TITLE: DIRTY POOL

AUTHOR: Kevin A. Poston (Fojiao2)

DISCLAIMER: The characters used in this story belong to Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy, and I am using nothing here for the purposes of profit. Just art.

RATING: R (sorry, GG)

SUMMARY: B/S AU Futurefic, where Buffy and Spike meet again for a game of pool. Answer to Jul's Pool Challenge on ONE GOOD LAY (http://www.geocities.com/onegoodlaysb/ ). Spoilers up to "Normal Again."

FEEDBACK: Yes! Give me all that you can stand! Lather me in it!

DEDICATION: This story is for Giogio, who deserves this and so much more, a sweet lady who should get the first Spikebot that rolls off the assembly line.



When Buffy arrived in Sunnydale she immediately knew that she was being followed. It was to be expected, even though she'd left strict orders that she was to be left alone for a month. Never mind that, at 33, she was still the ablest soldier in her army: her Intelligence Chief would never stop looking after her safety. And so she must have been the one to dispatch the spies to Sunnydale, because she was one of the few who would remember Buffy's connection to the city. She hadn't set foot in town for ten years, so Buffy wouldn't let the prying eyes of her own soldiers ruin it.

She drove from one end of town to the other in her Mustang convertible, just enjoying the sunny June day. When she'd last been here she hadn't been comfortable behind the wheel—now it was like an extension of her arm, and she carelessly threw her other arm over the passenger's seat. She hazarded one quick look at the seat, and the word entered her head before she could think of anything else: empty. It was a word with particular significance to her, and to the space beside her, wherever she was. Ten long years. Without even knowing it, she turned the car toward The Bronze.

It was the way of the world that things changed for the worse. The Bronze used to be a cultural center for the city but now it was at the center of a crumbling district. As dark and decrepit as it was now, it probably attracted very few vampires. The bloodsuckers would be looking for bright lights, lots of people, and loud noises that dampened suspicious screams from the alleyways, like in the Bronze's heyday. Strange that she would be nostalgic for those days of horror, but they were the best and worst times of her life and she couldn't simply drop them.

The door was gone: the entrance hung empty, dust motes dancing in the sun that invaded the dark interior. It was a wreck inside, that much was clear: overturned tables, stacks of chairs covered in dust-cloths, even cobwebs draping from the balcony and ladder to the floor. Empty, her mind told her once again. But there seemed to be a cleared path from the entrance to the pool table, sitting clean and uncovered within. She stepped inside.

Yes, someone had definitely been here recently. Her expert tracking skills allowed her to see that three men had taken the same route from pool table to entrance less than ten hours before, in the early hours of the morning. When she approached the table she was able to see another set of footprints, ones that didn't go near the entrance and came from behind the bar. She recognized their tread pattern: Doc Martens. Suddenly the light above the table flared into life and a voice from the past rang out in a snarky tone:

"Well well well! If it isn't the Generalissimo!"

She spun around to face Spike, and was taken aback for a moment. She found herself surprised by the reality of the man standing before her. Ten years since she'd seen him and new wrinkles were attacking the corner of her eyes, Willow was already starting to color her hair, and Xander had given up the battle against love handles and was just trying to control his expanding gut. But Spike was completely unchanged, as if he'd been stored in a freezer for a decade and just now shook the ice off his shoulders and stepped out. He really is immortal, she thought—something she'd known but hadn't really assimilated.

And he was as easy on the eyes as ever. Sapphire eyes shone with suspicion above his prominent cheekbones, his mouth set in a threatening scowl. He wore a light blue muscleshirt and black jeans beneath his eternal leather duster, showing off his sculpted chest and tight abdomen. His body didn't have the minute jumps and tics that a living man's would, no pulse that her Slayer senses could detect and the shallow breaths that come from a lack of need for oxygen—and for all these reasons that set him apart from normal men she found him the most intriguing and stimulating thing she'd seen in a decade; since the very day she left Sunnydale, in fact. Everything about his body language told her that he was tense, ready at any moment to run if she made a threatening move. I did that, Buffy reminded herself. My fault. And I'll have to fix it.

