Author's Note: This chapter ended up being much longer than I anticipated, forcing me to break it up into two chapters to be able to upload it. So I'd recommend reading the next chapter along with this one, since they're part of the same "episode."

I introduce various theories on lycanthropy in here, which has always been of great interest to me. I hope it comes off as an enjoyable read and not just a bunch of confusing demonology stuff (because that would make me more fit to write a series about Giles instead of Spike). At any rate, read, review, and most importantly: enjoy!

No need for comfort, no need for light
I am hunting down demons tonight
Eat the terror, lick the spark
Uh-oh, my blood beats dark

-"Bloodbeat" by Patrick Wolf

"You move like a corpse."

"Don't mock the dead," Spike replied, regaining his balance after Marissa's fist clipped him on the shoulder. "You should know better than that. You should also know not to waste your breath and energy on pointless taunts."

Dodging a lunge from the vampire, Marissa breathed, "If my taunts bother you enough for you to make a slip, then they're not pointless. You taught me that yourself." With that, she pivoted behind him and connected her elbow with his spine, causing him to fall flat on the floor. "Funny. I would've thought a few centuries of being a bloodthirsty killer would've given you a little something called skill."

"Stop adding onto my age," Spike murmured after flipping back onto his feet and facing her. "I've told you, it's only been one century and a few decades. Might not put me in league with Lestat and the other poofters, but it's more than enough to help me teach you a lesson." Feinting a left, Spike counteracted her movement, slipped behind her, and wrapped his arms around her, effectively pinning Marissa's arms to her side. "Of course," he whispered into her ear with a smirk, "that all depends on what kind of lesson you'd like to be taught."

Disgusted, Marissa slammed her heel down onto Spike's foot. His grip loosened only enough for her to spin around and grab his throat. She knew by now that she wasn't cutting off his air supply, so she'd have to hope to cause enough pain to blindside him. Pressing her nails into his flesh, she pushed him backwards and brought up the stake she had in her other hand. "School's out, Spike," she told him as she struck him.

Spike's face contorted with pain as he let out a loud yell. Looking down at the stake protruding from his chest, it was all he could do to blink at it disbelievingly. Glancing back up at Marissa, he shouted, "You little bitch!" Though it caused him even more pain, he punched her hard enough in the stomach to knock the wind out of her, causing her to release him. Gently touching the stake, he hissed, "Augh! That hurts."

After a few coughs, Marissa looked up at him. One arm draped over her stomach, she grunted, "Well, yeah. What'd you expect it to feel like?"

"Whoever thinks penetration is pleasurable is barking mad," Spike attested. Steeling himself for the sting, Spike took hold of the stake and yanked it out. "Oh bugger-!" His voice trailed off into a long groan, as he was determined not to make a big deal out of it. "I knew there was a reason we decided against using wooden stakes."

"I don't know," Marissa remarked, slowly righting herself. "The plastic ones deprive me of the pleasure of watching you shrivel up and die. But it's nice to know that you've got enough faith in me to know that I'd eventually get you in the heart."

"Eventually?" Spike muttered, tossing the stake onto the floor. Moving towards a beaten-up sofa he had dragged into his large mausoleum, he dropped down onto it as he said, "It's only been two nights. One and a half, really. You're reacting to years of hatred, pet. While that's got its disadvantages, I'm not stupid enough to believe that you wouldn't get lucky."

"That wasn't getting lucky," Marissa responded as she stooped down and picked up the discarded stake. The blow to her stomach had been harder than she would want Spike to believe, so she pretended that she had meant to collapse onto the floor when her abdominal muscles gave out. She could almost hear Spike's smirk, and so she acted as though she found the cold dusty floor rather comfortable and lay down, looking up at the dim ceiling. "I distracted you with pain and acted faster than you could react. If I really wanted to kill you, I could."

"If you really wanted to kill me," Spike told her as he took off his black t-shirt, "you'd keep your master plan to yourself until you were ready to do the deed. Never let an enemy know more than he should. That can be the difference between life and death."

Marissa considered his words as she folded her arms under her head. She was horribly sore, covered in graveyard dirt and crypt dust and cobwebs, and was fairly certain that the long gash she received on her right forearm deserved a set of stitches. Still, she considered tonight a success. Her short skirmish with Spike the night before gave her a strange sort of purpose. And tonight, after what couldn't have been more than a couple of hours of fighting, she actually fulfilled that purpose. Had the stake in her hand been made of wood instead of plastic, she would have succeeded in killing a vampire. And not just any vampire, but a vampire from the history books. A vampire that the Slayer herself couldn't get the better of. She had the ability to completely dust a legendary-

"Right then," Spike remarked as he rose to his feet. "Now that warm-up's over, let's get started."

Gawking up at him, Marissa blurted out, "What?!" Seeing him shirtless, she saw the angry wound on his pale chest, still dripping blood. "Are you kidding me? That was no warm-up. You've got a hole through your chest, okay?"

"What, this?" Spike asked, glancing down at the injury. "It's only a flesh wound."

"Don't get all Monty Python on me."

"Oh please," Spike scoffed. "A hit this size is about the same to me as a paper cut is to you. It'll sting a little and slow me down, but I'll count that as a handicap. Now are you ready to begin or not?" Seeing that she could hardly sit up, he went towards her bag that she had laid on a nearby table and rifled through it. Taking out her cell phone, he looked at the time and sighed, "Oh, for-...! It's hardly nine o'clock. Don't tell me you're exhausted already?"

"Who's exhausted?" Marissa asked, stumbling onto her feet. "I mean, I just lay down because I thought you were going to, you know, take a minute and cry over your boo-boo or something. But heck, if we've only been at this for an hour, then-"

"My 'boo-boo?'" Spike snickered. "Tell me, pet, have you a bit of a blonde in you? And if not, would you like some?"

Appalled, Marissa inquired, "Did you do this with the Slayer?" Seeing Spike's face go serious, she decided to tread on a bit more carefully. "You know, this whole gross-out sex joke trade-off thing. It's distracting during fights, so I thought maybe you used it on her to get her to drop her guard, and ultimately the sexual tension just got so that the two of you... okay, right, let's kick one another's ass. Come on."

"Sexual tension?" Spike queried with a laugh. It made Marissa's stomach turn to see how perversely pleased he was by her phrasing. "So this Ice Queen bit is just a charade, is it? You've known me for only a few days, and you already feel a sort of tension between us."

Genuinely revolted, Marissa crossed her arms over her chest and refused to budge when he took a step towards her. It took much more willpower than she thought she had. "Well, I admit that if you weren't a 150-year-old dead guy, you might be slightly more appealing than syphilis. Unfortunately, necrophilia gives me the willies, so I'd appreciate it if you maintain your distance."

"Ooh, a sharp tongue," Spike remarked, still closing in. "I've always fancied that in a woman. You remind me a little of the Slayer in that regard-" He stopped when he felt the tip of the plastic stake a mere centimeter away from the puncture wound it had made only moments before.

"We've already learned that penetration is bad," Marissa told him sternly. "I can reinforce that message if you need me to."

He obligingly took a step back and gently waved the weapon away. "Ease off, love. I'm trying to get you angry enough to want to fight again, not angry enough to come at me with the holy water you've got in your purse." As her widened eyes looked towards her opened messenger bag on the table behind him, Spike grinned. "Of course, that does make it interesting. If you manage to get past me, you can theoretically douse that little toy in your hand in holy water, and that would probably do a lot of damage, plastic or no."

She returned her eyes to Spike. Getting ready to push past him if she had to, she quietly asked, "Can holy water kill you?" It would be stupid of him to admit such a thing, but he had to. They had made a deal. She had no reason to trust his answer, but he seemed to have been honest enough so far.

"No," Spike replied. "But it hurts like a bitch, and I will do all I can to make sure you don't spray any on me. I'd much rather break your hand than burn my skin off. Again."

"So crosses and holy water work," Marissa worked out, "but garlic doesn't?"

"This is the textbook portion of tonight's lesson, then?" Spike asked, moving away from her. Sitting back down on his sofa, he explained, "Some demons have a sensitivity to garlic. It's more of an allergy, really. Back in olden days, demons and vampires were all lumped together as 'Evil Things,' so the superstition stuck. Garlic can be used in some magic rituals, though, and what is religion but magic with a head honcho known as God or Allah or some such thing?"

"That's blasphemous."

"Do I have to bring up the 'formerly evil' thing again?" Spike groaned. "Look, believe what you want. I never bothered to ask Harris if his family were Protestants or Catholics or Druids. Whatever your beliefs are, it doesn't change the facts. A cross is a talisman, just like a pentacle. And holy water's been supposedly 'blessed' by a prayer, the same as any object that's been powered by an incantation. Religion is a form of magic; it's just a widely accepted form of magic."

After a long while, Marissa finally said, "Episcopalian."


Lowering the stake, Marissa stated, "I'm Episcopalian. Well, my mother is. Or claims to be. I don't really know what Xander's part of the family believes in. I'm not even sure what I believe in. I guess I'm a Christian, but that's only because it's what I grew up with."

"Oh," Spike remarked, not knowing what else to say. "Well, there you go. You're a Christian."

Thinking about it for a moment, Marissa asked, "Is that good? I mean... does it have any meaning at all? You told me last night that demons ruled the world and then humans came along and took it away from them, so... what does that mean? Did we get rid of the bad demons? Were the demons actually good? If there's a God, which one of us did He create? Or what if He created both of us? And why would He do something like that?"

"Those thoughts are a little too deep for a beginner's class, love," Spike replied.

"But you died," Marissa protested. "You died, and the Slayer died, and both of you came back. So... what? Were you just unconscious for the time that you were dead and then poof:you're suddenly here again?What's the point of dying if you can just be brought back?"

"It's not just a waggle of one's nose and speaking the magic words," Spike informed her. "Resurrection isn't the same as a protection spell. We're talking about moving through different planes and completely upsetting the natural order of things. It takes a lot to even things out with the Powers That Be once you try to bring someone back."

"The Powers That Be?" Marissa asked. "That's a nice, vague term for God."

"Actually, it's what they prefer to be called," Spike corrected. "They, or it, or he, or she. No one really knows what the Powers That Be are, except that they're mysterious, powerful, and too lazy to do their own sodding work half the time."

"I'd say that that comment would get you into Hell," Marissa breathed, walking towards her purse, "except that you've probably already been there."

"Lousy plumbing," Spike recollected. "And a rotten smell off of everything. Aside from that, it's not too different from Earth. Pain, torture, lots of unexpected and unpleasant sorts of personal violation. Kinda reminds me of New York City, actually."

"You're making me very happy that I don't travel much," she said as she put the stake in her bag. "I'd prefer not to think of any famous cities as being literal hells on Earth."

"Actually, that's Los Angeles."


"Oh, sorry," Spike told her. "I forgot I signed some sort of stupid non-disclosure contract settlement bollocks about that. Damn, Wolfram and Hart got me coming and going. You're not studying to be a lawyer, are you? I'd kill you without hesitating. Unless you're really good and wouldn't mind defending a vampire in a court of law. Then I could use you."

"Either one of us got hit in the head tonight," Marissa said tiredly, "or you're just babbling about wolves and lawyers."

"Wolfram," Spike corrected. "As in, Wolf and Ram, not... oh, never mind. At any rate, you just reminded me that I won't be available for another rendezvous tomorrow; I promised someone I'd do him a favor."

"I don't know which is more surprising," Marissa commented. Unsuccessfully suppressing a wince as her muscles ached in protest to her putting her bag over her shoulders, she remarked, "The fact that you have a friend or the fact you'd actually do someone a favor."

