Work in Progress: part two in The Ghost and Ms. Burkle series

Joss and Mutant Enemy own all, I shamelessly borrow

Chapter One: Introduction

"The day you suss out what you do want, there'll probably be a parade. Seventy-six bloody trombones."

Spike, Season 6, Once More With Feeling

All roads lead to Rome, Buffy thought. How many times could you hear that while actually living in the Eternal City before you got plain sick of it?

Unfortunately, about a dozen flights a day going in all different directions led out of it, all of them pricey enough to red flag her junior watcher's expense account. No way to fly under the radar on this one. Shoes were easy enough to slip past the council accountant's nose. Tickets to LAX, not so much. She finally decided on the American Airlines junket that connected in New York's JFK and had the flexible return date. JFK because, hello Bloomies' layover shopping, and flexible return because, well, Andrew had a big mouth.

How had it gone? Willow told Xander, who told Dawn, who told Andrew with the caveat to not squeal like Mr. Gordo that Spike was not only alive, but had also felled another slayer. Poor Andrew. Buffy knew that she and Spike were his Pyramus and Thisbe; or more like it, his Han Solo and Princess Leia, and didn't all his favorite characters deserve a happy ending? "Go to him, Buffy," Andrew had pleaded solemnly. "He's waiting for you like the guardian knight of the grail."

"The grail? When did you go all medieval and creatively anachronistic?" she asked.

"No silly, the knight in the Last Crusade. Be his Indy. Rescue him from the binds of his eternal watch." She rolled her eyes at his typical bent of over dramatization, but one of his words rang too true. Rescue. It made sense. They'd been doing it for each other for years.

So on the pretense of following up with Willow's investigation, Buffy clocked her time in California as official watcher business. Yet sometime after the pre-board shots of courage with Xander at the café, and the post-lunch medicinal aid of red wine, and the mid-flight cocktail break, Buffy's certainty about her real mission began to waver.

He probably hated her. Worse yet, he'd be right.

Then: no, not Spike. He'd already forgiven a multitude of her sins. His burning to death in a rain of fire would be just another lover's spat, one easily corrected with the right kind of kiss.

Besides, he had to know that she couldn't really despise any man she kissed like that. All that deep soul kissing, where you really taste a man in the back of his throat. He never tasted dead to her. He had his own flavor, like a spice or like wine. Pepper burgundy hiding thick on the back of his tongue and kissing her like he wanted to plunge inside of her. And then of course later…how he did just that.

She shivered. Best not to think about it too much. Right. That had been their problem all along, hadn't it? The silly time they wasted with her constant debating and deliberating, when the moments that really mattered were when she gave her mind the night off, put her body on autopilot and let herself feel. No conversation, no awkward small talk, only two mouths and two bodies that knew what they wanted and how to get it.

Now if only the plane would land before she lost her nerve.

If she looked windblown and crazy-eyed post-landing, the LA cabbie paid no mind, or at least thought her a typical patron of her destination. Wolfram Hart; what did Angel think he was doing? Never mind, she'd have to straighten him out later. Nothing could interfere with the slayer's mission.

She put her hand up to Angel's eager smile when he tried to greet her at the entrance. "Hi. Good. Flight sucked." She dropped her luggage at his feet. "Where is he?"

"Spike?" Angel looked confused. "He's in the lab."

"The lab. All right. I'm going to the lab." She ran past him, up the stairs to the second floor, glanced around, and ran back down again. "Where is the lab?"

Set on her course, Buffy thought about the scenario. Petri dishes, white rats, a sterile environment, the ideal place to experiment with her new-found resolve on how to make everything right with Spike, starting with what they did best. She'd leave him with no question as to her intentions.

She ignored the white cloaks as she rushed in, tuned out the pert brunette with a clipboard and an attitude who wanted to know just what Buffy thought she was doing. Her eye planted firmly on her prize, Buffy strode purposely over to Spike and clutched his face between her sweaty palms.

"Hey! What the –?" he sputtered.

"Shut up," she whispered and pressed her lips hungrily onto his. She was so flustered and flush with the public display of her own impulsive affection that it took several seconds for her to realize: he wasn't kissing her back.

Slowly, she pulled her pucker away from his unresponsive lips. "Spike?"

He untangled himself from her embrace, looking uncomfortable and embarrassed. He cleared his throat, smoothed his shirt and flashed an uneasy grin. Clipboard Girl scurried to his side.

"So again: can I help you?" the now peeved woman asked Buffy. "Or maybe more to the point, would you consider not helping yourself to my boyfriend?"

