell me those aren’t what I think they are,” he begged the watcher.

“What? Oh, the trousers. Yes I believe those were Riley’s. I don’t want to know how they came to be in my flat, but I believed they would be more comfortable than tweed and I was not about to subject Tara to your prolonged nudity.”

Bleeding Christ, he’s dressin’ me up in Cardboard’s fatigues!

The watcher’s tone had been bland, but there was a wickedly amused glint to his eyes that told Spike that Giles knew exactly what he had done.

Meret’s mental touch a balm over his embarrassment and indignation, Spike simply let his head fall back and closed his eyes again. He wanted to growl. He wanted to shout. He wanted to shake the watcher by the throat and shred the offending pants, but he was simply too tired and injured to put forth the effort.

His lack of an outburst must have unsettled Giles more than a little, because when the watcher spoke again, his voice was tinged with concern. “Spike, I understand that you must be in significant pain, but I must ask you a few questions.”

The vampire nodded his head ever so slightly, but did not open his eyes. He could feel Meret curl into the side of his neck that had escaped the worst of the burns.

“First of all, what did this to you and should we be worried about it making an appearance?”

“I’m not sure. There were seven of them to begin with. Two followed Meret, but she lost them over near Old Gray. I killed four in the sewers." He paused for a moment, collecting his thoughts. "They were ugly bastards; pasty white skin, no faces. Disgustin.’ The last one did this to me, their leader, a human. I think I lost him in the sewers, assumin’ that he ever tried to follow me at all,” Spike hated the admission, but there it was. Running from any fight galled him to the core.

“I’m sorry, did you say the demons were following a human?” Giles asked, disbelieving.

“Got the fried brain to prove it. What’s wrong Rupes, can’t believe anythin’ ill of a fellow pulser?” Spike asked in disgust. The vampire, whose entire existence revolved around the world’s many shades of gray, found those who only saw black and white to be pathetically naïve. He had always hoped for more from the man who had once been called Ripper.

He could hear Giles clear his throat at the unspoken rebuke. The watcher was never one to take criticism well, especially from a member of the undead. “Do you know why they attacked you?” he asked at length.

“Either they were after the pretty you’ve got wrapped with my kit over there or Meret here. I’m guessing the latter because the two that went after her had nets, but that doesn’t explain why five followed me after we split up.” Spike was honestly perplexed.

The vampire could hear a rustle of fabric and a soft gasp. The contents of the blackened pillowcase must have been forgotten in the rush to tend to his injuries. “Spike, do you know what this is?” the watcher breathed.

“If you’re holding the big cross I managed to lug all the way here, then yes. It’s the Sangre de Cristo ruby set in a fair chunk of gold with some other jewels for garnish. The soon to be Mrs. Whelp is going to hate you for makin’ her pay me finder’s fees after I bring that beauty in,” Spike allowed a hint of pride to sneak into his voice. The Sangre de Cristo ruby had been thought lost for hundreds of years. The irony that such a powerful relic would be restored to the slayer line by a vampire was not lost on Spike. “Tell the Council ‘you’re welcome’ for me and ask that they pay the demon bird in small, unmarked bills. She’ll like that.” Spike’s laugh sounded more like a wheeze, but the point had been made.

“I… Yes, well…” Giles foundered for a moment before switching gears entirely. “By ‘Meret’ I assume you mean the creature on your shoulder that has been terrorizing me for the past couple hours. How exactly did you get your hands on a coatl hatchling? Tara seems inclined to think that you’ve had it for some time.”

“Meret’s a ‘she.’” The correction took on a weary edge.

“Well, technically…,” Giles’ voice slipped into his lecturing tone.

Spike interrupted him before he got the chance to launch into an overly stuffy diatribe. “You can’t hear her Rupert. Believe me, she’s as ‘she’ as they come.”

“That doesn’t answer my question…” Giles pressed.

“Where's Glinda?” Spike asked in an empty attempt at avoidance.

“Getting blood and a certain book that you apparently never returned to her from your crypt. I believe she is also picking up some medical supplies. It wouldn’t do to have you bleeding all over my flat and leaving stains on the furniture. You’ve already introduced some of the most interesting odors into my foyer I have ever had the misfortune of smelling. Now answer the question, please,” Giles returned briskly.

“I won her egg in a poker game. She hatched and thinks I’m her mum.”

Silence.

“I can appreciate your humor at times Spike, but now is not one of them. I’m sure it wouldn’t kill you to be serious for a moment,” Giles snapped, irritation lacing his tones.

Spike’s dry laughter echoes in the small bathroom. He opened one eye wide enough to take stock of the fuming watcher before dissolving even further into his amusement. The laughter tore at his charred chest, but it warmed his unbeating heart as well, especially when Meret added little puffs of her own to his scratchy guffaws.

His eyes were leaking tears, both from the pain and his mirth, while the watcher glowered in impotent fury, when Tara finally returned. Spike’s laughter had weakened into dry, rasping wheezes so he could hear every word when Giles questioned the witch about Meret in the hallway. The witch’s responses returned the watcher to Spike’s side with a chagrined expression on his face.

“I’ll be in the den, reading. Tara is warming you some blood and will be along shortly.” Spike knew that was as close to an apology as he could ever expect from the watcher.

Tara did arrive moments later, bearing a huge glass, the kind that only come with special promotion deals at movie theaters and fast food joints, and a stuffed satchel. When he attempted to reach for the blood himself, Tara gently but firmly pushed his burned digits away before dropping a ridiculous accordion straw into the blood and offering it to him with a quiet smile. After their shared evenings in his crypt, the silence was comfortable, even to the typically garrulous vampire.

Spike drank the blood in long pulls, its rich texture soothing his burned throat. He could feel his body starting to use the blood to mend his many wounds. After finishing the entire glass, Spike struggled into a seated position to watch the witch. The motion sent sparks along his singed nerves and he tried to ignore the smudges of black and red he left behind on the enameled bathtub, but he wanted to rebuild at least some of his suffering dignity. Meret coiled around the shower fixtures and watched the two intently.

Tara set aside the bloody glass before digging into the cloth bag. She extracted a large plastic bowl, into which she emptied four bottles of a bright blue gel and a handful of herbs before proceeding to knead strips of gauze in the vile looking concoction. She whispered a few words under her breath and the bright blue ooze seemed to glow.

Looks like essence of smurf.

Spike would have liked to protest when Tara started wrapping one of his hands, but when the first strip touched his charred flesh, his arguments quickly faded.

“Magic?” he asked, breathing a sigh of relief.

“Not entirely,” was Tara’s soft reply. “The magic only keeps the gel wet and cold, kind of like an ice pack. The aloe, tea tree extract, some healing herbs, they do the rest.”

Spike took the opportunity to really look at his wounds. His torso and arms were blackened and cracking, blood trickling from the worst of the burned fissures. In retrospect, trying to block a fireball with his arms had not been the most well thought through action Spike had ever undertaken. His chest had still taken the brunt of the attack, but his arms were in equally bad shape, and his hands were little more than charred claws. Had he been human, the injuries would surely have killed him. The burns were significantly less severe below his waist where the baggy pants exposed his hips, and if the level of pain was an accurate measure, his neck and face had escaped the worst of the fire as well.

Tara wrapped him in soothing blue gauze from waist to chin before sitting back to study her handiwork. Considering the amount of gel slathered on each strip, it would take hours for it all to soak into his burned skin. Another whispered word of magic hardened the bandages slightly, sealing the healing balm inside. Seemingly satisfied, she wiped the worst of the gel off on a towel and pulled one last item from her bag. “It was hanging on the clearance rack when I went to buy the aloe. I knew you would hate what Mr. Giles had. I hope these fit.” The shy witch held up a cheap pair of black, rayon pajama pants.

Spike did not know what to say. The gentleness with which Tara had tended his wounds and thoughtfulness of the gift were so foreign to him that he could force no words past the lump in his throat. After being crushed and burned under a church organ, Drusilla had done little to help him recover beyond stealing a wheelchair and bringing him the occasional pet to eat, even though his injuries had been earned while curing the mad vampiress. With one hand, Spike accepted the pants before capturing the tips of Tara’s fingers in his own bandaged mitt and bringing them to his lips. The witch froze before turning a dusky red. Even though the contact hurt more than a little, Spike persisted.

“If you ever need anything, want anything of me, you have only to ask,” he whispered fervently. In this, one of his most unguarded moments, the softer tones of his human persona came to the fore. Tara smiled tremulously and gave his hand the barest squeeze in understanding before letting go and packing things away in her bag.

It was then that Spike realized that Tara had somehow added her name to his short list of true friends. The thought made him smile in return.

“There’s a little more gel in the bowl. I thought you might want to spread it over the worst of your other burns. I’ll go try to distract Mr. Giles for a bit with what I know about Meret. That should give you enough time to change,” she murmured. On the way out, she offered Spike another soft smile before closing the door behind her.

*****


It had taken a great deal of pain, a fair amount of cursing, and a little luck for Spike to get out of the fatigues and into the loose, slick pants that Tara had purchased for him. The rest of the gel made its way onto his face, stomach, and legs. It felt sticky and waxy, but the cool wetness soothed the stinging burns, which more than made up for the balm’s strange texture. After ripping a gaping hole in the seat of the camouflage pants and “accidentally” dropping them into the toilet, Spike decided he felt up to facing the watcher again.

His steps were slow and careful as he emerged from the bathroom so as to not jostle his injuries. Meret winged lazily along behind him. He found both watcher and witch sitting on the couch. Tara was recounting one of her many visits to his crypt over the last month. Much to Spike’s surprise, she admitted that she had started feeling echoes from the little serpent. Dawn had spent the better part of an afternoon playing with Meret a few days before and had claimed that she could feel something when she was around the coatl. Spike had looked on indulgently and wondered at the time, but if Tara, who was so much more experienced in magic and psychic occurrences, was feeling the same thing, maybe Dawn’s claims had not been empty.

Giles protested quietly, probably assuming that Spike was still in the bathroom and therefore could not hear him, “Tara, you know that while Spike may act… fondly towards some of us, demon’s lack the ability to truly feel the kind of emotions necessary for a coatl’s link to expand. I’m sure that these… sensations are your own.”

The fact that the watcher sounded like he was trying to convince himself of his own words did not make them hurt any less. Spike had allowed himself to believe, again, that he had made some progress with the Englishman. He should have known better. As with all the times before, Spike had his hopes shot down in flames. He was back at square one. No, “back” implied some forward motion. He had come full circle around the perimeter of square one.

Tara’s wide eyes must have alerted Giles to the vampire’s presence, because the watcher whirled around to face the hallway. Alarm and something else the vampire could not identify passed across Giles’ face.

The room was quiet enough that the rapid rhythm of the watcher’s heart and the slower echo from the witch seemed deafening. The final glow of the setting sun colored the windows of the living room. Without a word, Spike returned to the bathroom, back even stiffer than before. He pulled his coat off its hook and spread it on the floor. Inside, he put the gold cross and the two pieces of jewelry, now badly mangled from their trials, on the leather and wrapped them up into a loose bundle. After struggling to his feet, he tried to situate the roll of leather so that it would chafe his burns as little as possible and walked back out of the room and down the hall. Meret had perched on his shoulder and the pressure stung quite a bit. When he reached the den though, her long hiss and the waves of defensiveness radiating from the coatl more than made up for any discomfort.

He had almost made it to the door when the watcher’s voice stopped him in his tracks. “Where do you think you are going?”

“Back to my crypt,” Spike answered, still facing the door.

“That warlock might still be waiting for you there and I haven’t finished questioning…”

“I’ll take my chances. At least I know where I stand with the mage and his chums.” That answer effectively silenced the watcher, so Spike continued out into the night.

The walk took longer than usual, each shuffled step causing him pain, but Spike made it to his crypt without incident. He found his sanctuary blessedly empty and apparently untouched. Exhausted from his trials and the lack of any real sleep, Spike went straight downstairs. He gingerly lay down on his back, orienting his body so as few of his burns touched the silky sheets as possible. Instead of her usual bed, Meret came to rest on the pillow next to the vampire’s ear. He was soon asleep and not even unneeded breaths disturbed his death-like repose.

He dreamed of red feathers and blood.

In League With Serpents - Burnt Offerings

Spike was awakened by the sound of someone coming down the ladder from his crypt. He was alert and upright in a second, damaged nerves screaming at the motion. In spite of the intrusion, Meret did not budge from the pillow. His senses told him that it was early in the evening; he had slept nearly an entire night and day. Shaking off the worst of his lethargy and pain, Spike inhaled deeply to identify the intruder.

Glinda!

The quiet witch stepped forward into the room, a tiny ball of bright light guiding her steps. Spike had purposely left all of his candles unlit the night before, preferring total darkness in which to rest and heal.

“Lighter’s in my coat pocket, assumin’ it wasn’t incinerated,” Spike drawled from the darkness.

He heard rather than saw Tara jump at his words. He couldn’t see her very well beyond the magical guide, its light hindering his usually acute sight, and he assumed that same was true for her as well. After a moment, the witch responded, oddly enough, “I don’t think I can handle that too.” The glowing ball passed quickly over the wide array of candles decorating his dresser, bathing the chamber in flickering light. When the last candle was lit, the ball disappeared with a faint wisp of smoke.

It was then that Spike saw that the witch’s arms were full. From all appearances, she had brought more smurf-goo to treat his burns and the rest of his charred clothing from the watcher’s bathroom.

“Rupes send you?” the vampire’s voice was low and flat.

“No. Your bandages needed changing and I… I wwwanted to see how you were,” her final words came out in an unsteady whisper.

Now that she had mentioned them, Spike realized how much the gauze was irritating his skin. His burned skin had absorbed as much of the gel as it could, leaving the fabric behind to rub the wounds. “Itches,” he commented absently as Tara searched for a place to drop her burden.

Spike slid himself to the edge of the bed and raised an arm for inspection when the witch neared. With deft fingers, she unwound the gauze, exposing the skin beneath. The less severe burns on his upper arms and around the perimeter of his torso had almost completely healed. The same could not be said of his forearms, hands, and the center of his chest. There, where the fireball had hit directly, the skin was still red and raw with blackened patches throughout the injuries. The vampire winced a little as the bandages stuck to the worst of the burns on his chest. Tara flinched along with him and murmured a quick apology before continuing.

“You know Mr. Giles didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,” she murmured as she started smearing gel and herbs on the new strips of gauze.

“Not hurt,” Spike groused. “Just wanted to make sure no one had ransacked the crypt while I was out.”

Not a likely excuse, especially since the warlock’s stooges had not managed to track Meret. When Spike had moved into the tomb, he had cut each wrist and smeared his blood around the doors and stone passages. To other demons, the scent lasted for a very long time and stood as a warning. “Caution,” it said, “An old and very dangerous vampire lives here. Piss off!” Or at least that was how Spike imagined it.

The witch looked at him critically. “That’s not what Meret was saying.”

Spike simply looked at her, face impassive.

Bugger! Didn’t think about that.

“I wasn’t lying to Mr. Giles; I have started being able to hear her. She was projecting enough back there that the message came through loud and clear,” Tara said.

As if the sleeping serpent realizes she was being discussed, the young coatl rustled her wings and curled into an even tighter knot of scales and feathers.

Spike sat in silence as Tara whispered her incantation over the healing gel. She started with his hands and wrapped them up to the elbows. He submitted willingly to her touch. Not that he would ever admit it out loud, but Spike rather enjoyed having someone fuss over his wounds. It made them seem more important, being worthy of such attention. The feel of the cooling bandages on his burned flesh made him hiss softly in relief.

After wrapping the majority of his torso as well, the witch looked around before moving to wipe her hands on her batiked skirt. Spike motioned for her to stop. “There’s a busted pipe down that tunnel. The water pools in the floor. I use it to wash up sometimes. It’s not much, but there’s soap and a towel.” Tara nodded and soon disappeared down the dimly lit corridor with one of the room’s many candles. Spike managed to scrape together her things with his nearly useless hands and maneuver them into her bag before she returned.

After some brief splashing sounds, Tara reappeared with towel in hand. She held it up. “I don’t suppose Holiday Inn knows about these?” she asked with a small smile. Unless he missed his mark, Spike thought the shy witch was teasing him.

“Yeah, I contract with them for my bathin’ digs,” he commented blandly. “You have anythin’ to do tonight?” he asked, false briskness covering his tentative hope.

“No. Everyone’s busy tonight.”

“Well, I’ve got some popcorn upstairs and there’s supposed to be some kind of marathon ‘secrets of the occult’ bollocks on the telly. Those tend to be good for a laugh. Want to stick around?” he offered.

“Sounds like fun,” she replied.

*****


And it was. Slightly burned popcorn in hand, both the vampire and the witch soon found themselves lounging in front of the television. By a sheer stroke of luck, the first episode claimed to reveal the secrets behind myths of the undead. After the first five minutes, Spike was convulsing with laughter and soon, even Tara’s composure was shaken, and the usually reserved witch giggled along with his hearty guffaws. Their mirth woke Meret, and the three were soon arranged comfortably around the television.

“Anemia?!” Spike howled from his seat on the floor. “Do I look anemic to you?”

“Well, now that you mention it…” Tara responded.

“Don’t finish that sentence,” he growled in mock anger before they both dissolved into laughter again. Meret peeked around the witch’s head from her vantage on the back of the easy chair and let her mouth drop open in amusement, tongue lolling.

“Oh, this stuff is rich. I’d love to pay some of these ‘experts’ a visit, scare them right and proper… Anemia…” he snorted. He was truly enjoying himself, especially after he realized that Tara had added some kind of numbing ointment into the blue ooze on his bandages. He was able to hold his own mug of blood, if not without difficulty, then at least without pain.

Tara leaned over and looked at the bowl resting between them. “Um, did you spill blood in the popcorn?”

Spike looked down.

Oops.

“Protein,” he commented blandly. His hands were not quite up to the finer mechanics of popcorn consumption, or else he would have suited his endorsement by tossing the red handful into his mouth. He nudged the bowl closer to the witch, who recoiled from it.

“I, uh… No thank you.”

“Yeah… Sorry about that” he relented, eyes twinkling mischievously. He sipped from his mug before stopping to gesture at the television. He swallowed quickly and chuckled, “Good old Carmilla! She was actually a Myrtock demon, not that these wankers would know the difference. Dracula’s probably the only real vampire they managed to peg. Tosser still owes me money.”

Tara only nodded in befuddled sympathy.

The next episode dealt with mummies, which would have been much more interesting had either of them known more than the bare bones of Xander’s failed high school romance. Spike caught Tara looking at his bandages with a quirked smile a few times, much to the vampire’s chagrin. The following hour covered witchcraft, which ended with Tara rolling her eyes and pretending to ignore him after the vampire started asking how Satan was in the sack. Even though she put up a noble front, Spike could tell that she was struggling to keep from laughing at his antics.

Surprisingly enough, Meret took Tara’s part and started batting at Spike’s head with her wings. Spike could feel playfulness coming from the coatl in waves. With his bandaged arms, Spike could not effectively defend himself, and his resigned sighs touched off more quiet laughter from the witch.

When the witchcraft episode came to a close, Tara rose from her chair and dusted popcorn kernels from the folds of her skirt. “I should really be heading back home.” She scooped up her bag and gave Meret a fond pat. “I’ll come back tomorrow to change the bandages again.”

Spike offered to accompany her to Revello Drive; something about the shy witch brought out his old, courtly manners. He would not leave a lady to walk home alone, especially on a Hellmouth. They walked for a while, Meret’s rustling wings the only sound as she wheeling around to two.

Despite the comfortable silence, Spike could not keep quiet for long. “Glinda?”

“Yes?”

“How long do I have before Rupes tells the others about Meret?”

She continued to walk, eyes straight ahead, but Spike could see her fiddle with the cuff of her gauzy blouse. “He already has, but everyone has been so busy worrying about Buffy, and some other things, that she isn’t a top priority.”

Spike was not sure if he was relieved by that answer. His mind latched onto the hanging statement in her admission. “Other things?”

Tara ducked her head, ashen blond hair falling across her face like a shroud. Her pace never slowed.

“Glinda?” No answer.