"I never said he was a friend," Spike told her as he walked towards the door of his crypt and grabbed another shirt on the way. "And I do favors. I do a plethora of favors. When it benefits me."

"Like the way you're doing me the 'favor' of training me," Marissa smirked. "All it's costing me is a carton of cigarettes every week. Honestly, just because you can't get lung cancer doesn't mean your nose doesn't work. Don't you smell that?"

"I smell blood," Spike remarked, peering out the window. Marissa froze, and Spike turned to look at her. His eyes went down to the open cut on her right forearm, staining the edges of her three-quarter sleeved green shirt. "Don't think I didn't notice how quickly you packed up as soon as the subject shifted from fighting. You're more hurt than you let on. Know your limitations before you end up being just another ghostie in the cemetery."

"It's just a flesh wound," Marissa muttered weakly, tugging at her sleeve.

"Oh come on, it was funnier when I said it," Spike scolded her as he pulled a dark blue shirt over his head. "Speaking of the ghosties, they're out and about right now. I should take you home."

"I don't need an escort," Marissa objected.

"Tell that to the ghost that had you tearing at your hair last night," Spike retorted as he grabbed his jacket off the back of a chair and put it on. Opening the door, he held out a hand towards her. "I've told you, your cousin doesn't need much in the way of motivation to make a move against me, and I'd much rather not wage war against him with the world falling to pieces all around us. Pointless waste of energy, and I'd kill him too quickly for it to be any fun."

Crossing her arms over her chest, Marissa stormed past Spike and walked into the cemetery. She felt him shadowing her and decided to slow her stride, only because she didn't feel comfortable having him trailing along behind her. Sensing her discomfort, he moved in alongside her. He was no fool, however. He also didn't trust her enough to allow her to fall behind him. "By the way," he asked, "what ever happened with your relation? Didn't he call you back?"

Shaking her head, Marissa reached into her bag for her phone. "No," she replied, checking to make sure she hadn't missed any calls. "He's staying in Holbrook with our cousin Charlene's family and won't be back until late tonight. I called his parents' house, and his mom said that she heard his phone ringing in his room, so it turns out he left his cell behind. Typical Xander."

"I expect no less," Spike told her, guiding her through the less-populated areas of the graveyard. "Well, when you do get a hold of him, be sure to leave out any and all details about our extended contact with one another. You keep using the word 'training,' and it might make him think I'm getting you ready to take part in what he and I were discussing the other night. I think he'd rather keep you out of this for as long as he can."

"Too bad," Marissa shot back, trying to stay close to Spike while simultaneously keeping her distance from him. "If something bad is coming to Woodridge because of these ghosts and one of them tried to mind-rape me last night, then I've got every right to do what I can to protect myself and my town, even if it means making a deal with the Devil. By the way, is there a Devil?"

"Yes and no," Spike answered. "Yes, there's something called the First Evil, which is literally the root of all evil. I squared off with it myself five years back; it's the reason your quaint little town was reduced to rubble. Whether or not it's the Judeo-Christian being called Satan is still up for debate. Personally, I stopped trying to figure out whether the Jews or the Muslims got it right or wrong, since when you boil it down, they're all a little wrong."

"I just don't understand it," Marissa murmured, furrowing her brow. "If none of the major religions really got it right, then why does the Christian cross repel vampires? Okay, it's a talisman, but does that mean that vampires have a Christian origin? I saw this one movie with Gerard Butler that theorized that the original Dracula was actually Judas Iscariot, cursed for his betrayal of-"

"The real Dracula looks nothing like Gerard bloody Butler," Spike responded disdainfully. "The real Dracula looks like a giant, stupid, gangly... Shih-Tzu or something."

"A Shih-Tzu?" Marissa dubiously asked. "Dracula looks like a Shih-Tzu?"

"The hair," Spike spat out, motioning to his own hair for emphasis. "It's very... it just looks... look, in any case, Dracula doesn't look like any of your pretty boy actors, and it's a pity no Armageddon managed to take out Hollywood instead of Sunnydale. You and that mongrel of yours must have seen every poorly-made vampire movie ever made."

"Do you have a problem referring to people by their names?" Marissa asked. "It's Robbie, in case you've forgotten. And yeah, he kinda had a thing for horror movies. He wasn't too big on slasher movies or anything, but he liked vampires and werewolves and Frankenstein-like monsters. I think I watched Underworld and its sequel with him at least four or five times."

"God, I hate that movie," Spike grunted.

Marissa was quiet for a moment. Then, shoving her hands in her pockets, she murmured, "Yeah, me too. I prefer Interview with the Vampire." Noting Spike's cringe, she chuckled. "Let me guess: Underworld was too stylized and Interview was too 'nancy.' You probably like... The Lost Boys."

"No, I don't!" Spike barked out, a little too quickly. "And you bloody well better shut up about it!"

Surprised by the outburst, Marissa was happy to realize that they were out of the graveyard. Wandering away from Spike, she breathed, "Okaaay, thanks for that information. I'll just smile and nod and get out my holy water as I continue on my way alone."

Following after her, Spike remarked, "I think I should take you all the way, just in case."

Remembering something that Spike had told Xander two nights before, Marissa had a feeling she knew what "just in case" meant. "You just want to find out where I live so you can use that as leverage against Xander."

Spike was about to reply that her perceptiveness continued to astound him, but an unexpectedly familiar voice sounded from behind him. "Spike? I thought that was your voice!" Turning around, Spike caught sight of a droopy-skinned former acquaintance of his.

"Clem, you old bugger!" Spike exclaimed, grinning at the benevolent demon. "I haven't seen you since Sunnydale. So is this where the old gang transferred to?"

"All of us," Clem attested. "Including the loan sharks." Giving Spike a moment to start over this revelation, Clem turned his attention to the girl at Spike's side. Offering her a wave, he smiled and said, "Hi there."

"Oh, right," Spike remarked. "Clem, this is Marissa. Marissa, Clem."

Marissa didn't know how to respond. On one hand, she knew that this new person wasn't a vampire. But... Maybe he just has a really weird skin condition, she thought hopefully. Wondering where the demons had been hiding out before that weekend, she gulped and gave a quick wave. "Um, hi."

"Friend of Spike's?" Clem asked.

"Friend of a friend," Marissa answered. "Of a friend of a friend. Um, Spike, I've got to go now." Absently waving again to Clem, she tried not to squeak as she said, "Nice meeting you. Bye!" Trying not to think about the way his flesh fell in bags over his face, neck, and arms, Marissa turned and quickly walked towards her home.

Watching her leave, Clem inquired, "She's a human?"

"Yeah," Spike replied, getting a pack of cigarettes from his pocket.

As though in wonder, Clem stated, "And she didn't get weirded out."

"Guess not," Spike said, lighting the cigarette in his mouth.

"She seems really nice!"

"I suppose."

"Are the two of you...?"

Coughing after a sharp pull of the cigarette, Spike muttered, "Oh God, no! It'd be like Superman wooing a woman with breasts made out of kryptonite!" After exhaling a plume of smoke while Clem laughed over his comment, Spike asked, "So does the gang still get together for poker every Thursday?"

"It's every Saturday now," Clem told him. "Billy Beckham got a job and only has weekends off, and he has to go to church on Sundays with his wife and mother-in-law."

"Billy Beckham? Married?" Spike let out a chuckle. "Whoever ended up with him must be a real witch."

"She's a harpy, actually," Clem brought up. "Nice lady, but she's allergic to kittens. So when it comes time to play at Billy's house, we have to do it on a play now, pay later arrangement. You should come by for our next game. We're doing it in my place this week, and I've fixed up a really nice area in the back of the local Doublemeat Palace's storeroom."

"Sounds like fun," Spike said. "I might give it a go, apocalypse pending."

"Oh, that's right," Clem realized. "Our friends in the graveyard." Glancing at the cemetery two blocks away, Clem lowered his voice as though afraid of being overheard. "I have to tell you, Spike, I've been hearing some awful nasty rumors going around lately."

"I'll put them to rest for you right now," Spike told him. "They're not rumors. It's more likely than not that the scary things you've been hearing are actually true. I'm pretty sure there's someone orchestrating all of this, making the ghosts manifest in the hopes of breaking down the walls between their world and ours. Could be the formation of another Hellmouth, from what I could see. It seems like something big enough to be the work of the First again, but I haven't come across any of the hearsay that'd indicate it."

Clem looked at Spike, seemingly shocked. After a moment, he said, "Um, okay, that sounds rather terrifying. I think I might just cancel Saturday night's game now, since the rumors I was referring to have been about you."

"About me?" Spike asked, bemused. "What do you mean?"

"Oh, the same as usual," Clem replied. "You've apparently ticked someone off and they're out for your blood now."

"Is that all?" Spike smirked. "Listen, those loan sharks can bluster all they want-"

"I'm not talking about the sharks, Spike," Clem interrupted. "I've heard about that deal you made with Wolfram and Hart after LA, so I know you don't have a whole lot of monetary concerns right now."

"How'd you know about-"

"I'm a demon, Spike," Clem explained. "You should know that it's our business to know things that the rest of the world shouldn't know about, especially when it happens to a huge city just a few towns over and concerns one of your old buddies. But as far as I've heard, this doesn't have anything to do with LA. There's apparently some new vampire in town who's out to turn you into dust, and that's only if she happens to be in a good mood that night."

"A she?" Spike queried lightly. "Must be an old flame." Remembering about the list of old flames in his past, the small smile he had been wearing slowly faded away. "Or a scorching inferno. Have you heard any specifics?"

"None about the vampire," Clem answered with a shake of his head. "But word on the street is that she's hooked up with a vengeance demon."

"A vengeance demon?!" Spike hissed, nearly dropping his cigarette. "That's a little out of line!"

"Is it?" Clem asked.

"Well, maybe that's a matter of perspective," Spike recounted.

"I'm telling you, Spike, I don't want to be in your shoes," Clem told him. "I mean, they're nice shoes and all, but I've seen vengeance demons at work. And the worst part is, I hear this vengeance demon's out to settle a personal vendetta and it may or may not involve you."

"Personal vendetta?" Spike asked, liking the sound of this less and less the more Clem spoke. "Oh bloody hell, tell me it isn't Halfrek, is it? My business with her is long over, and I haven't done anything to-"

"Halfrek specializes in children, remember?" Clem brought up. "Besides, this vengeance demon's a guy. When I said that the vampire hooked up with him, I meant that she hooked up with him."

"Fantastic," Spike mumbled. "An old flame who hates me is shacking up with a new beau who's got the power to erase me from existence, if she wishes it. Just when I thought I was finally getting by, some joker up there decided to have another laugh."

Genuinely concerned about his friend, Clem offered, "Well, can you think of who the vampire might be? If it's an ex-girlfriend, which one of them is low enough to do something like this to you and mess around with a vengeance demon on top of it?"

"Clem, I appreciate you trying to help, but have you seen the women I used to date?" Spike ran a hand through his hair, trying not to get too upset about this. Say what you want about vengeance demons, but they're tricky little bastards. The smartest thing Xander ever did was decide against marrying his, even if she was retired. "With my track record, it could be anyone from Drusilla to-"

Even as Spike cut himself off, he knew that he had hit on it. It seemed as though Clem agreed with him. "Hey, that would make sense," the demon responded. "I mean, I never met her, but from what you've told me it seems like she's a little unhinged and has some serious issues to work out. And after leaving you for a chaos demon, a vengeance demon would actually be her idea of moving up in the world."

"Clem, you're not helping." Spike tossed his cigarette onto the ground, too caught up in his thoughts to even smoke. If Drusilla was in Woodridge and making time with a vengeance demon who had prior reason to hate him, there was really nothing for Spike to do but wait for the ball to drop. He knew Drusilla, and he knew that she wasn't likely to wish for any sort of quick and painless death for him. In fact... she might not even go for him.