"Uh, hi Spike," she said, not meeting his eyes, more out of shame at how she'd treated him than shyness. Any of her troops who saw her act so submissively would not believe their eyes.

She hadn't come to Sunnydale to see Spike—at least, that's what she told herself. But now, standing in his presence, Buffy knew that she couldn't walk out of this place and leave things as they had been. It was suddenly very important that they not lose contact again, and the reason for it was still hiding at a point behind her heart.

Spike let the silence stretch out, studying the Slayer. She was entirely in denim, pants, shirt, and jacket, with patches on the sleeves designating campaigns she'd led and territories freed. The metal bits on her collar must be rank designations—even when she left the uniform behind its business was always with her. And the combat boots completed the ensemble. He could see the little touches that showed her age, the skin on her hands far more worn and scarred than the girl who'd left him long ago. Still, she was Buffy: she looked younger than 25, her golden hair swept over her shoulders with angelic grace, and she glowed with a strength that he immediately responded to. She was like no other woman on earth, and it looked like ten years was still not enough to get her out of his system. He swore internally at himself and made a silent wish that he wouldn't end this encounter on his knees begging her to stay.

He thought to use bluster; it had always worked so well in the past. "So, come for a game, pet?" he asked, picking up his pool cue from the top of the bar.

She looked from him to the pool table then back at the vampire. "Uh, no."

"Pity," he said, crossing to the table, his sudden nearness to her causing a jolt in both of them which neither showed outwardly. "It's pretty much the only way I interact with living people these days. They come in, I play, I win, and Spikey gets more cash."

"You, uh, need cash?" she asked, eyebrow raised, not sure how he was living these days.

Spike tapped his head with the stick, hard, to be sure he got her full attention. "It's still chips ahoy up here in me brain, Slayer. I still have to buy blood—can't be nippin' it from the local herd."

Nobody called her Slayer anymore. She literally had not had the term applied to her in years. She looked Spike in the eye and said, "But you're still killing demons in Sunnydale?"

"When I can," he replied, almost sighing. He was starting to get more comfortable with her: she wouldn't be this curious if she was just there to dust him. "It's not hoppin' like it was back in your day. But I get my ration of violence."

She looked around, noting how the bar was cleaner than any other part in the building and that the swinging door leading to what used to be the kitchen was still moving from Spike's entry through it. "So you're living here," she stated.

He shrugged. "Lots of good memories from this place. And it's better than the crypt." Where there were lots of BAD memories, he thought. Spike shook those thoughts away, needing to concentrate on the here-and-now. "It keeps me close to the table, close to the cemeteries, right next to the sewer entrances."

Buffy looked at what had been the dancefloor, full of dust and boxes and probably generations of rats. She echoed a line her mother had used: "I love what you've neglected to do with the place."

He smirked at her when she looked at him again. "Well, you know: when the Hellmouth is running down—"

"You make the best of what's still around," she finished, smiling at him.

He nodded and returned a real smile. "Yeah." Then they were stuck again with nothing to say. There was some magnetism running between them, though, something neither had felt in far too long. And neither one wanted to end this talk without finding out what it was. Spike cleared his throat. "So, you sure you don't want to play? I'm the champion of Southern California, y'know. Got blokes driving up from L.A. almost every day to try to take me."

"I didn't come here to play games, Spike."

He snorted. His own mood shifted gears as swiftly as hers. "Oh, but you were so GOOD at it, Slayer. You set up the pieces where you wanted, put me on the other side of your own private restraining order, and then watched everybody dance to your tune," he said. "Then the Knights ride into town, tellin' the Nibblet she's their new goddess, and just like that, you take your ball and go home."

And there it was. The hardest decision of her life, the choice to take up the generalship of the Knights of Byzantium or let her sister go off without her, summarized in one sentence. She still had dreams of that day, of hearing troops amassing in the street outside her door and screaming at Dawn to get into the basement and not open the door for anyone but her. Then going into the front yard to see an impossible number of uniformed men there, filling the street from one end to the other, knowing that she could never defeat all of them but planning to take as many with her as she could. Then the weird, not-in-Kansas-anymore feeling of seeing a thousand men go to one knee in front of her, all of them holding their swords out in fealty.