Spike moved to block her path. “Tara?” He was shocked to see a tear glide down the witch’s cheek. “Tara, what’s wrong?” he pleaded. He silently promised pain to whoever had made one of his girls cry.

“It’s Wwwillow,” she said in a small, choked voice. “She’s using so much magic, and not like it was meant to be used. I,” she paused to raise her head to meet the worried gaze of the vampire. “I think she’s been changing my memories.”

Spike did not know what to say. He knew what it was like for someone to treat his mind like a playground. After Glory’s violation, he could not understand how Willow could do such a thing to her gentle girlfriend. “Are you sure?”

“Pretty sure,” her eyes were cast down again. At a loss, Spike stepped to the side and they both started walking again, lost in dark thoughts. Meret, drawn by the distress in both Spike’s and Tara’s minds, came to rest on the vampire’s shoulder and sent comforting thoughts through the link. Spike saw Tara glance at the little serpent and smile gratefully.

“Want me to bite her?” Spike asked after a while.

The sound that came from Tara’s throat was half laugh, half sob. “No.”

“Not that I could, but you know…” he trailed off.

“I understand Spike. And thank you,” Tara wiped her eyes and tucked her hair behind her ears. They had reached the slayer’s back yard. Even though he knew that no one was inside of the house at the moment, he was hesitant to leave the cover of the trees with Meret resting on his shoulders.

Tara put up a brave front and smiled at him. “I know what Mr. Giles said, and I know how the others feel. I want you to know that I don’t agree with them, and not just because of her,” she nodded towards the coatl, who was still wrapped around the vampire’s neck. Spike was dumbstruck. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Spike.” She gave his arm a quick pat and walked away.

The vampire stood staring for a long time after the witch had unlocked the door and disappeared inside from his vantage in the shadows.

In League With Serpents - Erasing the Slate

Tara did come the next night. And the next. And the next.

His burns healed slowly, for a vampire at least, but after a few days he only had raw patches on his chest and hands. Tara left him a bottle of untreated gel to use at his discretion. The rapid healing tended to itch more than hurt, but the aloe helped with both.

The routine was nice. The slayer hadn’t been letting Dawn go out as often, so her visits to the crypt became rare. Spike countered the restriction by donning a tarp and spending some of his afternoons at the Summers’ household. Clem left to visit some relatives, so Tara became his only crypt guest.

The witch was quickly taking over a spacious corner of the vampire’s heart. Her kind smiles and soft words reminded him of Joyce and his own, long-dead mother. There was very little he would not have done for her.

That was why the following Wednesday, when she asked him to bring Meret to the Magic Box, he agreed despite his reservations. That did not mean, however, that he went quietly.

*****


“Spike, they already know about her. There’s no need to worry like this,” Tara said, for at least the thirteenth time during their walk to the Magic Box.

“Not worried. ‘Worried’ implies that I care what those blighters think.” Spike’s front of indifference would have been much more effective had he not spent the entire walk fidgeting endlessly with the wrappings on the package he carried and coming up with excuses to send the little coatl back to the crypt. Also, there was always his other “weakness.”

“Well, whatever it is you aren’t feeling is sending Meret into a frenzy.”

To that, Spike scowled. He tried to reassure the little serpent, but it was difficult when his own stomach was tying itself in knots. Meret had taken her usual perch across the vampire’s shoulders, but instead of her normal loose coil, she had wrapped herself in a stranglehold around his neck. Not that he blamed her.

One of ’em lays a hand on her, ’ll rip them to shreds, chip or no.

His angry strides carried him swiftly through the streets of Sunnydale. Tara had to trot just to keep up with him.

When the tiny bells rang to announce their arrival at the Magic Box, the only other sound was winded gasping from Tara. Wide-eyed stares pinned him from all sides. Spike felt naked, exposed. His coat, his trademark armor and banner, remained in the crypt, burned and ragged from its last encounter. All brittle dignity and bristling defensiveness, he stood before them, arms crossed, and waited for their reaction.

He did not have long to wait.

“Oh my god, do you know how much we could charge for those feathers!” Anya exclaimed. That earned a wry look from the watcher. The former vengeance demon hurried over to the vampire to study the coatl more closely. Spike could feel Meret trembling as she further tightened her grip on his throat.

Xander came to stand behind his fiancé. “So this is what all the fuss was about? Looks like it would make some redneck a nice pair of boots.”

Everyone in the room tensed as a threatening growl escaped from Spike’s throat, his eyes flashing with hints of gold. Meret joined his warning with a low hiss of her own. He would have backed out of the door had Tara not blocked his path. The witch placed a calming hand on his arm and shot a withering glare at Xander, who had the decency to look embarrassed. He muttered something about vampires not being able to take a joke before falling silent again.

The tension was broken when Giles cleared his throat. “Yes, well, now that we’re all here, did you bring the cross, Spike?” When the vampire nodded curtly, he continued, “Well then, may we see it?” His voice was all pleasantness on the surface, but a thread of impatience sharpened his words.

Spike brushed past Anya and Xander and strode to the research table. Ignoring the sideways glances aimed at his neck, he pulled out the pair of work gloves he had crammed in his back pocket and put them on before going to work at the knots. The knots and fabric soon gave way to reveal the gold cross, jewels glittering under the shop’s fluorescent lights. Everyone moved in close to see.

The first comment came from Anya, of course. “I’m not paying him for that!”

“Looks kinda tacky. Does Buffy have to wear it?” was Dawn’s contribution.

“Ooo, the Buffster gets to sport some serious bling. I bet I could string up a big clock to go with it.” Leave it to Xander to cheapen the find with bad fashion jokes.

placed in any number of other fittings, or carried loose if she so desires,” was Giles’ response. “The stone has a large area of effect, so anyone nearby will be protected from all manner of elemental attacks.”

The slayer herself remained unmoved.

“Look Rupes, ‘ve been thinking,” Spike said, diplomatically ignoring the derisive snort from Xander, “I know that the shop can’t foot the bill under our agreement, but I think I know a way that makes us all walk away happy. Interested?” When the watcher nodded cautiously, he continued. “If the Council’ll provide another bauble to replace the ruby here, and if they’re willing to put it up at Sotheby’s or the like in the shop’s name, I say let the slayer have the rock with no other strings attached. Toss ‘em some line about how your ‘supplier’ won’t part with it any other way. I get my cut, you get yours, and the Council of Wankers gets buggered out of some dosh.”

Giles’ lips twitched. Spike could have sworn the watcher was on the verge of smiling.

Any further response went unheard though, because a disorienting wave suddenly overcame Spike. He staggered to his knees next to the table, catching his head in both hands as the world around him spun. He could feel spidery tendrils of magic crawling over his body and into his skull. He was barely aware of Meret, who had taken flight in panic.

“Spike, what is it?” someone said, but he was too far-gone to recognize the voice.

“Spell,” he rasped out. “Someone’s casting a…” and with that, the vampire sank into darkness.

*****


Voices were the first thing he noticed. He did not recognize any of them, which was cause for alarm.

Nothing hurts. OK, where am I?

He sniffed the air.

Wait, why did I just do that?

His eyes opened, and he found himself staring at the underside of a wooden table. He sat up cautiously and slid out from under the piece of furniture. There were people sitting and standing around the room, talking in low, upset voices. Two young women, a redhead and a blonde, were seated at the table. Another blonde and a very young brunette were standing away from the group, near a bookshelf with the strangest things on it. In fact, the entire room seemed to be filled with all manner of odd objects and old books. Three more people stood next to a glass counter with a cash register on it.

Right, weird store. I get that.

The first of the trio was an older man with a British accent who was cleaning his glasses furiously. The younger man sported a mop of dark brown hair and seemed on the edge of either hitting someone or crying. The last of the three, another blonde woman, just looked confused.

What the bloody hell is going on?

The nervous man by the counter was the first to notice him. “You’re awake! Who are you?”

“I’m… I…” Who am I?! “Who the hell are you? All of you people!” he countered.

To that, the young man shuffled around a little, opening and closing his mouth ineffectually.

“No one knows.” The man whirled around to face the speaker, the blond woman standing next to the bookshelf. She had an air of command about her, despite her small size.

That one’s a looker.

“Oh oh oh! IDs!” cried the redhead. After receiving a roomful of blank stares, she dug around in one of the bags on the table before waving a wallet around. When she opened it, she gave a triumphant shout. “My name’s Willow Rosenberg!”

Everyone followed her example. The man emptied his pockets on the table, but had little to show for his efforts. A half-full pack of cigarettes, a silver lighter, a sharpened piece of wood, and a key ring were all he had to show for his efforts.

Could definitely use a fag about now. Wait, ‘fag?’

“Well, I smoke and I think I’m British,” he announced.

“My name is Tara Maclay, and I go to the University of California at Sunnydale,” added the blonde at the table.

“Me too!” The redhead, Willow, gestured excitedly. “We must be classmates or something.” Tara nodded slightly, before letting her hair fall in front of her face, obviously very shy and nervous.

In turn, everyone announced his or her findings. The older man’s name was Rupert Giles and papers under the counter said that he and Anya Jenkins, the blonde who had been standing with him, owned the store, which was called the Magic Box. The young man was named Alexander Harris, which he promptly shortened to Alex. Anya soon discovered the large diamond gracing her left ring finger and immediately started sizing up the men in the room. The young brunette by the bookshelves could not find a full name, but her necklace provided the moniker Dawn in golden script. The last woman remained nameless.

“So, what should we call you?” asked Dawn.

The blonde thought for a moment. “Joan,” she finally answered.

“That’s so lame! If I got to pick out a name, it would be something cool like Starr or Cleopatra or Duchess Maryan of Glencastle. ‘Joan’ is so… normal,” responded Dawn.

“Well, I feel like a Joan,” the blonde snapped irritably. The two looked at one another for a moment. “Sisters?” Joan finally asked.

Dawn smiled and shrugged. “Maybe.”

“What about Billy over there?” Joan asked.

It took the man standing by the table a moment to realize that she was talking about him. “Billy?”

“Yeah, you look kind of like Billy Idol, what with the hair and the black clothes. The accent too,” she continued. “Okay, that’s just weird. How come I know all about eighties punk rockers, but not my own name?”

“Billy” looked around for some reflective surface. A large polished platter, silver and smooth, stood on one of the bookshelves behind the table. He walked over and picked it up. What he saw made him freeze.

“What’s wrong?” the redhead asked.

I can’t see myself. Why can’t I see myself?

“Look at that and tell me what you see,” he said, holding the plate out to her.

The redhead took the offered platter and looked at it. “Huh, I wonder if that’s my real hair color,” she mused before handing the plate back to him. “What’s the deal?”

Nerveless fingers grasped the silver plate. “I don’t… I mean I can’t… I can’t see myself!” the words finally came out in a rush.

“You wha’ huh?” said Joan, walking over to look at the platter, Dawn following close behind.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” added Willow.

Their sudden gathering drew the attention of the three behind the counter. “What is all the trouble?” asked Rupert.

“Billy here doesn’t have a reflection!” said Joan. Soon everyone except Tara was crowded around the man in question.

“OK,” said Willow. “We’re in a freaky magic store or something, maybe there’s some trick to the plate.” She rummaged around in her bag for a moment. “Here, try this.” She offered him a compact.

Billy opened the make-up case slowly and looked into the tiny mirror. Nothing.

What am I?

Willow stood there for a second, head cocked to one side. “You look solid enough.” She poked him in the arm. “Feel solid. Weird.”

Dawn and Anya poked him in the arm too, and Joan took the mirror away to look at it.

Despite his own rising panic, their treatment set Billy on edge. “I am not a lab rat!” he snapped, pulling away and wrapping his arms tightly around his chest like a shield.

“I didn’t mean…” started the redhead.

“Sorry,” added Dawn meekly.

“This is all very strange, ah, Billy. I’m sure we can figure out what is going on with all of us, but without all the prodding,” said Rupert, casting a sharp eye over the younger people. Billy nodded, but did not move from his defensive stance.

The woman at the table, Tara, spoke up hesitantly. “I, um,” she bowed her head again.

“What is it, my dear?” Rupert asked kindly.

The shy girl looked up at him tentatively. “Dddoes anyone else feel something, like, um, in their heads?”

Each person looked furtively at the others. “Now that you mention it, yeah. I would‘ve thought it was just me if you hadn’t brought it up,” Billy offered.

The others nodded as well. Most were curious, others worried, but none seemed comfortable with the sensation. To Billy, it only added to his own feelings of fright and confusion. He could only guess that the others were sensing the same thing.

A strange odor came to Billy’s nose. Dark and musty, it smelled of old graves and dried blood. He lifted his head and inhaled deeply.

“What are you doing?” Anya asked.

“Something’s here,” replied Billy. “I can smell it.”

“That’s impossible, and kind of gross,” commented Alex.

“Yeah, and I don’t cast a reflection. Now what’s impossible?” snapped Billy. “I really think we should be leaving.”

“Why? What do you smell?” asked Joan.

“Death.”

In League With Serpents - Backsliding into First

His words might as well have fallen on deaf ears. Alex and Rupert looked ready to argue about his claim, Dawn and Tara just looked scared, Willow and Anya interested, and Joan thoughtful.

Fortunately, or unfortunately as the case may have been, none of their reactions had a chance to come to fruition, because in that moment the front door flew open and robed figures came pouring into the shop. The group did what any sane people would have done with faced with such strange occurrences.

They screamed.

Then they ran.

Joan guarded their backs, watching over Dawn’s retreat in particular. Billy moved with her, aiming for a back door that he hoped lead to an exit. They had almost reached it when the first of the robed intruders launched itself at Joan. Billy grabbed the first thing in reach, a solid metal statue of a multi-armed goddess and hit the figure over the head as hard as he could just as Joan’s fist sank into its gut. Much to their surprise, their attacker immediately sank to the floor, cowl falling back to expose a pale, featureless head. Joan’s shocked face met Billy’s and he shrugged before grabbing her arm and dragging her through the threshold.

The door did not lead outside, but to what looked like a private gym stocked with all kinds of weapons. While Joan braced herself against the door, Billy grabbed any piece of furniture he could and drug it over to make a barricade. Joan helped him pile the benches and desks high. Heavy blows kept falling on the other side of the door, but their hasty fortifications seemed to be holding. Joan and Billy staggered back and glanced at the others.

They were met with slack-jawed amazement.

“What?” asked Joan.

Willow spoke first, “How did you two move that stuff? We tried moving the big desk, but you just tossed it around like it didn’t weigh a thing.”

“That was so cool!” squealed Dawn. “You guys are crazy strong. I bet you’re like super heroes or something!”

Billy scratched the back of his neck and looked at Joan. She looked equally confused. He had been running on pure instinct, acting without questioning, and it felt so right, like he had done exactly the same thing a hundred times before. He had not noticed the size and weight of the furniture he and Joan had moved with ease, he had simply done what he thought needed doing. From her expression, it had been the same for Joan.

Billy looked at his hands. They were covered with scars and what looked like recently healed burns. The knuckles were rough and had long since been worked flat with harsh treatment and calluses. These were the hands of a fighter.

Joan seemed more willing to accept this strange role. “Are there any other doors?”

“Yes,” said Alex, appearing from the back of the room, “but it’s locked and looks pretty solid. I heard something on the other side, so there might be more of those guys out back. I think we’re safe for now.”

“What do you think they want?” asked the girl, Dawn.

Joan and Billy traded a look. “I don’t know, but they aren’t human,” Billy finally said.

The older Englishman scowled a little. “Not human? But that’s…” he faltered and looked at Billy again.

“Impossible?” Joan asked with a perky sweetness that made Billy want to snicker. Joan shrugged. “I don’t know about the rest of you guys, but when those things manage to get through, I want something large and preferably sharp in my hands.” She suited her words by walking over to a wide array of blades that were hanging on the wall. She pulled one down and gave it a few test swings.

Billy walked over to her and picked up a long staff with steel capped ends that was leaning against the wall. It simply felt right in his hands and he knew that while he was not sure how skilled he was with such a weapon, his body would remember when the time came. The others were rummaging around the room, whispering nervously and arming themselves as best they could. Even little Dawn had picked out a slender mace, which she wielded with something less than expertise. Billy met Joan’s eyes and smiled ruefully.

“We should take the front. Their hearts are in the right place, but if you’re half as skilled with that blade as you look, we have a better chance of actually winning,” he told her in a soft undertone.

Joan nodded her agreement. “How about you, can you use that staff?” When Billy nodded, she continued. “It’s funny, I can’t remember ever using a sword, but it feels like a part of me, like arms or toes. I wonder who we really are,” her voice tapered off and her eyes lost their focus. Her distant expression was soon replaced with a teasing look. “If we are super heroes, I bet you’re the sidekick!”

“Me? Sidekick? I may not have a reflection missy, but if you look in the mirror, I think you’ll agree that you’d be better at damselling than I!” The teasing felt as natural as everything else. It was so easy to trust Joan, to fall into easy banter. He wondered what they meant to each other when they still had their memories.

“Maybe we’re like the Wonder Twins,” she amended with a wide grin.

“Won’t work, different accents. Maybe Wonder Pen Pals,” he was grinning along with her now. She was so beautiful when she smiled, like she was lit from within.

A particularly heavy blow to the door snapped both of them out of their flirtations. Joan called everyone around.

“OK, Billy and I will be in the front. We seem to have some experience and we’re both pretty strong. You guys try to back us up. You, um, Rupert, do you know how to use that?” she indicated the crossbow in his hands.

“I believe so,” he responded, but his tone did not instill much confidence.

“Only shoot if you have a really clear shot, okay?” she continued without waiting for his answer. “Everybody take your positions. That door won’t hold for much longer.”

She moved to stand on Billy’s right, sword hand away from him. Billy propped himself up with the staff and leaned in close. “So, General Joan, am I the only one who seems to be having a little more fun with this than is probably normal?” he whispered softly enough that the others, milling behind them, could not hear.

She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, “No.”

“Just checking,” he straightened again with a lopsided grin.

They waited, weapons at the ready, for the door to give way. The hooded figures on the other side did not disappoint. Barely a minutes later, the hastily piled furniture came crashing down and the door lurched open wide enough to allow a few of their attackers through. Joan and Billy dispatched them with ease, but while they were fighting, others streamed into the room.

The hooded figures were eerily silent, no battle cries or grunts of pain when a blow landed, and they were all armed with smooth wooden clubs. The size of the room limited their fighting ability, but the figures must have numbered well over a dozen. The defenders were hard pressed to keep them all at bay.

Rupert stayed in the back, taking the shots he could and attempting to shout out warnings when he could not. He was actually fairly good with the crossbow, but simply too many people were fighting in too small a space to allow him to use it much without endangering friend and foe alike.

Surprisingly, Anya turned out to be one of the better fighters. She wielded her club, if not with skill, then with exuberance. She and Alex, who had picked up an axe, stood in front of Rupert and tried to keep the attackers from reaching the older man.

Willow and Tara had closed ranks around Dawn and tried to shield the younger girl from harm. None of them showed much skill with their weapons, but thankfully, all of their opponents only made it to them after passing through the deadly combination of Joan and Billy.

Billy fought back to back with Joan. Every move she made, he shifted to guard her blind spots, and she did the same for him. It was strange, like an inverted dance, but it came to them both like instinct. Billy’s staff spun in wide arcs, bludgeoning and jabbing at hooded figures as they swirled around them, and Joan’s sword sliced through flesh, sinew, and bone, incapacitating any who came within her reach. It had a terrible beauty. It was exhilarating.

It was hot as hell.

Best keep that thought to myself.

A loud scream drew Billy’s attention. He glanced back just in time to see two of their attackers bear down on Dawn. Without thinking, he stretched back and hurled the staff like a spear towards the taller of the hooded pair. The metal tip sank into the figure’s back and it fell, which distracted its partner enough to let Willow get in a solid blow to the thing’s head.

Unarmed and vulnerable to attack, Billy dipped low and scooped up one of the downed attacker’s clubs. He rose with a hard thrust to the face of the thing facing him. It dropped like a stone and he turned to find the next threat. Fortunately, there were only a few hooded figures still standing. He and Joan moved to help the others finish off the last of the attackers.