Buffy clapped her hand over her mouth. "Oh, god, I'm really sorry. I don't know what came over me, I –" The realization of Spike's title sunk in. "Boyfriend?" she asked the girl. "Boyfriend?" she asked Spike with more scorn in her voice than she wanted to be there.

"Ladies," Spike began patiently, his voice balm-ready to soothe any number of hurts. Holding each girl gently by her elbow, he presented one to the other like the Victorian gentleman Buffy recalled he once was. "Buffy Summers this is Winifred Burkle, the head of the science department. Win, love. This is Buffy."

"Oh!" Fred cried and stuck her hand out. The girl had one of the loopiest grins Buffy had ever seen, one part relieved and two parts terrified. Buffy made sure to shake back firmly. "Buffy, hi. I'm Fred. It's so good to meet you finally. I've heard, well. I guess you know probably everything that I've heard 'cause you were pretty much living it. Not that I heard anything bad," she was quick to add. "Spike wouldn't say anything bad. Not that bad things didn't happen but not on purpose, you know, with you or anything."

"Boyfriend," Buffy said again, still shaking Fred's hand and looking searchingly over at Spike, who was watching Fred with fond amusement.

Fred released her hand and wiped it awkwardly on her skirt. "Yeah, sorry about pouncing on you like that."

"She's a little uh, possessive," Spike drawled, biting his lip and roving his eyes from her head to toe. He pulled Fred under his arm and gave her, God, Buffy thought dismally. He gave her the pout!

"Excuse me!" Fred nudged him playfully. "I think protective is more the word for it. Like you're one to talk, nearly knocking poor Knox out for brushing off my lab coat." She teased him so prettily, Buffy thought. No thoughts of demons or evil undead or soul sloshing flitted through Fred's big science brain. Not enough to keep her from Spike anyway.

Spike growled good-naturedly and pinched her lab-coat covered bottom. "He was grabbing your ass. I know an ass-grab when I see it. He's got good taste in them; I'll give him that."

They laughed together and Buffy felt her on-flight meal on its way up. "Oh, yeah," she muttered. "Definitely picked the wrong day to experiment."

Fred glanced back to Buffy, her eyes full of apologies. "So you're here to visit. And that's…great. Sure it's great. I think you guys should visit and get all caught up and holler at me when you're ready to eat. What do you think?"

"Win, are you sure?" Spike asked, watching her carefully, his hands reluctantly releasing her.

Fred agreed a little too eagerly. "Sure, I'm definitely sure and most of all, I'm great. Buffy's here and that's great. Right?"

"Sure," Buffy chimed in. "Great."

"Fine," Spike answered. "I'll take Buffy over to the conference room. Come find me at suppertime?"

Fred nodded and he kissed her temple, rumbled something low and husky into her ear that made her giggle. In the meantime, Buffy found herself enthralled with the pattern of the floor tile. It wasn't from the kiss. Spike's megawatt smile for Fred made Buffy's heart hurt to look at him.

He shoved his hands into the back pockets of his jeans and shook his head ruefully as he escorted her down the hall. "I'll say this for you, Slayer. You can still make a hell of an entrance." He held open the door for her and ushered her inside the conference room. "By all means, psychotic ladies first."

"She hates me."

"Balls," Spike scoffed. "Not my girl. What's a kiss between friends who don't know any better?"

The dark creature of the night wardrobe notwithstanding, black jeans/t-shirt/boots, he looked relatively unchanged. Better somehow. Well-rested was the word for it, Buffy thought.

"Fred – your girl," Buffy opened, beginning the small talk portion of their meeting. "She seems nice."

"Yes, she's nice and great and sure and bollocks." Spike leaned against the wall facing her and folded his arms. "What the hell are you doing here?"

"Angel didn't tell you I was coming?"

"No," he said evenly, tapping his fingers against his arm. "There's a vampire who's going to be sore about the neck and shoulders tomorrow."

"Don't. I told him not to say anything. I didn't think he'd actually do it."

"He's gotten quite docile in his dotage. You'd be surprised."

"Oh, I am. I so am." She slumped into one of the leather conference chairs.

"Are you?" He stretched his legs out and crossed them at the ankles, making himself comfortable. Buffy tried to will him not to tilt his head at her. Damn. Too late. He cocked his head at her quizzically. "With what exactly?"

"You. Big with the life changing, and Wolfram Hart working, the alive and a boyfriend being and," she gestured at him weakly. "Everything."

He shrugged. "Globe keeps spinning. You gotta roll with it if you want to stay on."

This was too much. She leaned her elbows on the table and raked her fingers through her tangled hair. "Who are you and what have you done with Spike?"