Looking at Clem, Spike realized that he was putting the demon in danger just by being seen in public with him. He suddenly remembered the demonic face he had glimpsed while he had been talking with Marissa in the cemetery the night before. If Drusilla was indeed involved, no one was safe.

"You should probably go," Spike told Clem, walking away from him. "Don't try to get in touch with me until you hear rumors that whatever's after me is either gone or dead." Smelling Marissa's blood on the air, he decided that he should hurry on after her and give her the same warning. Spotting clouds in the sky, he went on his way before the rain washed away the scent.

"Hey Spike," Clem called. "Do you think you can put in a good word with that Marissa girl for me?"

Marissa was just pulling the last tangle loose from her hair when she heard the doorbell ring.

Putting her comb down, she went to her closet, grabbed a Woodridge College sweatshirt, and pulled it on over her pajama top. She had managed to get home and shower off the war grime without her mother seeing her, but she didn't want to risk anyone seeing the nearly four-inch gash on her arm. If it was Xander at the door, he'd be liable to think that she was a cutter and would freak out. Then again, he'd probably freak out even more if he knew the truth.

"I'll get it," she called as she headed down the stairs. She knew that her mother was probably too busy watching Wheel of Fortune or some such thing, but she couldn't shake the habit of calling out when she was going to answer the door. She usually glanced through the front window before opening the door, but she was so certain that Xander had probably just gotten her messages from the night before and sped over that she simply opened it. Through the rain that had started to fall when she was in the shower, she was surprised to see a certain bleached blond vampire on her doorstep. "Spike!" Marissa cried, instinctively moving to slam the door.

Spike held out a hand in defense. "No, wait, I just needed to tell you something. Jesus!" Looking past her into the house, he pursed his lips for a moment before stating, "That looks like a real cozy living room back there. Nice and warm and dry."

Glancing behind her to make sure her mother wouldn't emerge from her bedroom, Marissa hissed, "Spike, if you have something to say, just say it before my mother comes out."

"What, are you ashamed of your new school chum?"


"Let me in and I'll say it."

Marissa raised an eyebrow. She had taken out several books on vampire folklore from the campus library that afternoon, and she suddenly realized what was going on. With a relishing smile, she asked, "You can't come in unless I invite you, can you?"

Normally, Spike would have bluffed or joked his way through this, but being drenched in a sudden downpour had a tendency to make him rather cranky. "No, I can't come in without an invitation, and if I don't get an invitation soon, this entire house will be lit up like a Christmas tree as soon as I can get my hands on some lighter fluid."

"Where are you going to find a dry match?"

Just as Spike looked ready to blow up at her and her wretched gloating, he heard a woman's voice call from behind Marissa. "Marissa, who's at the door?" Judging by the way Marissa's eyes widened, the middle-aged, bleary-eyed woman who stepped in from behind her was none other than dear old mum.

"Good evening, Ms. Harris," Spike greeted her. "I go to school with your daughter."

"Well, what are you doing standing out there in the rain? Come in before you get pneumonia!"

Even as Marissa glared at her mother, Spike grinned amicably, both in gratitude and in triumph. "Thank you, Ms. Harris. It was a starting to get a little chilly." He tried not to laugh as Marissa slinked away from the door as he stepped inside.

"Stop that Ms. Harris crap; it's Elsie," she replied. "And you are?"

"Mike!" Marissa broke in, deciding against giving her mother Spike's actual name. "Mike, from my communications class. We, uh, have a speech due tomorrow and I guess he, uh..."

"Marissa," Elsie interjected, "as long as he didn't get you pregnant, I couldn't care less." To Spike, she asked, "Would you like a towel?"

"Yes please, that'd be helpful," Spike replied. He kept his smile on his face until the woman was out of the room. As soon as she was gone, he quirked an eyebrow. "Monday night and that woman's as blitzed as a wino on New Year's Eve. No wonder you'd rather spend your nights in the cemetery."

"Spike, how did you find me?"

"Followed my nose," he answered. "Sniffed out your blood until I got here. Come to think of it... I still smell it. Didn't you shower?"

Before Marissa could answer, her mother returned with a dark green towel. "Here you go," she told him as she handed it off to him. Spike didn't get a chance to offer his thanks before Elsie narrowed her eyes at him and asked, "Aren't you a little too old to be sleeping with Marissa?"

"Ma," Marissa choked out, mortified, "he's not sleeping with me."

"And if I had any intention of it," Spike remarked sarcastically, "I'd ask your permission, first."

"What would I care who she's sleeping with?" Elsie asked, already headed back into her room. "As long as she doesn't expect me to provide for the kid or help pay the STD testing bills, she can keep screwing as many of her professors as she wants."

"He's not my professor!" Marissa screamed out as Elsie shut the door to her room.

Not knowing how to reply for a moment, Spike shook his head as he shrugged his jacket off. "Charming woman," he said dryly as he began toweling off his hair. "I can tell that you've one heck of a shining role model when it comes time for you to be a mum."

"I'm not a whore," Marissa told him as she crossed her arms over her chest.

"No one ever said you charged anyone for-"

"I'm not a whore," Marissa repeated.

Seeing the tears brimming in Marissa's eyes, Spike decided to swallow his remaining words rather than use them. The more he saw of familial relations over the years, the more he realized how good he had it when he had been alive.

When he was finally reasonably dry, he folded up the towel and said, "I just came over to let you know that I think we should start fighting other people."

Blinking up at him, Marissa asked, "What?"

He explained, "I've just gotten word that I may be in a spot of trouble over the coming days, so it'd probably be safer for you if you stayed away. I've got someone after me who may not be against going through other people to try and hurt me. I wouldn't want you or any of your kin getting mixed up in something that's nothing to do with you."

Marissa eyed him steadily before asking, "Would that really hurt you? If Xander or I got hurt?"

Spike cocked his head towards Marissa, as though confused. "What, you don't retain long-term information? I have a soul. If any innocent person gets hurt because of me, that puts a stain on it. That puts a weight on it. My soul's already heavy enough without worrying about any more collateral damage."

"I thought you told Robbie yesterday that you don't care if I get hurt?"

"Well, I don't," he answered. "People get hurt all the time, every day. I can't walk around like some bleeding heart, crying a river every time someone scrapes his knee. If Robbie hurts you or if you get caught up in the ghost business, that's a damned shame. But if you get hurt because I'm the one that pushed you in the way of oncoming traffic, then that's no shame; that's a sin. Some sins I don't mind so much. Being personally responsible for more death isn't one of them. And speaking of personally responsible, let me see your arm; I'm smelling fresh blood." Marissa instinctively drew back, and he adjusted that with, "I'm not hungry. I just want to see."

Uncertainly, Marissa offered him her right arm, keeping an eye out to make sure her mother wouldn't re-enter the scene. Spike took it and gingerly rolled up the gray sleeve of the sweatshirt. "Jesus Christ," he muttered, seeing the blood staining the inside of the sleeve.

"It wasn't bleeding when I came out of the shower," Marissa told him. "I thought it clotted."

"You didn't even bandage this up," Spike chastised. "What, did you slap on some peroxide and think your work was done? Where are the bandages?"

"We don't keep anything other than standard Band-Aids here," Marissa said. "I would have had to use the entire box to cover all of this up."

"And that wasn't a clue that this was more serious than a little scratch?" Spike asked. Shaking his head, he told her, "Cut up an old shirt or something that you don't want anymore and use that as a bandage. If it doesn't stop bleeding soon, you'll have to go to a hospital."

"I don't have money for a hospital," Marissa argued.

"I'll give you money."


"Not a lot," Spike quickly amended. "I may or may not have a small stash hidden somewhere, left over from a certain legal deal I made a few years ago. I don't exactly have a steady income, but I'd be willing to part with a few bucks if that's all that's keeping you from going to see a professional about this."

Marissa was silent for a long time, unsure of how to respond. Not only had Spike come by to warn her of some potentially dangerous times ahead, but he was offering her money to treat a wound... a wound that he himself inflicted! Pulling her arm away from him, she finally said, "I'll rip up an old shirt." After Spike nodded, Marissa narrowed her eyes and asked, "You're not just being nice to me because my mother thinks I'm sleeping with you, are you? Because she does that with almost everyone who walks through the door, including a couple of girls."

"Then you must have a lot of people showering you with sympathy," Spike smirked. "And I'm sure you've had to give out your fair share of pity screws to poor losers who got their hopes up." Seeing Marissa's angry glare, Spike only widened his smile. "Don't lose your temper, love. Wait until that arm heals up. Not only will you feel better, but by then it'll probably be safe to try and kill me again."

"You should invest in a waiting list."

"I'd rather invest in a motel room for the night," Spike said as he began putting his jacket back on. "Have you any idea how foul a damp crypt smells? It positively reeks. And after the unexpected cold shower I raced through to get here, I could use a hot bath." Handing her the towel, he added, "Thanks for the temporary refuge. And sorry about the arm; I'll go easy on you next time."

"Pfft, right," Marissa scoffed. "Like you need to." She watched as he opened the door before quickly adding, "Hey Spike?" When he turned around to face her, she hesitated for a moment before telling him, "If you need to... uh, that is... if every motel, hotel, and homeless shelter within twenty miles of here is booked to capacity and you're getting absolutely desperate... the couch is available."

Spike gave her a long, considering look before asking, "It took a lot for you to work up the nerve to say that to me, didn't it?"

"Oh God, yes."

With a half smile, he replied, "I appreciate it."

He had just stepped onto the porch when he heard her voice again. "Hey Spike?" Turning to face her once more, he saw that she had opened the hall closet and was reaching for something. When she finally found what she was looking for, she tossed it towards him.

Spike looked down at the light blue and bright yellow thing that he now held in his hand. "What the hell?"

"It's an umbrella," she told him. "You do know how to work one, don't you?"

"Are you crazy?" Spike asked. "What kind of self-respecting creature of the night walks around with an umbrella? And... oh Jesus, are these rubber duckies designed on it?!"

"If you don't want it, then toss it back!"

"No!" Spike told her, reeling in the umbrella as though protecting it.

Smirking, she told him, "Then shut up and use it." She had to stifle a laugh as she watched the badass vampire that she had been terrified of just a couple of nights before walk down her driveway with her childhood parasol.

It would be the last time Marissa would ever feel so lighthearted around Spike.

"Marissa, hey!"

Marissa was just walking out of her psychology class when she heard her named being called from across the hall. "Oh, hey Vy," she began. She couldn't say anything else before her former classmate quickly shuffled over towards her, hands outstretched as though to receive her.

In all honesty, Marissa would never consider Violet Allen a "friend." The tall redhead was so lanky that it actually hurt to hug her, and her pale blue eyes often caused a chill to go down one's back if she stared at someone for too long. Her short curls were always in a mess, giving her a look of hectic disarray. Despite all of this, she still managed to look dignified and lovely, which may have actually been part of what set Marissa so ill at ease around her.

"All right," Violet told her, clasping a hand on each of Marissa's arms. "I was working during the entire four-day weekend, and it wasn't until my tutoring session this morning that I heard that a certain someone has some gossip to relay. So go ahead: relay it. I'm open and receptive."

Trying not to flinch at the pressure Violet was exerting on her injured arm, Marissa pried herself away. "I'm not sure how to take that. Mostly because I don't know what you're talking about. What four-day weekend, and what gossip?"

"Oh, that's right," Violet brought up with a giggle. "You have classes Monday through Friday. I keep forgetting that I'm a grad student now and only go to school three days a week."

