This story is dedicated to Moe H.O.S. His help has been invaluable.

This chapter is dedicated to Louise and Shadow.

Chapter 16

Mr. Spike stopped, staring blankly at a small picket fence, his breathing rough and ragged, a harsh inhalation and exhalation that was made loud by the silence of the night.

The still body of the kitten lay nestled in the crook of his arm and he was very nearly as still as that body.

The lifting and lowering of his chest was the only movement he made and time passed and it was the only movement he made.

Vampires need no oxygen to live, but it does perform many functions for them nonetheless, much in the same manner as it does with humans. But where a human takes in breath and expels a gaseous exhaust, creating an interchange of oxygen to carbon dioxide, a vampire absorbs into a dead body until what has been absorbed is just as dead. A vampire feeds nothing back to the atmosphere.

This is the way with vampires, the real horror of their existence in this world. They take from the earth, they take from life, and they make no return. For several months now, Mr. Spike had labored to overcome this most definite of vampiric traits and overturn it, to understand the concepts inherent to giving, and the effort tore and twisted at his psyche.

Despite his constant internal struggle, despite the many changes he had faced over the past few years, despite the fact that each change found him in a lower state than he was before, Mr. Spike labored and he remade himself. He always found new reason to make his unliving existence worthwhile. He was a survivor and it was his nature to find reasons to survive.

And this night, at this moment, he was as low as he had ever been since Miss Buffy's death. Mr. Spike was tired and he was lonely and he could not think what possible purpose he might have in the world.

He knew that Miss Dawn would forgive him, but would she ever again look at him with adoring eyes? Would she trust him? Believe in him? If he did not have her to care for what did he have?

His despair was balled in his belly as cold and hard as cement. His relationship with the Bit was broken and would have to be forged anew and he wasn't sure he was up to it. He had given his best, his utmost, everything he had and failed totally, utterly, miserably.

You might think him a weak thing to despair so because of the overwrought display of one so young, but it was not the substance of Miss Dawn's words or the events of that night that brought him to such despondency. The whole of his existence since Miss Drusilla left - the constant struggle to be what nature had not intended and the ever-pervading sorrow that had eaten at him since Miss Buffy died - everything had coalesced and compounded and now crushed him. The events surrounding Miss Dawn's birthday were but the frosting on his rotten cake.

He looked at the picket fence with its broken edges and considered the ease with which he could throw himself upon one and his thoughts, vicious and malicious and sorrowful, tumbled through his mind in jumbled order.

If he did it, if he threw himself upon a picket then good n' evil wouldn't matter, or life without Buffy or Dawn. He'd be a puff on the air, dust in the dirt and Dawn probably wouldn't even miss him. The Scoobies would, though. They'd miss him all right - next time they faced a vicious vamp or dangerous demon - wouldn't they, just. Might be worth dusting himself for that reason alone.

There was the pollywog though. He'd made a promise. See that through and the fence would still be there. At least he'd leave this world having done something right.

That was it then.

He'd go to Hell after the pollywog went to heaven.

He moved slowly at first then sped up. He'd dawdled and would be late if he didn't make good time now.

Mr. Spike was past his crisis if he'd cared to think of it. He'd found a reason to live and it would do for now until he found something else.

The ritual circle was etched into the ground, bisected by two stacks of pitted stone, trisected by tall wooden totems. Dustings of earth - clays and sands and soils - were scattered in careful detail, in and around the circle. Splotches of bright color, sunshine yellow and sky blue, were splashed in seemingly random design but Mr. Spike knew it wasn't. Dark clouds stood out against the moon, though the sky was clear elsewhere.

Power. Mr. Spike could feel it buzzing through his feet. Earth, Wind, Sky. No water. He knew the water was in the blood. Someone was going to bleed tonight.

The Bastet priests loomed tall. Their moon-cast shadows skimmed along the ground, dark spectral limbs that clutched in his direction and when he realized that he was attempting to keep his feet clear of them, he then made certain to stomp directly upon them.

Twitching tails and toothful grimaces made it clear that the priests were not happy. Mr. Spike was unsure whether they were peeved with his late arrival or because he was treading on their shadow. Both he supposed. He didn't really care.

He was too weary to care.

He shoved the kitten's body at the nearest priest with more rudeness than was truly meant, and he turned to leave without speaking a word. He was done.

He almost didn't recognize the sound at first. The priest was ancient and the voice grated against Mr. Spike's ear like the creaking of an old house. "Why do you leave? Your presence is necessary."

