Disenchantment

Disenchantment

By Herself NYC

Rating: NC17
Summary: Magic wasn't through with her yet.
Notes: Spoilers for all of BtVS Disclaimer: All hail Joss from whom all these characters flow Completed: June, 2003
Thanks: Mustang Sally, without whom this would be even weirder. Also Kalima, Anna S, NWHepcat, Gwynegga, Orthoepy, Lovesbitca, Wisteria and Peasant for reading and commenting along the way.

***

No you don't. But thanks for saying it.

After those first few post-apocalyptic weeks, when her world was brand new because she was far, far from being the only slayer in it, Buffy seldom thought about what he'd said in their final moment. Life went on too fast to dwell on what was over with, who was lost. Her responsibilities were only different, not less. She had to make a new home for her sister, help Giles and Willow reclaim what was left of the Watchers' Council infrastructure, rebuild it— right— from the ground up. New slayers looked up to her for guidance, for courage. It didn't occur to her or any of them that she'd walk away from the work, take some down-time.

She wouldn't have wanted to, if anybody suggested it. Work kept you centered. Looking backward didn't.

But she thought of it again, that phrase— No you don't— two years later, in London, when Brian broke up with her. Maybe it was because he was English, and sometimes had these inflections when he spoke that echoed with his in her head. He was leaving her because she was, according to him, "far away even when you're in my arms." She wasn't really sure what he wanted from her; she'd spent lots of time with him, they'd had some good laughs and a couple good cries, lots of great sex— she'd never refused him, even though there was a time or two when he'd refused her. She'd agreeably worn some pretty ridiculous hats to accompany him to country weddings and once even to Ascot. She'd had the idea that things were going pretty well.

But they were in the middle of a place-the-key-on-the-table-and-go-off-forever scene. Feeling like there was a dagger at her throat, she'd said "If this's how it has to be . . . I wish you . . . I really wish you the best, Bri." He'd cocked his head, as if listening to some message beaming in from the stratosphere, showed her a suave little smile, and said, "No you don't," as he walked out.

No you don't.

She decided to leave London after that, go back to where there weren't so many Englishmen expecting things of her. Xander and Faith headed up a posse of slayers in Cleveland; she joined them. All those girls and young women wanting to know her and understand her, basking in her attention, jockeying for her confidence. It was flattering, enlivening. But she could never seem to get friendships going— not like she had in high school. Willow, Dawn, Xander, Giles were her confidants, her friends. Faith got to be too, at least a bit. But people she hadn't known in those times when her mother was alive somehow didn't seem as real to her, as knowable or worth knowing. She kept up a daily email correspondence with the ones in London. There was nobody much to date in Ohio, so she spun a line in her head about the zen of celibacy, while she watched Faith and Xander's gradual courtship dance.

Afterwards she never quite knew what it was that possessed either her or him, to make them fuck in the men's room while Faith, the breathless incredulous bride, sat unsuspectingly with the guests at the rehearsal dinner. Nothing supernatural, that was for sure. Probably nothing stronger or spookier than the thing about Faith always poaching her stuff. Which was spooky enough, the way it clawed at her heart, even though she'd never wanted Xander to be hers, even though she knew Faith was the best thing to ever happen to him.

Probably it had to do, she figured, with the feeling lodged inside her, that she had so little these days. What got taken away never was replaced.

She attended the wedding, barely, arriving late in her Ascot hat. Meeting Xander again in the receiving line, she kissed his cheek, and took the opportunity to whisper, "It was my bad. Don't think about it anymore. I really want you and Faith to be happy."

Xander looked just past her, her hand in both of his and a photo-worthy smile on his face. "No you don't," he said, through grinning teeth, letting her hand go, grabbing the next one in the line.

The handful of years that followed, of traveling around the world, making contact with new young slayers, seemed to pass so quickly. She visited every continent, stayed in homes grand and modest as she introduced slayers and their families to the power and calling that changed everything. There were men along the way, but the question, voiced or unvoiced: Do you think he's the one? was always answered the same way: No you don't. She was always on the move, anyhow, always leaving them before they could leave her. The mission sat front and center in her field of vision. Everything else she had to crane her neck to see into. And she didn't much like that crick.

He turned up once in a while in her dreams, but then, she reasoned, so did everybody. It wasn't like she dreamed about him nightly, and the dreams didn't feel all Prophetic. Not slayer dreams. Just the usual kind of sexy dreams where you wanted the person more than life itself, and there was a lot of running around, complicated last minute mishaps, and maybe at last some kissing, groping, undressing, but you always woke up before the actual event. Woke up and lay in bed, touching yourself and remembering that last time, which was also the first time. First time, only time, that she really gave herself to him, made love to him with her body, souls making contact in the silence. Rendered him speechless, his eyes shining with passion, with gratitude. His hands in her hair as she kissed him over and over and over. Memorizing the taste and shape of his gentle adoring mouth, the taste and shape of surrendering entirely to someone you never thought you could love, ! having him thoroughly while knowing this delirious beginning was also certainly the end.

Surrendering your heart to exaltation and loss.

Just that kind of dream. She'd never try to claim she had no regrets, even as she could never quite figure how she could've done things differently, those first couple of years after the resurrection.

Anyway, he was always doomed. For a vampire, redemption had to equal death.

Then she was thirty.

"How did this happen?" she said to Willow, who'd ordered the little cake with the sparklers and the single candle on it in advance. The waiters brought it out to surprise her after the Peking duck and sang happy birthday in their heavily-accented English, beaming as if they really cared, which was weird and fun. Weird and fun to have your thirtieth birthday dinner with your best friend in a posh Shanghai hotel.

They held hands across the white tablecloth. Best girlfriends. Giggling, buzzing on the wine. Glad to be alive.

"I'm so glad you're looking so good, Buffy," Willow said that night. "You're doing all right. I'm so proud of you."

"Like I wouldn't be?"

"No, but I know it's been hard. You've had some years that weren't too great."

"Whose twenties aren't hard?" she'd said, shrugging her shoulders lightly, grinning. "I'm glad mine are over."

"I'm glad you survived them."

Hell, she'd never imagined she'd see thirty. And certainly not like this, not in such splendor. With her best pal flying halfway round the world to be with her.

"Yup. No stopping me now."

"And, y'know . . . ." Willow was caressing her hand suddenly, fingertips tickling her palm, but Buffy knew it didn't mean anything untoward, it was just pure affection. ". . . there'll be someone. Soon. I really feel that. You'll get what you want."

"What do I want?" she'd laughed.

"Someone to love with. To have a family with."

"Oh, there's plenty of time."

Sometimes she still thought about Angel. She saw him a few times when she passed through LA, and the spark was always there. But so was the curse, and that wasn't budging— even with all this strange new power he had at his command, Angel couldn't abnegate that. Nor could they ignore, despite that attraction that still fizzled between them like a cut power line whipping the ground, that they had less and less to say to each other. Frames of reference shrank with each meeting. She couldn't imagine her life juxtaposed with his anymore.

***
For her thirty-third birthday, she sent out cards. It had to be that way, sending instead of receiving, because none of the others knew exactly where she was.

She could have had GPS and a satellite phone and a 'net connection on the boat, but all of that felt like cheating. She'd worked hard to learn to handle the boat on her own, to take on this challenge. Solo sailing ought to be really solo.

So she wrote, pen to paper, when she finally made port on a tiny white-rimmed island, little more than an idle volcanic funnel rising out of dense jungle, part of an obscure archipelago dotting the blue sea far far from everything. The sheets started to curl from the humidity as she scribbled on them, her hand sticking to the pen, to the table, to the paper. She affixed colorful foreign stamps on envelopes in the tiny fly-blown post office that was a shop too, and a filling station and a bar. The woman at the counter took in Buffy's laundry, while telling her the mail plane came and went only once a week, and had to repeat it three times before Buffy understood her accent.

She got drunk that night, because that wasn't something she could do on the boat, alone. Got drunk, went dancing in the only sorts of places there were here for that. Despite its stunning, fragrant beauty, the island was too remote to support any kind of tourist trade. There were dives that offered hospitality to the sailors off passing freighters, and the few other travelers who came on such boats. That was pretty much it.

Buffy found herself in a stuffy bar lit only by neon beer signs, in the part of the settlement removed from views of the harbor, a place reeking of booze and fried fish, with a little undercurrent of raw sewage when the breeze shifted. A place where what sailors came could meet what whores there were; a place that took a little bravery to swagger into, white-faced and blonde and on her own.

Bravery was never her problem.

She danced with various large hardbodied men, let them buy her drinks and steer her round with their big hands, bump against her as they moved in the juddering lines of sound, breathing in their alcohol-tinged sweat. Eyes closed a good deal of the time, because sight told her so little. Let the other senses take over: smell of beer and bodies, moist heat enveloping her skin, at once sensual and a little repulsive if you stopped to think about it. Better to keep moving, inhabit the beat, let the sweat flow. Thinking much less of the men she partnered than of the image in her mind's eye of the clear sea and clean sky she'd confront again tomorrow. Limitless space to be solitary in, nothing more at stake in her aloneness than her own life.

When one of her admirers pulled a knife to ward off another, she disarmed him with a high round kick, and was about to make good on her advantage with her fists when she found herself encircled from behind by two wiry arms, lifted and carried out the back. She struggled, then decided to accept this rescue; if this new man had nefarious plans of his own, she could take care of him easily enough outside. He was strong, and he chuckled in her ear as he bore her swiftly through the alley and out to the dirt road.

His voice was low and good-natured, with an edge of laughter to it. And the accent. Another Englishman. "Girlie, what the hell did you think you were attemptin' in there?"

"What are you attempting? Put me down!" She laughed, shaking him off, and turned. It was too dark to see who she'd landed, or who'd landed her, more like, except to get a general sense that he was smaller and finer than the men she'd danced with inside. His voice— accent, pitch, timber, touched that little spot at the back of her neck that made her shiver.

"Was watching you," he confided. "Wanted a go myself, but there was no getting near you. Brave little girl you are, comin' in to a place like that on your own."

"I can take care of myself."

"So I saw."

He was standing very close to her— too close, she'd have said, except that she liked it. She was high from drink and dancing; not even the incipient brawl could take away the agreeable floaty feeling. So when he put a hand on her hip, saying "Music's nearly as loud out here, an' no competition," she moved without protest into his rhythm.

His dance wasn't like those others, it was smaller and more intimate, like his body, which fit neatly against hers, his movements gentle and insinuating. He made his seduction without demand or assumption, so that when the music stopped she threaded her fingers with his to keep him with her.

He pressed her delicately against a tree, arms up on either side of her head, so she felt like those girls back at Sunnydale High who were always being put back against a locker to be kissed, big tongue-hockey sessions interrupted by the bell.

This wasn't tongue hockey. She let her eyelids shut and lips fall open. Threaded her arms around a slender waist, hooked her hands into the waistband of his jeans. He wore no shirt, just a thin sheen of sweat. She still hadn't seen him in any detail, getting just the outline of lean muscle, and his aroma, a musk that was deeply male, yet far from foul. Entrancing and earthy.

She was drunk and felt good, and in his easy lithe movements, he was desirable in something a little like the way she'd desired someone else who was dead. That's what made her ready to spread her legs for him right there against the curving tree trunk, without preliminaries or discussion. His mouth on her neck made her feel loose, giddy, young. In the dark he could be whatever she wanted.

There was nothing wrong once in a while with pinning his face onto another man's form.

She brought her stranger back to the boat, led him below into the darkness of the cabin just as the first yellow rays broke the horizon. Left the lamp unlit as she melted against him. He understood what she wanted: a speechless continuation of the dance, the snaky pulsebeat present in their blood even in the silence, just the water lapping the hull and their breathing that quickened into sighs and groans.

When he entered her, she gasped in shock as a deep sensory déjà vu quaked through her. She knew this— the weight of him, the gentle curvature of his cock, the way he curled one hand around her head and his mouth dipped down to taste hers.

He withdrew as soon as she flinched, and held himself still, hovering over her on hands and knees, the tip of his cock just kissing the curls of her mons. She felt that he would wait, forever if need be, for her to signal that she was ready. Something in her chest cracked, flooding her heart in white light, endlessly pouring through her. Amazement and joy.

She touched his face, traced the shape of mouth, nose, cheekbone, the skin damp with exertion but weathered beneath, lines radiating from the corners of the eyes. Ran her fingers into his thick hair, curly, tangled, smelling of sun and sweat. He held still while she made this examination, his body a tensed bow hovering over hers, and she felt him smile, as if her interest pleased him. She kissed each place she touched, tasting his salt with her tongue.

She whispered. "Do it now."

He went into her then, and after the first few strokes, lifted her thighs so she was laid all the way open against him. He kissed her slowly in time with his languid thrusts. They stirred her deep in the part of herself that didn't think in words. She shimmered into orgasm with a low sigh that he breathed into himself from her mouth.

Afterwards he lay on top of her, his head on her breast, and it felt just like she remembered on that one silent, perfect night she'd had with him. She stroked his hair, his back. The skin was scratched and pitted, her fingers encountering unaccustomed little scars everywhere, but she knew the contours of this back, knew how to caress it.

In a little while he sat up, yawned, stretched. This was the usual exit strategy— if the man didn't make it, she always did. Scratch his head or his beard-stubbled jaw in a musing, absent way, make a remark or two, then get up, dress, leave. Which was always fine with her. This was what her sexual life had become, since she'd lost faith in the idea that there would be a love life again at all.

This time, though, she had to brace herself. When this one walked out, it was going to burn. Because it wasn't only this man without a name who'd go. He'd take her sweet unlooked-for illusion away too.

This is my little indulgence,she reminded herself, and I can decide how much I'm going to put into it. I'm not going to take this far enough to hurt. .

She was almost glad now that he was about to go. She'd make one last trip to the market, then set sail. This man, this island, would recede and blend in her memory with all the other little places she'd put in for a night or two.

But he didn't get up, just reached from where they lay to push aside the curtains. "Want to see what little wriggling fish I've landed."

The light that revealed her to him, illuminated him too.

An angular face, lined by weather and age, toasted brown by the equatorial sun, unruly hair the color of dark honey, bleached nearly white at the tips. The eyes were clear blue and white, startling against the darkened skin, the teeth bright when he smiled at her. A friendly open smile, full of pleasure at the sight of her charms in the streak of morning gleam.

She knew those eyes, that smile, the shape of his skull, his adam's apple, the tilt of his head.

