Witness

August 2004

North Carolina

"Angel, hey," Buffy said, touching his wrist.

He whirled around. It was eight-thirty, just past sunset, and he had been looking around the airport's central lobby for a few minutes. "Buffy," he said, grinning. "You snuck up on me." Then he lifted her in a bear hug and twirled her around, giving her an enthusiastic kiss on the cheek.

"Good to see you, too," she said wryly, as he put her down, but she was also grinning.

"How was the flight?" he asked. "Here, let me get that for you." He reached for her luggage.

"Don't bother," she said, pulling up a collapsible handle. "It rolls. The flight was delayed a bit, so I haven't been waiting all that long."

He took the handle from her. "So, what have you been reading?"

"A book, thank you very much," she replied. Then she held up a John Grisham legal thriller.

Angel smiled. "If you want to stay by the doors, I can pull up for you in just a few minutes."

"No, that's okay. I'd rather walk with you."

At a sudden loss to do anything else, he smiled at her. "You look beautiful, Buffy. Rome agrees with you." She was beautiful, even after the long trip, and he could tell that she had been taking care of herself.

"Thanks," Buffy replied, looking almost shy at his compliment. "You're looking good, yourself."

He asked about her sister, and she told him about Dawn and school and their apartment and how much better she spoke Italian now than she ever thought she would. Angel smiled the whole time, thoroughly enjoying the normalcy of the conversation. When they were close to the truck, he unlocked it remotely.

"Big truck," Buffy said, looking at it.

"Sally's." Angel pushed down the handle and lifted the suitcase into the back of the cab. Then he lifted Buffy and placed her on the passenger seat, retooling the old, gallant gesture of lifting a lady onto her horse. "The windows in the truck are treated with a film that keeps vampires safe from the sun. We can travel during the day, so long as I have a dark place to park at the end of the journey."

"Necrotempering," Buffy said. "Giles told us about it, issued a memo and everything, so we wouldn't be caught unaware."

Angel nodded and closed her door. He willed himself to be casual as he got in the driver's seat. "Well, let's get out of here," he said, forcing his smile this time. He paid the parking fee and navigated the confusing tangle of roads around the airport in silence until he found the one he wanted.

"Buffy?" He saw her turn to him out of the corner of his eye. He had planned this ahead of time, but so much depended on her. "There's something I wanted to… I was thinking. When I'm an old, old vampire living with his regrets, I don't want one of the things I regret to be that I never got to… that I never had a chance to enjoy room service with you."

"Room service?" Her eyebrows went up in amusement and surprise.

"Yeah, room service. I, uh, got a hotel room. I thought you might like to freshen up after your flight, and then we could have room service brought up." He shrugged. "We can go from there."

Buffy realized that he didn't say 'leave from there.' She was quiet for a few seconds, mulling over his offer. "All right. That sounds good. I wouldn't mind showering and getting rid of the airplane smell."

He suppressed his relief. "Good," he said simply.

Buffy watched him as they pulled into valet parking at a surprisingly upscale hotel. Angel sauntered around the front of the truck and came to open her door for her, claiming her suitcase again. He tossed the keys to the valet and escorted her inside the lobby. She couldn't help noticing again how good he looked, much better than he had in Cleveland, healthier, and her stomach suddenly developed a case of the butterflies. Just room service, she told herself as they rode the elevator up to the seventh floor, and then we'll leave. That's all it can be.

Angel held the door to his room open for her. He had left the lights on. "Flowers?" she asked, nodding at the colorful spray on the table.

"Not roses." He hoisted her suitcase onto a luggage rack, then went to the window and opened the curtains. He turned back to her and picked up a binder from the table, holding it in front of him almost defensively. "The, uh, menu. If we order before you take a shower, the food should be here about the time you finish."

"Good thinking," she agreed. Smiling up at him, she came to the table and made her choices.

"If you want to, uh, get what you need from your suitcase, I'll call it in," Angel suggested. He watched her as he spoke on the phone, her movements, the way she tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear as she leaned over. She was so much more self-assured now than she had been when he first knew her.

He paced the length of the room, listening to the hiss of the shower. He had fed earlier, finishing the last of the blood from the cooler, and now he was so nervous, he didn't think he could eat a bite of the appetizer he'd ordered to be companionable. The sound of the shower ceased, and Angel stopped pacing long enough to doff his jacket. He almost jumped when he heard a knock at the door, then closed his eyes with relief. At least now he would have something to do besides wait.

Buffy finished drying her hair, then aimed the hairdryer at the steamy mirror. Room service. That was all. She made a face at herself. So why had she chosen extra nice undies to put on? There was no way he would ever get to see them. She put on jeans and a sweater, camouflaging the lacy underwear, and felt much more secure.

When she came out of the bathroom, Angel had just uncorked a bottle of wine. He stood still for a moment, framed by the open window behind him, and watched her. "Feel better?" he finally asked.

"Much," she agreed. "And hungry. Thanks, Angel. This was very thoughtful, a really good idea." She came over to the table, and he put down the bottle and pulled out a chair.

"To room service," Angel said, raising his glass high.

"Room service," Buffy agreed.

They ate in silence, their eyes meeting frequently across the table, and Angel found that he had an appetite after all. He poured himself more wine and lifted his eyebrows in query. After a brief hesitation, Buffy nodded, and he refilled her glass, too.

"So, how was your trip?" Buffy asked, lowering her fork.

He shrugged. "Not bad. I usually drive at night, so the amount of traffic was sort of a surprise."

"So, you left from the garage and didn't stop until you pulled up into valet parking?"

"Pretty much." He swirled the wine in the bottom of his glass. "Have you seen your father?"

Buffy looked down. "Yes," she said quietly. "Once, in Barcelona. It-it was enough."

"Is Dawn okay?"

"I think Dawn's more okay with it than I am." She nodded toward the cityscape beyond the window, changing the subject. "Charlotte is bigger than I thought it would be."

He glanced outside, nodding in agreement. "Not as big as Rome, though."

"Or L.A." She took a sip from her wineglass. "Do you miss it?"

Angel shrugged. "I miss my people. I didn't think about leaving the city. I really didn't expect to survive the strike."

"But you did."

He nodded. "What doesn't kill you…."

"Makes you stronger. Right," Buffy finished. "Ever worry that we're getting too strong, Angel?"

"I used to. You put yourself out there on the line and survive. Then you do it again, and again… You don't defeat evil, just… push it back a little."

"Was that what you did when you left L.A.?"

He shrugged. "Probably not much more than that. I hurt Wolfram and Hart, no doubt. Not a mortal wound, though."

Buffy raised her hand, as if in class. "Fought the First. Been there."

"It never seems to end."

"No." Buffy looked out the window, swishing the wine in her glass. "It never ends."

"It can be worth it," Angel mused, staring into his own wineglass. "If you're doing it for someone you love."

She shifted her gaze to the remains of the meal. "How often does that happen? It's usually something much more nebulous," she said, giving him a sardonic look, "like the world."

He smiled in agreement. "Poor us, huh?"

Buffy met his eyes and smiled, too. "Yeah. Poor us." She glanced at the interior of the room. "I figure one of us has to say it, so I will. That's a gi-normous bed."

Angel looked down. "It is. I asked for a king-sized bed, and the hotel really delivered."

She stared at him for a long moment. "Why?"

He met her wary gaze. "I have another regret, Buffy. I never got to be at your side when you woke up. I'd like to stay the night, if you don't mind."

She stood from the table, shaking her head to rid herself of a memory of what he – what Angelus had said when they first saw each other after that night. "I… I can't share a bed with you, Angel." She shook her head again, more vehemently. "I don't have a lot of control where you're concerned. I-it wouldn't be safe."

"Actually, it would." He looked down. "It's safe. I've done it before… since that night, without losing my soul."

Buffy stared at him, stunned. Her head turned to the side, but her eyes never left him. "You… slept with…."

He stood up, too, turning to look out of the window. The pain in her eyes was too much. He knew that pain, but he'd always known she wouldn't be celibate after him. It was a new idea to her, so he tried to explain.

"The first time, I didn't care anymore. I'd been in L.A. for almost two years, you were moving on with your life, and I just didn't care. I thought I would lose my soul, and I would have welcomed it. It was a dark time." He glanced over his shoulder. "But I didn't lose my soul. There've been a couple of others since then." He shrugged, staring at her reflection in the glass. Her arms were crossed tightly over her chest, as if she were cold. "It isn't the sex. Our first time… I didn't see anything beyond you, Buffy. I was living in the moment, and I was perfectly happy." He turned around and met her eyes. "I don't do that anymore. I don't have… expectations. I agree, if we stay here, share this bed, we'll make love. I'll be happy, you know I will. But it won't be perfect. I'm not asking for cookies, Buffy. We love each other, and we can share this time. But I know we won't be together long. This… we can never be perfectly happy, and in a bitter sort of way, that's good. 'No ties, no responsibilities,' I think you said."

He couldn't read the look in her eyes. "Angel, that's just it: we love each other. That makes all the difference, you know it does. Don't tempt me."

Angel went to the bed and bent to pick up something from beneath it. "I brought protection." He half-smiled and held up the stakes.

She looked horrified. "How can you ask me to do that," she asked, tears filling her eyes, "again?"

He strode across the short distance to her and put his hands on her arms. "God, I didn't think… I don't want to die, Buffy. I would never… I just wanted to reassure you. I'd do it myself, if it came to that. I'd know, have enough time to–"

"Was it Faith?" She was staring at his chest.

"Fai– No, Buffy. Never Faith. I don't think of her that way." He gave her a twisted grin. "No slayers. Not even anyone totally human." He took a chance and enfolded her in his arms. "Not Cordy." After a moment, she returned the embrace.

"Angel, you're insane." Buffy sniffled, then looked up at him. "You'd risk your soul to sleep with me?"

"No." He looked down at her mouth, then at her eyes. "I'd risk my soul to wake up beside you, Buffy."

Her lips parted, and it was all the invitation Angel needed. They had spent whole nights kissing, it seemed, and he missed the feel of her mouth. Their conversation, their surroundings, their fate fell away.

After long minutes, Buffy pulled her face away from his. Her hand slid from his neck to cover her mouth. "Angel. Oh my God." She looked at his chest. "I can't believe we're doing this. I never, ever let myself think, not really, not even for a moment–"

He slid his hands from her waist to her shoulders, pulling her closer. "I have, but I've been afraid. Plus, I haven't seen you except during crises and times of apocalypse. Not exactly romantic circumstances."

She gave a shaky laugh. "No, they haven't been, have they?" She glanced at the large bed. "This is probably the most romantic setting we've ever had."

He gave her a grave look, thinking of one twenty-four hour period that she didn't remember. "Yes, I guess it is." He sighed. "Buffy, if you want, we can leave now." Angel lowered his lashes. "I won't be mad or anything. I'm used to the disappointment."

"I think we both must be mad," Buffy replied, shaking her head. She touched his face with her hand, then slid her fingers around the back of his neck. "I want this, too." She stood on tiptoe and lifted her face to find his for another kiss. Then she slid out of his embrace and went to turn down the covers. She looked back at him, almost shyly.

Remembering a passionate encounter that she didn't gave him an unfair advantage, and he moved close to her and took her hand, running his thumb across hers. Buffy looked at their hands, then up into his clear brown eyes, her expression suddenly serious. Angel lowered his head to kiss her again, and she met him, all shyness and doubt gone.

"There you are, honey." Sally peered over the edge of the couch, where Spike lay reading a book. "I haven't seen you all night."

Since he had unlocked her at eight o'clock, he had in fact been avoiding her. He was avoiding a lot, truth be told. There was the puzzling lack of passion to their private greeting yesterday, leaving him wondering where the urgency had gotten to. And, of course, Angel was in proximity to Buffy. He was trying hard not to think about that. "Uh, I've been around."

She nodded, then held up an empty glass jar. "I was just thinking: it's the end of August and I don't know where the summer's gone. Do you want to go catch fireflies with me?"

He sat up, his brows drawn together. "Catch fireflies? Why?"

"Not for any reason. Just for fun, just because they're pretty. People do catch them and sell them to researchers, though. What's the word… bioluminescence, that's it. I swear all the slow ones have been culled. They're harder to catch now. But I think we can take 'em. You, me… the little buggers don't have a chance."

"Are you sure you want me to help?" he asked, meeting her eyes squarely.

"I'm sure," she agreed, rolling her eyes. "I'm a big girl, can tie my own shoes and everything. I think I can spend an hour in your company without dying of embarrassment. Today, anyhow."

"Okay." He put the book face down on the couch and stood. "If you're sure." These last words had a tinge of sarcasm.

"Hey," she said, recognizing the book. "The Riverside Shakespeare. Impressive," she added, pulling a face.

"Used to love Shakespeare," he said, sighing. Then he shrugged. "It's a requirement, I guess. British." He indicated himself with a casual gesture.

"I like to see it performed."

"Well, I'm reading the sonnets."

"That's right. You like poetry." She glanced back at him as they went into the kitchen. "You like the way he plays with words?"

"I like the way the words can make you feel." Spike shrugged again, as if embarrassed.

"Even with the Riverside footnotes, I don't understand all the poems," Sally admitted, holding the screen door for him.

"You don't have to understand them. The words alone just make you feel."

"You're more soulful than I am," Sally said, punning. "Poetry doesn't usually do that for me. Like Leaves of Grass, which I guess I should love because I'm American, but I don't. W. H. Auden, now there's a poet."

Spike shook his head in disagreement. "It's not poetry if it doesn't rhyme."

"But his words speak to me, whereas my mind just flinches when it hears 'again' rhymed with 'Spain.'"

"Typical American. When I hear a 'poem' that doesn't rhyme, I spend my mental time trying to come up with rhymes."

"Well, I reckon you've got a more sophisticated understanding of it than I do."

He shook his head. "Just old-fashioned."

"I like old-fashioned." Sally smiled at him. "Well, let's go catch lightnin' bugs," she said in a brisk, exaggerated Southern accent. She looked around the yard, then ran to where a firefly drifted upwards, easing her hand beneath it like a landing strip. She cupped the little insect in her hand, then popped it into the jar. Spike was already beside her, a firefly held between his curved palms. "Impressive," she said again, opening the lid for him.

He gave her a lazy grin. "You have no idea. Yet." It sounded slightly forced, to him.

