Per Aspera Ad Astra
*Though the thorns to the stars*

Prologue

***

Anya and Xander sat in the Magic Box, a seating chart in front of them. Tara and Willow sat next to them, heads bent over thick textbooks for homework while Dawn sat doodling in a notebook. The shop was relatively empty, except for the gang, and Anya had decided it was a yet another perfect time to talk about the wedding.

"What do you mean we can't sit your Uncle Mortie there? I've been working at this for weeks, and I think I did a good job, Xander!" she fumed, trying to hold her temper in check. Her newly blonde curls bounced with every syllable.

"Well, An, sweetie, if you put my uncle and my dad together, the probability of them both getting drunk risings one hundred percent. Do you really want them to mess up the wedding?" he tried to reason.

Dawn smirked across the room at Tara and Willow who promptly grinned back. Their jabber was becoming more and more constant lately.

"Well, where you do suggest we put him?" Anya asked pointedly, nearing the end of her rope. She pursed her painted pink lips.

"Put him next to Grandpa and Grandma Harris. They're practically comatose anyway," he said matter-of-factly.

"Xander! Aren't you always telling me to mind my manners? I haven't been human very long, but I'm pretty sure you should respect your elders." She frowned at him, glowering.

"I'm sorry, but my family is a little dysfunctional." He put his head in his hands. "We really should have eloped," he groaned to himself.

"Don't be silly, Xander. I absolutely refuse to elope with you." She smiled, softening. "I want everyone to know that I'm spending the rest of my life with my best friend." He leaned across the table to kiss her sweetly.

Suddenly, the door busted open and in stormed Spike, Buffy not far behind him.

"I told you, Slayer! I told you if you don't do it yourself, I will." He glared at her.

"In the training room, now!" Buffy glared back and practically stalked to the training room, slamming the door behind both of them. They stood glaring at each other a few seconds before she exploded. "How can you?!" she demanded, poking him in the chest with her index finger.

He slapped her hand away. "How can you not, Slayer? You're lying to all of your friends!"

Dawn immediately bolted out of her seat and pressed her ear closer to the door, straining to hear the conversation better while shushing the others. Buffy had been rather moody lately, and she was a bit curious what about. Well, besides the whole hell-on-earth-aftereffect-of-experiencing-heaven thing.

"I broke it off because of my friends, Spike! When will you get that through your thick head? I don't love you!" she shouted fiercely. "I never will!"

"Is that really the reason, pet?" he asked, suddenly quieting. His features hardened.

"Yes, it is," she said, her jaw clenched. He stared back at her, unflinching. Then her tone dropped. "You know I can't be around you Spike … you know that."

"Why, Buffy? Why?" He gave her a pleading look. "You know I love you."

"Well, I don't love you, Spike!" Her voice raised a few notches. "I can't." Her tone was resolute as she looked away, trying not to look at the hurt expression he was currently wearing.

"Keep trying to convince yourself, luv." He hardened his expression, licking his lips, "I am going to tell them whether you like it or not."

"You can't," Buffy ground out.

"What's going on?" Willow asked quietly, her question directed at Dawn.

"It sounds like Buffy's keeping something from us, and Spike wants her to tell us." She snorted lightly. "She just told him she doesn't love him." She glanced up through smoky lashes. "Weird, how does that fit in there?"

Tara's eyes slowly widened and she looked away. "Guys, um, m-maybe we shouldn't be eavesdropping on their conversation."

Xander and Anya exchanged glances. "Do you know something, Tara?" Xander asked suspiciously.

"W-why would I know anything?" Tara asked, pitifully trying to hide her involvement in the situation, her stammer a clear indication of the opposite.

"If you say so," Xander relented, casting Willow and Anya a look.

Then the gang suddenly jumped, as there was a sudden bang in the training room.

"Do you think they're killing each other?" Dawn asked seriously.

"No," Anya said bluntly. "Spike still has the chip, and besides, by the sound of it, they're probably having sex." All eyes shot to her in shock and disbelief. "What? In my thousand years as a vengeance demon, you think I didn't learn anything?"