His brow was unscarred. He was quieter than she ever remembered him. He looked at her without any hint of recognition.

Yet she didn't feel frightened. A big crazy sunrise opened in her, so she wondered if there wasn't light pouring out of her skin to outmatch that pouring into the cabin. The strangest thing was how natural this felt, as if it was happening in a dream where logic could be anything the mind made of it.

She met his frank gaze with a beaming smile of her own, and put a hand out to cup his doubled knee. His skin was bumpy and scarred there; he covered her hand with his own. Familiar fingers that she'd clasped in flames; callused now, but otherwise the same size and shape she remembered.

He showed no sign of impatience to be gone.

"It's nice to see you," she said, foolishness bubbling up and out of her. She didn't care. He was so much like.

He seemed to catch it; his smile turned to a grin. "You too. Pretty thing."

"I think you're pretty too." She always had, long before she'd ever admitted it to herself. She still did, even though he'd turned into something carved from mahogany.

He touched his chest, dropped his gaze for a second. "No you don't. But thanks for saying it."

Oh God— he'd known her all along, he was only teasing her, fooling her! She started upright, ready to fling herself forward into his arms, to burst out laughing and crying. But he leaned back against the wall and yawned, amiable and sleepy and completely unaware that he'd said anything significant.

She caught herself in time, closing her eyes for a second to ward off the dizzy lurch of error. Laid down again, gingerly, afraid to alarm him.

"What do you do here?" she asked.

"A little fishing. A little smuggling." He quirked his lips as if the latter was a joke, but she was sure it wasn't. Smuggling would be like him.

He looked older, even without the tanning of his hide. Over ten years were gone since last they touched, and he'd absorbed them just as she had. Awe whirled through her like colored oil into a beaker of water. Here he was. Living and breathing.

Wasn't he? It was uncanny. She couldn't take her eyes off him. He was easy in his skin, his muscles, his nudity. He gave off an air of liking her.

"Are you in a hurry to go?"

"No one's in a hurry 'round these parts."

"That's good. I can make us some coffee."

"Not if it means you've got to move from there." He took her in appreciatively; she was on her back, legs akimbo, hair tangled across the pillow. He leaned in close and probed her lips with his own. Breath, pulse, warmth: his now. His fingers strayed down her length; dabbled lightly in her moisture, then pushed inside. She tightened around them.

"Ah, there again," he murmured. "Never had a woman could do that the way you do."

"It's a gift."

"It surely is. Cunny like that can bring a girl anything she ever wanted."

That was his word, cunny. This was him, surely.

He began a light, insistent, knowing caress. She cried out, jackknifed against his hand, her own climbing his shoulders, nails digging into skin. He smiled down on her, a cheerful god bestowing beneficences.

"You don't do things by halves, do you, girlie?"

She panted, coming down. He watched her, his smile kind, and smug too. He knew he was good. Licked her from his fingers with ostentatious relish.

When she caught her breath again, she said, "My name's Buffy."

He tilted his head. Clear-eyed look, complete attention, but nothing in his eyes except a mild sort of curiosity. "Whose idea was that handle?"

"My mom's."

"An' what name did she rejoice in?"

"That one."

He raised an eyebrow.

"Joyce."

"Ah." He laughed. "An' is she a beauty like you?"

"More than me. But she's dead. It's okay. It was a long time ago." She almost said, You remember. She paused. "How long have you lived here?"

"Ah, who keeps count, place like this? One day melts into the next." He glanced down at his body. She noticed he was dark all over, as if he was often naked out of doors. "Long enough to lose my Londoner's complexion."

"And before you came here?"

Nothing fazed him. He stretched out again, rolled her onto her side, and spooned her, his erection gliding up the cleft of her buttocks. "Been everywhere, Buffy. Everywhere you can think of."

"Me too," she said.

"That right?" He lifted her upper leg, and she thought of the male ballet dancer lifting the ballerina, in that precise controlled way, power disguised as delicacy. Entered her slowly, mouthing the crook of her shoulder, making heat-lightning crackle the whole surface of her skin, and deep inside. He knew how to hold her, touch her, move her. No one in a decade had been so certain of her as he was. This nameless stranger, who shared so much with him.

She started to laugh, because this was so extraordinary, so unexpected and beautiful.

"What's got you so happy?" he whispered, breath stirring her hair around her ear, his cock, heavy and slick, stretching her open, and his fingers teasing her in front, little charges of pleasure that made her buck and shiver.

"It's my birthday."

"That so? Well, happy birthday, Buffy."

***

She didn't ask him his name. Felt somehow that would startle him, the way a stray gunshot startles a buck, makes him bolt off deep into the wood, out of sight, beyond recall.

Anyway, he was right there, never out of earshot, only out of sight when he went to the head. She didn't need to call him anything; when she spoke, he answered. He talked more with his body than his voice, anyway. That threw off a little her sense of his familiarity. But the way he'd step up behind her and cradle her breasts in his hands, gnaw at her neck, was utterly familiar. The way he combed her hair luxuriantly through his fingers while she sucked him off. He offered no actual words of encouragement while his prick was in her mouth, just a low pleasured humming, punctuated by groans. He would've narrated it all, every lick and suck and spasm, made what was already hot so much hotter that she'd have to sneak one hand away to strum her own clit while she gorged on him. He'd have shouted when he came.

But this man kissed her immediately after, just as he once had. It was like him to enjoy the taste of himself on her tongue.

They didn't leave the boat all day. She made coffee and a breakfast of tinned salmon and fresh fruit which he cut up for her, wielding the big knife with skilled insouciance. They moved around each other in the tiny galley with the same intuitive grace as they had dancing the night before. Both naked. In the long light of early evening they went up on deck, and he looked around at all her neat arrangements. Patted the mast and the wheel and gunwales with the flat of his hand as if reassuring a horse. She'd told him she was sailing around the world, trotted out a few of her more colorful adventures, stories she'd already begun to hone for delivery to Giles and Willow when she got back around. He nodded, clearly impressed.

"Been sailing all your life, then?"

"No. I learned a couple of years ago. As soon as I tried it though, I fell in love."

"An' why on your own?"

"On your own can be good, if it's the right kind of on your own."

He nodded again. "I know it."

This terse quality, still unexpected. She'd never known him, though, in such a sultry climate. "What about you? I guess you do this a lot."

He cocked his head, questioning.

"Seduce the lady tourists," she prompted.

"You're not a tourist," he said at once. "Tourists don't come all the way out here. Keep to myself, mostly." It was the first time he'd interrupted her, first time he'd tensed.

She opened her mouth to ask another question, but he pulled her to him, dropping to his knees, tumbling her to the deck. Lifted her up by the buttocks as if she was another of the large melons he'd cut up earlier. Burying his face between her thighs, letting her legs and body fall where they might. It was night already, the brief dusk of the tropics already over; she rested on her shoulders, arms braced against the slick deck, legs draped over his back, and watched the stars first appear, then blur and waver and disappear entirely, as her pleasure mounted. The speech patterns, his appearance, other things too were altered, but his skill at this was just as she remembered. She could've sworn he knew her cunt just as he had before. He required no guidance to find the sweet spot and stay on it until she screamed.

That other night too, with him on the cot in the basement, when they'd made real love for the first time, he'd spent a long while crouched between her legs, and she'd felt that giving her that overwhelming pleasure was almost secondary for him— there was something nearly holy in his address to what he called, with lewd respect, her magnificent quim. They hadn't said a word to each other all through it, but afterwards she was nearly certain she remembered hearing him say that when she opened to his eyes and mouth he truly felt forgiven.

Now, in the evening breeze, she jerked and cried out, over and over, as he worked her with his mouth. The upside-down position made her giddy; she shook, hanging in his grip, trusting him to hold her. He was strong, as he'd always been.

Then he flipped her, fast, onto her elbows, and drove into her from behind.

He was noisy, fucking her hard, and she knew that anyone on the nearby vessels, or the pier, could hear their groans; sounds carried far over the water. She didn't care. Pushed back at him, working her strong long slayer's muscles, flexing her cunt tight; he grunted his appreciation.

They crashed together onto their bellies, gasping. Once more he lay on top of her, and she didn't mind, although her breasts and cheek were mashed against the deck.

"Little wildcat. Been a long time for you, I 'spect."

"You too."

A pause. "Yeah, a bit." He eased off her then, rolled onto his back, and pulled her across him to nestle her head in the crook of his neck. How like him this was, he'd always wanted to cradle her when she just wanted to bolt away and pretend she hadn't succumbed to him again.

She wriggled back against his upraised thigh, her pussy still throbbing. He laughed softly as she rubbed it against his leg. He slipped a hand between her thighs, his fingers going into her, the thumb riding tight to her clit. "Go on— jig yourself on that. Wanna feel you get yourself off."

After a few moments he said, "Christ, what a little vixen you are."

She was gasping now, struggling towards her climax against his rigid hand, part of her wondering if he was making fun of her. But then he caught her mouth with his, sucked on her tongue, and that put her over the edge.

"Better?" he murmured. "I do like a woman who knows how to do it for herself."

"And I like a man who knows how to do it for me. You have a mouth on you— "

He chuckled. "You're a randy 'un."

"Aren't all sailors, when they're in port?"

"That they are. Where's home, when you're in it?"

"The boat's home, I guess. I have a room in a friend's house, in England, to go back to whenever I want." She walked her fingers up the side of his face. The shock of beard stubble where none had ever been before. "The place I'm from, in southern California . . . got destroyed. The whole town." She paused.

"One of those landslides they get there? Houses going sploosh into the sea after a heavy rain?"

"Not . . . not exactly. This was more of a— "

"— cave in?"

"You do remember."

"What do you mean, remember?" He shifted, seemed to shrink beneath her.

He might fall away if she wasn't careful, like those houses. "I mean— guessed. You guessed it, boy howdy!"

A laugh rumbled in his chest, and he relaxed again. "You're a bit of a odd bird."

"I am. But so are you. I mean, aren't you? Living all the way out here on your own?"

"Suits me."

She traced the areola of his nipple with her fingernail. "Are you a fugitive from justice?"

"Just from civilization."

"Me too."

"Nah, you're not. Not you."

"But— "

"You'll go back. You've always planned to. Me, I'm never budging from this place. 'S'paradise, this."

***

She thought she'd never sleep again, so exciting was his presence, so deep her need to look at him, to breathe his aroma and have some part of her always touching some part of him. He seemed just as entranced. They made love all day and half the night. He had more stamina than any other forty-year-old man she'd ever met or heard tell of.

"You need a lot of seeing to, don't you, kitten? Not easily sated, are you?"

This might've been a criticism, except that his tone was mellow and approving, and he was rubbing her clit slowly as he said it. She'd come so many times already that the climax he sought now was suffused deep in her tissues, had to be patiently gathered up from the extremities, through her languid overheated fatigue. He'd played her through the night like a complex instrument, seeing how many times, how many ways, he could first deny her, then bring her off. Pushing beyond her surface, past the easy peaks that came sharp and quick, to the submerged wellspring of desire that was rarely quenched because seldom even touched. He was exacting, even dictatorial— refusing to let her lead, or even touch herself, demanding surrender to his pace, his methods. He could, seemingly, make time stand still, stretch the velvety night to suit his purposes, stretch her patience without snapping it, as he brought her to the brink over and over without allowing her to tip. He'd m! ade her weep and laugh and plead in stutters and cries. Now, at the edge of morning, when she was swollen, depleted, coated in sweat, the cabin reeking of their exertions, he exacted a last slow-motion shuddering fall.

She slipped from it directly into sleep.

***

She awoke alone. Stretched in the suddenly unaccustomed luxury of having her bed to herself, breathing in the heavy scent of their fucking from the tangled sheets. Every muscle like taffy, her pussy thick and throbbing. She could feel the marks of his kisses on her skin; knew she'd see them too, pretty little bruises, when she looked in the mirror. Her body was heavy with satisfaction that was also arousal; she felt voluptuous, stirred up. In heat.

The heat in the cabin soon drove her up on deck, where the sun was high.

A large pink flower was knotted to the wheel, its petals curled back around a darker pink ringing a black core. It gave off a rich scent of wet earth that caught her even from a little distance.

She found the note wedged into the knot.

Won't soon forget you, Miss Buffy. Safe journey.

***

The urge to search him out, so strong while she washed and did her hair, abated as she ran her errands in the town. Nothing good had ever come for her from pursuing a man once he'd withdrawn. This one had given her so much in this short time, and to chase him now would dispel the sweetness lodged inside her too fast.

What was the use of living to be thirty-three, she told herself, if you couldn't learn from your mistakes, not make the same ones again and again? He was like him, in so many many ways, and she'd let herself imagine for a little while that they were somehow one and the same. But of course that wasn't so, it couldn't be so, and it was better to let it go.

She thought, getting into her empty bed, that sleep would elude her, but she started dreaming nearly at once. She was in the Bronze, talking to Willow while music played. Angel came up to the table. He wore the amulet. Willow glanced at him. "That doesn't fit you." He looked down at it, touched it with tentative fingers. "I know. It isn't really mine." Then he focused on her. "Told you I'm not getting any older. But you are." Willow was looking at her then, her resolve-face on. "That doesn't fit you." "I know," Buffy said. "I know he doesn't." She could feel someone behind her then, but she couldn't look around. A hand on the back of her neck. A man's hand. She couldn't turn. "You told me from the moment I first met you, that it was going to be hard." The voice was Brian's. "You're not the one I said that to," she protested, cringing under the weight of his hand. "Maybe, but I heard it in every word you ever said to me." She tried to shrug him off. ! "I can have a good life without love. Love's too complicated. The boy-girl thing, it's overrated. I really believe that." Willow, her gaze hard and intense. "No you don't." And from behind her, as his heavy hand lifted off with a weirdly lurching suddenness, "But thanks for saying it."

She sailed that morning.

***

The happiness she'd experienced in the nameless man's arms faded, like a suntan in October. Once on the open sea, the idea that he was anything but a stranger was so silly. He was gone, reduced to ash in an enormous cavern of ash. She felt foolish, the way you feel after waving back at someone you thought was waving to you, but wasn't. Only multiplied logarithmically, so that the ache sat on her breastbone whenever she paused to think.

Time to go, anyhow. The world, she repeated aloud as she moved about the boat, putting distance between herself and the tiny archipelago, wasn't gonna sail around itself.

She was grateful when a storm came up and kept her too busy preserving the boat and her own life to let her mind wander to anything else.

