Spike hadn't been gone from Oxford more than twenty minutes when his cell rang.
"What is it?"
"Those monk guys we've been trying to research? I think they're here," Dawn said.
Ignoring the angry blats of the driver who'd gone into the ditch to avoid his sudden u-turn, Spike raced back the way he'd come. "What makes you think that?"
"I was coming home from the library, and saw a handful of old, robed, monk types wandering about. They stood out, let me tell you. I mean, they might not be the Shamaya monks –"
"But odds are they are," Spike said. Coincidences like these so rarely turned out to be coincidences. "Buffy back?" He'd had to leave their patrol date early, to run a job for Rupert, and she'd been headed off to the final cemetery when he'd left.
"She's still out patrolling."
Mouth set in a thin, hard line, Spike pressed the accelerator to the floor.
Buffy was surrounded when he found her. She had numerous cuts, and her long sweater dress was torn from knee to hip in way that made Spike's eyes want to linger places they had no right to linger, but she was holding her own. One assailant was down for the count, unconscious or close to it, and another two looked like they wouldn't last much longer. They leaned together against the dirty brick of the alley, robes filthy and torn. The fourth was surprisingly ferocious and agile, despite his diminutive and wrinkled appearance, and Spike was torn between laughter and admiration.
"You gonna laugh or help, bleach boy?"
"What'd you do to piss them off?" Spike said, sliding to intercept a blow to the back of her head from one of the less steady monks.
"I don't know!" Buffy made a quick gesture of frustration before ducking a jab from the monk's walking stick. "I was taking out of a pair of vampires, minding my own business, and then – these guys."
Spike grabbed the wooziest of the three by the neck and shook him. "What you want with her, then, eh?" Woozy's head wobbled dangerously, but he remained mute. Spike shook him again. "Better start talking, old man."
"She has defiled the pure word of the infinite," spat the still-chipper monk trying to aerate Buffy with his walking stick. "She must be destroyed."
"Slayer?" Spike said, turning his gaze on her. "You been defiling without me? I'm deeply hurt."
"I have no idea what he's talking about!"
"Shri Lindsey profaned the vessel. This desecration cannot be allowed."
Buffy dodged backwards, hands up. "Whoa! There's been no profaning on my watch. If you've got issues with Lindsey, take them up with him. I had nothing to do with it!"
"We're looking for him too," Spike said, giving his monk another shake. "Maybe we should be putting aside our differences. Working together."
"We have no need of him now that we have the vessel," said Woozy.
"What vessel?" Buffy had been drawn back into battle with the Caned Avenger. Frustration made her sloppy, and she was taking more hits than she should have.
Woozy seemed to recover himself. Twisting out of Spike's grasp, he withdrew a wicked knife from within the folds of his robe and lunged for the Slayer.
"Oi!" Spike shouted, lunging after him and knocking him into the alley wall.
To the side, the fellow that had been playing possum had joined hands with the remaining monk and begun to chant. A moment later, not-so-unconscious-anymore pointed a wobbly finger at Spike and said, "Nida'unu."
With a yelp of surprise, Spike fell to the cobbled ground, his limbs as immobile as if they'd been bound.
"Bloody hell!" It came out as nothing more than a gurgle. His helpless grunts turned more high-pitched as he realized the shortest of the monks had grabbed up a bit of broken pallet and was bearing down on him. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Buffy some distance away, on her hands and knees, stunned.
Spike strained with all his might, and managed to force his body to twitch just enough that the wood missed his heart by a sliver.
His muffled howl of pain and outrage caught Buffy's attention. She leapt to her feet, taking in the situation with a single glance. Eyes blazing, countenance as fierce as a Valkyrie's, she tossed her opponent away as though he were no more than a ragdoll. Spike winced as she tore through the remaining monks, as silent and efficient as she'd been that day in Wolfram and Hart's sub-basement.
She'd never looked more beautiful.
Or more terrifying.
Within moments, she stood over him, chest heaving. Other than Buffy's, only two heartbeats remained. And then just one. Spike's invisible bonds fell away, and he sat up cautiously. "Buffy?"
She was shaking now, mixed fury and fear oozing from every pore. "They were going to kill you!"
