There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.
- Thornton Wilder

Prologue

Run. Just keep running. Run and never look back.

She's not panicking. She's professionally urgent. She's engaging in a strategic retreat. She has a plan and by plan she means the flip side of the fight-or-flight—she already tried fighting and that woman, demony thing, was too strong, so now?

Running.

The man—the monk—in her arms stumbles and collapses to the pavement, slumping against the chain-link fence. He shudders and gasps for air.

"My journey is done, I think." He struggles to speak, voice weak and thin—she recognizes his tone. That tone, that feeling. It's the tone she fights off every night. That urge to give in, to give up, to lie down and just—

"Don't get metaphory on me," she insists, her voice quivering steel. "We're going."

She reaches for him—she'll carry him if she has to—but he grips her with surprising strength, his fingers digging into her arms. "You have to... the Key. You must protect the Key."

"Fine," she says, humoring him, knowing it'll be easier if he agrees to go willingly, knowing it's what he needs to hear. "We can protect the Key together, okay, just far, far from here."

He shivers, his entire body shakes, slurring his words, "Many more… die if you don't keep it safe."

The fear she's been beating back because she refuses to panic, the need to run turns sideways and slivers across her spine. The fear is worse now: the unknown. She can't fight what she doesn't know. She needs details, goals, strengths and weaknesses. She needs an opponent to slay and an innocent to protect. She needs rules—rules to break, rules to dodge, rules to twist to her advantage. More than that, she needs to shake off the uncertainty, the paralysis that comes from not knowing.

He tells her about the Key to a portal, of his brethren who fought for centuries to keep the Key safe from the trashy ho with cement for fists. The roles solidify in her mind, colored in black and white. The monster in a red silk dress is bad and the Key is good. The Key is good and she's human, created by magic and sent to the Slayer for protection.

The players line up in her mind, the face of evil sneering at her with lips painted bright glossy red, but it's only half the puzzle. She needs more pieces. "Who? Protect who?"

"Your… sister. You cannot abandon. She needs you. She's an innocent. Helpless. Please, you must…" He gasps, sharp and hollow, then his eyes glaze over and his body goes lax.

"But I…" She stares into his glassy eyes, his face frozen in a grimace of pain and surrender. Her stomach drops low, lead-heavy. Her arms release the body and fall limp at her sides, fall with the body, down to the ground, gravity pulling everything down. Her fingertips brush against bits of gravel and dirt on the pavement. Her hands are too numb to mind.

Her legs crumple beneath her and she falls back on her haunches. Her mouth contorts, opens and closes. She struggles for words, for sound, releasing a breathless gasp. Finally, her voice shaking and reed-thin, she whispers, "I don't have a sister."

Seven Months Later

"Death is my gift. Death. Just… death." Her brow furrows. "What kind of crappy gift is that anyway?"

"Well, uh, now, are we gonna throw down?" the vampire asks. "Or should I just get on outta here?" He hooks his thumb and points over his shoulder at the entrance to Restfield cemetery.

"What?" Startled, Buffy looks up from her perch sitting on top of a gravestone. "Oh no, we're totally gonna fight, Joe. I just need to vent first. Can I call you Joe? You look like a Joe," she says, studying his shiny belt buckle and scuffed cowboy boots. Arching her back, she pops her neck and sighs. "Where was I?"

"Death." His bumpy vampire brow furrows. "Not my death, I mean, you were sayin'…"

"Right, so my hokey pokey vision quest delivers the message that death is my gift and the first thing I wanna know is, do Slayer's have a special gift exchange policy at Fate's department store? 'Cause this gift? Sucks." Her shoulders slump, her gaze goes distant, then her voice drops low and weary, tinged with sadness. "I guess I always knew it, you know? The job description's right on the label. But in the back of my mind I'd always hoped I could be something… more. And I know my mom…"

Her throat tightens and she forcibly swallows the knot. "My mom's always wanted me to finish school and get out of Sunnydale." She blinks away at the moisture building in her eyes. "She's always wanted grandkids, too. But I'm pretty sure the college degree was a prereq to the whole 'having a family' scenario." She rasps out a laugh, her throat dry and tight. "Guess I can chalk this up to another way I disappointed her."

Joe's eyes widen and he sneaks a glance at his wristwatch.

"Death is my gift," Buffy mutters, before shaking her head and taking a deep breath. "And what does that even mean? Is that all I am? Just the Slayer. Just a killer. I slay until I get slayed by a bigger bad than the one before. Is it like an either or kinda deal? Killer or martyr—you're only one until you're the other?" She huffs out a breath then points in Joe's direction. "It's a trick question and those aren't fair and my English professor says they don't even measure how smart you are or what you've learned, so it's a stupid question and..."