She didn't want to think about anything. So it was without letting herself think that, when the storm was over, she tacked around and returned to the island.

No point trying to fool herself. She'd failed.

She wondered if she'd be able to fool him. She never was able to before.

***

She tried first asking about him at the post office, but the woman there just stared at her when she asked about the blue-eyed Englishman with the dark tan. He didn't seem to get or send any mail, or else the postmistress had some reason to be obtuse about him.

The dive where she'd found him was hard to locate. She'd only stumbled on it the first time, had no idea what it was called or the name of the unpaved backroad where it was located. Still, the settlement was small enough. She spent an afternoon at it. Everything looked different in daylight. The local people stared at her, wandering where strange white women didn't belong. She went in and out of a few squalid but likely places, where the smell of booze and garbage hung thick in the humid air, asking about the slender Englishman with the dark tan.

At the fourth place, the barman just blinked at her suspiciously.

"I'm not Interpol or anything," Buffy stammered. "Just a friend."

"Just a friend who don't know his name," the barman said, leering at her.

She drew herself up. "You know how that goes." She put some money on the bar.

It disappeared. "He should be here tonight. After ten. You come back then."

"I was hoping to see him now. You could tell me the way to his house— ?"

"After ten. I get word to him you asking."

"I told you, I'm not a— "

The man laughed, hard, from his considerable belly. "Don't even know his name!"

He wouldn't tell her that either. She went out, walking back slowly, noting landmarks so she could find her way there again that night.

***

There were things to do on the boat— there always were. She kept herself busy until after sunset, ignoring the butterflies in her stomach, the twitching lower down, the urge to phone Willow and complain to her in a high pitched baby voice.

It wasn't what he'd wanted for her at all, that some part of her life should stop when he said No you don't. She was sure of it. That's why he'd said it, so she could ascend, so she could go on, so she could live and love elsewhere. He'd been, in those final minutes, far far beyond her, beyond man-woman love. He'd been in a state of the most exalted selflessness.

So it wasn't his fault, that she couldn't let herself, in all this time, get close to anybody else. That she couldn't let that part of her life unfurl at the same pace as the rest of it. That she could have a two-night stand with a man who reminded her of him, and then be unable to move on. The fault was her own.

Or maybe it was just one of those mysterious things that was nobody's fault.

She'd read a novel once where one of the characters, a concert pianist who'd triumphed over a rich but troubled childhood, withdrew from her success and the world little by little, finally able to accept only the company of those who'd loved her in her youth, when her mother was alive. Buffy sat with the novel in her lap, reading that passage over and over, the tears tracking down her face, and she'd closed it there, not going on to the end.

***

She wended her way in the dark blue atmosphere of pressed bodies to the bar. Waited for the attention of the big man, a bead of sweat trickling down her bare back, a chill jostling her despite the heat.

When he turned to her, she ordered a beer, and asked if the Englishman was there. For a moment it seemed like the barman was going to pretend not to know her.

Then she felt a hand come down softly on the back of her neck.

His lips at her ear, whispering to be heard beneath the music. "Thought you sailed away, girlie."

She turned. "I did, for a while. Do you have any idea why I came back?"

His expression, as much as she could see of it, was placid, amused.

"Can't say I do."

She took a deep breath. "Would you like me to go away?"

The few seconds of waiting for his answer felt like falling through darkness. When his hands touched her hips, drew her gently along as he backed away from the bar, something inside her shot up and exploded, a bright firework. "That's up to you. Could dance with me a little anyhow, as you're here."

She'd never danced with Spike, not actual non-metaphorical danced, but she'd always known he'd be good. This was good like it was the first time, only now she knew who he was, so every time he touched her, her flesh leapt up against his. She wondered if he was aware of that.

After a while she couldn't hold back anymore, she had to hold him, kiss him; kisses one after another imprinted on his face from a wellspring inside her that overflowed. He took them coolly for a few moments, then led her outside.

She backed him up against the wall, pulled his head down. Pressed slow deep kisses on him, feeling the familiar shape of his mouth through its unfamiliar heat.

He chuckled. "Missed my mouth, did you, girlie?"

"Tell me your name."

He answered right away. "Hinchliffe."

"Hinchcliff what?"

"Hinch-liffe. No cliffs about it." He'd passed an arm lightly around her, was leading her along towards the harbor. She stopped. "Where do you live?"

"You wouldn't find it very comfortable."

"How do you know what I find comfortable?"

He shrugged. "Just a guess. Don't know you. Most girlies like a comfy bed."

"My bed felt much too big without you in it." She was glad it was too dark for him to see how she blushed when she said this stupid, stupid line. Expected him to draw back, say something to put her in her place.

But he pulled her against him. His erection pressed into her stomach, his breath just stirring the hairs trailing along her neck. "Glad you came back."

"Really?"

"Worried about you when that storm kicked up the other day. Had no way to know if you were all right. Wished then that I wasn't so quick to let you go."

That night he was different again. Where he'd exacted surrender before, he was all yielding simplicity now. They made love, slowly and without artifice, face to face in the glow of the reading light by her bed.

His smile widened, deepened, he rested his forehead against hers and sighed as they stirred together. She thought she saw a burgeoning recognition in his eyes, looking into hers.

"William— "

He gave a barely perceptible start.

Her heart leapt. "William, this is so good."

"How— how did you— "

"Lucky guess?"

"You're an astonishing woman."

"So're you. I mean— not a woman. So not a woman. But astonishing."

He was still there when the sunlight through the gaps in the curtains made yellow lines on the walls, sleeping with an arm thrown across her stomach. She rolled him over and awoke him by taking his morning erection in her mouth.

Afterwards he caressed her hair as she rested her head on his stomach. "You're good."

"I like your cock."

"You know what my cock likes."

"I do." I know it well. She let her eyes fall shut, mesmerized by his stroking fingers.

"D'you like me too? Or just my— "

"I like you. I like all of you."

"Like you too, Buffy. Haven't . . . can't remember when I . . . liked a girl so much."

***

"Where are we going?"

"For a swim."

"The beach is back thataway."

"Not the beach. Better than that." He was leading her up a narrow dirt track in the jungle. The sunlight barely penetrated here, the thick air smelled heavily of flowers and the dense green. Off in the tangle of vegetation strange birds flitted and called; animals she couldn't see made occasional commotions in the leaves. He held her hand, kept glancing back to smile at her. "You'll like this."

They walked for an hour uphill, towards the volcano's funnel looming out of the sky, the path narrowing and turning to a precarious jumble of tree roots underfoot as it got steeper.

Buffy heard the water before she saw it. They emerged into a green bowl of moss scooped out of the mountainside, into which a small waterfall— big enough for two, she thought dazedly— fed a round crystalline pool.

"Oh God. This is— who does this belong to?"

He laughed. "Nobody. God. Us."

"It's so— " Her view was blocked when he grabbed the hem of her teeshirt and pulled it off, then resumed with him in it, dashing lithe and naked to the edge and diving smoothly in. She stepped out of her shorts and threw herself after.

How can this be real? she thought, over and over as they swam and played in the water, as he grinned at her out of his face, kissed her with his mouth, fucked her with his body. This was like something out of a movie— the impossible beauty of the setting— it was perfect, right down to the existence of a cool dry little grotto behind the waterfall, where he laid her down on smooth stone to worship her, his intense caresses blending with the roar of the water to send her into a trance of pleasure. She'd have said this was magic except that magic, in her experience, was never good, and this was nothing but.

Good to lie next to him on the soft moss, propped up on their elbows to face each other, their bodies dappled by the late afternoon sun through leaves that softly stirred far overhead. Good to wear nothing but the red flower he'd tucked into her hair, whose sweet scent filled her nostrils with every breath.

"Is this your favorite place?"

"Yeah." He smiled, leaning closer to her, and slipped a finger between her pussy lips. "'Ceptin' now this."

She laughed, fell back, stared up at the distant blue sky. "You're smooth, William. I guess you say that to all the women you bring here."

"Never brought a woman here before. Wouldn't come here with anyone who wasn't— anyhow, I'm particular about people."

"Which is why you're on this island, where there are hardly any?"

"Could be."

"Why did you come here?"

He shrugged. "Came to see what it was like. Stayed because I liked it."

"What did you do where you lived before?"

"Bit of this and that."

"Were you married?"

"Getting a bit nosey there, girlie."

"I want to know. I'd like to know all about you."

His amiable look had faded into something more querulous. "No good talking too much."

"Why won't you tell me? What's the harm?"

"What's the bloody point?" It was like watching a storm move in from a distance across the water. His eyes darkened, mouth hardened. His brow— the one that used to bear a scar— ticced.

She leaned in closer, and touched it. The skin jumped beneath her finger. Suddenly she believed she understood. "You . . . you don't actually know. You don't really have any memories before the island, do you? Do you, Sp-spike?"

"What're you on about? Don't get weird on me."

"No— you really can't tell me. All you know is you're from London, because that's what your passport says. And maybe you can tell me the names of your schools, and your parents, brothers and sisters if you had any, but— everything else is gone. Isn't it? They took it away— or, more like— they didn't give it back to you. You got this," she said, touching his chest, where the heart pulsed the agitation gathering in his face, "but they didn't give you back your past."

"What the hell are you spouting all of a sudden?" He started up.

"Spike— I think you can remember if you really want to!"

" You're crazy."

She rose. He shied at first, but let her thread her arms around his neck. There was hope in his gaze along with the anger— hope that she'd stop this weird talk, let them go on with their idyllic afternoon.

"Look, I'm not trying to scare you, but I know you. That's why I came back after I sailed away. And you know me too, but there's someone— some force— that doesn't want you to remember. And maybe I shouldn't be messing with that, but . . . I need you to. Remember me."

He reached around to pull her hands away, then froze. His breath came in little gasps.

"Didn't you think," she said, keeping her voice low and gentle, "when we were first together on my boat . . . that there was something familiar about me? My body? You seemed to know . . . just how I like to be touched."

"Pleasing a woman's just something a bloke learns, if he cares to. That's all."

"That's not all."

He grabbed her wrists then, hard, and shoved her off.

"Better stay out of the sun, girlie, if it gives you a turn. Better stay away from the fellas if a little shag, just a nice time, gets you all riled up. Thought you were— but you're just a nutter." He dressed in fast jerky movements, shoved feet into sandals.

"Spike— just try— "

"Piss off, bitch! Leave me the fuck alone!"

He ran off, disappearing into the jungle on a path she hadn't noticed on the far side of the pool. Pursuit seemed unwise— futile— for a number of reasons, first among which was the sudden fit of blinding tears that bent her to the ground.

***

Why couldn't it be enough, she asked herself later. Enough that a man named William Hinchliffe was falling in love with her, that in the moment she was happy, happier than she could remember being in a long long time? Why'd she have to push it all over into that abyss of stupidity? Who was she to go up single-handed against magic of that density and caliber, magic that made him human and placed him here to live out a life far off from everything he'd known and been before?

She could've been part of that if she'd just left the past alone.

Whereas now she'd established herself to him as a lunatic— he wouldn't want to talk to her again, even if she could find him.

It was raining when she got back to the settlement; the hard steady unavailing tropical rain that made her feel like choking. "Stupid symbolic weather," she muttered, dragging her sandals out of the mud.

***

She realized when she awoke to blood on her thighs, that they'd never used a condom. The idea hadn't occurred to her. Or to him? Been a long time for you.

Slipping a tampon in, she was at once relieved and a little bit disappointed.

***

"Will. I hope I got the time difference right— "

"No, you woke me up, but— Buffy! Always a good when you call. Where are you?"

"I'm on an island."

"An island? What island?"

"Will, I found Spike."

Silence.

"Willow? Are you there?"

Then . . . "You found . . . I wasn't aware that he was lost. I mean— I was aware he was dead."

"So was I. Only he's here."

"He's there," Willow repeated, bewildered.

"He doesn't remember anything, he's blocked it, somehow, or it's been blocked by whatever brought him back."

"Buffy, how could it be him? The whole town fell into a hole. He dusted."

"I know. But I'm sure it is. Absolutely sure. His name's William. He's got Spike's accent. We . . . we've been together, and he knows what works for me in bed, like Spike did." As she spoke her mind presented her with all the ways in which he wasn't like Spike at all— the relatively-few-words thing, the alpha way he could assert himself— Spike was never alpha-boy around her— the absence of that distinctive scar on the brow. "And he looks just like Spike— only older, and incredibly tan, you should see him, Will!"

"Tan . . . you mean, he's alive?"

"All warm and heart-beaty."

"Oh Buffy. Gee . . . listen. That isn't Spike. I mean, they say everybody has a doppelganger somewhere. I can't tell you how many times over the years I've seen women who looked like Tara. Sometimes it was really eerie. That's all this is. One of those strange coincidences."

"No, Will— listen! When I spoke to him about it, he . . . he got scared. He got angry. Not like someone who didn't know at all what I was talking about— but like someone who was maybe conditioned to forget." She paused, shame riding up her sternum. So so so stupid, to push him. Push him right away.

There was a silence on the other end that went on too long.

"Willow! Say something!"

"I . . . I don't know what to say. Sweetie, I thought you were having a good time, that this trip was a great thing for you. But I guess— sailing like that is making you too lonely."

"What are you talking about? No! You're not listening!"

Willow sighed. "I am listening. Tell me about this man. Where did you meet him?"

She described it all, and felt the tender force of Willow's attention on the other side of the world, her kindness in not interrupting, not questioning. Tears slid from her eyes; she shielded her face with her hand from anyone at the post office counter or the bar who might glance over in her direction.

With infinite gentleness, Willow said, "I guess I can see how he'd remind you so much of Spike. He does sound like he has a lot of the same attributes. But you know, lots of men are named William. Lots of men are that physical type."

Buffy was silent.

"Buffy. I don't want you getting hurt. Maybe it's time to cut this short. You should come home now."

"No— I will not! I'm telling you, Spike is here, he's alive, and . . . I need to know how to make him remember. He must be under some kind of spell."

"He isn't. I mean— listen to me Buffy. This man isn't Spike and he isn't under a spell. You— you have to think clearly about this."

"Why are you being like this? Why shouldn't you believe me?"

Patient, gentle, Willow said, " Leave your boat there. We can arrange something about the boat. Fly back here. We can talk face to face. I know Giles would say the same— "

"Don't tell Giles! Giles always hated him."

"Oh, Buffy. Look, tell me where you are," Willow said. "I'll come to you. I'll get a flight out tonight. We can go home together."

Buffy hung up the phone.