As the final blows fell, Willow slipped in a spreading pool of blood and landed heavily on the floor. Something small and dark fell from her pockets and Billy watched as it skidded across the floor. Not seeing the tiny object, Alex backed up to avoid stepping on one of the fallen figures and crushed it beneath his boot. Billy saw a brilliant flash and the world seemed to stop.

Memories flooded back.

My name is Spike.

He almost laughed with relief.

Vampire, I’m a vampire.

Once his head cleared enough to think straight, Spike looked around. Xander, Anya, Dawn, and Giles seemed to have emerged fairly unscathed by their experiences, if a little confused. The other people in the room were not faring so well. Buffy stood listlessly, the hilt of her sword barely held in her limp grasp. Whatever progress she had made coming to terms with her death and resurrection had taken a serious hit. Her posture and silence reminded Spike of that first night on the staircase.

He slipped the sword from her nerveless grasp and took her limp hand in his own. He searched her face when she did not react to his touch and met the slayer’s blank, teary eyes. For the moment, she seemed lost in her own pain. As much as Buffy’s condition worried Spike, he was soon overwhelmed by his swelling anger. His emotions were worsened by the grief and terror he could feel from Meret, wherever the little serpent was hiding.

Dawn joined him at Buffy’s side. Seeing his slayer in good hands, the vampire turned to confront the others, but the tableau in front of him trapped the angry words in his throat.

Willow still sat on the floor where she had fallen. Tara, who had started to offer a hand up before the spell had been broken, was standing over her girlfriend with tears streaming down her face.

“Tara, baby?” pleaded Willow.

Tara backed away and shook her head. “No,” she whispered. Spike could not tell if she was answering some unvoiced question or simply fending off Willow. “No,” she repeated more firmly. She turned and fled the room, slipping out of the slightly open door and disappearing. Spike could hear faint sobs as she left the building.

Spike’s hard eyes turned back to Willow.

“Could someone please tell me exactly what just occurred?” asked Giles, wearily.

Anya and Xander shuffled their feet and avoided the watcher’s questioning gaze. Dawn looked around in confusion, and Buffy remained unresponsive. Willow, for her part, looked equal parts stricken and defiant. Since no one else seemed willing to breach the subject, Spike saw no reason to sugar-coat the truth.

“Red here’s been clippin’ out bits of Glinda’s memories, playin’ her like a puppet. Looks like she graduated to toyin’ with the rest of us,” his words were harsh, angry.

Willow’s jerked his head towards him. “How did you… I mean, that’s not true!” her eyes blazed as she spoke.

“Isn’t it?” interrupted the watcher. He slashed his hand in a cutting gesture when Willow opened her mouth to object. His eyes came to rest on his slayer, who had started to pull herself together, but had yet to loose her lost, broken demeanor. “I think it would be best to get Buffy home right now. We can discuss this, at length, later.” His voice promised that the redhead’s latest antics would not be forgotten, or forgiven, lightly.

The witch remained silent, but her anger and embarrassment were plain for all to see. She stood up, dusted herself off, and walked through the front door, back into the public part of the Magic Box.

Giles watched her retreat with a worried expression. Spike thought he could smell the faintest thread of fear coming from the watcher. “Anya, Dawn, could you walk Buffy home? Xander and I will be along after we clean up this… mess.” The ex-demon, uncharacteristically quiet, awkwardly patted one of Buffy’s arms and started leading the slayer towards the door with Dawn close behind. On their way out, Spike met Dawn’s worried eyes and nodded slightly. He would drop by the Summers’ house later that night.

The watcher observed him with veiled eyes. “Spike, your help would be much appreciated.” When the vampire did not immediately scoff at the suggestion, Giles sighed and started removing his torn and bloodstained coat.

Xander wrinkled his nose at the number of dead bodies that were strewn around the room, but moved quickly to unlock the back door to the ally, which turned out to be abandoned, and seek out a mop and bucket from the supply closet.

“Rupes?” Spike started. When the watcher looked up from rolling up his shirtsleeve, the vampire continued. “These are the same blighters who attacked me last week.”

Giles grunted his understanding before turning his attention to his other sleeve. Spike could see a small tattoo on the inside of the watcher’s forearm. He wondered how many other scars from the watcher’s days as Ripper remained hidden under the layers of starched cotton and tweed.

Tough old git.

Spike retreated to the main room of the Magic Box and called for Meret. It took a few tries and as much projected reassurance as the frayed vampire could muster, but the little serpent soon emerged from the darkest corner of the store’s book-filled loft. She curled tightly around his neck again, seeking comfort in his touch.

He shuffled through the books and papers still scattered on the study table and soon found the heavy golden cross. The robed figures had apparently ignored it.

Guess this answers that question.

Seeing that Willow had forgotten her book bag, Spike dumped out its contents into the floor and nudged the cross into the bag with a textbook. He almost wished that the redhead would figure out who had nicked her satchel. That would give him all the excuse he needed to tell her exactly what he felt about her recent behavior. He stashed the bag behind the counter and sauntered back to the workout area, not desperate to return to the bloody disaster area that waited there.

“Cross is safe, guess they didn’t want it after all,” he commented casually as he walked through the door. He froze in place, having caught the watcher and Xander talking to each other conspiratorially and eyeing the door warily. “What now?” he asked with more than a little irritation.

The watcher cleared his throat. “I believe that Willow’s spell has had another, unforeseen side-effect.”

“Cut to the chase Ripper. ’S been a long night,” snapped Spike.

Xander and Giles traded looks. Finally the watcher spoke, “It seems that the spell has had some kind of effect on the bond you have with your coatl.”

“Can hear her jus’ fine,” was the vampire’s terse reply.

“Yes, but so can we,” was the watcher’s.

In League With Serpents - Mi Cripta Es Su Cripta

Since Spike had personally carried each and every one of the nineteen dead bodies out of the Magic Box and down into the sewers to dispose of them, even Xander could not complain when he left early to avoid the mopping and scrubbing. The faceless demons might have had red blood, but no vampire worth his fangs would have mistaken it for a human’s. Spike could not wait to rinse away the stinking fluid.

Making good his escape, Spike shouldered the bag containing the golden cross and ventured out into Sunnydale. After a quick stop by the crypt for a shower, the vampire continued to the Summers’ household to take stock of the night’s damage.

He was surprised to find Tara sitting alone on the front porch. His nose told him that the slayer, her sister, the ex-demon, and the redheaded witch were all inside. Tara rose to her feet when he emerged from the shadows. She looked seconds away from breaking into tears. Meret flew to her side, distressed and comforting.

“Got somewhere else to say?” he asked by way of a greeting.

“No,” was Tara’s reply. Her voice wavered. She reached up to accept the coatl into her hands. Meret landed in her palms and Tara cradled the little serpent against herself.

“Can’t say it’d make Martha Stewart’s cut, but you can stay at the crypt. At least until you get a place of your own.” Tara looked grateful, if uncertain. “I’ll even sleep upstairs.”

The fact that she was even considering the option staggered the vampire. He knew that if the same situation had arisen just months before, she would never have entertained the thought. Hell, he wouldn’t have offered, but here they were. Life, or unlife for that matter, had a way of throwing people together in the strangest ways.

“I’ll only stay a night or two, until I can reapply at the dorms,” Tara finally replied.

Spike was amazed. Tara, who had more goodness in her than anyone he had ever known, was trusting him with guarding her sleep, sharing a roof. He wondered if she even knew the effect her faith had on him.

Big Bad’s gonna be bunkin’ with a real live white hat. Huh. Reputation’s shot for sure this time.

Even with the sardonic inner monologue, Spike was overjoyed. “What do you need?” he asked through the lump in his throat.

“I already packed,” she pointed at a large duffel bag and three cardboard boxes sitting next to the door, all her worldly possessions stacked in one forlorn, little pile. Spike could see her eyes starting to water again as she looked at it. He wondered where she would have gone if not for his offer.

“L’me check in with the Nibblet and I‘ll help you carry it.” Spike waited until the witch nodded before walking to the door.

Meret, stay with Glinda.

He felt a flash of agreement in response.

The front foyer of the Summers’ household was empty and quiet. He could hear someone crying upstairs, probably Willow. Anya and the slayer were definitely upstairs as well, so the sounds coming from the first floor had to be Dawn.

He walked through the dark dining room and came to a stop in the doorway of the kitchen. Dawn was sitting in front of the microwave, watching two cups of hot water go round and round. Though her back was to him, Spike could tell that she had been crying as well.

“Bit?” he asked in a low rumble.

She did not turn to face him. “Why does the world suck so much?”

Trust in teenage logic to boil the night’s misadventures down to that question.

“Jus’ does sometimes.” He waited as the microwave beeped and Dawn retrieved the cups. Into one she dropped a tea bag that smelled strongly of chamomile, and the other received a packet laced with mint. “For you and Big Sis?” When Dawn shrugged noncommittally, Spike walked up to her and hooked a finger under her chin. “She’s lucky to ‘ave a sister like you. How’s she doin’?”

“Like those first few days. It’s like she doesn’t even hear me.” Spike’s unbeating heart felt like breaking when Dawn’s eyes started to well again.

“You know she loves you. Bloody well died for you, she did. She’s just been through a lot and the slayer likes to think she has to face everythin’ alone. She’ll pull through, and so will you. I promise,” Spike winced inwardly, remembering one failed promise made about this same girl. He dropped his hand at the painful memory.

I won’t fail her. Not again.

Even he was unsure which “her” he meant.

“Cut a vamp some slack and don’t go passin’ this around, but Glinda’s going to be stayin’ with me for a few days. You should come by and see her,” and me, “tomorrow,” Spike added in conspiratorial tones. That provoked raised eyebrows and a little smile. “Now let’s go see to your sis.”

“Thanks Spike.” Dawn gave him an awkward hug, almost dousing him with hot tea in the process, and took off for the stairs. He followed behind her, steeling himself. He didn’t fully trust himself to not do or say something to Willow that would get him right and truly staked. Thankfully, the door to the witch’s room was closed when he reached the top of the staircase and the sound of Willow’s sobbing came from the other side. It still took all of his self-control to keep from kicking the door down and tearing into the girl’s throat, chip be damned.

Spike stood behind Dawn as the girl scratched tentatively on Buffy’s door. Her quiet knocks were answered when Anya appeared. Her eyes opened wider at the sight of the vampire, but Spike was thankful when she said nothing and simply pressed a finger to her lips and opened the door to let them into the room.

The scent of slayer coated everything in the bedroom. Spike allowed himself to bask in the aroma of flowery perfume and power for a brief moment before shifting his features in order to better see in the dim lighting.

Buffy was curled in a tight ball under her sheets, fast asleep. Her face was streaked with tears and not even sleep could smooth the telltale marks of grief and pain from her face. Spike moved to the side of her bed as if in a trance. Careful hands pulled the slayer’s pink comforter up around her shoulders. He held perfectly still for a moment before risking brushing a few golden tendrils of hair away from her face. It might have been his imagination, but Spike thought that he saw some of the tightness around the slayer’s eyes fade at his touch. Remembering his audience, Spike snatched his hand back and stepped away from the bed to allow Dawn to take his place at her sister’s side. The girl sniffled a little, and Spike gave her a gruff pat on the back before turning to meet Anya’s considering gaze.

Eyes still golden in the semi-darkness, Spike motioned Anya to join him in the hallway. She followed him willingly enough, but Spike could tell that his demonic features were causing her no small amount of consternation. He walked to the far end of the hall and waited for the former vengeance demon to quietly close the door and join him.

“I have a request to make of you, Anyanka,” he stressed her former name, hoping that it would get his point across.

Anya looked at him in rising surprise and curiosity. “I’m listening.”

“Demon to demon, I’m askin’ you to stand watch tonight.” When Anya opened her mouth to reply, Spike held up a hand to forestall her words. “If you feel the slightest spark of magic coming from that room,” he pointed towards the door that hid Willow from their gaze, “if you smell or hear anything unusual, I want you to stop her.” Anya’s mouth closed with an audible snap as understanding dawned on her face. “I wish that you would keep an eye on Red tonight.”

She was still as human as ever, but there was definitely something of Anyanka in Anya’s eyes when she responded. “Done.”

He wasn’t expecting any miracles, but he knew the former demon well enough to understand that she took her former life and obligations very seriously. He had to take care of Tara, and he knew that the others would never allow him to stay the night, so he did what he could with what he had. The Scoobies liked to forget that Anya had walked the earth for well over a thousand years, sowing all sorts of havoc. Instead of the strangeness the others’ saw, Spike understood her struggle for what it was: a demon trying to fit back into human society. The vampire let his demonic features melt away, secure in the knowledge that even though she was stripped of her powers, he was leaving Buffy and Dawn in the hands of one of the best vengeance demons D’Hoffryn had ever raised.

As he turned to leave, Anya stopped him in his tracks. “Go cheer Meret up. It is disconcerting to have an unhappy coatl in my head.”

Spike eyed her questioningly. “You can hear her?”

“Yes. Now if you don’t mind, I have a slayer and a Key to watch over. Goodnight Spike,” Anya replied with her typical brusqueness. Before Spike could form a coherent reply, the she had retreated to the slayer’s bedroom.

Spike stood on the stairs wondering about the implications of Anya’s revelation. He wondered if Buffy and Willow could hear Meret as well. Finally deciding that he would receive no answers standing on the stairs, Spike walked back down the stairs and into the cool night air.

“You ready, Glinda?”

*****


The walk to the cemetery was slow, even though Spike carried two of the three boxes as well as the heavy bag, slung over one shoulder. Tara was simply too unhappy and distracted to walk any faster and Spike refused to cheapen her mourning by pushing the matter. It was a struggle for the vampire, but he managed to walk most of the way to his crypt in silence, understanding that Tara was in no mood for banter, no matter how witty.

Upon reaching the crypt, Spike burned off some of his energy stripping the bed and replacing his stolen silk sheets with clean, but old, cotton ones. He even managed to collect his laundry and any trash he could find, making the bedroom as presentable as possible on such short notice. The silk sheets found their way upstairs with one of the pillows, where he made a temporary nest on top of the stone sarcophagus there.

The whole time he was working, Tara sat in the easy chair, petting Meret and watching the candles behind Dave in silence. She had offered to help, but Spike would have none of it. Old habits die hard, especially among the undead, and his Victorian upbringing would not let him allow his guest to prepare her own room.

He lit enough candles to suit a human’s vision and dumped her boxes and bag next to the large bed before returning to the main part of the crypt.

“Room’s ready,” he commented. When no answer was forthcoming, he walked around to face the witch. Tara had fallen asleep. Spike watched her: one of his girls. Like Buffy, like Dawn, like Meret, and even though their paths had irretrievably split ways, like Drusilla, once upon a time.

Her eyes were puffy and her face red from crying. One hand was curled under her cheek while the other sat in her lap, cradling a watchful Meret. She looked so peaceful that he was loathe to disturb her, but he knew that she would regret sleeping in that posture the next morning.

He shooed Meret away with a thought. As carefully as he could, so as not to wake her, Spike scooped up the witch in his arms and walked to the back of the crypt. He leapt into the darkness in lieu of trying the ladder one handed and landed with knees bending deeply to take the shock out of the impact. When Tara did not stir, he walked to the bed and deposited her on it, pulling the covers up to her chin. She murmured something in her sleep and rolled onto her side.

Spike pinched out most of the candles and left his lighter on the table next to the bed where Tara would easily find it in the morning. Moving quietly as only a vampire could, he left her to her sleep.

He scaled the ladder and sat in his chair, watching taped reruns of Passions until dawn’s rays chased him under his own covers on the cold stone bier.

In League With Serpents - Scars

Spike stood impatiently in front of his microwave, waiting for the blood to warm. He had not slept well on the sarcophagus, he was too accustomed to a soft bed, and had woken up stiff and groggy. It was not a feeling that he was used to or liked in the slightest.

Gettin’ soft.

Tara had long since gone to campus when the vampire had risen. Meret was still asleep in her brazier downstairs and Spike was bored and cranky, a bad combination.

The microwave buzzed and Spike retrieved his meal. He sipped the blood slowly and wandered over to the television. There, resting on top of the screen, was a note. He passed his mug to his right hand and scooped up the slip of paper.

Dear Spike,

I hope I didn’t wake you when I left this morning. I have a few classes that I have to attend, but I’ll be back before dark. I’ll know more about the dorms tonight, hopefully.

I took your jacket to get the sleeves fixed, so don’t worry about it when you don’t see it downstairs. I know how you are about it, but trust me on this. I know a great alterations place on campus.

If it makes you feel better, consider it rent.

See you this evening. I’ll bring hot wings for dinner.

Tara


Spike’s eyes widened as he read the letter.

My coat! She’s lettin’ someone cut on my coat!

The fact that his trench coat was so badly burned as to be unwearable did not enter into the vampire’s line of reasoning. All he knew was that his precious jacket was in the hands of a stranger. A stranger wielding scissors.

Unable to retrieve the coat for himself and unwilling to stand around wringing his hands like an expectant father in a delivery room, Spike did the next best thing. He collected a still sleepy Meret and headed into the sewers.

Nothing burned off nervous energy like a little death

*****


Two dead fledglings later, Spike felt that he had gained enough perspective on the situation to face Tara without completely panicking. After all, the coat had nearly been destroyed. In fact, unless the person given the task of fixing the jacket was the most ham handed, fumbling seamstress ever cursed to wield a needle, there was very little that could be done to the garment that would make it worse than it already was.

Coat’ll be all right.

He repeated that mantra over and over on the return walk. He had not ventured far from the subterranean chambers he called home, so he beat sunset back to the crypt. Finding it empty, Spike decided to take the time to wash away the vamp dust and assorted types of filth from the sewers.

Calling Spike’s bathing area a “shower” was being very generous, but it suited the vampire well enough. A ruptured water pipe, probably leading to one of the small fountains that graced the cemetery, jutted from the ceiling of one of the adjoining rock chambers. The water was quite cold, but clean, and looked more like the stream from a garden hose than an actual shower. The naturally porous rock allowed some of the cool liquid to collect in a depression in the floor, maybe shin-deep at most, but it drained quickly enough that the pool continuously circulated clean water.

While Meret sported in one of the smaller puddles, Spike dropped his clothing on the far side of the small chamber and waded under the stream of water. In addition to the fluffy, white towels he had swiped from the local Holiday Inn, Spike had also managed to lift a large quantity of tiny soaps and shampoos as well. It took some effort to get the shampoo worked into his gelled hair, and the standing water soon turned cloudy with soap, dust, and grime.

The bath revealed a latticework of faint scars. Some, like the crescent-shaped line across his shoulder, predated his death. When he was nine, he had fallen from a tree onto a sharp rock. If he tried, he could almost taste the candy his mother had given him after bandaging the cut. Sweets had never tasted the same after he had been turned; they were still good, just different. There were others: a small circle from the tooth of an angry dog, a long stripe from a bully’s signet ring, a rough patch from a fall from a horse.

Some had come after his rebirth. Contrary to popular belief, vampires could scar; it just took more effort. The long tear across his eyebrow from the Chinese slayer’s ensorcelled blade stood in mute testimony to that fact. Other faint marks had been collected over the years. The starburst pattern on his hip came courtesy of a poisoned dart in Indonesia. Dru had pulled it out, taking a great deal of flesh with the barbed tip, and the toxins had been laced with holy water so the wound had never healed correctly. There were many others, some bearing good memories and some bad. The faint spider web across one side of his chest was a ghostly reminder of a time when he had pushed Angelus too far, and had ended up chained in a closet for three nights with a stake touching, but not quite piercing, his heart. Like the post from a new earring, Spike’s body had tried to heal around the shard of wood before Angelus had finally freed him from the punishment: just another reason to hate the older vampire on a long, long list of grievances.

The scars covered Spike’s body, like veins in a marble statue: imperfections that made the whole stronger. He often wondered what his back looked like or the changes his face underwent during his transformations. Drusilla had played for weeks with a Polaroid camera when the device was first invented, but the images were small and could only capture brief moments in time.

In recent years, he had thought about swiping a digital video camera, but without a lair full of minions, he did not have the means to use one, much less transfer it to a viewable format. It was one of the few instances that Spike regretted avoiding learning much about modern technology.

