Once upon a time, a foolish, romantic young man let himself become a monster, and the rules of his world suddenly became very simple. Humans hated vampires, vampires hated the slayer, vampires ate humans, and the slayer killed every soulless, blood-addicted demon she came across. With this in mind, Spike gleefully wreaked havoc all over the globe with his dark princess at his side. He followed the steps of the vampire creed, as consistent and unfaltering as the dancing figurines in a cuckoo clock, and he rarely questioned anything more than why the Poof was such a wanker or why Americans had such a sweet, tangy aftertaste. But somewhere along the way, he'd detoured right off the spinning clock track, and nothing was simple anymore.

The reason why was difficult to ascertain.

It was quite possibly Dru's fault. If the harpy hadn't decided to unceremoniously dump him and spend the evening snogging the slime out of a chaos demon, they'd probably still be draining every fanny-pack toting tourist that got lost in the backstreets of Brazil. Spike never would've come crawling back to Sunnyhell to lick his wounds, never would've been bagged and tagged by the Initiative, never would've spent so much time reluctantly hanging around the slayer and her pals. Never would've met Charlie either.

Or, door number two, he could blame all of his unlife complications on the chip. Certainly shot his food pyramid straight to hell. But that's not it, the little taunting voice in the back of his head told him. A respectable vampire would have found ways to to kill a human anyway, feed off of their dead bodies, and get as far away from the slayer and Sunnydale as inhumanly possible if he couldn't get the chip dislodged from his brainmatter.

The truth was that Spike let the chip incapacitate him, let it become his excuse for becoming domesticated, like a dog that would rather be in the family house with a muzzle on than be outside and free to chase the chickens.

The ridiculous group of white hats had something that Spike secretly yearned for, perhaps more than blood itself; a closeness with each other that even he couldn't break with his deceit and manipulation. He almost had the same bond with Darla, Angelus, and Dru, but that turned out to be a kick in the face. And obviously Dru as a solo companion ended in spectacular failure. It was painful to admit, all buried in the deepest depths of his heart, but he needed that attatchment, needed to feel relied upon, needed to be a part of something bigger, even if that something was the slayer's group of misfits. And Charlie… well, Charlie was everything he didn't even know he needed until she just… was everything.

No, Spike didn't want his uncomplicated, pre-chip life back, not even for the simplicity of it.

But whatever the culprit for Gordian knot that was currently his unlife, it didn't change the fact that he was now staring at the space that Joyce and the Niblet had been standing in not thirty bloody seconds ago, feeling something strangely like bile rising in his throat. They were gone. The mother, so like his own, that kept her cupboards stocked with cocoa just for him, and the little girl he'd promised to protect, now both in Bleakgrave's vice-like clutches. There was only one thing that Bleakgrave would want them for, and it wasn't a mother-daughter tea party.

The immobilization spell had worn off, but Spike didn't notice until his nails began gouging crescent shaped cuts into the palms of his hands. He dimly noted that Xander was still lying with his face smushed against the linoleum, which would have been funny had it been any other situation. Realizing he was finally able to move his arms, Harris rolled onto his back with a groan and sat up slowly, pressing the heels of his palms to his forehead.

Nearby, the watcher had also regained control of his limbs, but instead of moving, the man was fixated on the spot where Joyce and Dawn had just stood, still gripping the stone gargoyle and so bloodlessly pale he'd fit in with a vampire colony. Demon Girl seemed to be in a similar state of horrified disbelief, but at least she had enough gumption to shake off her distress and see to Xander's injuries.

Spike felt Charlie's body shudder next to him as the spell ended, and she began sucking in lungfuls of air out of ingrained, human habit. Wordlessly, he righted one of the upturned chairs and guided her backwards into it, sitting on his haunches so his face was level with hers. Clutching the sleeve of his duster, she looked at him with teary and unfocused eyes, and he saw his own fears reflected back in them.

"What do we do?" she whispered, her breathing easing off as she gained control over her panic.

What should they do? They ought to run. They ought to get the fuck out of Sunnydale and find a nice little crypt across the pond where the eating was good and they wouldn't be bothered, enjoy each other for the rest of eternity. But Spike already knew that Charlie would dig her heels in, refuse to leave until the Bleakgrave situation was over, one way or another.

And Spike didn't want to run either.