***

She couldn't find him in any of the bars that night or the next. The following morning she started asking the half-naked children who always mobbed her for money in the road.

"Anyone who can take me to Hinchliffe's gets paid."

Two boys in their early teens offered to show her, but she could see a glint of greedy intent in their eyes, knew they thought they could jump her on some lonely stretch of road. She moved on. Finally found a clump of smaller children who gamboled round her like hungry puppies. Did they know where Hinchliffe lived? The Englishman with the blue eyes?

They grabbed her by both hands and pulled.

***

It was little better than a shack, an hour's walk from the town. But set in a clean grove of palms, and overlooking a small cove, with a curve of white deserted beach. His motorboat was moored a ways out, a dingy drawn up on the sand.

She gave out coins into the grabby little hands, and watched the children melt away.

Knocked on the door. Put her face up to the screened and shuttered windows. Impossible to see inside. She listened, but apart from the soughing of the wind in the trees, the more distant movement of the breakers, it was quiet.

She tried the door. It wasn't locked.

Inside was almost nothing to steal. A rudimentary kitchen, basic scavenged-looking furniture. A wind-up radio on a shelf. No ornaments or photos. Books, some of them water-damaged or otherwise weather-beaten, piled around. She moved through the dim little room towards the opposite doorway. Sunlight striped the floor from the shuttered windows on three sides.

"William? Are you here?"

She peered around the doorframe. The bed was a narrow pallet on the floor, under a veil of mosquito-netting suspended from a ring in the ceiling. He was sprawled there, snoring, the rum bottle still in his hand. The room reeked of rum, and his body. Empties lay on the floor beside the lamp.

She lifted the netting and crept in beside him. Touched his shoulder, which was hot and moist. Shook it. "William . . . " She wasn't sure why she was whispering, but it was all she could do.

He groaned, thrashed beneath her touch. "Burns . . . burning me . . . "

"William . . . Spike! Wake up. Wake up now."

He came to with a cry, jerking away from her.

"Sssh, it's okay, it's just me. Buffy. I wanted to check on you."

His eyes were bloodshot, and he looked at her with something like hatred. She rose quickly, putting her hands out in a mean-no-harm gesture. Her whole body was suddenly drenched in fresh sweat.

"I can help you with the dreams. "

"Never had any bloody dreams before you came along," he snarled. "Get out of my house!"

"I— I'll go. I just . . . I just wanted to . . . ." She tangled with the mosquito netting, struggled, got free. Waited to hear if he'd change his mind. To his silence she said, "You know where to find me. I'll wait for you as long as I have to."

Her first impulse was to leave altogether, but instead she strolled down to the strip of sand, shrugged out of her clothes, and went in for a swim. It was good to wash away the scum of apprehension from her skin. She dived and dived again in the clear water, looking, each time she came up, towards the little house, hoping to see him emerging from it.

He didn't.

***

She thought about calling Willow again. That would be the reasonable thing to do. To reassure her best friend, who clearly thought, as Hinchliffe did, that she was crazy. Somehow Willow had gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick, and the right thing, the kind thing, would be to call her back and set her straight.

It was ridiculous to think that William Hinchliffe wasn't Spike. The only way Willow could say that was because she hadn't seen him. Seeing was believing. So was touching.

She'd make him believe too. Make him know. Then his love— Spike's love, which was different from Hinchliffe's and the only love she wanted now— would be there for her again, and this time, she'd accept it with all of herself.

She brought with her, the next morning, the little album of photographs she kept on the boat. She thought of it as the survivor file. It contained, from her wallet, brought out from the disaster, a single snapshot of Joyce. And pictures taken since of all of them: Giles, Willow, Dawn, Andrew, Xander and Faith. She'd show these to him and he would realize he knew these people. That he knew her. That he belonged with her.

His boat wasn't there, the dingy tied up in its place to the anchor marked by a red floater on the surface. She wondered how he'd learned to handle boats. Could that have been something Spike knew all along? She knew so little about him, and nothing at all really of the man he'd been before he became a vampire. She'd never asked him questions, beyond that night when she'd wanted to know about the two slayers he'd killed, and she still had no idea how much truth he'd told her then.

That his name was Hinchliffe startled her, after such a long period of giving no thought at all to the Victorian gentleman he'd been once upon a time. Hinchliffe seemed such an old fashioned— and grand-sounding— name. It certainly wasn't Smith, or Summers either.

How did this human Spike know he was William Hinchliffe, born and bred in London, and yet not know that he was once the vampire Spike, who loved Buffy Summers, the vampire slayer?

Even now, she didn't begin to understand magic. It was just another one of those things she'd lived with and not thought much about, until now.

The absent boat told a good story, but she knocked anyway. The house felt hollow. There was no sound to be heard at all except the giant leaves of the palm trees tossing in the breeze. She sat on the slanting porch, drew her knees up, opened the bottle of water she'd brought.

She hadn't really counted on him not being around. Of course he'd be off . . . working. The idea of Spike having to work was a hard one to get down with. She let her mind wrangle it while she tried to pretend she wasn't antsy. Should've brought a book. The breeze stirred the loose wisps of hair around her cheeks. She'd just pulled it back in a ponytail, worn jean shorts and flipflops, a teeshirt. He'd never cared what she wore, or if she was made up; he'd always liked her however she was. Her stomach clenched around the importance of that now. He'd loved her when she couldn't love him, gone on loving her when she couldn't even love herself, and when he'd hurt her he'd gone to the ends of the earth and back to make amends.

The mere idea that he was alive made her cells leap and her thoughts do a rolling dance of desires and possibilities. The thought that he might never know her again, or know her and not want her, was a black pall on the rest of her life. Her boat just wouldn't sail anymore, without him.

She waited. After a while she paced down to the water, stripped off and went in for a swim, scanning the horizon for him. Plenty of motor- and sailboats went back and forth past the cove, but stayed off. The sun's rays lengthened, went orange. She dove and dove, tiring herself out, imagining that he was swimming with her. Imagined herself bringing him back to England, showing him off to Giles and Willow. See? See? It's all good. I have what I need, I can go on with my life now. And they'd embrace him, thank him for his bravery and sacrifice. The past would be— not forgotten, but made smooth. And the stuck things in her life would begin to move.

Treading water, she watched the sun set. The effects were spectacular but brief in this part of the world. In mere moments the sky was dark blue; she came out of the water onto the white sand that glowed as if giving off all the light it absorbed during the day.

Her head felt full and hazy, her limbs ached. She went into his house to rest. He wouldn't mind a little light trespassing; he'd have locked up if he did. She drank some water from the kitchen sink, then sat down in the dark front room to go on waiting. She hadn't eaten for hours, but somehow she wasn't hungry.

Fishing, she wondered, or smuggling? What was the errand today? She couldn't imagine him fishing; the idea was laughable. When she thought of Spike she thought, still, of the leather and the cigarette and the sneer, the gambling at cards and attachment to the television and raucous rock'n'roll; he'd no more have handled a rod or net than he'd have put on an evening jacket and gone to the opera.

Still, man had to eat.

He ate, and drank. Water, not just bourbon or beer. Sweated and shaved and took a shit like the rest of them. His face had been lined and rough in the morning when she rubbed her cheek against his.

All this excited her so she could barely sit still. She wandered from the rickety wicker armchair to the sagging sofa. Her sense that something enormous was starting up didn't jibe with her body's tiredness. Shouldn't have swam like that for so long.

Forcing herself to sit still, she curled on her side, pressing her hands between her knees. Somewhere a fly buzzed. Her palms grew moist and hot, but she didn't move her hands. Fidgeting just made waiting harder.

Still. She would be still.

***

The singing woke her up. A woman's high drunken voice skirled in through the slats of the shutters. There was no glass in the windows; she could hear it perfectly, coming up from the beach.

Alas, my love, you do me wrong,

To cast me off discourteously.

For I have loved you well and long,

Delighting in your com—

The voice broke off, laughing.

"Don't you know anything bit more up to date?"

"Oh, it's the old songs are best."

Buffy leapt up from the sofa to peer through the door slats. They were a ways away, but she could see them pretty well in the moonlight, and neither made an effort to speak softly. They thought they were alone.

"An' they don't get much older than bloody Greensleeves, do they? Oops, watch yer step there, girlie."

A loud hiccup. "I have . . . had . . . a great deal . . . to drink."

"That you have."

"You think you're going to ravish me now, don't you?" Her laughter was silvery, and she was doing her slow snaky dance around him in her tight red sleeveless dress, wearing a wide brimmed floppy red hat as if that was what accounted for her complexion the color of a peeled banana.

"S'why I brought you here, yeah," he slurred, grabbing for her wrist. "You're a stringy 'un but I bet there's some good shagging on you yet."

"You have also had a great deal to drink, an' you lack all finesse. That's not like you. Do you think you can do the deed?"

"What do you mean— can I do the deed?"

Her voice dropped into a lower, solemn register. "My poor boy's gone and gotten sadly older." She put a hand on his bare chest. "All blackened with age, you are. No amount of rubbing's going to do for this dark tarnish."

"Rub me up an' see."

"All your baby fishes are grown now, an' their fires're all gone out. You're aging, my William. Maybe you're too old for me already. P'raps I ought to let you go. But I still dote on you so. In my fashion. An' when I saw you, in here— " she knocked on her temples, "— I had to come all this way though disliking shipping as I do. It was a sign, an' you know I always do follow a sign."

"What the fuck are you on about? Every loony bird in the world's coming to my bleedin' island lately."

"Such hard pretty cockstands you always used to have," she crooned mournfully. "Whenever I liked, and even when I didn't." She giggled. "Was always better when I didn't."

"Got one for you right here, girlie."

He snatched her hand against his crotch; she let out a glad cry, and he laughed too.

"There you go. Come inside an' we'll put it to good use."

"No, I like it out here, my William. You know the stars are— "

"Why do you keep saying 'my'? Just met— don't go getting any ideas about putting the grapples on me."

"It's not grapples I use. Don't you want to be all hard an' mighty all the time? You remember. Before they stuck that naughty tuppenny bit in your head. It's gone now." She sank to her knees before him. "Nothing to stop you now."

This scene had Buffy mesmerized, nailed to the spot in horror and a weird sick jealousy whose instinct was for concealment. But now she wrenched herself away from the door to hunt around for a weapon.

"Awww yeah . . . go on like that, pet. Suck it harder."

"I shall suck on you my sweet, an' you shall suck on me, and then you'll be fit to bash and smash and be my bad beloved boy forever."

"You really are crazy. Dunno who you think I am, but I've heard enough of your cack. Get off, I've changed my mind."

She heard Drusilla snarl.

There was a broom; Buffy cracked it off at the base, rushed onto the porch. From there the beach was like a stage for its occupants. Dru was tumbled on the sand, her hat gone, game-faced.

"My Spike, is this any way to treat your own princess? When she's come to rescue you!" She was on her feet again. "Come to me, Spike. Come and be what you were."

He backed off towards the house, warding her away with an upraised hand. "Christ. That's what the other loony girl called me. You two in cahoots or something? An' what the fuck's become of your face?"

"The other? What other? I'm your only— Nooooo That cunt of a slayer had better not be— "

The broom handle was raised to chest level, the quip on her lips, but something made Buffy stay her hand.

At Drusilla's words, he'd staggered backwards, nearly losing his balance. Then he did lose it, sitting down hard on the ground. He curled into himself, a hand to his head. Instead of pressing her advantage, Drusilla paused, bending and craning her neck to stare at him. In a small voice, she said "Spike? You— you know me now, don't you, sweet?"

The long low noise that escaped him, between a moan and a sob, encompassed every kind of horrified comprehension.

Drusilla stepped forward. He craned to look up at her.

"Bloody hell. Dru. Dru— " Buffy couldn't see his face, but he seemed mesmerized by her stare.

"Yes, it's your own Drusilla-darling," she crooned. "Come, we'll be quick about it an' set you to rights, poor lost poppet."

She bent over him, her gestures almost delicate as she moved in on his neck. He leapt up fast, tackling her. In a blink he had her pinned, writhing, on the sand, and there was a knife in his grip, but it wasn't going to be long enough to get her head off.

"Spike!" Buffy shouted, racing towards them. "No good! Take this!" She threw the broom handle. He caught it.

Knew how to use it.

Didn't hesitate.

Drusilla's dust blew off across the white beach.

He hung over where she'd been, clinging to the broom handle, staring at the blank ground where a woman had been a moment ago.

"Spike— "

He rose slowly and slowly turned to her. She couldn't see his face with any distinctness. He took a step.

"Slayer? . . . what you doing here?"

Her heart levitated in her chest. She started toward him, to take him in her arms, but he heeled over suddenly, sinking to his knees to vomit violently in the sand.

He stayed on his hands and knees even after the heaving stopped. She reached a hand out towards him, but couldn't bring herself to make the contact. He was shaking— whether with nausea or sobs or fear she couldn't be sure. Helplessly, she hovered near him, trying to think of something to say.

" . . . maybe you should get up. Staring at it's not gonna make you feel better."

He crawled a little way off, and collapsed.

"Will— Spike?"

Groaned. "Fucking hell. What's happened to me . . . ? This can't be real. Me alive again. I . . . I was finished."

"Me too. But you know how that turned out."

"Christ. Stomach's bouncing 'round like a headless chicken."

"Stay put, then. You . . . you know what just happened, don't you?"

"Yeah, I bloody know. Dusted my Dru. Haven't forgotten last ten years or last ten minutes. Just . . . just remembered me. Only there's no just about it. Comin' back's a bitch."

"Yeah. It is." She shifted from foot to foot, ineffectual, dumb. Her mother, if she was here, would know what to do. She always understood what people needed who were sick or hurting or sad. She'd never be like that.

He looked up. "How did you know about Drusilla?"

"I didn't. I've been here all day, because— I couldn't take no for an answer." Like you taught me. "I fell asleep inside, waiting for you to come back."

"Bloody women all up in my face."

She didn't know what to say to that, being lumped in with Drusilla as 'bloody women.'

She put a hand out. Imagined she felt heat coursing from him, like holding her palm over a gas stove burner. Drew back. "It's all right, though. See?" She spread her arms out wide. "You did it, Spike. You saved the world."

He began to cry.