So he used moments like his baths, when his callused fingers scrubbed away the dirt and blood of his enemies, to keep stock of himself. For a creature with no reflection, such rituals kept him sane. He had no picture albums, no tedious family slides with which to torment guests. His memories he kept in the marks on his body. When he rinsed out his hair, his fingers trailed along the scar on his eyebrow, remembering the Boxer Rebellion. When he attacked a particularly tenacious smear of mud on his shoulder, he thought about the long-ago fight with a Thernese demon that had ended with the scaled creature dead and Spike’s right arm chewed beyond recognition and covered in stinging acid. When he rinsed his left hand off under the stream of water, he pictured the broken teacup he had cried over when he was six.

By the time his body was clean, his mind was clear as well. He dried off quickly, leaving his hair in a riotous mass of curls, and made his way back to his bedchambers, dirty clothing in hand. He would have to see to his laundry sometime soon, not a task he anticipated enjoying.

Thankfully, the crypt remained empty. Spike traded in his wet towel for a clean outfit and started digging around in his dresser for gel and a comb. While styling his hair went against Spike’s credo of avoiding “nancyish” behavior, anything was better than sporting his natural curls. It was relatively difficult to play the big bad when your hair wanted to hang in soft ringlets that would have made Shirley Temple proud.

While Meret moved her water sports to the copper birdbath in the corner, Spike set to work taming his unruly hair with the help of a half-full tube of gel and a ridiculously bright yellow comb. After working a generous portion of the gel into his scalp, the vampire started running the comb through his hair, pulling it straight back and tightly severe. He remembered Drusilla performing the same task countless times. She had sometimes used a comb, sometimes her long, perfectly manicured fingernails, but she had always been surprisingly gentle, as if she was handling one of her prized dolls. Spike had used to sit for hours, humming with pleasure under her ministrations. He had left those tender moments behind with Dru in Brazil.

Ever since his return to Sunnydale, Spike had avoided letting anyone get too close to him. Buffy had restarted the short list of people whose touch he would not avoid, and Dawn soon joined it. Tara had recently added herself to the group, but even Harmony, with the notable exception of their screwing, had been kept at arms length, both physically and metaphorically. Closeness would have implied some level of affection, and try as she might, the bubbly, vapid vampiress could never escape from Drusilla’s shadow, or the love hate relationship Spike had developed with regards to the opposite sex. Any small tasks that carried memories of his sire became very private to the vampire, including fixing his hair.

He knew what his hair should feel like, and his sensitive fingers could find stray strands with ease. He could find no joy in what had once been so sensual a process, but he could find some measure of peace. The repetitive motion and the slide of the comb through slick locks of hair would often put the vampire into a trance-like state.

The sound of a closing door and the distinctive scents of Tara and Dawn registered in Spike’s mind as he concentrated, eyes closed, on the texture of his hair and the motion of the comb. The fight, the bath, the grooming: all had put him in a much calmer state of mind. He would deal with his precious jacket when he saw it again, not before. After wiping off his comb and stashing the incriminating evidence of his hair styling, Spike scaled the ladder to meet his guests.

*****


“Okay, garlic?” asked Dawn.

She was sprawled on the ground, feeding Meret little bits of spicy chicken. Tara had spread out a blanket under one of the cemetery’s shade trees, and the three were staging a rather bizarre picnic in front of Spike’s crypt. The vampire had complained loudly at first, citing the need to uphold his reputation with his demonic neighbors, but his objections were soon smothered by the combined power of two sets of wide, hopeful eyes.

Bloody doe-eyed chits.

Spike, who was leaning against a nearby headstone, pointedly stripped another bite from the hot wing in his hand and chewed it slowly with an arched eyebrow.

“Yeah, see?” Dawn gestured with the half eaten remains of a hot wing, “You eat it, but I’ve seen garlic in Buffy’s weapons’ chest, so what’s the deal?”

“Allergic,” Spike mumbled around his bite of food.

“Huh?”

“Vampires are allergic to garlic, some more than others. I’ve got a pretty weak case, dunno why. I like how it burns on the way down. Adds to the spices,” replied the vampire.

“So then, garlic is like vampire fugu?” interjected Tara from her seat on the blanket.

“Yeah, guess so.”

Dawn’s forehead wrinkled in confusion. “What’s fugu?” she asked.

“Poisonous blow fish. The Japanese like it raw, say it makes your mouth tingle or some such rot,” the vampire waved his hand dismissively. “People die eatin’ it all the time.”

“That’s stupid,” commented Dawn.

“Yeah, especially since it tastes like rubber,” Spike caught the younger Summers’ look. “What, ‘s not like it could hurt me.”

“You’re really weird for a vampire. You know that, right?” teased Dawn.

“Think I’m an uncommonly manly specimen, if that’s what you mean.”

“You eat food, and hang out with humans, and you kind of suck at the whole evil thing,” the girl elaborated, mischief twinkling in her eyes.

Despite the obviousness of the bait, Spike sneered at her comments. “Jus’ bidin’ my time 's all, lullin’ you all into a false sense of security,” he snarled in false anger. He had given up getting genuinely offended over such comments, but he still liked to talk a good game.

“Riiiight,” drawled Dawn, tearing off another piece of chicken for Meret. The little coatl made the most ridiculous faces while she ate the morsels. After gulping down the slivers of meat whole, the little serpent would open and close her mouth repeatedly, cocking her head this way and that as if she couldn’t decide what to make of the odd flavor. The only way Spike could describe the sensations emanating from the coatl was a feeling of intense concentration. Her antics threatened to destroy the vampire’s carefully constructed front of irritation.

“Dunno why I should care what you think about evil and such. You’re what, one and a half now? And where are all these questions comin’ from anyway? Plannin’ on steppin’ into Big Sis’ shoes?” The vampire crossed his arms and pinned Dawn with a pointed stare. He had already covered a wide array of vampiric mythology, from fixations on counting things to sleeping with the soil of his homeland. Before that, he had been grilled for information on some of the historic events he had witnessed: the Boxer Rebellion, the Bolshevik Revolution, both World Wars… He had even talked at length about the Kangra earthquake of 1905, a disaster that had more to do with Darla hiring a witch to summon two unstable gates than any geologic processes. The mere memory of the resonance the portals had created before tearing each other apart could still make him queasy. It was all getting rather boring and his expression echoed that opinion.

Irrepressible as always, the teenager only shrugged. “I’m allowed to do research now and I’m curious. I’ve already read about all kinds of neat stuff. Oh, did you know that demons from the Miquot clan can pop knives out of their arms? Isn’t that gross? And Sefrian demon families share a common eyeball...”

Spike glanced at Tara to find the quiet witch struggling to keep from laughing out loud at the younger girl’s continuing litany of new demonic discoveries. The domesticity of the situation struck Spike in that moment. Even though their little scene certainly had aspects of Salvador Dali in it, there was enough Norman Rockwell to make the man in Spike warm and the demon resigned.

Right and truly house broken, I am.

“… Slime was marketed in the sixties as an ‘all-natural moisturizer’ until some people started growing green whiskers, so the company had to do this big recall and cover up. It was a whole big thing.” Dawn paused in her recitation and looked hard at Spike. “Are you even listening to me?”

“Yeah, um, whisker growin’ facial cream. Very nasty, should be avoided at all costs,” the vampire struggled to regain his grasp on the conversation.

Dawn rolled her eyes expressively, “Very funny,” suddenly Dawn shifted gears again, “Are you coming to the Magic Box tomorrow?”

“Guess I should, missed my paycheck from the soon to be Mrs. Whelp during all the excitement last night. Why?”

“’Cause they’re having a big research party about Meret here. Apparently everybody can hear her now, which kind of sucks,” Dawn paused to pet Meret’s head when the little serpent hissed in indignation. “Only because I wanted you to ourselves silly, and because I don’t like listening to Xander complain. You’d think Willow at least…” Dawn clapped her hands over her mouth suddenly and turned to Tara with a stricken look on her face.

It was the first time Willow’s name had been mentioned all evening.

Tara’s face was drawn, but she managed a pained smile and reached forward to pat Dawn on the shoulder. “Its okay, Dawnie. It’s not like I can avoid talking about her forever.”

The blond witch fell silent again, staring at her hands where they rested in her lap, and Dawn looked ready to run or cry, maybe both. Before Spike could come up with any clever ideas about how to smooth over the situation, Meret took matters upon herself.

One sauce covered, messy hot wing dropped into Tara’s upturned hands. Before the quiet witch could respond, the coatl was back, fluttering in front of Dawn with another piece of chicken hanging from her mouth. Spike snorted.

No doubt about the way to this one’s heart.

Meret settled back down on the blanket, flipping her wings tightly against her back and projecting a “well that’s that” attitude, which earned a wan smile from Tara and an awkward giggle from Dawn. Even though the two girls looked at the offering dubiously, they both ate the wings and soon reached for more. Glad of the distraction, Spike cleared his throat.

“I’ll be at the meeting after we get Tara situated in her new digs. Shouldn’t take too long,” he commented.

“Great! I’ll tell Buffy,” Dawn chirped.

Spike’s eyes narrowed at mention of the slayer, but he held his peace. He would check on Buffy, and her reaction to Meret, soon enough.

In League With Serpents - The Ties That Bind

Spike sat on the ladder in the Magic Box, twirling a stake in one hand, and generally attempting to avoid getting involved in the situation unfolding around him. He had believed that moving Tara into the dorms would be the low point of the evening.

He had been wrong.

Just his luck, Giles had chosen to break the news of his trip to England moments before the vampire arrived. The slayer had been in the back for well over half an hour, fuming and taking out her anger on a practice dummy. Dawn was whining about the watcher’s eminent departure and Anya joined her by complaining loudly about the paper work his leaving would create. Xander simply looked shell-shocked and was stuttering incoherently. The only person not coloring the air with complaints was a conspicuously quiet Willow. Giles was attempting to deflect their questions and protests, but even the watcher seemed close to loosing his composure and yelling. All in all, the environment was not entirely friendly to a blood-sucking bystander. At least he had managed to get his money out of Anya before the current round of laments and accusations had started.

Perversely, the only positive part of the entire situation was Buffy’s outburst of anger. Spike would have been more worried if the slayer had accepted the situation lying down. Emotions were emotions, and he preferred Buffy feeling enraged rather than feeling nothing at all. In fact, Spike hadn’t seen her so, for lack of a better word, lively in a long time.

Meret was exploring the shop’s shelves, momentarily forgotten by the Scoobies. She was curious and liked the shiny bits of jewelry and glass scattered throughout the display cases. Spike wondered if drawing Anya’s attention to the coatl’s behavior would add to or subtract from the amount of complaining he was being forced to witness.

With the distinctive sound of cracking wood, Buffy burst through the practice room door and stalked to the table. All conversation stopped as the others turned to watch the volatile slayer.

“I thought we were here to research Spike’s snake-thing,” she said coldly. Innuendoes streamed through Spike’s mind at that statement, but he wisely held his tongue. Buffy sat down and started unwinding the wrappings around her fists, piling the strips of fabric on the table top.

“Um, yes, that was the original plan for the evening,” replied the watcher, but no one seemed interested in dropping the subject of Giles’ departure just yet.

No one except Spike.

The vampire startled everyone by being the first to take a seat at the table, directly opposite Buffy. Research certainly wasn’t his idea of a good time, but with Meret involved, he was willing to suppress his natural impatience. He reached for the thin book on the top of the closest stack: A Treatise on Empathy and Telepathy: Case Studies.

Can’t be as boring as the last half hour.

Recalling his days in the university, Spike quickly set to work. There were only two mentions of coatls in the index and none of the spell Willow had cast. When he looked up to search for a pencil and piece of paper to start taking notes, he met Buffy’s incredulous stare.

“What?” he snapped defensively.

“Nothing,” was Buffy’s quick reply, but she continued looking at him as if he had grown horns or started speaking in tongues.

Spike snatched up a notepad and pencil before pointedly avoiding her stare and turning his attention to the blank paper before him. One page received any important mentions of coatls used in and around spells. On the next he started listing details about Willow’s spell and the last he reserved for any miscellaneous information that might be helpful. Spike could feel the slayer’s eyes boring into him, but he would not allow himself to react, even as his skin prickled under the scrutiny.

The others finally snapped out of their preoccupation and started taking their own places around the table. Dawn took the seat on Spike’s right and a glaringly obvious hole remained on the vampire’s left between Spike and Willow. Giles took to reading and pacing at the same time, as was his custom, and even Anya joined in the research from her post behind the counter. Xander left for the doughnut shop and soon returned, bearing three boxes of the sugary snacks. Spike nicked a devil’s food doughnut as the box passed and scowled at the surprised looks the Scoobies shot him.

Spike had rarely participated in the Scoobies’ research parties before. The experience was proving to be enlightening. Particularly important finds were read for all to hear and cross reference. Light banter and information flowed freely between the friends as a rough idea of what had happened began to take shape.

“Mind control spells seem to expand far beyond their normal bounds when the focus of the spell is bonded to a coatl. The magical effects have been known to spread to other members of a coatl’s covey,” was Giles’ first contribution.

“Looks like powerful emotions, like fear, make a coatl’s telepathic abilities stronger. Meret must have already been touching all of our minds, but the link was too weak for you guys to notice until the spell freaked her out, which amplified her thoughts,” added Dawn, obviously still enjoying her role as the new researcher of the group.

“Looks like cuttin’ off Meret’s link with magic could have some pretty nasty side effects,” Spike grudgingly offered up to the group a few minutes later. He was unsure if his contributions would be welcomed.

“Like what?” asked Willow, speaking up for the first time.

“Like insanity, coma, and sometimes an acute case of death.” Spike’s eyes trained on the witch, wondering if even those dire warnings would be enough to temper Willow’s casual, oftentimes careless approach to magic. He was surprised when Willow turned a little grey around the gills and quickly turned back to the book she had been reading. Spike looked up at the others and found Anya watching him with a smug expression on her face. He smirked back and gave a nearly imperceptible nod towards the former demon. She simply tossed her hair back over one shoulder with a prim smile and went back to her own research. Spike wished he knew the details on how Anya was handling the “errand” he had given her, because whatever it was seemed to be working like a charm.

Hell, might be a charm.

After a while, the litany of new discoveries dwindled. The general consensus was that Willow’s spell had been affected by Meret’s presence, but had not directly triggered the following link. Likewise, magic would not reverse the effects of the bond. Only a true desire to break the connection on the part of each individual and Meret herself could effect such a change. This did not seem to sit well with any of the Scoobies, so research continued, even when it had obviously become futile.

Even so, the humans, with the exception of the watcher of course, were showing all the signs of intense boredom. Buffy had snapped three pencils from overly rough fidgeting and Xander’s eyes had long since glazed over. Even more amusing, in the vampire’s eyes at least, Anya had fallen asleep at her seat, face pressed against the counter. Spike had started on his seventh book, which contained long descriptions of memory altering spells and their side effects. The translation was calling upon long disused skills and the writing was as dry and boring as any the vampire had encountered. He finally had to put the book down to give his eyes, and brain, a rest.

Xander, who had quickly lost interest in the thick book he had selected, leaned over to see what Spike had been reading. “You big faker!” he snorted. “Hey guys, Evil Dead here has been pretending that he can read Greek!”

Spike met Xander’s eyes and, with the blandest expression he could conjure, simply said one word, “Malakas.”

Willow cracked a wan smile and even Giles looked amused.

“What did you just say?” Xander was many things, but not so stupid as to miss that he had just been insulted.

“You’re the expert on Greek, you tell me,” came the vampire’s smooth reply.

“Giles, what did he say?” Xander asked, voice low and threatening.

The watcher schooled his features to seriousness. “I believe that the closest translation would be ‘wanker.’”

Spike ignored Xander’s stream of sputtering insults, and instead watched the other Englishman.

“Spike, I had no idea you spoke Greek,” Giles started curiously.

“You never asked.”

The watcher sighed and, showing uncharacteristic patience with the vampire, asked “What other languages do you know?”

“Demonic or human?” Spike countered smugly.

“Both.”

“Well Rupes, I can get by in most any country in Europe. As for ancient languages, I can read Latin, and a little Sumerian and Etruscan. Of the demony tongues, I also know Vinjis, Fyarl, Frophla, and a little Rwasundi, but the time-shiftin’ makes that one a bit dicey.” During his litany, the vampire had leaned back and put his hands behind his head, striking an arrogant pose.

The watcher seemed impressed in spite of himself. Never one to let go of the upper-hand easily, Giles finally responded, “Well, then I guess if you get tired of the book you’re reading now, you can start on the Dahlian Chronicles.”

Spike winced. The Dahlian Chronicles were renowned as some of the densest and most boring passages of archaic Latin ever put to paper. “Dirty pool Ripper.”

Shoulda kept my mouth shut.

Giles only smiled and returned to his copy of Mansfield’s Unnatural History.

Meret’s curiosity over the store’s strange wares was overtaken by her desire to see what so absorbed her bond mate. She glided to Spike’s shoulder and started watching the Scoobies. Dawn’s sharp intake of breath drew both the vampire’s and the coatl’s attention.

“Giles, I think you need to read this!” the younger Summers squeaked.

Her sudden outburst roused Anya from her sleep with a cry of “Not the Easter eggs!” Everyone turned and stared as the former demon wiped a bit of drool from her chin and attempted to act as if nothing had happened.

The watcher walked to the girl’s side and retrieved the book in question. A few lines from the book made Giles’ eyes open wide. “Oh, dear Lord,” he whispered.

“Giles, cut the drama,” interrupted the slayer. “Spill.”

“This is a list of spells that use coatls themselves as components. Some of them even call for the inclusion of the coatl’s primary bond mate. If someone managed to get their hands on both Meret and Spike…” Giles trailed off.

“Then what, watcher?” Spike’s voice cracked like a whip.

“Then any number of unpleasant things could occur, from weakening dimensional walls to draining all of the mental and spiritual energy from most of the population of California,” the watcher paused to remove his glasses. “There are pages of such spells. It will take hours to research them all.”

Xander raised a hand. “Not to be a big party pooper, but didn’t we decide that the guy who lit Spike up like a Roman candle was trying to catch the snake too.”

When he was met with silence and wide eyed stares, Xander let his hand slowly drop.

Giles turned a hard gaze upon the vampire. “Spike, you have to tell us everything about how you obtained Meret’s egg.”

Spike huffed and crossed his arms. “Not much to tell. I was playin’ some poker over at Willy’s. Instead of kittens, this drunk git was tossin’ in trinkets and cheap magic charms. Meret’s egg was in the mix. End of story.”

“You play for kittens?” Buffy asked, disbelieving.

“Used as currency in some demon circles. ‘S not as uncommon as you think.” Spike grinned at her discomfiture.

“Did you catch its name?” asked Willow, appearing more animated than she had all night.

The vampire glanced at her in confusion. “What ‘it,’ Red?”

“The drunk demony thing who had Meret’s egg.”

“Not a demon. Human warlock. Think ‘is name was McLynn… Macbeth… somethin’.” He caught the watcher’s disapproving look. “What?” he snarled.

“So you are saying that a warlock simply gave something as rare and valuable as a coatl egg away during a game of cards.” The watcher made it sound as if playing poker was on par with eating babies. Spike’s scowl deepened. “Now another warlock, leading a band of demons, is after both you and the coatl. Did it not occur to you that the two might be one and the same?”

Spike opened his mouth to respond, but he could come up with no defense. In truth, he had not thought of the possibility. His teeth clicked together audibly and he glowered at the watcher.

“What happens if this wizard guy knows about any of those spells?” Buffy asked, ever the slayer.

Spike felt Meret start to literally vibrate with fear against his throat. One glance around the room told the vampire all he needed to know about the cause of her terror. He surged to his feet, upturning his chair.

“So that’s it huh? Gonna kill her on the off chance that some nasty knows about those spells?” As he spoke, Spike became more and more angry. He could feel the bones of his face rippling between human and demonic as he lost all semblance of control of his emotions. “Solve both of your little problems in one go? I may not be able to fight you, but I’ll see myself dust before any one of you lays a finger on her!”

