All things considered, he'd give the tosser an A for effort, C for execution. A bag of dried-up bones-not bad, for some. Dru would have been on the floor, shrieking about curdled cream and the fish that lived on the moon. Personally, he would have been more upset if there'd been a Dave Matthews tape in the package. Some things were too horrible to contemplate.

Wasn't entirely certain what to make of it, though. He'd never paid a lot of attention to Angelus and Darla when they talked about ghastly portents and all that-they'd loved to hear themselves talk, rambling on about the most godawful garbage he'd ever heard ‘til eventually he stopped listening, which had been about five minutes after he dragged himself out of the grave.

So when he saw the bones, instead of knowing just what the damned things meant, he'd had a moment, sharp and unpleasant-he was trying to forget it-when he thought it was obscene. Snapping the thin, brittle bones off a skeleton, disturbing someone who deserved some peace. Stolen from the person they belonged to.

Spike winced at his thoughts. What the hell did he care if someone broke off a few old bones? No use when you're dead. Not like he was dainty or something. When he first moved into the crypt he'd just shoved the remains in the sarcophagus aside and slept next to them. The only reason he'd ever removed them was that they poked him in the side. Damned if he was going to spend all day rearranging himself to avoid the ribs. He'd tossed them behind the crypt and hadn't thought of them since.

But if the sack was meant to warn him, a brick through the window would have done the job just as well.

Hell, when did he get so particular? The bloke was dead. He'd taken plenty off his victims. Usually more of the money-jewelry-hot leather coat-variety than body parts, of course-

Christ! Guess this is it, he thought, doubling over as he was seized by an intense pain in his abdomen. The bundle wasn't a warning at all. Voodoo? Or a less exotic magic? Whatever it was, it wasn't precisely a welcome home gift.

Straightening up despite the pain, Spike moved back to the chest, where he'd placed the sack. Unfolding it, he sifted through the bones, looking for some sign or clue or...something. The bones were coated with a fine, whitish powder he hadn't seen when he looked initially. That had to be something, right? And then he saw them: three long, colorless strands of hair, almost unnoticeable against the bleached bones. Not his hair. Buffy's? He couldn't tell.

"Buffy," he murmured, trying out her name. He hadn't said it in so long it sounded rusty.

Why hadn't she been by? To threaten him or attack him or finally just stake him? Didn't she even care enough to do anything, was she so indifferent to him that she couldn't work up the interest to bother?

He was jittery, waiting for her. Why didn't he just go see her? "Hello, Slayer. Long time, eh? Just dropped by for a cuppa." Stake. "Hello, cutie. I really do think it's about time we discuss our relationship." Stake. Or, of course, "Sorry about the bathroom, ducks, let's have a kiss." He'd be dusty before he finished talking. Maybe he should...phone her? It worked that other time. Better than he could have hoped, really, but it didn't seem the thing to do this time, somehow.

What do you say when you attack the woman you love? He was fairly sure Hallmark did not make a card for the occasion. Even if by some miracle she didn't kill him, there was no way she'd ever view him as anything other than a something to be tolerated. Tolerated until his chip malfunctioned or the world started spinning backwards, and he was suddenly able to bite and maim again.

Ironic, that. He'd made killing Slayers his unlife's calling, but when he found out he could hurt her he wasn't thinking any farther ahead than knocking her on her ass and maybe kissing her senseless. He didn't even think of her blood. Slayer's blood, rich and enervating, there was nothing on earth like it. When she shoved him up against that wall he'd looked at her, skin flushed with exertion and arousal, the blood streaming so near the surface, and instead of biting her all he'd thought of was how it felt to have his tongue in her mouth. And then later, much later, after she told him he was a thing and couldn't love and she didn't want to be with him any more, he went to her to apologize for hurting her with Anya. To tell her again that he loved her, to try to get her to admit she loved him. And when he tried to bring that love to the surface, he hurt her more than he ever had when he was trying to make her his third trophy. Wasn't life funny.

He'd gone all the way across the world and earned a soul for her. Not been cursed by one, but earned it. And now he was afraid to face her. Give her what she deserved? Maybe what she deserved was some peace. Maybe she deserved to be left alone, and not be forced to look at him and remember.

Spike hissed into the chill fall air. The spell was doing its work nicely, and he clenched his muscles against the pain. Whoever cast it wasn't joking around. Tucked away in the corner...probably thought he wouldn't even notice it until it was too late. Until it couldn't be reversed.