Rolling her eyes, Marissa began walking away as she muttered, "That's funny, because I haven't forgotten it." If it hadn't been for the fact that Violet lived in the apartment across from Robbie, Marissa wouldn't have had any contact with her after that disastrous chemistry class two years before. As it stood, she hoped that breaking up with Robbie would at least assure that she and Violet would start drifting apart.

As Violet jogged up behind Marissa, she began to realize that she'd have no such luck. "Oh, come on. I'm only joking. And don't pretend I didn't hear what happened at Neon." Seeing Marissa's anxious glance, Violet explained, "Okay, first of all, I heard about you and Robbie. I love him, but I'll admit that it sounds like he's being an idiot. You're not just a summer fling, and I'll be sure to tell him that the next time I see him. Then again, he might have a good reason. Who knows? I haven't dated you, so-"

"Vy, if there's a point, please feel free to get to it."

"The point is," Violet told her with a mischievous grin, "I also heard about the mysterious new guys that came to your rescue. I know you don't have any older brothers, and I heard one of them was English. And that the English guy kicked Robbie's butt in front of everyone. And the other one-now this I know is just a rumor-was wearing an eye patch." Laughing as though the object of the latest gossip wasn't standing right besides her, she remarked, "Isn't that just wild? Now fess up, Marissa. Help me sift through the true and the false."

Though she hated encouraging the rumor mill, Marissa also saw no point in lying. With a heavy sigh, she admitted, "It's all true. But in my defense, Eye Patch Guy is my cousin. It just so happened that he came to town and we ran into a friend of his. The three of us went to Neon to talk, and the next day British Boy decided he didn't like some of the things Robbie was saying to me. I'm not boning anyone new, so I'm sorry to bring a dose of mediocrity into your delicious scandal."

"Really?" Violet asked, apparently finding this just as fascinating as whatever soap opera she had envisioned. "Your cousin's friend got in a fight with Robbie Wilson just to defend your honor? That sounds so-"

"If you say romantic, I'm hitting you with my psych text."

"Well, it is!" Violet laughed. "He just storms in and sticks up for you, coming in like a white knight. And he's English, to boot. You know, my family's originally from Ireland. I think the Irish accent's a turn-off because all of my relatives have one, but the English-that's something I can get used to! So if you're not boning him and no one else is-"

"This is my face," Marissa told her, pointing towards her countenance. "This is my face suppressing the gag reflex." She couldn't retain the demonstration of repulsion for long, as the sound of Violet's laughter got her to laughing, too. "Seriously, Vy, can you please stop looking at the world through rose-colored lenses? It's not only unrealistic, but it's a little annoying."

"Lies and defamation!" Violet cried out. "It's the only way to look at life. We can't focus on the bad for too long. Especially not people like us. We're a couple of attractive college girls with the entire world waiting for us as soon as we accept our respective degrees. If we don't imagine the best life has to offer, then we're just going to accept the pitfalls as our destinies and not try for the stars."

"You sound like my high school guidance counselor," Marissa said reproachfully, squinting at the bright sunlight as they walked across the quad. "If you keep your head in the clouds, you've just got a farther way to fall."

"Optimism versus pessimism," Violet told her. "The eternal struggle."

Marissa was about to respond when she noticed a third shadow walking behind them. "Okay, so this guy enters a pun-writing contest," said a voice from behind them. The first thing she saw when she turned her head was a familiar black eye patch, and she knew who it was that had picked up their stride. "He sends in ten puns, figuring that at least one of them will win. Unfortunately, no pun in ten did."

Even as he noticed Marissa's redheaded friend gawking at him quizzically, Xander chuckled and looked to Marissa for a reaction. "Get it? No pun intended? No pun... I'll never get my own HBO special, will I?"

"I love you, Alex," Marissa told him. "But you shouldn't quit your day job." Stopping on the quad, she glanced back at Violet and said, "Xander, Violet. Vy, my cousin Xander."

"Eye Patch Guy!" Violet exclaimed.

"Uh, yeah," Xander responded uncertainly. "Right back at ya, Blue-Eyed Girl."

"Long story," Marissa told him. "How was Holbrook?"

"Holbrooky," Xander attested. "Got in bright and early this morning and checked my messages. Got all twenty-five of your missed calls. It's kinda what got me ambling around your campus until I could find you. So... can we talk?"

"Yeah," Marissa said eagerly. Not only was Xander the only person she currently felt absolutely safe with, but a private conversation would be a wonderfully convenient excuse to get away from Violet's Pollyanna tendencies. "Violet, you mind?"

"Not at all," Violet replied, glancing at her wristwatch. "I've got to make it across campus in ten minutes anyway. Time for another foray into Faustian Literature or, as I like to call it, How to Get a Refund When You Sell Your Soul to the Devil." Waving to Xander, she told him, "Nice meeting you. Be sure to talk me up to your English friend who beats people up to defend the honor of those he cares about."

After gaping at Violet as she walked away, Xander shoved his hands into his pockets. "Well, that certainly explains the message I got proclaiming, 'Help, help, Spike's beating up my ex-boyfriend; I need a wooden stake or a samurai sword.'"

"Yeah, uh," Marissa began, "actually, we're past all that. Somehow, Spike and Robbie made nice with one another. Or at least learned to tolerate one another."

"Spike's got an infuriating tendency of doing that," Xander told her, following her as she moved towards a nearby bench. "Just when you think you're about to be vindicated in smashing his face in, he somehow cons you into springing for some fried food and alcohol."

"Oh good," she remarked as they sat down besides one another. "And here I thought that you and Robbie were just a couple of weak-willed sissies. If he hypnotizes everyone into doing that, then at least I know ahead of time that he likes blooming onions and beer... and buffalo wings and boobs, apparently."

"Sounds like Spike, all ri-... buffalo wings and boobs? Where do they sell this and what are the mechanics of it?"

"Don't ask," Marissa mumbled. "I caught him talking to Robbie about food and porn. Just in case he didn't give me a big enough case of the wiggums, I now have nightmares about him giving my ex-boyfriend a talk about the birds and the bees."

"There are worse things to have nightmares about," Xander mentioned. "I once had this dream that Spike was wearing a suit and swinging on a swing set while Buffy was playing in a sandbox and then my dad ripped my heart out." Seeing Marissa's confused glance, he waved it off. "Forget it. Our dreams were being affected by the primal power of the First Slayer at the time, so I totally don't have the hots for Buffy's dead mom or want to see Willow making out with her dead girlfriend." Wrinkling his brow as he acknowledged the ever-deepening hole he was making for himself, he asked, "Okay, so what's been going on with Spike? You wouldn't call just to tell me that he and Robbie fought and made up."

Praying that her cousin wouldn't reveal any disgusting fetishes when she didn't have a barf bag handy, Marissa tried to think of what had been so urgent that she had called Xander so many times. "Oh, right. Spike wanted to speak to you. The ghosts that he told you about... he said something about finding out that they pose a third threat. I don't know what the first two were, but the third one... it's bad, Xander. They're malicious."

"Malicious how?" Xander asked. "Never mind. If Spike knows what's good for him, he wouldn't be talking about this with-"

"They can take over your senses for a while," Marissa revealed. "They pass through you and show you things, horrible things. Spike said that they fill your head with their past sins or heartaches; the one I saw showed me how he really died. It's-"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa, back up the information train a little," Xander interrupted. "The one you saw? Spike told me these things mostly hang around cemeteries or murder sites; don't tell me you were wandering around a cemetery. Especially not with Spike."

"No, no way, I... yeah," Marissa confessed. "But I-"

"You know I don't like him."

"I don't either!" Marissa proclaimed. "I have this... thing about non-humans."

"I knew you were smart," Xander told her. "Hanging around in the cemetery with a vamp, though-"

"I wasn't hanging around," Marissa explained. "I passed by it and saw the ghost of someone I knew and I thought maybe he needed some help. So I went to him and he attacked me. Showed me that his death wasn't an accident."

Seeing Marissa lower her eyes, Xander regretted having assumed that she was stupid enough to be buddy-buddy with Spike. Putting an arm around her shoulders, he quietly stated, "That's what the pirates meant when they said that dead men tell no tales. They're not supposed to."

"That's almost exactly what Spike said," Marissa informed him, looking up at him. "Maybe the two of you aren't so different after all. Except for the fact that you have absolutely nothing in common and I don't feel the urge to light you on fire every time I see you."

"Good," Xander laughed. "Not being lit on fire is always a good thing. It's right up there with not being scalped or castrated." Bringing her close to him for a half-hug, he then asked, "Okay, so we've got ghosts that can project some pretty nasty images. I'll chalk that up to the list."

"That's not all," Marissa told him. "Spike said something about how the visions can make people go crazy if they can't drag themselves out of it. I can understand what he means, but he also mentioned something about it reminding him of glory, which confused me."

"Glory," Xander groaned. "Great. She's just what we need."

"Glory's a person?"

"Glory's an angry goddess that was kicked out of her hell dimension," Xander answered. "I'm almost sure Buffy killed her, but that never really stopped a baddie from making trouble." After a second's thought, he removed his arm from around Marissa. "It all clicks. If Glory or something like her can work from her home dimension and have the ghosts drive people crazy, she's weakening the opposition. And if a new Hellmouth opens, we can have a war starting in a town filled with people too insane to do anything about it."

Rising to his feet, he took out something that looked like an advanced Bluetooth earpiece from his inner jacket pocket. "I better call Buff; something like this deserves to have a professional Scooby on its trail."

Watching him hook the headset behind his ear and flick it on, Marissa remarked, "Huh. You never struck me as a tech-savvy kind of guy that'd get all those weird accessories for his cell phone."

He glanced at her. "Huh? Oh, this. No, my cell's back home. I keep forgetting to carry it on me. This here is official Slayer merchandise. I keep it on me at all times in case someone calls in impending doom. Offers me a direct line to Buffy, Willow, and Giles."

Slowly nodding, she quietly mentioned, "Sounds like you're more soldier than human these days."

While Xander Harris never made the honor roll in high school, he was empathetic enough to know when he was being resented. Looking down at his cousin, he hesitated a moment before removing the earpiece. "Hey-"

"I mean, it's true," Marissa said with a laugh, trying to take it lightly. "Look at you. You've got to work family visits into a finely-tuned schedule and forget about real people the minute they're out of sight. The only people that exist are your Slayers and the people that make them tick."

"That's not true," Xander protested.

"Yes it is," Marissa shot back. In a calmer voice, she added, "And it's okay. It's better than okay. It's really, really great. To be willing to make sacrifices because your life doesn't matter as much as the lives of the entire population of the planet. To not have to care about building relationships with anyone outside of your work environment because personal relationships can slow you down. It's so... uncomplicated."

Xander gave her a long fixed stare before sitting back down besides her. "Marissa, since Anya died, I've dated four women. I liked them all, a lot. Loved a couple of them, even. I watched three of them die. The other one went crazy and had to be put in a coma before she could kill a group of our younger Slayers. She was one of the ones I loved."

"X-... Xander, I-"

"You're right," he continued a little coolly. "I don't have to care. But I do. Because if I stopped caring, I won't be willing to make sacrifices anymore. I won't be willing to put up with that kind of pain. You have no idea how many times I wanted to pack up, leave Will a note, and just disappear." He took a moment to soften his voice before going on. "But I don't. I can't. I'm not going to claim to know anything about fate, but I do know that falling in with Buffy was no accident. And leaving her just because I don't want to hurt, it would be like stabbing her in the back with her favorite stake. She's a Slayer and she can't change that. She has to do what she's doing. Me? I don't have to. And that makes my job even more important."