She started to answer, thought better of it. "Here," she said instead, handing him the jar, and went in hunt of another winking ascent. It was after eleven when they stopped, the jar aglow with the bugs. Spike had leapt lightly into an apple tree in pursuit of a particularly erratic firefly. He caught it and grinned down at Sally in triumph. She stood beneath with the captured insects, her head thrown back so she could see him among the leafy branches. Her answering smile faded, and all he could see was the paleness of her face and neck before she turned away. When she was clear, he jumped down, landing lightly on the balls of his feet.

Sally had the lid ready. "Last one," she said. "They're pretty much up in the trees for the night, anyway."

Spike looked at her sharply. "What?"

"What 'what?'" She replied, closing the jar on their latest captive. She handed it to him again and began walking back toward the house.

"That's a new tone of voice."

She shook her head, averting her face. "I don't know what you mean."

He stood under the apple tree a moment, watching her walk away. She made a mid-course correction and headed for the empty tobacco shed instead of the house. He followed her, his earlier uneasiness forgotten in the face of his friend's apparent distress.

She hadn't turned on the lights, just walked to the swing. Sally held the ropes, with one knee resting on the seat of the swing in front of her. Her head was bowed.

"What's wrong?" Spike said from the doorway.

"Nothing." She glanced back at him and saw the jar. "Let them go. The fireflies, I mean. They don't live long. This stage of their lives, they don't eat or anything. They just float around, looking for a mate."

"We spent an hour or more collecting the bloody things," he grumbled, having to take a breath to do so, and started to undo the lid. Instead, he walked into the building and stood next to her, putting a hand beneath her chin. She let him raise her face, her lips firming as she met his eyes.

"I thought I smelled… Why are you crying?"

She shook her head, moving away from his touch. "Because I… women just do, sometimes." She shrugged. "Don't worry about it. Here," she said, clearing her throat and reaching for the jar.

He didn't let go. "Did I do something?"

"No. No, Spike."

"Did I not do something?"

This earned him a smile. "You do know your women, don't you, honey?" She let go of the swing and walked to the other end of the shed, unbarred the door, and opened it. "It's just… me. I'll be fine in a little while. Here, let them go."

He joined her at the door and unscrewed the lid, putting the jar on the ground just outside the shed. The insects began crawling onto the rim and floating off into the night. "You might as well tell me, love. You know I'll get it out of you sooner or later."

She watched the fireflies as they made their escape. "Why does it matter?"

"Because whatever it was, it made you cry. I don't like to see that."

"Later, then. We'll talk after things are back to normal, once y'all get Buffy to Cleveland."

"It has to do with Buffy, then?" Sally met his eyes, and he realized that he had heard that tone of voice before, in L.A., when he and Angel had eavesdropped on her conversation with Jim. She had been telling the medic about Henry's death.

"No. It doesn't have anything to do with Buffy." She stood straighter and deliberately changed her expression, falling into the exaggerated Southern drawl again. "That dog don't want to hunt, Spike. Leave it under the porch."

"No." He said it flatly. "Would you let me be, if I were sad like this?"

She thought about it, which surprised him. "I'd like to think that I would, but, no, probably not. I'm pushy that way, wanting to know people's problems so I can fix it, make it all better."

"So," he said, taking her hands, "tell me, and I'll fix it and make it all better." He watched her face with growing unease as she struggled not to smile, then not to cry again.

"Do you think I can outrun you, Spike?"

His eyebrows drew together in bewilderment. "No," he said slowly. "You could probably knock me out, though."

She glanced away, clearly angry. "I'd never hit you."

"You haven't known me long enough." He thought it was a pretty funny comeback.

Sally pulled her hands away, made an irate noise, and walked past the swing and almost to the opposite door, her head down again. "So, I can't outrun you, and you aren't going to let it go. That about right?" She looked at him across the distance. "Fine. Anytime."

"Anytime… what?" Spike asked.

She dropped her gaze. "The Hemi, the Hurley shifter, high octane… anytime." When he didn't say anything, she put the heels of her hands over her eyes in frustration. "The keys, Spike. I'm giving back the keys."

What hadn't ignited last night did so now, and the memory of how she looked beneath him, her eyes unfocused with passion, suddenly came to him. Then his dazed look was replaced by a narrow one. "What changed, pet?"

She shook her head warningly. "I believe that's my line."

He was across the length of the building in a blur, lowering his head to put it on a level with hers. "What changed, Sally?"

She looked away, did not move away. "Times have changed, and I have to change with them, I guess. I can't expect the same kind of relationship. I mean, I'm a demon. I won't be getting married again. The church would explode or something. You know, unholy matrimony." She shrugged, a bitter smile twisting her lips. "It was a new idea to me, that's all. I've had time to think, now."

"Sally." His tone made her name a threat.

She did move away then, looking at the far door. Some of the fireflies had flown into the shed and were twinkling in the rafters. "You and Angel aren't going to stay forever, Spike, no matter how much I'd like you to. If we don't at least try, I'll always regret it. That would be a long time to live with regret. I have an idea of what I'm missing." She gave him a faint smile. "I did intend to buy sexy black undies to wear before this happened."

He stood up a bit, distracted by the visual image forming in his mind for a second, then moved in front of her once again, an expression close to a snarl now on his face. His hands on her shoulders, though, were gentle, and the unstated control underlying this was disconcerting to them both. "Nice try, but no. You don't lie to me, Sally, remember?" He leaned down again, waited for her to meet his gaze. "Now, tell me: what changed?" There was a look in her eyes that he had sometimes seen on his prey, when they were too worn from running and hiding to try to fight anymore. He let go of her shoulders, but she didn't look away.

"The apple tree." She hadn't taken breath, and her voice was a whisper. "I looked up at you; you were smiling." She shrugged. "I knew. No reason left." Her mouth trembled, then she firmed her chin. "Wish you could have been like Angel, like a brother."

Like a brother… Spike filed that away for later. He stared at her, and he knew he must look frightening. Even Drusilla had the presence of mind to flee when he was feeling such strong emotion, squealing as she sought shelter until it passed. Sally didn't flinch. "Tell me."

"I love you." She breathed in, her face hardening. "There. You have all the power, Spike." Her jaw clenched, and she finally looked away.

Power… he shunted that thought aside, too. She loved him. That was difficult to process. He'd wanted to hear it, but found it too big to contemplate. Instead, he cupped her face with his hand, turning it back toward him. "That wasn't so hard, was it? The truth?" he asked.

Sally kept her eyes averted. "Yes. Yes, it was. That may be the scariest thing I've ever said." The sadness was back in her voice.

"Why?"

She did look at him then, a difficult emotion burning in her eyes. "Because you don't love me."

His lips parted, and he tilted his head slightly to one side. She was right. He cared about her, but he wasn't in love with her. He didn't consider lying to her. "But you'll come to my bed anyway?" he finally said. Sally lifted her chin and nodded, just once. "Why?" He took her by the shoulders again. "Doesn't seem like you, Sally. Why?"

She broke free suddenly, easily. "I'm fixin' to tell you," she snapped, her eyes blazing for a moment. He realized then that he had never seen her get really angry, but it didn't make him uneasy. He knew her demon didn't fuel her emotions.

Sally took a step away, rubbing at the back of her neck with one hand, tense, her eyes now closed. "Either you'll never love me, or you will eventually." She shrugged, the momentary fire banked again. "If you don't, then I'll get tired of waiting and end it." She looked at him speculatively. "But I won't have regrets, and I expect I'll have some very fond memories. Either way, I promise you won't be hurt."

"Hurt? Me?" He straightened up. "What about you?" This was the crux of it. He might not love her, but she was a friend. If it worked out half as well as things had with Anya – at least up to the time they left the Magic Box – this would be brilliant.

Sally's eyes were clear as she looked up at him. "If you aren't willing to take chances, you might as well be dead." She didn't make a play on the word for a change.

He shook his head slowly. "I don't want the power."

She looked away, then down at her feet, her motions jerky. "All right." Sally's voice was quiet, composed. "I appreciate you telling me. I'll just…" She trailed off and gestured vaguely toward the house.

He caught her by the arm as she walked past. "Wait. What do you think just happened?"

She didn't look up. "It's okay. If you don't think you'll ever… it's okay. Like I said, I appreciate you telling me now."

"I didn't say that."

After a moment, his words seemed to sink in. She lifted her eyes, a sudden realization dawning. "Oh, Spike, I'm sorry. You've always been so… it never occurred to me that you would want to wait."

"Wait?" A bitter smile tugged at his mouth. No, he wasn't inclined to be celibate even a minute longer. "That's not it." He sighed and let go of her arm. "I just don't want to have all the power."

Sally shrugged. "So… what now?"

A predator by nature, he moved in close. Spike looked down at her. "Ignition." He pulled her back against his frame, almost the way he had in the parking lot of the honky-tonk. But he knew her body better now, and his hands were more aggressive.

Sally took an involuntary breath, then slipped from him deftly, capturing his hands and curving her body far from his. There was no violence in the movement. "Last chance, Spike. Do you want to wait until you've seen Buffy? So you know–"

"I know." He slid his hand around one of hers and turned it, moved his body against her palm, not letting his mind be anywhere but here. "Three days, three weeks, three months. Still me. This, still for you." His eyes were half-closed, but he saw her swallow. He stepped away from her, pulling her with him by their clasped hands. He felt the swing on the back of his thighs and walked backwards until he was leaning his weight against it. Sally was facing him now, and he lifted her hand to his lips. "Do you have any… boundaries?"

She stared at her fingertips against his mouth, then lifted her eyes in sudden understanding. "Oh! No, I got over that a long time ago," she assured him, shrugging. She gave him a grave look. "Do you have boundaries?"

He laughed out loud. "If we find any, I'll be sure to tell you." Sally, predictably, blushed, ducking her head, and he chuckled again. "Anything else, pet?" He eased his feet forward, between hers, changing the angle of his body as he leaned against the swing. Oh, this had possibilities.

She lifted her head and nodded, serious. "I don't want to taste you, your blood, I mean. Is it okay if I don't? Do vampires always have to–"

Spike raised his eyebrows. "No, it's fine, love. Because of this?" He touched her collarbone where he and Angel had cleaned the wound.

Sally still didn't look up. "I've never done that. Me, I mean. Maybe it stirs up my demon, but… it mostly frightens me. I liked it."

"The bloodlust?" When she nodded, he let go of her fingers, feeling almost stunned as when he'd learned she'd been faithful through sixty years of marriage. "You'd never fed before? Not even on Henry when you…?" She met his eyes as she shook her head. "Maybe we need a safety word."

"A what?"

"Never mind." He regarded her a moment, thinking dark thoughts of all that he could teach her, already knowing she would follow the desire he aroused to wherever he directed it.

"That was scary, knowing your thoughts. I'm not saying never, just… Maybe we could see what we can do just as two people, to start. I liked what we managed in the 'bleeding parking lot,'" she said, mimicking his accent. "You didn't have to bite me to… get me off. That was… a bonus."

He stared at her as if seeing her anew. "You're brave, I'll give you that. You're marching into this with your eyes open."

"It's not war, Spike," she said, sounding perturbed.

He gave her a grim smile. "What's that old song? 'Love is a Battlefield?' We've already talked about power." Sally's brows drew together, and she touched his face gently. It took him a moment to place the expression on her face.

"Does it feel that way when I touch you? Like we're at war?" she asked, compassion in her voice, too. He grasped her hand and pulled it away from his face, his features hardening. Sally's gaze didn't waver. "Does it? The times I've held you?"

Because she was honest with him, he placed her hand back on his cheek and answered truthfully. "No. The opposite, maybe."

She let her hand drop away, and she backed up a step. "Spike–" She stopped abruptly, searching his eyes. "I know you're older than I am, so I'm not trying to…"

"Just spit it out," he suggested, impatient.

"Can you handle this?"

He lifted a sardonic eyebrow. "If we ever get to the end of the talking portion of the evening, I plan to handle quite a bit."

"Well, that's all I have to say." There was a hint of a smile at the corners of her mouth again.

"Lean against me," he invited. She paused, then lifted her chin a bit, as if accepting a challenge. Putting her hands on the chains beneath his, she carefully placed one knee on the swing by his hips, bowing her body against his. Spike heard a small purring noise escape her throat at the contact. Smiling with a great deal of satisfaction, he slid his arms around her. "Now, where were we?"

"Fourth gear," Sally suggested.

"Hmm," he said, low, almost chuckling. "That's not what I remember."

"Buffy?" Angel sat up a bit against the pillows, studying her face by the light of the city outside the window. "What's wrong? You're – Why are you crying?"

She wiped her face with the heel of her hand. "It's just… it's a revelation." She frowned suddenly. "A surprise, I mean. I didn't know how good this could be."

"Aw, shucks," said Angel, with mock self-effacement. He watched her closely. "The first time, Buffy, your first time… I held back, to be–"

"To be gentle, I know," she finished. She rolled over and pressed her body against his, giving him a hug that caused him to wince. "Sorry." She touched his face. "You're still gentle. Angel, I feel like I'm thawing. After being cold for so long, I'm feeling again."

He thought of what she said about feeling too strong, thought of the irony that it would be his body that thawed her, as he gazed into her eyes. "I wish… I'm sorry you ever felt cold, Buffy." She started to answer, but he saw so much feeling in her eyes, a frightening amount of emotion. He put his fingers across her lips. "Shh. Don't say it. This is good, right here, right now."

Buffy nodded. She understood, thinking of the stakes underneath the bed. "It is good."

He pulled her close and smiled against her hair. "Sleepy?"

She shook her head. "You?"

"As a matter of fact," he said, moving against her, "I'm not."

"Ooh," she said. "More good."

"Wow," Sally said, her voice barely more than a sigh. "What do you call that?"

"The, um, missionary position," Spike said, his own voice uncharacteristically thin. He stared down at her, an odd look in his eyes. After making valiant efforts and nearly driving himself to distraction, he'd given up any thought of consummating their relationship on the narrow swing. He had brought her to a point where her orgasms were nearly continual, but he wanted to bury himself inside of her, to dominate. The tarp that Sally had used to lie on as she changed oil was the closest alternative. After that, it had been shockingly quick and utterly glorious, a unique and unmanning experience.

He was terrified.

"Remind me to send more money to the missionaries," she said, tracing the line of his jaw.

Spike threw himself down next to her. They lay together, watching the few fireflies still trying to find their way out of the rafters. His mind was mercifully blank. After a moment, Sally lifted his hand to her lips and placed a kiss in his palm. He hadn't realized their fingers were still laced together.

