A/N: Apologies for the delay. I tried posting a few times earlier last week, but apparently the login feature was having some technical problems. And the last few days have been oh so hectic!

Anyway, here's the final part -- the one that I've been tweaking, even as late as tonight. Not convinced there's been much improvement (picture me pouting), but it's way past time to kick it out of the nest and see if it flies…

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Chapter Nine

"Good lord," Giles looked from Buffy and Spike to Ardun's body, sprawled at his feet. "A shapeshifter, you say?"

"Yep." Buffy nodded. "He could take on any form he wanted. Be anyone. That wasn't really your friend who called you. It was what's-his-name…Ardun…setting us up. He pretended to be me to get Spike out of the way, then pretended to be him so he could catch me off guard."

"Whoa! We have met the enemy and he is us." Xander eyed the body warily, as if it might suddenly spring to life again. "Pretty trippy stuff."

"You have no idea," Buffy murmured, deliberately avoiding Spike's gaze.

After leaving the exhibit hall earlier, she and Spike had run into Giles and Willow, halfway down the corridor. The pair had managed to punch through Ardun's spell fairly quickly once they had realized something was wrong. Right behind them were Xander and Anya, summoned from the truck by a mental SOS from Willow. But her attempt to contact Buffy had been less successful, making them fear the worst.

Giles and the others were full of questions, but Buffy had put them off until the security guards were located. It hadn't taken long. They'd found them trapped inside a different wing of the museum, presumably by another holding spell, confused and upset but otherwise unharmed. Deciding to leave the guards where they were for the time being, the group had returned to the exhibit room for both the obelisk and explanations.

Buffy looked at Xander. "We should take the body with us. Can you and Spike get it out to the truck?"

"Can Elvis sing?" When no one answered, he glanced around. "That would be a yes, actually. Because he could, you know…if not for that whole being-dead thing. Which he is, despite claims to the contrary that are completely ridiculous. I mean, c'mon. An undead Elvis? Not even Spike would be that stupid. But…that's what I meant. In case anybody was wondering."

Spike snorted. "Really not, Harris." Leaning down, he grabbed the dead shapeshifter beneath the shoulders and hoisted him up. "We all stopped listening to you blatherin' on five minutes ago."

"Oh, yeah?" Xander challenged, stooping to grab Ardun's legs. "I'll have you know I can blather with the best of 'em, buddy, and everybody knows it! They respect it! Unlike you, without a respectable bone in your body. Not that you'd want one, since you're evil and all, but if you did…then, hey! You wouldn't have it."

The pair moved out of sight, carrying their unwieldy burden between them. Buffy smiled faintly as Xander's voice drifted back. "And for the love of god, will somebody tell me why I can't just shut up while I'm ahead?"

After exchanging a bemused look with Willow, Buffy turned to find Giles already examining the obelisk. Predictably enough, he seemed totally fascinated by the carvings, which looked pretty meaningless to her. He only snapped out of his self-induced trance when Xander and Spike returned a few minutes later. Spike was toting something that resembled a crude sledge hammer, which he carried over to Buffy.

"Saw this in one of the other exhibits. Thought it might come in handy."

As Buffy took it from him, Xander snorted. "And again I ask, for what? The thing's indestructible, remember? Giles got that straight from the demon's mouth."

"Oh. Right. 'Cause evil things never lie," Spike deadpanned.

There was a long, heavy silence as everyone stared at each other. Then, shrugging, Buffy hefted the hammer and crossed to the obelisk. She waited until Giles had stepped away, then hauled back and let fly with a powerful swing. The hammer connected with a resounding crack, causing a slight fissure in the granite surface. Three more good smashes and a large chunk broke off and crashed to the floor.

Xander shook his head sadly. "They just don't make indestructible objects like they used to, do they? No pride in craftsmanship anymore."

Buffy shifted her hands to get a better grip and raised the hammer again, but Willow's voice stopped her.

"Wait! Shouldn't we take it out to the desert like we planned, so no one will know?"

Buffy shrugged. "I'm thinking destroyed or stolen, either way people are going to notice. Might as well do it here, dispose of the body, and save ourselves a trip out of town."

"Works for me," Xander said agreeably. "This whole daring museum-heist thing has lost its appeal, anyway. No way it could ever top the joy of lugging a recently deceased body around with Evil Undead there."

A distressed Anya, however, wasn't so agreeable. "That's it? We demolish a priceless artifact, dump a body, and go home? What about the truck? What about our mission? We were the most important part of the plan and now we're…not? You can't do that! I missed dancing and pretty dresses and talking to rich and powerful people just to sit outside in a stupid truck. It's not fair!"