Then came the explanations: it had been a rogue general who had found the location of the Key and decided that she must be killed. It was why he had brought only one regiment of soldiers with him. In reality, it was the responsibility of the Knights of Byzantium to protect the Key, to treat her with the utmost respect, as if she were a goddess. From that day forward they would devote all their resources to Dawn's least wish or concern. And the Slayer, who shared flesh and blood with the Key, was offered the generalship of their armies: 40,000 troops at her command, men drawn from this dimension as well as others, all dedicated to making the Key's wishes a reality.

The decision had not come quickly. She'd made the Knights wait for months, but in that time the presence of the Key in Sunnydale had drawn troops from across the world. Soon there were 5,000, then 10,000 Knights wanting to be near her and encamped in tent-cities all along Sunnydale's outskirts. Tales of the Slayer's exploits were their favorite entertainment with each other, and the soldiers began to boast that they would have the most powerful general they had ever known, one who would take the Knights to new heights.

So in the end there was only one option. After six months Dawn was in love with being treated like a goddess and Buffy felt that if she didn't join them they'd take Dawn anyway. She became their general, setting up her friends as aides-de-camp. She might as well do as much good with her position as possible. She took the entire army to England to see if Giles would join, but he was happy with his quieter life.

Buffy and the quiet life would never really meet again. She had amazing adventures with the Knights: traveled to other dimensions; saved entire populaces held under demonic control; stopped eight more attempts at apocalypse; helped children and other loved-ones return to their families. She was most proud of the fact that she'd taken men and women who'd had their lives destroyed by demonic or vampiric influence and given them new lives as Knights, given them something to live for and hope for the future. When she heard, five years before, that the Hellmouth in Sunnydale was losing its power and would be dead fairly soon, she was three dimensions away burning down a demon's castle built from human skulls. She looked into the fire and knew she had made the right decision.

Yet with each triumph, each campaign patch she had sewn to her sleeve, she still looked beside her and thought: empty. She had plenty of men to fill her bed, lots of comrades in war, and even friends as near and dear to her as Xander or Willow. But she had no confidantes beyond those she had known in Sunnydale, and while the general was respected and loved by her troops, it was also well known that she didn't afford anyone her complete trust, especially when it came to the Key's safety.

And now one of the few men she did trust, one who suspiciously had his own key to her interior world, was asking for a simple game of pool. "What the hell," she told him. "I'll play. Hand me one of those . . . sticks?"

Spike rolled his eyes. "Cues. They're pool cues. Do you even know how to play?"

"Well, I watched you enough times."

"You did? You watched me play?" he asked, handing her a cue.

She felt a strong impulse to lie, to play coy like she'd done so often before. The pull of it was intense, like the muscle memory behind a certain sword defense—it was a role she had become fatally accustomed to around him. But she wasn't the same insecure girl who cried herself to sleep in her mother's house; she had faced many a hard truth in her time on the battlefield. And she never blushed anymore. "Of course I watched you," she said, looking him up and down. "You looked damned good. You still do."

Spike's mouth dropped open. Then it clicked shut. He shook his head, and continued to look at her suspiciously. "How about nine-ball?" he asked.

"Is it simple?"

"The simplest. Just sink the balls in the correct order. Three before four, four before five, etc. When you screw up the order or miss a shot it's my turn."

"Sounds okay."

"So what are we wagering?" Spike asked.

"Huh?"

"I'm a pro, luv. I don't play this game for free. We have to bet something."

"Um, so what did you have in mind?"

Spike looked her up and down, assessing every plane and curve on her body as if marking territory he'd conquered and would have again. At least that was how it looked to her. His eyes had always been suggestive and possessive when it came to her. And for some reason that made her feel safe. Maybe he still cared after all, though it was obvious that he wasn't her willing slave anymore. "How about your jacket?" he said.

She stared at him, then looked over the campaign jacket she wore. "It wouldn't fit you," she said.

"Doesn't matter. It'd be a trophy. Something to remember you by when you . . . leave." Bloody hell, he'd almost choked on that last word. And it wouldn't do to have her see how much it would destroy him to watch her walk out the door again. Still, he'd have her jacket. It would smell like her, and it might even retain her warmth for an hour. He'd lived on far flimsier dreams for a decade.