His conscience pricked at him. He knew what she meant now, about whether he could handle it. She wasn't one of his kind, not really. Every attempt he'd made to hurl them into the abyss had been met with the same resistance, pulling him back to reality, grounding him with love. He could feel it in her touch, see it in her eyes, even hear it in her voice when she'd laughed in abandon with what he made her feel. His own pleasure had been so complete, almost in self-defense, that he hadn't proven anything to her about the sexual superiority of a vampire. Yet she was satisfied; she wasn't waiting for his next move or plotting her own. He knew this as fact; he hadn't been able to keep their bloodlink entirely closed. This was lovemaking or something close to it, and he wondered if it was because he now had a soul that he could tell the difference.

"I'm sorry," he said abruptly. "This isn't where I wanted, I mean, on the ground." He shrugged.

"Do you hear me complaining?"

"You deserve better, is all."

"There's better?" When he gave her an exasperated look, she just grinned. "Honey, we could have been floating in outer space for all I noticed."

"We should find a proper bed," he suggested, trying to find himself in this new reality. "Your bed, in fact. It has chains, Tolliver," he forced a seductive tone.

"I'm pretty much bored with bondage," she said, amused. "Can you think of something else?"

He looked into her clear eyes, effortlessly thinking of at least six ways to fill them with murky knowledge. He could warp her in the same ways he had been warped. She would let him. He'd done it before, after all. That's all he was fit for, to hurt other people, to take advantage….

Her gaze sharpened, and she squeezed his fingers. "Hey. We can stay right here, honey."

He looked away, letting his gaze track the progress of one of the fireflies. This would be the time, wouldn't it? But the words didn't come. His body was more than willing to offer her what his heart couldn't, though. He felt his fear ratchet up another notch at the thought. He didn't want to be the one who used someone's love….

Spike sat up abruptly, pushing his palms against the sides of his head, tired of resisting what his implacable soul was telling him. "You were right."

Sally sat up, too. "Right about what?" She put a cool hand against his back. He didn't jerk away, but it was a near thing, and she felt the muscles twitch beneath her fingers.

"I can't handle this… like this." He gritted his teeth and forced himself to twist around to face her. "I've never been touched… Could feel it in your touch." What did sex mean to him now? He still didn't have an answer.

"Love?" Her voice was tentative.

After a long moment, he nodded. "I don't… I can't meet you halfway."

"I can come to you."

"And I'll just retreat further." He sighed. "I'm useless, Sally. This is too scary for words." God, if only he hadn't followed her into the shed. Or, better, if he had taken her in the parking lot of the honkytonk, lustful and meaningless.

"Take your time, honey."

"Time isn't going to help. Trust me on that."

"Afraid of the intimacy?" Her voice was neutral, and he realized that she knew he had struggled to keep their minds from touching.

Spike shook his head. "No. If you touch me with… like that again, I'm afraid I'll… I might snap."

"I'm trying, Spike, but I don't understand. You don't mean… go crazy?"

"No." He reached for his jeans at the edge of the tarpaulin and stood, dressing quickly. "That I might hurt you, panic and lash out." Might see her face, full of hurt and disgust, the way he still saw –

She stared up at him, naked and vulnerable, and her words were at odds with the image. "I'm not easy to hurt."

He rolled his eyes, hating himself even as he did. He made his voice very gentle to compensate. "I would loathe myself for trying."

Sally drew her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them protectively. "I didn't realize how dam–" She stopped herself and dropped her gaze. "Turn around, Spike. Please."

Damaged. That's the word she'd stopped on. It might have been 'damned;' he was both. Spike did as she asked, gazing into the darkness outside as he listened to her sliding back into her clothes. He flinched when she slid her arms around his waist, and she rested her forehead between his shoulderblades.

After a moment, she sighed, then took a breath. "Is this the first time since your soul… came back?" She felt his shoulders lift, and she sighed again. "There are all sorts of things I'd like to say, honey, about..."

"I deserve to hear them."

"No. No, you don't. I was there, too, remember? I could feel you hesitate, but I didn't want to stop, either, since it was so good, and..." She turned her head and pressed her cheek against his back. "The first time after Henry got back from the Army, I cried, Spike. I was so ashamed of what I was, I could hardly bear for him to touch me. So, maybe I kind of understand what you're feeling."

Misunderstanding him. His face tightened in a rictus of pain and self-loathing for a few seconds.

"Unworthy, I'm guessing." Her arms slid away from him, leaving him.

"Something like that," he said after a moment of damning his bloody soul. This should have been gleeful, should have been fun. He stood taller and made himself turn around to face her. "Sally, I know what this meant to you, to do this. I'm not making light–"

The same difficult emotion flared again in her eyes. "Don't."

His jaw tightened, but he nodded. "I'm sorry."

Sally took in a long breath, but in the end only said, "We're back to friends, I guess. That's enough."

"Is it?" His voice was harsh.

"I've still got your back, Spike."

He nodded again, firming his jaw, grateful that she wasn't going to push for more. "And I've got yours."

"Good." Sally seemed to slump a bit. "Now, if you don't mind, I'm going to bed, have myself another good cry, stop being…" After a moment, she took his hand without looking at his face. "It was amazing, honey. Thank you." She started to say something else, then shrugged, letting go of his cold fingers. "'Night."

Spike watched her cross the yard, noticing with chagrin how stiffly she was walking. Years, she had said, and he hadn't been gentle.

He let out a long sigh. Couldn't figure this out before you had her, could you? Then go after her, a less noble part of him whispered, wanting to sink into her responsive body for the rest of the night, wanting to teach her things darker than the night. Give her what she wants, tell her what she wants to hear. Why not? You've already shown how little a soul matters, shagging without love, using hers. His lip curled in self-disgust, then he made his expression smooth, exerted his considerable will, and walked into the darkness.

Buffy opened her eyes unwillingly the next morning around nine o'clock. Angel's dark head was next to hers, sharing the same pillow. He woke as she moved, and she watched as remembrance flooded his face, lit his eyes.

"Good morning."

"It is." He smiled at her, then enveloped her in a tight embrace. "Thank you."

"For what?"

"For letting this happen. For letting me wake up beside you." And you'll remember this time, he added silently.

He saw tears threaten in her eyes for a moment. "My pleasure." Then she grinned and touched the tip of her nose to his. "Your pleasure, too, I hope."

His expression grew serious. "Yes. Probably too much. I was thinking of staying another night, but, frankly, I'm enjoying being here with you more than I thought."

"So, what? We shower and get on the road?" Angel lowered his head and rested it on her chest. She could feel him nod. "And if we spend just a little more time here…?"

He lifted his head, a smile shining in his dark eyes. "If only to ward off the crushing loneliness and misery for another hour?" He raised his eyebrows. "I'm willing."

"I can tell," Buffy said, raising her own eyebrows.

Angel smiled at her, then ruthlessly told himself that he would most likely never see her like this again. His happiness curbed, he went to work to increase hers.

"There," Sally said, raking the bits of bell pepper into the rest of the salad. "Everything's ready." She rinsed the knife and her fingers, dried them, then surveyed the kitchen with her hands on her hips.

"The cot's set up in my room," Spike reported as he came in from the hallway.

"I wouldn't bet on Angel staying in the same room, anyway," she said. "I think he'll take the couch."

"You're probably right," Spike agreed, sighing dramatically. "Won't be able to trust himself alone with me."

She moved to the side of the counter, away from him. "Be nice," she said automatically. "He isn't here to defend himself."

"How much longer do you reckon they'll be?"

She shrugged, then lifted her shoulders. "It doesn't take more than two hours from where they were when Angel called, at least with me at the wheel. We're at that time-honored 'any minute' stage."

He nodded, looking away from her. "Right."

"Did you get any sleep?" The question was normal, sounding no different than it would have a day ago. He remembered how she had been casual around him for weeks, keeping the spark of attraction tamped down.

"Uh, a bit." He looked down at his boots. "You? Sleep all right, I mean?"

"Yeah. Sleep can be an escape, you know. At least until you dream."

"Bad dreams?"

Sally shook her head slowly. "No."

He met her eyes, then looked up at the ceiling, his jaw working. "Sally," he began, but stopped, jumping a little. She had moved silently to stand in front of him. Without looking away, she slid her arms around his waist and embraced him. There was nothing sexual in her touch. After a moment, he closed his eyes and wrapped his arms around her in turn, trying to match the tenderness of her embrace. They held each other in silence, no breath taken, for almost five minutes.

"Why?"

Sally jerked in surprise at the sound of his voice. She leaned away from him. "I'm not going to give this up. I still get to hug you. That's my right as your friend, regardless of what happened last night." Staring at a patch of the black fabric of his t-shirt, her lips twisted in a small smile. "Plus, I needed a hug myself."

His arms tightened. "Tell me."

She shrugged. "Seeing Buffy. She wasn't happy with what I said in Cleveland. Worrying about you. Other things I'd rather not mention in the light of day."

"What things?"

She looked up at him, knowing now that he would give her no quarter. She tried anyway. "Honey, think. Are you sure you want to hear this?" His look was implacable, and she sighed. "Being around you and Angel, I'm learning more about what it is to be a vampire. I like to think I'm totally separate from my demon, but now I wonder." She pulled against his arms, but he didn't let go, so she put her head against his chest instead, hiding that way. "You know how you get a certain idea of who you are, a self-image? I've always been really proud that no one knows I'm," she ducked her head a bit lower, "a tiger in the bedroom. I got to have it both ways, be the good wife and the wanton woman."

"Wanton?" He couldn't help it; it was such an old-fashioned word. She bumped her head against his sternum. "Sorry. Go on."

"So, both wanton and virtuous. The virtue is my own, but how much of the wanton do I owe to the demon? I've turned down other men for sixty-three years, until you. I'm sorry, Spike, but I knew you weren't a safe bet for the happily-ever-after. It didn't stop me, but it should have. What if it wasn't me who wanted you that badly? What if…" her voice faded for a moment, came back smaller, "what if there's another, someday? I mean, I don't want to be celibate forever. What does that make me? Or is it even me at all?"

"Speaking as the only man who knows," he told her, telling his soul to sod off, this wasn't about it, making his voice sure, "and the man who waited weeks, the demon has nothing to do with the wanton." He grimaced a bit. "If we weren't friends, if I didn't care about you, I would have lied to you, just to get in your bed last night. That's how tempted I was, partly to see if I could handle it, but mostly to get laid. I wish I were a better man, Tolliver. The blame falls to me."

"No, it doesn't." Her brows drew together. "I'm an adult; I make my own decisions. But thank you." She pulled away a bit so she could look up at him. "It's always nice to know who you are."

"So I hear." He stopped, then let out most of his breath in a sigh. "And that's not all I hear."

"Company's arrived," Sally agreed, hearing the truck engine. She moved away from him, tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear. Spike held the door for her, and they stood in the shelter of the screened porch as they watched Angel pull the truck in a wide circle and park beneath the tarp that still stretched from the roof. Buffy waved at them from the truck, grinning.

Sally held the door for the blond woman. "Come on in, Buffy. It's good to see you again." Buffy was surprised when Sally hugged her, but she didn't show it. Sally moved aside so that the Slayer could greet Spike, but she resolutely didn't watch them embrace. She continued to hold the door for Angel, who moved up the steps with Buffy's luggage.

He stopped on the top step, and Sally raised her eyebrows in query. At Angel's sheepish look, her grin widened. She plucked one of the suitcases from his hand and slid an arm around his waist, giving him an exuberant hug. "Good to have you back safe."

"Good to be back." He glanced at Spike and Buffy, noting their intense embrace, then met Sally's eyes again with wry Irish humor.

"How was your trip?" Spike was asking Buffy as he held open the door to the kitchen.

"Fine." She walked into the house. "Something smells good."

"I hope you're hungry," Sally said. "There's catfish, blackened or broiled, garden salad, and fresh-baked bread." She smiled at Buffy. "We can take your luggage on back; Angel doesn't know it, but he's giving up his room for you."

Buffy turned and shot him a questioning glance. Angel shrugged.

"Sally's cot is set up for you in my room," Spike told him. "Or there's always the couch."

"Couch sounds good," Angel said. Spike's lips twitched, and he turned to share a grin with Sally. She wasn't looking at him.

The four sat around the table long after Buffy had finished eating, the three vampires nursing blood in the opaque glasses Sally had set out more for their comfort than Buffy's. Spike and Buffy told Sunnydale stories, Angel and Sally mostly listening. With the Slayer present, none of the stories veered onto uncomfortable topics. After a while, Sally got up and cleared the table, cleaning the kitchen unobtrusively.

"So I walk in, and Giles is standing there, pointy hat and robes and everything, looking like a poor man's Dumbledore."

"Did it have stars on it?"

"The robe and the hat."

Angel chuckled and moved his arm so Sally could top off his drink. "I wish I'd seen that."

"I should have gotten Polaroids," Buffy said, grinning. "I mean, just for blackmail purposes alone."

"What would you ever want to blackmail Rupert for?" Spike asked. "Lessons on how to be boring?" He held his glass across the table toward Sally.

"Oh, come on. Giles isn't that boring. Not to people his own age." Buffy shrugged.

"He's boring to people my age. He could win a tournament for boring, pet."

Angel looked speculatively at Sally as she left the table with the now empty quart jar, then at Buffy. "Speaking of a tournament," he said, "Spike said the Turok-Han were as strong as you." He seesawed his hands. "Slayer versus pure demon… think we can get you two to arm wrestle?"

Buffy froze, her face a mask. Angel had no right to mention the Turok-Han; he hadn't been there, hadn't faced even one of those inhuman killers, much less an army. Sally had turned to stare at him in consternation from halfway across the kitchen. She met Buffy's eyes, relieved to see the other woman was just as unhappy with this suggestion. "Buffy's stronger." Sally's voice was flat. "She's taken out Turok-Han before, right? Good is stronger than evil." She pivoted on her heel and continued to the far side of the room. "Thank God."

"I don't know. Might be a good idea. Maybe there could be some kind of oil involved," Spike offered, giving Buffy a sidelong look, hoping to break her from the obvious memories of the final battle. She let her head fall back, then laughed reluctantly. Angel looked between them, then swiveled in his chair to raise an eyebrow at Sally, who shrugged and swooshed a hand over her head.

"I don't get it," Angel complained.

"I think you are getting it, mate," Spike said. He drained his glass and gave Buffy and Angel a knowing look, then rose from the table. "Think I'll go outside for a bit, now it's dark." The phone rang, and he paused, then lifted it from the cradle and tossed the handset to Sally.