Why? Because he'd gone bloody soft, that's why. Couldn't leave Joyce and Dawn in danger. He could see his own stupid future playing out before him; once he was done playing the big hero, he could go join up with Angel's team, helping the hapless or the soapless or whatever they did. He could fetch Forehead's blood in the mornings, save puppies from burning buildings, and make sure that all the neighborhood children got enough presents for Christmas. God, when had he become such a ponce?

"We get them back, luv," he promised Charlie, with acres more confidence than he felt. Then, feeling the need to lash out at something, Spike sneered at the three remaining store occupants. "So which one of you morons hid the box in a bloody stock bin? In the middle of a retail shop?"

There was a long stretch of silence before anyone volunteered a reply. "We all thought it was the best place at the time, so Willow and Tara enchanted the drawer before we left last night. It was a joint decision, Spike," Xander finally admitted.

"Meaning you all smoked one before you made it, right? You let the Bit and her mum into the place you were hidin' that bastard's stockpile?"

"And what would you have suggested, Spike?" Watcher's voice was strained, but there was no fire in his challenge. "Should we have buried it thirty paces from a sycamore tree and carried it out in the open, back to the shop, only when we were ready to perform the spell?"

Spike blinked. "Given the outcome? Yeah."

"They're pretty much goners, right?" Anya inquired, looking to Giles as she gingerly applied an ice pack to a welt on Xander's forehead. "Bleakgrave's going to do that soul-sucking thing to get back at Buffy and-"

Xander cut her off. "Ahn- can we please be optimistic? I don't think that-"

"-I'm being realistic! How come every time I-"

"-Oh, for god's sake," the watcher interrupted, "can we just agree that we have no-"

"Will just you stop it?!" Charlie yelled, "All of you!" She had sprung from her seat and was glaring at all of them. Better than listless, but the turbulent look on her face was intense, bordering on scary. "Arguing isn't going to fix what just happened. We need to figure out how to get them ba-" The front door opened and Charlie shut her mouth with an audible click, turning a shade paler, if that was even possible, at the sight of Red and the slayer walking into the store.

"I know his truck's old," Willow was saying, holding the door open so the petite blonde could pass through, "but it's the kind that you keep for a long time. Get your money's worth, run it into the ground."

"I think it almost did run us into the ground a few times. He really needs to do that thing where they stick the tires back on straight." Buffy abruptly stopped walking when she realized everyone was idly standing around and staring at them.

"Hey, look, it's a party! And look at us, all stone-having!" The slayer fished a brand new Hepetallium stone out of a small brown paper bag and held it up for everyone to see. Her smile faltered when no one returned her enthusiasm. "And hey, with the long faces. What's wrong? Oh god, was I supposed to get a receipt? Because Manny's return policy was pretty clear about used merchandise…"

Giles removed his glasses and began polishing them so forcefully that Spike was fairly certain he heard the glass cracking. "Buffy… we've, um, had an incident… and um, Dawn…" the watcher paused, seemingly at a loss for words.

Buffy groaned. "This just in, Dawn's in trouble. In other news, water is wet, fire is hot, and my stakes are really pointy. More at 11," she said dryly. "What'd she do now? "

Taking a small step forward, Charlie shook her head, and Spike noticed that his progeny was absently rubbing the scar from his bite on her neck as she spoke. "Dawn didn't do anything, and Buffy, it's not just her… it's your mom too..."

"What do you mean, my mom too? What happened?"

"Bleakgrave… found us," Charlie said, looking more and more uncomfortable. "He showed up just after your mom arrived to pick Dawn up. He took the Coffer back."

"It was here?" Buffy whipped her head towards Willow. "You hid it here?"

"There's no way he could have felt it!" Willow protested. "We used a Burnett hex! And… and where else were we supposed to hide it?"

"I don't know, somewhere that's NOT here?"

Taking a sudden interest in the floor tile, Willow fell silent, and Buffy turned her attention back to the female vampire. "What else?"

"He said he was taking back what was his with a… a penalty... for the, um, in- inconvenience."

"And what was the penalty?" Buffy asked, fear edging into her voice. She blinked a few times as though she was preparing herself for the a physical blow of a demon she was fighting.

Charlie looked pleadingly at Spike, and he could see how much she didn't want to say the rest. "Bleaks took Joyce and Niblet," Spike finished for her, stifling the worried tone in his voice before anyone took notice.

It was clear that the slayer had already assumed as much, but as Spike well knew, thinking it and hearing it out loud were two very different things.

"No. No, he can't. Giles?"