"And what are you putting up? Your duster?"

He stared at her across the table. "Are you barmy? I've killed whole nests of demons to get this leather back. It's been my bleedin' trademark for longer than you've been alive, and you think I'd lose it over a pool game?"

Buffy met his eyes. "How much are you willing to risk here, Spike?"

He looked back at her with equal seriousness. "I usually go for broke. So yeah, the jackets. Let's get it on."

Buffy leaned her stick against the pool table and stripped her jacket off, hanging it beside the cue-rack. Spike never took his eyes off her. The short-sleeved denim shirt was stretched tight over her well-muscled torso, and her arms were more well-defined than he'd ever seen them. She obviously worked out more regularly than before, and now that she was in her 30's it was probably more necessary. His long experience with women, and his personal experience with her, helped him to see how her body moved inside the shirt, inside the jeans. Buffy was still the firecracker she'd been at 21, it was clear, and the way she moved—like a panther at rest—awoke a flame within Spike that he hadn't thought of in years. But it had never actually gone out, and now that he could watch her and smell her and be close to her again he understood why.

"I'll go first," Buffy said. "I have a feeling that if you started I'd never get a chance to play."

"And you'd be right." He was getting some of the swagger and arrogance back into his voice now, no longer uncomfortable in her presence. He hung his duster up on the coat-rack next to the cue-rack and began to chalk up his stick.

Buffy was looking at the table like a battleplan when she noticed movement to the left and turned to see Spike, without his duster, approach the table. Damn! His chiseled white arms were simply fascinating under the gloomy light above the table: she had to prevent herself from reaching out to touch him. And she could see his nipples outlined through the blue muscleshirt—suddenly the taste of his skin was in her mouth, the taste of him, a dearly held memory. She wanted to scoop him up and take him to her tent, lay him down in the general's bed and never let him go.

It was an epiphany, pure and simple. Suddenly she saw him in a clear white light, this roguish angel, this demonic softie. God, she'd been such an idiot when she was a kid! All the impediments she'd put up, all the questions about good and evil, about whether the chip would last or not, about his past and his intentions and his lack of a pulse: so much crap! None of it mattered at all! She'd thought these were weighty moral issues? Maybe to a sheltered California girl who'd had only two real boyfriends, but not to a general who'd used the looted funds from one dimension's Church of the Antichrist to payroll a host of orphanages in her own world. The fact was that he loved Dawn, he was a born fighter, he killed evil things, and he loved—

But there was the problem. Did he still love her? And did she really love him? She knew that she trusted him, and had for a long while before they'd started sleeping together. She definitely lusted for him, with a strength that nearly knocked her to her knees. But real love and affection? She'd known so little of it in her lifetime. Nothing in her general's experience helped her with the question. And nothing of the Slayer within pointed out how she should feel. She supposed she'd just have to solve it as a woman.

"You break," Spike announced. Buffy looked up to see that he'd set the balls up in a diamond formation and put the white ball at her end in the center. She shook her head to clear it of distractions. Which wasn't easy when Spike glided around the other end of the table like a shark cruising through the shallows.

She found where the 1-ball was positioned and used her military training to plot a course for the cue ball. She drew the stick back and was just about to strike when Spike said, "So, how's Dawn doing these days?"

Bent over the table, on the edge of making her hit, she looked up at him with a sly smile. "She's tall," Buffy told him, and her cue hit the white ball. It rocketed forward and broke the formation of balls, and just as she predicted she sank the 1-ball in the corner farthest from her. She straightened and raised an eyebrow at Spike, who only grinned at her little victory.

Buffy walked around the table, checking out her possibilities of getting the 2-ball. "She still hasn't cut her hair, but that just improves the 'goddess' image," she continued. Spike noted how she used air quotes around the word "goddess," showing that she still had a healthy skepticism about Dawn's prophesied place in the universe. "When she was younger we had lots of problems. Like when she discovered sex. And also discovered that she could have handsome Knights 'service' her to keep the Key happy."

Spike shuddered. "Ouch. TMI, pet."

