Author's Note: This story is written as though it were an actual television series. Each chapter will be the equivalent of one episode, and the line breaks will be simlar to commercial breaks or scene shifts. The plot follows canon up until the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Spike's involvement with the Angel gang becomes somewhat AU (they're mentioned, but I took a few liberties and they don't become a focal point of the main story). Some comic book canon is also utilized (mostly the season eight Buffy comics).

As of right now, I'm planning on making this last half a season (12 "episodes"/chapters). As this is my first foray into writing for these characters, I appreciate any and all feedback so future chapters can improve. Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy!

You want the answers to be in a tongue you understand
You're looking for someone like me to tell you when to throw your hand
What battles to fight, what causes are right
Then I drown in a precious little meltdown

-"Precious Little Meltdown" by Adam Pascal

"So you understand what I'm getting at, right?"

Marissa closed her eyes. The bright strobes lining the small stage of Neon weren't the only reason for her to look away. She couldn't bear looking Robbie in the eye, not after the long-winded way he just told her that she, essentially, was the worst girlfriend in the history of girlfriends. "Yeah," she answered quietly. "I guess."

Judging by the loud, "What?" that came from Robbie, either the band was too loud or the lounge was too packed for her to be heard. Rock music and the presence of half the people in town; it wasn't exactly the most tactful setting for a bad break-up.

"Yes," she told him in a louder voice. She looked at him, angry that his broad face didn't seem to register how inappropriate his behavior was. Aren't there certain rules of dating etiquette that are programmed into our brains at the same time we learn to blink and breathe? "Yes, I get what you're saying. You're unhappy, you have no idea why, but it must be my fault, so it's over. It's not exactly rocket science, Rob."

"That's not what I said at all-"

"Then maybe you should've taken me someplace more private to dump me so I could hear you!" Marissa was flushed, half-expecting the music to suddenly end and enable everyone to hear her heated outburst.

"I'm not 'dumping' you," Robbie protested. "Jeez, you make it sound like I'm passing a half-digested…. Look, the point is, cliché or no, it really has nothing to do with you. You understand? It's me. It's really me. I'm changing, and it's not for the better. I'm just cutting off my ties before things get too outta control, y'know?"

"Cutting your ties?" Marissa asked incredulously. "The way you talk, it sounds like you're gonna shave your head and become a Tibetan monk or something. What, is it delayed puberty or something? Your body doing things you don't want it to do?"

Though she couldn't hear him, she saw him lower his brown eyes as he muttered something. It sounded akin to, "Something like that." Just as Marissa was about to ask after it, he looked back up at her. While Robbie Wilson would never be defined as an intellectual, one would be a liar to claim that he wasn't determined. And right now, it seemed as though he was determined to break someone's heart.

"If you wanna believe that it's you, then fine. It is you. It's the way you're lost in your own little world half the time and the way you worship the heroes instead of the ordinary people all around you. It's the way you wanna be a hero and think you can do that by yelling at your problems and making them go away instead of confronting them. It's the way you keep planning for some kinda war instead of living your life. Jesus, you've spent two years in college and you still have no idea what you wanna major in or what you're even doing there to begin with."

Marissa gaped at him as he stood up and downed the rest of his drink. Slamming the glass on the table, he gave her a hard glare as she opened her mouth to speak. "Don't," he interrupted. "Don't you dare. Don't give me that speech. Don't give me that, 'Don't you know who I am?' bit that you've been giving everyone since you moved here. Yeah, I know who you are. You're Marissa Harris, just another scared villager from the happy town of Sunnydale that managed to escape before it became a smoking crater. If you're looking for some respect for that, you might wanna try getting up from under your mother's thumb and moving outta the suburbs, princess. I hear life's a real riot on the outside."

Marissa's mouth remained open as he passed her by, still trying to articulate the words. Finally, she slid out of her seat and turned to face him. "Are you a vampire?"

By this time, the music had indeed stopped; at the sound of her voice, so did Robbie. A few people laughed nervously whereas the rest of the patrons didn't know how to react. Even the band that was walking off the stage spared her a questioning glance.

Robbie turned around and looked at her. Realizing how stupid the question had been, Marissa wondered what exactly he was seeing. Was he seeing his ex-girlfriend, or was he seeing just some girl with running mascara and too many emotional scars for his liking? With his eternally doleful expression, it was difficult to tell.

"No," came the reply. "I am not a vampire, Marissa. Sometimes bad things happen to people that don't involve vampires. When that happens, it's called real life. You may want to live in it once in a while." That said, he turned his back on her and left Neon.

What he didn't know was that he wasn't leaving Marissa alone.

Ugh, I'm gaining weight, Marissa thought as she struggled to button up her denim jacket.

She had remained seated at Neon for another ten minutes, hoping to put enough distance between her and Robbie so she wouldn't somehow run into him and also hoping that enough time would pass so she wouldn't leave a whisper of voices in her wake. She knew the latter was an impossibility, which is what finally made her finish her Diet Coke and leave the club.

Maybe that's the real reason he left me, she continued thinking as she walked through the empty streets. I'm getting fat. Well, fatter. And who wants to date a fat chick? Certainly not a dumb jock like Robbie Wilson. And when you break up with a fat chick, you can't just tell her that she's fat. Because then you'd be an insensitive dumb jock. So you use the classic line of, "it's not you, it's me," and insist that it really is….

Unfortunately, Marissa knew better. Woodridge wasn't quite as cutely suburban as Sunnydale, but it was small enough so that people talked. And people knew. After the demolition of her hometown, everyone suddenly became aware that the weird rumors about the neighboring town were probably more than just rumors. Vampires, witches, and Slayers, oh my.

I was stupid to ask if he was a vampire, Marissa knew. It's just that that was the only thing I could guess, if he was just saying that he's going through some "changes" and won't give me any details. And that's the problem: it was the only thing I knew to say. Vampires are the reason for every bad thing in life. Stupid, Marissa. Real stupid. You're really living up to the Harris namesake, aren't y-

She suddenly stopped and whirled around. It was partly instinct, and partly that familiar paranoid feeing of being followed. It usually amounted to nothing, but she always thought it was best to catch the bad guy off-guard. Instead, she was the one who was off-guard when she saw there was actually someone following her.

The man stopped, surprised that he had been detected. Putting his hands in his jeans pockets, he grinned as he drawled out, "Well, looks like we got us an observant one, don't we?" Marissa glanced up. Cowboy hat. She glanced down. Cowboy boots. A good ol' boy if she ever did see one, and she never had.

"'We' look like we might be suffering from a case of paranoid schizophrenia," she remarked, her hand slowly reaching into her pocket. "Or multiple personality disorder. I'm not really cleared to make a proper diagnosis."

His grin only widened and his green eyes seemed to shine in the streetlight as he noticed her reaching into her pocket. "What ya plannin' to do there? Plannin' on stakin' me? Yuh carry a stake around with yuh, do yuh?"

"Maybe," Marissa bluffed, her hands tightening around the mace she always carried around with her as she wondered what he was getting at. "You never know when you might meet somebody who deserves a stake through the heart, know what I mean?"

He laughed. "'tween that and the comment back in the club, I reckon that you're one o' those escapees from Sunnydale a few years back. From what I heard, some pretty little college gal vaporized the whole place to get rid o' the monsters. Somethin' that big must've been upsetting. Leavin' yuh all… now what's the word?"

"Traumatized?" Marissa offered bitterly. "Paranoid?"

"Yeah," he responded. "Yeah, them's it. Bet lots o' people make fun 'cos yuh worry that every missin' person done got himself turned into a vampire. Betcha that's why the boyfriend told yuh he was hightailin' it, huh? Couldn't take no more o' the girl who cried vamp?"

Marissa looked away. The guy was a few yards away from her, so he couldn't move without her seeing him, but she still knew that it was stupid to break eye contact with him. She didn't consider him a threat to her physically so much as she was showing that he had gotten to her. Suffice to say, Marissa was not thinking properly that night.

"I'm guessin' that this situation," the stranger continued, "might be what yuh call ironic."

Gazing upwards, it took everything Marissa had to stifle a cry. That face. She had seen it before. Not that exact face, no. But it's hard not to remember the trademark lumpy forehead and sharp canines. You never forget a vamp-face.

Forgetting about even attempting a face-off, she turned on her heels and ran. That was the basic idea, anyway. As she fell onto her left side and felt a heavy weight fall on top of her, she wondered why no one ever bothered to mention to her that real vampires had the same kind of super speed as Anne Rice's vampires.

"Slow gal," he chuckled. "Reckon all that paranoia still ain't enough to make yuh work out. The bad thing 'bout Sunnydale gettin' turned to smoke is that now I ain't got no Slayer to chase around for sport." Pulling at her, he inquired, "How about turnin' 'round and givin' me a bit o' what the boyfriend gave up on, huh?"

Though her left elbow was stinging terribly, her right hand was still in working condition. "My pleasure," Marissa breathed. Pulling her hand out of her pocket, she held the mace up and sprayed, praying that the nozzle was in the right direction. Luckily, it was. Unluckily, the vampire was so close that some of the spray rebounded from his face and hit her as well.

She closed her eyes quickly, but that didn't stop the burning any. Fortunately, the vampiric cowboy got the worst of it and let out a harsh yell. Though she couldn't see, Marissa lashed out with her good arm and landed a solid punch somewhere, causing the vampire to back off.

Her eyes still clenched shut, she crawled away and tried to remember if rubbing her eyes would make the burning better or worse. She was behind the high school, and no one was likely to be around there on a Saturday night. No matter how loud she screamed, she'd have to rely on her dose of the pepper spray wearing off before his if she had any hopes of not becoming a late-night snack.

Crawling along the sidewalk, Marissa bumped her head against the streetlight and collapsed. "Ow," she whimpered. To herself, she pondered, I wonder if the Slayer ever got hit with her own pepper spray and gave herself a concussion because of it? Remembering that the Slayer wouldn't need mace to begin with, she blindly reached out for the streetlight and used it as a crutch to get onto her feet.

As she braced herself for a fierce attack by an enraged vampire, Marissa thought she heard signs of a struggle behind her. "Oh, thank God," she murmured, ashamed that she found herself relying on what she hoped was backup. She dimly noted that her right hand still clenched the mace tightly, but she wasn't sure how much good it would do if she couldn't see enough to aim for the eyes or mouth. Having another pair of eyes on her side would be a godsend.

She slowly opened her eyes just enough to peer through her lashes. She saw that the new arrival was tall and broad-shouldered, wearing what looked like a battered brown leather jacket. Classic chivalric rescuer of the damsel in distress. The thought made her blink through the tears and open her eyes a little more. By the time she managed to get them open halfway, she saw a cowboy hat at her feet and saw a beaten cowboy not too far away. He vanished in a plume of dust when the new arrival—who actually had been packing a stake—stabbed him through the heart.

Carefully wiping away the involuntary tears, she looked at the man who had come to her rescue. He was crouched on the sidewalk with his back to her, and it looked as though he was trying to catch his breath. Probably another crazy paranoid survivor of Sunnydale; like the vamp said, no matter how crazily paranoid they were, they never quite exercised enough to deal with an actual vampire.

Daring herself to move away from the safety of the streetlight and stand on her own, Marissa gingerly wiped away the last of the tears. Her eyes still stung, but she wasn't going to run home to mommy to wash it out… at least, not without showing her gratitude first. "Thank you," she told him. "Thanks so much."

"Well, you know what they say." Marissa's eyes widened, though they protested the involuntary response of surprise with a bolt of pain. "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king." As he spoke, he slowly turned his head enough to show half of his face, revealing that his left eye was sporting an eye patch.

After a long moment during which she didn't know how to respond, Marissa asked, "You've been waiting a long time to say that, haven't you?"

Turning to face her, he greeted her with the amicable grin that he was well-known for during tumultuous family reunions. "Actually, I've said it lots of times. The good thing about not coming around for a lot of visits is that all of my stale jokes will sound new and exciting. Even the pirate ones. Yo-ho-ho."

Covering her face in her hands, Marissa didn't know whether to laugh or cry. "The pirate jokes have been done to death by your dad, Alex. The fact that Cousin Jeanie's wedding happened to fall on National Talk Like a Pirate Day only made it that much worse."

Sitting on the sidewalk as though he were taking a seat on his bedroom floor, Alexander Harris looked up at his cousin and remarked, "It's Xander, Mare. I've told you repeatedly. Alex is what my mother calls me when I make a bad decision. Actually, it's what she calls me all the time. What a coincidence."

"Sorry, and stop calling me Mare," Marissa requested, leaning against the lamppost. "I'm not a small pony."

"No, no you're not," Xander agreed, rising to his feet. "You've grown some since the last time I saw you. You're what… eighteen now?"

"Nineteen," Marissa corrected quietly as Xander brushed his trousers free of dirt. "The whole Sunnydale thing happened just before I started high school, and it's been five years since. And after the Harris clan relocated to various places in sunny California, I discovered that a certain big cousin of mine decided to head out to the middle of Europe and live with a bunch of teenaged girls like the creepy pedo his father turned out to be. Our only consolation is that you're not a sloppy drunk… or has that changed, too?"

"I think you'll find that I'm a fairly tidy drunk," Xander replied. "Unless I happen to be fighting against a horde of undead minions, in which case a few bloody giblets might end up in my hair." Seeing Marissa's cold glance, he put his hands up as though in defense. "Kidding, kidding. The bloody giblets happen when I'm stone-cold sober, unfortunately. And as for me moving in with a bunch of teenaged girls in the middle of Europe, that's a gross exaggeration. It's Western Europe, thank you very much."

"So did you cross the pond and most of America because you had a premonition that your beloved baby cousin would be in danger," Marissa asked, "or is California the source of yet another apocalypse?"

"Oh no, most of the apocalypses are happening over in Cleveland these days," Xander answered. "Don't worry, we've got a branch looking into it. And even if we didn't, well… you wouldn't know, would you?" Seeing that Marissa wasn't quite up to joking about it, Xander realized that she had probably changed a bit since the Sunnydale incident. "Hey, let's walk and talk, okay? Your eyes are looking a little red."

She knew that his concern was both genuine and an attempt to thwart the topic, but she followed him regardless and latched her arm around his. "What's the story, Al-… Xander? I know you're all super secret S.H.I.E.L.D.-type stuff and can't even give anyone your exact location, but if something brought you back to California, it's gotta be big, right? What, is it vampires? Demonic possession? Tap dancing aliens or something?"