***

"Is that what you really want to believe, luv?" Spike smirked, slowly approaching her, causing her to back into the door with a bang.

"No-I mean, yes-" She placed her hands on his chest to push him away, but he caught them, bringing them up to the side of her head and effectively pinning her to the door.

"Spike," she said low in her throat, "if you don't let me g-"

He cut her off by crushing her to the door, his lips to hers, unaware of the loud thump caused by the sudden movement. She wasted no time in responding, unconsciously curling her fingers around his. He immediately softened the kiss as soon as he felt her kiss back, loosening his painful grip on her hands.

She pulled her arms away, bringing them to his head, one on his cheek, the other playing in the nape of his neck. Spike reciprocated by placing his hands on her waist and pressing himself closer to her.

The kiss doubled in intensity, and she wrapped her arms around his neck and legs around his waist as he lifted her into his arms. He stumbled back, landing hard on the training mats but quickly recovering and making use of the current situation.

He swiftly flipped them over and hovered above her through hazy eyes, winter meeting spring. He smiled at her softly, and Buffy's breath caught in her throat. He didn't smile often, but when he did, it always took her breath away. It was these times that she always wondered what he was like as a human.

He leaned his head closer again, and Buffy let her eyes drift shut just as the door burst open and the Scooby gang came bursting through into a heap of arms and legs on the floor. Buffy immediately shot into action, pushing Spike off of her quicker than humanly possible. The gang looked up at her sheepishly from the floor before trying in vain to untangle themselves.

Rolling her eyes and trying to hide her red face, Buffy pulled each out of the pile, one by one. Spike sat on the folded mats, smirking. It was about time they got a clue about what was going on.

"I told you guys," Anya shot at the group as soon as she was standing, fixing her shirt and hair. "I'm not a complete idiot."

"Told you what?" Buffy asked quietly almost afraid of the answer. They had found out, even after she spent all that time yelling at Spike … and kissing him.

"That you two weren't killing each other, even with the shouting," Anya told her matter-of-factly. "I said you were probably having sex."

Xander slapped his forehead. Sometimes Anya could be a more frank than need be. "An, this is one of those times I'm always talking about."

Dawn sat grinning on the floor. "So … Buff … when did you two start getting your freak on?"

"What? Dawn, no! No freaking or … No!" she stuttered, her face reddening with every syllable. "Vampires are bad and evil and they're not …"

"Hot?" Dawn finished for her, another knowing smirk crossing over her face, matching the grin currently spread over Spike's.

"So it's true," Xander concluded. "I think I'm going to sit down."

"You mean that Spike and you …?" Willow took a seat next to Xander while Tara sent Buffy a sympathetic look, trying to communicate with her eyes that she had tried.

"Buffy, I'm trying to see this from your point of view, but Spike? Deadboy Junior?" Xander asked sounding disappointed. "I mean, Angel was bad enough, and he had a soul! A soul, Buffy!" He glared at Spike. "The only thing stopping him from killing you the first chance he gets is a piece of silicon that we know practically nothing about!"

"I know, Xander. I know that," Buffy sounded disgusted with herself, and Spike snorted. He should have figured. "I cut it off. I understand that now."

"Understand what, Slayer? That I love and I would never leave you or do anything to hurt you or Dawn?" he shot at her. Why did he even try? The girl was too stubborn for her own good. She never learned.

"You can't love, Spike! You don't have a soul!" Xander glared. "You're a thing, a monster." His features were set. "Demons don't love."

"Yes they do," Anya joined in. "You think I'm not capable of love, Xander?" she asked. She looked deeply wounded by his harsh words.

"Of course I do, sweetie," he immediately stepped in, defending himself. "I love you. You know I do."

"Then why are you treating Spike like dirt?" She moved across the room. "He's been nothing but helpful, besides those times where he stole from the shop," she added as an afterthought, "but he's very helpful with patrol and he takes good care of Dawn." She sent a furious glare at Xander. "And he definitely loves Buffy! I can tell!" Spike smiled, deciding that he really liked that girl.