“Spike, I’m sure they aren’t thinking about killing Meret,” Dawn said soothingly, trying to calm the enraged vampire. “Right guys?” She looked around the room and was met with uncomfortable glances from Xander, Willow, and Giles. Anya was watching the whole affair with sleepy eyes and Buffy was strangely still. “Right?” she repeated pleadingly.

“Dawnie, it’s not that simple,” started Willow.

“Because this same plan worked out so well last year with Glory,” Anya’s mumbled sarcastically, still groggy from her inadvertent nap.

“Anya!” Xander cried, horrified.

“What? Oh, oh God!” she looked at Dawn, and clamped her mouth shut, eyes wide.

“What is she talking about?” Dawn asked. She faced the people seated at the table.

“Nothing Dawn, Anya just lets her mouth run away with her sometimes,” Xander attempted to joke, but his voice sounded sickly and his face was devoid of color.

Dawn simply stood in silence, glaring and balling her small fists at her sides. “What happened?” she repeated.

Spike doubted that even Angelus, in the height of his torturous creativity, could have drug the truth from anyone present in the room. Unfortunately, Dawn was much smarter than the Scoobies liked to believe.

“You wanted to kill me,” she said coldly.

“Dawnie, no!” cried Willow. Xander and Giles were looking anywhere except at the teenager in front of them. Spike let his features melt back into human guise before closing his eyes against the pain held in Dawn’s voice.

“You wanted to kill me, but Buffy refused. When Spike promised to protect me, it wasn’t just from Glory, it was from you.” Her voice had dropped to a bare whisper.

Buffy rose from her seat and rounded the table. When she tried to embrace her sister, Dawn shrank back, bumping into Spike in the process. The vampire placed a hand on her shoulder, trying to steady and comfort the girl in one gesture.

Dawn leaned forward and started gathering books into her pale blue backpack. “I have to go,” she mumbled. “I have homework.”

“Dawn,” tried Buffy, to no avail.

Turning before anyone but Spike could see her tears. Dawn ran out of the front door of the Magic Box.

Spike stood facing Buffy, debating between trying to comfort the slayer and following the teenager. Buffy looked equally torn, alternating glances between the door and her friends. The rest of the Scoobies remained around the table, faces frozen in shock at Dawn’s departure.

Making a decision, Spike caught Buffy's attention. “I’ll take care of the Bit, make sure nothin’ nasty gets a hold of her. You do damage control,” he said for the slayer’s ears alone.

As he started to turn away, Spike felt someone grab his arm. He looked down to find Buffy’s tiny hand holding his wrist. He met her eyes in confusion. The slayer angled herself so that none of her friends could see and silently mouthed, “Thank you.” With a final squeeze, she released him and turned back to the table.

Spike stood a moment longer, mind reeling.

What’s gotten into the slayer?

Shaking himself from his pleasant distraction, he followed Dawn out of the Magic Box. Even so, all of his senses were focused on the warmth the slayer’s hand had left behind.

*****


“You gonna run the whole way home?” asked Spike. He had started into an easy sprint after leaving the store, Meret winging behind him, and had soon caught up with Dawn.

The girl jogged to a stop, still crying and slightly winded from her mad dash.

“Why did you follow me?” she asked after a moment.

“’Cause they’d blame me somehow if some creepy-crawly got its claws into you,” was his flippant reply.

That earned a brief, bitter laugh. “I really hate them sometimes.”

“Yeah, me too.”

The girl, who was also the key to inter-dimensional doors, and the vampire, who was also the slayer of slayers, walked in silence for a few blocks, content to share in each other’s company.

“I mean, I knew, you know, but I didn’t know,” Dawn said at length.

“None of them wanted to Nibblet, but they thought the world was gonna end otherwise. It was all worst-case scenario talk, nothin’ too serious,” he tried to downplay the heated debate that had pulled the Scoobies apart in those last, awful days. He breathed a sigh in relief as Dawn’s tears slowed.

She wiped a hand over both eyes to dry away her tears. “You know I tried to jump before Buffy stopped me?”

Spike’s eyes widened in surprise.

“Yeah, I was all set to do it before she made me stop. Silly isn’t it, the two of us arguing over who got to die saving the world?” she sniffed and rubbed her nose with a sleeve, looking very much the young girl in that moment.

Spike could not remember loving her more. “Not silly. I would expect nothing less from a Summers woman.” When Dawn gave him a dubious look, he smirked and added, “D’ you know that your mum actually broke up your sis’ and my first fight?”

“No,” Dawn said, lips quirked slightly in an almost smile. “Buffy never mentioned that.”

“Yeah, she hit me over the head with an axe. I shoulda known you women would be the end of me then. However you were made, you’re of good stuff Bit. Never forget that.”

That finally did it. Dawn offered the vampire a grateful smile, and the two continued on their walk.

Never one to stay quiet for long though, Spike soon spoke up, “So you don’t really want to do your homework, right?”

“Jeez, why couldn’t I think up a better excuse,” was Dawn’s weary response.

“Good, ‘cause I’m cravin’ some hot chocolate. Interested?”

That earned another small smile from Dawn. “Sounds like fun,” she said. “Can we watch movies too?”

“Your wish is my command Nibblet.”

In League With Serpents - Gifts

If it wasn’t one thing, it was another.

Spike and Dawn never got to their hot chocolate before the Scoobies caught up with them. Spike slipped out of the back during the tearful reconciliation. Dawn might have been able to forget and forgive, but the vampire was less willing to do so.

The next night his favorite liquor store was sold out of Jack Daniels. He had to settle for a cheap knock-off.

Later that week he was forced to leave Meret at the crypt while he ran out to the Sunnydale Mall, of all accursed destinations. His tribulations were in vain though, because the jeweler he had lined up to remove the Sangre de Cristo ruby broke one of the tines of the mounting and had to repair it before he could get to placing the stone in another setting. No amount of yelling, threats, or arm waving could fix the cross any faster, not for lack of trying, so Spike was sent packing with the ruby in a small velvet bag in one pocket.

The knowledge that he and Meret were being hunted by the one thing the vampire could not fight haunted his every waking moment, making matters just that much worse. He convinced the coatl to stay in their crypt more and more in an attempt to keep her safe.

Thoroughly bored and possessed of an ill temper, Spike could only find release in hunting.

That was why he had been roaming the seediest back allies he could find the first Friday of December, danger bound and without a hint of alcohol or serpentine calm to temper his violent mood.

That was why he had picked a fight with four intoxicated Vrilians without a single weapon in sight.

That was why he had a length of rebar sticking through his right shoulder.

Curiosity might have killed the cat, but it was boredom that would eventually get Spike.

Damn that smarts.

Spike was propped up against a dumpster, debating the best way to remove the rebar. Finally deciding that more of the rusty metal was exposed in the front than the back, he gritted his teeth and wrapped a hand around the rod. With an unneeded, if steadying, breath, Spike ripped the length of steel from his shoulder. His strangled roar echoed loudly through the alley: just another scream that the citizens of Sunnydale would convince themselves they had never really heard.

Once the white spots obscuring his vision faded, Spike dropped the bloody rod on the back of the nearest Vrilian. He would not bother hiding the bodies. Not when the light of day would dissolve them into an oily stain, a normal enough sight near the dumpsters behind Alonzo’s Pizzaria. One hand remained pressed over his wound, even as the blood flow slowed to a mere trickle. Removing the rebar had alleviated the worst of the pain, but the open wound still burned and the torn ligatures left his right arm dangling weakly at his side. He would need a meal and plenty of rest to regain its full use.

He walked around the four prone bodies, the Vrilians were much too large to step over with ease, and stopped briefly at each form. A quick pat down revealed that the demons carried nothing of value, so Spike drew the boot knife he had taken to carrying and set to work. One-handed, the task became problematic, not to mention messy, but Spike soon collected eight tusks for Anya’s exotic component inventory. Despite his ongoing avoidance of the Scoobies, he kept to his duty to the slayer.

He dug around in the closest dumpster until he had found a plastic grocery bag to hold the tusks. In the dim street lights, he wiped his hands off as best he could on his ruined shirt and watched as the dark red of his welling blood and the yellow of the demons’ watery secretions blended in with the darker black of his shirt and jeans.

Knew I liked that color for a reason.

Putting as much swagger into his step as his aching side would allow, Spike returned to the mostly deserted streets. Nothing ordered the vampire’s thoughts and improved his mood like a healthy spot of violence. The chaotic events of the past couple evenings were temporarily forgotten in the electrical charge of Spike’s post-fight afterglow.

*****


Meret’s happy thoughts of welcome warned Spike that he had a visitor. Having just washed away the worst of the blood and patched his shoulder, Spike slipped into a t-shirt to hide the wound from prying eyes and scaled the ladder.

He found Tara waiting on him, leather jacket folded neatly and held against her chest. He mumbled a greeting, but his eyes never left the black bundle in her arms. Spike’s fingers itched to snatch the coat and inspect it.

Probably sensing his internal debate, Tara wordlessly offered the trench coat to him and smiled as he grabbed it and shook it out, not even trying to hide his worry. She waited with a bemused expression, arms crossed as he inspected it.

The sleeves were new, but you would never have known it by looking at them. Only their smell, fresh and worked with leather treatment, gave them away. Other than that, they looked and even felt like the originals. Burns still marred the trailing ends of the jacket, but the inner lining had been mostly replaced which thankfully got rid of the scent of charred flesh that had clung to the fabric. Spike raised the coat to his nose and inhaled deeply. Underneath the new fabric and leather smell, he could still find the smoke, whiskey, and blood that marked the jacket as his.

He finally slid into the coat and shivered as the leather and slick lining enveloped him. No matter where he hung the trench coat, the jacket itself carried the feeling of home for the vampire. Even when he turned to face Tara, he couldn’t keep from running his fingers over the leather, reacquainting himself with its texture.

The witch remained silent, but her eyes spoke volumes. She was waiting for his verdict.

“It’ll do,” he said coolly.

She pointedly dropped her eyes to where he was still caressing the hem of the sleeve. Spike snatched his hand away and shoved it deep into his pocket. He scowled at Tara, whose eyes were twinkling with suppressed mirth, and Meret, who was stretched across Dave’s shoulders making her airy, laughing puffs.

“Still doin’ alright in your new digs?” he asked to divert the comments he could feel coming.

Tara graciously let the subject drop. “I’m okay. The rooms are a little empty.”

“You get desperate, I’m sure I could scare up some slightly used decorations.”

“I… uh… thanks but no thanks.”

Spike grinned at the witch, amused by her discomfort. “You sure? No grave goods and nothin’ off a dead body, scout’s honor,” he pressed, just for the sake of watching her squirm.

“That’s really okay. I wwwas going shopping tommmorrow anyway,” Tara stuttered, thrown off guard by his teasing.

Spike relented. “Got somewhere to be tonight?”

“Um…yes,” she replied apologetically. “I have to finish my term paper for cultural anthropology. I just wanted to drop off the coat.”

“Well, maybe later then,” he stifled his disappointment. “Walk you home?”

*****


It had been easy to avoid the Scoobies around town. It had also been easy to avoid them at their favorite haunts including the Bronze and Sunnydale’s various graveyards. It had even been easy, with a little creativity, to avoid them at the Magic Box when Spike dropped off new acquisitions and picked up his paycheck.

Avoiding the slayer when she was camped out in his crypt was another problem all together.

Should install a toll booth if the crypt’s gonna be gettin’ this kind of foot traffic.

Spike stood outside of the crypt, Meret fluttering behind him, and weighed his options. He could come back later and hope that Buffy had gotten tired of waiting and left. Then again, running was the coward’s way out and the slayer had probably already sensed his presence. He measured the indignity of a hasty retreat against his worries for Meret, but that excuse also toppled quickly in the face of facts. The little serpent was calmly serene, without the slightest trace of the fear that had so overwhelmed her in the Magic Box. Buffy, then, was not waiting in the crypt with slaying on her mind.

Finally making his decision, Spike threw the door of his crypt open and stalked inside, fervently hoping that the decision would not blow up in his face.

Buffy was sitting on the edge of the sarcophagus, her legs swinging idly. Despite his misgivings, Spike could not help but be affected. He barely registered the crimson blur as Meret flew for the hole leading downstairs. The entirety of his attention was focused on the petite form perched girlishly in his crypt. She looked so innocent to him, carefree even, as if sitting amongst the dead was the most normal thing in the world. Delicate and beautiful, but perfectly comfortable in the company of death - that was his slayer.

As usual, the vampire’s mouth was wandering in a different time zone from his brain. “Fancy meetin’ you here. I’ll just go warm you up a cuppa. You prefer A positive, right?” He let the door slam behind him and prepared for the usual song and dance routine that had characterized her previous visits to his crypt.

Buffy looked up and arched an eyebrow over a small, knowing smile. “And hello to you too, Spike.” For a long moment, the vampire could only stare.

Someone had changed the choreography.

Trying to stick to the script despite the slayer’s uncharacteristic politeness, the vampire walked past her and fetched a beer from the fridge. Twisting off the cap with a deft turn of the wrist, Spike took a long pull. “Got somethin’ that needs killin’ or are you just looking for information, ‘cause we both know this isn’t a social call.”

“Neither,” Buffy said cheerfully, still wearing the look that told Spike that something new was afoot.

“Bit’s missing?”

“Nope.”

“Red’s cast another crazy spell that’s gone sour?”

“Uh uh.”

“Apocalypse?”

“Not that I know of.”

Spike crossed his arms, beer dangling precariously, and scowled. “So you’re what, hidin’ from the others? Rupes being stuffier than usual or did you just get tired of stories about the Whelp’s sexual prowess?”

“No and no and ew,” Buffy replied with a wrinkled nose, but her voice was still light.

Spike opened his mouth to snap at the slayer’s continuing line of cheerful denials when Meret reappeared. The little serpent carried something in her mouth and the vampire’s jaw slammed shut when he recognized it. His mind was racing to find excuses as he watched Meret drop the delicate silver choker, found so many weeks ago and saved for this very girl, into Buffy’s lap.

Meret!

The coatl was confused by his strangled mental shout, but most of what the vampire felt from her was an overwhelming affection for the slayer: an emotion he recognized because it was a pale echo of his own.

The fact that Buffy could sense those same feelings through the link slowly dawned on the vampire. What little blood existed coloring his face drained away leaving him a ghostly shade of grey. With a detached kind of horrified fascination he watched the slayer pick up the necklace and look at it.

He expected her to laugh. He imagined that she would look at him with disgust or cast the choker aside. He waited for her to tear into him and shred anything that remained of his self respect, but she did none of these things.

Buffy simply glanced at him out of the corner of her eye; he could see the hazel from beneath her lowered eyelashes. She ran the silver links through her hands. The metalwork was very fine and the links moved loosely, like a ribbon of lace. Her hands froze and the slayer looked straight at the coatl, who had come to rest next to her on the sarcophagus. “Thank you Meret,” she murmured, and Spike’s jaw dropped open again as the slayer pulled her hair aside and looped the necklace around her throat.

Meret preened and fluffed her feathers at the praise. She hissed in pleasure. Spike couldn’t even blink.

Once the choker was settled against her neck, Buffy slipped off of the sarcophagus and walked over to the mute vampire. Her eyes twinkled as she looked him over. If it wouldn’t have been crazy to assume, Spike would have thought that she looked amused, even happy.

“You still in there Spike?”

Say something you ponce!

“Huh?”

Oh, bloody brilliant.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Buffy said with exaggerated slowness. Her lips twitched into an almost-smile. Spike gaze cut time between her mouth and the silver band encircling her throat. He felt as if his entire world had been turned upside down and inside out. “I came to ask you to drop by the Magic Box tomorrow night. Willow and Giles think they’ve found a way to shield Meret from being used in a spell. They want to try it out on a feather or scale or whatever before doing the real thing.” Buffy’s face turned suddenly serious. “No tricks, no stakes, and no danger to Meret, I promise.”

Spike managed to clear his throat and force words past his lips. “Not that I don’t trust your word, love, but it’s the others I’m not too keen on believin'.”

The slayer’s hazel eyes turned hard and cold. “We had a… talk. No one is going to hurt her. Not now.” Spike was taken aback. Having been on the receiving end of some of Buffy’s finer “talks,” he was shocked to think that she had drug her friends over the coals for Meret’s sake. It seemed far out of character, especially since the slayer’s resurrection.

Meret landed on Buffy’s shoulder and rubbed her jaw against the slayer’s cheek. It was a gesture the coatl had previously reserved for Spike alone. Once her surprise faded, Buffy’s eyes softened and reached up to pet the little serpent.

“Not now,” she repeated in much gentler tones. “So you’ll come, right?” Wide hazel eyes met confused blue ones.

He had no better luck denying her than he ever had.

“I’ll be there,” he said dully.

In League With Serpents - Flying Blind

Spike slipped into the Magic Box early the next evening after a quick stop by the Sunnydale Mall. Cross and tusks tucked safely away in another pillow case, he walked through the training room and stopped behind the door into the main store. One last time, he paused to take measure of Meret’s emotions. The serpent was a little nervous, but that might have been attributable to the vampire’s own state of mind. Mostly she just radiated waves of contentment. Her stomach was full of warm blood and she was looped lazily around the vampire’s neck, her favorite roost.

Knowing that he had to continue, but wanting to avoid doing so all the same, Spike opened the door as quietly as he could and slipped into the main floor of the Magic Box. He stood still in the shadows of the corner and simply watching the scene before him, wondering how long it would take the others to notice his presence.

Willow was pouring a circle of salt on the floor in front of the cash register. Dawn was next to her, placing smooth stones around the circle with larger rocks marking what could only be the cardinal directions. Buffy was toying with a few pillar candles, probably waiting for the circle to be completed before placing them, and obviously lost in thought. Giles paced around all three of them, waving a smoking bundle of sage and chanting the words of a common purification spell. Anya was sorting through a pile of polished rocks on the counter, and Xander was hovering behind her, pulling down jars of components from the shelf and lining them up next to his fiancé.

Dawn finished arranging the river stones and got to her feet. She stretched, reaching for the ceiling and standing on tip toes as if to defy gravity itself. She lost her balance and performed an impromptu hopping dance to avoid stepping on the circle and ruining all of their hard work. The redheaded witch shooed her away with a joke and a grin before drawing Buffy’s attention back to the present and indicating where the candles should go.

They joked and they laughed and the vampire saw a side of the Scoobies they rarely showed the rest of the world. One they certainly hid behind defensive walls whenever the vampire was present.

Spike’s concept of family had been built through his experiences. As a human, family had been about loyalty, blood, and duty. As a vampire: power, blood, and status. Always blood, and Spike had thought the Scoobies were no exception. Shared blood, through birth, rebirth, or battles, was his key to family. He had believed that if he fought by their side long enough, shed enough of his blood and saved enough of theirs, that he could become one of them. It was what experience had taught him, what the demon in him thought to be true, but as he watched the scene before him, it occurred to him that there were other things that constituted a real family.

Yes, the Scoobies had weathered many a battle together, but that was not where the heart of their bond existed. It had been strengthened by the fights, but it had been built in between over doughnuts and silly movies and homework, parts of their lives Spike rarely tried to touch.

But he had reached out with those things occasionally, first with Dawn and then with Tara, and the thought was a revelation for the vampire. For the preservation of his life and sanity, Spike had to learn how to fit back into human society after decades living as a demon. Without a soul, his moral compass was unreliable and he had only his wits and his experiences to guide him. Without a soul, he had to learn what was expected of him through observation and experiment. Building a conscience from scratch was difficult and confusing for the vampire, but it was possible and he was determined to try.

There were few beings, human or demonic, who could rival Spike in terms of sheer determination.

*****


The sacred circle was complete before anyone noted Spike’s arrival. It was a testament to the slayer’s distraction that it took her so long to sense him, but she still beat the others to the punch.

“You two gonna stop lurking and join in the fun?” Buffy called. She looked in his direction and Spike saw a glint of silver when her hair moved away from her neck. She was wearing his necklace.

Spike stepped out of the shadows and watched as a pall fell over the others’ previously cheerful mood. “I saw Nibblet spill goat drool on Ripper’s tweed and decided that the corner was the safest bet,” he tried to joke.

