Fucking demon monkey-pawed him. He'd done his damned trials, and they were some of the stupidest things he'd ever done, even if they hurt like a motherfucker, and then that poncy rock-headed git with his Day-Glo eyes slapped a hand down on his chest and gave it to him all right. Gave him the soul he wanted, the soul he'd earned, but at the same time he'd slipped him Pandora's box. Unchipped him, something he'd wanted for years, ever since they shoved that bit of tin in his head and stopped him from being the vampire he was made to be. Gave him what he wanted now, and at the same time gave him what he'd wanted for so long it had been all he thought about sometimes.

But not anymore. Not for a long time. Since before he'd gotten the soul, before Buffy even came back.

Trying to prove he'd always be evil, right? Bastard.

And somewhere inside, he wanted it. Beyond his soul, beyond his reason, it was hardwired into him. The very thought of sinking his teeth into someone's throat made his mouth water in the most humiliating way, like he was Pavlov's dog. He bet the slimy tosser was laughing his bony ass off about him right now back in his cave on the savannah-Yeah, fooled another one! The only thing dumber than a vampire is another vampire! God, Spike would like to take that rancid little demon's neck and twist until his brains spurted out his ears, and then he'd pull out those disgusting little eyes and-

Eh. Much more with the eyes, and he'd start to sound like Dru.

It was done, and he wasn't going back to Africa, even for some wonderful mayhem. He was in Sunnydale, and he wasn't going anywhere. Needed to settle himself down, though. Nice spot of violence sounded good, didn't it? Always hit the spot. Couldn't indulge in it as much the last few years, of course.

But now, thanks to his green-eyed friend, the restrictions were gone.

***

Buffy's head throbbed as she closed the door behind her, shutting Dawn in her room. Dawn was exhausted, and she'd changed into her pj's, crawled into bed, and was asleep before Buffy even had the light out. The whole story had come tumbling out-Dawn, upset by Spike's leaving and upset again by his return. Determined to punish him. How would she punish him? How could she? The same way she'd punished them all last year, of course. She had no other way. Breaking his heart, that was for Buffy. Trying to break him physically was for whoever was sick enough to send him ... this, Buffy thought, shifting the bag of bones in her hands. It was the first she'd seen it. It seemed so simple, and so disturbed.

It seemed exactly like witchcraft.

"Buffy?"

Buffy turned as Giles addressed her. He pointed to the bag in her hand. "Is that it? The item that caused all this concern?"

Wordlessly she held it out to him. He took it, weighed it between his fingers, finally opened the sack and peered inside. "That is ... interesting, isn't it?" he murmured, pushing the contents around with one finger.

"Yeah. That's what I usually say when people curse my boyfriends. That it's interesting," Buffy returned bitingly.

Giles winced a little, but he wasn't really bothered. She'd always reacted poorly to people threatening her loved ones. Understandable, really.

He bent forward to get a closer look at the mangy collection of bones. There was something odd about them ... something....

"Buffy, can you get me a magnifying glass?" Giles requested. After waiting a few moments he looked up expectantly and found he was alone in the living room. The front door stood open.

Buffy was gone.

***

"What do you mean, gone?" Xander asked, wishing he had a better cell phone. This one always seemed to cut out at the worst times.

"I mean she was here, and now she's not," Giles returned testily. "It's one of the more common definitions of gone, I'd say."

"Do you want me to look for her?" Xander asked. Giles wasn't surprised-Xander had always been the first to offer help, for anything.

"I don't think that's necessary; she's more than able to take care of herself. I want you to go to Willow, and stay with her."

"Why?" asked Xander, puzzled.

"Because one of them will show up there-or both."

"Who? I mean, why? No, who?"

"Buffy and Spike. Because eventually they'll come to the same conclusion I have, and look for her.

"And Xander? Hurry."

***

He was hurrying, but being careful. Blowing it wouldn't help Willow at all. As Xander parked in front of his apartment his eyes searched the lot, looking for anyone who didn't belong there.

And then Xander saw it, moving toward the stairs-the flash of mostly-dark blond hair with startling platinum at the ends. He saw himself, even, as he moved to block Spike from reaching the staircase, to put himself between Spike and Willow. It was such a strange sensation, to see himself move.