Her indignation fades, her posture deflating. Her eyes droop down and she releases a sigh. "Killer or martyr," she whispers. "I don't wanna be both. I wanna be neither. Neither of the above. Except that's not a choice I get to make." She squeezes her eyes shut, briefly, then stares down at the ground. "It's just so… cold. I'm supposed to be all 'full of love', but I don't even love my…" She bites her lip. "I don't feel anything, and you're supposed to feel something." Her voice breaks and she blinks back tears. "So what am I? Just hard inside? What's wrong with me? It's cruel. I'm cruel."

"Aw, now, you're not cruel." Buffy flinches at the sound of Joe's voice, looking up at him as if she'd forgotten he was there, only now remembering that he's standing in front of her and oh yeah, vampire. "I, uh, I bet you're chock full of mercy. Hoo, daddy. Just look at ya. You've got—why, you've got a gentle soul."

"You're just saying that 'cause you don't want me to dust you." She rolls her eyes. "And what would a vampire like you know about a soul?" She shakes her head. "God, why am I even talking to you?"

Joe looks bewildered by her question and shrugs in a manner Buffy reads as 'aw shucks, ain't I cute for pretending to care about your issues, little lady.' In no mood to be pitied or patronized by a vampire, she cricks her neck and firms the grip on her stake. "Fine, let's get this over with."

"Whoa! Hey now, no need to get up." He takes a step back, throwing his hands up and gesturing for her to stay seated. "You look so comfortable. I'd really hate to trouble ya."

She narrows her eyes, all business now. "Don't make me chase you. You're just gonna make me grumpy. And in my condition…" Struggling to stand, she glances down at her swollen belly straining the stretchy waistband of her black yoga pants. Raising her gaze, she shoots him a Slayer's glare. "You really don't wanna see me grumpy."

Joe eyes the stake held with an easy grip in Buffy's right hand, then watches her press her left hand against the base of her spine, rubbing away at a persistent ache. She wobbles a bit, her center of gravity off. Vulnerable.

A split-second passes, his eyes flash gold, then he lunges for her neck, one hand swatting at the stake and knocking it from her grasp. He's all snarling hunger and chomping teeth until the Slayer's fist cracks into his jaw and sends him flying ten yards back to crash through a headstone.

"See?" Buffy cocks her head to the side, smiling at the sight of Joe doing his best impression of a bobblehead doll watching the pretty birdies dance around his head. "Told ya we'd get to the fighting part."

Scrambling to his feet, head still dazed from the impact to his skull, Joe squints at her and reassesses the situation. Pregnant, pissed off Slayer with a left hook that could pulverize stone and a stake ready and waiting.

Joe runs.

"Hey! I told you not to— Oh crap," Buffy curses, breaking into an awkward half-galloping trot. She shortens the distance between them, spins the stake in her hand and lets it fly through the air to pierce Joe dead between the shoulderblades.

Except not with the piercing because Spike leaps out of nowhere and tackles Joe to the ground. The two vampires are a rolling mass of punches, kicks, snarls and groans, so loud and annoying that the only appropriate response is a put-upon sigh and a glance upwards in supplication. So Buffy glances, sighs, then walks to where her stake's fallen to the ground. Bending her knees, she braces one hand on the base of her spine and leans to the side, contorting her body like this is a game of Twister, bending down till her belly's sticking up towards the sky.

She makes a desperate swipe for the stake, just barely grasping it with the tips of her fingers when Spike hollers, "Stake! Anytime now, love!"

Gee, how can she resist such a charming request?

Standing, stake in hand, she approaches the macho vampire smackdown, inhaling the testosterone in the air. Her lip curls in disgust. Finding an opening, she grabs Spike by the collar and lifts him up till his boots are dangling just above the ground, then she smashes the blunt end of the stake against his forehead—hard. She hopes his forehead gets splinters.

"Ow! Bloody hell, woman! Put me down!"

She smashes the stake into his forehead again. "Not until you get it through your thick skull that I don't need your help." And again. "That I don't want your help and that I… I …"

"That you're an independent lady who doesn't need a man to save her?" Joe suggests as he inches away in a slow backwards crawl, his face now bruised, blood trickling from his busted lip.

"Yeah, that!" Buffy slams the stake against Spike's forehead one last time.

"Oow," Spike drawls, lifting his lip in disgruntlement and scowling at her. "You gonna stop hitting me anytime soon?"

"You gonna stop interfering with my work?"

"Noo," he drawls out the vowel again as if she's too slow to understand the obvious, then points at her rounded belly. "'Cause you're the size of a house and you shouldn't be running around fighting in your condition. Especially not alone."

She blinks and shakes her head, eyes strained wide as she processes his words. "…did you just call me fat?"

"Pfft, nothing wrong with a little meat on a woman. And it's not like I'm trying to be insulting, it's just…" He eyes her belly, his gaze trailing up to leer at her full breasts. He gives her a knowing look. "You're huge, pet, and you know it."

Struck speechless, Buffy's mouth drops open, her eyes sparking with the beginnings of an incandescent rage.