Dawn stuck out her tongue and flounced over to the research table. When Spike walked further into the room, feigning casual indifference, Meret left her perch to join the girl.

Giles cleared his throat. “Do you have a feather for the spell?” he asked.

“Goldilocks here was a mite unclear ‘bout what it was you wanted,” Spike drawled.

“Hey!” was Buffy’s response.

“I believe her exact words were ‘a feather or scale or whatever.’” His voice took on a ridiculously high soprano with a strong valley-girl accent in what was, admittedly, a terrible impression of the slayer. The next moment he had to duck behind the ladder to avoid a flying book.

Over Buffy’s indignant and somewhat incoherent protestations and Dawn’s uncontrollable giggling, Giles tried to bring about some order. “If you two insist upon acting like children I would appreciate it if you could at least show a little respect for the books.”

“Spoken like a true librarian,” replied Spike from his vantage behind the ladder.

Xander laughed and then looked so surprised at his reaction that it set off Willow and Anya. Giles simply cast his eyes heavenward and went to retrieve his precious tome. Buffy mumbled an insincere apology and glared at the vampire who returned her gaze with a smirk.

When he finally decided that he was safe from further attack, Spike stepped over to the table and called Meret to him. He placed his bag beneath the table and sat down.

Need a feather little one. This might hurt.

Meret slithered over to him and looked into his eyes, head cocked to one side. Then, ever so slowly, she extended her wings and tilted them for his inspection. Spike ran his fingers gently over the feathers, searching for the right one. According to the books, Meret was not ready to start shedding yet, but she was close. He avoided the flight feathers and fanned apart the smaller downy ones near the wing joint. There he found one that seemed to be a little askew. He grasped it between two fingers and hoped that the odd angle meant that the feather was loose.

Ready?

Meret’s thoughts conveyed acceptance, but the feathers along her spine folded down against her back in tense anticipation. As quickly as he could, Spike pulled the feather free. Meret hissed and jerked her wings tightly back into place. The vampire winced and offered her a silent apology. The little coatl rustled her feathers, but she rubbed her cheek against his hand with instant forgiveness.

Brave girl.

Spike realized the picture he was presenting to the Scoobies and snapped out of his quiet moment with Meret with a scowl, daring anyone to laugh. No one did. He rose abruptly and walked over to the circle arranged on the floor. “Make this one count, Red. I’m not gettin’ you any more ‘til they start fallin’ out on their own.” His voice was clipped, almost rude.

Eyes wide and somewhat subdued, Willow accepted the little red feather. “One last thing. You named her, right?” When Spike nodded reluctantly, Willow continued. “I have to know her whole name for the spell, and we all know how you are with funny nicknames and stuff…” she trailed off.

Spike blinked in surprise at the question. He had realized the duality of Meret’s name soon after selecting it, but it was something he considered rather private. Choosing what he considered to be the safest answer, the vampire shot a warning look at the watcher. “It’s Meretseger.”

Giles cleared his throat in surprise, or was it amusement? “That is an interesting choice of names Spike.”

“Yeah, what of it?” was the vampire’s defensive reply.

Xander looked on in confusion. “What is a Merit Cigar?”

“Not a what, a who,” piped up Willow. “Meretseger was the Egyptian goddess of punishment and mercy. She was also the guardian of the royal necropolis.”

“A woman with the body of a snake, very apt, but I believe that her name also means ‘She Who Loves Silence.’” Giles eyed the vampire critically. “You are many things Spike, but rarely silent.”

“The name refers to the silence of the tomb, you git,” the vampire bristled. “And why am I even arguing with you about this? It’s her name, get on with the spell!” Spike returned to the table and dropped into one of the chairs.

“Didn’t she kill grave robbers?” asked Anya.

Spike scowled darkly and chose to ignore the former demon.

Dawn leaned over and whispered conspiratorially, “I like her name.”

“'S because you’ve got taste,” responded Spike, sulkily. He settled back to watch as Willow started casting the spell.

Once completed, the pattern on the floor had become a complex array of objects. The ring of salt and stones framed a circle split into four parts by rows of small animal bones. At the center, a stone bowl held a viscous liquid, a mixture of some truly distasteful substances if Spike remembered correctly. What goat saliva had not made it onto Giles’ pants leg had ended up in the bowl along with odiferous herbs, pond water thick with algae, curdled milk, and something Xander had jokingly called lizard juice. The vampire decided that he would be happier not knowing what that particular name really meant. A long-legged trivet stood over the bowl, providing a platform above the stinking fluid. Candles stood at the center of each quadrant and various dried herbs and magical talismans had been arranged around each. To Willow’s side another bundle of sage smoked, scenting the air. More salt in a small bowl and one of Anya’s banded stones completed the arrangement.

The redheaded witch moved the feather through the smoke four times towards each of the cardinal directions, whispering words of power with each pass. She held the feather before her in one hand and reached for the small stone at her side, never breaking stride with her soft chanting. Once the stone and feather were placed on top of the trivet, side by side, Willow sat back and started chanting a little louder. Spike could not put his finger on the language. The words were familiar enough that they tantalized him with their meaning without giving up their secrets.

As the chanting grew louder, the flames from the candles rose as well. Soon, the bowl of liquid was bubbling, adding a sickly smell to the more pleasant sage and herbs. Spike could feel the power flowing towards the young witch, coiling and dancing like a living thing in the air around the circle. He hated the feeling, distrusted it violently, but he kept his comments to himself, well aware of the dangers involved in interrupting a witch in the throes of her magic.

The vampire watched closely as the stone resting next to the feather melted into a swirled puddle of silver and red. The feather floated on the substance, seemingly unharmed by the liquid. Willow’s voice grew even louder, taking on a strange echoing quality as she sprinkled more salt from the bowl over the trivet and its contents. Slowly, the edges of the feather started to glow. The light grew brighter and started working its way inward until it was condensed in a bright line down the main shaft of the feather. As the light faded, so did the witch’s chanting until the room was quiet and calm again.

The room remained silent for a few seconds more. Then Willow reached forward and presented the feather like a treasure to the group. “And voila! Magic teflon!”

Giles leaned in and inspected the feather. “How do we know if the spell was successful?”

Willow pulled the feather back towards herself. She pointed an index finger at it and said “Fulminis!” A tiny bolt of electricity jumped towards the feather, but was deflected and instead zapped the tip of her finger. “Ouch! But hey, it worked!” Her wide grin was somewhat ruined by her vigorous hand shaking as the witch tried to get rid of the sting.

Spike stepped up and plucked the feather from Willow’s grasp. Ignoring her indignant squeak, he looked closely at the bit of red fluff. It did not seem to be any different than before. The smell was the same and, yes too, even the weight. He handed the feather back to the witch and met her gaze. “An’ this spell of yours, it won’t weigh her down or make her a horse or any other loopy thing I’ve come to expect from you, yeah?”

Much to his surprise, Willow did not angrily defend her magic as she would have only weeks ago. A dark red stained her cheeks and the witch glanced at Buffy, who was leaning against the counter, before glancing at Anya and dropping her eyes in embarrassment. “Not this time,” she said quietly and twirled the feather between her fingers. “No experiments, no improvisations, this time I’m going completely by the book with Giles’ help.” She looked up at him with a sigh. “We can try it out on a bird or mouse or something to make absolutely sure before we cast it on Meret if that would make you feel better.”

Spike’s eyebrows rose with surprise. This went beyond whatever Anya could have said to the redheaded witch. That must have been some “talk” that Buffy had given her friends. Willow chastened and working at controlling her magical impulses? Come to think of it, Xander had thus far opted for silence over his usual stream of insults, and even Giles’ behavior had seemed more civil. He would have given one of his fangs to know what the slayer had said to the Scoobies during his self-enforced period of exile.

“Bird’d be good,” he commented. “When can you put on this show again?”

“As soon as we get more tiger iron,” Willow glanced up at Anya.

“For two chunks big enough to do a bird and a coatl? I’ll have to go look through the inventory. I think we’ve only got one right now, but I think I’ve found a geology warehouse that will send me some larger pieces,” Anya mused. “I’ll look into it.” She turned to go into the back room where the former demon had recently installed a computer to make ordering and organizing inventory easier.

“Wait a tick,” Spike said to stop her retreat. He walked over to the table and retrieved his bag. “Might as well take these with you too.” He tossed her the plastic bag of tusks. “They’re clean this time,” he said with a leer in response to the suspicious look Anya sent his way.

“Species?” she asked.

“Vrilian,” Spike replied. With that, Anya nodded absently and exited the room with Xander in tow.

“That leaves this for you Rupes.” He handed over the wrapped cross to the watcher. “Thought having it with you might grease the cogs in Merry Ol.’ Worse comes to worse, you could always just hit ‘em with it. Bloody thing’s got heft.”

“Giles, don’t you dare smack Travers around without me,” Buffy quipped, joining the conversation. “That’s like withholding chocolate, or half priced Prada. I’d never forgive you.”

Giles smiled at his slayer. “I shall attempt to restrain myself, for your sake of course.”

“Well, this has been a slap an’ a tickle, but I’ve got a date with a nest of fledges that I’d hate to miss.” Spike rolled up his newly empty pillowcase and stuffed it as far as he could into his coat pocket. “Ta.”

“Spike wait.” Buffy’s voice froze the vampire in his tracks. “I’m game for a little slayage. Mind if I come with you?”

Spike looked at the slayer, gauging her request. She certainly seemed serious. “The more, the merrier.”

“Great! Let’s go!” As the slayer tugged him out of the front door of the Magic Box, Spike glanced over his shoulder to make sure Meret was following and met Dawn’s eyes instead. The younger Summers was grinning ear to ear and gave him a big thumbs up as the door swung shut behind him.

He had been wrong. He would be willing to give both of his fangs to know just what on Earth was going on with the slayer.

*****


Of all of the experiences in Spike’s long, long life, this had to rank as one of the silliest. He was ineffectually fending off the slayer’s half-serious attacks, and the weapon with which she was playing out her ire: his very own hip flask.

No good deed goes unpunished, huh?

The two had cleared out the small group of fledglings without much trouble, but Buffy had gotten a lungful of vamp dust and had started coughing uncontrollably. In what he had thought to be a chivalrous gesture, Spike had offered her his flask so that she could wash out her mouth.

Big mistake.

Buffy had taken a huge gulp of his last reserve of decent alcohol, which had almost instantaneously turned her coughs into choking sputters. She had leapt at him, half-heartedly battering at him with the newly-empty flask. Her eyes were watering and she could barely breathe, but Spike could pick out some words through her choked imprecations. Words such as “Buffy,” “alcohol,” and “unmixy.” Despite her dubious grasp of the English language in that moment, Spike believed that he understood her point.

“Jus’ meant for you to rinse your mouth out! I didn’t know you were gonna go and down the stuff!” he shouted as he tried to shield his head from the slayer’s ridiculous attack.

“Stupid… vamp,” she wheezed. “Trying to… poison… groady stuff…”

“Oi! That’s the last of my Jack! You could at least show a little gratitude!”

“I’ll… gratitude… you!”

It had quickly dawned on the vampire that Buffy’s open handed slaps lacked any real force. Oh, she was still the slayer and the blows still stung, but Spike had been on the receiving end of enough of her attacks to know the difference.

The fact that Meret was coiled on a tombstone nearby, hissing her little laughs and abjectly refusing to take either side of the “fight” was his other clue.

Traitor.

Meret only snickered more.

Finally Buffy staggered back against the side of a monument and shook herself like a wet dog. Spike eyed her warily and rubbed the back of his head where the corner of the flask had dug into his scalp.

The slayer coughed pitifully one last time before leaning her head back against the stone pillar and closing her eyes. “That was just gross.”

“You weren’t supposed to drink it, you daft bint.”

“Well, how was I supposed to know that?”

“Remind me to never hand you a bottle of Draino.”

She scrunched up her nose and glared at him. Spike opened his mouth to retort, but quickly closed it again when the reality of the situation sank in. He had been trying so hard to be on his very best behavior after leaving the Magic Box, but the first fight had seen an end to that. Brawling back to back with the slayer had Spike launching into the verbal sparring that had marked their interactions from day one. Surprisingly, Buffy met him quip for quip during the battle.

He had no idea what that meant.

Buffy tossed him his flask and shoved away from the stone spire. Spike caught the silver container, slipping it back into his pocket. The next thing he knew, Buffy was standing in front of him, poking him in the chest with one perfectly manicured fingernail.

“So here’s the plan. You’re going to pay for a latte at the 5th and Gill Golden Roast to get this nasty taste out of my mouth. Then we’re going to Shady Oaks to see if anything else is bumping in the night. Capisce?”

It might have been described as friendly teasing, and even if the slayer had an odd habit of looking at Meret while she was talking to him, Spike was too happy with the new turn of events to question. He grinned and gave the slayer a mock courtly bow.

“And no alcohol this time! Alcohol and Buffy are…”

“Unmixy. Yeah, I picked up on that.”

“Less chit chat, more mocha!”

*****


The two cleaned out another small nest and killed a particularly hairy Mortok demon before the slayer called it a night. They split ways at Restfield’s front gate after she had wheedled a promise out of him for a repeat performance the following night.

The next night led to the next, and the next, and soon Spike found himself rarely fighting alone. This new dynamic, this easy camaraderie with Buffy, had tossed the vampire into unfamiliar water and he was using every skill in his arsenal just to stay afloat. He was terrified of making a wrong step and bringing an end to their patrolling, but Buffy let slide some of his more spectacular blunders, and Spike found himself loosening up in her presence.

Giles left for London and, much to everyone’s surprise, had Willow join him once the school semester ended. She finally admitted that the watcher had asked a coven in Westbury to start working with her on understanding and controlling her magic. Spike had given that bit of news to Tara one night over hot wings and Passions. The shy witch had veritably glowed with happiness.

Anya was busily planning her wedding while Xander was obviously starting to panic at the prospect. The former demon admitted to Spike that she had threatened Willow with a sound cursing the next time one of her spells went sour. Even though Anya herself had lost her powers, she still had all of her old contacts in Arashmaha, so the threat was far from empty. Dawn attacked the winter break with her typical teenage gusto, stocking up on junk food and rented movies. Meret set to work charming all of the members of her adopted covey and Buffy signed up for classes at UC Sunnydale for the spring term. A check came from England that included enough zeros that Spike was sure that Giles must have taken his advice and beat the highest members on the watchers’ ruling council to within inches of their lives. He put the check into the bank and watched from the porch as Buffy used the “Christmas bonus” to pay off all of her outstanding bills and most of the house’s mortgages. The Summers had celebrated with a shopping spree at the mall. Spike had celebrated by redoubling his efforts to find more such treasures in the crypts and dark places of Sunnydale.

Spike set other plans into motion. He stopped fleeing the Magic Box whenever the Scoobies arrived. Theirs was an uneasy truce, but still a vast improvement over the violent dislike he had grown accustomed to over the past few years. Emboldened by the slayer’s behavior and the fact that she often wore his choker, the vampire decided to test his luck. The Sangre de Cristo ruby spent two weeks in the hands of a skilled jeweler. The man had been given the gem with a hand drawn design and a threat of dire bodily harm if anything happened to the stone. When the week of Christmas rolled around, a small red box tied with a black satin ribbon was hidden, with Dawn’s help, in the Summers’ household.

He was truly happy. He could not remember the last time he had been able to make that claim. Maybe that was why he let his guard down.

In League With Serpents - Layers of Restraint

Spike was sitting on the couch in the Summers’ living room, counting the ways he wanted to kill reindeer.

Dawn had left a sickeningly saccharine movie playing while she bustled around the room. Spike was convinced that the little stop motion figures populating the screen had to be demons of some sort or another. Nothing could be that cute without having truly evil motivations at heart. Dawn hummed along with the songs while she rearranged decorations. She was so excited about the evening that Spike managed to bite his tongue to keep from putting a damper on her Christmas cheer.

The rest of the Scoobies were at the airport, picking up Giles and Willow. Dawn had managed to convince Tara to go and had given up her seat in the car to the shy witch. The vampire had silently wished her luck. There was nothing like the holiday spirit to help patch up a relationship. With any luck, the whole gang would be together for the holidays.

Meret was sleeping off her latest meal upstairs, curled on Buffy’s pillow. Spike wondered if the slayer knew about the little serpent’s new napping habits. Probably not, seeing as how he would not fit in an ashtray.

“Spike, do you think the tree looks crooked?” Dawn asked for the third time in as many minutes.

“No,” he replied, not really paying attention. In fact, the tree did look crooked, but that was caused more by the asymmetrical branches than anything the vampire could do with the stand. Besides, decked with glittering garlands and shiny ornaments, no one would really notice except for an overly anal teenager and the vampire she tormented in her aims of Yuletide perfection.

Dawn shrugged and started humming again. She had been arranging presents beneath the tree for a solid five minutes before Spike noticed what she had done.

“Nibblet, I thought you were going to keep that one hidden,” he asked, trying to keep his voice bland.

“And let you wuss out? I don’t think so.” She glared at him with one hand on her hip, a pose she had certainly picked up from the slayer. Among the other presents sat a tiny red package.

Truth be told, Spike had been having second thoughts about the little velvet box. “Jus’ tryin’ to keep it a surprise ‘s all,” he said defensively, knowing that he had been caught.

“Yuh huh. I just think you’re a big chicken!” Dawn replied with an arch look.

Spike’s eyes flared. “Take that back!”

“I just call ‘em like I see ‘em, Big Bad,” she slurred the nickname, letting him know what she thought of that as well.

“Now you’re askin’ for it!”

“I’d be more worried if you weren’t such a ‘fraidy cat.”

Spike sprang to his feet and rounded the table in one fluid motion. Dawn’s eyes widened in mock terror and danced out of his reach, scooping up the box in her retreat. “Oh no! I’m in trouble now!”

The vampire’s eyes glinted. “Give me the box.”

Dawn’s grin widened. “Make me.”

Spike shrugged. “Fair enough. Where was it I helped you hide that shirt you ‘borrowed’ from Big Sis and spilled ketchup all over. Oh yeah, in the backyard. Back in a tick.” He turned and started for the kitchen.

“You wouldn’t!” Dawn squealed.

“What? I’m evil.” He turned again and started to walk away with a little secret smile on his lips.

Instead of the expected apologies and backpedaling, Spike received something else from the youngest Summers: a flying coaster between the shoulder blades.

“Hey!” He turned in time to catch the next cork disc in the nose. “Bloody hell Nibblet!”

“You’re… you’re such a big meanie!” Dawn railed.

“Vampire,” he said, as if that explained it all.

Dawn aimed another missile at him and Spike watched, fully intending to bat it out of the air. It was then that he noticed the faint prickling down the back of his neck, far too late to do anything about it. Bonds as strong as tempered steel wound around his arms and legs, rooting him in place. More swept around his body and over his head, preventing any movement. He fought against the magic, struggled with all his strength and will, but the spell was too strong.

Dawn’s coaster bounced off of his forehead. She looked at him oddly when her attack did not even earn a blink. “Spike?”

He tried to answer her, to tell her to run, to run himself and drag her along, but his body simply would not obey. He watched, helpless, as realization dawned on the girl.

The front door swung open and Spike could hear heavy footsteps, more than could belong to a single person. He didn’t need to see what was behind him; he had Dawn’s reaction to tell him everything he needed to know. Her eyes opened wide in terror and she shrank back against the wall.

“I do so hate to break up such a touching moment, but I believe that this charade has gone on long enough.” The voice was smooth, the same one that had haunted Spike since his humiliating defeat in the sewers. “Bring the girl. I believe she will be an excellent tool in getting our guest to behave.”

Three demons brushed past Spike, who was struggling fiercely against the magic, even if his efforts made no visible progress. Dawn shook off her terror and tried to run, but the faceless demons were too fast. In the struggle, the coffee table lay broken and splintered, but the fight was soon over. Two of the demons held her while she screamed and kicked. The third simply stood waiting, club at the ready.

Not again. Not Nibblet. Won’t watch her hurt again.

He raged against the magical restraints, but there was nothing he could do.