"Sally Tolliver speaking," she said, holding the phone to her ear, more surprise on her face than in her voice. She listened for a moment. "Yes. Hold on just a second." She put her hand over the mouthpiece. "Spike, could you put this on speakerphone?"

Giles' voice filled the room. "Everyone's there? Buffy, Spike, Angel?"

"Good evening, Charlie," Spike said wryly.

"What? Oh. Good, then. I need you all to be here, however."

"Something big?" Buffy asked.

"Yes, rather."

"What's the sitch?"

"Apocalypse. Of course."

"What else?" Buffy folded her arms across her chest.

"I got a rare volume of prophecies a few days ago. I'm still translating, but it seems that we have twelve chances… Well, let me read: 'Those who fight for the humans will have as many as twelve opportunities to defeat the horde, and can stop the ending of days at any of these times. If the horde can stand against the humans twelve times, on the thirteenth, the Old Ones will sanctify their efforts by returning from the mouth of Hell.'" His voice died away, leaving a changed atmosphere in the small kitchen.

"When?" Buffy's tone was unyielding.

"Imminent," Giles said. "Days, if that."

"We're on our way."

"Good, then. I'll expect you before morning." He hung up, and the dial tone was loud in the otherwise silent room.

Buffy twisted her head to one side. "What were you saying about Giles being boring?" She stood from the table and pushed her chair in. "I'll go get my luggage."

"We'll pack," Angel agreed. "It won't take long."

"Twelve opportunities," Spike mused, changing direction and heading toward the hallway, too. "Excessive, innit? Prophecies don't usually give us a snowball's chance."

They met back in the kitchen, Buffy bringing her last suitcase into the room, the two men with half-full duffel bags. Sally was shoveling ice over quart jars of blood that filled a large cooler. She gave them a wan smile, closed the lid, and carried it out to the truck. They did a fireman's brigade with the luggage, and once the last piece was in, Sally stretched a cargo net across the bed.

"Anybody need to go to the bathroom?" she asked brightly, looking up at the three champions.

"I guess that'd be me," Buffy said. She brushed past Angel, who stood in the doorway. He watched her for a second, then turned to Sally.

"Sally, you take care, okay? We'll call–"

"No need," she interrupted. "I'm going. I'm driving, in fact." Spike, hearing this, glanced down into the truck and saw the cot legs. She must have been getting ready even before Giles finished talking.

Angel shook his head and looked down at Spike, who stood below him on the steps, for support. "You can't. This is gonna be dangerous."

"I'm sure it will be." Her gaze was level.

Angel squared his jaw. "You're not going." When she remained unswayed, Angel turned to the blond man. "Tell her, Spike."

"She'll be needed." There were decades of sadness in the look he gave Angel. He glanced at Sally. She was waiting to meet his gaze this time, her eyes warm.

Angel gave Spike a disgusted look. "Neither of you gets it. You're not going anywhere near this, Sally."

Sally looked past them both. "Buffy, you're the general, right?"

Buffy smoothed her still-damp hands down the sides of her jeans, nodding. She walked past Spike and Angel and started around the front of the truck. "And you're driving, right?"

Sally slid around Angel. "Spike, lock the door, would you? I'm going to go make sure all the goats are loose."

Angel made a furious sound in his throat. "Dammit!"

Spike put a hand on his forearm. "You can feel it, can't you?"

Angel jerked his arm away. "Yeah," he agreed reluctantly, "I can feel it." He sighed. "It's big."

"She can feel it, too, then. You're not responsible for her." Hearing this, Buffy glanced at Spike, then looked down.

Angel's voice dropped, and he said so quietly that Spike barely heard him, "I just want a home to come back to."

"There's no home for the likes…" Spike's voice trailed off. "No, you're right. This is home." He sounded surprised. Family bed or not, the old farmhouse did feel like home. He put his hand on Angel's forearm for just a second, so the other man would know how serious he was. They hardly ever touched. "It didn't work out too well for her the last time she stayed when people went off to fight." Spike met Angel's startled glance squarely. "She can take care of herself." He swung himself up and perched on the side of the truck bed. "I'll get the gate," he called to Sally in a normal voice as she came back.

"Thanks," she replied. Her gaze lingered on him for a moment, then shifted to the dark-haired man. "Ready?"

"Let's go," Angel snapped, and he held open the passenger door for Buffy.

They were rolling north on I-75 and halfway through Kentucky before midnight. Angel, still angry, would never admit it, but they had made much better time with Sally at the wheel than if he'd been the driver. She gave him a cool look when they made a pit stop in Berea, where she turned the driving over to Spike, warning him about speed traps ahead.

"I know I should sleep," Buffy said from where she sat behind Spike, "but I can't." She waved her diet cola in the air. "This caffeine isn't helping."

Sally looked over at her. "Someone should tell a story, then, since we can't agree on music." She glared a bit at the back of Angel's head. He'd threatened to put his fist through the radio if he had to listen to anything he didn't like.

"Something I've been wanting to know," Buffy mused. "How come you were at Wolfram and Hart last year, Angel?" She leaned forward and put an elbow on the console. "I mean, I saw decades of info on them that the Watchers' Council had gathered. Whyever would you want to work with the bad guys?"

"I had my reasons," Angel said shortly. There was an uncomfortable silence, and Buffy sat up, her narrowed eyes leaving Angel and focusing out the side window.

"You should tell," Sally said suddenly. She leaned forward and put her hand on his shoulder. "I wondered about that myself."

"Sally," Angel ground out, "shut up."

She sat back, too. "Fine. Be that way. Sull up like an old mule." Buffy kept looking out the window, suppressing a grin.

Spike raised an eyebrow and cast Angel a sidelong look. "Help pass the time, mate." He shifted his focus to the road ahead and got in a little dig. "Give him a few more of those sympathetic touches on the shoulder, Sally."

Angel growled.

They were twenty miles on the other side of Lexington before he broke the silence. "I should be telling this to you alone, Buffy." He sighed. "I don't know what we're going into, but it doesn't feel like it's gonna be easy. That's the only reason I'm doing it this way.

"Wolfram and Hart were after me as soon as Doyle looked me up. Another prophecy," he rolled his eyes, "says a vampire with a soul will play an important role in the apocalypse, but it doesn't say for which side. They wanted me on theirs." He paused. "You remember Darla?"

"Your sire. You staked her when I first learned you were…" Buffy's voice trailed off.

"Well, the firm brought her back. She came back human, and I… I thought I could save her. Saving her was… important to me. Wolfram and Hart brought Drusilla in to change her back into a vampire, to keep the bloodline pure, I suppose. And I couldn't save her.

"Remember that I told you how I just gave up?" He closed his eyes, suddenly glad that he could look out into the darkness instead of at Buffy. "I slept with Darla, thinking it would be easier if I could just lose my soul. It was selfish, and I didn't – lose my soul, I mean. Darla had never given me any happiness." He looked down to where his hands were clenched in his lap.

Buffy stared at the side of his face, then she jumped a little as Sally slid a cold hand over hers, giving the Slayer a sympathetic look. "Is Darla still out there?"

"No."

"Good. What happened to her?"

Angel's mouth tightened. "She died in childbirth." Spike turned his head, his eyebrows high, and met his eyes for a few seconds, until the thump of the warning ridges on the shoulder brought the road sharply to his attention.

"Child – " Buffy stopped. "Vampires can't have babies."

"No," Angel agreed. "They can't. She was a vampire, didn't have a soul, but the child she carried was human. She staked herself to save its life, because she couldn't give birth," he took a breath, "to our son."

Buffy's voice was very faint. "Your… son." She felt Sally squeeze her fingers.

"Our son, Connor. To this day, I don't know how, exactly, but I know why. I had won life for Darla, but she couldn't claim it, and Connor was that life that I had won, a prize. It wasn't… planned.

"There was another prophecy, concerning a demon named Sahjhan, that said he could only be killed by the child of vampires. Sahjhan brought Holz, an old enemy of mine, forward through time. Angelus had killed his family, so Holz took mine. He took Connor to a hell dimension and raised him to be a warrior, raised him to hate me. Then he brought him back, not a baby anymore. My son was born three years ago, but he's in college now, a grown man."

"Old enough to challenge you?" Spike guessed.

Angel nodded. "He was… I loved him so much, Buffy, when he was a baby. Darla had managed to give me happiness, in the end. And he was human, just with the strength and speed of our kind. I wanted to give him everything, be the kind of father I never… By the time Holz was through with him, growing up in that place… he hated me. He was so damaged."

Buffy looked over at Sally, whose fingers had tightened again. She was, oddly, looking at Spike. "So… Connor… doesn't like you? You don't see him anymore?"

"Connor was a pawn in a plot to bring an old god back into the world. So was Cordelia. That's what left her in a coma. Connor had so much anger… he was going to kill himself or a bunch of innocent people, or both. That's why I took the offer from Wolfram and Hart, Buffy. They couldn't change everything that had happened, but they could change memory. I… gave him up. They changed it for everyone except me. They put Connor in a real family and gave him a new set of memories, good ones, a happy childhood. Oh, Buffy," Angel said, shaking his head, "he's turning out to be such a good man. I mean, he's still my son – he defeated the demon Sahjhan, just like the prophecy said he would – but he's whole, now, safe. Knowing everything, knowing the cost, I'd take the same deal all over again." He glanced at Spike, then looked down again. "Even with Fred."

Buffy's hand was nearly as cold as Sally's as she stared at Angel's profile. He had left her because he couldn't give her a normal life, including children. But he'd won that, given that prize to another woman. To Darla. A child that might have been theirs. And he hadn't even told her about it.

Spike's voice cut into her bitter thoughts, deep and somehow reassuring. "Buffy, there's a story you might want to tell." She looked at where his reflection should be in the rearview mirror, knowing he could see her. "Not my place, but the time for that secret is past, too, I think."

"William." Buffy's whisper was fierce, warning. She pulled her hand free of Sally's and hugged herself. Sally looked at her, confused, then it fell into place. She'd never known Spike's given name, and she felt him slip a little farther away from her. She glanced at Angel, who had been Liam. Same name. No wonder they kept their post-human aliases.

"My opinion, Slayer," Spike was saying, his voice diffident.

Buffy sighed. "Angel, I wish you'd told me before." She glared at the back of the blond man's head. "What Spike means is that your memory was modified even before you gave up," her voice wavered, "your son."

Angel looked over his shoulder. "What?"

"Dawn's not much older than… Connor." She told them how Dawn had come to her, turning to Spike once in a while for help with the story. "So, you see, whatever potential she once had, it's dormant now. She's human. Please, Angel, Sally, don't treat her any differently than you did before. Dawn used to be so sensitive about that." She saw Spike nod and knew he was smiling at some memory. Buffy's heart gave a small twist, and she wished things could be right between Spike and his Little Bit once again.

"You gave your life for her," Angel said hoarsely. "So you know how I feel about Connor." He turned to look at her, finally.

She met his gaze and gave a small nod. "I know."

They were quiet as they passed into Ohio, rolling smoothly through the darkness. After a while, Angel leaned over and turned on the radio. He found a soft rock station, a peace offering. Sally let her forehead fall against the side window as she stared blindly outside, feeling very lonesome. How had these people lived through all that, made those sacrifices, all the while fighting evil day in and day out?

They're warriors, she told herself, champions. Angel was right; she should have stayed at home in North Carolina where she belonged. Her heart quailed at the thought of having to make the kinds of life-or-death decisions her traveling companions had made. Sally knew she wasn't a coward, knew she could fight and hold her own, but she also knew she wasn't in their league, didn't even play the same game. She glanced over at Buffy and they exchanged small, impersonal smiles. What have I gotten myself into? Sally wondered.

"I don't know that it really meant anything," Angel said without preamble. They were in the basement of Slayer Central, as Sally had once again gone to a hotel.

Spike didn't bother, either. "Hard to tell with her." He lowered himself onto the sleeping bag, then turned to look over at his grandsire. The darkness of the basement didn't keep him from seeing the apprehension on Angel's face. "'M not angry, Peaches." The blond man sighed and rolled over to face the ceiling. "It hurts, I won't lie. But… it could be worse."

"Riley, you mean?" They both smiled in the darkness. "Besides, something goes wrong, you get a crack at Angelus."

Spike's voice became something made of granite. "Nothing had better go wrong. Red will magick your soul back in, and it's you with the head panned in. So watch it with the happiness."

"Duly noted."

"'Duly'…Been around lawyers too long, you great poof."

"Begs the question of whom you've been around, with your command of the Queen's English."

"Wanker."

"Pest."

"'Night, then."

"Goodnight, my boy."

"Wanker." Spike lay looking up at the darkness and tried to work up a load of resentment against Angel – everything handed to him on a silver platter, always came out the winner, got the girl, played the hero. He couldn't, though, not now that he knew how much the older vampire had sacrificed. Things between them were easier than they had been since just after Angelus got his soul, before Darla threw him out of the family in China. The only thing he could manage was sadness, a certain acceptance.

He figured the hero thing just wasn't meant for him. Sure, he'd closed a Hellmouth, but he'd destroyed the whole town above it, and here they were on another Hellmouth. Nothing had changed. He had to scrap for everything, had to fight just to have his good intentions recognized by the white hats. His path was never going to be easy, and he would always choose the wrong route, get there late, and find that a real champion had already done it better, quicker. First.

The hell of it was, he had it in him to be the hero, Spike was sure of it. So many times he had gotten things almost right. He'd had Dawn's love, but had destroyed it without ever doing anything to the girl herself. He'd won his soul, not been cursed with it, but only after it was too late. He'd beaten Angel, but instead of taking control of the family and ordering his grandsire out of the evil abyss that was Wolfram and Hart, he'd stayed on the periphery until it was too late for Fred.

He'd almost had Buffy.

He had hurt Buffy.

Spike closed his eyes. What was the old saying? Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. That was him, good for one thing, pull the pin and throw him against something that needed destroyed. At least he had that.

"Sally?" Buffy stepped up her pace for a few moments, catching up with the vampire.

"Hey, Buffy." Sally gave a wan smile in greeting. "Out for patrol?"

"Yeah. Might as well do something useful until we have our big meeting." Giles, still working on the translation, wanted to meet with everyone at daybreak. "Wanna come with?"

"Sure." Sally pulled a worn stake from the kangaroo pouch of the pullover she wore. "Never leave Mr. Giles' home without it."

"I meant to ask earlier, how long you've been using that stake?"

"From the beginning," Sally replied, her eyes distant with some memory.

"You must be fast, for it not to get dusted. Kendra, the first also-called Slayer, had a stake she always liked to use, too."