The watcher nodded a pained affirmative, and Buffy went from scared college girl to steely, angry slayer in a microsecond. "Did anyone even try to stop him?!"

Looking at their surroundings, Spike could see why the slayer would have her doubts. Besides a busted open drawer behind the register and a few jostled chairs, nothing in the store seemed out of place.

"Buff, of course we tried…" Xander said, helplessly holding out his arms, "it's just… he was so strong, there was nothing we could have done…"

Without another word, Buffy strode right past the rest of the group and into the training room. The scraping sound of metal on metal and a few loud crashes were heard as the rest of the group stood by, unsure of what to do. A minute or so passed, and when she emerged again, the slayer was loaded to the brim with weapons. A duffle bag full of god-knows-what was slung over one shoulder, a sword and scabbard strapped to the other, a cross bow was perched in one of her hands, while an assortment of knife tips stuck out from underneath her suede jacket. It was overkill and probably useless, and Spike was sure she'd sink like a paperweight if she had to swim anywhere.

"Suit up," Buffy said to no one in particular, which Spike assumed meant everyone.

"Whoooa, hold up a minute! Can we talk about this? Can we have a… a plan… a vague, blurry outline of what we're gonna do?" Willow blurted out.

"We don't have time. Will, we're talking about my mom! And Dawnie... We need to stop him now."

"We do have time. Not a lot of time, but Bleakgrave's rituals can't actually start for another day and a..." Charlie trailed off as the slayer gave her a stare that would have melted the rust off of a fifty year old swing set.

Giles stepped forward, looking like he might put a comforting hand on her shoulder if not for the fact that the slayer was dressed like a porcupine. "Buffy, I know this is most distressing, but-"

"- but? But what? But no? But, we won't? Is anybody coming with me?" Each person in the room was leveled at least once with Buffy's inquiring, albeit pissy gaze, but no one spoke up or moved to join her. "Great. I am the chosen one, after all. Don't know why I was expecting backup from my friends."

With one last withering look, the slayer readjusted the weapons bag and stalked her way towards the door. Spike flexed his jaw in frustration as he stared after her. Thick-headed bint was going to get herself killed, and everyone else by extension. And getting dusted really wasn't on his itinerary for the evening.

"Yeah, this is gonna work out great, Slayer," Spike called out. "You gonna duck and roll into Bleak's boudoir, stick a knife at his throat and say, Mister Magician, Sir, give me back my mum and my kid sis or I'll slice you from gullet to gizzard?"

Buffy didn't bother to turn around but she did stop walking. Progress, at least. "I was thinking more along the lines of less talking, more stabbing. What's your goddamned point, Spike?"

"Point bein', your backup consists of a vamp who couldn't give Bleaks a wet willie without gettin' a migraine, one vamp-cub who's magic-tank looks just like the bleedin' Sahara at the mo', a knackered witch, and the very human cast of Everybody Loves Rupert. Most of which, I should point out, were stuck impersonatin' the Macy's display window while Bleaks ran off with your fam."

Buffy turned around to scowl at him. "Yeah. Got that. Hence with the John Wayne act."

"You go in there alone, you'll be cashin' in your stakes before the hour's out. And when you're outta the game, Joyce and Snack Size will be joinin' you shortly thereafter. We need time to recoup, and you need all of us."

The slayer put her hands on her hips, and got that Condescending-Buffy look on her face that Spike had seen more often than not. "Riley will go with me."

Spike rolled his eyes. "Well, hooah for Captain America. He can get himself flambeed right next to you, now that he's not drinkin' the Initiative's Ecto Cooler. Do you even where your kin is locked up? Do you know how many soddin' rooms there are in the palatial wonder that Bleakgrave calls home?"

"Do you?" Buffy shot back.

"Seven hundred," Willow interjected weakly, dodging Buffy's gaze. "Give or take."

A whole gamut of emotions ran over Buffy's face before she dropped herself down on the steps that divided the front end of the store, anger and fear vibrating from every muscle in her body. She slipped the strap of her bag off her shoulder, and let it clatter to the floor. Spike relaxed a fraction, gladdened to have won at least one victory for the night.

And then the slayer began to cry.

Big, loud sobs wracked her body, and Spike had no sodding idea what to do, or where to look. Really, he should've enjoyed it, the tough little slayer breaking down like that, but it just felt so wrong watching it. Like staring at the sun as a kid after your mother told you not to. Not that he could do that any more.