***

She was sitting on the low porch steps, watching the moon sail over the dark ocean. He'd asked her to stay there and gone in alone, to wash and rinse his mouth, and pull himself together generally. She couldn't imagine how he felt to find himself once more Spike, restored to full consciousness. All his memories, and William Hinchliffe's, synched up again. She was sure he must be frightened, and bewildered . . . and, probably . . . disenchanted. Whether literally, or figuratively, remained to be seen. But sad, in that bone-deep way she remembered when her own paradise was shattered.

Buffy dug her bare toes into the sand. The breeze had picked up, drying the sweat from her skin, leaving the residual smell of expelled fear. Willow had told her to come home, and she'd ignored her, so this— his loss of innocence— was her fault. Except, if she hadn't been here, he might've fallen victim to Drusilla a second time.

At least there was no question that he didn't want that.

One thing she'd never imagined she'd live to see was him staking her.

She wondered what Angel would say when he heard Drusilla was all gone.

He'd been in there a long time; she rose to check on him.

He wasn't in the house. Fear seized her like none she could remember since she'd heard the prophecy of her own death. Had he been magicked off now his enchanted state was broken? Or—

Then she noticed the other door in the bedroom wall. Ajar. Crap He'd snuck out, fled her again. She tore through it, and stopped.

She was in a screened space partially roofed in tin; there was a cistern to catch rain, a primitive sink and shower set-up, an earth closet. A bare bulb dangled overhead, a big moth swooping around it, battering its furry body crazily against the hot glass so that the bulb swayed on its cord; beyond the screens she heard the rasp of hundreds of other bugs wanting to do the same. Their bodies thumped softly against the mesh.

He stood, high-shouldered, knuckling the sink edge, staring into the shaving mirror. Looking as if he'd been doing just that for some time.

"Last time I looked like this was when my brothers blacked me up with burnt cork on Guy Fawkes an' carried me through the streets on a broken chair to beg for pennies."

"Uh— "

"Penny for the Guy, you know. I was six." He sighed, and rested his forehead against the glass. "The vicar saw us, an' Papa thrashed us all when we got home."

"This is pretty weird for you," she said, edging closer. "The tan's striking, though. Impressive. Even though Mom brought me up to place sunscreen next to Godliness."

"I don't get it. Why I'm even here. And alive."

"You did something wonderful. Big and selfless. You won a soul. And then you gave up your existence so that— "

He shrugged angrily. "Plenty of people do. You— every slayer that ever was— firefighters an' soldiers. They don't come back after. Isn't right I should be here." He was still staring. Rubbed at his cheek as if the presence of beard stubble confounded him. It probably did.

"I know. But . . . I'm so glad you are!" Her words, her tone, echoed back at her off his silence. Sounding like that stupid Buffybot. She just couldn't do perky anymore— even when she wanted to. "Do you . . . do you think you might get to feeling glad about it too?"

"Still staggerin' out of the centrifuge." He put a hand to his forehead. "Everything's whirling. You try getting a century of memories slammed back into your unsuspecting head sometime like sixteen tons falling out the sky. Memories . . . like . . . mine . . . shit. What was Dru even doing here? You an' her, same time, ten years on— I don't get it."

"I don't know. She was talking about seeing you in a vision. Who knows what took her so long?"

"Bird was always easily distracted." He shrugged. "Ten years's nothin' to her sort." He sighed. "Didn't like to kill her. End of a bloody era, there. But she'd just keep on coming at me if I'd let her scarper."

"Spike. She wasn't going to let you let her 'scarper.' You had to kill her."

"Loved that woman for a century." He turned the tap on, splashed his face vigorously. He'd been doing that already— his hair was wet, jeans soaked. As if he'd been trying to rinse this new consciousness away. He'd been sloppy drunk earlier; he was cold sober now. "But I couldn't let her have me again."

He seemed too calm; not looking at her, casting his remarks out into the space between them as if he wasn't really paying attention to their conversation. She knew that manner, that feeling. Not trusting reality. Feeling betrayed by it.

She went to him then, wanting to comfort and be comforted, threading her arms around his waist, laying her cheek against his back.

He tensed.

"I couldn't let her have you either. I need you." She absorbed the heat of him, praying he'd absorb hers, absorb her love with it, and be eased.

He turned slowly, and gently pushed her back. "No you don't."

"I do! Since when do I lie to you?"

"You can't need me. You mustn't." He took a deep breath. "You don't."

Stunned, dizzy, she stepped back. "Please, please, don't do this. Not now, not after all this time— "

"Buffy. I've just smashed back into myself at a zillion miles an hour, dusted my century's mistress, puked my sodding guts out— my head's done in, an' I'm ready to drop. Not really the time for this conversation."

His eyes were very dark in the dim light from the swinging bulb. You'd never be able to tell, Buffy thought, her heart hammering, that they were actually blue as the sunlit sky.

"No. NO. It is. Because either you're still in love with me, or you're not. If you love me, you love me when you're tired and sick and drunk and sad and fucked-up."

"Christ. I'm Spike. Still. Again." He let off a woof of disgusted laughter. "No rest for the bleedin' wicked. An' Spike loves Buffy. That's . . . there isn't an off switch for it. " He wasn't smiling, wasn't even looking her way. He sounded as if he was admitting to something deeply shameful. "I'm he. An' you're she. So . . . yeah."

The thing inside her that was ravening and pacing, screaming and flailing, settled back to gnaw on this thin bone. Granted her a little tenuous patience.

He glanced at her now. "Only . . . didn't do what I did back in ought-three so you could turn up ten years on and tell me you're still thinking about me after all this time. All this is, is you being surprised to see me. It's not real, Buffy. 'S'like nostalgia, if you can feel nostalgia for something bad."

"No. How dare you tell me what I feel!" She stamped a foot. "I haven't spent the last ten years pining for you! Not . . . not constantly. But now you're here— how can I not be excited about that, how can I not want to be with you? If my mother turned up alive, I'd fall down on my knees and thank God! What I felt for you before you died, it's always inside me, Spike. It is real."

Stubborn, exhausted, he made no gesture to take her up on it.

Still, she recognized, in the midst of the ache, that he wasn't being intentionally cruel.

He merely couldn't imagine a reality where she might love him and claim him, where he could be worthy of her and they both could live.

She could get that, actually. She'd felt it, that last night they'd been together in Sunnydale, in the way he'd been tentative, almost shy, when she touched him, kissed him, encouraged his caresses. The incredulity he'd felt at her eagerness for him was so palpable it was practically a thought balloon floating over his head, like in one of Andrew's stupid comic books.

They hadn't talked at all that night. Not one blessed word passed between them. At the time that felt perfect. Understanding beyond words.

She regretted it now.

She should've told him sooner. Should've told him all night, while he held her in his arms, while they undulated gently together, looking into each other's eyes. All along she'd thought he understood, had clung, over the last decade, to the idea that despite his last words to her, he'd died in perfect comprehension of what she'd wanted to have with him, had things been a little different.

But now he was human again, all mixed up and confused and hating himself and his existence and her presence.

Quietly, she said, "We should talk."

"'S'always been my line."

"I know." She dropped her gaze. When she looked up, he was sagging where he stood. "But later, okay? You're wrung out, what with the puking and the . . . I'm sorry about Drusilla. I get that your feelings about that have to be mixed."

"Yeah." He yawned suddenly, one of those wide spasmic seizures that signal the body's had enough of everything.

"Go get into bed, Spike."

Blearily he said, "Tell me tho' . . . the others? They all right?"

"Almost all of us got out."

"Almost— ? What about Dawn?"

"She's fine. She's terrific. I'll tell you about her later. You should know— she doesn't hate your memory. We talked about you afterwards, more than once, and she . . . she forgave you. She mourned you."

"So who didn't make it?"

"Besides you. A couple of the po— the new slayers. Amanda. I don't know if you remember her. And Anya. Anya died."

"An' has she been back?" His tone was accusatory. "Resurrected, reappeared, reconstituted?"

"Spike." She closed her eyes for a second, made her hands into fists. Looked at him again. "She was killed in a regular way. It wasn't mystical. A bringer got her with a knife."

"Sod mystical." He made a gesture indicative of imminent collapse.

She opened the door, and he preceded her back into the house, crashing without ceremony on the bed. Seen through the mosquito netting, he might've been a phantom. She was afraid to leave the house, lest he disappear. She hovered just outside the gauzy canopy.

"Do you want anything? More water?"

He didn't answer. He'd passed out.

***

She dozed for a few hours, curled up on the sofa, listening to rain first patter then clang on the shack's roof, even though her mind was going in that full-bore way that reminded her of fever dreams, when her head played some recent stimulus— a scene from a book or a TV show— over and over, yanking it out of shape like psychedelic taffy until she was nauseated.

At dawn she tiptoed through his bedroom to visit the outhouse and wash. When she came back, he was still out, snoring gently— she hoped that wasn't something he was going to do every night, or else she'd have to slay him after all, which, now he was human, would just get her into all kinds of hot water.

In the simple kitchen she found tea, not coffee, and nothing at all to put in it. Evidently William Hinchliffe was one of those Spartans who disdained a little sugar, or the softness of cream.

Of course, she never had learned how Spike took his tea.

She found orange juice and mangos in the small fridge, which was none too clean inside, but the things seemed fresh enough.

***

On the porch, she ate and watched the sky lighten, which it did fast, almost between one bite of fruit and the next. The view down the beach to the azure sea couldn't have been finer. This wasn't a place to be preoccupied or unhappy in, and indeed, as the mango juice dripped down her chin, as she sucked it from her fingers, a strange serenity crept through her. After being contained so long, her womanly tenderness was pouring forth, just as messy and sweet as the mango, and if it ended up having nowhere to go, well, there was something to be said for letting it run out rather than go on withering. Que sera, sera. Even if the feeling wouldn't outlast the last of the daybreak.

"My God. You're here."

She started. He stood behind the screen door.

"I'm here."

". . . was pretty sure I dreamt you. Woke up not knowing who I was, or where. Then wasn't best pleased when I figured it out."

"You had a rough night." She got to her feet, carelessly wiping her grubby hands on her shorts. "Do you feel better now?"

"Got a bit of a hangover."

"Well . . . as you do, when . . . when you get your memory back. When you have to dispatch your— "

"Buffy. You're here."

"Again: I am." She put her palm up against the wire mesh.

After a second, he put his against it.

She still couldn't get over the heat that radiated from his flesh. Couldn't get over the pulse. Made her reel with incredulous pleasure.

And Willow had been so sure she was imagining it, so sure she was wrong.

He eyed their hands, pressed together against the screen.

"You shouldn't be. Here. Some things I did, Buffy, not forgivable."

"None that you did to me," she said, her voice barely above a whisper. "All forgiven and over with a long time ago. I thought you forgave me too."

"Nothing to forgive. Never was."

"You know that wasn't so."

He closed his eyes, and his hand slid away.

"We don't have to keep bringing all this up, over and over," she said.

"'S'just yesterday, still, for me, pet."

"Except I thought we'd worked all that out before we went after The First. That night— the last night— when we— I thought we were cool."

"Knew it was my last night. Didn't want to gum it up for you with recriminations. Wanted to give you what you needed."

"Has that changed?"

He was still. Seemed to be listening to something she couldn't hear.

"Don't forget who's the best judge of what I need." She paused. "Spike, you're here, you're human. I've gotta believe that means your slate's clean."

"Could it be?"

"I think it could. I think it is."

He shook his head.

This was like talking to him through the bars of a cage, or a prison cell. "Come out into the light, Spike." She opened the door. He stepped through, blinked, winced, turned from her. He didn't move out of the porch's shadow. He wouldn't, she realized, until he remembered he could.

"Your head's splitting, isn't it? I'll make you some tea."

She didn't wait to hear no. As she plugged in the kettle in the kitchen, she watched him, through the slats that covered the front window, pace slowly up and down the porch. Seen through the shutters, he was just a dark shape, passing. At one point he went up to the window and peered in at her, his hands cupped around his face.

"I'm here," she called, waving, smiling. "Water takes forever to boil."

They'd just traded places, she realized— the barrier was still between them.

Boil!

At last she joined him, carrying the cup she'd filled too full, and some aspirin she found in a drawer.

"Ta, pet."

She was shy of crowding him, much as she wanted to touch.

"We can sit here," she said, lowering herself to the top step in the sun. He looked up at the sky, at the line of demarcation where light met shadow.

"We can at that," he breathed, and stepped into the light. She watched him— Spike— feel the sun's touch on his skin for the first time. He allowed himself a little smile as he sat down.

There was two feet of space between them.

It felt familiar, though, sitting with him this way. They'd done it often enough on her porch in Sunnydale.

***

Her need to look at him was a thirst, and the sight of him, constantly surprising in his altered humanity, went down like cold clear water. He seemed uneasy with her staring, and she tried to be moderate. "So what happened? After I left you in the hellmouth?"

"Don't remember so much after you were gone. Felt enormously pleased you'd gotten out. All you lot. My body was burning up from the inside. Didn't tickle. But I was in an ecstasy I can't describe in words. Always wanted that sort of death. Bit of meaning attached to it." He spoke very quietly, in a deadpan way that she was sure covered up a surfeit of feeling.

"There's death, glory, sod all else."

"Eh?"

"You said that to me once. Although I think at the time you really didn't know what that meant."

"Found out right well."

She leaned closer to him, basking, loving the chance to speak these words. "You— 'hero' is an overused word. But Spike, you really were. Without what you did, we wouldn't have won, even with all the slayers in the world fighting there."

"Yeah?" He smiled a little, but as if he knew she was only humoring him.

"You should've seen the way the light poured out of you. Pure white light, Spike. You were— "

"Effulgent?"

"Uh, sure. If that means all overwhelming brightness and being with the good side of the force." She put out a fingertip, brushed it against his arm. He shifted it just out of her reach. "And then?"

He frowned. "Could say: an' then I was here. Except I didn't know, 'til last night, that I was Spike. Lived here, never cast my mind back to anything very specific. Just went along day by day. No deep thoughts. No plans. I never knew anything was strange 'til you turned up. Then I had some dreams. But before that, no."

"Oh God." This aspect hadn't really occurred to her yet. "I'm so sorry. I ruined— " Pulled you out of heaven.

"Nevermind. Dunno what it is you ruined anyway— what was I? Guess some cats're never meant to be kept in bags." He stirred the sand with his toes. "What brought you here?"

"I told you when we met. I'm sailing solo around the world. It's a thing."

"Got that, yeah. When did you give up the full-time slaying? You must be— what? Thirty-two?"

"Three. I'm a survivor. Go team me. Sometimes I get in a slay, but I'm not pro anymore. There's plenty of others who are. Still have all the powers, though, so don't mess with me."