"Anya…sweetheart…" Xander placated. He stopped as Buffy broke in.

"You're right, Anya. It's not fair, and I'm sorry." She met the other woman's startled gaze. "If I'd known it was going to turn out this way, we wouldn't have asked you to sit in the truck. But thank you for doing it, just the same."

Buffy wasn't sure who looked more surprised, Xander or Anya. But Anya quickly recovered, her face glowing as she gave Buffy a tentative smile.

"You're very welcome. And I accept your apology. It was our pleasure to help. Really. That's what we do, after all…Scoobies, I mean…we help. Right?"

Buffy nodded. "Right."

Anya beamed as she turned to Xander, giving him a pleased little nod. He smiled back and put his arm around her.

"Speaking of which, why don't Anya and I take care of that little problem out in the truck while you take care of the big one here? Then we can meet up back at the house."

"Excellent idea, Xander." Giles nodded his approval, then turned to Willow. "And while Buffy destroys the obelisk, you and I should retrieve our things from the wash room and prepare the spell needed to release the guards once she's done."

"Piece of cake," Willow assured him. She smiled at Buffy. "Just give a holler when you're done."

And just like that, they were gone, leaving Buffy alone again with Spike. She straightened her spine, determined to keep him at a safe distance, but when she turned and met his gaze the soft look he gave her almost melted her resolve.

"Look at you," he murmured. "Bein' all considerate and mature. Think you made demon girl's day."

Buffy wasn't sure why that irritated her so much, but it did. Maybe because it implied she wasn't normally considerate and mature, which rankled more than a little. Exactly where did a soulless vampire get off judging her?

But instead of jumping into another argument, she opted to take her frustrations out on the obelisk. A few minutes and several swings later, the granite artifact had been reduced to a big pile of rubble, and Buffy felt infinitely better. In fact, she was fairly certain she could finally face Spike without wigging out.

Much.

Sighing, she looked up to find the vampire in question studying her intently. "What?" she asked warily.

"Nothin'. Just wondering what has you so worked up."

"Nothing has me worked up," she snapped. "There is no working up here. Or down…or…any other direction. This is a completely workless state that I'm in."

He nodded slowly. "If you say so."

His carefully neutral tone, combined with the puzzled look in his eyes, caused Buffy to deflate like a pricked balloon. She might not want to admit it, but none of this was Spike's fault. Which was really strange, because who would have guessed there'd come a day when she'd even think those words? Certainly not her, and probably not Spike, either.

If she could make it that far, then she could make it a little further.

"Sorry," she said quietly. "I guess I'm a little on edge. I shouldn't be taking it out on you."

It took him a moment to recover from the surprise, but he accepted her apology quite graciously. "Perfectly understandable. Bein' the designated human sacrifice can do that to a person."

He smiled, and she smiled back. She couldn't seem to help it. Then a thought occurred to her, and her smile widened.

Spike caught the change. "What are you up to, Slayer?" he asked, eyeing her suspiciously.

She shrugged, innocence personified. "Not up to anything. Just trying to wrap my head around you wanting to rule the world, is all.

"Slayer!" he protested, his tone slightly exasperated. "I didn't want to. Told you I did it for Dru. It's not my style, really. Too impersonal. Wasn't exactly boo-hooin' all over the place when it went south."

"Yeah…about that. What exactly did you say happened?"

His gaze narrowed. "Didn't say. Never will. So you can just get that thought right out of your head."

Buffy shook her head, lips curling in a smirk that rivaled his trademark look. "I don't know. Must have been something pretty embarrassing to get the Big Bad all in a tizzy."

"In a—? You don't—" He broke off suddenly, his head tilting to one side. He stared at her, his face a study in amazed wonder. "Are you teasing me?"

She didn't reply, just stood there smirking as an answering gleam appeared in his eyes. Slowly, he moved toward her until he was standing mere inches away. Flashing back to the utility closet, Buffy's heart jumped and her smile faded. It didn't help to remind herself that it hadn't really been Spike in there with her. Her traitorous body had a will of its own, and right now it was screaming at her to drag him into the closet and pick up where she and his impersonator had left off.

She was already leaning in when a noise in the corridor brought her to her senses. She managed to put some distance between them just as Willow and Giles appeared.

"The preparations are complete. As soon as you—" Giles spotted what was left of the obelisk. "Ah…I see you've already finished. Excellent. Well, all that's left now is to remove the spell restraining the guards and have done with it, I suppose."