After a long moment of silence, Marissa slowly nodded. "I'm being lectured here, but I'm not sure I know what the exact moral is."

"I love you, Marissa," Xander told her simply. "Outside of Buff and Will, you're the closest thing I have to a sister. You're more than a friend. You're blood. Even better, you're not a blot to the Harris family name. You're a good kid with a good head on her shoulders. I know it's scary, not knowing where I am or what I'm doing or if I'm even alive. Believe me, I'm scared for me, too. But I go out there to fight the bad guys so that people like you can wake up in the morning and survive to take another False Literature class or whatever. It's not for me and it's not for the rush. It's for you and people like you. Do you get it now, or do I need to get Barney the Dinosaur out here to sing us a little song?"

With a weak smile, Marissa responded, "I get it. I appreciate my sentimentality being mixed with a healthy dose of sarcasm."

"Makes a great chaser," Xander agreed.

Pausing for a moment, Marissa stated, "I'm proud of you, Alexander Harris. No matter what happens here in Woodridge or in Europe, I want you to know that you've got someone here rooting for you. And I hope I end up being worthy of your protection."

With a small smile, Xander replied, "And I'm proud of you, Marissa Harris. Even if I end up being relocated to a remote jungle in the middle of Africa, I'm always going to wonder who was lucky enough to wind up with you in the end." Tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear, he finished, "Here's hoping I'll always be able to protect you."

After a moment in which she thought she was about to tear up, she looked away from him. "Okay, maybe that was too much sentimentality and not enough sarcasm."

"That's what I thought," Xander agreed. "Was the hair thing too much?"

"Actually, that strand had been bugging me."

"Good, then I gave it what it deserved."

She let out a small laugh and leaned back in her seat. "I just feel good with you, you know? I know I can probably count the number of times we've hung out on both hands-and maybe on one of my feet-but with Ma on her downward spiral and Uncle Tony sick and most of my friends gone and my ex-boyfriend becoming buddies with a vampire, I'm just not sure where to turn anymore. It's lonely."

As though considering whether or not he should say anything, Xander took a moment before finally saying, "I live in a facility with almost 1,200 girls. I'm the only non-evil guy they come in contact with on a regular basis. I know of at least five of them who definitely have a thing for me, and I can name at least twenty others that probably do. And lots of them are 'experimental,' if you get my drift. I'm living every young man's wildest dream. And yet I completely relate on the lonely thing."

With a mirthless laugh, Marissa commented, "We're both all alone in a crowded room."

"That's because the heroes are always lonely."

"What about the Fantastic Four? The Avengers? The Justice League?"

"I don't exactly see Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and the Green Lantern sitting down for a game of Parcheesi."

"Actually, I think it happened once."

"Wouldn't be surprised," Xander shrugged. He looked into her eyes before holding up his earpiece. "I should call in and let HQ know what's going on over here. Is there anything else I should know?"

After a hesitation, Marissa mentioned, "I think Spike's in trouble."

"He's always in trouble."

"No, I...," Marissa trailed off. She knew nothing about Spike's situation or about how bad his current troubles were, but she thought it was only right that she pass along the warning he had given her. "He told me last night that I should stay away from him. He thinks something's after him and that it'll try to get to him through the people he associates with. He also said... he doesn't want me or my 'kin' getting hurt. I'm assuming he meant you."

Xander blinked, stunned. "No kidding? Spike said that?"

Marissa nodded, then thought about it for a moment before adding, "And he's been talking to Robbie. I don't know what about, but he mentioned something about having business with some of my friends. Since Rob's the only one I know he's met... I don't want to think about Spike dragging Robbie into anything. Outside of organized sports, Robbie's a pushover and fairly impressionable."

"Have you talked to him?"

"Not since the incident with him and Spike at Neon on Sunday," she replied. "I've tried calling him to tell him that Spike's not exactly good news, but he hasn't been picking up his phone. I'd visit him, but he's going through something right now and made it clear that he doesn't want to see me."

"You still care about him, don't you?" The question was mostly rhetorical. Seeing Marissa's downcast eyes, Xander reached into his jacket pocket and drew out a notepad and pen. "Here," he told her as he handed them to her. "Give me his address. Assuming the Eye Patch Guy rumors haven't hit him yet, he doesn't know who I am. I'll visit him tonight and see if I can intimidate him enough to convince him to stay away from the bleached mosquito."

Looking up at Xander, Marissa asked in unveiled surprised, "You'd do that? Don't you have some other stuff to do? Some Slayerific duties or something?"

"Once I put a call in to Buff and co.," Xander told her, "someone will be officially put on the job to handle it. I might be assigned team leadership, but until we witness a direct threat on a major level, there'd be no reason for me to be on the job 24/7. I can spare thirty minutes to mentor a troubled teen about who he should be friends with."

"Actually, Robbie's twenty-two."

With a shrug, Xander responded, "Like I said, guys in their late teens and early twenties are basically all the same. Now give me his address and some directions. I'll pay him a visit and make sure that he's not hanging around with any of my old partners in crime." With a smirk and an utterance of thanks, Marissa obliged him.

Xander had no idea that Spike's wouldn't be the only familiar face he'd see that night.

Robbie answered his front door only a few seconds after the doorbell rang.

Spike blinked at him in astonishment. "I think that's the first time in ages that someone was actually waiting by the door for me," he remarked. "Don't get your hopes up too high, Hercules; I like my fare a little more feminine."

"Not funny," Robbie answered, moving to allow Spike enough room to come in. "The sun set over an hour ago. I was beginning to think you'd forgotten."

"Do you not look at almanacs at all?" Spike asked without moving. "You should make it a habit from now on. The lunar cycle isn't set to have any affect on you until twenty-four hours before the full moon, and then again twenty-four hours afterwards. The moon rises at 8:16 tomorrow, so I made it here with over an hour to spare. Presuming this Jordy boy of yours doesn't live several towns over, we're doing all right on the time factor."

"No sire," Robbie reminded him crossly as he grabbed his corduroy jacket from the sofa. Putting it on, he added, "I'm kinda feeling things out on my own here. This isn't like the World of Darkness games, where vampires have a sire and werewolves have an alpha and mages have... whatever it is they have. Never actually played a mage."

"Oh hell," Spike muttered, his arms crossed over his chest as he leaned against the doorframe. "Why do I always happen to fall in with insane role-players or pop culture fanatics? Worse yet, you're a combination of both."

Robbie shot him a look. "If you're so turned off with the idea, why are you standing there and willing to be my Obi Wan?" Seeing the glare Spike shot back at him, Robbie cleared his throat and amended, "My mentor. I meant mentor. Actually, now that I think of it, what are you doing standing there? Is that whole thing about vampires needing an invitation true, or do you just not want to get that close to me in case I... y'know... turn?"

Spike immediately laughed at the question. "What, afraid of you? You go feral on me and I've got enough muscle and experience to knock you halfway across California, mate. I need an invite, yeah, so just let me in before the neighbors perk their ears."

"Do I have to say a special incantation or-"

"Just make it clear I'm bloody welcome, okay?"

"Okay, fine," Robbie said defensively. "You're welcome. I hereby invite you in. Wipe your feet first, okay? I just mopped the floor a couple of weeks ago." Watching Spike simply come in and throw himself down on the nearby armchair, Robbie remarked, "I think we're going to have to work on our communication problem."

"Have we got enough time to spare for a beer?"

"That right there," Robbie told him. "That's kinda proof that one of us needs to sharpen our listening skills."

"I can hear your heartbeat pounding in your chest because you're afraid you're gonna turn at any minute and don't know if you'll be able to control the beast this time," Spike replied sourly. "You just want to hurry up and be safe in your happy little dog cage."

"We can always make a happy little cage for you, Spike," said a surprising voice from the still-open door. "Then you can be neighbors."

With an exaggerated eyeroll, Spike groaned out, "Oh bugger!" Turning around in his seat, he glared at Xander as the one-eyed man gazed appraisingly around the small apartment. "Pity you don't need a direct invite. I'd tell Hercules there to slam the door in your face and leave you be until Kingdom come."

"Which will be when?" Xander asked. "Half-past now-ish?" Looking at Robbie, he stepped into the apartment and offered his hand to shake. "Robbie Wilson, right? Name's Xander. The guy sitting in your armchair's the very devil I was going to speak of."

"Xander," Robbie murmured, warily shaking his hand. "You Marissa's cousin?"

"I've got that honor, yeah," came the reply. "She was worried about you, wanted me to tell you to be careful around a certain fanged friend of ours. But after overhearing the tail-end of this conversation, methinks I get the reason why you don't want her getting too close to you."

"Patch using his noodle?" Spike sarcastically marveled.

"Can it, Bleach Bottle," Xander told him, a little too sharply. "The world's changed since the last time we crossed paths, so I can't afford to waste time with your one-liners. We're talking lycanthropy with a possible hint of something else, if I heard right. After dealing with ghost problems all weekend and getting nowhere, I might as well try to get to the bottom of this little side project as soon as I can."

"Ghost problems?" Spike asked. "I thought you were off visiting relations."

After an almost undetectable pause, Xander replied, "I had to tell the family something, right?"

Spike smirked again. "Oh, lovely. So you mean to say that you lied to the pup and once again told the truth to your enemy? I don't think the world's changed that much at all, Harris." At Xander's hostile glare, Spike repressed a chuckle and rose to his feet. "Right then. Let's get going before Hercules here goes furry."

When Xander asked where they were going, Robbie replied, "I've got a friend. The guy who bit me, actually. His cousin's like some kind of werewolf guru or something like that, so Spike thinks that talking to him will help figure out why I'm not like normal werewolves."

"Nothing says fun times like hanging out with a mortal enemy and an atypical wolfie," Xander commented. "Mind if I tag along? Might as well make a report of all of the supernatural happenings in the area while I'm here. I'm sure there'd be a few people over at Slayer Central who'd love to make charts and stuff out of all this."

"Sure," Robbie responded. "But, uh... what's Slayer Central?"

"I'm... still not sure how much of this to believe," Robbie murmured as they approached Jordy's house.

"Said the werewolf to the vampire," Xander joked. "It's a lot to take in, sure, but let's face it. At this point, everyone already knows about the existence of dark forces in the world. Consider yourself one of the lucky few who know the whole story surrounding Sunnydale."

"Unless you believed that earthquake bollocks that the government thought up," Spike remarked bitterly. "They didn't even give it a decent rating on the Richter scale, if my memory serves me right. What, a five or a six? Anyone who believed that an earthquake that size could completely obliterate a town the size of Sunnydale isn't playing with a full deck."

"People believed it," Robbie brought up. "I mean, I think they did, anyway. I think they just didn't want to think about it too hard. Lots of weird stories made their way here from Sunnydale, so... I dunno. It just seems so stupid that we'd actually fall for some spoon-fed BS like that."

"Proves that you're human," Xander replied. "Well, mostly human, at any rate. Trust me, the first time vamps nearly took over Sunnydale back in '97, I thought for sure that everyone would be freaking out over it. Turns out, they made themselves believe some stupid rumor about gang wars and PCP."

"Sunnydale High wasn't exactly chock-full of Einsteins, now was it?" Spike sarcastically smirked.

"Bite me, Spike."

"Not the wisest of comebacks to use on a vampire, even one with a soul."

"Normal vampires don't have souls?" Robbie asked.

"Only two of them I've ever heard of," Xander answered. "One's dead and the other's up and kicking. Thing is, up until a few nights ago, I thought it was the other way around." With a sideways glance at Spike, he added, "Way to drop a bomb."