"You have been watching way too many X-Files reruns, you know that?" Xander told her. "Can't you watch Saw and Hostel and all those other movies that normal kids watch? You've got vamps on the brain."

With a heavy sigh, Marissa looked down and remarked, "You're not the first guy to tell me that tonight."

"Trouble in Romance Land?"

"You the king there, too?"

"More like the court jester. Wanna talk about it?"

"No offense, Xan," Marissa told him, "but our age difference is coming into play a lot more as the years pass. You're, what, almost thirty?"

"If by 'almost' you mean not for another three whole years, then yes, almost," Xander replied with a smirk. "And I can tell you for a fact that men don't really mature much between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, so chances are that I'm not too old to help you with your love life, unless you've attracted the attention of a creepy pedo yourself."

"There's nothing to help," Marissa stated. "Like you said, I've just got vamps on the brain. And speaking of, you're distracting me from the point. What are you doing here instead of your undisclosed location in Western Europe?"

Xander said nothing for a long while. It gave Marissa time to prepare for the worst. While she didn't know about the Hellmouth that had been below the former Sunnydale High School, she had heard a good deal of gossip from the family, no doubt distorted accounts of the vague explanation that Xander had given his parents. One of his best friends was a vampire slayer. The Slayer, in fact. Until she somehow created a bunch of new Slayers that purged Sunnydale of its vampires or demons or some ultimate evil or something like that. Since he was one of the few people she trusted, Xander went off with her to help train the new Slayers. Train them for what, Marissa wasn't sure. But she imagined that it was to keep other nice, quiet towns from becoming another Sunnydale.

"Dad's dying."

Marissa blinked and returned her gaze to Xander. "What?"

"He's dying," Xander repeated. "Liver cancer. At long last, the bottle has its revenge. He went in complaining of stomach cramps, went out with a chemotherapy appointment and approximately two months to live. He won't go to chemo, of course, because he'll claim that we can't afford it, but I think the old man's just scared. For once in his life, he's actually scared of something, and he doesn't want to do anything that'll prolong it. Just let it kill him and go away."

Marissa knew all of this, of course. Her mother had told her when she received the news from Xander's mother two weeks ago. She just hadn't thought that Xander would care enough to postpone saving the world so he can spend time with a man that she hadn't even thought he loved. Clearly he did care, so Marissa thought it was wrong to tell him that she thought his father was being a coward about the whole thing.

"Good thing I didn't end up like that," Xander surprised her by saying. Reaching up, his fingertips gently touched the edges of his patch. "They say that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, right? I think what does kill you deserves to get its ass kicked while you're on your way out. Buff taught me that, and it's… oh wow, I think my one remaining eye is busted. It's leaking."

As he reached over to brush away the stray tears, Marissa sought for something to say. "A guy should never have to worry about a little extra lubrication, huh?" Her joke was rewarded with a laugh, and Marissa decided that men didn't really change at all between their teens and late twenties if he found that funny.

"Extra lube never hurt anyone," Xander agreed. Marissa realized the full implications of his comment first and burst out laughing, causing Xander to follow suit. By the time they finished, he was dry-eyed once again. "It's no big deal," he finally said. "I mean, yeah, he is my dad and I suppose dying is kind of a big deal for him. But I'm not going to turn around and extol his non-existent virtues now, you know? That kind of hypocrisy would earn me nothing but a welt, anyway, if the old man had his way."

After a moment, Marissa asked, "So, how long are you staying? Or do you not know? Because, I mean, apocalypses wait for no man, not even one as infamous as your dad."

"I'll go along with you on the 'infamous' bit," Xander replied. "I'm only here for a week. Figured that was enough time for Dad to tell me he can't stand the sight of me and throw me out so I can visit the family. So far, so good. I just came back from your mom's place and she told me you were out with your boyfriend." He paused for a moment before bringing up, "Is this the jerk who jinxed you by saying you were too into vamps for your own good?"

"Yes and no," Marissa replied. "Yes, it's the same jerk. But no… he's not my boyfriend. Not anymore." Marissa fell silent after that, remembering the embarrassing ending to a thoroughly embarrassing date.

"Oh man," Xander bemoaned. "Don't tell me that good for nothing son of a female dog had an issue with that. Does he not know you're from Sunnydale? Does he not get that being chased out of a town overrun by vampires and other things that go bump in the night isn't exactly something a fourteen-year-old girl gets over?"

"It's been five years, Xander," she reminded him dully. "Technically speaking, he had a point. I mean, you've gotten over the whole losing an eye thing and can make jokes about it. Me, this little skirmish tonight would probably set my therapy back two years, if I was going to therapy."

"This is different," he argued. "Woodridge, Hyland, all of these little towns are right next to the remains of Sunnydale. And while everyone who knows the whole story is currently scattered across the world raising baby Slayers to kick some demonic butt, I'm sure that only means that the locals around here have speculated a lot of pretty scary situations for why an entire town just stopped existing one morning. So if Mister 'You've-Got-Vamps-on-the-Brain' is using that against you, he's a dirty liar and deserves his own personalized can of Xander Harris Whoop Ass."

Before Marissa could respond, a sudden clap echoed out from around the corner they were approaching. It was followed by another and then another, and by the time Xander pulled Marissa to a halt, she realized that it was the sound of a person slowly and deliberately clapping his hands, as though in sarcastic congratulations.

"That was one hell of a speech," said an unfamiliar voice from around the corner. Judging by the way Xander stiffened, however, he was indeed familiar with the snarky English accent. "Well played, Harris. I suppose a few years playing Go Fish with the Amazons have helped to up your testosterone levels. Ironic, that."

From around the corner stepped a man wearing a long trench coat. He was clad entirely in black, making his pale skin and his bleached hair all the more startling. Marissa noticed that even his fingernails were painted with cracked black nail polish. The smile on his face was the very definition of smug, and he seemed to revel both in the shock Xander exuded and the wary appraisal Marissa was giving him.

"Now that you've cheered up the pup with thoughts of your big manly fists pounding her imbecile of an ex-boyfriend into a pulp," he continued, "how about we go off and have a chat about the real reason you're in town?"

After a moment of silence, Xander finally moaned, "Does no one from Sunnydale stay dead?"

The stranger looked perplexed. "What, you didn't know I was formerly working with Angel?"

"You were working with Angel?!"

"Pfft," scoffed the man in the trench coat. "Some Watcher you turned out to be."

Xander looked aghast. "How did you know-… I'm not a Watcher! That's just what Buffy…. Oh, I see what this is! Even dead you can't get over your obsession with Buffy. What, since you can't stalk her family, you're stalking mine and Willow's, is that how you're doing this?"

"Give it a rest, Cyclops," came the reply as the blond man took a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. "For a split second, I thought you matured somewhat. Giving the pup some encouragement and offering a threat of actual violence instead of just being on the cheering squad. If you can move on, I'm insulted that you don't think I can, too." The cigarette in his mouth, he patted his pockets for a moment before looking towards Marissa. "You wouldn't happen to have a light, would you, love?"

"Don't call her that!" Xander boomed.

"Smoking will kill you," Marissa uttered absently.

Smirking, the blond replied, "I'll keep that in mind, pet."

"Don't call her that, either!" Xander exclaimed.

Taking the cigarette from his mouth and beginning to lose his patience, the blond asked, "What would you have me call her, then? The only other names I can think of at the moment are either already in use for someone else or are what you'd call unsavory. Or both."

Before Marissa could mention that he could try calling her by her name, Xander interjected with, "Don't call her anything. Don't call her. At all. You're not to address her. You're not to address me in front of her. When she's around, you do not exist, as it should be."

With a smile, the man asked, "An order from Nick Fury himself?"

"From Nick Fury to Captain Peroxide, yes. And I'm surprised you know that reference."

"I watched Iron Man. And need I remind you that I did help to save the world? And on more than one occasion, too."

"And need I remind you," Xander countered, "that I've woken up with a bloody gash on my head because of you on way more than one occasion? Pardon me if there's bad blood between us, no pun intended."

Pointing his finger at Xander as though making the ultimate point, the blond shot back, "Keep in mind that I never went for your neck. That's gotta count for something, yeah?"

Neck? With all of the recent talk about vampires, Marissa didn't think she was fit to be present for this conversation. "Um, Xander? I think I'm gonna head on home. You can talk things out with your friend, okay?"

She was about to walk past the blond when Xander pulled her back, stepping between the two of them. "I'm walking you home. If he's got something he wants to say to me, he can tell me where to meet him and no one will have to get unnecessarily involved."

"Actually, I'd much rather speak to you now," he responded.

"Well tough!" Xander proclaimed. "I'd much rather have gone on living life thinking you died a hero. You've caused me a whole lotta grief, pal, so while I'm willing to be an adult about things, we'll talk about this after I take her home."

With that, Xander pulled at Marissa's arm, dragging her away. Just when she was about to ask what all that had been about, the man's voice broke the silence of the night from directly behind them. "Good idea, Harris. Then I can just follow up behind you and we can sit on her porch and have a nice civil talk. And if I find out you're withholding information from me or otherwise planning on stabbing me in the back—or front, as both are just as bad if you've got a pointy stick in your hand—then I can always go back to pay your dear cousin Marissa Harris a visit." Seeing Xander stop, he knew he had hit a sore spot and added, "What's past is past. Now that you're in town, let's see to it that innocent people like her get a future, all right, One Eye?"

Xander slowly turned to glare at his old acquaintance. While Marissa was completely in the dark, she noticed that this man kept making certain references that should stand out in her mind for some reason or the other, but the events of the past thirty minutes made it difficult for her to think in a strictly linear pattern. All she managed to notice was that he had produced a book of matches from somewhere and was now lighting his cigarette.

"How did you know her name?" Xander asked at last.

"I'm a lucky sort of bloke," he answered. "I just happened to be sitting at the neighborhood hotspot and noticed an argument between her and her former beau. He mentioned her full name—a sure sign that it was an argument—and the town Sunnydale. I wondered if another Harris from Sunnydale would have information on you, but she looked a bit down in the mouth, so I managed to get the boy talking." At this, he glanced at Marissa. "He was telling the truth by the way; he's not a vampire."

"You asked the guy if he was a vampire?" Xander asked disbelievingly.

"I told you he said I have vamps on the brain!" Marissa exclaimed.

"From what I can tell, though, he's got much bigger issues on his mind than vampirism," the blond continued. "Keep an eye on him. At any rate, I did manage to find out that the two of you were related, but he was understandably reluctant to tell me any more details. It didn't take too long for me to catch up with her here, and it just so happened that you can say the same. Now that we're up to date on one another's stories, First Mate Harris and I have more important things to discuss."

"She was attacked," Xander told him. "By a vampire. I'm not leaving her until I know she's safe."

"Well," came the wry response, "you'd better bring her with us then, don't you think?" After observing the hard look from Xander, the man smirked once again and assured, "Don't worry; I won't bite."

"That is such a not cool joke coming from you," Xander responded.

"What made you think it was a joke?"

"Okay, whoa, excuse me," Marissa cried out. "I've just been dumped, assaulted, rescued, and had a whole lot of important-sounding information go way over my head. The only thing I fully understand is that we're standing a block away from where a vampire just tried to eat me. So if we could head towards the home base or towards a more public domain, my nerves would really, really appreciate it."

"Back to Neon, then," the blond said. "And you should consider taking up smoking. Or drinking. Say what you want about vice, but it's a lot more fun than being a nervous old biddy at the age of sixteen."

"I'm nineteen," Marissa told him as she followed after him, having to be pulled back by Xander before she got too close.

With a small smile, the man replied, "When you get to be my age, the teen years are all the same. A shame I didn't have more fun with mine. Luckily, I had plenty of fun with others'."

"Hey!" Xander barked out sharply. "See, that kind of talk? That kind of talk is what keeps the bad blood boiling. It's bad enough that you're going to want to talk about things that we shouldn't be talking about in front of her, but let's keep your various conquests out of the conversation, okay?"

"Aw," the blond responded. "I thought we bonded during all those times we lived together." When he saw Marissa gawk at Xander, he stopped in his tracks and sternly said, "Hey, I didn't mean it like that, all right? Do I look like a nancy to you?"

"I don't know what you look like," Marissa replied with a raised eyebrow, "other than the poster child of goth fashion gone horribly wrong."

He looked surprised, but then turned back to Xander as he pointed to her with his cigarette and continued walking. "Nice piece of work you've got in your family tree. At least this one's a sight prettier than the bag who asked me for hair advice at your wedding."

"Oh God, you're the reason Aunt Sylvie went platinum?" Marissa asked. "Xander, what the heck was this guy doing at your wedding anyway? Who is he?" Seeing Xander shift uncomfortably, she shut her mouth and realized that he probably didn't want to talk about a wedding that he walked out on.

"What, you mean Dog Boy talks about the Slayer and the witch and probably even that insufferable librarian, but he's never mentioned me?" Though he looked amused, Marissa wondered if there wasn't a part of him that was genuinely hurt.

"I'm a superstitious kind of guy," Xander answered. "Ever since Will told me about name magic, I feared that saying your name would be like a kind of talisman that would magically bring you to me, and Lord knows I wouldn't have wanted to disturb what should've been your eternal rest."

"How sweet of you," he replied sarcastically. "But since I'm here, there's not much damage in saying my name, eh? But concentrate hard on the name Jack Daniels, and maybe we'll get lucky." To Marissa, he said, "Name's Spike, love."

"Oh God," Marissa remarked. "Even your name is indicative of goth gone wrong."

"Can I bite her?" Spike asked.

"Can I kill you?" Xander retorted.

"I'll say one thing for this place," Spike commented. "It must be fun watching an epileptic come in."

They had just sat down on three stools at a corner table in Neon. The band was long gone, but the night was still relatively young and so music was pumping in through the speakers and the crowd had thinned out only somewhat. The bright green walls with the electric blue swirls were allowed to distract the mind in peace, since the pink and orange strobe lights were now off. A line of vintage arcade games lined the wall opposite the bar, interrupting the music with the occasional pow, boom, and ka-blaam. Somehow, three pool tables and a dance floor fit between the games and the bar, causing an even greater flurry of activity than should be allowed in a sleepy little town by law. "Jeez Mare," Xander remarked as he sat down at the round silver table and matching stool. "It's a wonder you're not frothing at the mouth when you get home from here."