Screw that. He wasn't the poof to sit around mooning his damn head off and taking everything that came at him like some dumb animal. Someone wanted to fuck with him? They were welcome to take their best shot. He'd gotten a soul, not lost his balls.

***

A good shopkeeper knew that there was a proper place for everything. Some magic shop proprietors seemed to think the way to run a tight ship was to drape shawls and hang crystals all over the place and then finish it off with some dim lighting, as if that would suggest a deep and mysterious atmosphere. The only thing it suggested to Anya was a lack of confidence in their sale goods and possibly slovenly cleaning habits. Her customers knew that Anya would have exactly what they needed, that she could advise them on the correct usage, and that theme merchandise would be offered at a 75 percent discount the day after holidays. Some things were sacrosanct.

The Magic Box had been rebuilt nicely. Initially the building inspector said the place should be torn down. The fire marshal said it was a hazard. Giles had gingerly broached the possibility of selling the building and leasing one downtown, closer to the city center. But Anya remained firm: Moving would be bad luck. The shop had enjoyed success right from the start at its current location, and, despite its near-destruction, had survived the best an apocalypse-craving superwitch could throw at it. It would be very shortsighted indeed to abandon a building which obviously had an exceptional energy. Of course Giles didn't believe much in such things, but he had been wrong before. For instance, when he left despite the obvious fact that Willow was coming unglued. Anyone could have seen that.

The bell rang at the front of the shop, and Anya perked up. Customers meant the business was doing well, and she was devoting more time than ever to the business. It was nice to have one's efforts rewarded.

"How many I service your magical needs?" Anya asked cheerfully, turning around to face the counter. She loved customers. With their needs that only she could fill and their almost limitless reserves of money, they were like Xander, only they didn't criticize her behavior continually. Or ask that she be the one to wear the boots the next time. "Today we have a special on-" She broke off in surprise. Spike was standing in front of her, looking the same as always, except for some reason he wasn't wearing his duster. Which actually made him look rather vulnerable and naked, but not naked in the way she liked. And his hair-the color was partway grown out, and it was messy, like he'd run out of gel and decided his fingers were a good substitute.

"Hi, love," he said softly, glancing down at the counter. Apparently he was fascinated by Hylian perzant torques, although she couldn't imagine why. Unless, of course, he was planning to give birth soon, since they were used primarily to reduce labor pains.

"Spike, I haven't seen you since we engaged in sexual relations and Xander tried to kill you," she noted in her typically blunt manner. "Where have you been? I was wondering if perhaps Buffy had finally staked you."

Spike flinched. God, a thousand years and you'd think the bird would learn some tact. She must have been raised in a barn, if they had barns then.

Unwillingly he regretted his thoughts about her. She didn't have pretenses like most people. And that was strange to him, because after 120 years as a vampire, he was now more used to people than demons. Anya seemed more foreign to him than Dawn. She hadn't adjusted socially to life with humans as well as he had because she didn't have the advantages his education and upbringing had lent him.

God, listen to him. He was sounding more like William every day. Soon he'd be bothering servants to come up with words nobody ever used, to describe a woman who wouldn't cross the street to spit on him, on the off chance that she realized he was alive.

Kind of a specialty, now that he thought about it.

Enough of that. "I was out of town. Someone's given me a welcome home present, the black magic kind. What can a person do with bones?"

Anya stared at him blankly. Clearly, her look said, he wasn't going to leave it at that.

"Bones and...hair. Long. And powder."

"Powder? Like baking powder? Or more like arsenic powder? Or powdered woodwort? Anything can be powdered, you know," she prompted.

"It was white," Spike offered helpfully.

She looked at him, nonplussed. "Do you know how many kinds of white powder there are? And if someone wanted to disguise what kind of powder they were using, they could have treated the powder with bleach and it would appear white. Fraudulently white."

"Why-"

"Did you bring it with you?"

He hadn't, of course. It was that kind of a night, and he hadn't really been thinking.

He shook his head, and Anya looked at him like he was simpleminded. "Well, what did the note say?"

"Note? There was no note."

"No note? So it was just the bones and hairs?"

"And powder," Spike pointed out. "So how about it?"

"Well, it was a message. A warning,"Anya specified.

"So it was a threat," said Spike, nodding to himself.

"Well, of course it was a threat. Bones are seldom used for friendly messages-unless, of course, the recipient has a previously expressed interest in bones; that would be different."

"So how do I stop it?"

Anya looked surprised by the query. "Well, you ignore it."

"Ignore it? When it feels like there's a knife in my gut I'm supposed to pretend nothing's happening?" Spike scoffed.

"Knife? Gut? What are you talking about?"

