You should have staked him.

(He deserves it after what he's done in the last hundred years or so, after what he did to you in your own home - and tonight, luring you into the darkness, beneath the earth to…)

But you didn't.

(Remember? There's a new Big Bad in town. One that shows its hand but not its face.)

Instead, you ignored Spike's plea to put him out of his misery, and let him… live?

(Only so you can find out exactly who or what's pulling Spike's strings. Then you'll follow those strings back to the source and kill it.)

He's bait. Nothing more.

Before you cross the street, you look over your aching shoulder at the man, no monster that walks hesitantly behind you. He starts at shadows in the moonlight as the desert wind sifts through the trees, eyes glinting flat red in the headlights of passing cars.

(God, you hate him.)

Picking at the quickly healing slash on your upper arm, you turn around once you reach the other side of the intersection only to see Spike standing on the opposite corner, frantically looking all ways at once before crossing the empty street that overflows with traffic that only he can see. Exasperated, you sigh when he pauses in the middle of the crosswalk, arguing with someone who's not there.

Great, now what?

Your ex stands there, gesticulating, getting into an intangible face, telling them he's sorry, but William's not that bright so speak up, right? Stop following me, stop yelling at me, there's only so much William can do, remember? Willie's a bit of a thickie. Teacher says so and teacher's always right or he'll give you a right caning for backtalk…

God, will he EVER shut up?

(The string-puller, the little man behind the curtain, is playing with Spike again just like back in the basement. Maybe not – after the minstrel show in the chapel a few weeks back, you don't know who's talking, the puppeteer, or Spike's soul-cooked brain. That is, if there really is a puppeteer.)

If there isn't, Dawn's got a whole lot of 'splainin' to do for the rubble heap that's now our living room.

So you lean against a nearby mailbox, waiting for Spike to calm down and catch up, cautiously fingering the wound on your upper arm where it shows through the slash in your favorite angora sweater that Spike made with a broken bottle.

(String puller? Yeah right! Spike's pretending to be stark barkers - it wouldn't be the first time he's played innocent. Remember Adam? Yep, he's playing.)

Halfway through Spike's rant you hear the sound of an approaching street rod out for a Friday night's fun. Expectantly you straighten up, wound forgotten.

(This oughtta be good. He'll get out of the way; you'll catch him at it.)

See? You're faking it, you want me to feel sorry for you and let you back into my…

"Don't be stupid!" You yell as the approaching headlights outline Spike as he tries to explain himself to a patch of thin air why he's fifteen minutes late and doesn't have his passport or the one dram tin of antimacassar polish that the law requires.

"Now's the time to tell the truth…" Spike blathers on and on, oblivious to the approaching 'rod; which is now honking at him.

You can't look.

(The rod'll hit Spike dead on and send him flying. Then you'll help him to his feet, that is if you can stand to touch him again after all he's put you through, yell at him for being an idiot, and finish dragging him to your house… where Xander will say something nasty about your sanity…)

It's getting closer.

(While Dawnie snarls at both of you… you for being so dumb… and Spike for being so unforgivable…)

…and closer…

(…as Willow gives you uncertain looks…trying to make the best of things and flubbing it… her own sanity teetering… while you try to explain why…)

The lights are blinding.

(…you're bringing your own personal monster back into your house.)

I can't believe this!

Spike's now earnestly apologizing to his mother for spilling ink all over mother's best penguin. It's Tuesday, and Tuesday is the day he is scheduled to spill ink, that's how it must be, you see? It's Tuesday, ink must be spilled, ergo, the penguins are now covered with blood because they got in the way. So sorry, mother, I'll try harder not to set them on fire next Tuesday…

You're the one to blink, "Get out of the way!"

The driver stands on his horn.

Hating yourself for letting Spike win, you run back out into the intersection, grab him by the arm, and yank him from the path of the oncoming 'rodder who yells obscenities at the both of you as he roars past, duel exhaust snarling through the night long after he speeds away.

Now Spike, no, whatever it is stands hunched over on the curb, hands gripping knees, head down and gasping – before looking up at you.

Mutely he makes the same request again – this world is too much. Too confusing, too fast, too painful. Please let it end?

You glare down at Spike, furious with yourself for letting him - for letting the little man behind the curtain win.

I could do it right here. He's a vampire; there'd be no icky body to dispose of if I did.

(It's what he wants anyway, He deserves it, right? For everything he's done.)

Easy: thrust-gasp-poof – the end!