"Your Jesus year. Never saw my own." He paused. "So, this sailing thing, it's a break, from— from what?"

"I was doing Council stuff. Recruitment travel. Until I couldn't deal with it anymore, and I— well, Giles didn't let me quit. He said I was on open-ended paid leave, with all his blessings."

"Rupert. He thrives?"

"He does."

"So you . . . must have some fellow waiting for you back in the northern hemisphere, anyroad?"

She smiled, and hid it behind her hand. "Oh, I do."

"Ah." He started to get up, his cup in hand.

"He's handsome and capable and very smart."

"That wouldn't be Angel then."

"He's called St.John Rivers. He wants to marry me and take me to be a missionary in India."

Spike was quiet for a few moments, then let loose a whoop of laughter so sharp and startling, and so like his old self, that it freed her at last to take the initiative. She stood and laid a hand on his shoulder. The fabric of his shirt, a crisp white one— where did he get his laundry done?— was warm to the touch. Everything about him— so warm.

"You know that song 'I Fall in Love Too Easily'? They didn't write that about me."

He glanced at her with seeming incomprehension.

"Spike— I'll wait— I'll give you all the space you need, and all the time— only not too long because I couldn't stand it, not anymore— but Pleasejusttellmeifit'sgoingtobeallright."

A soft chuckle, like a woof, bloomed from his lips. "You've grown up into such a . . . well, you always were. A marvel. Marvel of stubbornness, oft-times."

"I don't want to be a marvel. Of anything. Been there, done that, bought the 'I have post-traumatic emotional detachment— ask me how!' teeshirt. I want to be— " She took a deep breath. "I want to be your wife."

The words hung in the air, but she was plunging in free-fall.

Loneliness rushing up to meet her, open-mawed and sharper-fanged than anything she'd faced yet. She'd be dashed to bloody pieces if he didn't catch her first.

His face opened up, interrogative, resistant, doubtful, then . . . "Buffy? You really— ?"

"Please— yes— please!"

He pulled her into his arms.

He sobbed, and her fall was done.

***

His touch freed her to touch him. To feel his slicked-back hair, the hard lines of his face and his curiously delicate neck. To span his shoulders in her hands, press her palms against the expanse of his back, clasp him closer. As intimate as she'd been with William Hinchliffe, this still felt like a reunion after hopeless years. Everything to begin again.

He smelled somehow of the fragility of his humanity. She kissed his wet eyes, tasting his tears greedily. He trembled, and she thought he might yet push her away. Then they were kissing, hard and clumsy and breathless, out of sync. But it was okay, she laughed, and then he did, and they paused to look at each other.

"Now— " she giggled, "breathe. And— a-one, a-two, a-three— "

Their mouths came together again. His arousal pressed into her belly; she squirmed against it until he bucked and grunted.

"Inside— " he gasped.

"Yes, I want you inside me."

"No— I mean— yes— but let's go inside— "

"No, here. Here in the sun. You and me in the sunshine." She danced away from him onto the expanse of fine white sand, yanking off her teeshirt, working on her bra. Some not-yet-intoxicated part of her mind said she'd regret this shortly, when she was sunburned in new places and had a pussy full of grit. But she couldn't bear the thought of that small dark room, the mosquito netting like a death shroud around his narrow hermit's pallet.

"Buffy— " He caught her arms, drew her hands away from their struggle with her bra clasp.

"Good— you do it. Stupid hooks."

"No."

"No?" She froze; the terror was still right there at her heels. He'd allow his scruples, those new and un-Spike-like appendages, to come between them, and they'd both be miserable, and for what?

He drew her around, his arm encircling her. "Not like this. Not sprawled out in the sand, like . . . I want my first proper time with you to be— to be . . . better than that."

"F-f-first time?"

"That I'm aware of, anyway. You get that, yeah? Me being me, an' with a pulse, an' you . . . wanting me . . . never did have all that at once yet."

"Ohhhh . . . ." The suggestion, and the way he looked at her, kicked her desire up a few notches to a teetering height; fresh sweat broke out, she glowed from the inside out. Delight mixed with embarrassment that she could've so thoroughly misjudged what the situation called for. Of course he was right. It was what she wanted too.

"We'll just press pause on this, though— definitely want to come back to it."

"Yeah?"

"'Course. If there's a man alive who wouldn't be fascinated rigid by watchin' you do that shimmy, all shining— well, I'm not him."

She smiled, blushing, running a finger down his chest. "But you are a man. Alive."

***

"What is this place?"

"Just a room I know. Clean and comfortable. No one'll disturb us here. "

It was early afternoon. They were on the quiet road where colonial rulers in the eighteenth century once made their homes in walled villas overlooking the sea. They moldered now, their backs turned on the muddy thoroughfare. The air smelled heavily of the blooms that hung over the walls, and silence. The modest two-story stucco building they stood in front of, bright white in the sun, had a tiny grocer's shop on the ground floor, which seemed to be shut, or perhaps merely in a state of siesta. They climbed a narrow flight of stairs and came out into a plain, square, white-washed room, with shuttered windows on three walls and a ceiling fan whirling overhead. A doorway beside the bed led to a bathroom whose fixtures looked ancient, but functional. The tub was large and had ball-and-claw feet, and a deep orange rust stain. Everything was, as Spike had promised, clean.

The brass bedstead, high off the floor, was made higher by what looked like an abundance of feather beds, like in the Princess and the Pea, Buffy thought. A straight chair stood in one corner, there was a rag rug of a hundred colors on the floor, and the sole ornament was a lurid crucifix hung over the headboard.

She glanced at it and back at Spike, who went up and touched it.

"Look Ma, no sizzle," Buffy said.

"Takes some getting used to."

"Do you miss— being undead?" Buffy set down the small bag she'd packed, and tested the resiliency of the bed with a hand before sitting on its edge.

"Miss it? Miss being a filthy, wretched— how could you think I'd miss something like that?

"You— you always used to be pleased with what you were."

"An' I was . . . 'til I met you. Then I didn't know what I wanted to be. Made myself the best thing I could be for you, an' still nowhere near good enough, never."

"Spike, you're good. You're just what I want."

He stepped away from her with a smooth movement, as if tactfully ignoring some howler she'd just said. "Weird— remembering everything from the last decade just fine, except I wasn't really me. The whole me, anyway. Strange place to turn up, this island. Never was caught dead before in any place without a telly."

"Is Hinchliffe really your name? I mean, was it always?"

"Always, yeah. Got a British passport says I was born in London forty years ago."

"When were you born, really?

"1852."

"Gee . . . ."

"Long ago," he agreed.

She shrugged. "You don't look it. Hmm . . . Hinchliffe. Buffy Hinchliffe. Buffy Anne Hinchliffe. Buffy Anne Summers Hinchliffe. BASH, not such a great monogram— although for me, kinda appropriate— but otherwise, I like." She knew she was grinning like a fool.

He'd been studying the crucifix, tracing the carving of the agonized figure with his fingertip. He turned to her. Didn't react to her babblings. "This all right, here?"

He was still so uneasy with her, and maybe, she thought, with the deliberateness— although he'd said that was what he wanted— of coming here to consummate their reunion. That made her tenderness well up. "It's good, yeah. Comfy and clean, like you said. Nice big bed." When are you going to touch me?

She leaned back on her elbows. "So. Spike, from a distance, all nut-brown and delectable: pretty. Spike up close, kissing me: prettier. And with the tactile component."

"You still talk like that."

"Not all the time. But some situations, people . . . bring it out in me."

"People. Willow? Xander, what's become of him? An' little sis— tell me all about her."

There seemed nothing else to do than indulge his desire to stall. After all, they had all the time in the world. She'd brought her little photo album, and got it out now. "Come see."

He seemed worringly weightless, as if he was hovering above this situation, assessing it, not exactly participating. The pictures got him sitting beside her, anyway.

"Giles and Willow live in London and head up the new Watchers Council."

"What, together?"

"They work— oh, no, they're not together like involved. Just colleagues. Remember the lady with dreadlocks who was visiting Giles when we all lost our voices? Olivia. She married him about seven years ago. Much to the surprise of all of us, because we thought we'd never see her again after that experience. See, here they are. They have two little boys whom Giles pretends are very exasperating— he adores them. Willow's single right now, but that never lasts long, she's a big chick magnet. Just hasn't found The One yet. Again. Andrew works with the Council too. He had all that demon lore, and at first we couldn't seem to shake him off— he had nowhere to go, really— so Giles put him to use."

"Little boy still as annoying as he was?"

"Little boy is thirty-one now, and very hot and heavy with a guy who draws some comic book that's the big thing, so he's over the moon about that on a number of fronts."

"Huh. Good on him, then."

"Xander and Faith used to live in Cleveland, there's another hellmouth there— "

"There's always another, I suppose," Spike mused.

"But then when she got pregnant the first time they rotated out. She's pretty much retired now from the slaying, after the twins."

"Twins— hang on. You tellin' me— "

"Xander and Faith— old married couple. Three little kids— Jesse came first, then the twin girls, Anya and Jenny. They've got a nice house by the beach, stupid huge SUVs, the whole thing. They went back to LA. Xander couldn't deal with the cold. In Ohio, he used to say . . . he could feel it, in his empty eye socket. When he started talking like that— well, it was squicky."

"Can imagine," Spike murmured.

"But they're happy. They have a nice, undemony life, Xander has the construction business, Faith does stunt work in movies, and— "

"So Faith— "

"Oh, they worked all that out, with the jailbreak. Angel's people pulled some strings, made it go away. He's got this huge organization now, reporting to him. There's nearly nothing he can't make happen."

"Angel." His face was granite. "If he's so omnipotent, why— "

"I said 'nearly' nothing. The curse is the curse. Even if it wasn't . . . I've only seen him three or four times since then. There are Christmas cards. That's all. Things between us are not . . . not a going concern." He still felt abstracted, it was beginning to worry her. She turned the album's pages faster. "Look, here's Dawn. She's in London with the Council too. She's become quite an expert in the dead languages, demon tongues. She went to Oxford, did very well there. And see how grown-up?"

He took the picture from her hand, studied it carefully. "Always was such a raving beauty, the Little Bit."

"More than me?"

He didn't hesitate. "Yeah. Thing is— makes no difference, 'cause she could never be ought else to me but your sister. And you could never be ought else to me but perfect."

The pang she might've felt at being compared to Dawn— whom she'd always known was prettier than she— dissipated instantly when he took her head gently in his hands and began to kiss her, kisses that made her go liquid as the little photo album slid to the floor.

It was, in the end, so simple. They pulled their clothes off without ceremony or artistry, he sprawled on his back, she straddled him, his radiant cock in her hand.

"Are you ready?" he asked, looking at her with a face so full of lustful reverence it made her blush. "Let me make sure."

"I'm ready. I want you."

"Show me." He met her eyes, held her gaze with a meaning nod. "You know I'll never willingly hurt you again, yeah? Never do a thing to you that's— "

"I know, Spike. I knew that before. I hope, though, that you're not gonna treat me like a china doll— "

"Nah," he said, and there was the grin she'd been waiting for. "Know what you like, Slayer. Gonna give it to you." He tugged at her hips until she crawled up his length, knelt over his head, curling her fingers around the brass bars of the headboard. She looked down, past the dangling ends of her hair, past her erect nipples and the slope of her belly, her skin lit up in golden stripes by the slanting rays of sun through the shutters, and there he was looking back at her, blinking slowly. This position had to be the most intimate possible between two people— why didn't it feel silly, or awkward, or scary, to be opened to him in this looming way? It didn't.

"See," she whispered, dipping a finger into herself and tracing its moisture across his lips, "I'm all wet for you already."

His tongue flickered out, tasting her fingertips. He sighed. "I'll have you wetter, my girl, in a minute. I'll have you drenched."

"Yeah?" she said dreamily. Her clit was twitching; she wondered if he could actually see it move.

He turned his head and dotted kisses on her inner thighs, one side and then the other. She sighed, put a hand in his hair. How good this was, to be able just to touch him as she liked. Fingers entwined in hair: so simple a pleasure, yet it went to her depths. He'd been gone, absolutely entirely completely irrevocably gone forever, and now he wasn't, and he loved her, and she loved him back. This wasn't the sort of thing she'd learned to expect in her tiring life: a miracle.

"Your pretty quim . . . so good to see it again." When his mouth touched it, she let out a cry, grabbing hard onto the brass bars. Holding her hips in his hands, he kissed her there, at first, as he'd kissed her mouth, with lavish measured slowness. She shuddered, her knees sliding helplessly wider, thighs taut and quivering; then she couldn't restrain herself, began to fuck his mouth with frantic undulations, and he stayed with her, grunting encouragement. His hands were everywhere; she swore there must be more than just the two as his fingers made soft inroads into her pussy, her ass, rode her buttocks and pulled her tighter against his swarming tongue.

Sobbing, she pressed her forehead against the cool metal bar in front of her, while her body from the waist down just dissolved. When she'd nearly ceased to shake, she flopped back to lie beside him, dragging in lungfuls of air. Her whole body was wobbly. I'm just a big mound of Jell-o. Mango Jell-o.

"You still spend like a goddess." He spoke with awe.

"Oh . . . you still know how to make me." She reached for him. "Shit. I didn't suffocate you— ? I forgot you have to breathe now— "

"Breathe you. Eat you, drink you, bathe in you."

He drew her closer, she threw a leg over him, and easy as slipping into the rhythm of a dance, they came together. She arched over him, wanting his kisses, and he sat up to meet her. Hands clasped on the back of his neck, she moved slowly, glancing down to see his cock slide in and out of her; glancing up into his eyes, until passion made nothing else possible but infinite kissing.

Every moment of this experience was a strange and delicate balance of the familiar and the new. His shape, his strength, the way his hands held her, how his prick filled her, and his kisses, were a rediscovery of something precious and lost. The smell of his sweat, the brown slick skin, its warmth that was reflected in his eyes, which had been warm for her before, when none of the rest of him could be. The yielding tenderness in herself was fresh— a relief and a surprise both, as it opened out and out and yet seemed to have no end. There didn't need to be an end. This wasn't a valedictory, like that other time, when she'd known he might not make it to another nightfall. They could kiss as many times as they needed to, and then again. He'd said no one would disturb them here. No apocalypse loomed— at least that she knew of and had to concern herself with. Nothing else she had to do but just rock in his lap, bearing down with every up-thrust, watching h! is face to see how it pleased him, resting her forehead against his and floating on the balm of his gaze.