"Right then," Spike said. "Who'll be doing the buying? As the pup just got her heart broken, I suggest one of us do the chivalric thing and spring for her. I recommend a coin toss, because Rock Paper Scissors is full of cheats."

"This isn't a social call," Xander told him. "You seem to be under the impression that I've got some kind of hidden agenda, so I'm thinking that you're keeping your ear to the ground just like old times. So while you don't have that chip in your head anymore, I'm still sure I can get any important info I want out of you, especially if it's vital to saving human lives."

"They have blooming onions here," Spike said.

"Ooh, blooming onions?" Xander asked, surprised. Withdrawing a quarter from his pocket, he said, "Call it," just before flicking it into the air.

"Tails," Spike called.

"Nuts," Xander replied, seeing the outcome.

"I didn't know U.S. currency was printed with those."

"Cut the perv talk around my baby cousin, okay?" Xander asked as he took out his wallet.

"You were the one talking about lube earlier," Marissa reminded him.

Seeing Spike open his mouth to comment, Xander told him, "Make one incest joke and you can go get your own blooming onion." Taking a twenty dollar bill from his wallet, he asked Marissa, "What do you want?"

"Let her worry about what she wants," Spike told him. "After all, she's getting the stuff." Seeing Marissa look at him, he asked, "What? I got you off the hook from paying for your own food, so the least you can do is go order it, right?"

"You just want to get rid of me for a few minutes," Marissa realized.

"How very perceptive," Spike replied.

Deciding that arguing would be pointless and that she probably didn't want to hear about any of Xander's secretive demonology stuff that might result in another end of the world, she slid out of her seat and took Xander's money, asking each of them what they wanted. When Spike mentioned wanting a whiskey sour, she eyed him skeptically. "You do know I'm nineteen, right?"


"Legal drinking age in this country is twenty-one. They won't sell it to me."

"Bugger," Spike muttered, looking down. "Just a Coke, then, pet." Shooting Xander one last wary glance, Marissa took the money and went off to get the food and drinks. After making sure that she was gone, Spike glanced up at Xander and said, "Those orders will take her two trips to bring back, unless they give her a tray, which they never do here. I'm guessing we've got about eight minutes of free speech time, unless the pup decides to come back to the big people table while she waits for the food."

"Marissa's a Harris who actually made it to college," Xander told him. "That means she's got brains and common sense. She might be curious, but I'll bet she understands that I'd rather she not overhear any of this."

"Lovely," Spike responded. "Then you've got eight minutes to tell me everything you know."

"Me?" Xander replied. "I thought you had something to tell me."

"Seven minutes and fifty seconds, Harris," Spike told him. "Stop being cute. It didn't work when you were a construction worker and it sure as hell doesn't work with whatever your official title is now. Whatever it is that you do now, you're most likely at the Slayer's right hand. She can't let you go for a full week just to pay your respects to a man you can't stand, especially not when he's still alive. I don't know how your operation works, but it's most definitely an operation, and there's protocol that goes with it. The old man being on his deathbed may be true, but it's simply as good a reason as any to have one of their most trusted men come out here to survey the situation. So you will tell me everything your people know, and I will tell you everything I've heard. I'm not asking for cash. This is just a simple trade-off of information for now. Thanks to my prattling, you've just over seven minutes. Make it worth it."

Xander narrowed his eye at Spike before stating, "Rumors of increased activity around the former Sunnydale Hellmouth. Came here to investigate. Your turn."

Spike blinked dumbly. Narrowing his eyes as well, he hissed, "I told you not to be cute."

"That wasn't cute," Xander replied. "That was being concise. You learn how to do it when you're in a respected position of power."

"Position of power?" Spike scoffed. "And what, you think that somehow makes you better than me?"

"No," Xander answered. "I think the fact that I don't need to drink blood to survive is what makes me better than you. The fact that I'm not hunted by human and demon alike makes me better than you. And the fact that I have a better wardrobe is what makes me cuter than you. Next question, please."

"Keep talking like that," Spike warned. "It's no wonder the pup thinks I'm a ponce."

"You're the one that kept using the word cute," Xander informed him. "What you do to whom and how you do it are none of my concerns, and I'd love to keep it that way." Spike said nothing for a moment, and Xander realized what he had just said. "Yeah, I know. You banged my best friend and my ex-fiancée." Trying to shrug it off, he looked away and muttered, "You also said the past is past. You've got about six minutes to go over your end of the story."

Spike wondered if he should say anything about his brief tryst with Xander's now-deceased ex, but decided that everything worth saying on the subject had already been said. Concise. He could be concise.

"Ghost sightings," Spike started. "Not quite as many demons as you'd think, though I've seen three or four in town since I got here in July. But mostly, it's ghosts. They normally appear in the cemetery or at the sites of accidents or murders. Pale, incorporeal, your classic Casper. I should know."

"Ghosts?" Xander asked incredulously. "I don't get it. The precogs were saying that this was some heavy duty, grade-A stuff. Almost as bad as the First. Other than ghosts being considered by some people to be an ominous sign-"

"Congratulations," Spike told him bitterly. "You got your 'position of power' by being book smart and not knowing a bloody thing about applying what you know. Why are ghosts looked at as bad portents? Because they're a sign of another world coming in contact with ours. Something that shouldn't exist in our plane actually manifesting itself on a regular basis is a hell of a lot scarier than something that's supposed to be here, like demons or the First. One ghost, no problem. Two ghosts, fine. Three ghosts, must be a field trip. Go to the cemetery after you take the pup home tonight. That's not fog you're seeing between the tombstones; that's Casper after Casper after Casper. And with every flying sheet that makes its way into our world, two things are happening: there's an increased chance of something hitching a ride back with them, and the fabric that separates the various planes gets torn apart just a little bit more."

Taking all of this in, Xander said, "So I'm guessing that you believe something's causing this on purpose? That something's either trying to hitch a ride back with these ghosts or is trying to bring our world closer to this spirit world? Or both?"

"Both, without question," Spike replied. "And think about it: if this town and all of the towns within a 50-mile radius of this place are experiencing the same thing—and believe me, I've checked—then that's one hell of a big square being pulled out of the universal quilt. A square that big that funnels right into one of the hell dimensions that these ghosts are coming from…."

"And we've got a Hellmouth," Xander finished. "Bigger, badder, and new and improved."

"Precisely," Spike went on. "I was hoping this would attract the attention of some Slayerettes, since there's no bloody way a lone wolf like me is gonna avoid the fallout of whatever's gonna happen here, especially since I don't have my own pocket librarian a phone call away to feed me all of the answers."

"Lone wolf, huh?" Xander mused. "I'm guessing that partnership with Angel didn't last long."

Spike was silent before quietly stating, "Where the hell is your headquarters; under a rock?" Taking a deep though unnecessary breath, he requested, "Look, just… don't tell the Slayer, all right?"

Not needing anything more, Xander's face went blank. "Dead?"

"Dust," Spike confirmed. "But he saved the world. And hell, you could have said the same for me just an hour ago, so who knows what's really what? The trouble is, most of his contacts went down with him or after him, and lots of them were humans, who rarely get themselves dusted off and put back on the playing field. Unless they happen to be the Slayer, of course. How is she, by the way?"

"Look, I told you that this wasn't a social call-"

"No, it isn't," Spike agreed. "But we went over the facts already. Lots of floating dead people means that someone is trying to open up a Hellmouth with a radius of at least fifty miles. I've got no leads on who or what that could be. As far as I know, it might even be a natural phenomenon and will pass on its own—though I doubt your little precogs or whatnot would have sent you out here if that was the case. Since I've got nothing else to say, and you had nothing but a couple of sentences to offer me, then there's no reason I can't throw in an inquiry about an old friend."

"Old friend?" Xander scorned.

"Yes, old friend," Spike told him, beginning to get a little heated. "Yes, I slept with her. Yes, I loved her. Yes, I hurt her. But I also fought alongside her and talked to her and listened to her when she needed to get some talking done. All else aside, she's my friend, and may well be my only living friend in the world right now." Looking down at his hands resting on the table, he quieted down as he concluded, "And I'm hers. Her friend. Whether or not she wants me to be, I am. Because when you go through hell and back with a person—for a person—time and distance can't well change that."

Xander remained quiet for a long, long time. No, he would never trust Spike. No, he would never even marginally like Spike. All the good a person may do will always be wiped out by a single, unforgiveable crime. With Spike, his crime wasn't that he wasn't human. Xander would be one hell of a hypocrite to tar and feather him for that after having been engaged to Anya. Spike's crime lay in what he had done to Buffy. No matter how many years had passed, Xander would always see Spike and remember the night that he had tried to take Buffy by force. He would always look at Spike and see not a martyr or a redeemed soul, but a rapist. Vampire or human, sinner or saint, Spike would never be worthy of redemption after that.

But Spike wasn't looking for redemption. He had long given up the hope of being accepted by Xander as an ally, if he had ever even had that hope. He was only sitting here and talking to Xander right now because he had been the one who had business in the neighborhood, not Willow or Dawn. And it was only coincidence that Spike had run into his cousin during the week that Xander was in town. …wasn't it?

"She's fine," Xander finally replied. "As fine as anyone who's carrying the world on her shoulders can be. We've gotten through a couple of rough patches recently, but you know Buff. Once you've averted one Doomsday, there are still 364 days in the year." Spike nodded. After a moment, Xander queried, "Want me to give her some kind of message for you?"

"Would it actually get delivered?" Spike asked wryly.

"No," Xander answered honestly. "It just seemed polite to ask."

With a small chuckle, Spike said, "I actually sort of admire that about you, Harris."


"You tell the truth to your enemies… and you lie to your friends." Spike looked him in the eye, as though daring him to deny it. He didn't. "It's like that saying about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer. Then the only people you hurt are your enemies… unless your friends find out they've been lied to."

"My friends trust me with intelligence and their lives," Xander told him. "I don't betray their trust."

"Not usually, you mean," Spike amended. "People are betrayers by nature. One out of twelve apostles is a Judas. And Judas thought he was doing it for all of the right reasons. In a way, he was. So even in betrayal, he was still righteous."

"Didn't he hang himself?" Xander asked.

"If you believe the legends and the Jesus Christ Superstar version," Spike replied with a small frown. "But if you ascribe to the movie version of JCS, you also believed that Christ looked like Johnny Depp." After a moment, Spike added, "If you can avoid mentioning it, maybe it'd be better that the Slayer not know I'm alive. And that she not know that Angel's dead. It might confuse her little heart and break it all at the same time. I'm not in the business of breaking hearts."

"No," Xander concurred, "just necks."

With a smile, Spike mentioned, "I like to suck out the marrow when I'm done."

With a disgusted expression on his face, Xander said, "And on that note, I spy people food on the horizon."

Spike looked back as Marissa arrived with three small baskets filled with greasy food. "Okay," she said, putting the food down. "One blooming onion for each of you, and an order of mozzarella sticks for me. And since this place is too good for trays, I'll be right back with the drinks." Seeing no movement from either of them as she moved back, she mentioned, "Oh please, don't get up. I'm fine."

"Women's liberation," Spike informed her as he began picking his blooming onion apart. "You take the good with the bad, love." As Marissa rolled her eyes and went back to the counter, Spike remarked around a mouthful of fried onion, "They made these so much better at the Bronze."

"Too bad it's been disintegrated along with the rest of Sunnydale," Xander responded.

Reaching out and snatching one of Marissa's mozzarella sticks, Spike added, "But their cheese sticks are more than just halfway decent, at least." As Xander reached over and grabbed one himself, Spike swallowed his food and mentioned, "By the way, what's with the change of heart?"

"About what?" Xander asked before biting into a mozzarella stick. "Oh wow, these are good."

"Told you," Spike said. "About the pet names for your cousin. On the street you yelled at me for calling her 'love' and 'pet,' and I've called her both since we've sat down and you didn't bat an eye. Or rather, bat your eye, since you only have… never mind."

"You'd be surprised how many eye metaphors there are in this language, none of which get realized until after you've gone and gotten your eye poked out." As Marissa came back and placed the drinks on the table, Xander shrugged and said, "I probably said a lot of things when we were outside. I was kinda trying to wrap my mind around the fact that you were back from the dead."

"Whoa," Marissa stated as she sat down. "You… died?"

"Five years ago… and then some," Spike told her.

"See," Xander mentioned, "he's technically the reason that Sunnydale's nothing but a hole in the ground. He got turned to dust along with the rest of the town but then… uh… actually, I don't know but then."

"But then magic," Spike replied. "As so often is the case. I came back as a ghostie at first. Not so much fun."

"I'm missing mozzarella sticks," Marissa declared.

"I'm missing my change," Xander shot back. When Marissa put three nickels and two pennies on the table, Xander cried out, "That's either a blatant lie or highway robbery!"

"Or inflation," Marissa said. To Spike, she asked, "So why'd you destroy Sunnydale?"

"It wasn't me," Spike answered. "The amulet I was wearing… I didn't know what it would do. All I knew was that it had to be worn by a 'champion.'"

"I normally hate giving credit where credit is due to Spike," Xander interrupted, "but he did die saving the world."

"And he was brought back?" Marissa asked.

"Yeah," Xander answered.

"I thought that was Buffy."

"Different time," Spike replied. "We've all had our turn at saving the world. Even One-Eyed Joe managed it once, all by himself, too."

"You saved the world?" Marissa asked Xander, surprised. "When and how?"

"About a year before Sunnydale was destroyed," Xander replied. "See, Willow was about to destroy the world-"

"Willow? Willow Rosenberg?"

"Yeah, well, she went kinda nuts after her girlfriend got killed."

"Girl… Willow's a lesbian? I thought the two of you were…."

"Oh, no. Not officially, anyway. Not for any decent length of time. Unless you count kindergarten."

"Kindergarten?" Spike asked. "How you can sit there and say that with a straight face is beyond me."

"Anyway, how was Willow going to destroy the world?" Marissa asked.

"Magic," Xander replied.

"What, like bippidy-boppedy-boo magic?"

"I think the term they use most often is, 'So mote it be,'" Spike mentioned.

"Oh you haven't seen her," Xander gushed. "She doesn't even need words anymore. She can fly and absorb energy and teleport… all without going evil."