"It's natural enough, nothing wrong with it. It's an age-old process," Spike reassures her, somehow managing to shrug while suspended in mid-air. His placating expression tightens into a scowl and he stabs an accusing finger at her belly. "Which is why any idiot knows you don't send a walking, talking not-so-Easybake oven out to slay the nasties. Surefire way to put a dent in your Bundt cake." He pauses then raises a superior eyebrow. "Your Watcher should know better. Fact, bet he told you to stay home and you chose not to listen which just makes you ten times a fool. Any wonder I had to step in and save you?"

Jaw clenched, mouth pursed, Buffy grinds out, "No, you're not trying to be insulting. You just are. You exist and it's insulting. So just… shut up."

Spike rolls his eyes. "Sure, I'll shut it. Just as soon as you unclench. Oh, and Lonesome Dove's getting away."

"What?" Buffy drops Spike and whips around to see Joe scrambling to his feet and making a break for it.

Giving her slaying move an encore, she twirls the stake and sends it flying, watching it pierce her target. Poof. Dust. Bye-bye, Joe. Satisfaction rushes along her spine and settles warm in her gut. Her whole body feels alive, tingling from her toes to the tips of her fingers. Oh yeah, this is why she's out hunting in the middle of the night, even though her back aches and her feet are swollen. She just needed a good slay and all's right in her world.

Then she hears Spike mutter, "Ungrateful preggers bint," as he shambles to his feet and she remembers the other annoying vampire on her hands. She plants her fists against her hips, raises an eyebrow and stares at Spike.

He glances over his shoulder then looks back at her. "What?"

"What part of 'leave me alone, you creepy stalker vampire' did you not understand?"

He cocks his head to the side. "You said that? In those exact words?"

"Only a thousand times in a thousand different ways. Most of them involving me punching you in the face. I was hoping to make an impression, but maybe that's why you keep forgetting—brain damage."

"Yeah, must've missed that memo," he says, patting his pockets and pulling out a pack of cigarettes only to pause, glance at her, sigh and stuff them back inside his jacket. "Now, if one of those ways was by carrier pigeon, 'fraid I ate the messenger. Not the most reliable way to get your point across, love. Vampire here."

"Oh, my bad." She inches closer, head tilted back, arms crossed and resting just above the swell of her belly. "How about I tattoo it to your ass? I'm sure you'd notice it then since you stick your head up there every chance you get."

He jabs a finger at her. "And how about I paint 'stop being such a bossy bitch' on your ass? Except you wouldn't see it, would you? Not so limber anymore." He reaches for his smokes again, stops, growls and clenches his fists at his sides. "And even if I did get your soddin' memo, wouldn't have paid it any mind."

"Right, how could you forgo the joys of stalking the person destined to kill you?" She shakes her head in consternation. "Is this how you plan your night? You wake up and think 'huh, I'll go follow Buffy around, get in her way, be a complete annoying jackass and to top it all off, insult her, 'cause that'll win her over.'" She scoffs again, then sneers, "Wow, way to woo me."

Spike huffs out a scoff in return, his shoulders rising with the forced exhale, his entire body putting paid his derision—and Buffy can't help but think all they ever do is scoff at each other.

"That wasn't me wooing. That was the cheeky banter portion of the evening. You shove me around a bit, toss out a few insults, I do the same 'cept less with the physical 'cause you're all delicate and I'm all chipped—" He squints and tilts his head to the side, searching her expression. "Why? Did you want wooing? I can do wooing."

She jumps back and tosses her hand up to hold him off. "Oh god, please don't. Just… don't. I'm going home." She jabs a finger into his chest. "And you—you're not gonna follow me. Got it?"

"Bu—"

"No!" She slaps her hand across his mouth. "No arguing. No stalking. No littering under my mom's favorite tree—cigarette ash is the anti-fertilizer, just so you know. Oh, and by the way, Mom hates picking up cigarette butts and how much do you suck at stalking that you just leave the evidence right there for us to find? No, I don't care. Don't answer that."

Spike raises his eyebrows, his eyes full of mischief, and she can feel his grin spreading wide underneath her hand. Suspicious, she blurts out, "What?"

His eyes flick down to indicate her hand still covering his mouth and she jerks away, convinced he's about to lick her palm. Her cheeks flush. Her palm is warm and how can her palm be warm from touching a vampire? Ooh, bad question. Don't answer that.

"Hmm…" Spike rumbles. He smirks at her, but it's not his disgusted smirk. It's his secretive, all-knowing sexy smirk. His voice is soft, deep and—she hates herself for even thinking it—bedroomy. "Can't keep your hands off me, can you?"

"Ugh!" Buffy spins around and stalks off. She doesn't look back. She refuses to give him the satisfaction of looking back.

Not that it matters. She just knows he's watching her with that cocky expression, the one where he sticks out his tongue and his eyes are all provocative and she doesn't want to think about his tongue except she can see it in her imagination and she just knows he's doing it and ugh.

She hopes her mom has cocoa waiting for her when she gets home. She won't even complain that it's decaf so long as she gets extra marshmallows.

All the extra marshmallows will help her forget the tingle in her spine that tells her Spike's following her home.


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