Buffy shrugged. "Ah, she met some consequences straight on, and it actually helped her. Now she has a steady boyfriend and she's in graduate school. Journalism. She always was good at sitting back and watching. She's a lot more in touch with her abilities as the Key—she's the one who opens dimensional portals so we can fight nasties in other dimensions."

Spike whistled low, impressed. "Hadn't heard about that. Carryin' the good fight to the great unwashed, eh?"

"Yeah," she said, looking at him defensively. "We do a lot of good, and it's often best to carry the fight to the enemy before they come to us."

The vampire held up his hands. "Wasn't sayin' different, luv. Just surprised is all. What I heard about you didn't involve dimension-jumping."

"What have you heard?" She stood beside him, looking into his eyes.

"That you're phasing out the Council of Watchers," he answered.

She raised her eyebrows, then leaned down to prepare for her shot. "So it's true?" he asked.

She nodded. "They had their day. But I think I've shown that they're way too corrupt to be effective anymore. I've put the Slayers-in-Waiting under Knight training, and they'll be safe and prepared under my instruction. We even have Faith now to help with some of the sparring sessions." She shot her stick forward, and the cue ball bounced off a padded edge and swiftly brought the 2-ball into a side pocket.

Spike chuckled to himself. "The Slayer with a budget," he muttered to himself.

"What's that?" she said sharply, suddenly standing up straight.

He shook his head. "When I woke up in the Initiative, in one of their cages. This vamp next door mentioned the Slayer, and I thought at the time, 'Yeah, this is just like her. Give that girl a budget and she'll have all us bloodsuckers chained and neutered.'"

She was silent, but watched him with wide eyes as she went around the table. He didn't know what a sore spot he'd just touched on. There was a time that she'd joined the Initiative and been jazzed at the organized way they took the fight to the demons. And that had made her all the more horrified at the way they tortured the creatures and performed experiments on them. It was her personal nightmare that her own forces would turn into a divinely-led Initiative, one that she would never be able to stop because she herself had planned its mission. It was why she was a holy terror to her Research and Development division, making sure that no little side- projects got started away from her watchful eye.

Seeing that she was uncomfortable, Spike changed the subject. "So. Ever think about me these days, Slayer?"

Ah! A topic she liked! Her whole countenance lit up and she gave him a smokey look from across the table. "All the time," she said.

Spike visibly gulped. He'd wanted to tease her; he hadn't expected this reaction at all. "Really?" he asked, still not quite believing that she was so open about wanting him. It was some kind of trap, it had to be. Best to draw her out.

She nodded. A little flattery won't hurt, as long as it's honest, she thought. "Oh yeah. You're a part of me, you should know that. You're my rogue, my bad boy. If there's a devil on my shoulder leading me astray, he's definitely in a black duster and has bleached hair."

That had Spike smiling. "A devil, eh?"

Buffy nodded again, scoping out her next shot. It seemed impossible, but if there was no way to sink the 3-ball, at least she could make it even more impossible for Spike to do so.

"I always said there was some darkness in you," Spike continued. "That we were a lot more alike than you thought."

"Turns out you were right," she said in her clipped, military manner. But she looked up at him with a smile. "Again! But I think it's the other way around, Spikey. I think there's a good bit more light in you than you're willing to admit." She then looked down to her shot. She missed the 3-ball completely, of course, but put the cue ball at the other end of the table.

"Naaah," he said, approaching the table's end when she did. "There's nothing worthy in me."

She put a hand on his shoulder, turning him to face her, looking directly into his eyes. "Don't say that," she told him. "You're very special. If you'd just see that about yourself it'd be a lot clearer for others to recognize, too."

They were very close now, deep into each other's personal space, her breasts almost touching his chest, her mouth only inches from his own. If it had been twelve years before they'd have been kissing by now. But time and estrangement stretched between them.

"Do you really care, pet?" he breathed into her, seeing nothing but her eyes. "Or are you playing me again? Come to re-live the glory days at my expense?"

"I really care," she told him, eyes shining as brightly as his own. "I haven't done much to earn your trust. But I'd like you to trust me again."

Spike leaned forward another inch and brushed her nose with his own. "Pinocchio's nose grows when he lies; does yours?"