"Fair play to Red," Spike complimented, impressed.

"Waaaiiit a minute," Marissa broke in. "Willow Rosenberg's a witch?"

"Did you miss that memo?" Xander asked.

"And your friend Buffy is the original Slayer?"


"And Anya was a demon?"


Astonished, Marissa asked, "Where the hell did you meet these people?"

"Sunnydale. Next question, please."

Looking to Spike, she pointed at him and asked, "So what is he, like some kind of warlock or sorcerer or something? Is that how he was brought back to life?"

"You're not as perceptive as I had thought, then," Spike told her. "I thought I had dropped enough hints over the course of the night. Necks, pointy sticks, biting… although I suppose those things could just make me a fetishist."

During this conversation, Marissa was taking everything with a sort of humor. She had to look at this with humor, or else talking about people being brought back from the dead and preventing the world from utter destruction on more than one occasion would drive a person crazy. But as realization dawned on her face, the humor seeped out and was replaced with horror. Spike shot Xander a look when he realized that she wasn't going to take kindly to this. Turning to look at her cousin, she asked, "You're friends with a vampire?"

Opening and closing his mouth several times before responding, Xander grinned awkwardly. "'Friend' is such a strong word. I mean, besides, he's a good vampire." After a moment, he choked, "Oh man, I can't believe I just said that."

"You did, and she's my witness," Spike told him, pointing at the shocked girl.

"And you lived with him?" Marissa asked Xander.

"Shared living quarters for a brief period of time," Xander modified. "Always at the behest of the Buffster, since she was Spike's… friend."

"Spike's… friend?"

Looking at Spike now, Xander murmured, "Oh wow, is this getting awkward."

"Wait, I thought… I mean…" Marissa looked up at Spike and defensively held up a hand. "I mean, no offense, but…. I always thought vampire Slayers slay vampires. I didn't think vampire Slayers… became friends with vampires and oh my God what am I doing sitting down to eat with a vampire?!"

"If you're going to have a nervous breakdown," Spike said, "would you mind leaving your cheese sticks behind?"

"Here's a word of advice, Spike," Xander said. "If there's ever a prize given out for sensitivity, don't be too bummed if you don't even get an honorable mention."

"What?" Spike asked. "It was a simple question. If she's on her way out, I just wanted to know if she could be bothered to leave her food behind. I haven't eaten all night."

"Oh my God!" Marissa whispered harshly, clinging to Xander. "Xander, please take me home! Now!"

"Okay, okay," he told her soothingly as he got up. Looking to Spike, he said, "I'm staying with my parents until Thursday. The place is listed in the phone book under Tony Harris. That's where you can find me if you get your hands on more ideas concerning our ghost problem. Since there's food and alcohol here, I'm assuming this is the most likely bet if I want to track you down?"

"I'm here most nights," Spike agreed. "Are you going to leave your blooming onion?"

"Yes, fine, take the blooming onion!" Xander snapped.

As Xander pulled Marissa away, Spike overheard her saying, "God, Xander, you'd let him into your house?" Spike looked down. Just a few moments ago, she had been fascinated by the tale of how he had cheated death and saved the world. But now… well, now he was just another one of the monsters, no different from the thing that attacked her before he arrived on the scene.

Reaching into his inner jacket pocket, he got out his flask and tipped a generous amount of amber liquid into his Coke.

The problem with living in Woodridge was that there was nowhere else to go other than Neon.

As she waited for her physics paper to finish printing out, Marissa glanced at the time. It was a little past five in the evening. After her first direct vampire incident in six years the night before, she found that she was hesitant to be out of the house past sunset. She had called Xander, but his mother told her that he was out visiting some relatives in Holbrook and wasn't expected back until much later. As for staying home… that was never exactly an option

And so it was with a sense of dread that she put her schoolwork away and got dressed to go out. She almost considered putting on a relatively low-cut tank top beneath her jacket, but then remembered that Spike might be there. The thought of her pale yellow shirt being stained with blood was enough to make her rip it off and put on a thin black turtleneck. With her black jacket and black jeans, she looked like she was ready to go rob a bank.

It was stifling outside, but she didn't dare tug at the neck of her sweater or push her shoulder-length wavy hair into a ponytail. Xander had called Spike a "good" vampire. Do those things really exist? Sure. So do hobbits and unicorns.

Lost in her own thoughts, Marissa was surprised to suddenly find herself standing outside of Neon. The sky was starting to go overcast even though it was only five-thirty. It wouldn't be long before the vamps started walking the earth. Because let's face it: if she was attacked by a vampire moments before bumping into an old vampiric "friend" of Xander's, then there had to be more bloodsuckers in the neighborhood, right? And they could all just snatch you away while you're standing here wondering what to do next, she realized.

At that thought, she rushed inside. Since it was early on a Sunday evening, the club was quiet and still, with only a handful of patrons. The good news was that she knew none of them could be vampires, since the sun was still up. The bad news? One of the patrons was Robbie Wilson.

He was talking to two girls that she recognized from the campus, though she couldn't think of their names. Regardless, watching your ex having a good time with more than one member of the opposite sex less than twenty-four hours after breaking up with you was a less than enjoyable experience. She didn't think that he should be banned from having a good time, but he should at least have the decency not to do it in public.

Seeing Robbie turn his head in her direction, Marissa quickly turned away and walked towards the row of arcade games. He was going to follow her, she knew. He was going to walk over to her and… gloat? Ask how she's doing? She didn't know, but she knew that when she looked for his reflection on the gaming screen, she would see-

-him talking to the two girls. Again.

Recognizing that she hadn't changed since junior high, Marissa reached into her messenger bag and scooped out some spare change. She'd play video games. It was distracting… but not so distracting that she wouldn't be able to see Robbie's reflection every so often to see if he was looking.

It's not jealousy, she tried to convince herself as she inserted a quarter into the game slot. I just want to talk with him. He's been weird lately, and if we just air it out we can at least stay friends. I just need to catch him when he's not talking to a handful of other people. The fact that these "other people" happen to be girls with bodies more curvaceous than… than something really curvaceous has nothing to do with anything.

She was surprised to find that she actually did manage to believe in her own words. She played the ancient Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game and glanced up towards Robbie between the various levels. When she managed to beat the game, she headed to the next one, a knockoff variation of Nintendo's Duck Hunt that attempted to introduce a plot for leveling up. She could still see Robbie if she really tried, but her attempts at striking down the flitting fowl took up most of her attention. She stayed at that game for a long, long time, thinking about nothing else but gunning down pixilated poultry.

After what could have been hours, for all she knew, Marissa reached into the compartment in her bag where she kept her video game change. Finding it empty, she uttered a quiet, "Aw man." She had been only fifteen hundred points away from a high score. With another continuation, it would have been perfectly doable.

She was surprised to see an outstretched hand offer her a quarter from behind her. Looking back at the screen counting down the seconds until she could continue her game, she could see no one's reflection. Even before he spoke, Marissa knew that the person with the cracked black nail polish would have an English dialect. "I'd hate to see you break a winning streak, love."

Marissa hunched her shoulders, instinctively giving Spike less access to her neck. It seemed as though he picked up on her feelings quickly enough, since he stepped out from behind her and moved into her line of sight. "Give me some credit, will you? I was actually admiring your marksmanship, not staking claim to a prize. If you're out of ammo, I'm offering you some."

"No," Marissa told him, backing away from the game and defensively putting her hands up once again. "No, no thank you. I'm fine. I was just…. How long were you standing behind me?"

He seemed to consider the question before stating, "Long enough to see you glancing up past me every so often to get a gander at that chump you fancy. I know I told you to keep an eye on him, but that almost seems a little too conspicuous."

"A little too conspicuous?" Marissa asked, crossing her arms over her chest in an effort to diminish her surface area in every way possible. "Hi, you were the one who was standing right behind me and watching me watch someone else. How do you think that looked to the others, with you practically attached to my backside?"

"I almost gave you a loving pat," Spike informed her with a smile, "but I didn't know whether or not you were aiming on making the boy jealous. If you are, I'm sure we can arrange something."

"If my cousin were here, you wouldn't be so glib!" Marissa exclaimed.

"Where is Private Patch, anyhow?" Spike inquired, putting his quarter back in his pocket. "I gave him a ring at the homestead and I couldn't get a hold of him. He didn't make mention of having a social life, so I assume something terrible happened to him and I get to play with the remaining pieces."

"You're disgusting," Marissa told him.

"Up until a few years ago, I was a soulless killer that got his giggles from disemboweling the weak and puncturing the vital organs of the pious," Spike replied. "Over a century of that, and your sense of humor would fall into the realm of the macabre, too. Would you happen to know where I could find your relation or not?"

"He's out," Marissa replied. "Out of town."

"He told me he'd be here for a few days."

"He'll be back," Marissa clarified. "He's just out right now. And seriously, can you not ever stand behind me for any length of time without at least tapping me on the shoulder or something? I'm not going to have an easy time thinking you're one of the good guys if you-"

"Ex-squeeze, one o'clock," Spike interrupted. "We can improvise a passionate affair in ten seconds, if you're game." Forgetting about the possibility of Spike clamping down on her neck, Marissa straightened up and was about to turn around, but Spike's hand snaked out and grabbed her elbow. "Wrong move, pet," he whispered to her. "It'd be unwise to do anything brash. Trust me."

"How do you expect me to trust you?" Marissa countered.

"Hey Marissa," Robbie said from behind her. "What's going on?"

Though his voice was lighthearted enough, there was the faintest trace of suspicion behind it. Spike watched as the younger man gave him a guarded look while Marissa whirled around to face him. "Robbie! Hi! Um, nothing much. What's going on with you?"

"I'm talking about this guy," Robbie explained, tilting his head towards Spike. "It looked like he was bugging you, and he didn't exactly make a favorable impression on me yesterday, either."

"Oh, like I've got a reason to try and impress you, yeah?" Spike retorted. "I asked some questions, and the Human Brick here gets indignant and threatens to-"

"You're not much of a people person, are you?" Marissa asked, looking at him over her shoulder. To Robbie, she said, "It's fine. He's just… a friend of the family. Kinda."

"Former arch nemesis of the family," Spike brought up. "Working my way up to Ambivalent Acquaintance. If I happen to knock off a few of the family enemies, I might eventually earn the title of Associate, and the promotions work from there. You wouldn't happen to know any enemies of the Harris family, would you?"

"I swear to whichever God exists," Marissa hissed, "if you don't shut up and disappear, I'm going to sic Xander on you so fast you won't even have time to turn to dust."

"Xander, was that your cousin's name?" Robbie asked. "Brit Boy asked me last night, couldn't remember for the life of me. I thought it started with an A. If he's giving you trouble, I could get Louis from security and-"

"No!" Marissa blurted out. "No, security bad. We don't want security. Security might get hurt."

Surprised, Robbie looked at Spike and asked, "He'd hurt a security officer?"

"Only if it were a challenge," Spike replied with a smirk. "But don't mind me. I just came to ask the lady after her big bad cousin that she's going to call to beat me up." To Marissa, he said, "I'm going to get a few drinks in me. Give me a shout if you see the loser come by, would you, love?"

After the stranger walked away, Robbie looked down at Marissa. "'Love?'"

"Term of endearment," she answered.

"Yeah, I know," Robbie told her. "He just didn't come off as the endearing type. Must be some old-fashioned English manners that he can't get rid of or something."

"A few centuries old, probably," Marissa muttered. When Robbie gave her a quizzical glance, she shook her head. "Nothing. Forget it." They stood there staring at one another in silence. At last, she sighed, "Look, Robbie, I'm noticing you actually walked over here to talk to me, even if it was just because you thought some sniveling little Englishman was harassing me. Am I safe to assume that you don't… you don't hate me? I mean, I'm not asking for anything else, just-"

"Marissa," he replied. "I don't hate you. This was never about hate. Yeah, I said some really harsh things last night. I know that, and I'm sorry. But sometimes, the easiest way to not break a person's heart is to act like a gigantic ass."

Looking at him for a moment, she asked, "What's going on with you that you'd think you'd break my heart?" Seeing him look down, Marissa quickly added, "I mean, the whole 'vampire' comment I made was way out of line, but after what I saw in Sunnydale, you can't blame me for thinking that a complete change in someone's personality followed by them 'breaking ties' from people sounds just a little-"

"I know what it sounds like, okay?" Robbie broke in, glowering down at her. Marissa immediately shut her mouth. Though Robbie could be a little sharp, she had never had reason to worry that he may use his eight-inch height advantage against her. Seeing his light brown eyes practically flashing fire from his normally-placid face, she was suddenly very aware of how easily he could break her like a twig, whether or not she really was putting on weight. "It sounds like the type of thing you say when you're getting ready to disappear without a trace. The kind of thing you say before you shoot up a school and off yourself afterwards."

"Robbie, please," Marissa begged quietly. "I had a friend at Virginia Tech, you know that-"

"Then you should know what life is like," Robbie went on, trying unsuccessfully to be mindful of his voice. "Life isn't about being eternally scarred over one bad thing that happened to you. You can visit your traumas once in a while and quiver over vampires; it was actually kind of cute when we started dating. But I just woke up and opened my eyes. Life's about riding with the changes. You can't do that. And I don't think you ever will. So your 'vampire comment,' like you called it? Yeah, I thought it was out of line. But after the past four months, it's what I've come to expect from you. So you can look at this as-"

"I'm looking at this as an encore performance of you acting like a gigantic ass," came Spike's voice from behind the pair. Marissa and Robbie looked up, neither of them having seen him approach with what looked like a scotch in his hand. "If that's the case, then you must be right anxious not to break her heart. So if you don't want to do it, why don't you stop pratting about and get the hell out of town?"

Looking at Marissa, Robbie asked, "What the hell is this? Your self-appointed bodyguard?"

"Much as I wouldn't mind guarding her body," Spike replied, "I don't give a piss about her welfare in the least. I just had it figured that you were a halfway decent type, realizing something dark about yourself and buggering off before someone got hurt."

"Maybe you should take your own advice," Marissa told him disdainfully.

"What would you know about darkness?" Robbie muttered.