The warlock walked over to stand in front of Spike. The vampire could feel his gaze even as the shadows of the cowl hid the man’s features. Apparently satisfied, the hooded head nodded abruptly. “Never send a demon to do a man’s job.” The man turned and signaled the remaining demon. “I knew you’d make a good babysitter for my pet project, chipped and tamed as you are.” He patted Spike’s cheek with mocking condescension. “Oh yes, I know all about you William. Now let’s just see how long it takes to find your little feathered friend.”

Spike brought all of his strength to bear, trying to force his body into action, but he was helpless in the grasp of the warlock’s spell. The faceless demon advanced slowly and raised its club high. The vampire, stubborn to the last, kept up his hopeless struggle. He reached out with his mind and found Meret’s touch.

He watched as the demon’s weapon arced towards his head. He watched Dawn struggle against their captors, screaming loudly for her sister.

Meret run! Find Buffy! Tell her…

But he never got to finish the sentence. It was driven from his mind, along with every other conscious thought, when the demon’s club hit home.

*****


Spike’s dreams were troubled. He could see flashes of scenes, pieces of pictures. They teased the edges of his mind, disjointed images that kept him from sinking completely into the comforting darkness.

In one moment, he saw Buffy’s bedroom, dark and empty. The next: the slayer herself, pacing like a caged lion in the practice room of the Magic Box. He saw Willow, sitting with her legs crossed and her head thrown back as Tara stood behind her, hands on her lover’s shoulders. Another, a simple flash of a stake. The images started to come faster and faster. Giles reading from a scroll. Two pairs of glowing white eyes. A jewelry box half hidden under a splinter of wood. Red feathers. Xander opening a chest full of weapons. Candles and herbs and Buffy, always Buffy.

And throughout the images, words. Sensed more than spoken, the words burned their way into Spike’s mind.

We come.

*****


Spike woke to pain and the feel of cold stone against his back. The sheer wrongness of the situation catapulted the vampire into wakefulness. He struggled fiercely, thrashing like a wild animal, demonic features quickly coming to the fore in his rage, until icy threads of reason overtook his actions. He was chained to a cavern wall with heavy iron links, tingling with magical force. A quick evaluation revealed that only his wrists were bound, stretched wide and pinned near the limit of his reach, leaving his feet to dangle loosely about a foot above the floor.

His temples throbbed and Spike could feel the stickiness of his own blood covering one side of his face, matting his hair, and running down his neck, but he seemed otherwise unharmed. Memory returned.

Nibblet!

He never stopped twisting his wrists, trying to slip free from new angles, but Spike also started frantically searching his surroundings. The cavern he was in was quite large and empty, save for a raised block of stone in the center of the room. Other tunnels led away from the main room, but they all disappeared into darkness. A small stream passed through the cavern, tracking across the floor before disappearing down one of the far tunnels. The cave smelled of stone and wet earth, but nothing distinctive enough to tell the vampire where exactly he was.

And in a shadowed alcove nearby, Dawn, chained with solid metal links.

He could smell the girl’s tears, but not blood and her heartbeat was steady and strong. She was not hurt then, just asleep. Seeing her bound sent icy tendrils of rage through the vampire.

He was relieved to note that Meret’s touch was still there, nestled in the back of his mind. He could feel her fear, her worry, but even these were pale in comparison to the rage that poured through the connection. He tried to reach out to the little serpent, but it was like walking into a pane of glass. The images he could see through the link were fuzzy and indistinct. He could feel her through the bond, but try as he might, he could not reach her.

The chains holding Dawn and the invasion of his mind set the vampire growling and thrashing again. Spike twisted against his restraints, making no progress but nearly ripping one arm out of socket as he played out his anger. He could feel the backs of his wrists being rubbed raw against the rough shackles, but he did not stop. He could feel his head wound reopen and fresh blood trickle down his face, but he did not care. Nothing mattered except escape and the slow, painful death of whomever had dared to cage him.

He managed to work himself into a frenzy, snarling and kicking pieces of rock loose from the wall. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Dawn start to stir.

Words of power echoed through the cavern. Spike felt his consciousness falling away as the warlock came into his field of view.

“We can’t have you damaging yourself needlessly before the ritual, now can we?” the man’s voice was tinged with humor. “That’s my job.”

Spike’s vision dimmed as he fell under the control of the spell, but the last thing he saw was his captor wearing a wide smile as if he had just been dealt a hand of aces.

Maclin! That’s you’re name, you son of a…

He slept.

*****


The strange dreams continued. Upon his next waking, Spike hung quietly, in control of himself once again. Dawn was awake as well. It took a few tries to draw her out of whatever safe haven she had put her mind. Finally a hissed “Bit!” snapped her out of her preoccupation.

“Spike?” She crawled a little ways out of the nook in the wall and looked at him. He smirked weakly at her. “Thank God! You’re all covered in blood. I thought you’d never wake up.”

Spike straightened as best he could in his restraints. “’M fine,” he responded, trying to sound better than he felt. “You?”

She lifted her hands and showed him the rusty shackles. “You’d think I’d be used to this by now,” she tried to joke, but her weak giggle caught in her throat and turned into a quiet sob.

“’Ey, none of that. It’s me they want, and you’re their insurance. Neither one of us is any good to them dead.” He thought for a second. “Deader,” he amended. His eyes darkened and he grew serious. “Bit?”

“Yeah?” she sniffed.

“If you get the chance, I want you to run.”

She looked at him pleadingly. “I don’t want to leave you here.”

Her loyalty warmed him even as he hardened his features. “Don’t be a silly bint. They can’t kill me. They won’t even have a body for their mojo if I’m dust.”

‘Less the spell uses vamp dust.

He wasn’t about to share that thought though; not with Dawn looking almost convinced. “Follow the water,” he gestured towards the stream with his head. “It’ll pro’bly get you out.”

She opened her mouth to response, but the harsh growl that rumbled from Spike’s chest silenced her.

Maclin had entered the cavern. He was garbed in the familiar black robes, but his cowl was thrown back, obviously no longer caring if he was recognized. Spike was livid as he watched the warlock and his demonic entourage start setting up items on the raised stone dais.

Maclin, who had played kitten poker in the back room of Willy’s bar months before. Maclin, who had not been as drunk, or as hapless, as he had seemed. Maclin, who had humiliated Spike twice and had put Dawn’s life in danger.

Maclin, who was protected by powerful magic and the government’s accursed chip.

Behind his baleful glare, Spike silently cursed the warlock, the Initiative, and any deity who happened to be listening for good measure. He found himself looking at Dawn and soon turned his violent recriminations upon himself.

He had failed her once again.

In League With Serpents - Crossing the Rubicon

Spike hung from his wrists, muscles taut and angry, watching Maclin from beneath lowered eyelids. The warlock had finished setting up his altar and dismissed his demonic helpers. For the next hour, he had laboriously painted two stylized serpents on the cavern’s floor: one feathered and red, the other gaunt and green. Spike thought he recognized the design as Aztec in origin, but he could not be sure. When the picture was complete, Maclin took a post standing quietly in front of the raised slab of stone. He seemed to be waiting for something, but for what the vampire could not guess.

The vampire had asked Dawn to try contacting Meret, but her efforts met with the same resistance his had. Maclin had done his work well. Dawn had lapsed into silence after that, and try as he might, Spike could find no words of comfort for the girl that would not insult her intelligence.

And so he waited, and watched, and called to mind all of the things he would like to do to Maclin if he got the chance.

The rattling of rusty links drew his attention back to Dawn. She was watching the warlock with a worried expression.

“Somethin’ in particular caught your fancy Bit?” Spike said for her ears alone.

She answered in an equally quiet voice. “I think I know what he’s going to do.”

Spike snorted before he could catch himself.

Dawn turned to look at him and scowled. “No really. Remember those spells I found when we were trying to figure out Meret’s bond at the Magic Box?” When the vampire nodded vaguely, she continued. “Well, I kinda blackmailed Giles into letting me help research them since I found them and all. Anyway, that set-up looks an awful lot like the description of a spell that creates a permanent gateway between dimensions.”

“So he’s gonna make another Hellmouth or something close to, huh?”

Dawn shrugged and her forehead wrinkled in thought. “Spike?”

“Yeah Bit?”

“What happens if you get two Hellmouths right next to each other?”

Spike thought for a moment before memory made his eyes open wide. His mind was miles and years away, replaying the earthquake in Kangra, as well as what had caused it. He could hear the long-dead witch’s words clearly in his mind. “They will be small gates, very easily controlled…”

Easily controlled my ass.

Spike was never sure exactly what had happened, but he had felt some kind of resonance between the energies of the two portals. The magical vibrations had increased at an alarming rate, feeding off of one another, until the magic tore itself loose from the witch’s control. The gates finally consumed one another and the ensuing earthquake had been incredible. The earth had bucked and heaved, destroying the countryside for miles around. Amazingly, the vampires had escaped the ordeal with few injuries. The same could not be said for the witch. The earthquake had been forgiving, but Darla had not. Another scheme to find Angelus and “cure” him of his little soul problem thwarted, Darla had taken out her rage on the witch. The screams had lasted a long, long time.

Two days later, Darla had gone hunting and never returned. Dru had wept for weeks at the loss of both her “Daddy” and “Grandmummy.” Despite his sire’s depression, Spike had reveled in his newfound freedom, especially in the midst of the earthquake’s destruction. He could still see the wholesale devastation in his mind: a perfect playground for a young demon newly released from familial obligations.

He winced at the memories. The scenes of gleeful carnage were strangely distasteful.

“Bit. We may have a problem.”

“How much of a problem? Are we talking an ‘Oops my spell backfired, don’t I feel silly,’ or an ‘Oops, I just destroyed the world’ kind of problem?” Dawn asked with false humor.

“You want the good news first or the bad?”

“Good. I’m an optimist.”

“There might not be a Hellmouth once this spell goes down,” said the vampire in a dull voice.

“Wait, that’s really good! I mean, yay, no Hellmouth! So what’s the bad news?” Dawn gave him a wan smile, trying to be cheerful.

Spike face was set into a bleak grimace. “There might not be a west coast either.” The earthquake in India had been caused by two very minor gates. What would happen if two Hellmouths created the same kind of resonance and consumed one another?

Dawn’s face fell into similarly grim lines. “Oh.”

“Bit, I need you to tell me everything you can remember about that spell…”

*****


Wanker forms the gate through me, anchors it with Meret, and offs us both to open it. Fan-fuckin’-tastic.

Spike was brooding. He would have cheerfully driven nails through the eyes of anyone who accused him of it though. Maybe stewing was a better word, or “thinking deep thoughts.” Just as long as it wasn’t called brooding.

He had wracked his brain, searching for something that would interrupt the spell. Trashing the altar wouldn’t work according to Dawn. Maclin was undoubtedly too skilled to let minor irritations break his concentration. The only things he could think of that would stop the spell were to kill Maclin before his casting was complete, something that seemed downright impossible thanks to the chip, to escape, which seemed equally impossible, or to kill himself before the spell ever started.

Spike was willing to fight the good fight alongside the white hats, but he was not ready to give up on this situation completely and go straight to the martyrdom. That was his Rubicon, if he mentally crossed that line there really wasn’t any going back. He might as well trade in his fangs for a cape and tights.

If he couldn’t come up with a decent plan of attack, he would fall back on his standard Plan B: fly by the seat of your pants and hit anything that moves. It wasn’t like his schemes usually went according to the script anyway.

Spike was so lost in his thoughts that he did not notice Maclin’s approach. The warlock’s voice, so close at hand, snapped the vampire back into the present though. “It is time.” Spike could feel the smallest sliver of hope enter into his mind. Maclin must have set up some kind of alarm to warn him when Meret was near. If the coatl was coming, then Buffy couldn’t be far behind. Kidnapping her sister was the best way to guarantee a truly brassed off slayer, an edge Spike would value in the coming fight.

Without any preamble, Maclin strode over to Dawn and grabbed her by the throat, shaking her threateningly when she started struggling. “Do not test me little girl. Your life means nothing to me beyond making the vampire behave. You live because he seems to care about your wellbeing. I will crush your throat in a heartbeat if you do anything to make this evening run less smoothly.” Dawn instantly fell limp in his grasp, eyes wide and terrified. Maclin smiled coldly, his plain features taking on a truly malevolent edge, and murmured a single word, “Laxare.” Her shackles fell to the floor, but his hand remained, locked like a vice over her windpipe.

Spike’s eyes spoke of murderous intent, but he somehow managed to control the wild growl that was tearing at his chest. He spoke in a low, even monotone. “If you hurt her, I will see you dead.” There was no joke in his voice, no irony. He was simply stating a fact, a promise.

“And if you move against me, I’ll do the same for her,” Maclin’s voice was equally devoid of emotion. “Just so we understand each other.”

Spike gave the barest of nods.

Maclin whispered the word of power again and the vampire fell free of his chains to land heavily on the hard stone. In spite of the pain in his shoulders, Spike stood and made a show of brushing himself off. He would never show weakness in front of an enemy, not if he had strength left in his body. He had learned that lesson well under Angelus’ tutelage.

“I take it that reasonin’ with you is futile?” Spike drawled.

Maclin responded with a cruel smile. “Absolutely.”

“Well, I do have to ask you this, why are you opening another door into hell when Sunnydale already sports a perfectly functional Hellmouth?”

Maclin’s expression faltered, he had probably not counted on Spike knowing much about the coming spell, but the condescending grin was soon back in place. “It opens to the wrong dimension for my purposes. Let’s just say that I have a friend who would very much like to immigrate. The rewards will be incalculable.”

Spike could well imagine that many members of the demonic populations would pay dearly for an open doorway into the mortal world.

“Why me?” he growled.

Maclin smirked in his face. “Now that is an interesting question. My patron requested that I use you. She was quite helpful, gave me a lot of information on you. The funny thing was, you made things almost too easy. Moping after your dead slayer, drinking constantly, and feeling sorry for yourself. In the end, all I had to do was play a little poker. Oh, and William?” Maclin leaned in and spoke with falsely conspiratorial tones. “You should really do something about your tell. Whenever you have a good hand, your eyes start turning gold.” He grinned in the vampire’s enraged face. “Just like they are right now.”

The two men stood staring at one another for a moment more. The vampire finally broke the silence. “Right then, let’s get this over with. After you,” Spike suited his civilized tone of voice with a particularly offensive hand gesture.

Maclin’s smile only deepened and took on an even more malicious edge. “No, I insist.” He waved expansively with once hand and flexed the fingers of his other, “You first.” A tiny whimper escaped Dawn’s throat at the pressure.

The vampire gritted his teeth and walked towards the center of the room.

C’mon Slayer, think I’m gonna need backup to see this one through.

When he reached the altar, Maclin imperiously ordered him to stand in front of the raised slab of stone. The warlock angled himself so that he could keep an eye on both of his prisoners. This situated the vampire so that he was facing Dawn, but was too far away to easily reach her. The girl was terrified, Maclin’s hand an iron band around her neck, but Spike was proud of her. She had forced down her tears and was facing the situation with silent stoicism and clenched fists. They were both waiting for their moment. Spike could only watch and wait as Maclin started chanting, hoping against hope that their opening would come.

Maclin’s chanting grew louder and tendrils of magic danced around his face and chest, but he dared not flinch away. He accepted the magic’s feather-light touch, knowing that the warlock’s attention would soon leave him. He steeled himself against the coming spell.

What he did not expect was the debilitating weakness that suddenly spread throughout his body. The vampire fell to the floor, muscles twitching uncontrollably as the warlock tore the energy that animated his undead body from his chest and used it to boor a hole between dimensions. Spike watched with detached fascination as the stone floor across the majority of the cavern slowly warped and swirled, moving like a sluggish whirlpool. A green light, sickly and dull, started at the center of the disturbance. Connected as he was to the spell, Spike could see the weave of the magic, powerful and primal, as it spiraled the boundaries of the portal wider. And underneath it all, the sickening resonance that Spike remembered from so many years ago.

As quickly as it had started, the terrible feeling of being drained stopped. Spike struggled onto his hands and knees, still weak but no longer paralyzed. He turned his head just in time to see Meret shoot out of one of the tunnels like a red arrow, Buffy not far behind.

His wild elation died as quickly as it had come when Maclin raised a hand towards the pair and two distinct waves of energy were sent hurtling towards the coatl and the slayer. He tried to call out a warning, but before he could even open his mouth, the first spell reached them and a sea of flame erupted from the stone where the slayer had been moments before. He strained to hear any sound, watched for her to appear, phoenix-like from the flames.

Nothing.

Something snapped deep inside of the vampire. He knew without knowing that no one, not even a slayer, could survive such a conflagration without strong magical protection. By waiting to give Buffy the Sangre de Cristo ruby, he had signed her death warrant.

My fault. Myfaultmyfaultmyfault…

The golden eyes that turned towards Maclin were far from sane. Some corner of his mind, the tiniest rational fraction that was left, watched the warlock stumble and realized that something had gone wrong with the spell. Dawn fell to the side, loose from her captor’s suddenly nerveless fingers.

On some level, Spike recognized his moment and launched himself at Maclin, roaring like a wounded beast. They went down in a tangle of leather and black robes. Still weak from the spell, the vampire’s muscles were driven instead by madness and the strength of his guilt. He soon found himself sitting on the warlock’s chest, hands wrapped around the spell caster’s throat. The chip fired, sending bolts of pain through his head, but even it could not compare to the emotional agony he was feeling. The vampire accepted the pain, embraced it as his due. He had failed Buffy utterly. The slayer, the woman he loved more than unlife itself, was dead.

Because of him.

Again.

If he could not kill Maclin and stop the spell, her family, friends, probably everyone she had ever known or met, would join her as the forces of two Hellmouths sought to tear each other apart.

Eyes blazing gold and teeth bared in a rictus grin, Spike squeezed his hands tighter around Maclin’s throat. The pain from the chip crescendoed in a blinding white agony, but he would not stop. He could feel blood starting to run from his nose, eyes, and ears, but he ignored that too. Stones from the ceiling fell, the ground rippled beneath him, and fissures opened in the cavern floor as the magical resonance grew, but none of it mattered. Maclin gasped and struggled under his hands, clawing at Spike’s arms in an attempt to escape his fate, but even his enemy’s death throes earned no notice. There was nothing beyond his boundless guilt and the feel of the exposed neck in his grasp.

He heard a dull snap, but he did not stop even as Maclin’s struggles faded to nothing. He kept squeezing even when he felt brittle cracking under his fingers. As he slid into unconsciousness, the chip’s fiery rage finally overpowering him, his hands never left the warlock’s throat.

As blackness overtook him, he continued his litany, damning himself over and over again.

My fault.

In League With Serpents - Awakenings

Spike dreamed. At least, he thought they were dreams. Everything was so confusing. He could feel stone, sticky and wet, against his face. The scent of his own blood filled his nostrils, blocking out everything else. His body tingled, but he could not move. There were hands too, insistent hands tugging at him, and voices that grazed against the edges of his mind. Voices that spoke with familiar tones, telling him sweet lies.

“Help me with his hands.”

“Is he gonna be okay?”

“I don’t know. We need to get him back to Giles.”

“Buffy, you know it was the only way, right?”

Silence.

“I know.”

Strong arms lifted him. He hung, broken and numb, in their grasp.

“Dawnie, I’ve got him. Could you get Meret?”

He felt something nudge against his mind, and it was met with searing agony. He fell again into the blackness.

*****


Something was broken; some switch or connection that made his mind work properly. Nothing made sense. Spike drifted somewhere between dark oblivion and the world of sound and scent that so tortured him even as it offered comfort. His mind cast about, searching for some anchor in a world gone mad. When he could hear the voices he clung to them.

“…heal him, but he’s a real mess. The chip…”

“…link is the only thing keeping me…”

“…starts killing again? What about…”

“…thinks I’m dead. Meret can’t reach…”

“…stupid vampire. Why did you have to…”

“…never done before. He deserves better than…”

Time had lost all meaning for the vampire. He floated in the dark, alone with his guilt. It was the only clear thought left to him.

*****


A familiar prickling drew Spike back from the blackness.

Magic.

“I need to be alone for this Willow.”

He could hear a soft click of a door closing.