Mr. Spike hadn't expected this or rather he had and had allowed himself to ignore the possibility. He could hear the clarion call of beer and booze and blood. The Fish Tank should be restocked and he'd be glad to kill any demon that tried to deny him access to the tavern. He did not feel as though he had anything left to give. "I've turned her over, seen her through this part of the journey like, so she's all yours now. Got other things to attend to."

"Your presence is required. The kitten chose you and she will not leave this plane for another until she has taken her leave. She'll wait at the gates and the time will pass. It is almost too late now. You were later than expected."

Although he rolled his eyes and sighed, there was something within Mr. Spike that was gladdened by these words. Somebody loved him enough that she would miss her chance at heaven.

"Stupid cat. Too bloody stupid to get out of the pain."

But his step was lighter and when the Bastet placed the kitten back in his arms, Mr. Spike rubbed his fingers across the pollywog's ear.

"Take your place within the circle." An out-thrust arm pointed to the ornate stone altar, carved with a complex configuration of runnels, set close to the ground, but raised above it. A knife, ornately hilted and blade stained, lay desolate at its center. Mr. Spike had enough knowledge of magicks and he made his assumptions, looked at the priest and though he did not ask, the question was in his eyes.

Me? I'm the one to bleed? My blood's dead.

The priest understood his reluctance. "The magicks that animate you will be enough. She is a small being and innocent and her admittance will not require much. You are the one she chose."

A weary smile curved on Mr. Spike's lips. That was innocent, all right. Though, they were both predators, him and the kitten. Maybe he wasn't the most unexpected choice she could have made.

There was resistance as he stepped over the line of power that circled the circle of power.

Winds whipped at him, a distant drone drilled into his ears and the air about him distorted. The stone seemed but a short distance away yet he seemed to walk forever and his feet collided with the altar before he realized he had arrived. Lightning flashes snapped at the edges of his vision, short sharp snaps that buzzed, blistering the circle with blinding intensity, burning the air.

He knelt, using his hands to feel for the surface, and placed the kitten upon the altar. He looked up for instruction but could see no sign of the priests.

A dense gray atmosphere laid siege to the circle, dark gray clouds surrounding darker, the occasional sparklers of lightning throwing images onto his retinas and after each flash he was uncertain of what he had seen. Faces? Clouds? Nothing?

Was up to him then. He reckoned this part was between him and the pollywog. Probably didn't matter much on his end as long as there was blood. The priests would do the rest.

He took up the knife and laid the blade along his palm but stopped and thought for a moment. Sheepishly he looked up again and wondered if the priests could see him. He didn't want anyone seeing what he was going to do. Finally, he shrugged and proceeded.

Lifting up his shirt and gritting his teeth, he placed the point of the blade upon his breast and rammed his fist against the hilt, shoving with all his strength until he heard the crackling of breaking bone. Still he continued with steady hand until he felt his heart split to give the blade access. He cried out from the pain and now his hand shook but he twisted the knife and twisted once more and twisted again to be sure - then pulled it free. Heart's blood sprayed out over the body of the kitten.

He felt like a fool. A killer vamp bleeding his heart out for a kitten. Was ridiculous - but his blood was dead. He was going to give the best of it then, wasn't he, make sure it worked. The pollywog wasn't going to be denied its path to heaven because his blood wasn't good enough.

Dizzied from the pain, he fell forward and threw his hands out, bloodstained palms leaving prints upon the stone. That was fitting. Hands and heart and ... head? Well, a little unmixed water never hurt, did it?

Mr. Spike let his tears fall. He hadn't realized that the aching of his eyes was as much the result of unshed tears as weariness, but now undammed, they cascaded forth in a torrent and his body shook. He knew these weren't for the kitten. He was crying for himself - something he had never done before, had never thought to do, hadn't thought himself capable. Salt tears mingled with blood spray and hissed against the stone. A streamer steamed forth from each tear and whispered into the air. The streams wove themselves into a wall, surrounded him, enfolded him, protected him from the winds and he found himself encased in a world of white silence.

A small object popped into vision, just seen from the corner of his eye. The kitten? He looked to see if the body was still on the altar but the altar was gone. Only himself and white and the kit...

He remembered stumbling across the kitten in the graveyard. Her wide-eyed wonder as she gazed upon Clem, her tiny teeth tickling his toes, the rough kisses she gave Dawn and...

the deep well of Dawn's eyes,
that sudden glimpse of serenity,
Mau's world of wonder whispering
and suddenly ...

Soft waves of honeyed heat coated him like cloth. And he entered heaven.

Or one of the many heavenly dimensions that populate the universe. For each heaven a Hell, for each Hell a heaven and whether either is just a beginning or an end is beyond our ken.