Willow was the first to sit beside Buffy, wrapping her slim arms around the crying girl and holding her tightly. Xander followed suit, followed by Anya, and then Spike was watching a blubbering, soppy group hug that made his teeth itch and his stomach heave.

"I don't understand how Bleakgrave found the Coffer," Buffy sniffled, "Did we miss the part where it had a mystical lo-jack on it?"

"Maybe," Willow said, pulling away from embrace and picking up the crumpled paper bag that had "Manny's Magic" printed on it in white block letters. She pulled out the yellow gem they'd purchased, frowning glumly as she rotated it in her hand. "Or maybe he followed you back after you took it. Or maybe he followed someone from Dodger's place? We probably should've been more careful, but Buffy, we're gonna get them back. Nothing's going to happen to them."

Taking a deep breath, the slayer wiped her eyes with her sleeves and looked at Charlie. "How much time do we have?"

"It takes thirty six hours for him to start the physical soul harvesting," Charlie informed her. "There's a bunch of spells he has to do, and he can't touch them until they're complete. So, T minus thirty five hours, assuming that he starts right away."

Buffy nodded. "Alright. We'll play it safe and say thirty five hours. Let's figure out exactly how we're going to do this."

"And by "this", you mean come up with a plan to break into Bleakgrave's place, guns blazing?" Xander asked, his brow deeply furrowed.

"Yeah," Buffy replied.

"Okay, here's how we do it. Step one, come up with a different plan."

"Hey, easy on the sarcasm, Xander," Willow scolded.

"No, he's right." Charlie sat down at the table and leaned forward on her elbows. "I'm not sure we can physically beat Bleakgrave, even if Willow and Buffy are leading the charge. He's untouchable. It's a safer bet to keep a low profile, avoid him entirely if we can."

Buffy folded her arms across her chest. "There has to be a weakness of his, some way to beat him. And we need to find it."

"Most likely there is," the watcher acknowledged, "but the first thing we need to do is find a way into the palace. I tend to agree with Charlie… we're not going to win a fight against Bleakgrave until we've weakened him, so we should focus on inconspicuous ways of getting inside to rescue Joyce and Dawn. We'll need to avoid windows and doors to the outside, but perhaps there is something else… underground tunnels or hidden back door? Catacombs, perchance?"

"Guess it's time to do what we do best," Xander said, standing up and tossing his ice pack onto the register counter.

Spike arched an eyebrow at him. "Balls up the situation even worse?"

"Research," the boy retorted.

Oh, bollocks.

Spike was chafing after the first sodding hour. While he had been the one to suggest waiting until they had the fortitude and stamina to go up against the magician, Spike's proposition had certainly not included poring over tomes and documents that were twice as old as he was while sitting in a grimly quiet Magic Box. He generally preferred winging his plans. Every plan he'd made had a habit of going sideways, so avoiding the fact-finding mission would just save them some time.

But no one asked for his input, and regardless of his opinions on research, he'd gotten through the better part of four enormous books by utilizing his talents for fast and efficient reading. He'd even made it through the latin bits, which were so dry and tedious that he couldn't fathom getting through another passage without having a smoke. Or a dozen. Standing up and stretching, Spike wandered over to the bookshelves, under the pretense of doing something helpful, but mostly he was bored out of his skull.

"A genie!" Anya exclaimed suddenly.

"Bless you," Willow murmured, not looking away from the floor plans on her laptop screen.

"No, no. I was just thinking, we need a genie to defeat Bleakgrave!" Anya was all smiles as everyone momentarily abandoned their research or lack of thereof to try and make sense of her suggestion. "A genie? You know, trapped in a lamp, grants three wishes, all that. It worked for the kid with the monkey and the flying carpet. He tricked the evil mage into wishing for genie-hood, and locked him away forever in a lamp of his own."

A flash of bewildered silence passed before Giles shut his eyes and let out a frustrated sigh. "Shall I go get Robin Williams on the phone, then?"

"Oh, he's got a genie? That's great!"

Much to Spike's displeasure, the study-group sat for almost six more hours, looking through every book with mentions of France and pouring over topographical maps of Sunnydale, dredging up internet articles on Versailles, and scouring European records for anything regarding Bleakgrave's personal history. He broke up his reading sessions with three trips out for a cigarette and one failed attempt to get Charlie into the training room for a quickie. But she was still too worried and far too focused on her task to let anything divert her attention, and Spike let it go when the watcher began glaring threateningly at him whilst sharpening a set of pencils to needlelike points.