"Always was the explosive type," Spike replied. To Robbie, he said, "You'll learn that souls mean a lot in the supernatural community. All vamps are hybrids, since we're demons living inside a human body. Thing with me is, I managed to earn back my human soul, which is something no other vamp ever cared to do on purpose. So while I've got the powers and urges of the demon lurking inside of me, I've got that annoying little Jiminy Cricket buzzing in my ear any time I get the itch to do something naughty."

"Oh," Robbie murmured, slowly absorbing all of this. After a moment, it seemed as though the information began making sense in his head. "Okay, I get that," he told them, beginning up the walkway of a small house. "But then, what does that mean for me? Werewolves are kinda the same, right? We're humans, but the demon comes out once a month. So do I lose my soul, or does it just take a snooze somewhere in my subconscious?"

"Truth is, we don't know much about lycanthropy," Xander told him grimly. "It's not purely a supernatural phenomenon, so it can't be directly linked with mysticism. Some refer to it as a paranormal virus that can be controlled and regulated. Others claim that there's a certain psychology behind it, surrounding the dichotomy between civilized man and the primal beast within."

"Sounds like a college dissertation," Spike snorted.

"I never went to college," Xander reminded him bluntly. "I graduated high school before a snake-like demon destroyed it and then went out and became a productive member of society. Let's list off your accomplishments, shall we?"

"Saved the world," Spike told him.

"Same here," Xander replied.

"Died doing it."

"Lost an eye."

Ignoring the discourse between the two of them as it became more heated and immature, Robbie went up the porch steps of Jordy's house and rang the bell. He listened as Xander heavily ascended the steps and moved besides him. "Heh," Xander laughed quietly. "I was just thinking, the only person I knew who could control his werewolf-ism was a friend of mine from high school. He explained it to me once, but I hadn't thought that the information would be important then. Something about how it's like a disease and certain charms and chants are like taking antibiotics for it. Still, when he did transform, he reverted to being your standard drooling, man-eating monster; no consciousness at all."

Stepping up behind them, Spike asked, "That was the bloke that turned Willow gay, wasn't it?"

"You don't turn people gay, Spike," Xander replied wearily.

"I don't," Spike chuckled. "And from what I recall, you were doing all right with her. It wasn't until the little mongrel had a go that she started batting for the other team. Not that I fault her, of course. He was a bit effeminate."

At that moment, the door opened. Initially, Robbie didn't recognize the person who answered the door, but then he remembered the slight man from his brief encounter with him the month before. "Oh hey," Robbie told him. "You're Daniel Osbourne, right? Jordy's cousin? I'm Robbie Wilson, the guy he told you about." Seeing that the pale man was looking past him with a stunned expression, Robbie asked, "Uh... he did tell you about me, right?"

"Well, I'll be damned," Spike breathed.

"There's an idea," replied the man better known as Oz. Without another word, he quickly disappeared into the house, looking as though he was racing towards something.

"Was that who I just thought that was?" Xander asked, astonished.

"This 'speaking of the devil' nonsense is really beginning to grate on my nerves," Spike muttered.

Going inside, Robbie looked around. "Dan? Dan, what's up?" Looking to Xander, he asked, "Why do I get the idea I'm missing something?"

"Bright notion," Xander remarked, also stepping inside. Just then, a teenager who liked like a younger, blonder, and taller version of Oz came bounding down the stairs, confused by the commotion. "Jordy," Xander groaned. The boy in question turned to look at him inquiringly. An exasperated hand to his forehead, Xander moaned, "Man, I knew I heard that name somewhere before. You're Oz's cousin."

"Hello?" Spike asked, still at the door, unable to come in. "What about me?"

"You know Oz?" Jordy asked Xander. To Robbie, he queried, "Both of these guys friends of yours?"

"Yeah," Robbie replied, baffled over who "Oz" was.

Jordy moved to the door and motioned Spike inside. "You wanna come on in and tell me what you guys said or did to actually get Oz riled up over something?"

As Spike walked through the door in relief, Robbie pieced together that Oz must be a nickname for Daniel Osbourne and asked, "How'd you know he was riled up?"

"You can smell it," Spike replied. "Strong emotions got a certain scent to them."

"Jordy," came Oz's calm voice from the next room. "Move." The four men in the entrance foyer turned to see Oz standing at the threshold of the dining room. In his hands he held a crossbow that seemed far too big and exaggerated for him. It was poised directly at Spike's heart.

"What the-?" Spike blinked, quickly dodging behind Xander and Robbie. "Where in the bloody hell does everyone get crossbows from? Can someone at least come at me with a poleax or something original once in a while?"

"Get out of the way, Robbie," Oz spoke coldly.

"Oz," Xander started carefully. "Relax. You remember me, right?"

"Hey Xander," Oz said without moving his eyes from his target. "You'd better move, too."

"Oh, if he's willing to go through both of you to get to me, I'm screwed," Spike bemoaned.

"No one's going to go through anyone to get to anyone," Xander proclaimed. "Oz, listen up, man. I still have the same reaction to Spike, but things have changed. He's not evil anymore."

"Yeah," Oz replied uncertainly, slightly lowering the crossbow. "I remember the chip."

"What chip?" Robbie asked.

"The chip that was implanted in Spike's head to keep him from hurting humans," Xander answered.

"You mean the chip I don't have anymore?" Spike inquired.

"You don't have the chip?!" Oz nearly cried out, once again raising the weapon.

"Whoa, hey, put that down!" Xander shouted. "Not the time to go flying off the handle, o Zen buddy of mine. When I say Spike's not evil, I don't mean he's got something rammed into his brain to hold him back. He's got a soul now, just like Angel did."

"A soul?" Oz asked. "A vampire can't just wake up one morning and have a soul."

"Technically," Spike offered, "vampires don't wake up in the morning at all. As for the soul thing, it's a long and interesting tale, and if you don't try to deprive me of my unlife, I'll be sure to give you every little detail." After a moment's pause, he added, "Well, maybe not every detail, since I doubt Buffy would appreciate me sharing certain information."

"As would I," Xander groaned.

"Buffy?" Oz spoke the name as though he had almost forgotten who she was. Looking at everyone else in the room, including his perplexed cousin and Jordy's disturbed friend, Oz thought about it long and hard. If Xander said that Spike had a soul, then he'd have to believe that Spike had a soul. Xander would never side with a vampire. Unless Xander was now evil, in which case there were going to be a whole lot of problems.

"Crossbow down," Jordy told him, warily approaching him and holding a hand up. "Robbie says that these guys are his friends, and at least one of them is your friend, too. I don't know what's the deal with this Spike guy, but we need to get Robbie locked up before he turns. After that, you did promise that you'd try to answer some questions for them."

Oz glanced at Jordy before looking at Robbie. "Yeah," he said quietly, putting the weapon down. "I know." Seeing Spike's relieved expression as he emerged from behind Xander and Robbie, Oz quickly put the weapon back up. "But just so we're clear, my reflexes have gotten a lot faster over the years. Any sudden moves, and I'm going to do what should've been done years ago."

Having stopped in his tracks as soon as the crossbow was pointed at him, Spike asked, "Why is everyone finding it so difficult to believe that I'm not evil?"

"I don't know," Oz replied blankly. "Maybe it has something to do with the fact that you once knocked Xander out and kidnapped him and my girlfriend, trying to get her to use her magic to help you?"

"Oh yeah," Spike replied with a smile. "Isn't that the time that she and Xander snogged in my lair?"

Narrowing his eyes, Oz let out a growl. Spike was about to pile on another snide remark, but stopped when he noticed that the eyes that were glaring at him weren't Oz's typical light blue, but a deep black. He found himself biting back his words as he realized that Oz suddenly seemed a little hairier than he had a moment ago.

Shaking his head, Oz closed his eyes for a moment, as though needing to get his bearings straight. When he opened them, his face was as hairless and his eyes were as clear as they always were. "You don't want to test me, Spike. If you didn't have Xander vouching for you, I'd be washing your blood out of my aunt's carpet."

Putting the weapon down once and for all, he looked at Robbie and cocked his head in the direction of another door, motioning for him to follow him. After a glance back at Spike, Robbie followed Oz as he opened the door and led him down into the basement. Jordy soon followed suit.

Glancing at Spike, Xander remarked, "You know, a 'thank you' would be nice."

"So would a new Harley," Spike bitterly replied as he followed after the others.

Alone in the foyer, Xander sighed. In his best British accent, he stated, "'Gee, thanks Xander. I really don't want to picture Oz scraping my bloody giblets up from the floor. I like my innards just where they are, and they'll stay that way, thanks to your confidence in me.'" His hands in his pocket, he grumbled quietly to himself as he joined the others in the basement.

Spike sniffed the air, unimpressed. "Certainly not a palace," he brought up. "But then, it's meant to be little more than a kennel." Spying the bass and electric guitars in one corner along with the amps and speakers, he muttered, "For more than one type of dog, by the looks of it."

Oz led Robbie to the torn green blanket hanging from one side of the wall. Pulling it away, he revealed the large steel cage that Robbie had spent his first transformation in. Unlocking it, he told the younger boy, "After Jordy told me that you seemed in control of yourself even when you were in your wolf form, I brought my old air mattress over here and plugged in a small television. Not homey, but I figured you might as well be comfortable since we know that you're not going to tear everything apart."

"We think that," Robbie corrected him, taking off his jacket and draping it over the banister. "That's what I brought my occult specialist here for."

"Never would've thought Xander would make much of an occultist," Oz said.

"Not him," Robbie told him, taking off his shirt. "I only just met him when we were on our way over. Spike's the guy who recommended coming over and asking all the questions."

"Spike?" Oz blurted out in disbelief.

With a smug smile, Spike commented, "And you were about to stake me."

"It's been a long time since I've seen a vampire," Jordy mentioned, sitting down in a patched-up green beanbag chair. "And we're not staking you because you've got a soul?"

"I know," Xander scoffed, crossing his arms over his chest. "Evil's still evil, isn't it?"

"A soul's not evil by nature," Jordy told him, almost as though scolding him. "It all depends on what you do with it. Werewolves are violent killers, but Oz and I learned how to control our wolf forms and we keep people like Robbie locked up so they won't do any damage. Other people would just load up on silver bullets and kill us. We've got souls, but I guess those people just believe that evil's still evil."

After a moment of silence in which he relished Xander's sheepish expression, Spike grinned and remarked, "I like this one. Good head on his shoulders."

"That's because the nights of the full moon are the only nights that he's sober," Oz scowled. "We learned the hard way that the anti-transformation charms don't work so well when you're drunk or stoned. Still got the scar to prove it." He looked at Robbie, who was laying his shirt and jeans by the stairway. "If you need the bathroom or anything, we've still got a few minutes left, I think."

Standing in only his boxers, Robbie shivered as he staggered towards the cage. "I'm good. Just glad you put a blanket in there this time."

"Last month was August," Jordy reminded him as Oz locked the cage door behind him. "Besides, most of us don't feel the cold when we're in our beast form. We don't feel much of anything... except for everything."

"Okay, did anyone else just get lost there?" Xander queried.

"Werewolves are just furbags full of instinct and animalistic impulses," Spike explained, moving a plastic chair to where he could keep an eye on Robbie. Sitting down, he continued, "Their senses are heightened even more than a vampire's, but it's all so much to take in that it doesn't really register as anything, forcing them to try harder just to get any decent bit of satisfaction. That's why they don't usually just bite the victim; they rip into his intestines. They don't just eat; they feast. They don't just fight; they kill. They don't just mate; they..."

"Destroy," Jordy said thinly.

Everyone turned their eyes to look at the contemplative boy sitting on the beanbag chair. Robbie noticed that he had something that looked like a pale blue rosary laced across the fingers of his right hand, and he seemed to be thumbing the beads thoughtfully. While Robbie had never thought to find out more about Jordy until the incident the month before, he suddenly found himself wishing he knew what was going through his mind.