With a small smile, Spike answered, "More than you, that much I know. And I've done me some thinking after I had a few lonely drinks last night. I had thought that you only just became a new man, which accounted for you scrambling away from anything and everything that meant something to you. But then, how would you know exactly what was to come unless it had already happened?" Spike's smile widened as he could almost taste the suspicion and fear radiating off of the boy. Robbie knew that Spike knew. And now he was going to go crazy trying to figure out how he knew. Spike liked that idea.

"Second time in two nights that two guys have a conversation that goes way over my head," Marissa remarked, watching the two of them with growing concern. Looking at Spike, she concluded, "And I've noticed that in both cases, you're the one that turns my completely normal talk with someone into a coded message."

"Completely normal?" Spike asked, still looking at Robbie. "I don't think so. According to my gut, it's been a while since things have been completely normal on the home front for dear old Robert. Tell me, pet, how long were you and Hercules here dating before he politely asked you to shove off?"

Glancing at Robbie once again, Marissa answered, "Four months. Almost five."

"Practically a one night stand in the grand scheme of things," Spike mused. "But considering your age, that takes up a good chunk of your adult life. So I figure you thought you knew him quite well, yeah? Did he start going strange on you at any point in the relationship?"

"Marissa, what's this guy trying to prove?" Robbie questioned heatedly.

"Say, a month ago or so?" Spike pressed on.

Marissa opened her mouth slightly in surprise, seeing Robbie's cheeks flush in what could have been either anger or embarrassment. She still had no clue what Spike was getting at, but it was clear that he knew more about her ex than she did. "Rob? Robbie, what-"

"You'd better not say it," Robbie told Spike in a low rumble. "I don't know how you know, but trust me when I say that you don't want to go down this road."

"I thought I didn't," Spike agreed. "Like I said, I don't give a piss whether the pup gets hurt or not, and the same can be said for pretty much the rest of this pisshole of a town. But I don't much like the idea of somebody knowing full well that there's something he needs to do, and instead decides to try to make a thoroughly unnecessary scene by taking it out on somebody who's had to put up with enough of his crap. You've two days to disappear. So why don't you be a man while you've still got enough of that in you and sod off?"

Marissa cried out as Robbie lunged towards Spike, meaning to push him backwards. Anticipating the move, Spike easily dodged it and grabbed for Robbie's throat. In a single swift movement, he slammed the younger man down against the nearest table, making the couple sitting there jump out of their seats and join the rest of Neon's patronage in gaping at the spectacle.

"Spike, stop it!" Marissa called.

"If you're worried, why not call Louis from security?" Spike questioned with amusement.

"I'll do worse than that," Marissa threatened. "I'll call Xander. He'll get a Slayer on your ass so fast that-"

"Word to the wise, pet," Spike told her. "The entire world isn't as enamored with Slayers as you'd like to believe, nor do some of us quake in fear at the mention of your cousin. You're attracting undue attention, so you'd do well to call whoever it is you're going to call, since you should know better than to think you can stop me from snapping Junior's neck."

Not knowing what else to do, Marissa backed away and searched for her cell phone within her bag. "I swear," she uttered, "if I come back from talking to Xander and you've hurt him…."

"You'll do what, pet?"

"I'll rip out your heart and feed it to my dog, presuming you have one."

Surprised, Spike spared Marissa a glance. "My, my. So there is a grisly side to you. There's hope for you yet." He watched as she rushed off and took out her mobile, then turned his attention to the writhing boy he had pinned down.

"Oh stop your whining, will you?" Spike muttered. Finishing his drink, he put the glass on the table besides Robbie's head. "I'm not hurting you. Not yet, anyway. And if I am, you're weaker than the steroids make you seem." Lowering his voice and leaning in towards him, he continued, "I know that you're prone to heated outbursts at this stage in the game, but you'd do well to give up the hope of defeating your demons and just skip town. I've the distinct impression that bad things will be going down, and I'll be in a very bad mood for most of the coming days, if not weeks, if not months, and so on and so forth. So if I happen to spy you pissing about the neighborhood and doing things you shouldn't be doing, I'll feel right vindicated in giving you a beating."

"She can't know," Robbie wheezed, trying to pry the hand from his throat. "Please… I don't know who you are, but she can't know."

Raising an eyebrow, Spike asked, "The pup?"

"I don't… I'm not planning on leaving town," Robbie continued. "I just couldn't stay with her. I tried, but I knew that she'd find out. And if she did…. I can't let that happen. She'll never talk to me again. She'll never look at me. She might even try to kill me. I don't know. I don't know what she'd do. I don't want to know what she'll think of me if she finds out what I am."

Spike began to realize what was going on. "I see what this is. You're selfless enough to end your relationship, but you're too selfish to give her up completely." Closing his eyes, Robbie nodded. With a laugh, Spike released him, leaving the boy to roll onto his side into a coughing fit. "What a corker! And here I thought you were just a contemptible ass. Turns out that you're really a contemptible ass in love! You do realize that makes you infinitely more dangerous, don't you?"

"Damn right I'm dangerous," Robbie remarked, getting off the table and shooting Spike a smoldering glare. "I'm dangerous and I'm powerful, so it'd be stupid of you to go off and tell Marissa anything that could end up hurting her. You might not care if she gets hurt, but if she does, you'll be the one hurting."

"Your testosterone levels are embarrassing," Spike remarked. "I may have been willing to let you get up, but you've already forgotten how easy it was for me to make you go down in the first place. And while I'll give you points for putting up the illusion of going postal, I've got a very distinct advantage over you."

"Yeah?" Robbie scoffed. "And what's that?"

With a fairly patient smile, Spike replied, "My strength isn't dependent on the full moon."

Robbie narrowed his eyes at him. "So you really do know. I thought you were bluffing at first, but since you almost broke my back, I figured there was maybe something more to you." He glanced around the club. Seeing that most of the customers had calmed down and were now purposely avoiding his eyes, he looked back to Spike. "You're not like me," he said lowly. "And if you were a vampire, Marissa wouldn't be caught dead in the same room as you. So what is it? You some kind of demon?"

"We're all demons now, Robert," Spike answered, throwing into his voice something that sounded almost like compassion. Almost, but not quite. "Only thing that changes is how we manifest that demony part inside of us. As for the pup, it's a good thing she's not dead, then, is it?"

Robbie's eyes widened. "You mean you're a…? Does she know?"

"I only lie when it benefits me," Spike replied. "Or when it seems like fun."

"And she hasn't killed you?"

"That's what I'm led to believe, unless this is a craptastic excuse for a hell dimension."

"Huh," Robbie murmured, dumbfounded. Brushing himself off, he sat down on a nearby chair and asked, "I'm assuming you're using some kind of mind trick or something to keep her from flipping out. Don't you guys have some kind of telepathic abilities?"

"I'm a vampire, not a bloody Jedi," Spike replied disdainfully , sitting opposite him. "Trouble with your generation is that you're so caught up on that Dracula poofter that you think we're all sparkly pretty shinies covered in lace. At any rate, what's the deal with the Harris girl and vampires? She was getting on with me well enough until that little tidbit came up."

"Probably because vampires eat people," Robbie told him sarcastically.

"Not always," Spike responded. "The one that went after her last night didn't bite anything but the dust."

"Last night?" Robbie's face went serious. "Y-… you're kidding, right? There's no way Marissa could've been chased by a vampire and not be a mess right now."

"Hence my question," Spike said. "What is it about the bloodsuckers that've got her bothered? Bad childhood experience? Lost a friend?" When Robbie didn't answer, Spike became just a little frustrated. "Well, come on! You can't tell me you got in the girl's pants and you don't know why she gets the sweats at the mention of the 'v' word."

"That's none of your business!"

"What? Why she's afraid, or whether or not you got into her pants?"

Robbie was livid once again, but managed to contain it and stood up. "Why on Earth did I just sit at a table and think I could have a civil conversation with you? I saw Underworld; we're supposed to be sworn enemies because of an ancient blood feud-"

"Shut your stupid gob before I shut it for you!" Spike cried out, a little amazed that there were actually still people that dim in the world. "Are you really making assumptions about me based on some flick about a bunch of pale goths in tight leather?" Robbie said nothing, but gave Spike an evaluating look. Rolling his eyes, Spike said, "It's not my fault that I don't go for paisley, all right? And as for sunning myself, I'll give that a go as soon as you willingly take a silver bullet."

While it seemed as though he wanted to leave, Robbie held his ground. It looked to Spike as though the boy was resisting the urge to chew on his lower lip, as though he felt nervous about something. Finally Robbie asked, "So it's true, then? The whole silver bit?"

"Natch," Spike answered. "What, you were turned over a month ago and still have no clue what'll kill you?"

Lowering his voice, Robbie sat back down and breathed, "Well, sorry, but werewolves don't exactly do the whole 'sire' bit that you guys do. I didn't have somebody holding my hand to tell me what was true and what was Hollywood."

"My sire was off her trolley and I'll appreciate it if you never make me think of such things again," Spike told him, putting an appropriate amount of coldness in his voice. It worked well enough to make Robbie arch away from him, leaving Spike satisfied. "Anyway, you're going about this all wrong."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean you're no good isolated," Spike replied. "You're keeping some distant relationships from what I could see with you and those bits earlier, but you're breaking up with your main girl and I haven't even seen you give a nod to any blokes walking about, telling me that neither you nor the pup had much in the friend department. You think that backing away from the only people you mesh with is gonna save 'em? Don't back up; plough right out of the town, the state, the country, find yourself some backwoods corner of the world and either end it yourself or let the demon pass. Because all you're doing right now, sitting around and pretending life's normal, is putting people like Marissa Harris at risk. You stay here without having somebody to lock you up when the dog comes out, and all you're going to accomplish is increasing the probability of waking up with the taste of her entrails on your lips."

"Please," Robbie murmured with a flinch. "That's just… no. No, I don't want to do that. But are you telling me that I can't allow myself to be with people at all? That I've spent the past twenty-two years trying to make something out of myself for nothing? Why should I condemn myself to isolation just because I go haywire three days out of the month?"

"You make it sound like women's trouble," Spike remarked. "It's not just about mood swings and cramps; it's about the possibility of literally biting someone's head off."

"I don't see how that makes it much different from PMS, then," Robbie commented with a bitter laugh.

A corner of Spike's mouth arched upwards in a half-smile. "Congratulations. I actually found that mildly entertaining. A few more cracks like that, and I might be persuaded not to slam you against anymore tables. Walls are always an option, though."

"What the hell?" Spike and Robbie both turned at the sound of Marissa's voice. Her hand was in her bag, presumably because she had just put her phone away, and she was staring at the two men incredulously. "I went off to get help, and I come back to see that the two of you are practically sharing tea and crumpets?"

"A beer and a blooming onion would be more like it," Spike remarked.

"I could go for that," Robbie agreed.

"Flip you for the tab?" Spike challenged.

"I am so sick of this déjà vu!" Marissa exclaimed, a hand on her forehead as she railed from disbelief. "First it looked like Xander was ready to ram a fist through your mouth, then the two of you were sharing my mozzarella sticks and talking about the good old days. And now Robbie… ugh, just how do you do that?"

"By not being a people person," Spike responded wryly, taking out the quarter he had offered Marissa earlier. "When I act like an ass, it makes it all the more surprising when I show a smidge of heart. Which, by the way, I do indeed have. It just doesn't beat. Call it."

As he flicked the quarter in the air and Robbie chose heads, Marissa crossed her arms over her chest and looked down. "Right," she muttered. "And I had a dog to feed it to. It's just been dead for eight years."

Spike shot Marissa a quick glance before revealing the coin. Tails. "Maybe the pup's my good luck charm," he smiled as Robbie fished several bills from his pocket. "Second free meal I get because of her in as many nights."

"A blooming onion's no meal," Robbie stated. "Three thousand calories or no, that's just a snack that takes the quickest route down Heart Attack Alley. But then, I don't think you'd have to worry about that, since you're already dead and all, huh?"

"Oh God, you know?" Marissa whispered.

"Yeah," Robbie replied quietly as he rose to his feet. "It's only a fair exchange of information."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Nothing. What do you want?"

Reaching for Robbie's money, she told him, "I'll get it. Leave the two of you alone here to talk."

"What? No, I don't mind going-"

"Open your eyes, mate," Spike said, his eyes downcast as he played with his empty glass from before. "She doesn't much care if you and I become best buddies. Pup just doesn't want to be left alone with me." Raising his eyes to meet hers, he coyly asked, "Isn't that right, pet?"

Marissa didn't answer. Instead, she merely returned Spike's look with a dull one of her own before taking Robbie's money from his hand. Already backing away, she asked, "A blooming onion and a beer each, right?"

"They won't sell you beer," Robbie told her.

"I'll make them sell it to me."

Robbie watched as Marissa turned and walked away from them. Sitting back down, he wondered if Spike had personally done anything wrong or if it was simply a remnant from her past that made her act that way. Granted, Spike was more than a little prone to violence and being a sarcastic creep, but… there was something about him. Maybe it was only because they were both demons of a sort; they had some kind of strange kinship. He hoped that kinship wouldn't be reason enough to make Marissa abandon him forever.

"By God, you're a wreck!"

Robbie turned to look at Spike at his amused exclamation. "I thought I was love's bitch once upon a time, but you… something funny's going on with you. You could hardly stand to tear your eyes away from her. And even after all that rot about breaking up and the yelling and insulting and big to-do, you need to clench your hands into fists to keep from touching her."

"You damned vampires and your damned high perception," Robbie muttered.

"High perception my ass. I'm just not blind, deaf, and dumb." Watching Robbie run a hand through his chestnut-colored hair as he looked down, Spike sighed heavily and leaned back in his seat. "All right, let's have it."

"Have what?"

"The story," Spike replied. "'Once upon a time I was a big, strong, handsome boy living in Suburbia and I fell in love with the most perfect woman in all of creation, and then something happened that buggered it all up.' I can tell just by looking at you're that you're itching for a moment of self pity, so since I've nothing better to do while waiting for my food, pass it on. Maybe I'll learn something useful."

"Useful about what?"

"About why Woodridge is going to Hell."

"What, are you a televangelist vampire?"

"You've got a lot to learn about the demon culture you've inherited if you didn't know I meant that quite literally."

After a long, considering look, Robbie asked, "Are we all going to die?"

"When aren't we?"

"Is that why you wanted me out of town?"