By 2 AM, they had found plenty on all the subjects they were looking for, but there was nothing that was of any use to them. That is to say, there was nothing of any use on the subject of Bleakgrave. If Spike had known that Rupert had such detailed maps of their little Hellmouth town, he'd never have bothered breaking into the town clerk's office when he was looking for the Gem of Amara.

"How do you know when you've had too much coffee?" Willow's voice cracked as she spoke, and everyone glanced up from their various books and papers as if woken from a trance.

"Can you see sounds yet?" Charlie asked, watching without much interest as Anya yawned into her fist.

Willow squinted at the middle of the table. "Nope. Just an empty carafe."

"Then I vote for brewing another pot."

Giles cleared his throat and closed the book he had been reading. "No, I think we should adjourn for the night… er… morning. We haven't made any progress, and some rest and a fresh set of eyes will do a world of good."

"But Giles-" Buffy began.

"I know, Buffy. I know," the watcher said compassionately. "A few hours of sleep is all I'm suggesting. We still have some time, so we should use it wisely. No rushed decisions, we need a solid plan. I say everyone goes home, goes to bed, and we reconvene mid morning."

"I can't go home," the slayer said, sounding as though she were about to burst into tears again. "I can't bear the thought of being at the house without… without…"

With a concerned look on her face, Willow lightly grasped the slayer's arm. "Do you want me to spend the night at our dorm? You shouldn't be alone, Buffy. I'll grab Tara and we'll turn it into a slumber party. We need to fill her in anyway."

"Yeah," Buffy said quietly. "I'd like that. And we'll all meet back here in a few hours?"

Around the table, everyone nodded and voiced their agreement.

"Good." The slayer stood, and her chair scraped against the floor as she pushed it back. "Because I need you guys. More than ever."

"You've got us, Buff. This is a kitchen sink kind of deal," Xander said, folding up his map and placing it on the stack they'd been going through. "We're all in."

The walk back to the crypt was rather gloomy and Charlie's melancholy mindset was obvious. Spike knew there was nothing he could tell her that would ease her mind, so instead of talking, he slipped his fingers into hers as they trekked home. Though she didn't erupt into cheerful conversation, he was comforted by the fact that she gave him a half smile and bestowed his hand with a gentle squeeze.

Lost in his own thoughts as they strolled past sculpted mausoleums and crumbling tombstones, he almost missed the sound of rattling chains as they came within a few yards of their stone abode. Charlie didn't miss it though, dragging him down behind a headstone so quickly that he almost landed on top of her. She let out a low hiss, and her fangs morphed into place.

"Baddies come to play in our neck of the woods, have they?" Spike muttered, slipping into game face and peering out from behind their cover.

"I doubt that there's going to be any playing," Charlie said, gripping the headstone as the chains jangled again in the distance.

Spike narrowed his eyes in the direction of the noises, tensing up even more as a weirdly familiar scent drifted from the direction of the crypt. "Wait here, pet."

"What are you, my bodyguard?" she whispered back, her supernaturally green eyes gleaming angrily in the darkness. "You're not leaving me behind."

For fuck's sake. "Will you for once, just bloody listen to me, woman! I can't have you-"

A girly yell of frustration interrupted his diatribe. It was then that he noticed the golden head of hair bobbing up from over the row of hedges next to the crypt, and he realized that he was smelling an almost toxic amount of fruity body lotion. Reassured that it was neither Bleakgrave or Dodger attempting to ambush them, Spike stormed over to the crypt entrance and halted behind the intruder, making no effort to conceal himself.

The blonde was on her knees in front of the door, with one manicured hand wrapped around the padlock and a bobby pin pinched between the fingers of the other. "Oh. Hi Spike."

Spike almost choked on his own tongue when he realized who it was.



Aw, hi guys. I'm still here! And hi to all you new followers and favoriters and lurkers! I'm sorry these updates are a bit slow, but alas, life is doing life things and I'm just getting dragged along behind the bus it's driving. Next chapter has lots of Harmony, and it's funny- I never used to pay much attention to her much until I watched the Harm's Way episode on Angel. And then... I kinda simultaneously liked her and felt bad for her? Kinda.

As always, thanks for reading and commenting! I love seeing the alerts pop up in my mailbox and it makes me want to drop whatever I'm doing and write MOAR stuff.

xoxo MW