Her indignation surprised him. And warmed him, too. "Ah, no great loss there. Evil vampire, remember?" Spike said lightly.
Buffy shook her head. "No. You're –"
Spike heard the remaining heartbeat ramp up, and then a blur moved towards them at a speed even he couldn't match. Before he could shout out a warning, Buffy was on her back at the far end of the alley, a walking stick poised to crush her windpipe.
"No!" he shouted, in full game face, putting his own preternatural speed to use. Spike had hoped the old man would, seeing it was a choice between ending the Slayer's life or saving his own, choose to save his own. He didn't. Instead, he pulled his cane back for the killing blow. Spike forced himself to his limits, but he could tell he wasn't going to get there in time.
It was happening all over again. He wasn't going to be fast enough or clever enough –
The old man fell to his knees, panting. Buffy, as petite as she was, towered over him, fists still clenched.
"The vessel will be destroyed," he gasped. "You have ended Shri Shamaya, but it will do you no good. Others will follow. They will have the strength to succeed where we have failed."
Buffy frowned. She appeared relaxed, but Spike could see the coiled tension in her limbs, ready to strike if the old codger so much as twitched funny. "Why am I getting the weirdest feeling of déjà vu?"
"Dunno 'bout you, but he reminds me a bit of the knights that were after Dawn, back when she was freshly minted. Same fervor. Same bloody speech, even. Think you're remembering something?"
"I don't know?" Her shoulders sagged a little. "What should we do with this guy? Can't really let him go, but I don't want to…" She shot a distressed look at the bodies of the other monks, shoulders slumping further.
Spike reached down to grasp the old man's arm. "Got someone to question." He gave the geezer his most bloodthirsty smile. "And I'm looking forward to finally getting some bloody answers."
As he wrapped his hand around the monk's bony arm, Grandpa surged upward and headbutted him, breaking Spike's nose. "You've got to be fucking kidding me," Spike snarled, embarrassed to have underestimated the old man again.
"Abomination!" the monk cried, fists thudding against the Slayer.
"What. Is. Your. Issue?" Buffy said between returned punches. "God, Lindsey told me I'd be a target by association, but this is ridiculous!" She knocked the old man to the ground once more, and this time clocked him in the head for good measure.
He slumped to the ground, unconscious.
And then dead.
"What the hell?" Spike said. Buffy hadn't hit him that hard.
She stared at the crumpled form of the little old monk, eyes wide with anguish. "Is he –?"
"Yeah," he said as she bent over to check his pulse. "He's dead."
Buffy backed quickly away, arms wrapped tight around herself. "I don't understand," she said in a trembly voice. "I wasn't trying to kill them!"
Spike bent down to examine the body. The others had all died right quick too, come to think of it. Once it was obvious they couldn't win. "I'd wager they had some sort of self-destruct button. To keep from being captured, you think?"
Hearing a nearly inaudible whimper, he looked up to find Buffy trembling from head to toe, far more distraught than he'd realized. Spike left the body and hurried to her. Pulling her into his arms, he said, "Hey, love. It's not your fault. You didn't –"
"I did!" She pushed against his chest. "They were human, and now they're dead, and –"
"And you didn't do it," Spike said firmly, trying hard not to remember the last time she thought she'd killed a person, or how badly he'd handled it. "On top of which, they were trying to kill you just a moment ago. Without much care as to whether you were human, I might add. Not exactly innocents, love."
Buffy shuddered in his arms, her face hidden in his shoulder. "Oh, god. That shouldn't matter, should it? I can't just go around killing –"
Spike tightened his hold on her. "Listen to me. You didn't. They swallowed their cyanide pills, or fell on their swords, or whatever the hell it is these types do."
She pulled back to look at him. "How can you be so sure? They were old. And fragile."
"And they could give me a bloody run for my money."
Wracked by a whole-body tremor, Buffy shut her eyes and let him hold her. She didn't cry, but he could smell her tears. "It didn't have to be this way," she said. "We could've worked together to find Lindsey and fix whatever they were so upset about."
"Still got their card. Maybe if I call them up, whoever's on the other end will be more reasonable. Xander said they weren't too forthcoming when he tried it, but yours truly tends to be a bit more persuasive."