"Guess we'll need a lot of stakes for this twelve chances thing."

"Guess so. You headed in any particular direction?" Buffy asked.

Sally shook her head. "Just walking and thinking."

Buffy nodded. "Both good things to do." She gave the other woman a sidelong look. "Plus it gets you away from Slayer Central."

"Yep," Sally agreed, a grin tugging at one corner of her mouth. "I don't think I'll ever be comfortable in that house."

"Well," Buffy said, gesturing at her, "vampire."

"Yeah, there is that, but mostly it's because everyone there is so intense. I'm Southern; I don't do intense." She gave Buffy a sidelong look of her own. "Are you really going to call in the Initiative?"

"I'll call Riley, if I have to," Buffy said, choosing her words. "We may need a government presence to control the more public parts of the battle, keep the good people of Cleveland from panicking." The paused at a corner, then crossed, walking along the sidewalk that bordered a park. Part of Buffy's attention was focused on a picnic area, and she slowed. "Of course, I'm going to wait to see if Giles is right about the scope of this, if it's really going to be as big as he thinks." She shrugged and picked up the pace a bit. "I hope he's wrong."

"Is he ever?"

"Sometimes." They turned a corner, beginning a circle of the park, and she asked what was really on her mind. "So, how's it been, living with two broody vampires?"

Sally smiled, full and genuine this time. "It's been great, some of the best months of my life." She glanced at Buffy. "Having two friends, I mean, who know and understand. And they don't brood all the time."

Buffy gave her a dubious look. "Angel? Not broody?"

"Honey, he doesn't have a brood that can withstand a muscle car or the prospect of moonshine."

"Sounds like a story."

"Several. Make him tell you. It'll be good for you both."

"You're fond of him." Buffy stared straight ahead as she said this.

"I am. It took a while, not like with Spike, who's so easy to get along with." She missed Buffy's raised eyebrows. They turned another corner. "Being around Spike has helped, too, I think. Angel gets to see that being ensouled doesn't automatically mean tortured."

Buffy smiled, too, but it faded rather quickly. "What about you and Spike?"

Sally looked over and met the blond woman's eyes. "Did you and Spike have what you would call a healthy relationship?" she asked in turn.

Buffy's mouth was caught between a grin and a grimace. "Healthy? Not the word for it."

"If there's just two people, can you call it a club? Honey, I'd join," Sally said, raising her hand in the air. She sighed. "Remember when we went walking the last time, and I said that I was a bad proposition and he was worse? Doesn't keep me from wanting him."

"I'm sorry," Buffy offered, but she wasn't. It didn't sound like Sally and Spike were lovers, and she was relieved, then guilty for having wrong, possessive feelings, then just sad. Spike and sex was like people and breathing; he should be having sex. Until the soul, it had been such a large part of who he was.

Sally shrugged. "It's my problem." She took a breath. "I understand things better than I did then, Buffy, about what it's like for you guys. I'm glad you and Angel are trying. Spike still makes my heart hurt, though."

"What do you mean?" Their eyes met for a moment, and they stopped walking.

"You're probably too young to remember 'percussive maintenance,'" Sally began, "you know, where you thump something that's not working right?" She demonstrated, smacking the heel of her hand against an imaginary piece of equipment. "Back when things had moveable parts, sometimes that would knock the part that was just a little off kilter back into place. Well, part of me thinks I could do that with Spike. Just a little nudge….

"Only, complex and delicate though he is, Spike is a person, not a VCR. Not malfunctioning. Not damaged." Sally sighed, and let her eyes drop from Buffy's face. "I want him to be someone he isn't, and that's my problem. It's close; he's almost that person, but he's really someone better."

Buffy couldn't leave the question unasked. "Who do you want him to be?"

Sally looked into the darkness of the park. "Someone who can be happy in everyday life. Someone who can love and be loved." She turned abruptly and started walking. "But he is exactly who he's supposed to be, tough the way he has to be. He's a champion." Sally shot Buffy a sidelong glance. "Like you. Like Angel. He's happiest during a fight, I think, when he's doing just what he's been made to do."

Buffy, however, was thinking of the other part of what Sally had said, remembering the times Spike had said just the wrong thing to sabotage her feelings for him. They walked in silence for a while, finishing the lap around the park.

"Thanks for listening. And thanks for walking with me."

"No problem." Buffy stuffed her cold hands into her coat pockets. It was September and starting to be cool. "So, what do you do now?"

Sally didn't pretend to misunderstand. "Be there when he needs a friend. Accept him for who he is, all of him, stop trying to make him be just those parts that suit me. I'm old enough to know better."

"Just friends?" Buffy's voice was cynical.

Sally raised her eyebrows. "That's enough, at least for me. I don't have a whole lot of friends."

"So, it seems that tomorrow night," Giles said, folding the pages of the flip chart back and smoothing them absently with his hand, "we will have the first of twelve opportunities."

After an uneasy silence in the crowded room, Buffy looked around. Willow and Oz were sitting on the couch holding hands. She wondered about that, although both of them insisted there was nothing going on. She knew most of the Cleveland slayers by name, having made a point of it after those last, frantic months in Sunnydale. Rona and Vi, of course, Bethany next to a jet-lagged Dawn, Tamika, Kayla, Tiffani and Tiffany, Vashti, Belinda, Crystal, Geneva and three more that she didn't know yet. Sally was sitting on the windowsill, looking far more scared than the untested slayers. Faith and Robin would be in tomorrow morning, Kennedy and Ute were expected in the afternoon, and Xander was coming all the way from Africa. She could feel Angel behind her, and Spike was leaning against the doorframe. It should be enough.

"So, all we have to do is win twelve battles?" Buffy asked.

"There is that, but I don't doubt that there is something else as well," Giles replied, frowning. "The volume I obtained is very sketchy, but after the first battle, we'll have a clearer idea. Where the battle is at will give us some clue, if it isn't on the Hellmouth. Perhaps an ancient warrior can arise during the battles. Maybe it's a curse or a spell on a mystical weapon that can be broken. Perhaps… well, a lot of things. All I know for sure is that we must win." He looked around at the young faces, some new to him, some familiar and loved, and he smiled. "But, then, we always do."

"Ready to go?"

Sally looked up at Spike, turning the plate in her hand to dry the other side. "Yeah, just a couple more to put away, and I'll be ready."

He nodded, but didn't offer to help, just watched her finish up. She never seemed to resent cooking breakfast for the large number of people living at Giles', but she flatly refused to live there. Just as she had picked up the duty, unremarked upon, of cooking, he had assumed the task of driving her to her very nice hotel room each morning and going to unlock her each evening.

"All right, honey. I'm ready." Sally dried her hands on the towel, and they went through the door that led from the kitchen to the garage. The trip was mostly silent. Spike found it hard to believe that the quiet woman in the passenger seat was the same Sally who had politely but firmly rescued the remnants of Angel Investigations late one night in Los Angeles. That woman had disappeared somewhere between North Carolina and Cleveland. He parked in the underground garage and walked up the stairs with her. Her room was on the fifth floor, but they never took the mirrored elevators. After a short walk down the hallway, she unlocked her door and turned to him, not meeting his eyes. "I'll see you around seven?"

He nodded, and she gave him a perfunctory smile as she went into the room. "Wait," he said suddenly, putting his hand out to stop the door from closing. "Sally, are you all right?"

"I'm fine."

"We need to talk."

"No."

He blinked. The Southern manners were also gone. "Too bad, because we're going to. It's my right as your friend, and I'm not giving it up." Something flickered in her eyes, but she kept holding the door against him. He managed to meet her gaze and did not blink.

She took a breath and let most of it out in a sigh. "Come in, then." She moved across the living room, toward the little kitchenette. "Can I get you something to drink?"

"I'll have what you're having, s'long as it's not tequila." No answering smile. He watched her get blood from the mini-fridge, pour them each a cup, and set the microwave. She didn't turn back to him, just stared at the oven as she waited for it to beep.

"Here you go," she said, placing the mug on the coffee table instead of in his hand. She sat on the opposite end of the couch from him.

Spike took a sip and studied her as she stared at the cup in her hands, not drinking. "I get the sense you've been avoiding me, Tolliver."

"I have been."

He felt his worry lift a bit. She was still honest with him. He took a larger drink; her deliveries of blood were much fresher than what Giles supplied. "Bloke gets a bit curious as to why."

She looked up and met his gaze then, her expression bleak. "Because I am so afraid I'm going to lose you or Angel." She shrugged. "Or Buffy, or Oz, or Gunn, when he gets here… " Sally set the cup on the table and folded herself onto the couch, hugging her knees. "I can't keep up a happy, carefree front. So, if I'm really quiet and still, then I can hold in the fear until I get back here." She looked away and pressed her lips together. "Not a one of you should die. You're all working so hard for what's good, and…."

"So that's it." He considered for a moment, then moved to the couch cushion next to her. The uncertainty had been hard on all of them, no one as much as Giles, who felt his books were letting them all down. The first two battles had taken place in office buildings, of all places, and nothing had manifested or been revealed. There were no clues to glean, and five slayers had died. He hadn't known them, but their faces had been familiar. No time to dwell, though, so he tried a bit of humor. "Your first apocalypse always feels like the end of the world." He waited for it.

She snorted, a reluctant grin curving her mouth. "I think the waiting is the worst, then I think the actual fighting is the worst." Sally shook her head. "I don't know how you guys do it, knowing that there's always another battle coming."

"Well, for one, we don't bottle it up," he admonished. She raised an eyebrow. "Okay, right. How's this: you shouldn't bottle it up."

"I'm homesick."

He looked down at her, surprised by the simple sentiment. The peaceful farmstead seemed like a half-remembered dream now, much like his human home in London, just another place he would never return to. Again unsure of what he was allowed, he lifted her hands from her knees and pulled her toward him. At the same time, he scooted back, hoping that she would rest her head in his lap, wanting to soothe her the same way she had once comforted him. "You've got me and Angel here."

Sally came closer to him, hiding her face against his chest, her arms wrapping around his torso, but she didn't move onto his lap. He carefully enfolded her in his arms, one of his hands cupping her head, holding her against his still heart. After several minutes, she found the words that would do. "You and Angel have been so busy, and, anyway, Angel is as happy as a pig in slop. I didn't want to bother him."

A delighted grin settled on Spike's face, despite what was making Angel happy. "That is an absolutely wonderful image."

"What is?"

"Angel the pig."

"It's just a Southern saying."

"Can't be. No butts in it." He felt the muscles in her abdomen jerk as she laughed without breathing. "So, now I finally get to say it: be nice, 'cause he isn't here to defend himself."

She looked up at him, the tears he'd known were falling now mostly dry. Her face was as serious as he had ever seen it. "I'm so sorry I hurt you. I promised I wouldn't, and I did anyway."

He shrugged. "Price of living." Spike touched her cheek, his mouth tightening. "And you didn't do anything to me. I did it to myself."

"No," she said, suddenly fierce. He was happy to see it. "It was done to you. You've been through so much." He felt her body tense, and she pushed away from him, brushing at her face angrily. She took up her cup and stood, walking away a few steps. "I don't like them, sometimes."

"Who?" he asked, confused.

"The people at Mr. Giles' house." She walked back and sat next to him. "Spike, the things you've been through, sacrificed…" He heard a small snap as she abruptly closed her mouth.

"No," he said slowly. "Go on. If you can't say anything nice, I can't wait to hear."

"The slayers treat you like a sex object," she said. She sat her untouched cup down with a clink.

"And that's bad for a fellow how, exactly?" he asked, giving her a seductive smile.

Her eyes flashed, but she didn't bother. Something larger weighed on her mind. "I don't mean Buffy, Spike. I like her very much. But her friends, her sister… the way they talk to you… it's almost like contempt."

"Familiarity breeds." He shrugged. "It's mutual. Mostly."

"How could they? After what you did for them?"

"After what I did to them?" he corrected. Spike looked at her unhappy face and took her hands again. "They knew me before I had my soul, pet. I was their Big Bad for a long time. I nearly cracked Harris' thick skull open, had a go with his girl. I've shoved broken bottles at Red's face, gone for her neck." He shrugged. "They've got their reasons, and I honestly don't care."

"I don't want to dislike her, but Dawn is the worst. You love her, I know you do. But she looks at you like… I mean, what did you ever do to her?"

His words were stark. "I tried to rape her sister."

She looked down. After a moment, she asked, "What more could you ever do to make amends, that you haven't already done?"

"Bit's young, Sally. They all are." He lifted her knuckles to his lips for a moment. "But it's nice that you get mad over it. Thanks." He looked up, and what he saw in her eyes didn't frighten him as much.

She pulled her hands from his, looking at her feet, the opposite wall, anything except him. She pushed the cup toward him. "I can't drink this," she said, her voice small. "You want it?"

"I'll not turn it down." Spike slid the mug so that it was in front of him, but he didn't pick it up. He stared at it and took a breath. "Do you want me to stay, Sally? I think I can, now." He kept himself from saying that it had nothing to do with Buffy and Angel, because it did.

She stared at the cup, too. "I do want you to stay." The words were low, honest.

Less than a month since their blood had mingled, and the link between them was suddenly wide open. She knew that he wanted her sweetness, even if he couldn't find oblivion in her arms, even if she wasn't something he was stealing from Angel. He knew she craved closeness, that she would accept his body if that was all he could give. They shared the same picture in their minds, knowing instinctually who would tear away which piece of clothing, knowing that by the time their bodies were free, he would be hard, she would be ready. He felt the discomfort of the arm of the couch digging into her back; she felt the way his knee kept slipping into the valley between the cushions. They knew what each climax felt like for the other, and that after long hours of intimacy they would not be able meet each other's gaze. Then, as clearly as if she had spoken the words again, "We deserve better."

With an indrawn breath, Spike closed the link, as if slamming a door. They didn't move, but it was as if they had suddenly pulled apart and fled to opposite sides of the room. "So," she said, making her voice even, "that means you should probably go."

"Obviously," he agreed. Spike lifted the cup and drained the blood from it. He placed it back on the table and stood, not sure what to do with his hands. "I'll, uh, see you tonight." He saw her nod with his peripheral vision, and he left.

Spike sat in the truck in the dim light of the parking garage, his hands clenched on the wheel, too shaken to drive. He quickly calculated how long they had been in Cleveland, then closed his eyes, letting his head fall forward onto the steering wheel. It meant that for almost two weeks he had overlooked how much she was hurting, how badly he had hurt her.