"Easy now," he set the warning edge to his voice off like a flare. He straightened his back and puffed his chest out with pride. "It's the new and improved me. The Sunny-Hell Light version."

She peered out at him from under the veil of her hair. "How did it happen?"

"What do you mean? I burned in the Hellmouth, popped out into Angel's office, fell in love with Winifred while she made me corporeal and killed another slayer before the slayer killed us all," he said nonchalantly. "Day's work."

"Oh, is that all?" she said with soft sarcasm.

"I gave you the condensed edition there, pet. But if you don't think I'm me, who exactly were you looking for?"

"Clearly someone not here," she said and pushed her chair back with a flourish. She'd heard enough. At this point, she was ready to interview Angel, fill out the requisite paperwork for the council files, and high tail it back to Rome on a steady jet stream of Chianti. Spike watched her calmly and made no moves to stop her. This was the Hellmouth goodbye scene, take two, and she knew she'd never get another chance to play it again.

"I guess…" she faltered. "Oh, boy here goes. I guess I'm looking for the Spike who told me he loved me."

He stared at her stoically. "I did."

She frowned. "Did tell me or did love me?"

"Uh, the former," he said. "Neither. I mean, both. Oh, Christ," he sighed. "Isn't that always the wrench in our works? Never knowing what the hell the other's saying even when we're bloody saying it?"

"Then know this: I told you that I love you," Buffy said. "Past tense 'told.' You got that much, right?"

"Look, you wanted to give me a cheery send-off to the great beyond," Spike said, pacing the room. "I didn't want you to live with another death breathing down your back, so that's why I said...wait." He looked over to her. "Present tense? 'Love?'" The harsh furrow of his brow jumped up in surprise and the old look of longing for her returned to his face. Buffy found this expression of his so beloved and familiar, she felt as though she'd come home.

"What, like I could turn that off? You're dead so I stop loving you, poof?" She shook her head. "You should know, Spike. It's never been that easy for me." She stepped towards him.

As quickly as it had appeared, his gaze of devotion cooled. Buffy could tell what stopped him. Fred might as well have walked into the room so palpable was her presence.

"But now," he began.

"There's Fred. I know. You've come to mean a lot to each other, I get that."

He snorted. "You couldn't possibly."

"Spike," she said impatiently. "I know what we shared. I know how in spending time together, how feelings grow…"

"I'm telling you that it's not the same. You really don't want to tug at this thread, pet," he smirked.

"What?" Buffy finally cried in frustration. "What could possibly be so different with this girl Fred in a few short months that could change the years we spent together?"

His jaw quivered. "For starters, I never had to claw my way into her heart, or get a boot shoved in my face in the answer to a plea for help, or get beaten down time after time for being nothing more or less than what I'd been pigeonholed to be. Never had to prove to her that I'm more than monster and nearly get killed trying. In short, what's different? Everything is different. She's different." He strode across the room to her in all of his cocksure glory. "In other words, Slayer, she's not you."

Just like him, she thought, to make every word hit home. Buffy bowed her head and tried reaching for his hand. "Spike." She held nothing but air.

He waved his hand in front of the glass window. "Magic glass, you know," he said. "Seems everything here's too good to be true." He mused to himself in tones Buffy could barely hear. "Win was the only bird who saw through all my lines, she did. Gave back as good as she got too, but never closed her heart. She's my love. My girlfriend," he chuckled at the word. "Fancy that. Me, with a real girl, who's not superstrength, or well, dead? All she's given me I'll put my life on the line to protect. Because what she's given me, is a real life."

He spoke with all of the tenderness she'd heard for Drusilla, that night they stood shackled in his crypt. All of the heat that he breathed into her that morning in her kitchen, leaning into her to retrieve his lighter. With all of the promise and love he'd vowed in protecting Dawn. All of those things, all in one girl.

"Wow."

He turned around then, as if remembering that she was still there. "I'm sorry for shagging it rough to you like I did, love. But I can't have you wondering if there's a back entrance here somewhere, because there isn't. I shut the door on us when I fell in love with Winifred."

"William and Winifred," Buffy announced. "It sounds…cute in a sort of syrupy, disgustingly cloying kind of way."

"Mm," he grunted, refusing her bait. A small smile played on his lips. "You all right?"

"Kosher as I can be, under the circumstances. You know what they say, pride goeth before the fall," she smiled gamely.

He walked over and rubbed her shoulder, the first Spike touch for her that was nothing more or less than exactly what it was supposed to be, an expression of friendly care. "And how's the pride feeling?" he asked.

She leaned into his arm and pouted. "Major owie."