And then Spike lunged at him so quickly he saw nothing at all.

***

Willow surveyed the books she'd laid out before her. Xander was late-it wasn't like him-and she had to keep herself occupied, so she was rearranging his bookshelves. "On the Road," highly abused-possibly out of resentment, she thought, from Xander's abortive summer on the open road; "Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?"; "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance"-the spine wasn't even wrinkled on that one. About a thousand comic books (graphic novels, Willow reminded herself), some "Star Trek" novels, and, inexplicably, Milan Kundera's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." Willow had no idea where that one was from.

Maybe she'd get Xander some more books, good ones, for his birthday. Yeah, that was a good idea.

A repetitious sound filtered to the front of Willow's mind and she registered that someone was knocking on the door. "Come in," she called absently, her mind on the books she'd piled on the coffee table in front of her. She didn't bother to look behind her as she heard the door open. Probably Giles, wanting to see-

"I would think that after living in Sunnydale for so many years you'd realize that inviting people in without seeing who's there is rather a bad practice," Spike said coolly, shutting the door behind him. "But some people never do learn from their mistakes."

***

She'd searched half the city before she found him-at least that's what it had felt like. And when she found him, Spike was just walking down the street, a grocery bag dangling from one hand. Looking as normal as can be, just an ordinary guy. In his case, an ordinary guy who drank blood and stayed out of the sun.

In his case, a guy who could now shake her sister until he left red marks on her arms.

He noticed her approach and smiled wolfishly. "Hello, beautiful," he murmured, reaching out his free arm for a purely gratuitous squeeze. He seemed to want physical contact constantly. He had his hands over her all the time they were together, holding her hand, rubbing her back, stroking her hair. Twining their fingers together until she stopped thinking and could only look at their tangled hands like an idiot.

She was pretty sure she could live with it.

Not so much with some other things.

"You can hurt people now," she observed neutrally.

"I noticed," he agreed dryly.

"So you're not going to go all ... fangy, are you?"

"Do I look fangy to you?" he asked tolerantly.

She studied him for a moment, then shrugged. "Guess not," she sighed, turning back to home, tugging him with her. She wanted to ask more, but she was exhausted, and the question hadn't been necessary, really.

She knew she could trust him.

"Like I'd give up you just to bite people," he scoffed, and she glanced up into his eyes.

"What if you didn't have me?"

His gait began to slow, then resumed unabated. "Never happen, pet."

"For argument's sake."

"Even if I didn't have you, I've got the soul, and that's a nasty little stopper." He halted and pulled her close, tucking her head under his and rubbing his face against her hair, relishing her scent, her proximity. "When I fight for something, I keep it," he murmured.

Against him, she smiled.

Finally she'd found herself a keeper.

***

The door to his apartment wasn't standing open, and that was, Xander thought, probably a good thing.

He touched the swollen spot under his eye gingerly. Buffy had told him back in May that Spike's chip still worked, that he could only hurt her. Looks like there'd been a new development since then.

Xander tried the door-locked-and then dug out his keys and tried again. "Willow?" he called, stepping into the apartment. He tensed slightly, worried about what he'd find. And there she was, curled up in an armchair ... perfectly healthy ... reading Legion of Superheroes? "Will? Are you okay?" he asked in surprise.

She looked up and nodded, blushing a little. The comic was more engrossing than she expected. "Better than you, I guess," she said, pointing at his blue-shaded cheek.

"I'm okay," he told her. "Spike was here?" Willow nodded. "Did he do anything to you? Hit you, bite you, any ... kind of thing?"

Willow shook her head. She seemed unusually calm for someone who'd just had an encounter with an obviously unchipped vampire, he thought. "We talked for a while, then he left. Was he the one who...?" she gestured towards his face. Actually, she gestured towards her face, but he knew what she meant.

"Yeah."

"Wow. I'm pretty impressed you're all calm, then," she noted. "Usually you're kind of, uh, unhinged when it comes to Spike."

"Well, considering that half an hour ago I thought he was going to kill me and then kill you, yeah, I feel pretty calm. I'm pretty sure it's because massive amounts of endorphins are pumping through my bloodstream, making me unnaturally calm."