Spike felt the beginnings of a headache coming on. He felt for Anya, being left at the altar and unappreciated and all, but Harris did have to put up with a lot from her. She really wasn't the sharpest stick in the shed.

"The spell," he replied patiently-doing his level best not to snap. "The one that makes it feel like I'm dying, only more painful."

She rolled her eyes. Vampires were so simple-they were sexy and all, yes, that was their strong point, but they weren't really a brain trust. Blood and sex and scaring people, that's pretty much what they thought about. And they were good at it, but there really was more to life. Like being a productive member of society and on the waiting list to join the board of directors of the Sunnydale Chamber of Commerce, which would greatly benefit from a thousand years of experience and a good head for numbers.

"The bones were a message-I mean, they can't do anything to you," she pointed out practically.

Spike ground his teeth. This was getting him nowhere. "Then why the pain?"

"The spell, of course-but that's being done elsewhere. You said the hairs were long, right? That couldn't be affecting you. For something like what you're talking about, they have to have something of yours. If it was your hair, then certainly, there'd be a connection. But long hairs? That wasn't part of the spell. That was a personal message."

"Then what am I supposed to do?" he demanded. Christ, wasn't the soul supposed to give him-what? Patience? Then why did he feel like throwing a bloody tantrum? Kicking his heels and screaming like a toddler. Or worse, Darla. The soul was nothing but a pain, upsetting him about bones and making him feel bad for snarling. Within a few weeks he'd be wearing tweed and taking ballroom dance lessons, and then he'd have to kill himself.

"Well, find the person who cast the spell. And then make him break it," said Anya, matter-of-fact.

"And just how am I going to find the bloke?"

"Well, didn't you smell anything?'

Spike was brought up short. He'd been holding the scarf in his hand, there were hairs in it-hairs-and yet he hadn't noticed an odor, at least not enough to identify someone. How long had he been drinking before he noticed his little present?

"I don't remember," he admitted. "I might have been drinking a little."

Anya was impressed. "You drank so much that you lost your sense of smell?"

Hell, Spike thought, the last time I saw you I drank enough to-he suppressed the thought ruthlessly. He'd always enjoyed a good wisecrack, but when had he become such an asshole?

"Something like that. And then-" Spike broke off. What had happened to the place? It looked like a completely different shop. It wasn't just the absence of Scoobies, either; he'd peered in the windows to make sure they weren't there. Even with the soul he was Spike, but he was still feeling his way around. And if the Slayer had told them, he couldn't stop them from dusting him. Hell, Harris had damn near done it because he'd snogged the man's highly dumped former fiancée. "Uhh-something different here?"

"This is the first you've noticed? My, you really must have consumed an unusually excessive amount of alcohol. Possibly a dangerous amount," she theorized. "Yet you still found your way here, like a devoted family pet who was lost miles away but still manages to find his way home."

"Skip the colorful metaphors," he growled. This was getting him nowhere, and he wanted to get back to the crypt. The whole gang might turn up at any moment, and besides, he didn't want to miss any possible deathograms. It was good to know someone cared.

He turned to go, but Anya's voice stopped him.

"I've been very polite about not asking so far, but what is that?"

"What?" he gritted. This damn night was never going to end.

"That...thing. There's something about you. You're different. I mean, besides your hair. Something's affecting your...well, your something. Xander would say there was a disturbance in your force."

She studied him intently, as if she could pinpoint the change if she stared hard enough. She couldn't, he knew. The soul was something nobody could see, maybe never would see. He'd gotten it so that Buffy could trust him, trust him with her heart. Enough that she could tell her friends about them, be who she was instead of the person they wanted her to be. But it didn't come with a handy pin-I got a soul, ask me how!-and he wouldn't believe anything he had to say at this point, so he didn't know why Buffy would. All the way to Africa, the flame-handed gentleman, the hungry little roaches, the two-headed snake woman he'd had to fight with a crucifix, and it was his own little secret.

It was tempting to tell Anya. She, out of all of them, was the most like him. Cut off from her powers, alone in this pissant burg, in love with one of the Scoobies-god, the indignity. Used and abandoned. Yeah, they had a lot in common, although he'd been lying when he said she was the only one of the bunch he wouldn't kill. The birds, he liked them okay. Nothing wrong with them, especially Glinda. The Niblet, of course he'd never hurt her-

He felt sick. Sure, he'd never hurt her, just like he'd never hurt her sister. Saw how well that turned out, right?

"It's nothing," he muttered, turning away from Anya and leaving the shop behind. "Nothing at all."

 





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