"He does," Tara added in just as Spike added her to his list. "He loves her. I mean, if he didn't, he would have left a long time ago. Plus, he spent a century with Drusilla." Spike sent her an appreciative look.

"This is so cool!" Dawn squealed from the floor. "Buffy and Spike, I always knew something was going on!"

"There is NO Buffy and Spike," Buffy said decisively. "At least, not anymore. I made sure of that."

"That's good, Buffy," Willow said in support. "I mean, Angel was bad enough …"

Spike jumped in. "Don't even think about comparing me to Peaches! I am nothing like the poof." He frowned at Willow. "And here I am all this time, Red, thinking you might actually like me." She immediately looked to Tara for support.

Buffy swallowed hard. "Well, you don't have to worry anymore. It's over." An awkward silence followed as Buffy looked around the room. Her friends avoided looking into her eyes, everyone except Spike.

Spike looked straight at her, almost into her, like he could see into her mind, her heart. "Is that really what you want, pet?" he asked her quietly. "No more games."

"It's over, Spike." She looked at the floor. "I can't love you."

He looked at her for a few more seconds before snorting and chuckling to himself. "I really don't know why I do this, Slayer. Why I set myself up for these bloody situations." He laughed sardonically, wishing for something to hit, to crush, to throw. He stopped suddenly, quieting. "Do you want me to leave, Slayer?"

She looked at him, shocked. "How can you ask me that?"

"Do you want me to leave Sunnyhell? Go away?" He snorted. "It's an easy question, Slayer."

She stared at him, as if trying to engrain his image in her mind. "I don't want you to go, but I can't-I can't be around you."

"What kind of answer is that?"

"I don't want you to leave, Spike." She looked at her friends. "But I can't be with you."

"So what's the point then, Slayer?" He looked eerily calm. "You won't see me anyway."

Buffy grasped desperately for words. "Dawn … Dawn, she would-"

"Don't give me that, Slayer. This is about you. What you want."

She was frantic for words. "Spike, I just can't see you long enough to-"

He laughed here. "That's rich, luv! So you want me to sit around while you go off to find another Captain Cardboard? You expect me to sit back and watch?"

"Can we not have this conversation here?" The others were starting to look uncomfortable, even Xander and Anya.

"You're right. I'm leaving." He got up to leave, stopping at the doorway to the training room. "You know what, Slayer? Forget it. Go on with your life. Be good and pure. You know what's going to happen anyways. It's like a bloody cycle, you can see it coming and there's nothing you can do to stop it." And then he was gone.

She stalked over to the place he had previously occupied and flopped down on the mats, head in hands. "No wonder you all hate me."

"We don't hate you, Buffy," Willow immediately said.

"You should. I'm being nothing but bitchy and self-absorbed and I don't know why," she mumbled softly.

"It's probably just the Bleached Wonder corrupting you," Xander sneered.

Her head shot up, hurt green eyes trained on him. "How can you … Spike's always been so good to me, even when I don't deserve it." She looked down at her hands.

"Buffy," Tara began. "You shouldn't be so hard on yourself." She smiled, almost motherly.

Dawn stayed quiet, though. How could her sister do this all under their noses and without really even caring one bit for Spike? "Buffy, why?"

"What?"

"Why? I mean, why did you do it? Before you …" She wandered off here. They knew what she was talking about. "You wouldn't even consider it."

Buffy swallowed hard. "After … I was just so hurt and confused, and Spike knew what I was going through. He understood me." She bit her lip. "And he loves me, or at least he says he does." She looked away again. "It's funny. We all don't think anyone is capable of love without a soul, I mean, that's what we keep telling him anyway, and he just turns around and proves us wrong. Over and over again. I wish I could love him. It's just …"

"You're scared," Tara concluded. All eyes shot to her. "I know I haven't been around for everything, but from what I've seen, you've been hurt before, and you're scared he's going to leave."