The bloodlink between them had been sudden and almost total. He'd never wanted let Dru that deeply into his mind nor wanted to know very much of her mad inner life, and he'd strenuously kept up the splintered barriers against Angelus. The last time Sally had been open to him, he had found nothing but desire and joy and anticipation and love – let's not forget love. It was a wonderful place to be.

This time all that was left of that landscape was love, a small, cowering thing, choked by desperation and pain, a new bleakness that overshadowed everything. He knew his own heart, knew that he wasn't capable of being in love again. His love for Buffy had been total, had taken everything inside him. But the bloodlink went both ways, and now Sally no longer believed him capable, either, not just of loving her, but of ever loving again. She had given up on him, and he'd felt her sorrow, not for herself, but for him.

His tears, though, were for her, for her broken world. Sally had believed that love could conquer anything. Spike sat up straight and wiped his eyes, a terrifying and mercifully short laugh escaping him. He'd taught her better.

Clenching his teeth, he started the truck. What had he told Angel? What was left of his life, that was it. He backed the truck out of the small space, and drove back to where he could give what was left of his life to the good fight.

Two days later, Spike saw Sally close the kitchen door behind her and look around at the people crowding the living room, uncertain. He went to her, pulling someone along in his wake. "Here we are, then, someone you need to see," he said, enormous satisfaction in his voice. He watched the polite expression on her face transform into genuine joy.

"Gunn!"

They hugged each other, not caring how out-of-place their laughter seemed in the solemn house. "How've you been?"

"Fine," she said automatically. "It's so good to see you. You look great! When did you get in?"

Spike tried without success to keep a grin off his face as he listened. He'd just made two people he cared about very happy. Someone slipped a warm hand into his, and he jerked a little. "Buffy," he breathed. "Have you met Charlie?"

An arm still around Sally, Gunn put out a hand. "The Buffy? I missed you in Los Angeles last year. Man, I know I'm gonna be disappointed," he said, grinning. "There's no way you can live up to the legend. And it's Gunn, not Charlie."

"I see my stories precede me," she said dryly, shaking his hand.

"Oh, man, Angel? Brood, brood, brood. And Spike: too shy to get in touch with you? Harmony was still spazzed about you. And when your name came up, Cordelia was always with the catty remark." His grin faded at that.

"I'm sorry. I heard that Angel Investigations had a rough time of it this spring."

"Yeah." He sighed. "Thanks."

"So, how are you doing? Recuperated?" Sally asked. A sad smile flickered over Spike's face as he thought of that last day. Buffy squeezed his fingers, didn't let go.

"A hundred percent," Gunn affirmed, a little too heartily. "Oh, last time I saw Dr. Jim, he said to tell you he was going into hibernation."

She nodded. "It'd been coming for a while. Thanks. He still planning on being a woman when he wakes up?"

Gunn opened his mouth, but even after years of working with demons, this left him at a loss. "Er, he didn't say."

"I sort of hope he does, so I'll have a woman friend again. We can do girl stuff together, watch chick flicks, go shopping."

Gunn ran with it. "Sounds like a plan. You need a makeover. Even I've given up the flannel."

Sally looked down at her jeans, flannel shirt, and tank top. "There's nothing wrong with what I'm wearing," she protested.

"It's the same damn thing you always wear," Gunn drawled. "I've never seen you wear anything different."

"You know, you're right," Buffy piped up, looking thoughtfully at Spike. "What is it with vampires, always wearing the same thing?" She eyed his black jeans and t-shirt up and down, the expression on her face wry.

Spike and Sally exchanged a glance. "No reflection," she said.

"Yeah," Spike agreed. "This way, no big fashion mistakes."

"You find something that works –"

"A look that suits you –"

"And you never have to worry."

"Doesn't show blood. Very practical."

"And comfortable."

"Do you know what I had to wear when I was human? Wool."

"A girdle."

"'Sides, goes real well with my boots."

"I hate to have anything tight around my neck."

"The right number of pockets," Spike added, lifting a finger.

"It's not as though it's the exact same clothes everyday."

"Yeah, they're always clean."

"Honey, you get tired of choosing clothes every morning when you live forever. This is automatic."

"Anyway, I look good in this color. Black suits us blonds."

"You do look good in black," Sally agreed.

"What," Gunn broke in, "so you think you look good in flannel? Might as well wear a Duke shirt. No one looks good in flannel." He grinned down at Sally. "Well, I did."

"Gee, thanks," Sally said sardonically. "I'm not trying to look good," she went on, "so much as I'm trying to blend into the background."

"Why do you want to do that?" Buffy asked, curiosity overriding good manners. The other woman opened her mouth to answer, but a piercing whistle came from the next room. "That's our call to order," Buffy explained. "Let's go try to find somewhere to sit in the living room."

She let go of Spike's hand as unobtrusively as possible. As they moved further into the house, she looked over her shoulder at Spike. "You know, Angel doesn't always wear the same thing."

"Bloody Angel," Spike muttered.

"Wow," Buffy breathed. She rolled away from Angel, letting the air of the room cool her sweat-soaked body.

"Wow," he agreed. "I can never really enjoy this," he added, going over the reasons in his head.

She was used to this; he had to bring Angelus to mind. No post-coital glow for him. It didn't bother her; she wasn't as interested in romance now that she'd found he had almost as much stamina as Spike.

"Giles hasn't found anything else," she mused. That was something else for him to brood about.

Angel wasn't thinking about the battles. He had seen her holding Spike's hand a few times over the last week. The thought of her being unfaithful was certainly a curb for happiness. "We'll, uh, figure it out," he said mechanically. "We always do."

"Angelus stuffed back down?"

"Pretty much."

Buffy rolled to her side to look at him, grinning impishly. "We'll bring Spike for a threesome next time." She stiffened as his eyes flashed yellow, and she raised an arm in capitulation. "Hey, just trying to help you tamp down Angelus."

"Think you having my boy here wouldn't make him happy?" Angel made his demon submerge beneath his own features.

"Who cares? I was trying to make you unhappy." She frowned. "Helpful girl, here. All with the lesser happies."

Angel had heard her heartrate increase, though. Maybe she was trying to make him jealous, trying to keep him from being happy, but ever since the first of the battles, he had to wonder.

He'd never seen Buffy and Spike fight together. The examples to describe it were all things of beauty and grace: synchronized swimming, pairs skating, ballet. The two warriors made a deadly wall no enemy could pass, all their motions complementary. Angel had seen them set up a complicated defense involving moving behind three bulky, fanged demons with nothing more than a jerk of Buffy's head and a tightening of Spike's mouth.

Angel had never really been jealous of the boy, but he knew he could not fight beside Buffy or anyone like that. His jaw flexed. He didn't have to be jealous; she was in his bed, wasn't she? He'd won, again.

[Author's Note: The song lyric is from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.]

What on earth have I gotten myself into? Sally wondered yet again, parrying a vicious axe-swing with the Louisville Slugger she'd taken from another, now dead Thula demon. At the same time, she launched a back kick at the vampire who was coming at her from behind. The blow from the Thula demon's axe splintered the wooden baseball bat, so she used it to stake the vampire.

Another axe swung through the air, and Sally ducked, but this one was wielded by Charles Gunn. She gave him a quick smile of thanks as the second Thula demon's head rolled away. Charles had been in Cleveland three weeks now, invaluable in last week's fight, and she was sure she wasn't the only person he'd helped tonight, their fourth chance.

Sally fell into step with him as they retraced their steps. She got a can of paint from the jacket she wore and sprayed an X on the door to show the area was clear. It had been Willow's idea after the first night of intra-building combat, and she had magicked the paint so that it acted as a barrier that demons couldn't pass. While Mr. Giles still hadn't figured out the schedule of the twelve opportunities, for all practical purposes, it didn't matter. Before each attack, there was an impossible-to-hide influx of demons into Cleveland.

"Didn't know you were down this way," Gunn said.

"You came down here alone," Sally scolded.

"You did, too," he shot back, holding the door to the stairwell for her.

"Honey, I'm already dead. You're not." She sighed and tightened her ponytail. "Where're we headed?"

"Down to the second floor, last I heard. Heavy on the vampires." The slayers fought from the top down, clearing each floor, working their way to the subbasements where the sewer access let demons into the buildings. Outside, Riley Finn's paramilitary units created a buffer between their work and innocent civilians.

"I'll head down to one, then."

"Then I'll go, too."

"Go be the cavalry for someone else, Charles."

"Not a chance."

"I'll make you a batch of scratch biscuits." She looked up at him. "You can have the funny biscuit."

He made an impatient noise. "Your biscuits aren't that good. Well, okay, they are, but that's not the point. Sally, are you trying to get yourself killed? You can't keep going off by yourself."

"It's easier alone. I don't know how to fight with people, Charles."

"And you're never gonna learn, are you, you keep fighting alone."

"All right," she said irritably. "Here, we're at the second floor. See, I'm going."

"Good, then."

"Fine." She gave him a half-exasperated, half-affectionate look. "I'll make biscuits, anyway, but you're not getting the funny one."

"I'll charm it out of you," he said, grinning.

"We'll see." She looked around at the 'x's spray-painted on the doors. Gunn went out slightly ahead of her, his axe raised. The hallway was quiet, but they could hear sounds of battle ahead.

The first floor had a double staircase that curved up to the second floor, and the steps and the open space between the stairs were dotted with combatants. Sally scanned the fray for Spike's distinctive blond head and found him fighting near Buffy and Giles. She searched with increasing concern for Angel's dark head and broad shoulders and found him fighting in the thick of it on the nearest staircase.

"Cavalry's here," Gunn said, and she followed him, vaulting over the railing. She took her trusty stake from her back pocket, holding it in her right hand, and using the ruined baseball bat as a nightstick. She outpaced Gunn, feeling her demon leaping within her, wanting out in a way she'd felt only in the previous battles.

Sally watched Angel as she moved toward him, dispatching two vampires along the way, anticipating his side kick and making sure she was there with an upraised stake when his hapless opponent fell toward her. She saw his dark eyes widen, looking past her. Sally ducked, felt the air from his kick pass over her head, then swept out with her own leg to put the assailant on the ground. She staked it, then tossed the wooden weapon up to Angel. Scuttling out of his way, she dropped down a couple of steps, then stood, the stump of the baseball bat in her hand.

No enemy was charging up the stairs toward her, so she took a quick moment to look around. Giles was fighting with a sword, moving with a lethal elegance. Xander was working from a corner where his lack of vision in his left eye wouldn't be a liability, flanking two slayers she didn't know. The two blond heads that marked Buffy and Spike were moving in an erratic, lethal dance, darting to and fro, leaving a thinner line of opponents in their wake. Their pairing during battles had gone unremarked; while Buffy might share Angel's bed, it was Spike who belonged at her side during a fight. They moved together as gracefully and effortlessly as flying birds.

Above Sally, Gunn had joined Angel, and they were fighting back-to-back, only four – no, three – enemies surviving near them. She couldn't find Oz, or Willow, or Rona. Then she spotted the place she'd been searching for. A few feet down from the elevators was a door that had swung open twice since she'd been watching. Both times a small knot of vampires came out. Sally vaulted over the railing a second time, landing on the marble of the atrium. She grabbed two smallish demons and smacked their heads together, spinning behind them as they fell, then sprinted toward the door, which was marked "Employees Only." She positioned herself next to it and waited until it opened, staking the vampire who emerged. She snatched at a hand just inside the door and pulled out a second vampire. Sally grappled with it for a moment, then slammed it back through the doorframe into the next combatant trying to join the fight. She followed on its heels, the jagged stump of the baseball bat held aloft.

The air cleared in the narrow corridor, and Sally turned away from the two scatterings of dust on the floor. She felt in her jacket pocket and pulled out the spray can. With a quick glance over her shoulder, she pushed the door open and stepped back into the atrium. Holding the knob, she sprayed a hasty 'x' on the metal door, smiling with some satisfaction at the thought of the logjam of demons that would soon be piled up behind it. With a last look down the hallway, Sally let go of the knob, and began tucking the spray can back into her jacket. She never saw the tentacle that snaked along the floor and eased around her ankle.

The spray paint slipped from her fingers as she was yanked off her feet. Sally let out a yelp of surprise that was lost in the din of battle. She felt herself slide along the slick marble back through the "Employees Only" door, started to grab the frame, then decided she would rather meet face first whatever it was that had her.

She never did find out exactly what it was, only knew that it had tentacles rather than limbs and that the stump of a baseball bat into its single eye would kill it. Sally looked back at the closed door, the 'x' on the outside now barring her way just as it did any other demon. She swallowed, then made herself take the baseball bat from where it stuck out of the corpse. It was her only weapon, and she doffed her jacket, using it to clean the slime from the wood. Holding the bat at the ready, she waited by the door.

Over the next few minutes, two more groups of four vampires came down the corridor, and she managed to stake all eight at only the cost of a few bruised ribs. The sounds of battle in the atrium had faded, moved farther away, and Sally gave up any hope that someone had seen and was going to open the door. Sighing, she began walking down the corridor, the broken bat held high, and began to look for another way out.

The hallway crooked several times, but there were no doors along the walls. Her brows first drew together at this oddity, then her face went perfectly blank, too unnerved to display emotion at what came next. The floor changed from tile to wooden planking and began to slope downward, and the overhead fluorescents gave way to single, stark bulbs. The hallway continued on, the silence now unsettling her more than the lack of right angles. She didn't remember this place, wherever it was, on the architect's blueprints that someone had found for the slayers to study.

She met no one else as she walked. The hallway zigged once more and around this corner it ended, opening up onto a catwalk that spanned a huge cavern. Sally peered over the wooden walkway, seeing switchbacks curve down into the depths as far as she could see, looking like the world's shoddiest scaffolding. The area closest to her was lit with pitch torches, and there was no movement or scent of any living thing. She looked up. The torchlight did not go up far enough to show the ceiling of the cave.

Sally was certain that she would not be allowed to go back, that the hallway where she had started was no longer there. Squaring her shoulders, she took a torch from the wall and began walking down the catwalk. After long minutes of trudging downward, she found that she was naming off her goats, and a faint smile touched her face. No wonder, in this Tolkienesque place. 'Down, down to goblin town,' she thought, then stopped herself. Not funny, after all.

After she had walked for what she judged to be half an hour, Sally paused and craned her neck to look above her. Either the torches at the top had burned out, or she was in a stranger place than she realized, because it didn't look as if she had made much progress, maybe descended twelve or so winding levels. She was sure that she had covered more than five times that distance. With that in mind, she took a new pitch torch from its brace on the wall and left the original one in its place. She put the stump of the baseball bat in her back pocket and, the torch held aloft, continued along the walkway.