"Maybe," Buffy said, her tone doubtful. She sighed, and disentangled herself from his embrace. Spike had to force himself not to pull her back to him.
Gesturing to the corpses, Buffy said, "I guess we should…"
They worked silently, pulling the four bodies to the side and covering them. "This doesn't feel right," Buffy said. "They're not demons."
"I'll make an anonymous call later. We won't leave them like trash, pet. Promise."
Her head bowed, and her shoulders slumped. "I guess that'll have to do..." Turning away from the covered corpses, Buffy stumbled over an overturned trash bin. She banged into the alley wall, and gasped.
Spike was at her side in an instant. "What is it?"
"It's nothing, just a scratch from the fight, earlier. With the vampires. One got me pretty good. And ruined my dress!" she added with a baleful glare at the long rip up the side. Pulling at it to expose a nasty gash on her hip, she said, "Ow."
She prodded it with one finger, then looked up when Spike let out a strangled noise. "Spike? It's not that bad. I'm not going to die any time soon."
He pointed to her hip, his hands shaking. "That's – that's not your tattoo."
"Are you sure?" Buffy said for what seemed like the millionth time. "I mean, Dawn's seen it since, and she didn't notice any difference."
They were back at the flat now, Buffy in fresh clothes, hands wrapped around a hot mug of tea. Dawn had taken the seat next to her after Buffy had threatened bodily harm if she didn't stop fussing. Hands jammed into his pockets, Spike shifted in the doorway and debated whether lighting up was worth the combined wrath of the Summers women.
Refusing to look Dawn's way, he said in a low voice, "Trust me, I'm sure."
"Because I spent hours mapping the bloody thing out with my tongue, all right?" He yanked his fags out, wrath be dammed. "Not likely to ever forget the lines of it."
He ignored Dawn's nervous giggle, and the way Buffy's heart rate sped up at his admission. "Tattoo's similar, I'll grant you that. But not the same. It's been added to. That's how Lindsey marked you without any of us knowing."
There was a long, uncomfortable silence. Spike exhaled a stream of smoke and hoped they were focused on the Lindsey-tattooed-Buffy part of it all, and not the Spike-spent-hours-licking-Buffy part. Based on the Slayer's still rapid heartbeat and flushed cheeks, it didn't seem likely in her case.
Buffy sighed. "Okay. If Lindsey did tattoo me, then it might explain some things. Like why locator spells don't work on me. He wouldn't have wanted anybody to find me, right?" Jaw clenched, she dropped her gaze, but not before Spike saw the hurt and betrayal in her eyes.
Bloody hell, he'd never wanted to hurt the wanker as much as he did at this moment. His fists clenched uselessly. "Would explain why nobody could find you, down in the Hellmouth. And it fits his M.O."
She twisted, pulling down the waist of her sweats to examine her hip. "But what did he tattoo me with? It doesn't look anything like his."
"Yeah, those aren't Enochian," Dawn said. "Never seen anything like it."
"Wes might've known, but…" Spike trailed off. Wes was dead. "I'm sure between the lot of us, we can figure it out."
"Does it matter?" Dawn said to Buffy. "Can't we just – bzzt – laser it off like you did with that tattoo Giles' creepy old wizard friend gave you? That worked, right?"
Buffy blinked at her. "You're asking the wrong person. Got the whole amnesia thing going on, remember?" She turned to Spike. "Do you…?"
"Wasn't around for that, sorry. Not hard to ring Giles up and ask, though. Is it?"
With a glance at the clock, Buffy said, "No. But it can wait until tomorrow."
Dawn leaned back, and folded her arms over her chest. "So what happened with the monks?" The news of Buffy's altered tattoo had pushed everything else out of their minds, including the self-destructing monks.
"They had a serious hate-on for me," Buffy muttered.
Spike couldn't help but smile at her petulant tone. Back when he'd been the Scoobies' reluctant hostage on the lam from the Initiative, he'd been amazed to discover that the Slayer, this warrior of light who had defeated him and countless others, was still a little girl in so many ways. Looking back on it now, he could admit he'd found it sort of endearing. Still did.
No wonder she'd always defeated him. He'd been an appallingly bad Big Bad.