"Spike doesn't leave." She shifted her gaze to Tara. "You want to know what's stopping me? From loving him, I mean?" She paused for a second. "He's a vampire. An evil monster that kills innocent people."

Dawn scoffed. "Spike hasn't killed anyone since he got the chip! And if he got it out, I know he still wouldn't. Spike is not evil," she protested. "God Buffy, I had my doubts, but you really are a bitch." With that, she got up and left, grabbing her books on the way out.

"Dawn, wait!" Buffy followed after her running sister, the Scoobies trailing not far behind. It was already past dusk, no hint of the sun in the sky, leaving open the great possibility of vamps and demons.

Dawn quickly headed for the crypt. She was almost certain he would be there, drinking his sorrows away. She moved faster, trying to greaten the distance between Buffy and herself.

Moving mindlessly, she rammed straight into a rather large and ugly green demon with large red horns jutting out of its forehead and each of its joints. It immediately swung at her, and she let out a terrified scream, causing the gang to run faster. The thing almost swiped her across the face if it wasn't for a flash of black leather tackling her out of harm's way.

"Spike!" She looked at him, surprised and relieved.

"Go," he said firmly before turning back to the ugly thing. She obeyed, scrambling to her feet and taking refuge with Willow and Tara.

Buffy soon joined in the fight, sending a flying kick to the back of the demon's head, disorienting it enough to move Dawn safely away. She didn't bring any weapons with her and settled for pulling out her stake, dodging the large horn coming out of its elbow to slam the wood into its abdomen.

Howling, the creature fell to its knees, chanting something in an unrecognized demon tongue. Spike took the opportunity to reach forward and jerk its head, effectively snapping its neck, but not before the ground began to shake and everything grew hazy for everyone. The world spun and turned black.

***

They awoke early in the morning. Buffy squinted up at the bright sun in the east and froze.

The sun. Spike!

She sat up quickly and frantically searched the heads for a bleached mop of hair. She found what she was looking for.

And he wasn't dust.

"Spike!" she whispered urgently, shaking him. "Wake up!"

He opened his eyes, only to immediately shut them again. "Why is it so bright?" He sat up, holding an arm over his face as protection from the blinding light. "Am I in heaven?"

Buffy rolled her eyes. "No, you are not in heaven. You're a vampire, remember?"

"So why are you talking to me? Through with the act already?" He attempted to glare at her, failing miserably.

The others came to, and Xander noticed what she had. "Why is Spike non-dusty?"

"Where is that ugly demon?" Dawn asked, pushing herself off the ground.

"Um, guys," Willow called nervously. "I think the best question is, where are we?"

"Oh no! I left the shop open!" Anya cried out, suddenly anxious and worried. "All my money!"

Xander quickly alleviated her fears. "I locked it when we were going after Dawn. I figured you had the key, and it wasn't a good idea to leave the shop alone, even for a few minutes." Anya quickly threw her arms about his neck and gave him a hard kiss, thankful for the saving of her money.

The gang moved into sitting positions to scan their surroundings. They lay in the middle of a grassy field in front of a humongous villa.

"That is the biggest house I have ever seen," Dawn muttered to herself.

Willow looked over, rubbing her head. "And that looks like a Roman," she said dazedly. The gang immediately followed her line of vision to see a man wearing a toga approaching the group.

"Holy shit," Xander muttered to himself after Anya let him come up for air. He moved a considerable distance away and quickly looked over the scene before him. "If I wasn't so scared, I might have actually been angry that Spike isn't dust."

Tara looked almost as pale as Spike. "So … do any of you speak Latin?"

***

Now, I know I should be working on "Becoming Me," but reviews truly do motivate me to write faster, and I am not really getting any feedback on that besides "I like it." I will eventually finish, but this popped into my head and I had to get it on paper. I really would appreciate some C&C on "Becoming Me" so read it! Again, please review and tell me what you thought. Any suggestions will be taken into account. Thank you!

Evangeline