(No more nightmares of Spike on top of you, forcing his way between your legs as the cold tiles of your own bathroom floor press into your back…

So easy. So very, very easy…

(No more raw memories of Spike nuzzling through the fuzzy lips of your ruined sweater and into the raw slash in your arm in that poor old lady's basement as his get held you, the way his cold tongue slowly slid into the wound, introducing you to William the Bloody, cold, jagged mouth and all… No more memories of being slammed backwards onto the packed earth floor of that same basement with Spike on top of you, his weight grinding you into the dirt, forcing his way between your thighs… reminding you, reminding you, reminding you-)

Easy-easy-easy-easy!

"No." you say firmly, shaking your head. Liar or victim, Spike's closest to the enemy – he may be able to tell you something should you ask the right questions.

So.

You.

Don't.

Spike's unnecessary breathing stills and he crouches submissively on the sidewalk looking up at you, face bleached pale by the sodium glare of the nearest street lamp, hands long and spidery as they tug absently at his colorless hair hair, his face, his clothes. His eyes are the huge, round eyes of a lost child –the same child, if he is to be believed, disguised in man's clothing that strayed down the wrong London ally in 1880 - going with single bite from something you protect to something you stake.

You find it hard, for a second, to remember that this was the same vicious man-boy who tried to rape you, who recently tried to feed from you from behind the blissfully blank face of a fallen angel.

You turn away, "Watch where you're going." Is all you say over the rapid tattoo of your heels against the sidewalk.

(He's not following you.)

You go another block.

(His silent presence is absent.)

Link to the enemy or not, forget it. I can do this some other way!

You turn, and see Spike's faint outline two blocks away; huddled on the corner, face in hands, utterly still.

"He'll come when he's good and ready. This is all he's getting from me." You say to a darkened house with a wind-chime on the front porch, "If he wants to come home with me, fine, let him come on his own time. It devours from beneath? Well, I'll get a shovel and dig it up myself. Stop wasting my time, do you hear me? Stop wasting my time!"

You go yet another block, the wind chime's frigid song in counterpoint to your footsteps.

(Spike's still not with you.)

By block four, you stop.

(You're now on the edge of downtown.)

"Be that way, you… you… you!" At a loss for a word nasty enough you yell back at Spike anyway. A couple window-shopping at the jeweler's look up and stare at you before hurrying away, engagement rings forgotten. Arms casually wrapped around yourself to conceal the slash on your arm, you meander through the little cluster of dance clubs just getting warmed up for the evening; techno pop clattering from the open doors as the college kids jostle in line to get in.

(His favorite hunting ground.)

You scan the crowd, one hand unconsciously going for the stake tucked into the back of your jeans, but you relax.

It's a quiet night, there are no vamps trolling the scene for an easy meal among the co-eds and jocks on display like so many pot-roasts in a butcher shop window.

Where the hell is he?

You stop at a vending machine and get a Coke. "Fine." you mumble after a long swig. "Sit out there on the street corner all crazy, that is if you really are, and get all burned up in the rising sun. See if I care!"

Halfway through your Coke you realize that you're heading back the way you came.

You let your feet carry you through the edge of the downtown area, past the doughnut shop that used to be a gas station, then the ruins of the Magic Box with its boarded up windows, and past the little shop that your mother once had a gallery in. It's now a skateboard emporium.

After a while you toss the empty Coke can into the gutter.

Hands in back pockets, you scuff along the sidewalk, willing your feet to get lost.

(Too bad they don't listen to you.)

Spike's still huddled on the same street corner, beneath the same street lamp, head down, arms around knees, cheek resting on arm, eyes closed, trembling.

You stop and glare down at him.

After a while Spike slowly looks up at you with drowning bleached out eyes, a flat grey in the harsh street glare.

"Come on," you say abruptly, "You can't sit there all night."

Spike stirs a little, mouth working soundlessly like he wants to tell you something that he doesn't know how to say.

Finally he just holds his hands up to you in mute appeal.

You relent; taking one of them in yours, feeling its cold, oddly fragile reality in your smaller, warm one. You give a shudder of disgust that you no longer care if Spike notices, "Tomorrow's trash day. Wanna end up in the dump with the rest of the garbage?" you say as you pull him to his feet.

Spike now follows hesitantly beside you, hand tightening around yours like Dawnie's did when your mother let you help her cross the street on her first day of kindergarten., crowding against you whenever a car passes or a group of evening partiers approaches.

(You almost feel sorry for him, but some betrayals you'll never forget.)

He balks at the promenade with all its people and bright lights.

You won't let Spike flee, so he clings to your side, eyes wide, nostrils flaring as you lead him among the crowd that he'd glided through like a shark the night before.

(Over the scent of sweat, perfume, and cigarette smoke, you smell him, a musk that grows stronger as he tightens his grip on your hand, one more reminder that in many ways, Spike really is the animal that he's bragged about being in the past.)

Heads turn uneasily, following the two of you; the herd has caught the scent of a stranger.