"They nattered on a fair bit about Lindsey defiling some vessel and how it needed to be destroyed," he said. "Unfortunately, they were more concerned with taking the Slayer out than having a reasonable conversation."
"Vessel?" Dawn straightened, heel of her hand smacking her forehead. "That's it! That's where we heard of them. That green guy in LA… Lorne. He was telling us about Lindsey's fight with –"
"The Shamaya," Spike finished. "And how they were after some vessel. Christ Almighty, why didn't I remember that?"
"I don't know about you, but I'm blaming it on the really bad night," Dawn said.
Buffy frowned. "Wait, they've been looking for whatever this vessel is for that long?"
Suddenly, everything clicked. Nodding at her hip, Spike gave her a grim look. "And I'm pretty sure they've found it."
It had been a long, frustrating week. Spike had remained in Oxford, in case the monks came back. They'd found Buffy once, somehow, and he was afraid there might be even more of them the next time. Amazing fighter though she was, even she could be overwhelmed by sheer numbers.
Giles and Willow had dropped everything to join them. Regular calls were being made to Faith and Xander. Even Angel and Andrew had been consulted, and, in Andrew's case, dissuaded from coming to England. The inner circle had gathered in the face of a threat. Buffy was less than thrilled to be the center of everybody's attention, but she bore it stoically. Nobody wanted the Order of Shamaya to succeed in destroying the 'vessel', her least of all.
"Perhaps Dawn's suggestion has merit," Giles said, his eyes red and watery from days spent poring over his books in attempt to identify the glyphs worked into Buffy's tattoo, all to no avail. "It did indeed work with the mark of Eyghon…"
"If the Order of Shamaya is so protective of whatever this is, it stands to reason we won't find it any books," Willow said. Her fingers traced the glyphs they'd copied to a piece of paper, without cease, as if she might decipher their secrets by touch.
Buffy shrugged. "So far we've hit nothing but dead ends. I say let's do it. Any plan that results in de-Buffy-cidaling a bunch of little old men who keel over dead at the drop of a hat works for me. Set me up with the plastic surgeon." She narrowed her eyes. "The Council is going to pay for it, right?"
With a long-suffering sigh, Giles assured her that it would.
"Well, that's settled then." Buffy rushed off, claiming she'd be late for work if she didn't hurry, and leaving the rest of them to stare at the pile of yet-to-be-read books that remained on the dining room table.
When she was out of earshot, Spike said, "Think removing the tattoo will fix her memory problems too?" He hadn't wanted to bring it up in front of her. No need to get her hopes up for nothing.
Giles pinched the bridge of his nose, and sighed. "We can only hope." He replaced his glasses with another, longer sigh. "I don't suppose either of you have any recommendations for plastic surgeons?"
Spike sat in the car, twiddling his thumbs, fiddling with the radio, smoking cigarette after cigarette, and regretting his offer to be the one to take Buffy to her appointment. He'd forgotten to factor in the time of day, and was now trapped in his car by the death rays from above.
Stubbing out his smoke, he tipped his seat back and tried to give in to the midday torpor that tended to leave him a dash slow and clumsy. Worry for Buffy had him cracking his eyes open to scan the street for robed types every five minutes. He closed his eyes with an irritated grunt, only to open them again when the door rattled.
"Paranoid much?" Buffy said after he'd unlocked it and she'd slid inside. "You worried about getting carjacked?"
"Not a fan of accidental incineration, despite all evidence to the contrary. How'd it go?" Spike gestured to the large bandage poking out from under the band of her sweats.
"Fascinatingly, according to the doctor. Guess he's never encountered indelible ink before."
Spike stared at her, dismayed. "Bugger."
"Exactly. Except I was thinking more along the lines of fuck. Looks like it's on to plan B."
"Do we have a plan B?" Other than finding Lindsey and beating it out of him?
"More research, I guess," Buffy said, wrinkling her nose in disgust. "You ready to head back?" She took in his reclining seat and disheveled hair. "Want me to drive?"
"No!" Spike said, suddenly feeling a lot more awake.
They were just pulling out of the parking space when Buffy said, "Um, Spike? I think we've got company."