"Sweetheart, lovely Buffy, love fucking you, so sweet, cunny's so tight an' soft an' wet for me, yes, so pretty . . . good girl . . . good, love, good, sweetness . . . ."

His soft chant, where Hinchliffe had been silent, undid her. She started to cry. He rolled them over so she was underneath, could wrap herself around him, toes curled, feeling small and safe in the shelter of his body as he moved softly on her.

Whom was she supposed to be grateful to, for this grace? What had brought him back to her?

He kissed her teary eyes.

"I— I can't believe this is happening. That we get to have this," she sobbed. "I— I can't stop crying, I'm so happy."

"Then don't stop," he whispered, dotting her wet face with kisses. "Never stop."

***

Later on, he cried. In the middle of the night he tore himself from her arms, paced the room, wept, shouted. His rage and confusion pinned her to the bed, made her feel tiny and hopeless. Breakable.

"What is it about, me bein' alive? Whose idea of right is that? More filthy deeds on my head than my dying a million times could make good on— an' here I find myself stuck in this sodding tropical paradise with my memories sheered out— how? For what?"

He ranted, ignoring her quiet consoling words, fighting off her touch. But, being Spike, he froze when she finally cried out "You're frightening me— !" and gave way again to tears.

At once he was on his knees before her, her hands in his and remorse shining in his wet eyes. "No, treasure, don't— don't be frightened."

"You're saying you don't want to be with me."

"No, not . . . not that. But Buffy, what I did in that final battle, doesn't seem enough to make up for all I done before. An' you can say that I have a soul, that I'm a man, you can say what you like. Only— doesn't take away— that I just can't see why I should have this new chance when others far more worthy— "

"I think I'm worthy," she whispered, spidering her fingers through his hair, whispering into it as if she wasn't talking to him, but to herself, or to God. "I've done a lot, year after year, I've died and I've lost my mother and my home and ever since I've been so alone. I must be worthy finally to get something I really want."

"Buffy— "

The pain in his voice pulled at her deep, a hook in the vitals. Why did it have to be like this? Why did any of this have to hurt? "Bad things happen all the time for no apparent reason. So why not— sometime— a good? You did give up your existence to save the world. And now you're here again, there's so much you can do. I mean, besides make me happy. The Council can put you to work, I know."

He closed his eyes, bowed his head over her hands. She could feel him thinking, feel the arguments and rebellions building up in him, as her own fear spiraled. Then something in him eased. He looked up at her again. "An' that satisfies you? That I'm brought back to help Rupert's lot, an' to look after you? It's enough for you?"

She nodded. "It . . . it is. "

After all, her word was still law with him. His storm cleared, his gaze going blue and soft again. He kissed her hands and climbed back onto the bed.

"All right then."

***

She couldn't take her eyes off it.

Their reflections in the mirror.

He'd carried the glass out of the bathroom and propped it up on the chair next to the bed.

Now she could watch what they looked like together while they fucked. She rode his lap, her back to his chest, so she could see their connection, meet his eyes. He lolled, supremely lazy, half propped up against pillows; she thought of a pasha with his concubine. Over their heads, the ceiling fan stirred the hot air, barely made a dent in the lush atmosphere, redolent of their bodies, of the tropical sun striping them.

"I'm doing all the work here."

"An' splendidly too, my beauty."

That was Spike. That was how Spike talked, that insouciant expression was his. It was a look he'd had often that year she'd gone to him in secrecy, and she'd tried more than once to punch it off his face. She watched it now in the mirror, loving it because it was him.

His hand stole around, fingertip catching her swollen clit just right. Making her lose sight of everything, for a little while.

***

"You must've had quite a sunburn before you got this tan," she murmured.

"Don't really remember."

"You're brown everywhere." She stripped his cock with her hand, squeezed it up against his belly and edged in tight to mouth his balls. "Everywhere."

"Oh fuck— do that Buffy, yeah— there— "

***

"Haven't you been lonely here?" Kneeling by the tub, she wrung the sea sponge out. The water steamed, made beads of sweat break from her hairline, roll down her cheeks.

"Guess not," he mused. "Can't think how, though. This isn't the kind of place I'd choose."

"You were always alone in Sunnydale."

"'Had no choice, then did I? Lost my woman, my minions, my . . . all your fault."

"No one told you to come there."

"I did it for her."

Dipping the sponge, she ran it slowly up his back, watching the runnels of soap flow down, white against brown.

"Huh." He snorted. "That'll be my epitaph, won't it?"

"Yes." She pressed a kiss to his shoulder. "But not for a long long time, okay?"

"Get in here with me."

***

"I've been in some serious storms. Storms where I thought I'd lose the boat, where I was sure I'd drown. Where I had to fight with everything I had but it was still up to luck whether my best was good enough. And I really liked that, because . . . there was absolutely nothing riding on my success or failure, except my own life. If I die out there, no one else dies because of it."

"Huh."

"Spike. That's a good."

"Nothin' with you dying in it is a good."

"But the point is— "

"You were set free. Could walk away at last."

"Not that I did right away. I kept my hand in— both hands, and both feet, really— until just a couple of years ago. Then . . . I had to get away from it."

He sighed, his chest rising and falling beneath her cheek. He went on stroking her hair; she could feel him thinking. About her solitude, about the difference between what she'd once wanted so desperately in her life, what he'd wanted for her, and what she was actually living. At least until she came here and found him.

"It? Or him? Has there been anyone— ?"

"Not . . . not for a while." She squirmed inside, having to admit this. Which didn't really make sense— plenty of women were thirty-three and single and there was hope for them yet. But she was unique, and they both knew it. Both knew, from their different perspectives, all about her history and her issues.

You're full of love. Love is your gift.

"Love, give, forgive."

"Whazzat, pet?"

"I went on this vision quest once. This was before you and I were really on speaking terms. Or— it was when you got that gross-out robot. Exactly then. Anyway, Giles took me out to the desert, there was this big pussy-cat spirit-guide, and I got to ask some questions. I did it because I was afraid I was losing my ability to love."

He went on stroking her hair, small repetitive caresses comforting as warm milk. Listening.

"And that's what she told me. The oracle or the guide or whatever she was. She told me to love, give, forgive. Which didn't make a whole lot of sense to me at the time— I mean, not the words, I knew what they meant. But where I was at emotionally, I couldn't really put it to use. And then I died— which was the other thing she said that confounded me. Death is your gift. Which it turned out to be, right? But when I came back, all Indian giver, I really wasn't able to wrap my head around love, give, forgive."

"I remember," he said quietly. "An' I didn't make it any easier for you, as it grieves me to recall."

"But now we have this second chance! That's what I'm doing right here, Spike. I couldn't really do that with anybody else, because . . . you're the one. You're the one who fits the Spike shaped hole in my— this is not coming out right."

He smiled. "Get what you're saying, all the same."

She sat up, turned to straddle his belly again. Leaned in close. "I love the people I loved before. The people who knew me in Sunnydale. I love them so much. New people . . . can be nice, some of them are very nice, but they don't . . . somehow they don't adhere."

He'd taken her hand as she was talking, and pressed a kiss into the palm. "Buffy— "

"— I can't make myself love them. Maybe that makes me sad and pathetic, but that's just how I am. I know you wanted me to have the all-round package of life, and so did I, but whenever I tried to find— "

"Buffy."

"— the right man, well, there just wasn't one, because how could there be when all that part of me was already assigned — what?"

"Marry me."

He let her hand go long enough to remove a plain silver ring from his finger, and slip it onto hers. "This's just a placeholder 'til I can get you kitted out proper."

"Oh my God."

"'S'a cheap bit of trash, but a bit better than the one I gave you the first time, yeah? No skull, anyhow."

"Oh oh oh."

"You keep saying that. Buffy, will you—

"Oh my God. Oh Spike. Of course I will— I asked you first! Oh— " She was crying again. Weeping like an idiot, because she didn't know how else to handle what she felt. Somewhere along the line she'd forgotten how happiness went, and now it was crashing in on her with all the overwhelming force of grief.

Crying was a whole different thing though, in his arms.

***

She played with the ring, turning it on her finger. Even on her middle one it was too large.

"Wish I still had the other one you gave me."

"What did you do with it, after? Sure never gave it back to me."

"I kept it. In my jewelry box."

"Why?"

"Never thought I'd ever get another engagement ring." She sighed. "It's gone now though. Along with my jewelry box, along with my room. My house. My street. My town. My love." She looked up at him. "Except: not. My love is here with me."

He ducked from her glance. "Can't believe . . . ."

"I keep telling you. Better still, showing you. Don't I? What's missing?"

His mouth tightened. "'S'just me. Can't get my head 'round it."

"It can feel funny, getting what you want." She turned the ring again on her finger. "Especially when you're really sure it'll never ever be."

"Yeah." He pulled her close again. "Guess that's it."

***

"I think this is some kind of knocking shop," Buffy said solemnly, the second time she unpacked the basket of food that appeared outside their door twice a day. "The management seems awfully astute at providing for people who don't want to be disturbed."

"Could be," Spike said, with a small smile.

She joined him at the window. They were at the highest point in the settlement; could see what little there was of it, hemmed in by mountain, jungle and sea. A sort of crust along the island's edge, from this vantage.

"Sooner we leave this the better. Want to take you back to England. There's nothing here to make up a life, a marriage. An' marriages cost money. Haven't got any to speak of."

"The Council will pay you. Turned out there was plenty of money, they'd just never shake any of it down to us. Giles controls it now. Everything's different. Anyway, I have money of my own. My father died— it turned out he was worth a lot."

"Worth a lot? Man abandoned you. Anyone could do that to two sweet motherless girls, not worth anything."

"I meant financially."

"'S'all well an' good then, but I'm not plannin' on you keeping me. I'm gonna keep you, an' our babies, in a proper house, with all the fittings, someplace nice, where you can have your friends to stay."

She heard only one word, and it rushed through her with the thrill of the rising tide. "Babies. You want babies?"

He glanced around at her in surprise. "Don't you, then?"

"Yes! Babies— your babies— lots of them! Let's start right now."

***

"You're all swollen," he murmured, his fingers cupping her, parting the lips. "Been givin' you quite a rogering last couple days." She heard pride in his voice as well as concern, which made her smile.

"I'm not too sore. Anyway, I like it, it feels sexy When I walk I feel like you're still inside me." She spread her legs wide, pulled him down. "Fuck me again."

He stopped, half in and half out, looking at her with alarm. "You— you're sorted, right? For the precautions— ? Because, been a vamp for one-hundred thirty years 'til day before yesterday, so not used to thinking of— "

"We're good," she nodded. "We're very very good."

He cocked his head in that way that always got to her. Then a slow smile spread on his face.

"Why, you little— there are no precautions. We've started a sprog already, haven't we?"

She blushed "Could be. I hope so. Don't you?"

***

The banging on the door awoke her. A woman on the other side was yelling something she couldn't understand. Spike leapt up, she saw him cross the room, his body striped in moonlight. It was late, three o'clock or four. He exchanged words with the hysterical woman— he seemed to understand her language and speak it, but she still couldn't comprehend. Sitting up, she rubbed her eyes.

"What's going on?"

"Put your clothes on, gather your things. We have to get down to the harbor."

"What, now? It's the middle of the— "

"Volcano's erupting."

"What?" She rushed to the north-facing window, threw open the shutters. The mountain that rose brown and still out of the tangle of jungle glowed in the darkness, its rim orange like a cigarette when you drag on it.

"Buffy, come." He pulled her away, then paused to look himself. "Fucking hell— ! Thing was supposed to be dormant."

"What— what's going to happen?"

"Girl said they're evacuating the island. Get down to the harbor, see what we can get on."

"What we can get— ? My boat. We'll just— "

"No. Little thing like that'll be swamped the second the real rumbling starts. Quick now."

She tumbled into her clothes, grabbed up her bag. "Don't forget this," he said, thrusting the photo album into her hand.

"Oh crap. The only picture I still have of my mother is in— "

"Got it then. Let's scat, kittycat."

***

The street of villas was empty, the air smoky. Ash came down like snow, it made her cough. Spike grasped her hand; they ran. As they hastened closer to the harbor, they encountered a crowd pouring down towards the waterfront. The native families, with their hastily assembled bundles, leading goats and cows and dogs, carrying chickens and cats and children. The ground rumbled, people screamed. Buffy glanced back; the orange glow was bigger now, and as she looked, it tipped over the edge and begin to drip down. From this distance it looked unreal— a magnificent special effect.

"C'mon, Slayer. Can gawk once we're on the water."

"We have to go to my boat, I need to get— "

"You need nothing. Not risking you. Move."

His calm amazed her, although she wondered, as she loped along at his side, letting him lead her in a weaving passage through the crowd, why it should. Spike had always been good in a crisis, capable of infinite amounts of cool.

The next hours were a blur. Spike seemed to know what to do, and for once in her life she could be passive in the midst of catastrophe. She found herself on a small motorboat, in the midst of a whole flotilla of others making their way to a freighter that loomed up, an iron wall rising from the churning sea. Sharply lit by the ship's searchlights, evacuees were already swarming up rope ladders to the deck, their ferries abandoned against the hull. Soon she was doing the same, the ocean wind whipping her hair into her eyes. A crewman pulled her over the edge, shoving her roughly back to make room for the next and the next. The deck was already full of milling people. Some were in tears, but most were oddly calm and silent, all eyes trained on the volcano, where fingers of red lava moved slowly down the slopes, visible and invisible as the plumes of smoke shifted.

"They had to leave their things. Their animals— "

"Harbor's not deep enough for a ship like this to dock." He pulled her through the throng. The deck rolled and pitched; people fell against each other like bowling pins. "Find ourselves a spot while we can."

"No— I want to watch."

"Get ourselves a cabin. Who knows how long we'll be on this tub?"

"You go then. I'll stay here."

"Buffy— "

"Please, Spike." She couldn't take her eyes from the sight, the sky glowing now with sunrise and the mountain glowing brighter.

"Don't move then. Come back and find you."

"Yes." She shouldered her way to the rail, struggling to keep her balance. All faces pointed in the same direction. Around her children wailed and people murmured in the island tongue. A middle aged woman whose black hair was loosing its moorings at her nape stood beside her, her eyes brimming over. Buffy said, "This is the second time I've had to leave a place with nothing but what I held in my hand. It— it doesn't get easier."