Spike slows down, scanning the crowd, licking his lips, pupils so large that all that's left is a bottomless black. Tension runs through his body, like an overstretched guitar string about to snap. It travels up your injured arm as the two of you walk. Any second now he's going to flake.

(What if he really is crazy and the string puller's nothing?)

Oh yeah? What about the dreams?

People are now openly staring as Spike comes to a stubborn halt.

What about Dawnie and the living room? Or what Willow saw in the Library?

"Save it for later, Spike!" you snarl at him before saying brightly to the world at large, "C'mon honey, you've had too many shooters. Let's go home before you pass out and I have to carry you!" With a great big shiny smile on your face, you steer him to the far end of the square and away from the eyes of the law, which is talking to a bouncer not ten feet from where the two of you dither.

"Don't wanna be here." You jump at Spike's voice and come up short against a brick wall beside the same Coke machine you'd used earlier, "Too loud, too many voices. Too loud, too many voices." His free hand goes up to his head; here it comes, a monster flake out. The enemy must be really bored.

"Stop it!" You hiss and pull your hand free because his grip is crushing, "Hey!"

"Buffy, I don't like it here, too many people, too many voices!" He's getting louder, people are staring, "Too many voices, I don't like it here– Shut! Up!" You pull his hands away from his face and grip them tightly, trying not to flake yourself.

You almost do when Spike's head rests briefly against your torn sleeve; only it comes out as a stifled yelp when the wound beneath tears open and the warmth of your blood as it begins to soak through your sweater. The coppery scent of it fills the air.

Spike's eyes catch yours as he starts licking his lips again.

(It's been a while since he's fed.)

The chip blocks him.

(He claims his soul won't let him.)

But whatever it is that's been playing with all of you, if it's real, has overridden these built-in governors allowing Spike not only to feed, but reproduce.

(If he goes berserk, link to your enemy be damned, you'll stake him and go at this through guesswork like you always have. Yeppers, you'll stake him right here in front of everyone.)

Happily.

You stumble up short against the rough bricks as Spike suddenly goes limp and sags into you. You start to sweat, remembering the last time his weight pressed into-

(The feel of the cold tiles of the bathroom floor on your back... his breath smelling of blood, bourbon, and cigarettes…)

"Too loud, too many people, too loud, too many people!" he mumbles as he lips at the side of your throat; his scent is overpowering.

(The scent of damp earth and basements and freshly turned graves… broken glass slicing through skin…)

You try to scream, but nothing comes out as Spike starts to go down on his knees, or whatever it is that the enemy wants him to do as it yanks on his leash. You reel him in by the arm and the two of you wrestle up against the side of the Coke machine, causing it to flicker and rock until you have him pinned in the little corner between the wall and the machine. He starts whimpering.

Oh god, this…is…too much…too much!

Now he's crying.

Monsters aren't supposed to cry. That's for people. People cry. It's what makes them people. Soul or not, Spike isn't people.

(It's not a flake out, it's a fake-out. That's all it is, a fake-out, another test.)

Because he's quickly escalating into huge, loud, gulping sobs, you grab Spike by the shoulders and try to muffle him in the front of your sweater.

Face buried in your hair, Spike cries. Your ribs groan from the force of his embrace.

(Just like in the bathroom, remember?)

To steady Spike and avoid attracting still more attention, you put your arms around him and rest your head on his shoulder, rotating the two of you so that his back is to the world and yours to the wall.

Your embrace only makes Spike louder.

What spills out of his mouth is incoherent. Apologies to people you've never met, random blats of poetry, snatches of songs - it's like a dam's broken as demon-faced he sobs and snarls in your ear.

You sidle the two of you into the shelter of the alley and release Spike while you lean exhausted against the wall, watching him as he rocks and cries, ass down in the dirt and cigarette butts in a patch of light from one of the ornate streetlamps out on the promenade.

(String puller or not, this feels real, just like it did in the chapel, only worse.)

He's quieting down.

You can now hear the muffled sound of the band that's playing in the club against your back over his noise.

Now Spike's just rocking back and forth silently, eyes closed, arms wrapped around his knees.

(The string puller's dropped the strings?)

A group of co-eds goes giggling and shrieking past your refuge, briefly shattering the growing peace with their horseplay.

Spike doesn't notice; he's now stock still, a violent tremor running through his body. Head thrown back, eyes closed, limp.

A semi out on the Interstate sounds its horn in a long, Doppler wail.

Slowly you push yourself away from the wall and kneel down beside your ex. Should he exist, Spike's your only link to the enemy, the little man behind the curtain, the string puller.

(God, you hate him!)

Reluctantly, you put an arm around Spike and coax him to his feet.

(God, you hate him!)

And you take Spike home. But only to keep an eye on him, to find out what he knows…

(God, you... need him.)