He looked over at where she was pointing. A cadre of little old men stood watching the car with rheumy eyes. "That can't be good." Spike zoomed into traffic, keeping an eye on the monks through the rear view mirror. They didn't follow, but stood together in a circle, heads bowed in conference.
Buffy had twisted around to peer out the back window. "That was creepy. Coincidence?"
"Maybe they're looking for the ones we, uh… met… in Oxford. London would be the place to start, wouldn't it?"
"Yeah." Spike switched lanes, a prickle of unease running up his spine. "How many of these fellows you think there are? Obscure order like that, can't be too many of them." He bloody well hoped.
"I guess we'll find out," Buffy said, and pulled out her cell phone to update the others.
Turned out the order wasn't lacking for members; that, or they'd been followed. Spike noticed a pair later that night, on patrol. Figuring Buffy wasn't up for another fight to the death, he pointed them out, and they skirted around the two old men shuffling down the street and headed home to make sure everybody there was ok.
The flat was quiet. Giles and Willow had gone questing for more research material, and Dawn was still out with her study group.
Lugging a can of paint over to the front door, Buffy said, "Screw the deposit. I think it's time we put Lindsey's protection glyphs to work."
Spike took the brush she offered him, and carefully copied the marks she made on the other side of the doorjamb. They worked shoulder-to-shoulder in comfortable silence, painting all the window and doorframes throughout the flat.
When they were done, Buffy stood back and examined their work with a critical eye. "At least they shouldn't find me here. I don't want Dawn having to deal with these guys."
Buffy stared a moment longer, then abruptly turned away. Spike caught the faint sound of a sniffle. His nose confirmed it: she was crying. He shifted uneasily. "Slayer? Buffy?"
"It's nothing," she said.
"Love..." Spike reached out to touch her shoulder, but drew his hand back. "Is it something I...?"
"No! It's just – stupid. Me, being stupid. I trusted him, you know?" Her shoulders shook, and the tear-scent grew stronger. "Even though I knew he'd lied to me before. But he told me he wanted to start fresh, and he was honest about why he'd lied before –" Buffy's breath hitched.
Spike hovered behind her, not sure what else to do. "He's not worth your tears, love."
Buffy turned to him, eyes fiercely green and wet. "I asked him. Straight up. I said 'Did you do this to me? Did you make it so locator spells don't work on me?' And he said no." Mouth trembling, she said, "Why? Why would lie to me? What did he even do to me, Spike?"
His chest ached for her, the words he'd given her only months ago echoing in his head: You see the good in others. You forgive, when another wouldn't. You love, when most couldn't. It was her blessing, and it was her curse. Buffy's capacity for forgiveness allowed her to carry on long after others would've given up, but made her vulnerable to betrayal. Betrayal she'd had to endure too many times already.
He should know. He'd been the recipient of Buffy's infinite capacity for trust and forgiveness more than once himself, trust and forgiveness he'd never deserved. But she'd given it all the same. Spike wouldn't have been standing here otherwise, trying to find some way to comfort her. "I don't know. But we'll figure it out, I promise. This and whatever he did to your memory."
"He didn't do anything..." Buffy trailed off. "He said he didn't do anything to my memory, at least..."
Spike raised an eyebrow. "And do we still believe him?"
Her hands tightened into fists. "I knew he was keeping something from me about these monk guys. I just didn't realize..." The tears spilled over once more, and she swiped them away with angry, rough movements. "I thought he cared about me. Stupid, huh? Stupid, stupid Buffy."
He couldn't bear the hurt, and the disillusionment and disappointment in her eyes. He might not understand it, or like it, but neither made Buffy's feelings for Lindsey, or her resultant sense of betrayal, any less real. "A man can mean well, and still do the wrong thing," he said softly. Spike didn't know why he was defending the bastard, but it seemed like he was. Maybe he hoped it would ease her despair. Or maybe he could empathize with meaning well and still doing the wrong thing. "Doesn't mean he didn't care about you."
"Yeah, well." She shook off his defense of Lindsey. "God! When I get my hands on him!"
Spike bared his teeth in agreement, relieved to see Buffy's hurt turn to anger. Anger was what the bastard deserved, to his way of thinking. Not tears. Nobody was worth her tears, himself included. "I'll hold 'im for you, don't you worry."