"Actually, endorphins-"

Xander, out of long experience, headed off her spiel. "Yeah, I'm sure they're fascinating. But more to the point, Spike? What the hell?"

Willow winced. She didn't want to discuss it, but she didn't have a choice. Xander was going to find out-they all were-and it was only right that she be the one to tell him.

After all he'd done for her, she owed him that. She owed him much more, she knew. "First you tell me what happened out there," she sighed.

"I saw him outside-Giles had told me to come here and watch out for you. He came at me so fast I thought for sure I was dead. I thought I was ground chuck. Or ground Xander," he amended with a shadow of a smile.

"So he hit you?"

Xander nodded, unconsciously rubbing his cheek again. If Spike could hit him, he could bite him, and if he could bite him ... Xander didn't see any way that could end with him not being dead. Yet here he was, mostly fine. And across from him, Willow was holding a comic and seemed to be reading it, so apparently it was miracles all around that night.

"Yeah, he hit me. And when he came at me I thought I was dead, and that you were dead, and when I woke up I realized I wasn't dead, and found this on my chest, and was thinking that you probably weren't dead either," he concluded, holding up a slip of paper. Willow took it from him and looked at it.

"It's a receipt from the Liquor Barn over on Van Ness," she pointed out in surprise. Not really a guarantee of safety, to her mind. Although it was a guarantee of low prices, at least according to the receipt.

"Turn it over."

Willow did, and read in a peculiarly formal handwriting across the back, "Sorry about all the times I tried to kill you."

She started to laugh. He looked at her for a moment, then started to glare. A little. "You know, it's not really funny," he said dryly.

After a moment her laughter faded. Yes, it was funny, all of it, just not in an ... okay, funny way. "He said that to me, too," she said, face becoming somber. "I mean, different words, but the same basic meaning."

"Why was he here, Willow? ‘Cause from what Giles said, I'm thinking it was more than just the Joy of Hitting Xander. Although that's usually been good enough for people in the past."

"Yeah. Yeah, he had a reason."

He looked at her expectantly. Innocently. Willow felt her heart contract.

"You might want to sit down," she whispered.

 

***

Buffy turned over restlessly in bed, disturbing the covers and making it impossible for Spike to either get to sleep or cuddle her.

She really didn't take surprises well.

"She tried to kill you," Buffy muttered. Spike wasn't sure if she was talking to herself or to him.

"Nothing's getting settled tonight," Spike reminded her quietly. "Get to sleep, it'll be morning before you know it."

"How can I sleep?" Buffy demanded. "I try to settle down, and then I think of it, and think of her, and then I just get this ball in my stomach."

Obligingly Spike moved his hand to her tummy and rubbed soothingly. "You can sleep," he sighed, his voice lingering in the air. Hypnotic bastard, she thought, trying to charm her into falling asleep.

"Are you going to leave your hair like that forever?" Buffy asked crankily, raking her fingers through his overgrown curls.

Spike shrugged. "I don't much care about it," he said honestly. "What do you want me to do?"

"We'll cut it and bleach it tomorrow," she said. "After."

Spike turned against her and nuzzled her cheek. "We'll trade," he whispered. "You bleach mine, I bleach yours...."

"I'm a natural blonde!" exclaimed Buffy.

Spike snorted against her and she wiggled in righteous but tiring indignation, and finally felt the tension begin to leave her limbs. His hands skated down her sides and she didn't think anymore.

As she melted against him, boneless, he inhaled her scent and marveled at the difference just a few months could make. And to think she'd loved him-she told him, and he believed her-before she ever knew about the soul. It was where he'd wanted to be for so long. That demon-that stupid pillock back in Africa-he was the idiot if he thought Spike would give this up for anything.

Spike tightened his hold on Buffy, knowing it wouldn't hurt her. If he could he'd disappear inside her skin. As it was, he was in heaven.

It was good to be home.

***

Buffy was still in the bed beside him, lost in sleep, when Spike rose. He slid out of the bed so gently the mattress barely moved, and she didn't stir as he pulled on his clothes and made his way down the stairs.

In the kitchen he found Giles sitting down, chin resting on his steepled hands, staring at the bag of bones laying in the center of the table.

He was waiting.

 





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