Then the hands were back, cradling him, opening his mouth and pressing something warm against it.

Liquid trickled into his mouth, hot and rich: blood, but not just blood. Power flowed in it, primal energy blended with white magic. He could feel the elixir coating his throat, sinking into his very bones. After what felt like an eternity, the numbness started to retreat and he could move again.

His face shifted and realigned, fangs descending into the unresisting flesh under his teeth. He thought he heard a gasp, but he was too lost in the moment to pay the sound much heed. Something stung his mind, but the slight pain was nothing in comparison to the rapture held in the blood. He had never felt anything like it. Magic sang in his veins, dancing along his nerves and setting his body aflame. The warmth settled behind his eyes, weaving together pathways burned away by the chip’s punishment.

As his mind healed, realization sank in. Augmented as it was with spells, he could still recognize the taste in his mouth: slayer’s blood. He jerked away, still weak but fully aware of his surroundings at long last. He was in the Summers’ house, in Joyce’s old bedroom to be exact. And sitting next to him, shakily wrapping a bandage around her bleeding wrist…

“You’re dead.” His voice sounded scratchy and hoarse.

Buffy’s smile was wan, but Spike thought it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. “Never stopped me before,” she tried to quip.

Spike was at a loss. “How?” he finally managed to ask.

She raised her bandaged right hand, the Sangre de Cristo ruby flashing from her ring finger. “Meret’s full of nifty gifts these days.”

He reached out a hand and brushed his fingertips against her wrist and turned her hand over to look at the blood-stained gauze. He was surprised when she did not pull away from his touch. “Why…?”

“I,” Buffy flushed and looked down at her hand. She started toying with the loose end of the bandage. “I don’t know,” she said quietly. “I couldn’t stand seeing you like that.”

The once mortal enemies faced one another for a long moment, neither daring to move. What had passed between them was so new, so fragile that the slightest breeze could have destroyed it.

Buffy’s eyes dropped to her wrist again. “Remember when I told you about what it was like… before?” She continued hesitantly, “About how I felt warm and loved? Well, now when I concentrate I can feel Meret… and I’m not saying it’s the same… but it’s enough you know?” She continued staring at her hands, unwilling or unable to lift her eyes. “It’s enough.”

Spike realized that he was going to cry. Of all the nancyish things he could have done in that exact moment, William the Bloody was going to dissolve into tears, blubbering like a child in the slayer’s lap.

He was saved by the bedroom door bursting open. Dawn, with Meret winging close behind, skidded into the room at a dead run. She froze for a moment, eyes wide before her face erupted into a dazzling grin. Before he knew what had happened, the teenager had launched herself at him, wrapping her arms around his neck in a hug that would have strangled a human. Meret’s touch blossomed in his mind with love and relief as the little coatl showed her joy in a wheeling aerial display.

Spike looked at the slayer and found Buffy smiling. For once, the smile touched her eyes as well. Willow and Tara, conspicuously holding hands, appeared in the doorway. Willow looked unsure of the situation, but Tara was wearing the small, warm smile he had come to treasure. All his girls were there together, safe and sound.

Spike returned Dawn’s embrace, hiding his wet eyes in the girls long brown hair.

*****


Spike took up residence in the Summers’ basement. The sisters had insisted that he stay with them until he was fully healed, but the vampire felt distinctly uncomfortable sleeping in Joyce’s bed. In spite of their worry, Willow’s spell and Buffy’s blood did their work well. Spike was nearly back to full health by the next night. This was very important for two reasons, the first of which being that the Scoobies held a meeting at the Magic Box to bring the vampire up to speed on the events of the past few days.

As a first order of business, Giles had told Spike how long he had been unconscious: six days. The revelation had been sufficient to keep the vampire quiet for at least the first part of the debriefing.

Maclin’s portal had closed with his death, leaving behind a debris ridden, but dimensionally sound system of caverns on the edge of town. The earthquake had made national news, but the damage had been minimal and the Hellmouth itself seemed unchanged, for better or for worse, by the entire affair.

The more interesting information, to the vampire at least, came next. It seemed that after Maclin had kidnapped Spike and Dawn, Meret had found the Scoobies and browbeat them into action. She gave Buffy the Sangre de Cristo ruby, plagued Willow and Tara with visions until the two cast the spell that made her resistant to magic, and lead the slayer to the site of Maclin’s ritual. When Maclin tried to anchor the new gateway through the coatl, the witches’ enchantment had deflected the magical energies, stunning the warlock and interrupting his spell. Spike remembered the moment well. Meret had preened during the litany.

Amid the aftershocks of Maclin’s spell and subsequent death, the remaining faceless demons had put in an appearance. Buffy had killed those she could and sent the others retreating into the tunnels. They had not been heard from since.

When asked about Maclin’s elusive “patron,” Giles roundly rejected the need to research further. Spike knew that the watcher was hiding something, but the man would not meet the vampire’s eyes, and the subject was soon dropped.

The room quieted abruptly when the subject of Spike’s chip was raised. Willow explained in a hesitant tone of voice that the chip had nearly burned itself out, along with much of Spike’s mind, when the vampire had attacked the warlock. Consequently, it would still give Spike a twinge if he tried to hurt a human, and the pain would still be intense if he went in for a kill, but the chip’s power had been strongly diminished.

Spike had sat in silence for a moment under the watchful and worried eyes of the others, a wicked grin slowly spreading across his features. At length he rose and walked around the table, ignoring the wary glances being tossed his way. Xander’s eyes had widened comically in fear when the vampire stopped behind his seat… and delivered a sound swat to the back of the boy’s head. Spike winced a little at the sting from the chip, but it was nothing in comparison to the device’s previous power. He had laughed uproariously and spent the rest of the evening playing little pranks on the others: pinching Anya on the rear, treading on the watcher’s foot, and the like. Despite a rising irritation at his antics, the others seemed intensely relieved that his little acts of rebellion never grew more violent.

Not that he would have tried to really hurt them, but there was no way to explain that to the Scoobies in terms they would have understood. The truth was that Spike could finally see a future for himself among them. The slayer’s acceptance, Dawn and Tara’s friendship, his tentative alliance with the watcher and ex-demon: all of these things had given him hope. His life as a demon had died that night in the Initiative’s labs two years before, and he had desperately searched for a new path, one that he would not have to walk alone. When the Scoobies had decided to give him a chance instead of simply staking him in his sleep, they had given Spike what he had been searching for over the past century and a half: a sense of belonging.

The demon in him accepted the Scoobies as its new clan, one it felt worthy of him, and the man saw them as his family, a group to be protected and cherished. They would never be rid of him now.

The other reason why it was fortunate that Spike was well on the way to health had to do with the date. It was Christmas Eve. While vampires typically had little use for the holiday, Spike had hidden a few things away in his crypt that he meant to dole out in the morning. Leaving Meret asleep on his basement cot, the vampire set out for his crypt. He stopped at an all-night drug store near the graveyard to pick up tissue and ribbon, simple white and red like he had used as a child. On the way to the front of the store he stopped for a moment in thought. Finally making his decision, Spike slipped an empty red envelope into his coat pocket and sauntered up to the cash register.

After taking a creative turn through his minor treasure trove, Spike set to work wrapping and writing. When he finally retired to the basement at 1630 Revello Drive, three white packages and an elegantly addressed red envelope had joined the brightly wrapped gifts under the tree.  

In League With Serpents - Good Will Towards Men

Christmas morning dawned clear and bright. Spike knew this because Dawn chased him out of the basement before the sun rose. With only a few hours sleep under his belt, the vampire was hardly feeling up to spreading Christmas cheer. After watching Buffy and Dawn riffle through their stockings, he managed to escape back into the basement while the sisters ate breakfast and waited on their guests.

When the others arrived some time later, Spike was feeling much more charitable. He even helped Xander hide the newly repaired coffee table, the victim of Spike and Dawn’s kidnappers, away from Buffy’s vigilant eye.

When it came time to open presents, Spike would have liked to hang to the back, but Dawn had other plans. The vampire was dragged into the living room and placed on the couch between Buffy and Tara with a shove and a good-natured glare. Meret escaped the girl’s attentions by retreating to the top of the tree and wrapping herself in a chokehold around the angel there, so Dawn returned to her self-styled position of Christmas director. Once all the presents were distributed, Spike was surprised to have collected a small stack in front of him.

As the youngest, Dawn opened a present first. It was a compendium of common demons from Giles. She giggled with glee and started flipping through the fully illustrated volume. In the weeks following her inclusion, Dawn’s enthusiasm for research had only grown. The watcher smiled paternally at the girl’s reaction.

Two to one odds the Bit ends up bein’ a watcher.

The first round of gifts revealed a large amount of clothing: the highlight being the incredibly inappropriate outfit Anya had purchased for Xander. Spike found the lengths of vinyl and chains nearly as amusing as the interesting shade of red the boy turned upon opening the gift. After a fair amount of teasing on Dawn’s part, it was decided that in spite of their appearances, Spike and Anya were assuredly the oldest people in the room, so Giles had to go before them. The watcher opened a present from Willow to reveal a slim book with the title A Guide To American Slang. The Brit snorted in amusement and started flipping through the pages.

With that, the vampire found all eyes on him. The situation was decidedly uncomfortable, but he managed to keep up a mien of cool composure as he selected a present to unwrap. The one he finally chose was from Dawn and sported black wrapping paper with tiny skulls and crossbones.

Someone’s been hittin’ the goth specialty shops.

Without further preamble, the vampire tore through the wrappings to reveal a small, leather journal. He cocked an eyebrow at the teenager before opening the book. Inside he found page upon page of information on coatls written in loopy, girlish script. Anything Dawn had been able to scrounge up on the feathered serpents had made its way into the pages, everything cited, organized, and catalogued in an index with scanned images glued on some of the pages. He ran his fingers over the pages, knowing how much time and energy had gone into the book. The final entry had a photograph of Meret lounging on Dave’s shoulders, but it was Dawn’s writing that had Spike’s full attention.

Meret – “Beloved,” Egyptian Goddess of Song and Rejoicing

He never could keep his secrets from her. By the time he looked up from the gift, the others had started opening the next round of presents. He met Dawn’s eyes and the girl grinned impishly at him. He was thankful that the group’s attention had turned to Willow’s set of crystals. He was having a little trouble dealing with the growing lump in his throat.

Buffy selected his present to open next. Slipped under the ribbon was a note, written on heavy paper. She did not read the words aloud, but Spike replayed them in his mind.

I can’t top the present you were supposed to open today. However, I do believe that I can add a little cultural depth to your weapons’ chest. Use these in good health and a long life.

Inside the box were two daggers: a Turkish kukri and an Indonesian kris, newly sharpened, polished, and oiled. He had retrieved the curved blades the night before from the piles of loot he had stored beneath his crypt. Their craftsmanship was beautiful, but each was still a fighting weapon. Buffy smiled at them, appreciative as only a true warrior could be of the folded steel and keen edges. She thanked him with a twinkle in her eye, and Spike caught her playing with the ring on her right hand.

Tara also chose to open his present next. Her note was much shorter:

For reference the next time I try to get myself dusted.

Beneath the white tissue was a book on medicinal herbs and healing potions. He had caught the shy witch eyeing the volume longingly when it came in one of Anya’s shipments. He had managed to hide it until he could talk the former demon down to a decent price. Tara’s reaction was all he could have hoped for. She felt the binding and delicate velum covering the colored plates disbelievingly before stuttering her effusive thanks.

He opened his gift from Tara next. Inside he found a stack of simple cotton t-shirts, all black, and a strange contraption consisting of a few large brass loops, a couple matching chains and various bits of wood and rope tying the pieces together. He had stared at it in confusion until the witch had explained that it was for Meret, a perch that he could hang up for the little coatl to enjoy. He mumbled another thanks, touched by her thoughtfulness. No one knew better than Tara how quickly he ran through his signature shirts and Meret certainly seemed to approve of her new toy.

Giles had been given Spike’s red envelope, addressed to all of the Scoobies, to open. He did so, even if his facial expression seemed to indicate that he expected someone’s ear to fall out of the folded paper. As he read the letter, Giles’ eyebrows crept higher and higher.

“C’mon G-man, what does it say. Is it a death threat?” Xander asked. “It’s a death threat isn’t it?”

The watcher sighed in exasperation. “No. It is a promise for each of us to receive a coatl egg when Meret starts laying them.” Buffy’s soft intake of breath was as satisfying as Dawn’s exuberant squeal. “It won’t be for another year,” the watcher continued, “but she should clutch two or three at a time every other year after that.” Spike received enthusiastic appreciation from all sides. Even Xander managed a sincere thanks. The vampire, for his part, tried his best to look unaffected by the entire scene, but even he knew that his mask of casual indifference wasn’t convincing anyone.

Soon enough the furor died down and they moved on to their next gifts. More clothes and a stack of cheesy Japanese horror films for Xander later, and it was the vampire’s turn again. He only had one present left, a card from Buffy. More nervous than he would ever admit, the vampire picked up the brightly colored envelope and opened it. The card itself sported a rather chintzy picture of a Christmas tree, but it was the note inside that captured his full attention.

Spike,

It turns out that shopping for a vampire is really hard, especially one whose favorite past times pretty much include drinking, smoking, and bar fighting. I could only think of one thing that you might want, and it’s not the kind of thing I could get at the mall. You once told me that all we have ever done is dance. Seeing as how your chip isn’t really working anymore, I’ve talked Giles into setting aside every Wednesday night for one-on-one ‘dancing lessons.’

I won’t hold back if you don’t.

Buffy


Spike read through the letter twice, not quite believing what he was seeing.

Slayer’s giving me fights for Christmas?

Finally deciding that his eyes weren’t deceiving him, Spike turned to the slayer with a wide grin and a feral gleam in his eyes. He found Buffy chewing the corner of her lip in worry.

“So what do you think?” she asked.

His smile widened even further. “Can’t think of a better way to spend my Wednesday nights.”

Obviously relieved, the slayer’s eyes took on a wicked glint. “You really think you can take me?”

He curled his tongue behind his teeth and narrowed his eyes, raking the slayer’s body with an appraising gaze. “Oh, I think I’m up to giving you a go.”

Buffy opened her mouth to retort, but whatever she was about to say was lost in a high-pitched shriek from Dawn.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” When everyone else in the room leaned in to see what had the girl so excited, Dawn presented a slip of paper and read it aloud.

"Here are two things every girl in Sunnyhell should have. Now you just need your big sis to teach you how to use them properly."

She dropped the note and pulled the contents of the box out to show the rest of the room. From one hand dangled a pair of black Doc Martins, uncannily similar to Spike’s own boots. In her other hand were two slender stakes the vampire had carved down from twisted roots that had invaded his ceiling.

While Dawn gleefully shed her brown loafers and started trying on her new shoes, every other eye in the room turned to the vampire. Some were amused, some disapproving. He just flashed a lopsided grin and shrugged.

“You’re just trying to get me pissed,” Buffy hissed.

Spike met the slayer’s glare with a leer. “If I was tryin’ to do that, I’d’ve given you some bourbon.”

“You are so going to get it this Wednesday.”

He leaned in close and breathed across her ear, “I’m countin’ on it, love.”

*****


Dinner was rather tame, considering that the last major holiday meal Spike had spent with the Scoobies had seen him tied to a chair with half-healed arrow wounds all through his body. When the others, Meret included, settled in to watch “A Christmas Carol,” Dawn used her best puppy dog eyes on him, a ploy that ended with Spike alone in the kitchen and unsure as to exactly what had just happened.

Spike was attempting to stare down the stack of dirty dishes when he realized he had company. Giles was standing in the doorway, polishing his glasses and watching the vampire with a distant expression on his face.

“Got somethin’ to say or are you just here for the show?”

The watcher replaced his glasses and pulled a folded piece of paper from his pocket. “I thought you might like a memento of your latest apocalypse.” Giles’ face was unreadable. “I came across it in the Oaxatlual Codex two days ago.”

His interest piqued, Spike took the piece of paper and unfolded it. He nearly choked when he realized what he was reading. His eyes were wild and questioning when he looked back up at the other Brit. Giles retrieved the paper and started reading the words of the prophesy aloud.

“Mictlantecuhtli and Quetzalcoatl
God of Death, God of Life
Dance the ages, mirrored partners
The feathered serpents tied with warriors’ blood
To keep the balance
To turn the sky above the age.

Mictlantecuhtli and Quetzalcoatl
God of Death, God of Life
Anoint their avatars, every cycle
The blooded warriors tied with serpents’ feathers
To keep the balance
To fight the ending of the age.

For failure brought beasts
And failure brought wind
And failure brought fire
And failure brought water
And failure will bring earthquakes
If the children of Death and Life fail again
In the eyes of Coatlicue
And bring about the final death

Mictlantecuhtli and Quetzalcoatl
God of Death, God of Life
Bind the warriors, start the cycle
To go against nature, to bring about truce
To keep the balance
To prevent the death of an age.

For life brings life
And life brings death
And death brings death
And death brings life
And the living dead walk with the dead living
And the ties that bind them must endure
In the eyes of Coatlicue
Or bring about the final death.”


Spike snatched the paper back and started reading it again.

Giles cleared his throat to get the vampire’s attention. “The Aztec calendar predicted that the end of the world would come some time around the turn of the new millennium. They recorded many such catastrophes, by fire, wind, water, and beasts, each caused by the failure of the ‘avatars’ chosen by two of the Aztec gods. This was to be the last apocalypse if their avatars failed again.” Giles’ eyes pinned the vampire. “They did not.”

The watcher paused for a moment to let that statement sink in. “You said that Maclin painted two serpents on the floor of the cavern, one red and living, the other green and dead?” When Spike nodded mutely, he continued, “Those were representations of Quetzalcoatl and Mictlantechutli, the Aztec gods of life and death. The test was to bind together a slayer and a vampire to see if the two of you could work together and prove that a world where you both existed was worth saving. Maclin was only a tool, both in giving you Meret’s egg and in casting the spell. If you had not managed to stop him, I believe that the goddess Coatlicue was waiting on the other side of the gate to make sure that the energy of the two Hellmouths pulled apart this entire dimension.”

The watcher looked torn. “This goes against everything the Council has taught me, but I would like you to know that I,” he swallowed before he could continue. “I believe that your help would be most beneficial in coming years, especially considering the link you already have with the coatl and your unique perspective on demons…” the watcher trailed off as Spike’s scarred eyebrow inched higher and higher.

“There now Rupes, was that so very painful? You look like you’re about to pass a stone,” Spike grinned at the watcher’s open-mouthed stare. “Of course I’m gonna stick around, things are too interestin’ to warrant me goin’ anywhere else. Now unless I’m too much mistaken, the future Mrs. Whelp is callin’ our names.” Spike pushed past the amazed watcher and wandered into the living room.

When Giles finally caught up, Anya smiled beatifically and launched into what was obviously her idea of a prepared speech. “I read recently that in many capitalist societies, people receive what is known as a ‘bonus’ over the holiday season when business has been particularly good. Well, since everyone here has worked at the Magic Box at some time or another, and because business has been very good this year, I decided to bring the checks tonight. Giles, since you are technically the owner, I’m afraid that tradition mandates that you don’t get one. So, in alphabetic order, first on the list is Alexander Harris!” Anya waved the check before passing it to her fiancé. “That had better go to the tux down payment. Okay, Tara Maclay!” Again, she presented the check with a flourish. “William Pratt!”

Spike jerked his eyes to the watcher standing at his side, horrified. Giles, for his part, had turned a waxy shade of gray and was watching Buffy.

Xander, oblivious to the situation unfolding in front of him, gave a hooting laugh. “Your last name is Pratt? Isn’t that British for stupid or something?” When no one else joined in his laughter, he looked around in confusion. “Guys?”

Everyone else’s eyes were trained on the trio of people in the front of the room. The watcher was stammering, trying to come up with some feasible excuse. The vampire was attempting to pretend that nothing had happened and had become fascinated with a piece of lint on his sleeve, and the slayer was simply watching them both, irritation overshadowing what might have been amusement in her eyes.

“You’re William Pratt?” she finally asked, ignoring Giles’ stumbling placations.

“Bugger.”

The End

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