Buffy smiled wanly. "Thanks." Scrubbing at her face, she said, "And now I have raccoon eyes, I bet. Ugh! I'm just gonna..." She motioned to the stairs, and hurried up them.
A moment later, Spike could hear the water running in the upstairs lavatory. Not sure what to do with himself, he stepped outside for a smoke, cursing himself yet again for having let McDonald slip away back in Tulsa. When he heard Buffy padding back downstairs several minutes later, he carefully snuffed his fag – it was his last one, and Spike had the feeling it would be a while before he had time to run to the corner store and pick up another pack.
Back inside, Buffy stood in the dining room, hands on hips. Fighting stance, Spike was glad to see, though her eyes were still red-rimmed and her cheeks splotchy. She picked up one of the books from the pile on the dining room table, and flipped through it half-heartedly. "Feel like getting researchy with me?"
"You sure know how to show a fellow a good time, Slayer," he said, hoping to jolly a smile out of her.
"That's me, all fun and games Buffy." She sat down with a plop. "If you don't want to..."
"Hmm. Well, it's that or the Black Adder marathon. Guess keeping you alive is a touch more pressing."
"Your concern is overwhelming." And there was the hint of a smile. Buffy passed him the biggest of the books, then settled in with a much smaller one for herself. "We could make it interesting."
Spike looked up. "And how do you propose we do that?"
"First person to find something useful gets a neck rub," she said, rolling her shoulders, a hopeful glint in her eye.
Kicking off his boots, Spike said, "Make it a foot rub, and you're on."
Buffy grimaced at the sight of his seen-far-better-days socks, and pulled her text closer.
An hour and a half later, she had the big book and Spike one of the smaller ones written in French. "Hang on," he said, rereading a passage in his text. "This might be something, but I need to cross-check it with yours." He reached for the text Buffy had.
Glaring, she tugged it out of his reach.
"Just give it to me for a mo'," he said.
She held the book to her chest. "In a minute. I need to go check on something." Buffy got up, taking the oversized tome with her.
Curious, Spike padded after her into the kitchen just in time to see her pull what looked like a magazine out from between the pages of the book and stuff it into a drawer. "Cheater!" he said. "I'm trying to save your life, and you're busy getting the latest Cosmo tips on –" He lunged for the drawer and yanked it open before she could block him.
"The Oxford University Prospectus?" Spike looked up at Buffy's beet red face. "Slayer?"
"I was thinking about going back to school, all right?" she said. "If you laugh –"
"God, no. I think it's brilliant," he said, surprised, but thrilled on her behalf.
Buffy mumbled something, and stared at the ground. Spike stooped to catch her downcast gaze. "Listen here, pet. You might not remember it, but I died so's you could have a life. A real life, doing all things you wanted to do. Plan got a bit off track what with your memories being hijacked and all, but you deserve all the things you had to put aside every day back in Sunnydale, in order to save an ungrateful world. You deserve them now more than ever, Buffy."
She looked up, eyes glistening. "I –"
A loud bang drowned out her words, and the front door frame shuddered. They turned toward the commotion, and then back to each other.
"Say, Slayer, where d'you keep your axes these days?"
"In the handy dandy secret storage coffee table that Xander gave us as a housewarming present."
"Clever." The house shuddered again as they hurried to the front room, making the china clink in the cabinets. "Think your deposit's screwed even without the paint job. Wager it's the Shamaya?"
"How? They shouldn't be able to find the place. Or me."
"Might be they learned some new tricks." He had to raise his voice so Buffy could hear him over the din of them rifling through the weapons chest and the thuds that were growing in intensity.
"Gee, thanks. 'Cause I wasn't worried about these guys at all before now."
Spike hefted the sword he'd chosen over his shoulder, and let his hand rest on her elbow, just for a moment. He'd known Buffy long enough to easily identify the fear in her voice despite the jokey tone, and didn't like it. Already scared was no way to start what was promising to be a major battle.
Giving her his best devil-may-care grin, he bounced on his sock-clad toes until she gave him a reluctant grin in return. "Come on, love. Let's go see who's knocking."