Had he done something to a girl? To a girl he cared about? Or, perhaps worse, to a girl he didn't even know? Robbie found himself thinking about Marissa, and realized that he really had made the right choice in letting her go. Maybe he was selfish for not wanting to skip town entirely, but he was at least smart enough to distance himself from her. If she didn't ostracize or kill him because of his lycanthropy, then he'd likely end up doing worse to her if he managed to get free one night.

"Right then," Spike said, breaking the silence. "Who's up for popcorn?"

Callous as the comment may have been, it did work to get things rolling.

Not long after the statement, Robbie began transforming. Xander flinched at the tortured sounds that came from the cage. Oz, who had closed the curtain halfway to allow Robbie some semblance of privacy, closed his eyes and bowed his head, almost as though in prayer. Jordy hadn't shifted from his meditative position. As for Spike, he had moved to lean against the wall, watching Robbie throughout the entire transformation process.

Once the handsome young man was turned into a cowering beast with shaggy brown fur, Spike quietly called, "Hercules?" Seeing no response other than the ragged breathing coming from the werewolf, Spike decided to change his approach. "Robbie? You hear me?" After repeated attempts at getting Robbie's attention, Spike looked to Xander and shrugged. "Wheel's spinning, hamster's dead."

"I'm not a hamster," Robbie suddenly said in a muffled voice. "Just exhausted."

Pleasantly surprised, Spike turned back to look at Robbie and crouched down. Robbie was lying facedown on the floor, and was still somewhat recognizable even with the fangs, slightly protruded snout, and coarse fur. While far from an improvement as far as appearance went, Spike was impressed at the humanity he still saw within Robbie's light brown eyes. "As I live and breathe," he remarked, dumbfounded. "Well, not breathe, of course, because I don't do that. And I'm not really alive, either. But tonight's not about me. It's all you."

Looking up, Spike saw that Oz was gazing down at Robbie's wolf form, apparently perplexed. "So, let's see if you earn your title of werewolf guru, yeah? Got any inkling as to why our boy isn't clawing at the bars and trying to rip my face off?"

After a moment, Oz slowly began to shake his head. "I can make a few guesses, but nothing solid." Running a hand through his hair, he turned to look at Xander. "What ever happened to Giles? We could use him right about now."

Xander looked like he was about to make a reply, but thought better of what he had to say. "Currently indisposed," was his only answer.

"Forget the librarian," Spike told them. "God, haven't either of you got brains of your own?" To Oz, he said, "Let's hear your guesses, then. It's better than nothing."

"First answer a question," Oz replied. "Why are you so interested?"

"What?" Spike asked, feigning ignorance. "It's what I do. I'm good now, remember?"

"So you just run around doing good deeds for strangers without any hidden motives?"

Trying to work out what he should say, Spike pointed to Robbie, then to Xander. "He's a friend of his friend. And his friends happen to be my friends, too. Well, one of them, at least. Maybe two. All right, three; I didn't mind Red as much as I let on."

"So what he's saying," Xander piped up, "is that Robbie's a friend of a friend's friend. Which totally explains why he's in such a charitable mood." Spike was about to agree with him when a look in Xander's face proved that he was being sarcastic. "I was wondering it, too. Marissa told me that you were about to beat the crap out of Robbie at Neon; the about-face is about as suspicious as-"

"As suspicious as evil ghosts popping up in the cemetery?" Spike interrupted.

"You think Robbie's lycanthropy's linked to the ghosts?" Xander asked incredulously.

"No, that's bollocks," Spike jeered. "With that much malevolent energy about, I'd expect that to make his beast even more feral. That's the point. Like I told Hercules the other day, normal werewolves are completely out-of-control strays that should be shot on sight. But a werewolf who can actually think coherently enough to use his transformation for his own needs... come on, I'm not the only one thinking it here. He can either help destroy the world or help save it."

"You intend to use Robbie in your own personal army against these things?" Xander asked with a trace of anger. "Against whatever it is that might be coming? Are you crazy? He's just a kid!"

"He's in his twenties. How old were you when you first met the Slayer?" Spike asked. Seeing Xander quiet down, he went on. "How old was the Slayer when she was first told about her destiny? And how old are your current Slayers that you send out to fight demons?"

"That's different," Xander argued. "They're Slayers. They were chosen to do what they're doing."

"And how do we know that he isn't?" Spike brought up, pointing to Robbie. "Look, Patch, I don't claim to be a fortune teller or to have read any ancient prophecies lately, but I've seen enough working with both your group and Angel's crew to know that sometimes, things happen for a reason. Of all the werewolves in all the world, this boy gets bit by Oz's kin. Of all the people in all the world for him to have been dating, he was making time with your kin. And now we learn that Hercules here can shape-shift without losing even a shred of his humanity? Something's up. Don't tell me that it doesn't feel like the Powers That Be have been pulling at least a few strings, eh?"

"So what you're saying," Oz tried to work out, "is that you think he's somehow connected to all of us, and it's meant that he help stop an upcoming apocalypse?"

"I don't want to save the world," Robbie groaned weakly from the floor, his words muddled because of new snout. "I just want the world to stop spinning."

Crouching down besides him, Oz sympathetically said, "Yeah, I know it's nauseating. It's like that for me too for the first few minutes after I turn. I put some water bottles over there in the cooler in the corner. They usually help me."

As Robbie crawled off towards the cooler, Spike gazed down at Oz in shock. "Wait... you're conscious during your transformations too?"


"Why didn't you tell us that?"

"You didn't ask," Oz replied, rising to his feet. Whereas most people would have said it to be humorous, Oz was simply being matter-of-fact. "I told you I'd give you my theories after you told me why you were interested. Surprisingly enough, your reasons actually sound somewhat noble."

"Not evil anymore," Spike remarked. "Jesus, how many times do I have to say it?"

"Probably another hundred," Xander told him. Looking to Oz, he said, "So, how about a round of 'The Many Adventures of Oz the Werewolf?'"

Oz crossed his arms over his chest and looked around the room, almost as though to make sure they were alone. "I started having control of myself while in my wolf state about two years ago. It was disorienting at first, but then I realized that I transcended the boundaries of my transformations. It was rumored that few werewolves managed to achieve that state-it's kind of like the werewolf version of reaching Enlightenment. I decided against telling anybody, mostly because I don't even like talking about the fact that I am a werewolf, never mind a rare transcended one."

"Never know what kind of crazy werewolf sects might want you to join their special cult," Xander commented jokingly.

"Exactly," Oz replied seriously. "After hearing about everything that happened in Sunnydale-bits and pieces, at any rate-I knew I couldn't be too careful about who knows about the wolf in me. When Jordy told me about his friend's condition, I was understandably a little concerned."

"Because there's no way a werewolf could be 'born' with what took you years to achieve," Spike mentioned.

"Right," Oz answered. "Except... even my transcendence seemed a little rushed. Less than ten years when it usually takes people three or four times that long, if they achieve it at all? I had to see it for myself to make sure, and now... I'm still not sure I believe it."

As Oz trailed off and looked towards Robbie, Xander's gaze turned to the still-meditating Jordy. "Common link much?"

"Your cousin's the one that turned you, too?" Spike asked. When Oz nodded, Spike was confused. "But Robbie told me something about how Jordy loses control of himself easily. If this all stems from him, why can't he get a hold of himself?"

"Couple of theories," Oz responded. "One is that it's a 'generational' trait. Kind of like a dormant gene that a parent can pass on to a child even if he doesn't personally possess it. Jordy bit me when he was just a kid, so maybe the ability took some time to gestate. That's why, now that Jordy's older and bit Robbie while in wolf form, Robbie was able to tap into that instantaneously. The other theory goes off what I said before. Jordy's not exactly the role model for clean living, so that could have a negative impact on his own ability to advance."

"What if it's not just Jordy's 'line'?" Xander brought up. "What if werewolves are just evolving?"

"We would have heard about it," Oz refuted. "The werewolf community's pretty tight. While one or two people might keep quiet about something as big as transcending, there's no way that a bunch of newbie wolves could make that big leap without raising a few eyebrows."

"Maybe it's the opposite," Spike murmured.

"You're saying that werewolves are devolving?" Oz queried.

"I don't know what I'm saying anymore," Spike grumbled, moving to take up his seat once again. "Maybe we really could make some bloody use out of that librarian." He put his head in his hands as he tried to work through their problem. "There are two possibilities. Either Hercules' so-called 'transcendence' is happening because the Powers That Be decree it, or it isn't. And if it isn't, that branches off into other possibilities. Someone get a whiteboard and write this all down."

"Or we could just remember it," Xander replied.

"That's not what Angel would've done," Spike told him.

"Since when did you care about what Angel would've done?" Xander asked jeeringly.

"Since the man died to make sure I'd live!" Spike blurted out.

He immediately snapped his mouth shut. He hadn't wanted to say that. Now there would be questions, and he'd have to force himself to go through explanations. He'd have to explain about the Shanshu prophecy, which foretold that a vampire with a soul would one day fulfill his destiny and become mortal again. He'd have to discuss the line of bad choices Angel had made near the end, resulting in the death and betrayal of most of his allies. He'd have to tell them that the Senior Partners had tried to get Angel to commit one final sin before he was officially theirs, body and soul; they'd get him to personally kill one of his most surprisingly loyal teammates: Spike.

It was supposed to have been a difficult decision, a decision that would drive Angel insane. After manipulating Angel into doing their dirty work, they thought that this last deed would break him. There would be no way that Angel would have allowed himself to go through all of that suffering without regaining his mortality as a reward. There was no way Angel would choose Spike over his own future. Once he killed Spike, Angel would officially belong to the Senior Partners, mortal or not.

Spike, broken and bloodied, had been forced to kneel in front of his grandsire, who looked just as haggard. After looking Angel in the eye, Spike had smiled grimly at the sight of him releasing the wooden stake from his spring-activated wrist mechanism. Raising the stake, Angel uttered what would be his last words before killing himself, upsetting everything that the Senior Partners had planned.

"So assuming it isn't these Powers That Be," Oz broke in. Spike wiped his hand over his face, as though just waking up from a bad dream. Oz either didn't care about the emotional turmoil the vampire felt, or he chose to ignore it in favor of staying on task. He always was one of the brighter bulbs in the Scooby box. "Which, I'll assume, is a euphemism for something that someone will explain to me later. At any rate, this means that something's going down that's affecting either Jordy's contagion factor or all of the new werewolves."

"Wait a minute," Xander realized. "Demons were here first, weren't they? And werewolves traditionally symbolize the balance of man versus his inner beast. What if this inner beast is his inner demon? That would imply that all humans have a demon side to them, which would account for vampires. Being sired doesn't necessarily mean that a demon is being introduced into the body, but that the soul's being extracted-"

"-and all that's left is the demon," Oz concluded.

"Exactly," Xander continued excitedly. "So what if lycanthropy's the same deal? You get bit, and suddenly your innate demon side is triggered by the full moon. As the generations pass, that transformation gets stronger and doesn't just occur on the physical level, but affects the thoughts and actions of the victim."

"But in the case of this apparent devolution," Oz went on, "the human and demonic aspects are being separated. The human's not evolving into a purer demon, but instead, the demon's devolving back into something resembling a mere human."

"Eventually, werewolves might just be phased out," Xander gasped. "It could be nature's cure for lycanthropy."

As Oz and Xander stared at one another in awe, Spike raised an eyebrow at the two of them. Wishing that someone had listened to him and wrote everything down on a whiteboard so he could better follow their train of thought, he remarked, "When the hell did the two of you become demonologists?"