The woman shook her head, and said something Buffy couldn't understand. The orange light was reflected in her eyeballs, in the tears that streaked her face. A cry went up, and Buffy glanced back to see fire shoot out of the mountain; it seemed to ignite the sky. Ash and pebbles pelted down, as the crowd cried out, surging back and forth. Something pinged off her cheek, and when she touched it, her hand came away bloody.

A hand caught at her elbow; she turned.

"C'mon, got a— you're hurt."

"It's nothing."

"Talked our way into a cabin below. C'mon, we'd better get in it before we lose out."

Small rocks pinged off every surface, the sea churned higher, yet she didn't want to miss anything. It felt important to witness this.

"Don't you want to watch ? Your home— "

"You're my home. Want you safe out of the way of the rain of flamin' toads." He dragged her back, then lifted her as he had that time in the bar.

The interior of the ship smelled of bilge and metal; everything was poorly lit and dank, but they were out of the ashfall, and the tiny cabin he brought her to, just big enough to hold two berths, one stacked on top of the other, had a porthole that faced the island. There was almost nothing visible now except black roiling smoke across the surface of the water.

She realized then that the ship was moving.

"The evacuation can't possibly be done."

"Mate who showed me down here said they can't wait any longer. Sea's gonna boil when the lava reaches it."

As if brought on by this pronouncement, the ship pitched and rolled; the porthole was underwater and they were on their backs, thrown against the berths. Buffy's skull clanged against something sharp.

The next thing she knew, she was wedged into the bottom bunk, sandwiched between the hard grey wall and Spike. "Buffy— stay with me."

"I— my head— " Talking made her stomach surge; she swallowed back on the sudden burn of bile in her throat.

"You left me alone for a minute there. But you're all right now."

He said it, so it must be so. She clung to him, her stomach seeming to want to switch places with her brain.

"Scared?"

"I'm the Slayer."

"Nothin' here to slay, cutie. No shame in admitting it if you are afraid."

"Are you scared?"

"Not with you to protect me."

"Then neither am I."

The rolling grew sharper, but she managed to hang onto her stomach and her brain both, counting backwards from a thousand in a soft chant that he soon joined in with. She lost track of how many times they started it again, until Spike interrupted. "We're on our way, aren't we, Buffy? Back to London. On our way to getting hitched, to being together the rest of our lives."

"If we don't sink."

"Nah, not this. Smoothing out already."

She gathered him closer, burrowing her head against his neck. Both their bodies were starting to reek, but she took comfort in his heat and the firm pulse she pressed her lips against.

"That's right, sweetheart. Get some kip."

"Wake me up if, if anything happens."

"Nothing'll happen now. We're well on our way."

***

She awoke, alone in the close cabin, to stillness. The ship didn't seem to be moving at all, which she took to mean they'd outrun the worst of the volcanic effects. A glance out the porthole showed nothing but sea, choppy and opaque, and sky, with a vague greyness matching them up at the horizon. She went to the head, thinking about finding some more food, asking about where they were bound for.

Out in the echoing metal corridor, she felt it.

The tingle in the back of her mind that said: vampire. There was a vampire somewhere on the ship.

Not surprising. Wherever there was a large influx of people it was usually a sure bet there'd be a vamp or two. She'd never sensed any on the island, apart from Drusilla, but that didn't really mean anything. They were always easier for her to sense in an enclosed space, however large.

She hastened back to the cabin, hoping Spike had returned in the meantime. He wasn't there; nor was there anything remotely suitable for a weapon. She'd have to find another broom or mop handle along the way— meanwhile, she'd hunt. The faster she tracked the creature, the lower the body count.

It was daylight, and most of the ship's population was on deck. The vampire of course wouldn't be there— and indeed, as Buffy descended clanging metal steps, going lower and lower into the massive freighter's bowels, the sense got stronger. She passed a couple of crewmen in dirty kitchen whites. "Everything all right here?" They looked at her without comprehension. She tried again in Spanish and Mandarin, two languages she'd picked up a smattering of in her travels, but no joy.

"Where can I get a mop?" She mimed mopping, while the men gawked at her. One stepped forward suddenly, seizing her hand and her waist, and spun her down the corridor. "Hey! I didn't ask you to dance, I need a mop!"

The sense was stronger at this end, though. She followed it down another couple of levels, ignoring a crewman who shouted after her. A closet finally yielded a wooden broom handle that became an improvised spear. This far down, the ship's machinery made a loud constant hum that vibrated her whole body, filling her ears with a force that seemed more physical than mere sound, punctuated by sharp clanks and clangs, startling in their randomness. She was in the hold now, a huge dimly-lit warren of shipping containers. The vampire was here too. If she could find it before it caught her scent, this slay would be quick and sweet.

She leapt up on top of one long container, sprinting lightly across it to try to get a lay of the territory. Four containers away, she heard a scuffling sound, quickly drowned by a boom from the ship's workings so loud and sudden she almost lost her footing. Recovering quickly, she leapt across the gaps between the containers, careful to be as silent as possible. The scuffling sounded again, and between one boom and the next she was sure she heard a voice, muttering— or pleading. She rushed towards it; peering down, she glimpsed a dark shape dart from the shadow of one container to the next— a rat big as a cat.

Christ. Vampires and demons didn't bother her, but the mere glimpse of that bulbous shape, the long naked tail, brought her nausea back.

In the next moment she was lying on her face, the breath knocked out of her, the broom handle rolling out of reach.

"Gonna let you up, but first promise. Don't— don't look at me."

"Spike?" Her whole body rebelled against the sound of his voice, the difference in its pitch. A head-rush of images, sensations, overtook her— every time he'd ever punched, pinned, kicked, hit her, taunted her through bared fangs. She tried to flip over, but he had a knee in her back, his hand pressing her skull face-down against the hard cold metal. Some obscure part of her, that was always ready to take a swandive into despair and release, struggled against struggle, saying, Lie still. Lie still and maybe he'll bite you.

"I mean it Buffy. Don't want you to see me like this."

"Oh God— what happened— ? Spike, let me up. Just let me up and talk to me!" She bucked again with all her strength, managed to throw him off.

Even prepared as she was, the first glance of him made her gasp. The sight immobilized her. His skin was milky pale again, the scar prominent on his dark brow. The ridges, the distended mouth, the cruel little yellow eyes mocking her, mocking them both.

"Oh fuck— I said don't look!" He snapped around, showing her his back, covering his demon face with his hands. He was breathing hard, each inhalation a low seething growl; each exhalation twining out angry disgust.

"Can't . . . can't you . . . ."

"Don't you think I would if I fucking could! Got no control— !"

"What— how did this happen? When?"

"When the island sank into the sea."

"What?" A shiver took her, passing out to her extremities, turning her joints to jelly as her heart fluttered out of its order, a stricken bird.

Magic wasn't through with her yet.

"'S'gone. All gone. Nothin' left but boiling water an' a plume of smoke. Whole fucking archipelago, wiped out. An' me with it."

"Spike— " She reached for him, but he jumped down from the container before she could touch him.

"But— Spike, how— ?"

"Christ woman, if you don't want me to tear your throat out, go! I'm too bloody ravenous to stand here chatting!"

Her voice was suddenly cut down to the force and volume of a kewpie doll's. "But you know I can't let you . . . I can't let you hurt . . . ."

"Still have my soul."

She didn't know whether to thank God for that or fall weeping to her knees.

He laughed, a cruel bark. "I'm a filthy blood-drinker again . . . but still got that precious commodity to make sure I never know peace. Now get out!"

It was only now that she understood what he'd been doing when she came upon him. Not stalking any human prey.

Hunting rats. To feed on.

The nausea bucked up in her again. She swallowed it firmly, and snatching up the broom handle, jumped down beside him. "I— I'll help you. We can trap one faster— "

He let out a roar then that overcame the ship's clanking, and rode up her spine. The demon's stiff inarticulate features couldn't conceal his rampant shame and misery.

"Okay, bad idea. I'll go— but promise me you'll come back to the cabin when you're . . . when you're done here." She imagined him jumping ship at first dark; he could probably swim tirelessly for hours, and in his mental state, might not care whether he found land before sunrise. The idea of that, of him abandoning her, made her want to howl. "Spike, promise!"

"If you'll just sodding go!" He was backing away now. "Can smell you— it's torturing me."

***

Thirsty, hungry, with a headache pounding behind her eyes so sharp she could barely raise her head, Buffy paced the corridor outside their cabin. Somewhere she'd lost her watch, had no idea what time it was. People passed her, some made remarks, but she ignored them all. Her eyes were dry, everything was dry, the skin of her hands felt seared tight.

With every passing minute she was more and more convinced he wouldn't return. Finally she went back inside, climbed into the bunk, and found escape in sleep.

***

When next she opened her eyes, he was sitting opposite her on the floor under the porthole, drinking vodka from a pint bottle. The game face was gone.

"Thank God."

"God's got nothin' to bleeding do with it."

She climbed down and crawled across to him. "Spike— "

He turned his head away. When she tried to grab his face, hold him still, he batted her hands off.

"C'mon, Spike— don't."

"Get off—got vermin on my breath."

"You— you feel better, then?"

"Better? Christ, Buffy."

"Not so hungry, at least?"

"Don't let's talk about it."

"I'm sorry this's happened. But it doesn't have to matter— "

"Don't be naff."

"What is that? Naff? Is that like shirty? Listen to me— I started to love you when you were a vampire, and now you are again, I still do. Our plans don't have to change! We're together, that's all that matters."

"Stupid girl. That's all that matters? I'm this unclean thing again, can't take you for a bleedin' walk by the Serpentine of a Sunday afternoon— let alone marry you, give you babies or a proper life or anything at all that either of us want! But what does that matter, you say, we're together! Buffy, there is no together when there's nothing to be getting on with!"

She gathered herself inside, to be the marvel of stubbornness. "I know you hate when I say his name, but I'm gonna say it. You sound like Angel. Those were his reasons for leaving me. He had an excuse, though— he had the curse. You don't. And you have your soul. I don't care that your heart doesn't beat— "

"That bastard ruined you for life the first time he touched you— an' then I came along an' finished the job." He took a long swallow of the vodka.

She caught at his arm. "Spike! You used to think passion was more important than anything else. That it was all we needed."

"I used to be fucking evil. My demented soulless ravings not a basis for going forward on." He shook his head. "Christ. Can't believe you'd even bring that up now."

"I can't believe it either . . . but . . . Spike, you're scaring me. I need to hear you say that we'll find a way, that we're better off together than we ever could be apart. And you're not saying it."

"Not sayin' it because I don't know it." He got up, peered out the porthole at the night. "This's hell."

"Give me some of that." She pulled the little bottle from his fingers and sipped at it. The vodka made her grimace and seared a path down her throat. "Tell me something. What did you have to give me in Sunnydale, when you wanted me, that you don't have now? You know, that night when you tried to hurt me . . . you said some things first that I've thought about a lot since."

He groaned his incredulous disgust, but she plowed on.

"I wish I could've talked to you then . . . and not just because it would have kept you from doing what you tried to do to me. You— the way you went about a lot of things with me back then was wrong, Spike. I'm not saying they weren't. But you had a kind of respect and awe for love, for the power and beauty and meaning of it, the depths of it, that I just couldn't touch, couldn't feel, because I . . . because I just couldn't, yet. For you or, at the time, anyone. You thought we had a bond, you wanted to keep faith with me, it meant everything to you. You never wavered from it, did you? Afterwards . . . you made so many changes, sacrifices, you made them for me, and then finally you made them just for love. Just for— what's that word? A-gape."

"Ah-gah-pay," he muttered. "Who's been givin' you the vocabulary drills?"

"I've been reading a lot more, since . . . since. And I've learned. From the reading, and from the people I tried to love and couldn't— I've learned that when you do love— "

She could feel him galloping inside. Resistance and fear, making a united stand, poising him to break and run, or collapse. "Can the stirring speech, Slayer. I got it."

He got it, yeah. Except he wasn't getting it; he was too repulsed by what he was.

She couldn't believe she'd ever miss them, the days when Spike had been perfectly, maddeningly satisfied with being a vampire.

She stamped her foot. "Spike! Okay, no more stirring! This is it! We used to be mortal enemies! And I used to be dead, and then we treated each other like garbage, and then you were dead! In spite of all that we fell in love! What's a little blood-drinking, or one pulse more or less between us now?"

He sighed, sagged, resting his forehead against the glass. When he grimaced she thought he was going into game-face, and braced herself for a quick descent into utter desolation.

A sound escaped him, halfway between a hoot and a sob. It was followed by another. His mouth twitched, then split, the sound turning into a chortle, then a wild laugh that rang off the metal walls. He was sliding down the wall; he grabbed her arm and pulled her with him. They sat down hard on their tailbones. She began to giggle. He jerked her close, an arm around her neck. Nibbled on her earlobe, still chuckling; she shivered all down one side and pressed herself into the curve of his flank.

She turned into his mouth, tasted the sting of vodka on his tongue, thought for a mere second of rat but refused to let it get to her. That was temporary expedience. It didn't matter. They'd be off the freighter in a few days. His mouth mattered— lips and tongue cooler now, but still the same ones that knew so well how she was to be kissed. Mattered that it was opening against hers, that his sputtering laughter first vibrated against her lips, then wound down into absorbed silence as their tongues met.

Their hands curled together; squeezed. She was starting to get a crick in her neck when he began to laugh again, and they broke. "What's one pulse more or less, Slayer says? What's a little blood-drinking between old friends?"

"Well, it's true." She giggled, rubbing her fingers across his. "Too bad though, you lost your suntan."

"I hadn't noticed."

"Your scar is back." She touched it. "I'm glad, I missed it. Your face looked kind of lopsided without it."

"Lopsided!"

"Sssh. You're all silky to the touch again. Or— maybe you're satiny. I need to undertake further research before I can rule on that."

"Will be good to know once for all which it is."

"Of course in another few years I'll be very envious of your silky-satiny-unwrinkly self, while I gradually turn into an old prune."

"Might not. Maybe slayer powers slow that down. I doubt there's ever been a slayer's lived as long as you. Who knows how long you'll last? Swear you don't look a day older than you did in Sunnyhell. "

"You're not an impartial judge though, are you? Will you still love me if I'm a prune?"

"Long as you're not a prude."

"I doubt it'll ever come to that."

He tipped his head back and laughed again. She couldn't remember a time she'd ever seen him laugh so much or so freely. Hoped this was the first of many times.

He squeezed her shoulders. "Oh my girl, there's never been one like you."

The End

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