Spike uttered a loud, amused laugh. "Don't be ridiculous. I don't give a rat's behind about whether you live or die. I just wanted us to be on the level. If you stick around here, you should look for someone to keep you locked up during the full moon. Because if your furry alter ego gets in the way of the mess that's to come, I'm not going to think twice about putting you to sleep before you get in my way. I don't like killing humans, but weres are a nice gray area."

"You don't… what?" Robbie asked, astounded. "You don't kill humans? But don't you kinda have that whole 'eternal life on the condition that you sustain it with the blood of the innocents' thing going on?"

"There are other avenues," Spike replied. "Pig's blood, for instance. Not my favorite, but it does the job."

"Pig's blood?" Robbie echoed. "Um… not that I'm at all complaining, but wouldn't it be a whole lot easier to just, y'know, slash open somebody's throat and drink from there? If nothing else, it's gotta be more cost effective, right?"

"If I really wanted to, I could whore myself out like other vamps do and get paid for drinking," Spike answered somewhat sourly. "Knew a bloke that went to a house of ill repute like that. It's not my scene. More so because once you get a taste of human blood, the thirst just gets stronger. Like your first beer after going on the wagon."

"There lies my confusion," Robbie told him. "Why are you so concerned about not drinking from humans?"

Spike remained silent for a long while. He could go over the story. Explain that he now had a soul, after undergoing several hours of brutal trials to regain it. Could explain why he chose to get his soul back, and go on to claim that he understands Robbie's plight, being a human soul sharing a body with a potential killer. But the boy might choose to draw enough parallels between their respective predicaments to consider themselves friends. Spike didn't want to be friends. So Robbie had told one halfway decent sexist joke; if that was all it took to build camaraderie, Spike may as well give up all of his self-respect and call Xander his best mate.

"Humans leave a funny taste in my mouth," he responded, truthfully enough. They did. They left him wanting more. And that left him with shame. Shame was not exactly the most pleasant spice for the taste buds.

He glanced up as Marissa approached with two beers. So she really did manage to make them sell her beer. And yet she didn't take advantage of the situation and buy one for herself. A non-drinker. Fan-bloody-tastic. "The food will be ready in a couple of minutes," she told them, putting the beers down. Sliding the change over towards Robbie, she dryly asked, "Bonding?"

"We're almost brothers," Robbie smirked sarcastically.

"A shame I prefer being an only child," Spike retorted.

As Marissa turned to head back towards the bar, Robbie reached out and took hold of her wrist. "Hey," he said gently, noticing her tensing up. "Why don't you stick around? They'll let you know when the food's ready."

"What happened to acting like a gigantic ass?" Marissa questioned.

"… we can go back to that some other time."

With a sharp laugh, Marissa countered, "You mean you're not going to stick to your guns? Out of line, but after the past four months, that's what I've come to expect from you." With that, she pulled away from him and went back to the bar, leaving Robbie to look at her dumbly.

With a relishing chuckle, Spike proclaimed, "Oh precious! This is better than watching Passions!"

Though Robbie shot him a dirty look, there was no real anger behind it. Wrapping a hand around his beer bottle, he rhetorically asked, "She does know, right? That I'm… I'm doing the right thing, in a way? It's what I wanted, for her to not care about me, but…."

"But it's hard to watch someone you care about not return the favor," Spike finished, suddenly solemn. "Especially when you know a large portion of it is your fault." As soon as Robbie met his eyes, he knew he shouldn't have said it.

"So that's it," Robbie remarked. "You fell in love with a human girl. That's why you don't drink from humans. You're still trying to prove that you're worthy of her."

"If I want to listen to this sort of trash," Spike replied, grabbing his beer, "I'll go speak to a psychiatrist. California's ripe with them. As I recall, I had asked you about your past. Stop being avoidant and tell me about the big and fuzzy that got you where you are, and do it quick. We don't want the pup overhearing, do we?" Taking a swig of beer, he hoped that Robbie wouldn't realize that one of the clearest signs of being avoidant was accusing someone else of the same crime.

With a small laugh, Robbie answered, "That's the joke of it; it wasn't a big and fuzzy so much as a small and fuzzy. When classes started up, the bookstore didn't have enough books for my psychology course, so I ended up sharing a textbook with my friend Jordy. One night I forgot that I needed the book, so I went over to his place without calling. I saw the cellar door open and knew that he practices with his band there sometimes, so I went down. And what do I see but some guy attempting to get what looked like a huge dog into a cage. The guy looks at me, and I guess I surprised him enough for the dog to get free of him. It bit him, he screamed, and then the dog came after me. It got me on the leg as I tried to head back out, and when I fell, I saw that there were suddenly two dogs prowling around. They started fighting with one another, and I used the time to get out of there. The next day, I see Jordy in class and told him what happened. He tells me, 'Oh yeah, I'm kinda a werewolf. But don't worry, I got it under control, so instead of the full moon, I turn when I'm angry or scared or something. My cousin and I got in a fight, and I guess it got out of hand, so you must've come down when he was trying to lock me in my cage.'"

Spike furrowed his brow, trying to understand. "He just… told you that he was a werewolf?"


"And explained that you walked in on some guy locking him in a cage?"


"And he didn't seem at all… concerned about this?"

"Well, he told me that I'd change for the three days of the full moon," Robbie explained, "and that I didn't have to worry, because his cousin was already a werewolf. He said I'd be able to talk to the cousin during the first day of the next full moon, since he usually comes back for a visit to make sure Jordy doesn't turn. He's not all too good with his 'lycanthropy discipline.'"

"Right then, that gives a new meaning to the term 'den of wolves,'" Spike brought up. "So you mean to say that you've let me rag you about going solitary when you know of at least two others of your kind in the neighborhood?"

"Being locked in a cage all night isn't exactly a barrel of laughs," Robbie explicated. "I got bitten on the second night of the full moon, so I spent the next night in Jordy's basement, listening to his God-awful music and eating Slim Jims that his mother brought down."

"His mo-? … his mum is completely all right with the fact that there was suddenly a humanoid wolf in her cellar?" As Robbie nodded, Spike hit upon another thought. "Hold on… how do you remember what you did while you were in wolf form?"

With a confused expression on his face, Robbie asked, "Is that not normal?"

"That's very not normal," Spike told him. "Far as I can suss out, a werewolf can't remember what he does during his transformed state anymore than he can control his actions." Noticing Robbie's silence, Spike made an annoyed sound. "For God's sake, were you able to control your actions?"

"I couldn't open most of the Slim Jims because my claws were too long," Robbie offered weakly. "I just thought that the homicidal urges would come with the next cycle. Y'know, like since I was new, the transformation didn't take right away."

"That's bollocks!" Spike declared. "Soon as you're bit, you're a werewolf. If you're bit at night during a full moon, you won't change until the next night, but once you change, you're gone. That's it. Nothing but a big, drooling, growling beast. If you even bothered eating your little processed meat sticks instead of the real thing, you certainly shouldn't have cared if they were wrapped in plastic."

He thought for a moment. This wasn't any of his concern. He wasn't in the business of assisting werewolves or idiotic college students. He was only sitting and having a drink with him and the pup to pass the time before Xander came around so they could talk about the interesting new development Spike discovered concerning the haunted cemeteries in town. But he couldn't rightfully turn a blind eye towards a trio of werewolves that actually had a certain degree of control over their transformations. At least one of them could control his actions while in wolf form, and the other two seemed to be able to control when they transformed. Without sentience, werewolves were just a huge pain in the whatchamacallit. But with those kinds of abilities…. Hadn't he just mentioned something to Xander the night before about not being able to handle the current situation as a "lone wolf?"

"I'll tell you what," Spike offered. "Tuesday's the first night of the full moon, and you're going to go over there to speak to your friend's cousin. Only you won't be doing any speaking. I'm going to lock you in his cellar and watch you myself, and see what happens. And while I'm at it, I'm going to talk to this Jordy and his relation and see if I can figure what it is that makes you different from the mindless hounds that skulk about when that time of the month comes around."

"You will?" Robbie asked, surprised. "Really? Why? Why go through that to try and help me?"

"You silly sod, I'm not trying to help you," Spike scoffed. "A werewolf who can restrain his transformation and remain in control of himself while in wolf form is essentially a super soldier. Speed, brute strength, agility… and you even come in a pack! And we've got a Big Bad pulling some nasty metaphysical strings. If it were up to me, Woodridge can disappear into a Hellmouth and I'll probably sleep all the better for it. But a Hellmouth as big as the one I'm seeing won't stop at Woodridge; it'll take the whole world with it. And say what you want about it, I've come to like this little rock. It's got buffalo wings and pornography. A man with eternal life can fare pretty well here."

Robbie tried his best to follow what Spike was saying, but he had never even heard of a Slayer, never mind a Hellmouth. "Sorry, buddy," he said, shaking his head. "The only bit of that rant that I actually understood was the part about buffalo wings and pornography. But if it means anything, I'm with you on both scores."

At that moment, Marissa returned to the table, a basket of blooming onion for each of them. "Buffalo wings and porn? I don't want to know, do I?"

"It's a guy thing," Spike responded.

Robbie glanced over at Marissa as she zipped up her jacket. "You're not staying? How come you didn't get something to eat?"

"Because, Rob," she replied without looking at him, "it was your money. And since I didn't win a coin toss or have a fair exchange of information with a vampire—whatever the hell that means—I'm not entitled to it. It's not like you're my boyfriend or anything."

"Hey," Robbie remarked, offended, "that's unfair."

Putting a hand up to keep him from rising, Marissa told him, "Don't get up. Really. Wouldn't want to interrupt the bonding time. Besides, the longer you two are chatting, the less I have to worry that he's going to miraculously appear behind me. You may continue your conversation about wings and boobs."

As she turned to leave, Spike called out, "Marissa." Though she stopped, she didn't turn around. "Where's Xander? I really should get around to talking to him and see if he can get his girls to help with our ongoing dilemma."

After a moment, Marissa replied, "No idea. Got his voicemail. I already got my share of his attention for this visit. Maybe I'll have an answer for that when he comes back for his dad's funeral, if his big plans let him come back at all."

It wasn't without a certain degree of interest that Spike watched her leave Neon.

Marissa didn't go home after leaving Robbie and Spike behind.

Home wasn't home most weekends until about midnight, when her mother was either passed out or too drunk to notice her existence. Before then, she'd most likely be sent to the nearest 7-Eleven with a five-dollar bill to scout for some cheap wine bottles several times over the course of the night, since her mother seems to believe that she'll never actually finish the next bottle her daughter will get. Marissa thought that it was terribly ironic that she had a fake ID at her mother's insistence, so she could keep her dear mum neck deep in alcohol without bothering the woman to get up.

Shuffling through the streets with one hand still in her bag, Marissa went through the numbers in her cell phone. Most of her friends had done the smart thing and moved as far away from Woodridge as they could the moment they were college-aged. The remaining few in her phone's memory were either working night shifts or already asleep so they could wake up at the crack of dawn for work the next day. Two of them were dead, but she just didn't have the heart to take them off her list.

Marissa put her phone away, trying to figure out what she could do for the next two hours before it was safe to go home. Frightened as she was of vampires, she knew what she had to do to deal with them. A stake through the heart was already proven to work, and she was sure dismemberment and fire would probably be fair options, if she had the time to prepare for that. But she couldn't really deal with her mother in the same way.

She had missed the last showing of the only movie she wanted to see by twenty minutes. Ice cream was a viable option, but she really shouldn't be spending any money on something that's just going to force her to buy a new plus-sized wardrobe. The playground was deserted even of the late-night skateboarders who practice their ollies off the benches.

After almost thirty minutes of wandering, Marissa found herself in front of the graveyard. She had been here just six months before, at Joe Pollock's burial. He had fallen down the stairs and broken his neck while his parents were out. Very sad. He had been three months younger than Marissa.

"Story of my life," Marissa murmured, standing before the open gates of the cemetery. "Make an effort to avoid vampires and I end up stumbling upon old ghosts." She was standing with her hands in her pockets, and suddenly became aware of how very chilly it had become. Feeling a tingle down her spine, she was about to turn away… until she caught sight of something white flit between two mausoleums.

"Pity you haven't managed to avoid anything," said Spike's voice from behind her.

Whirling around, Marissa was both startled and annoyed. "Are you a vampire or a ninja?"

"I've been to China, but never Japan, unfortunately," Spike said, walking to stand besides her and observe the cemetery grounds. "It would have probably been interesting to study some super secret martial art like ancient ninjutsu before the Internet made it so that any lazy sod could just download lessons from his computer. Might be better off, since I probably would have evolved into some legendary anime character or some such nonsense."

"Are you following me?"

"Would've asked the same of you, love," Spike replied, reaching into his pocket and withdrawing his cigarettes. "Just so happens, I have business here. You're not the Harris I would have asked to see here, either."

"Xander," Marissa realized, looking back at the graveyard. More ethereal white shapes have appeared amongst the stones. "Assuming that wasn't your way of saying you'd want to see him six feet under, I'm guessing this has something to do with what the two of you were talking about yesterday?"

"Spot on," Spike said. After lighting his cigarette, he looked back towards the eerie figures in the distance. "The world of the ghosties is coming in contact with ours. First I thought that it only posed two threats, but I found a third when I came back around last night."

"Is it because we're so close to Sunnydale?" Marissa asked, her hand in her bag once again.

"I'm no expert on the matter," Spike remarked, "which is why I was hoping to talk with the Cyclops again tonight, but yeah, I think it is. Lots of bad things going on, pet. I think you'd be better off inside."

"That's only because you don't know what's inside."

Spike cocked his head and gave her a sideways glance. "A girl who gets the shakes whenever vampires are involved doesn't usually scoff when someone tells her to go home after nightfall."

"I can handle vampires," Marissa said resolutely.

"Then what's at home that you can't handle?"

After a moment, Marissa tore her eyes away from the ghosts in the graveyard and angrily faced Spike. "What is this, a job interview or something?"

"Depends on what position you're interested in filling," he replied with a small smile. "As it stands, I just find you surprisingly evasive, considering how blunt your relation is."

"I'm not him."