"About two minutes ago," Oz replied.

"Actually, it's kinda my job now," Xander stated proudly. "It pays a lot better than construction."

"Look," Spike told them as he stood, "you do realize that everything you're saying goes against what most facts tell us, right? A vampire drains the blood of a victim and then needs to feed it some of his own blood if he wants it to turn vamp; that's where the introduction of that demon comes in. As for werewolves, you said yourself that no one fully understands lycanthropy. Still, I'm willing to bet that it's less about demons and more about reverting back to the time when men were little more than animals looking for a quick bite and an easy shag." Shrugging, he remarked, "Nice theory. Bet it makes the brainy birds all damp in their pants to hear you talk about evolution and cures and all of that. All it gave me was a headache."

Both Xander and Oz looked disappointed by the rationale in Spike's words. Though he really was simply playing Devil's advocate to keep their options open, Spike realized that he almost indefinitely refuted what otherwise could have been a demonological breakthrough. Still, he was no expert on the matter, and he hoped he remembered this conversation later so he could follow up on it.

"Then that leaves these Powers That Be," Oz murmured. "Which are what exactly?"

"I've got a vague idea, but no specifics," Xander replied. "Heck, up until this weekend I thought Spike was dead for the past five years. I'm lucky if I understand half of the things he rants about these days."

"Be thankful you don't," Spike told him. "The last Big Bad I faced down made sure to clean up after itself real good. Basically told me, 'Oops, sorry, we've got an apocalypse scheduled in another dimension. We killed all your friends and took over this city, but we'll make sure you're taken care of until we're ready to come back and finish what we started.'"

"Wolfram and Hart, right?" Xander asked. With a small degree of annoyance in his voice, he remarked, "We've got a file on them about two miles long. Our precogs already set the date of their proposed apocalypse, mostly because their receptionist or someone called them and told them when it was rescheduled. Arrogant bunch of chowderheads, aren't they?"

Confused, Oz broke in with, "Right, so, Powers That Be, anyone?"

"Exactly what they sound like," Spike responded. "Though I like to call them by various nicknames, including the Powers That Twiddle Their Thumbs and the Powers That Are About As Helpful As A Wet Noodle. They're supposed to make sure that the scales are always balanced so that good comes out on top, but they like doing things the hard way. Sometimes they cut us a break, like leave the right prophecy lying where we could find it or bestow someone with powerful visions. Unfortunately, they have a wicked sense of humor, since the prophecy usually tells us that the world's set to end five minutes ago or the visions are so powerful that they ultimately kill the person who had them." Stopping, he looked up at the two former classmates. "By the way, do you know about...?"

"About what?" Xander asked.


Thinking about it for a moment, Oz queried, "She didn't take Angel's death so well, did she?"

"Actually," Spike answered, "she took it pretty well, being dead herself and all." Seeing Xander and Oz's dumbfounded expressions, Spike winced. "God, that was crude. I didn't even manage to wrench a tasteless joke out of the situation."

"Cordy's... gone?" Xander whispered.

"About four years ago, mate," Spike replied. "Not too long after I came back from the dead. On the plus side, I can say with confidence that she really is in a better place. The Powers decided that they put her through enough nasty experiences and went and made her a Higher Being."

"A Higher Being?" Oz asked. "Is that like being a goddess?"

"Yeah," Spike responded.

Xander's shocked sadness gave way to something that sounded horribly amused. "Cordelia Chase is a goddess? Wow, she must be reveling in her new position."

"Pretty boring, I'd imagine," Spike said, looking up towards the ceiling as though expecting to see Cordelia. "Sitting up there for all eternity, watching us make one stupid mistake after the other. Who'd want to watch the likes of us forever? Though I like to think that she enjoys the various shower scenes in the program."

"You guys are friends with a goddess," Robbie brought up from his cage, "but you can't figure out how to get me back to normal?" Spike, Oz, and Xander turned their heads to look at the werewolf. He had managed to seat himself on the cooler and was finishing off what looked like his fourth bottle of water. Tossing the empty bottle on the floor with the others, he stared at the three of them reproachfully. "If you're the good guys, why don't you try pulling some strings and calling in some favors?"

"Quite frankly," Spike told him, "if I'm calling in any favor to the Powers, it'll be to make sure I don't find myself in yet another hell dimension when I finally see my end. Trading in your lycanthropy-which, by the by, doesn't look at all dangerous-for your happy little 'normal' life isn't on my list of priorities."

"What he means to say," Xander broke in, "is that we don't exactly have a phone number or anything for any of our friends in high places. Short of some direct divine intervention in the form of a helpful e-mail, there's not much we can do except continue our research over at Slayer Central."

"Unfortunately, lycanthropy's a lifelong disease," Oz told Robbie. "The good thing about your current situation is that you're well on your way to controlling it. We'll keep you here for the night, and you should come back tomorrow a few hours before the full moon. I'll start teaching you how to control your physical transformation. With the proper treatment, you can lead a perfectly normal life."

"It's like an STD without the bonus of getting laid," Spike elaborated with a smirk.

"You sure Robbie's okay down there with Jordy?" Xander asked Oz. "He looked a little out of it."

"He'll be fine," Oz replied, closing the door to the basement after Xander and Spike followed him out. "Since he turned last month, Jordy's been careful about his chants. We thought he had it under control, but last month proved that you could never be too careful."

"So you took refuge here too, then?" Spike queried, apparently disinterested. "Everyone from Sunnydale's been popping up in the nearest township they could find, like they believe the same thing won't happen here."

"I live in San Francisco," came the reply from Oz as he lead them into the living room. "There's a group of werewolves that set up a sort of commune by Fisherman's Wharf. I make the drive here to see Jordy a few times a year, trying to convince him to join us so we could try to help him remain in control."

"Someone in your family doesn't have control?" Xander nearly laughed, seating himself on the arm of the easy chair. "Sounds like the black sheep. Or the wolf in black sheep's clothing."

"Very droll," Oz commented.

"I was going for ironic, but that works," Xander told him.

"Jordy's a good kid," Oz affirmed, sitting down on the sofa adjacent to Xander's chair. "But ever since his dad died when he was twelve, he's been indulging in some bad influences. Aunt Maureen's pretty laidback about his choices, though she's smart enough to reprimand him because of the way it's affecting his lycanthropy."

"That why he played the role of the silent monk down there?" Spike asked, standing in their view but not comfortable enough with Oz to let his guard down by taking a seat. "Kid was a disturbing sight, his eyes all glazed over and his lips moving without saying anything."

"Yeah," Oz answered. "If he takes it to mind to actually carry the charms with him, he's not in any danger of turning. But being around Robbie and seeing what he had done to him serves as a reminder to stay on the ball."

"Monk in the strictest sense of the word," Xander muttered.

"Self-flagellating tendencies," Spike added. "He'll make a good martyr someday."

"Still looking for soldiers for your army?" Xander asked deprecatingly.

"Still waiting on back-up from your girls?" Spike shot back.

"Well, at least some things haven't changed," Oz remarked. "The two of you are still bickering and by the sounds of it, Xander's still hanging out with Buffy and Willow." He stopped for a moment before asking. "How is she? Them. How are they?"

Xander thought about how to answer before bringing up, "Not bad. Will's... on the mend right now. Used some heavy magic to get rid of a spell on Giles. He was being manipulated into doing some bad things recently, which took its toll on the Buffster."

"Things aren't all good on the home front," Oz stated.

"Worse than the Cyclops is letting on," Spike concluded, looking down at Xander. "Rupert's 'indisposed' after being purged from a spell and Red needs recovery time. So what are you doing over here, leaving the Slayer all by her lonesome?"

"Buffy's got Dawn," Xander protested. "Dawnie's grown up into one hell of a witch. Making with the magicks and the mayhem. The two of them could stand to spend a bit more time together. Besides, Buff's the one that recommended I come out here to scope things out."

As Oz asked after the recent events in Xander's life, Spike took the time to do some thinking. It didn't take a genius to figure out that Xander was avoiding something. When Xander finished catching Oz up to all of the main events that occurred after the latter had left Sunnydale, Spike brought up, "Slayer's gotten to casting out her friends again, yeah? What, it's a seasonal thing?"

Xander looked up at Spike, clearly resentful. "She's had a lot on her hands ever since, I don't know, the age of fifteen. Twelve years of being humanity's greatest hope against the dark forces would be enough to make someone a bit cranky now and again."

"And having her baby sis mess with magic and inadvertently use it against her necessitates some alone time, am I right?" Judging by Xander's silence, Spike had managed to hit the nail on the head once again. Simple things such as human relationships and cause and effect were easy; apocalypses, not so much. "She still feeling overshadowed by big sis, then? Even after all these years? Buffy never did learn how to balance her personal relationships. My guess is, the little niblet was spending time with Rupert and tapped into something that made him carry out some of her darker desires against the Slayer. Am I warm?"

"How do you do that?" Xander asked bitterly.

"Well, it's not all that that hard to read you," Oz told him. "Even with an eye missing, you're an open book." Looking up at Spike, he asked, "So you've got a soul now. Story behind that, too?"

"Story behind everything," Spike confirmed. "Doesn't mean it's gonna get told. Far as you need to know about me is I'm living comfortable and quiet-like, minding my own business until I hear word of another end-of-days brewing under my nose."

"What is it this time?" Oz asked.

"Ghosts," Xander answered. "Or something using them as its minions. From what I was able to figure out, they're partially-corporeal and have some sort of residual telepathic capabilities from whichever dimension they hailed from. Since I don't know whose ghosts they are, there's no way of knowing if they had a connection to one another while alive. They look to be from various demographics, so until I get a psychic and at least two or three witches on the field, there's no way of knowing who's pulling the strings."

"Considered the First?" Spike queried.

"Top of our list," Xander answered.

"What about that evil law firm in LA?" Oz asked. "Maybe they didn't want to keep to their schedule."

"Not their style," Spike replied. "They're not big on hiding behind curtains." To Xander, he remarked, "Far as I could see, you're at a standstill until your back-up arrives in town. My advice would be to have a local do some patrolling, see if they could recognize our Caspers and give you proper names for you to do a search on. Someone who's lived here his whole life. And having supernatural strength and speed would probably be a plus..."

"You're not roping Robbie into this!" Xander exclaimed. "We don't know what his powers are like."

"What's not to know?" Spike asked. "Red's ex-mongrel here saw for himself that Hercules somehow managed to 'transcend.' We'll keep him on a tight leash, write down any leads he gives us, then stick him back in his cage just to make him feel better."

Clearly not liking the idea, Xander turned his eyes to Oz. After looking down for a moment, Oz finally sighed and said, "If knowing the identities of the ghosts would help, then using a lifelong local would probably be your best bet, especially if time's a factor. I don't suggest tonight, though. Aunt Maureen's going to be gone until late, and I don't want to leave Jordy alone when he's still a little shaky. I'd also like to keep an eye on Robbie for a full night, just to make sure nothing weird happens."

"That settles it," Spike declared. "The guru will keep an eye on Hercules, and tomorrow we'll take him out for a walk." To Xander, he added, "We'll need all the muscle we can get to rein him in if he gets rowdy. If we can't get anymore muscle, do you care to join us?"

"Was that supposed to be a joke?" Xander asked sourly.

"Actually, it was supposed to be a genuine offer mixed with a hint of sarcasm," Spike replied. "If we happen to encounter your relation, we don't want her discovering her former beau has joined the ranks of the monsters she so despises. She'd be much more likely to listen to you telling her to go home than to either of us."

"You're trying to minimize human casualties," Oz realized. "Huh, you really do have a soul."