And it was beyond Mr. Spike's ability to understand. The human organism, even one converted to the vampiric, has no capability no words no concepts upon which to construct such understanding. The brain itself cannot encompass the architecture upon which the vaults of heaven are built.

His mind made the attempt to identify - it relearned color, the scent, the taste, the feel of it. Sound had color, he knew that now. Sight had sound and he could feel BLUE sliding across his skin like silk. He tasted his tears and they were cherries, and his tongue swept along teeth scented like desert sand.

And Glory Hallelujah! There be angels here - fronds of angel-feathered wings whispered all around him, beautiful beings singing silver song and spinning sugar and chocolate.

And Mr. Spike knew - these were all lies. His mind could not understand the truth of it and it lied to him. As beautiful as it seemed, felt, tasted - it was more beautiful still and he would never comprehend its true glory. But even his pastel imitation, the pale result of his limitations left his body chorused with infusions of joy. This was every blissful moment ever experienced in all his long life. The first time his mother called him her Brave Little Man. Buffy's first kiss - the only kiss she'd given him. Each and every adoring glance from the Bit. Drusilla's bite, the hunt the hunt the hunt.

He knew what rhymed with effulgent.

And he became aware of pain. His mind was burning, a slow steady burn banking in the back of his mind, flickering at the edges, using his very essence as the fuel for the flame. He was not of this place and all his energies, his magicks his spirit, the physical force of his body were being consumed so that he could remain. He had forgotten the element of fire. He knew he'd have to bleed but he hadn't realized that someone would have to burn. His time here was a gift and would only last so long as he could look upon it and he refused to look away.

His body melted with the heat but pain was a tiny thing compared to such joy and he was used to pain.

A small wet thing, cool and comforting, licked at the flame and left it quenched in small places. It was soft and sweet with tiny teeth and it tickled.

Mr. Spike knew it was the kitten by the jungle green luminosity. He felt her nudging at his mind in the very manner that she had once rumbled against his chin. When she would place her wet, cold nose to his skin, and sweep the length of her head, matching cheek to cheek until she marked him with the musk that lay under her ear and rested her head there against his jaw, the warm veins beneath her skin throbbing against his.

She spoke to him in this place, where on Earth she could only imply through action and she spoke of love, fierce and sweet. She offered him forever - she offered to return with him, to return to the drudge and drear.

And here she knew - in this place she knew - the consequence, had tasted the joy and sweep and breadth of heaven but knowing that she could not come again should she depart, still she would return to Earth and gladly, that he not be alone.

His heart swelled, though it crackled and burned. What a thing it was to be loved!

"God no, little one. Go on. Bled for you, didn't I, so you could come here? That'll be my comfort, knowing I got you to a better place. You go on now. Want to see you go."

So the kitten left, sadness a dark streak in the bright.

Mr. Spike watched, and his mind made its images, its pale imitations, pastel portraits of beauty unbelievable and in his mind, golden gates swung wide and his pollywog entered, light-footed and joyful. The dark streak faded as golden surges of love kissed her and consumed her and he could see the thread that bound her to all the universe, all the living universe.

And he realized this was the soul, the thread, the connection. The living thread that vampires lacked - that he lacked - and at last he looked away, blinded by the tears that flowed like burning lava from his eyes.

He awakened in Hell. Was this Hell? It must be Hell. The weight crushed him, smashed him, forced itself past his lips into his lungs and the air scoured at his skin. His memory... his mind could not remember! He'd been cast out of heaven, thrown past the Earth right into Hell. It must be or else he'd remember. Surely he'd remember what he'd seen.

But the harsh, blaring light faded and his body bounded back into the folds and protrusions placed upon him by gravity and he became used to the oxygen that forced itself into his lungs like water flowing. He closed his eyes and opened them and recognized the Earth, his Earth, his dimension and its memories were rapidly replacing those from Heaven. He had only the memory of remembering. He was kneeling on the ground, he felt naked though he was fully clothed, and he shivered from his own lack of warmth.

He almost didn't recognize the sound at first. The priest was ancient and the voice grated against Mr. Spike's ear like the creaking of an old house. "You saw? You saw the Glory?"

The priest threw down his staff and tottered stiff-legged toward Mr. Spike.

"Three hundred years I have served. Fifteen souls have I escorted to the embrace of Mau and not once... not once... have I been allowed the slightest glimpse. And you... you... foul abomination that you are... you have seen!"

Mr. Spike couldn't speak for the sorrow that choked his voice. You git! You've never seen but someday you'll go there! Someday you'll be there, thread all tied up and tidy and I - never - will! Even as he thought this the memories were seeping from his mind, sifting through bone and the pores of his skin like grains of sand.