"Right," Buffy agreed softly. She risked a quick glance at a stone-faced Spike. "Slayed the bad guy. Saved the world. All done."

Even as she dropped her gaze, Buffy could feel his eyes on her. Her breathing quickened and her whole body tingled as if responding to a physical caress.

And she knew, with a deep sense of foreboding, that it wasn't really done.

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They arrived back at the house to find a small victory party in full swing. Dawn met them at the door, demanding all the juicy details, while Tara quietly served refreshments, surprising Spike with a mug of warmed pig's blood. They settled in, and it wasn't until Buffy was repeating, for the third time, a carefully edited version of the night's events that she noticed Spike had disappeared.

Excusing herself, she went to look for him, something that was fast becoming a habit with her. This time, she found him sitting on the steps of the back porch. The tux was gone, replaced by the familiar black T-shirt, jeans, and leather coat. Several cigarette buttes, crushed and discarded next to his boot, told her he must have bowed out of the celebration earlier than she'd realized.

Settling down beside him, Buffy acknowledged another recently acquired habit—these back-porch assignations of theirs. As rattled as she was by his presence tonight, she also found it oddly comforting. Maybe that's why she was drawn to him, why she kept seeking out his company.

That, and one or two other reasons. But she wasn't going to think about those.

"Hey," she said softly. "The party's not over yet. Why did you skip out?"

His head turned, his level stare challenging her. "You're a smart woman, Buffy, much as you sometimes pretend not to be. Why do you think?"

Shifting uncomfortably, she frowned as she dropped her gaze. Score one for the soulless vamp. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Sure you do. You just don't want to deal with it, same as you don't want to deal with anything else."

Her head shot up as a rush of anger flared. "Where do you get off saying that? All I do is deal! I deal with a father who ignores us, and a mother I can't save, and a sister who doesn't really exist. Only she does. I deal with hellgods and stupid prophecies about my death and an apocalypse that never ends because each time I stop one, there's another one waiting to take its place. I deal, Spike! That's all I ever do."

"Not since you've come back," he shot back. "You live in hell now, Buffy. Your own words. But instead of tellin' your friends the truth about where you were, makin' them own up to what they did, you hide from it. Mustn't hurt their feelings. They might get all sad and cry. Nibblet's havin' a hard time of it, too. Missing your mum. Missing you. Tryin' to grow up when nobody has time to notice. But you don't seem to give a lot of thought to that."

Staring out into the night, his jaw tightened. "And you sure as hell can't deal with Daddy Giles and the kiddies knowin' you've been making nice with a soulless creature of the night. Or anything else you might be feeling."

His head turned abruptly and his gaze locked with hers, intense and searching, as if seeking an answer there. "Why didn't he know I was a vampire, Buffy? Why couldn't he read you and figure that out?"

She stared back at him, startled, then her lips tightened in a stubborn line. "I could ask the same of you…" Voice trailing off, she remembered what Ardun had said. That Spike's head was filled with thoughts of her. And apparently none of those had involved anything remotely vamp-like.

"Could be I had something else on my mind at the time," he said softly. A long beat passed, then, "What happened in the closet, Buffy?"

Blue eyes gazed at her intently, all but begging for an answer. And it would be so easy. All she had to do was tell him and she could have it again. What she'd felt in the closet. What she'd wanted to do. Everything between them would change…

"Nothing happened."

Her stomach clenched at the lie.

Motionless, he stared at her, the silence stretching out between them. It was no longer comfortable or anything resembling safe. It ate at her nerves with a jangling resonance, poking and goading her to speak. But she couldn't … wouldn't … say what he wanted to hear. Instead, she returned his stare, determined to wait him out.

Just when she felt ready to break, he stood and looked down at her, his face oddly devoid of emotion.

It was unsettling to see him that way. Spike had never been one to hide his feelings. His eyes were the most expressive she'd ever seen, and his mouth could tell a hundred different stories without saying a word. Every movement of his body was a direct reflection of his state of mind. If there was one thing Buffy knew about Spike, it was that he held nothing back. It just wasn't in him to do so.

Until now.

"Guess that's it then."

And just like that he was striding away, heading toward the tall hedge that surrounded the back yard.

Buffy scrambled to her feet. "Where are you going?" The question was out before she could stop it.

He halted but didn't turn around. "Does it matter?" When she didn't answer, his shoulders slumped as he gave the barest nod. "Thought not." And he was striding away again.