"I've noticed; the breasts were a dead giveaway," came the response. "I doubt Patch has talked about me much, but the fact that he had a moment of weakness and actually referred to me as a good guy speaks volumes. He hates me every bit as much as I loved the Slayer, and probably because I loved the Slayer. But that doesn't change the fact that I did what was right by her, and I'm still doing what's right by the world. I'm not your enemy, pet. But I won't lie and pretend I'm your friend. If you don't feel like a case of the cuddles then I won't press. But if you shouldn't stay here and you won't go home, you should figure out what you're going to—…hold on."

Spike stopped his lecture long enough to glance between the low-hanging branches of a pair of willow trees. After a moment, he absently handed his cigarette to Marissa. "Hold my cig, darling. I think I've spotted something a bit more irritating than a Casper." He was about to start off, but turned to look at her. "Stay right there. Last thing I need is for you to get hurt and Patch deciding to get revenge on me by sending out a squadron of Slayers."

Marissa watched as Spike ran off towards the trees. She thought she could catch sight of a small shadowy figure running away from him, but she didn't pay attention. Spike was gone and, assuming he didn't have any kind of super senses that would help him track her, she'd be able to go to the neighborhood 7-Eleven and get a head start on buying booze for her mother. Dropping the cigarette on the ground and snuffing it out before moving to leave, she happened to look up.

And froze in place.

Floating by an elm tree several yards away, she saw a ghostly apparition solidify itself just enough so she could make out short red hair and strangely intense blue eyes. If it weren't for the uncharacteristically mournful expression on his face and the sharp, unnatural angle of his neck, she would have thought he was still alive. "Joe? Joe Pollock?"

Her former classmate watched her as she slowly made her way towards him. Spike had said to stay put, but these were ghosts. Not vampires or demons or anything. They were the spirits of people who, for some reason, couldn't rest. Maybe Joe had something that he needed to say, something that-

She let out a small cry as the ghost suddenly flew towards her. She stopped in her tracks and shuddered at the icy feel of him passing through her. Somehow, it felt as though he had slowed down as he phased through, as though he was having some difficulty passing through completely. Oh my God, what if he's trying to get inside me? What if he's going to posses me? What-

But he made it through, and Marissa fell backwards as though pushed back. As she fell to the ground, the night faded away and was replaced by an unfamiliar landscape. Wallpaper. Peach wallpaper. And instead of falling onto the grass and feeling the leaves crackle beneath her, she fell onto polished floorboards.

"You're worthless! You're nothing but a waste of space, you disrespectful bastard!"

Who was that? Who was yelling? She didn't know, and yet Marissa felt herself cry out, "Look who's talking, you abusive asshole!" That voice… it wasn't hers. But she recognized it. It was a corrupted version of the quiet, shy voice she'd hear behind her in her freshman year literature class. It was Joe Pollock's voice, and as she looked up, she realized that it was yelling up at his father.

"You don't know abuse. Not yet." With that, Marissa/Joe received a hard kick in the ribs and cried out. She tried to close her eyes, but Marissa suddenly knew that Joe hadn't. Joe had kept them open, because he was surprised when he felt the floor fall from beneath him. He hadn't known that he was that close to the stairs. He had only realized it seconds before his face smacked against one carpeted step. The last thing he had heard was the crack of his own neck.

Marissa hadn't realized that she had been shrieking until she suddenly felt as though her chest may explode if she didn't stop to breathe. Her eyes were squeezed shut and her hands thrown over her head, blocking her ears. She didn't know how long she had been like that by the time Spike returned and fell to his knees besides her, but she didn't stop even after she felt his presence.

"Marissa," Spike called. "Marissa, it's not real! Look at me, Marissa, it isn't real!" As she slowly quieted down due to lack of oxygen, Spike could hear the low, deep chuckling coming from the ghost who had attacked her.

"Laugh it up, dead boy," Spike warned, rising to his feet. "I hope you and your mates enjoy yourselves while you're here, because the welcome mat's going to be pulled soon enough. But let me tell you, there'll be none of this mucking about with anybody that I associate with, you hear me?"

In a voice that Marissa wouldn't have recognized even if she hadn't been hysterical, the spirit asked, "Really? And what'll you do to us if we don't listen? Kill us?"

"No," Spike countered. "I'll bring you back to life." The ghost tilted its head and offered Spike a curious glance, and Spike hoped that it wouldn't be able to tell that he was partially bluffing. "What? You think I won't? I've done it before. A friend lost her mum and I tried to help bring her back. From what I could tell, though, she came back wrong. You want to give up your freedom and become a mortal with a drooling problem, that's your business."

For a long time, nothing happened. Then, slowly, the spirit faded away from view. Spike figured that he had bluffed well enough to keep the pup from trouble if she was ever stupid enough to come back to the cemetery at night without any supervision. Glancing down, he saw that Marissa had raised herself to her hands and knees and was looking at the spot where the ghost of Joe Pollock once was. In a voice raspy from the screaming she had done, she asked, "How… how did you…?"

"Piece of advice, in case you should need it," he told her, grabbing her arm and helping her to her feet. "The worst threat you can make to a living man is to kill him. The worst threat you can make to a dead one is to bring him back to life. The good ones don't want to leave the place they wound up in, and the bad ones are always afraid they'll end up in some place worse."

"His father," Marissa gasped, hardly hearing a word he had said. "His father said that he came home and found him that way. I hugged him at Joe's funeral. I hugged the man that killed him. Oh my God!, I… I…."

"Dead men were never meant to tell tales, pet," Spike said with the slightest hint of sympathy in his voice. "It can drive the living ones insane. Which explains the third threat these specters pose. I had one hell of a time getting my head free of all of things these buggers shoved in there last night. Almost didn't have the sense to pull myself into a crypt before the sun came up."

Marissa pulled away from Spike, staggering a few steps in front of him. He realized that she still had one hand inside her bag, and he wondered what it was that she was holding onto. Glancing behind him, he saw a small cadre of ghosts staring at the two of them, and he moved to put a hand on her back to push her along. "It'd be a good idea to head out, as we're attracting some attention-"

She jolted at his touch and lurched forwards, putting some distance between the two of them. Turning to face him, she held her ground as her tearstained face examined him. "Stop it," she said shakily. "I don't want you touching me. I don't want you sending me off to go get food while you talk about the bad guys with my cousin or my ex. I don't want to be pushed and pulled into one safe house after the other. Joe and I had two classes together. He wasn't evil, he wasn't whatever you are. He was a good, quiet kid."

"It's always the quiet ones," Spike mused.

"Shut up!" Marissa screeched, effectively wiping the tiny smile that had been forming on Spike's lips. "He was a good kid. He was a normal kid. So whatever it is that's going on isn't about demons. It's affecting everybody and I want to know what it is."

"It's always affecting 'everybody,'" Spike replied. "It always affects someone's son or daughter or friend or landlady or some such thing. There's no way that it wouldn't. How could it be the end of the world if the world isn't affected? Whether it's demons, vampires, werewolves, or evil robots, someone's gotta be the victim, pet."

"Don't talk to me about victims!"

Spike was quiet for a moment before breaking out into a large, albeit mirthless, smile. "Ah, and here we get closer to the truth. So come on, pet. Tell dear old Spike what the trouble with vampires is. Are you covering up a scar a former flame left behind as a token, or did you have to dust your best friend in third grade because she grew a pair of fangs?"

"How can you be so callous?" Marissa cried.

"Hello, spent the better part of my life as evil."

"And you're not now?"

"No," Spike answered. "Let me tell you a quick story, pet, and let's see if you'll repay me in kind. Once there was a man who had his heart broken. While bemoaning his sorrows in the street one night, he caught a vampire's eye, she sired him, and he proceeded to wreak bloody havoc all across Europe and Asia, even making it into history books. Then at the turn of the most recent century, he came across a girl whose job it was to kill him. Vampire, meet Slayer. Slayer, meet vampire. And they did meet, and while the violence during every encounter was fantastic, one could never quite succeed in topping the other. Then came one fateful night when one decided he wanted to top the other—'top' taking on quite a different meaning."

"Oh God," Marissa remarked, disgusted.

"It's bad manners to interrupt," Spike told her. "So the vampire did everything he could to prove to the Slayer that he actually did love her. And the Slayer replied that he was a soulless monster, incapable of love. Right, then. Only one way to solve this conundrum. Endure unspeakable torture at the hands of a demonic shaman and win back his soul."

Marissa's expression changed somehow, but saying that it softened would have been overstating the facts. At any rate, Spike continued, "Thing is, no one told the vampire what happens when you get your soul back. You understand about morality. You understand about guilt. You look at your past and you don't see triumphant exploits; you see victims. And the centuries of torture you dished out suddenly falls on your shoulders in those few seconds while you come back home, leaving that pain inside of you for the rest of your unnatural life." Looking at Marissa with a sad sort of humor in his eyes, he finished, "And yet she still didn't love him. It's cruel that a heart that can't beat can still break, even after more than a century of disuse."

"That's not cruel," Marissa replied blankly. "You think that just because you have a soul, you're not evil? What about the pedophiles and rapists of the world? What about Joe Pollock's dad? A soul doesn't make them better than the average vampire, and it doesn't make you any better than them either. You thirst for blood and you've got a vicious streak in you, and from what I saw with Robbie you're a whole lot stronger than a guy your size should be. So you know what's right and wrong, congrats. It doesn't mean that you can't choose what's wrong. It doesn't mean that you can't snap. And someone who can do the things you can do is going to cause one hell of a row when you finally do snap. Buffy wasn't cruel not to love you. She was just being conscientious."

After a beat, Spike asked, "Conscientious?"

"It means careful."

"Yeah, I know what it means," Spike shot back. "I'll never be called the brains of an operation, but my vocabulary's fairly extensive. Look, I didn't tell you that story so you could spit on it and tell me that I'm still a monster, just an ensouled one. I told it to you thinking that maybe you'd feel a little more comfortable with the fact that you're more like than not going to see a lot of me in the coming weeks."

"What do you mean?"

"If I told you, I'd be betraying someone's trust," Spike told her. "While you might not expect me to care, I can understand why some secrets exist and can hold out on spilling them—at least until I have reason to. All I'll say is that I'm going to be in town for a while, and it looks like some of your friends might become my… well, certainly not my friends, but I'm going to be having some business with them."

"You are not dragging Robbie down in whatever it is you're planning to do!"

"Wouldn't dream of asking Hercules to help me save the world. I deserve the sole credit for it at least once."

"Things like you don't save the world; you're the reason it's falling apart."

"Actually, the world got along just fine when it was filled with nothing but demons," Spike responded. "Then humans came along and brought organized religion, lawyers, and street hockey with them. Anytime the demons try to take their world back, you immediately classify it as evil, and good guys like me are expected to stop it. Personally, not my concern if you or Patch or anyone gets taken out; I'd just like to be certain I live to watch another dog race. Since I'm one of the few aligned with the forces of good that's got enough power to stop the other guys, I might as well enjoy the bone-crunching, hair-pulling action."

Marissa didn't know how to respond. She was no expert on demonology or theology, but it was to her understanding that the world started out with a couple of people named Adam and Eve, and she never heard of either of them being demons. Her right hand was starting to hurt, and she realized that she was still gripping something tightly within her bag. "You just don't get it," Marissa said at last. "It doesn't matter how things started out. This is our world now. My world. The humans own it, and the demons don't get that possession is nine-tenths of the law."

"See, that's what I meant when I said you brought lawyers into the picture," Spike remarked. "If you think I'm evil, you clearly never heard of a firm called Wolfram and Hart."

"We're all a little evil," Marissa told him. "Either through action or inaction. I'm tired of inaction." That said, she finally withdrew what she had been holding in her bag. Spike was surprised to see that it was a tree branch that looked like it had been fashioned into an impromptu stake.

"Well now," Spike said laughingly, looking her in the eye. "Looking for some artillery, were we? I thought it shouldn't take you that long to leave Patch a message. Trying to find something that would take me out if a single hair was missing from Hercules' head?"

Holding the stake up, Marissa admitted, "I was actually half-willing to allow that Robbie would be dead by the time I got back. I guess that says a bit for my own morality."

"It says you're as obsessed with your vendetta as some of us may be about our own redemption," Spike observed. "If you're going to run me through, shouldn't I at least know why? Whose crime am I paying for?"

It took Marissa a very, very long time before she managed to choke out, "When I was thirteen, a vamp killed my little brother."

"Bum deal," Spike commiserated. After a second's thought, he asked, "So why hasn't Xander ever made mention about losing kin to a vampire?"

"Because he doesn't know," Marissa answered. "No one knows."

"And no one suspected anything when Junior didn't show up to family reunions?"

"He wasn't born yet," Marissa whispered. Spike noticed that the hand grasping the makeshift stake was trembling. "My mom's boyfriend died, and a few weeks later she found out she was pregnant. I watched from the living room window as she came walking down the street with a box of pizza one night… and the next thing I knew, she dropped the box and there was someone behind her and there was blood dripping down her throat."

After a moment, Spike concluded, "And so you think the best way to get back at the git that got away with snacking on your mum is to do to me what you should've done to him."

"You're half-right," Marissa said. "He didn't get away. A girl came up behind him and did something—staked him, most likely—and he turned to dust. She grabbed my mom before she could fall on the ground and called the cops from her cell phone, then disappeared just before they got there."

"Slayer," Spike murmured.

"That's what I've thought ever since Xander told me about Buffy," Marissa affirmed. "And the whole time, I didn't move or think or speak. I just stayed at my window and watched the whole thing. I saw Buffy look up at me, and she looked so… disappointed. Like she knew that I was that pregnant woman's daughter and I just couldn't force myself to do anything. If it hadn't been for her, my mother would have died. Instead, the blood loss just brought on a miscarriage… and my mom took to drinking. She lost her boyfriend and the last piece of him that was inside her, and I lost my mom. Because of a vampire she went through the worst kind of death, and that's the kind where you survive long enough to not have a reason to keep living."

Spike pursed his lips, going over this new information. He wanted to glance back to see if they were in danger from any of the ghosts, but he didn't think it was smart to take his eyes off of the girl. Irrational as she might be, that's part of what made her fun.

"That's a very sad story," Spike remarked. "Really and truly. Unfortunately, it fell upon ears every bit as deaf as the ones my own fell on. I'm not going to coddle you, pet. I only feel as sorry for you as I do for any of the other people who lost their families because of creatures like me."