All he had were memories of memories. Already he could barely remember what he was trying to remember. He wasn't going to be allowed to keep even that.

He couldn't remember... what?

Mr. Spike blinked at the priest and wondered at the strange feeling suffusing his mind. Sorrow and joy and... effulgence?

From the very moment he entered his crypt, had thrown himself upon the sarcophagus and had closed his eyes, Mr. Spike had slept like one dead. No doubt you feel this description is apt and so it is. Even vampires require sleep and even vampires are healed in their dreams, dealing with the doubts and dangers that can't be faced during waking hours.

Mr. Spike slept and his mind dealt with the learning and burning dealt out during his heavenly visitation. His brain renewed itself, moved synapses to different locations, mapped new pathways and grew new matter - not a normal activity for the vampire brain.

He slept like one dead but became something more. Not living, not much more than dead but where before Mr. Spike stretched himself, forced and warped himself into something he was not meant to be, he now had the capacity to grow.

Or not.

The choice would be his.

Two days passed and still Mr. Spike slept upon the sarcophagus and if Miss Dawn had not come to speak with him it is possible he would have slept for several more. Indeed his movements and thoughts were sluggish for many days to come and he wondered if he had been on a bender to end all benders. He wondered where the bottles had gone but didn't wonder much.

Miss Dawn knocked upon his door which was not her usual wont. She was unsure of her welcome, however and did not feel free to enter without leave. When long moments passed and her knock was not answered she felt herself torn between worry and doubt.

Was she unwanted, not welcome and Spike simply not answering the door? Or was he wounded, missing, ash upon the floor?

She was not insensible to the effect that her words must have had upon her hero. Miss Dawn was immature not unperceptive and as her forays into maturity increased she had become yet more aware of the power she had over the male populace and in particular Mr. Spike. It was not a purely sexual power, being more of a yin to a yang, and he had always been more susceptible than most men.

Once she had calmed, she had considered and she had concluded that she was in the wrong. It is doubtful that she would have apologized even so, save to Miss Maclay or Mr. Spike. She had hoped he would come visiting, meet her on her ground, giving her the advantage but when he had not, she knew she had to resolve the situation. Having made her decision, she made haste to put an end to their division.

When she pushed at the crypt door, she could tell it had not been securely closed, most unlike Mr. Spike and she hurried in. He lay still, sprawled upon the sarcophagus and the light that streamed through the crypt windows shone on pinpoint dust motes that danced over him like tiny angels.

She was struck with fear and struck with the full realization of how much he meant to her, how she would feel if he were gone and she rushed over to him, and ran a finger along his cheek lightly. She was afraid the merest touch might cause him to collapse into dust.

"Bit?"

Miss Dawn smiled and it was brighter than the sunlight shining over her head. Mr. Spike couldn't help but smile in return. He felt strangely happy if strangely muzzy.

Must have been a good brew he'd snaggled.

"Spike, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. It was my fault. I was so stupid. I don't know what..."

Mr. Spike took a moment to understand what Miss Dawn was talking about. He did remember the events of the night but they seemed a happening of long ago. He remembered... the Bit had killed Miss Kitty. Accidental like.

She had said that she hated him.

He sat up and swayed. It hurt. She'd said she hated him. What kind of love was that? He knew love. You didn't blame the person you loved... did you?

"I... I acted like a kid. I'm fifteen and I acted like a four year old." Miss Dawn stood stiffly and stared down at the dusty floor. "I've really thought about it... and Giles was right... "

"S'pose that has to happen sometime. Even to a tit like the Watcher." Mr. Spike snarled his response, feeling an unusual amount of dislike for Mr. Giles and gladly transferring his anger from Miss Dawn. He found it difficult to resist her stumbling words and downcast eyes and suddenly his irritation and hurt were gone. He fell in love with the Bit all over again.

Miss Dawn grinned. She knew she was forgiven now. She continued, however, and her words were weighty ones.

"True. But he was right. I wasn't ready for a crossbow... not because I'm not strong enough or smart enough. Because I'm not mature enough. I'm not ready for that kind of power because I don't have that kind of power inside me yet."

Now Miss Dawn's eyes flooded with tears. "I'm so frightened sometimes, Spike. Really, really scared. I know all of you want to take care of me, but you couldn't stop Glory and I was alone... I wanted something... wanted to believe I could protect myself... and then I just... damn it, I acted like a stupid little kid."

Mr. Spike ran his fingers along Miss Dawn's hair and swept it off her face. He caught one of her tears in its track and rubbed it in his fingers. His own throat was choked because he had just made a momentous realization of his own. Miss Dawn was going to change. Had changed. Was changing.