He got no more than a few feet before she called out, a hint of desperation in her voice.

"Spike!"

This time he faced her. "What is it, Slayer?" He looked resigned, almost weary.

Buffy thought of all the things she might say. Things that would change everything. Things that would give him power over her.

She didn't expect what came out.

"That woman you told me about…the one in St. Petersburg. Did you kill her?"

He met her gaze without flinching. Not defiant, not apologetic, not pleased, just…

"Yeah," he said gravely. "I did."

Neither moved, but in an eye-blink the distance separating them seemed to expand.

He sighed. "Don't ask the question, Slayer, if you don't want to hear the answer. Should've learned that by now."

Anger flared, and her jaw clenched. "Don't flatter yourself, Spike."

"Don't think I am," he shot back. Eyes challenging, he moved forward, slowly mounting the steps until he stood so close that the flaps of his coat brushed against her thighs.

Trapped in the pull of his gaze, she felt her lips part and her head tilt back to maintain eye contact. With a rare clarity of insight, she understood what would happen next, and she welcomed it. She knew how he tasted, even without the fake Spike to remind her. She knew the strength of his arms, how his head would bend to hers, how his knee would nudge its way between her legs until they fit together like interlocking pieces of a puzzle. She knew all this and wanted it – not by way of a spell gone awry and not with some doppelganger.

She wanted him. Spike.

It was too late to pull away. Everything she'd once been screamed against capitulation. Everything she was now demanded it. If he touched her, she was lost. And, oh god, how she wanted him to touch her.

"Why didn't he know, Buffy?"

His breath, cool and moist, teased her lips.

"Why didn't he know what I was?"

His hand rose and almost touched her face.

Why couldn't he feel it in you?"

Her eyes fluttered shut, body burning with anticipation.

"Should have been Angel there at the end…"

She heard without comprehension. It didn't matter. Nothing mattered.

"…but it was me."

The deep rumble of his voice was all she could hear.

"What did he know?"

Any second, he would kiss her. Any minute, they'd be on the ground.

"What did he see?"

She trembled for the inevitable…

The inevitable never came.

She knew the instant he left her; it struck with the force of a physical blow. Her eyes flew open, searching frantically, then found him – off the porch and moving away, walking backwards as his gaze held hers.

"You're not the girl you were before. That's not a bad thing, just different. Time to make a new place here for yourself, an' it's up to you to decide what it's going to be."

She didn't move, didn't speak. Struggled to remember how to breathe.

"You think about it, long and hard, pet. And when you have the answers, you know where I'll be."

The world shifted, confusion giving way to a stone-cold clarity that viciously silenced the small voice wailing inside her. She burned for a different reason now, and it gave her voice a brittle edge.

"I already have a place, Spike. So do you. They're two different places."

He smiled, eyes desolate, mouth all-too-knowing. "Go ahead and think that, if you find comfort in it. We both know it's not true. I know you. Better now than any of them ever will. And I'm not going anywhere, no matter how long it takes you to suss it all out."

She stared at him stonily, arms folded defensively against the truth. Each step he took away from her caused the empty feeling inside to grow.

"And I'm supposed to what? Come running to you, throw myself in your arms, and tell you how much I need you? It's not going to happen."

He stopped just short of the hedge, his back brushing the leaves. "Can't deny it's what I want. But not what I expect." He turned away, then just as quickly turned back, voice vibrating with powerful intensity. "You do, you know. Need me. You hate the idea. It twists you up inside. But it's there, and some day you're going to admit it."

With a rustle of leaves and a swirl of black leather, he was gone, leaving Buffy alone on the back porch. She stared blindly at the spot where she'd last seen him.

"Then what?" she whispered.

There was no answer.

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FINIS

A/N: So there you go. The seed that grew into the villain of the piece was planted in early Season 7 of BtVS, when I thought it would be so cool to have a Big Bad that could assume any form it wanted, while fooling, misleading, and interacting with our heroes. But it turned out to be The First Evil, who wasn't actually tangible and could only manifest as someone who had died. So, I borrowed the shapeshifter idea and gave it my own little twist.

I hope you guys aren't too disappointed that it wasn't really Spike in the closet making out with Buffy. I wanted to fulfill Andrea's request for lots of UST while crafting a story that could fit into the show's canon, hopefully without too much of a stretch. It's meant to fill the gap between "All the Way" and "Once More With Feeling" and help set the stage for the musical, hence the ultra-angsty ending.

Many, many thanks for reading.

Owl