"Then how can you claim a soul makes you better?" Marissa cried out. She rushed towards Spike with the stake, and was surprised by how suddenly a set of powerful hands grabbed her in defense. Her eyes widened at the sight of Spike's vamp-face and, feeling one hand at her throat and another at her wrist to keep the stake away, she was certain he was going to break her wrist and tear our her windpipe. The image of her ghost spending time with Joe Pollock's with their necks bent at similar angles terrified her more than she cared to admit.

"I know precisely what you're thinking," Spike proclaimed, his yellow eyes glaring down at her coldly. "You're wondering what witty one-liner I'll throw at you before going down on your neck and having myself a little treat. Or worse, that maybe I'll turn you into a vampire, so you can live through the worst kind of death. Know what my rite of passage into this dark world was, sweetheart? I offed my own mum. Twice. Turned her, then staked her. That's the first thing most vamps do as soon as their baby teeth grow out. Kill off their families, and then go do the same to total strangers."

With a hard push, he shoved her backwards, causing her to yelp. "But I don't do that," he went on. "Not anymore. And it's got nothing to do with Slayers or pulled heartstrings or any of that bollocks. I have a soul, and that soul is what separates me from the thing that went after your mum. That soul is what made Buffy believe in me, call me a champion. And it's the same kind of soul that's working inside you right now, making you feel like absolute dirt because you couldn't do anything to save your mum or your unborn brother. You were a child. Your head knew that there was nothing you could do except get yourself killed along with the rest of your family. But your soul's the part of you that replays the thing over and over, believing like a fool that it could've done something to stop it."

"And now I can," Marissa told him harshly, raising the stake once again.

With a patronizing smile, Spike remarked, "You're not a Slayer, love."

"No," she agreed. "But I have a pointy stick. All it takes is a clear path to your heart."

Spike thought it over for a moment. He had no doubt whatsoever that, if it came down to it, he'd kill her before she could land a single blow. But he had also lived long enough to know that she was right; all it took was one slip, and he'd be only so many ashes riding on the breeze. It sounded like a gamble. It sounded like fun. "Right then," he finally told her. "Let's have it."

"What?" Marissa asked, surprised.

"It's what you want, yeah?" Spike queried, taking off his jacket and laying it on a nearby tombstone. "You want to see if you can do it. See what it's really like to fight vampires, if you'd be able to take them down. That's not all, I bet. I think part of you knows that I won't kill you, so you'll be fighting with a safety net."

"You won't kill me because you won't get the chance," Marissa scowled.

"I won't kill you because I haven't killed a human in a long time," Spike told her. "Haven't done anyone in at all for at least… I dunno… weeks."

"Weeks?" Marissa asked, aghast.

"Maybe months," Spike recounted. "I can't recall if that one guy in San Francisco actually died."

"You went a couple of months without killing humans, and you claim you have a soul?"

"Hey," Spike pouted, "my soul was better than theirs, if you get my drift. Bad, bad people. I suspect one was actually a very nicely-dressed demon, considering her appetite for infants. Besides, we're talking about July and August. Those are a couple of pretty long months."

With something that actually sounded akin to a growl, Marissa lunged for him with the stake. He easily sidestepped it with a laugh. "Now that's it! Step into the ring and let's see if Xander Harris' brood is worth her salt!"

"This isn't about Xander," she cried, once again swiping and missing with the stake. "This is about me!" Seeing him arch to one side to dodge her next move with the stake, Marissa caught him off-guard with a kick to the gut. He doubled over, but still managed to grab her stake arm and swing her away so he could right himself.

"Funny," Spike mentioned, approaching her slowly. As he spoke, she continued to charge at him to no avail. "Patch would say the same thing. Everything was all about Buffy, Buffy, Buffy. Then the witch lost her bird and fell 'round the bend, and it was all Willow, Willow, Willow. And eventually, a certain vampire got his soul back and got in good with the Slayer, and it was all about me. But none of us wanted that attention. We just did what we could to square with it. And there was your cousin, caught up on how he's a pathetic little man with nothing to offer. How far did the fruit fall, I wonder?"

With a loud yell, Marissa angrily punched him hard in the face. Spike blinked down at her, surprised by the sting. She was breathing hard, her dark constricting clothes obviously not helping her any. In her angry eyes, he could actually see the family resemblance to Xander. Maybe he wouldn't have been so ugly if he had more genes in common with the pup. With a smirk, Spike pulled his fist back and returned the punch, sending Marissa to the ground.

She landed hard on her right shoulder, and her hair covered the left cheek that Spike had just done a number on. Putting a hand to the injury, Marissa found it excruciatingly tender. Moving her tongue around in her mouth, she discovered that no teeth had been knocked loose. Glaring up at Spike, she put on a brave front as she stated, "You're holding back."

"Yes I am," Spike replied. "And you're not. Which one of us is the worse for wear?"

Marissa glanced down at the fist she had hit Spike with. Her knuckles were bleeding. She couldn't even throw a punch, must less take one. Still, she pushed herself up onto her feet and said, "If we're judging by looks alone, the answer will always be you."

"What, my true face doesn't tickle your fancy?" Spike chuckled. "It could be worse. Must be hard looking in the mirror and seeing the mediocrity of your cousin reflected in your features, eh?"

Charging him once more, she asked, "Do you have some kind of fixation on Xander?"

"Rules of engagement," Spike answered, countering her moves. "Point out your opponent's weaknesses. And from what I've been able to see since I've met him about ten years ago, it looks like your biggest weakness is being a Harris. Doesn't seem like they amount to anything."

As she stumbled to the ground, Marissa's right foot went out and hooked Spike's. With a pull, she sent him flying to the ground. Reaffirming her grip around the stake, she lunged towards him. Atop of him, she grasped his shoulder with one hand and sent the stake crashing down… or tried to, at least. He managed to stop it hardly an inch above his chest. With a look into his demonic face, Marissa found that he was thoroughly amused.

"And that's that," Spike snorted conclusively. "There's your weakness. You're not aiming for revenge. You're aspiring to be like your remedial relation. There's a part of you that worships the ground Xander Harris walks on, and it just kills you. You were the one who had your life ruined by a vamp, so why is it that he gets to take charge of an operation that dedicates itself to exterminating them?"

"You're wrong," Marissa breathed with tears in her eyes.

"Am I?" Spike gloated. "Funny. I've been wrong before, but it usually doesn't result in a cry-fest."

With an anguished sound, Marissa stared at his chest and tried once again to get the stake to pierce his skin. She succeeded in touching the tip to Spike's shirt, and that was only because he let her. "Marissa," he said quietly. "Look at me." Pulling her eyes away from the stake, she looked up at him. His vamp-face was gone, as was all of his infuriating haughtiness. If not for the cold hand holding her wrist back with supernatural strength, she would have almost thought he was human.

"Until you know exactly why you're fighting and can embrace it without fuss," he told her, "you're not going to be much of a fighter. You're either fighting now to make up for the fighting you couldn't do to save your brother, or you're fighting to prove to Xander that you deserve some sort of rank in his little Slayer army, even if only as a secretary. One's not a more valid point than the other. You've just got to figure out which one's more genuine."

Swallowing back the tears that hadn't yet fallen, Marissa let go of the stake. When it fell, Spike let go of her and brushed the stake away with his arm, just to be on the safe side. Understandably exhausted, she slipped away from Spike and hunched over on the ground. If he wanted to kill her, he'd do it. If he wasn't, then she might as well take the moment to cradle her wounds and snivel over them.

Climbing to his feet, Spike watched her as she did a damned good job of keeping the tears in. They had had a little fun without attracting the attention of the ghosts or anything that might have found its way back via the spirit world, and they had both survived. All in all, it had been a good night, and now it was the pup's bedtime.

After putting his trench coat back on, Spike looked at the poor excuse for a stake lying discarded on the ground. Giving it a quick thought, he picked it up, walked towards Marissa, and offered it to her. Feeling his presence, she looked up and saw him holding it out to her. "You should fashion a better one," he mentioned as she slowly took it. "Still, it's better protection against the beasties than nothing, I suppose."

Once the stake was out of his hands, he considered the matter over for the night. Trusting that she wouldn't be able to clamber to her feet in a last-ditch effort to off him, he turned around and headed in the direction of the crypt in which he had set up house. "Spike."

At the mention of his name, he stopped. "What is it, pet?" When she didn't answer, Spike turned to look at her. She had gotten to her feet, and it looked as though she was staring numbly down at the piece of wood in her hands. After several moments of silence, she finally looked up at him.

"Teach me how to kill you."

Things weren't looking so good for the diminutive vengeance demon known as Sadrahd.

Splashing through the sewers, the timid creature that stood at nearly five feet tall ran through tunnel after tunnel. It wasn't until he thought his lungs might collapsed that he finally stopped and realized that he was no longer being chased. Since he was mostly to the lair anyway, he decided that no one would be the wiser if his exhaustion got the better of him and he just crawled the rest of the way.

He flinched once he entered the sealed burrow and heard an all-too familiar voice screech out, "Oh ick, Rahd, what did I tell you about dragging in all of that gross… grossness? Do you have any idea how hard it is to get a maid down here?"

"S-s-sorry," Sadrahd said. "Sorry, but I, ah, had some trouble up there. One of your k-kind, I believe."

"Quit your stuttering," she commanded, getting up from her chaise lounge and pointing a nail file at him. "You sound like Porky Pig. I didn't send you up there as fast food for some second-rate vamp. I sent you up there-"

"For S-Spike, I know."

"…did you just interrupt me?!"

"G-g-get off your high horse, w-woman," Sadrahd snapped, wishing now more than ever that he could make his own wishes come true and be rid of his speech impediment. As though his size wasn't unimposing enough. "W-we're not master and s-servant, you know. I w-was just looking after my business, and it j-just, and it just so happened that we might kill t-two birds with one s-stone."

"As though digging through your stutters weren't bad enough," she bemoaned, sitting back down, "now you're using similes. I hate similes. They look like 'smiles' with an extra 'i' thrown in for no good reason."

"A-actually," Sadrahd corrected dryly, "it was a m-m-meta-metaphor. A metaphor. A simile uses the words 'like' or 'as,' which c-c-constitutes most of what you say." He moved towards the chaise lounge, trying to catch his breath and get over his recent scare. If he could calm down and concentrate, maybe he could reduce his stuttering and actually have one mostly painless conversation with her. "Th-the Harris girl. You know, my end of the b-bargain. I was following her, and I f-found out th-that she's, that she's-"

"That she's what, doofus?"

"That she's friends with Spike!" Sadrahd got out.

She stopped filing her nails and actually looked him in the eye. As much as he was loath to admit it, she was actually quite beautiful. He probably could go through various other routes to get his personal revenge on the Harris family, but a team-up with a gorgeous blonde could never hurt.

"Your stupid little human girl that you're trying to get vengeance on is actually friends with Spike?" She threw her head back and laughed. Sadrahd could tell that she was very, very pleased by the way she actually dropped her file.

"Actually, it's her cousin that-"

"I must be like the luckiest girl in the whole world," she interrupted, lost in her reverie. "Not only have I tracked down Spike, but I'll be making one of Buffy's best friends totally miserable when he sees what I've done to his family!"

Sadrahd was about to point out her various infuriating uses of the word "I" when it should be "we," but the words died on his lips when she ran her milky-white fingers through his curly dark hair. "And I've got you to thank, Rahddy-kins," she purred. "If it wasn't for cute little you being all sneaky and stuff, I would've been… doing something… different from what I'm doing now."

"Think n-nothing of it," he crooned. Trying to get his head on straight, he became rather business-like as he continued, "J-just remember, I'll cast whatever c-curse you want me to cast on S-Spike as soon as you do something suitably t-terrible to Marissa Harris."

"Oh yeah, duh, no prob," she told him with a wave of her hand. "I never liked Xander anyway."

Sadrahd nodded. Usually, exacting one's own vengeance on an entire family was like pulling teeth. It was rare to find one person who had enough of a grudge against every family member to get them to wish harm on all of them, so he would often have to go through various people to get the whole job done. On the plus side, he had managed to come across a human who loathed Tony Harris enough to wish for his drinking to catch up to him. Mrs. Harris should be pleased by the results. A shame he needed to find someone to wish a similar affliction on her. Perhaps he should speak to Tony about that.

After Xander had come back to town, it was simply a matter of cataloguing his movements. The first relative he visited after his parents had been his aunt, and Sadrahd had witnessed the heart-to-heart conversation he had with his younger cousin after rescuing her from a vampire. Heading back to the lair before he could be spotted, he decided that Marissa Harris would be his next target. Thankfully, he had recently come across a vampire with enough petty maliciousness to wish harm upon anyone for any reason, so long as she ultimately got her way.

And now that they discovered that her intended target was actually a friend of his intended target, this made the task so much easier! Rubbing his hands together as he thought of all of the possible horrors he could inflict on Marissa and Spike, Sadrahd said, "G-great. Now what's the plan?"


"The plan for the Harris girl."

"I didn't know we had to have a plan," she responded, confused. "I mean, can't I just wish her into a toad or something so we can get straight to Spike?"

Sadrahd gaped up at her. "Are you crazy? Our different t-t-targets can potentially become the same target. Your little Spikey-poo is still trying to be a hero; my girl is set on proving him to be the villain. Think of the intrigue, treachery, pain… the f-fun!"

She seemed to consider the idea for a long time. "Planning things is so boring," she lamented as she rose to her feet and crossed her arms over her chest. "It'd be so much more fun if they just popped up in here and I could wish different kinds of tortures on them. Can't I do that?"

"Y-you know the rules," Sadrahd said, although he doubted very much that anyone had bothered to teach her the rules by which vengeance demons abide. "I c-c-can grant you more than one wish, but the m-magic gets unstable after a while. And people s-start to notice. My superiors have already r-r-reprimanded me for getting too personally involved in my curses."

She thought about it again, then finally shrugged. "Yeah, maybe one big thing will be a whole lot of fun. But it's gotta be really good. Good enough to hurt them both at the same—oh! That's what you meant by two birds with one stone!" Sadrahd flinched. What happened to the girls who were both pretty and intelligent? He knew they existed in the seventeenth century, but he couldn't remember meeting one since. "Yeah," she continued. "Yeah, this'll be great. We can stay up all day drawing plans and making evil plots. I mean, there's no rush. It's not like the world's gonna end, you know?"

Blissfully unaware of the irony in her statement, Harmony Kendall beamed with excitement.