She had switched torches twice more when it happened. One of the planks splintered, and her foot went through it. The torch flew out of her hand and into the emptiness of the cavern as she pitched forward, falling onto the catwalk. The force of her landing snapped more planks, and she fell onto the next level, which also gave way. 'Oh, crud,' Sally had time to think, as she careened over the edge, 'wood.'

Her back hit the walkway below, and she snatched out with unnatural reflexes to grab it, coming away with nothing but splinters in her fingertips. The freefall lasted a shorter time than she expected, and she crashed through something more solid than wood with an involuntary "Ooof!" Then she smacked for a final time onto her hip, felt several things pierce her skin, and she squeezed her eyes shut, expecting to fly into billions of particles of dust at any second. When she didn't, she opened her eyes.

The first thing she saw was the hole she'd created in the ceiling high above her, a jagged black opening in the dark roof of wherever she was. Sally looked side to side, seeing curving wooden walls, like those of a ship. Flexing her muscles, she checked for broken bones. She tried to sit up, then winced, noticing a long splinter of walkway embedded in her forearm. Grimacing, she pulled it free, then checked herself for other injuries. For a few minutes, she plucked pieces of wood from her limbs and torso, frankly amazed that none had pierced her heart. She eased the last jagged splinter from the back of her neck, then sat quietly, waiting for the oozing wounds to heal. With a slight wince, she rolled onto one hip, pulling the baseball bat from her back pocket, glad that she couldn't see the bruise on her buttock.

There wasn't much light in the odd, curving room, but what little there was gleamed softly from somewhere behind her. When she felt a little less ventilated, Sally got to her feet with a groan, thinking that she sure sounded like an eighty-year-old woman. The stump of the bat clutched in her right hand once more, she started moving cautiously toward the source of the light.

The wooden walls opened onto an enormous room, the vastness of it broken up by large, white sheets of fabric that billowed slightly with currents in the air. They served as walls of sorts, though she couldn't tell from where they were suspended or what held them aloft. The impression of being on an old sailing ship came to her again, though she couldn't feel any movement beneath her feet or smell the ocean. The floor was also white, made of a dull stone. She glanced around, trying to find something to orient herself, wasn't surprised when she couldn't sense east. She couldn't even discern how close it was to sunrise, her most basic vampire sense. The only thing that served as a focal point was the brightness of the soft light, so she began walking towards it. Absently, Sally again tucked the bat into the back pocket of her jeans, holding both hands in front of her to ward of the edges of the rippling sheets. The enormous room was quiet except for her footfalls and the occasional snap of cloth.

The atmosphere, calm though it was, became suddenly quieter, and Sally paused before stepping around the next sheet. The light, which had grown steadily brighter as she neared it, suddenly moderated. The first thing she noticed when she stepped into the central space was a human face.

He was a mature man of indeterminate age, a permanent frown on his face. His features were Middle Eastern, and he wore a white tunic, a small, round, white cap on his head, and brown leather sandals. The man was sitting on a white chair before a white table, on which lay a single old issue of Look magazine. Sally could see Shirley Temple on the cover.

The only other thing in the room was an intricate pedestal made of wrought iron or some other metal that could be worked by an artist's hand, painted white. Set on the pedestal was a translucent lamp or pot, with a handle on either side. This was the source of the opalescent light. Sally looked at it for a long while, longer, she suspected, than she realized. It was lovely.

Shaking her head, Sally took a breath and focused on the man at the white table. He was perusing a yellowed scroll now, and she thought he looked like nothing so much as a scholar at the library in Alexandria. She took a couple of uncertain steps toward him.

"You are not expected," he said. He rolled the scroll toward the bottom dowel, the two sticks of wood clicking as they touched. As he lay it back on the surface of the table and removed his hands, it changed into an anime comic book. His hands moved toward it, then they stilled, and he looked up at her.

"I have to agree, sir," she said, innate Southern politeness coming to the fore. "Good…evening." He nodded gravely. After waiting a couple of beats for him to speak again, Sally went on. "Where exactly are we?"

"We are here," he replied, "where the lamp is." He nodded toward the pedestal.

"You are a djinn?" Sally asked, wondering if she was speaking English.

He looked at her with sharpened interest. "I am Sayeed," he replied, not answering, inclining his head once.

"Pleased to meet you, Sayeed," she said. "I am–"

"I know who you are," he interrupted. "That you are here is immaterial."

Sally raised her eyebrows, pondering this. "What am I to do here?"

"Those who come here do one of two things: they touch the lamp or they pass by without touching the lamp."

"Which would you recommend, al-Sayeed?"

He raised his heavy brows. "I do not recommend either."

She tried another tack. "How can I leave this place?"

"You do not. If you take up the lamp, you will die. If you pass by the lamp, you will soon find death."

"I'm already dead, al-Sayeed."

He regarded her gravely. "If you take up the lamp to illuminate the wish of your heart, your body will disintegrate, and the demon housed inside will be destroyed. Your soul will journey to wherever it goes next. If you pass by the lamp, the same things will soon happen by different means."

'Lovely,' Sally thought, but she was unsurprised by the news. She had suspected for some time that she wouldn't find her way back. At least she might get a few answers; this being could just look at her and see the soul and demon inside. "Where does my soul go next?" Sayeed looked at her but said nothing. "Let me guess," Sally tried, "you must speak the truth, but there are some things–"

"I choose to speak the truth," Sayeed said, interrupting again, "I am not bound to do so. You have a human soul, and there are some things you may not know and I cannot see."

If politeness was important to Southerners, Sally knew it was doubly important in the East, so she swallowed her irritation. "Thank you for speaking the truth, al-Sayeed. I appreciate that. Please tell me, will my death accomplish anything if I do not choose the lamp?"

"No."

"Will it accomplish anything if I do?"

"I cannot say. It depends on your wish."

'My wish,' Sally thought. "Thank you." She turned from Sayeed and looked at the light once more. A genie and a lamp and a wish. She had some thinking to do.

"Drusilla."

Angel breathed in the scent, then turned to nod in agreement at Spike. They had fought their way down to the subbasements, and this time casualties were light, with two Watchers and one slayer injured. The two Aurelians were in the security room, checking the monitors to see if anything was still lurking.

"Did you see her?"

Spike shook his head. "I suspect she saw us, though," he said, gesturing at the bank of monitors.

"Do you think she was using the security system to direct the troops?"

"More likely that she was just watching the fight like it was something good playing on the West End."

"Maybe." Angel studied the screens methodically, barely noticing Spike move around behind him.

"Here," he said, dropping a walkie-talkie on the counter in front of the dark-haired man. "I'll follow her scent, keep in touch with you."

"Let's see if we can spot her from here."

"All right." He followed Angel's gaze to one monitor, which showed Buffy and Xander standing in the lobby, talking to a tall man in military gear. "Wanker."

"That Riley?" The camera angle only showed his back.

"Who else would it be? Buffy wouldn't stop to talk to a random soldier."

Angel's eyes darkened as he stared at the screen. He'd had a fight with Buffy, and they hadn't shared a bed for over a week. She'd pointed out that, while he had memories of Dawn implanted, she had no memories of Connor to remove. Angel agreed, telling her that even if she wasn't in his life, she was in his heart. His reasoning didn't seem to satisfy her. She'd come around, though she'd probably come around faster without Riley Finn in the picture.

Spike turned to a nearby computer and studied it for a few moments. "Try this," he suggested, moving the mouse and clicking it a couple of times. One of the monitors began showing the feed from every security camera in succession, and they watched as each flickered past. Most views were of empty rooms and corridors, but it was heartening to see the faces of the people they knew flash by.

When the last camera on the roof failed to show Drusilla, Angel took up the radio set and nodded to the blond man. "We'll go together."

"Angel…" Spike said, holding the door. He looked into the hall for a moment, testing the air, then gestured to their right. He pulled a stake from his coat pocket. "I think I can. But if I can't…."

Angel met his gaze. "I can. It would be better if I did. Fitting, somehow."

Spike nodded once, and they began walking down the hallway. "It's just… I've saved her so many times. I really have to work to get into the right frame of mind to kill her."

"She'll probably be doing something that'll make you want to kill her," Angel reassured him.

"I can't believe I didn't feel her," Spike mused. "I always know when Dru's nearby. Haven't seen her since I got my soul, though."

"Might have something to do with it," Angel agreed absently.

Spike stopped suddenly, his gaze unfocused. "I can feel Buffy and Dawn," he said slowly, "but I can't find Sally."

Angel had moved a few feet ahead. He stopped and turned back to Spike, tilting his head slightly. "I can't, either." He fumbled in the pocket of his jacket and pulled out an old, gray stake. "Sally gave this to me on the lobby stairs. I didn't see her after that." They stared at each other for a moment. "Did you see her on the monitors?" When the other man shook his head, his shoulders tensed. "I'm sure she's fine. I don't sense Gunn, either, and I saw him after the worst of it. Maybe they're outside."

Spike nodded slowly. "Yeah. 'Course they are." After a few more seconds, he started forward.

Angel fell into step beside him. "Right now, we need to find Dru." Both men lifted their heads to inhale, and they started upstairs in silence.

A single wish. I wish I may, I wish I might. Her eyes felt dry, and Sally blinked. After a long time spent gazing at the clear, soft light, she made herself look away, back at the djinn.

"Excuse me, al-Sayeed. Might you tell me if my wish is worthy, or if it can be granted at all?"

He looked up from a handwritten journal or log, the leather cover held on by two pieces of twine threaded through the crudely pierced edges. "I can do that much, yes."

"Would my wish that there were never any vampires in my world be granted?" She chose her words carefully.

"No. You are barely more than human; you do not go deep enough for that."

Sally nodded. She suspected as much. "Would my wish that two specific humans were never bitten by vampires be granted?"

"No. Of the two vampires I see in your heart, at least one appears in Prophecy. Their course cannot be altered. Even if this were not so, again, you do not go deep enough. These two lived and died before you were even born."

She nodded her thanks and stepped away from him. I'm deep enough for things in my own lifetime, she decided, processing the djinn's latest words. It's been a good life, she thought, her eyes on the light once again. I had the love of a good man. I had the American dream. I've even beaten the life expectancy for a woman of my time.

Dying, truly dying, did not scare her. But she had known champions, and she wanted her death to matter. She thought about those warriors, about what she had learned, what Sayeed had said about her presence being immaterial. Sally didn't think that he was trying to get her to make some sort of pansy wish, but that he didn't think her capable of doing any better. Obviously, she couldn't wish Hitler had died at birth. She wasn't 'deep' enough for that. But there must be something….

The sound of her stomach growling brought her out of her reverie. I might have been here for days, she thought, unconsciously rubbing her stomach. It was becoming more difficult to tear her eyes away from the light. She focused on Sayeed, who was perusing what looked like a German language romance novel, a busty blond on the cover.

"Excuse me, al-Sayeed," she said again, her voice soft, her accent more pronounced than it had been in years. "Might a wish that I have a two-month period in my past where I know the things I know now… might that wish be granted?" She would have held her breath if she had any.

Sayeed lay down the novel, which immediately changed into a veterinary textbook written in Cyrillic alphabet. "Yes. Such a wish could be granted." He didn't smile, but the lines framing his mouth eased. "Such a wish could change your life, and your husband's." He nodded to her formally, as if releasing her to her task, then picked up his book.

She stared at the back of his head, at the small white hat for a moment longer, then walked to the lamp. She lifted her hands, pausing to compose her thoughts. The temptation was there, to wish that she would have stayed safe inside her house the night before Henry came home. But they had shared an oddly happy life together. She sometimes thought that, without her misfortune, Henry wouldn't have been as successful. She smiled fondly. He could negotiate the fillings out of a man's back teeth, and that man would still walk across a restaurant to shake Henry's hand.

She might not be deep enough for the big wishes, but she wasn't shallow, either. The life she had with Henry was as much as regular people could ever wish for. She allowed herself one wistful thought of babies, of having children, then let it go. The wish wasn't something she could keep for herself. She took a breath, just to be human, and wrapped her fingers around the handles of the lamp.

Rather than burning, it was cold. Her knuckles turned white, and her arms began to shake. It felt a bit as if she'd brushed up against an electric fence. From very far away, her knees wanted to buckle. And inside her, the vampire awoke, howling furiously within her mind, battering against her will.

Sally focused on a date, on certain knowledge, and on the wish. Her balance gave, and she fell to her knees, but forced her hands to remain on the lamp. May and June, 2001. Along her shoulders, the distinct edge of her flesh began to blur. All the nights she had listened to their stories at the kitchen table, outside under the stars. Light shone from her eyes now, their green fading into the white of the lamp. She tightened her grip, bringing their faces to her mind, looking into brown eyes and blue somewhere in all the potentials of time. The demon inside her writhed, the touch of the light hurting it far more than it did his host. The bonds that held her molecules together began to weaken, and her body began to dissolve. But there was still time for the wish, because now there was no such thing as time.

With a whisper, a sigh in the air, Sally's body disintegrated. An inhuman roar filled the room, reaching to all corners, billowing the sheets away from the light, as the demon inside her was slain. The white fabric settled back to stillness, and as the last atoms of her physical form fell from the burning lamp, she made the wish of her heart. Through these things, that he might have his soul earlier.

Sayeed's eyes widened, and he turned too late, dropping his book. The Powers That Be stilled for a moment in their ceaseless machinations, aware that something had just been wrested from their control.

Her soul unfolded, its work done, and winged away.

North Carolina

May 2001

A New Reality

[Author's note for readers of 'Life Hard': The higher number of vampires Sally has sired is correct in this particular reality, the 'Life Hard' universe. Since Spike won't sire at the behest of the First Evil, some other souled vampire had to sire the same number.]

The Jelash demon walked along the gravel driveway, breathing in the clean mountain air and shifting his suitcase in his one hand. On his other side, the empty sleeve of his jacket was pinned neatly up to his elbow. Jim's shadow was a puddle at his feet until he stepped onto the lawn and into the engulfing shade of tall, flower-laden catalpa trees. His friends had a long driveway, and for a brief moment, he wished he had another hand to tote the suitcase for a while.

Jim marveled that had been ten years since he'd seen Henry and Sally. The fact that Henry was getting older, unlike him or Sally, probably had a lot to do with it. But he'd do anything for these particular friends, which was, after all, why he was here. She said she needed help.