She wasn't a vampire. She was going to grow and change and she would still be his Bit, but she wouldn't be this Bit.

He was going to lose his child someday. Soon.

He sighed, dragging the breath into his lungs with a ragged inhalation. "Takes some doing, Bit. Growin'. Doesn't happen overnight... and lord knows, with all you've had to handle... can't expect your hormones to settle in nicely. Too much competition from the Hellmouth."

"Yeah, I suppose so. Does it have to hurt so much? 'Cause it really, really hurts."

"Reckon it does. Seem to remember something like that."

Miss Dawn laughed, a half-sob and she moved forward to lay her head against Mr. Spike's chest and he stroked her hair.

She was so precious. His thoughts were muddled but he could see something that he had been struggling to grasp for days now. Responsibility. The Pidge was growing and changing and there were so many ways she could change. He'd love her no matter what, but he wanted Dawn to be happy, to live a long and happy life and some choices were going to be better for that than others. And Buffy. She'd have wanted Dawn to grow up into someone that would make her proud.

Dawn wasn't going to be able to just do that, any old how. Was what the Scoobies, buggers all, were trying to see to in their half-assed way - teaching her right from wrong so she'd see how to go on. If he loved her, he couldn't afford to just let her do whatever made her happy 'cause it wouldn't keep her happy. His responsibility was to set her straight when she needed it, help her grow strong.

He let himself touch his head against hers, just for a moment, placing his nose to the silk of her hair, sliding his cheek lightly against it until his temple rested against hers and he could feel the warm veins pulsing against his own.

In truth, dear readers, our story should stop here at this bittersweet moment but this is a tale told about happenings upon the Hellmouth and most of you know the truth of the ending. Mr. Spike and Miss Dawn both learned hard-earned lessons that summer and should have been the stronger for them.

As it was, within weeks, Willow and Tara and Xander and Anya behaved with a childlike mixture of arrogance and innocence and brought Buffy back from the Dead and all things changed most bitterly and lessons learned were swept away in the holocaust of her resurrection.

Epilogue

We have said what we wished to say in this story. The things we thought important but we have not tied up all our threads. There are those still left dangling and no doubt, you, dear readers, wish to see where they lead.

Alas, we cannot tell you the fate of b'Huh, drugger of drinks and master of thieves.

He disappeared, faded into the mist of history, wealthy but whither he ended none can say. The occasional rumor surfaces of a cow-like Midas living high on the hog, or a desperate demon traveling from place to place, haunted by fear and ever vigilant for the flash of bone-white hair. Most prevalent are the tales of a lost treasure, hidden in the desert sands, where its owner died trying to reach the farthest reaches of the planet. None of these can be confirmed.

And what of Miss Kitty, with whom we opened this tale and with whom we shall end it?

She was not badly wounded by the dire bolt that bit into her back. She lost fur and flesh and blood but no great quantities of any of these vital elements. She was quite capable of locomotion and locomoted she did, running fiercely with no thought but to run and run to edges of the Earth, if necessary, until she was no longer a cat upon the Hellmouth.

This was a deed too much for even Miss Kitty and pain soon leached her energy and the lack of blood and the shock of her wound combined, leaving her weak and shaking and vulnerable.

In the sort of coincidence that often happens and more often happens upon a Hellmouth, a family of four, Mother, Father, sister and brother were also determined to leave the Hellmouth that day, for no other reason than they could see it was no place to stay.

They had packed their car, an older station wagon, heaped it full with boxes and baggage and old blankets and gone inside to eat their dinner. Little Louise left the tailgate hanging down not understanding about thieves and malicious persons and her parents were too harried to check.

It was a haven for our poor Miss Kitty.

With the last reserves of her energy, with the final fading strength of her muscles she leapt into the musty smelling car, and dug her way in, buried herself deep among the boxes and balled herself up into the blankets where it was warm and hidden and safe.

And so it was, the safest of places for her. The next morning our intrepid family piled into the car, and waved goodbye to Sunnydale and were halfway to Hoboken before they heard a faint, plaintive mew.

They pulled to the side to investigate and found a poor woebegone kitty, with weeping flesh and bloodstained fur and were horrified.

You will be pleased, dear readers, to know that this was a loving family, not rich in money, but rolling in love and they embraced this foundling as family upon the moment. They were not rich, and the money spent for the care of her wounds, meant smaller rooms and meager meals for their travel and they did not give that a moment's thought.

And as we informed you upon the very first page, they named their beloved pet Stripe for the thin scar that ran upon her back and along her tail - her sorrowful tail- and she lived for 20 years.

Happily ever after.