Stepping onto the porch, he put down his bag and started to knock. "It's open," he heard Sally call from inside. Jim turned the knob and pushed the door inward. She was standing well back from the splash of sunlight, grinning at him. "Come on in, Jim, and close the door so I can give you a hug."

He did so and set his suitcase on the floor a second before Sally grabbed him in a crushing embrace. "It's good to see you," he said, a smile on his own face, when she loosened her grip and he was free to breathe again. Sometimes he forgot how strong vampires were, lulled by their human face.

"You, too," she said, still grinning widely. "I'm so glad you came. Thanks, Jim, so much. Really. How was your flight?" Sally scooped up his suitcase and led him into the hallway.

"Oh, fair, fair," he told her. "Very little turbulence and only one crying baby."

"Did the driver find the house okay?"

"You gave him good directions."

"Do you want the waterbed or the regular mattress?" she asked, pausing between two doors.

"Regular. My back isn't what it used to be." Thinking of it, he stretched a bit. "After my next hibernation, I'm thinking of waking up as a lithe young Asian woman."

"Really?" Sally threw him a puzzled look over her shoulder as she placed his suitcase on the bed. "I thought you were never going to be a woman again, not after that time in Romania." Jelash demons assumed a new form every forty years or so, after a period of hibernation that lasted four to seven years. Most chose to be human. She examined the form he'd been in for so long now, the body of an imposing elderly black man.

"Times have changed," he said. "Might not be so bad to be a woman now. But I'm definitely going to be young, and if I'm short, I'll be able to have two arms."

"That would be good," she agreed, "but don't go shorter than I am. You'll never be able to reach anything on a top shelf. I hope you're hungry, honey, because I've been in the kitchen since yesterday."

"Biscuits?" he asked hopefully, turning to go back into the hall.

"Mm-hmm," Sally said, following him. "Cornbread, too, and croissants. I got the recipe from that boarding house in Paris y'all stayed at."

"How did you find that?" he asked, his eyebrows going up.

"They've got a website," she said simply.

"Well, you make the best biscuits in the world," he said, "but I'll try a croissant, too, since you went to all the trouble." He threw a grin over his shoulder. She would never admit that she was a good cook, but even Sally had to accept compliments on her biscuits. "Say, where's Henry?"

"In the living room." Something in her voice made him look back at her, and his grin faded. Jim walked the few feet down the hallway to see inside the door to the living room. Henry was in a wheelchair, staring vacantly through the window at the pretty spring day outside. Jim looked back at Sally, who shrugged.

"Hey, Henry," he said, stepping into the room. His old friend didn't look up, so he walked around the wheelchair into the other man's line of sight. Henry's eyes slowly tracked from the window to his face, but the expression in his eyes didn't become any less vacant. Jim noticed that he was loosely tied into the wheelchair by a clean sheet wrapped around his middle. His hair was completely white now and thin, showing the pink scalp beneath. Henry's mouth worked for a moment, but no sound came out.

Sally came up on his other side and picked up a glass of water with a straw in it from the coffee table. "Here you go, honey," she said, putting the straw against his lips. Henry closed his mouth around the straw, his eyes still on Jim. After a moment, he seemed to forget the drink, because his lips slackened and a dribble of water ran over his chin. Sally wiped his chin with the hem of the flannel shirt she wore. Henry's eyes went back to the window. "Henry? Honey, look who's here. It's your friend Jim. He was the medic in your unit, remember? During the war?"

They regarded the silent man in the wheelchair for a few moments. Sally set the water back on the coffee table, smoothed Henry's hair, and stepped out of the room. Jim followed her into the kitchen.

"I didn't realize it was this bad," he said, his voice shaky, unable to keep his expression neutral. He'd been the medic in Henry's unit as they fought their way across France into Germany, and they'd become fast friends, staying in touch even after the injury that had taken his left arm and ended his time in the military. He remembered Henry as a tall, lanky soldier, strong from years of farm work, carrying him away from an oncoming tank, or as a businessman in horn-rimmed glasses and a skinny tie, scandalizing a group of travelers by embracing an old black man in a Southern airport lobby in 1965. Henry was the finest example of loyalty Jim could name in his long existence, the way he'd stayed with his wife after she had been turned, through all the slaughter when her demon escaped their control. Now all those fine qualities were gone, the vitality that made him Henry stripped away by time and disease. Humans, he thought, were heartbreaking in their beauty and brevity.

"I hoped he might recognize you," Sally said, a sad smile crossing her face. She busied herself setting the table. "If you still looked like you did in the Army, he might have." During World War II, Jim had worn the form of a white man in his twenties.

"Can he talk?"

She nodded. "A little. He doesn't often, though, only on his very best days now, and it usually doesn't make sense. And he isn't very mobile anymore. I'm beginning to worry about bedsores."

Jim sat down at the table, his legs not up to supporting him. "From what you said on the phone, I knew, but… Man, seeing him like that… That last visit in L.A., he was a little vague, but…" He shook his own gray head. "Alzheimers?" When she lifted her shoulders in non-answer, Jim tried another tack. "How are you holding up, Sally?"

She didn't meet his eyes and got busy setting a breadbasket on the table. "Fine. We've got chicken and dumplings, soup beans, fresh collard greens, and," she lifted the lid from one of the pots on the table, "bouillabaisse. I'll make up a batch of ratatouille tomorrow, after I can get out to the garden. I've already got peppers and onions coming in. They're little, but there's nothing as good as fresh from the garden."

"Sally," Jim repeated, looking at her from beneath lowered brows. Vampires didn't age, but constant stress would eventually show on their features, too. Her red hair was drawn back into a sloppy ponytail, and she looked tired.

"Really, Jim, I'm okay." She shrugged again, and her voice softened. "I miss him, but every so often… he's still there, a little bit. Or maybe it's just wishful thinking." She cleared her throat and took the conversation on a tangent. "I can't rely on Henry to unlock me anymore, and I get lonesome since we're pretty much housebound, but other than that… What do you want to drink?"

"Buttermilk, if you've got it." He watched her walk to the refrigerator. "So, how do you get out of the shackles every day?"

"Oh, I keep the key in a little combination lockbox I put under the bed," she said. "So far, so good." She poured the buttermilk in a glass, then filled a glass for herself from a jar of blood that she'd had warming in a pan of water on the stove. "Well, tuck in."

Jim helped himself to a bit of everything. "Sally," he said, his mouth half-full, "this is ambrosia. How do you cook like this without being able to taste?"

"By smell," she said, taking in a deep breath. "It's cruel. I can still taste some things, but most food tastes like… ashes, once it's in my mouth, unless it's really, really spicy." She lifted her glass wryly. "Or unless it's blood." She swirled the thick, red cow's blood in the glass, her eyes fixed on it, then looked back up at Jim brightly. "So! Enough about me. Tell me about your medical practice. Have you had to patch up either of the Weatherbys lately?"

The afternoon wore on as they talked and darkness fell. Jim helped Sally as she fed Henry and later got him into bed, then they went outside to enjoy the mild night. Sally dragged two wicker chairs onto the lawn, and they settled in comfortably.

"I can't believe this air," he said, pulling in a big breath. "There's not a drop of exhaust in it."

"Just be glad you don't have allergies," Sally pointed out, "because there's a lot of pollen right now."

"Spring in the North Carolina mountains?" Jim asked, looking up at the Milky Way hanging like a garland in the dark sky. "I'm not going to complain about a few sneezes in the merry month of May." He took another deep breath, then looked over at her speculatively. "So, Sally, why did you call me out here? You sounded pretty serious on the phone. Is it Henry?"

"No, it's me." She shifted and met his eyes for a fleeting instance. "I wanted you to help me figure out if I'm crazy." She shrugged. "I don't have any other sounding boards. After that, either way, I'm going to need your help."

His eyebrows lifted. "Well, now you've got my curiosity up."

She looked at her hands for a moment, then met his eyes. "For the past three weeks, I've been having the most vivid, intense dreams I've never had. They're not even like dreams, they're more like visions, or memories. Each time I fall asleep, I see more, and I have this compulsion to act on the dreams, to go find…" Sally took a deep breath and started over. "I'm dreaming about a bleached-blond vampire named…" she made herself finish, "'Spike.'" The name came out like a lump of lead, and she looked over at Jim beseechingly.

"Well, as a standard, I don't think it's going to replace "I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair," he said. "It doesn't sound crazy, yet. Dreams are odd things, but if you're thinking of acting on one… I'd like to hear more."

"Jim, are there such things as prophetic dreams? I mean, really?"

He lifted a shoulder. "Sure. There are dreams that come true." Frowning at her, he asked, "What makes you think these dreams are prophetic?"

"I see everything so clearly and specifically; I know his past and his future. They don't even seem like dreams, they're so real. I mean, I really believe this guy, this vampire I'm dreaming about exists, that he currently lives in a crypt in a cemetery in a town called, of all things, Sunnydale, out in California."

He gave her an odd look. "There is a Sunnydale. It's a little town up the coast from Los Angeles. It has sort of a bad reputation. For vampires."

She stared at him for a moment, then shrugged almost angrily. "I've probably driven past a road sign for Sunnydale. That doesn't signify anything. I mean, that part could be my own knowledge. But the rest is… more creative that I give myself credit for."

"Do you think this vampire is… invading your sleep, somehow?" Jim asked.

"No, no, it's nothing like that. These aren't nightmares, far from it. It feels like he's a friend, in my dreams."

Jim's look was assessing. "You did say that you've been lonely."

"Yeah, and who's more friendly than another vampire?" She let her head fall back. "This makes no sense at all. I mean, I've killed every vampire I've ever run across." Her voice went quiet. "All nineteen that I made, plus twelve more." Sally gave her head a small shake. "I don't have some sort of Lestat fixation, you know? Vampires are evil, petty evil, even. If I was going to come up with a dream-friend from my own imagination, I figure it would be human – and female."

"But you feel compelled to go find him?"

She nodded her head, looking miserable. "This vampire, he's… Jim, there's good in him. I mean, that's crazy all by itself, isn't it?"

"No, still not crazy. Is this demon in your dream like you? I mean, does he have a soul?"

She stood up, cupping her elbows as if she could be cold. "You've gotten right to the heart of it. I'm supposed to… I mean, in my dreams, I feel compelled to go to him and tell him to get his soul back."

Jim pursed his lips and tilted his head to the side. "Get his soul back? Souls aren't easy to come by, you know."

She threw her hands up. "I don't know how to get a soul. I mean, I never lost mine, not the way it's supposed to happen when somebody gets turned."

"Soul magic is… iffy."

"Oh, it gets better. The reason I need to help him get a soul is so he can be nice to the girl he's in love with, a human. She kills vampires, by the way. Her name is 'Buffy.' Only, now she's dead, if what I dreamed last night is real." Sally shook her head at the idiocy of it. "If any of it is real." A shadow crossed her face. "He was heartbroken, Jim."

Jim had focused on her earlier words, though, and he licked his suddenly dry lips. "Kills vampires… a vampire Slayer?"

Sally looked over and met his eyes. "Yes," she said slowly, "that's what he calls her. Slayer."

"Sally," Jim said, shaking his head slightly, "have I ever mentioned the Watchers' Council?" When she shook her head, Jim told her about the Watchers' duty to train Slayers that were awakened to their power.

After he finished, Sally looked at the grass between their chairs for a while. "You never told me there was someone whose purpose was to kill vampires."

"I didn't want to worry you. Hidden here in the country, there isn't a chance you'll ever meet a Slayer."

"If parts of these dreams I've been having really are true," she asked thoughtfully, "do you think it means all of it could be true?"

Shrugging, Jim said, "Stranger things have happened, and you can trust me on that. I mean, if anyone is supposed to help a vampire get a soul, it would probably be a vampire that already has one, a vampire who also loves a human."

Sally took a breath. "Would you be willing to stay here and watch Henry while I go on this… fool's errand? I couldn't… there's no one else I'd trust to look out for him."

He blinked. "Sally… you really mean to go all the way out to California to try and find a vampire named Spike who's in love with a dead Slayer and just tell him, go get a soul?" When she shrugged, embarrassed, Jim added. "Okay, yeah, now that does sound crazy."

"These dreams seem more real to me than sitting here talking to you." She sighed, putting her head in her hands. "In fact, in my dreams, he has sat here, a good man with his soul already, talking to me under the stars, impossible stuff like that." Sally looked up at him. "Honey, you're right. Crazy."

"I'll watch Henry for you," Jim said quietly. He stared across the short space at her, wondering at the parallels. This 'Buffy' had died in her dreams, and she was losing her beloved human just as surely. Still… prophetic dreams weren't something to ignore. "I've known you most of your life and, dreams notwithstanding, you're not crazy. Go on, map out your route. I'd planned to stay for a week, anyway."

She closed her eyes, overwhelmed for a moment. "I'll never be able to thank you enough. No driving, though. I'm going to fly out to Los Angeles," Sally said, anxiety in her voice.

"You've already looked into this, haven't you?"

She gave him an apologetic look. "Yes, after you agreed to come for a visit. Jim, I don't feel I have that much time."

Sunnydale

Sally drove slowly down Second Street, trying to read the Sunnydale map on the seat next to her, looking for more cemeteries. She'd been through all the crypts in two graveyards, and she was willing to try another before going back to hide from the sunrise in her room at the rather nasty Sunnydale Motor Inn. There were no good hotels in the little town.

The traffic light in front of her turned yellow, and she slowed. Sally couldn't think of the last time she'd seen a stop light controlled by a timer, but she dutifully pulled to a stop at four a.m. on the empty streets and took the opportunity to look at the map more closely. Her head was bent over the passenger seat, so she missed movement halfway down the block that would otherwise have caught her attention, missed the flash of streetlight on blond hair, the glint of a lifted glass bottle, and the flutter of a long, dark coat. A man limped across the street and disappeared into an alley on the opposite side.

Sally looked up. There was another cemetery four blocks up and two blocks over, near the UC-Sunnydale campus. On the map, it didn't look very big. She could finish checking it tonight. For such a small town, Sunnydale had a lot of graveyards.

To her left, a tall structure caught her eye. Puzzled, she stared at the rickety tower, wondering what it was and why it hadn't been torn down yet. It looked like a lawsuit waiting to happen. The light falling on her face changed from red to green, and she pulled out, forgetting about the odd tower. The warm spring wind pushed against it as her car passed, and it creaked. At its base, among the smashed wood and concrete, lay a bouquet of yellow and red tulips, stolen from someone's yard, a white ribbon tying them together.

[Author's Note: For the rest of the story, please proceed to Life Hard.]