Buffy took his right hand and put it on her breast. "You know what's growing on me, Spike," she told him. His thumb rubbed across a stiff nipple, the rest of his hand cupping the curve of her breast.

Their lips finally met and they both felt the jolt that had rocked them earlier. Now that they were connected they were no longer hesitant, grabbing onto each other for dear life, tongues wrestling for dominance. Buffy felt like it had been forever since someone with Spike's strength had held her, forcing her to use her own Slayer strength, forcing her to use everything she had just to keep up. And for Spike it was like falling into Heaven, having the Slayer's hands on him once more, exploring her mouth with his own, every inch of his body drinking in her heat.

Buffy was panting when they broke apart, still staring into each other's eyes. Then they laughed, both of them full of pure joy about this moment. Their physical attraction had always gotten them past emotional hurdles that they couldn't express. "That was a long time coming," Buffy said. "And just about worth the wait."

"Eh, not for me," Spike said. Buffy stared at him in shock and he winced. "Sorry, didn't come out right. I meant . . . it's been too bloody long a wait. And too painful. I've been a right fool to stay here when I could have been helping you teach those soldierboys how to kill vampires. I can't ever repay that. But I'd like to try."

"Get off the cross, Spike," she responded. "Neither of us were ready back then. I was just starting out with the Knights and wouldn't have known where to put you even if I could have loved you. I'd have kept you in a closet and let you cover me with kisses every night."

"Not a bad idea," Spike said, playfully biting her neck where it met her shoulders. He then met her eyes again. "But I won't be your dirty little secret again, pet."

"So come with me and be my dirty public scandal."

He grinned. "Really?"

She had to laugh at the childlike hope in his face. "Yeah, the old camp could use something to liven it up. We'll start enough gossip to keep the soldiers happy for months."

Spike simply looked at her, his face wreathed in joy and wonder to be holding her so close.

Buffy fanned herself with her hand. "This emotional honesty is thirsty work," she said, red-faced and overheated. "You got anything to drink in this place?"

They finally let go of each other and wandered over to the bar. Spike got out two beers from a small fridge beneath the bar and opened them, handing one to Buffy. She took a long drink from the bottle, knocking her head back, exposing her neck to him. The silence had given them both time to think about what they'd done and what they'd just admitted to each other.

"I don't know that I'm right for you, luv," Spike said, looking down. "I never thought I'd say this, but . . . I kinda see where Angel might've been right. I can never give you kids, or that house with the white picket fence."

"I've already left that stuff behind me," Buffy said. "I'm a soldier now, and that's not just a title. It's like I'm just now understanding what being the Slayer is all about, how I'm responsible for killing demons not just here but everywhere. It's not something I run away from anymore."

"There was a time that 'the normal life' was all you wanted."

"There was a time I listened to the Backstreet Boys without irony. That's all gone now." She looked into his eyes, her emotions threatening to choke her. But she had to get this out, had to take a hit and live with the consequences. "I don't just WANT you to trust me, Spike. I NEED it. There's been . . . an emptiness in me, like a ghost that's trailed me since the day I left Sunnydale. And when I'm with you it's gone. I didn't know it until I stepped in here, but it's true. If I had to leave here without you it would eat me alive." She took a deep breath, putting her arms around his neck. "I love you, Spike. Please come with me."

Their lips met in another furious, powerful kiss. When they broke apart there were tears shining in Spike's eyes. "Whatever you say, luv," he told her, then kissed her again.

A thought occurred to Buffy and she broke off the kiss. "Why?" she asked.

"'Why' what?"

"Why have you stayed in Sunnydale this whole time? Even with the Hellmouth shutting down you stayed. So why?"

He looked sheepish, avoiding her eyes, then met her gaze once more. "You," he breathed, admitting something he hadn't even told his sire the last time they played pool in this place.

"Yeah?" she asked, smiling.

"Of course," he sighed. "Every bleedin' corner of this town has a memory of you on it. Every cemetery, every sidewalk—I just open my eyes and it's like a nighttime Polaroid, flashin' me pictures of you doin' flips over a tombstone or walking in the sun with your friends. How could I leave that?"

"Soooo—c'mon, say it."

He gave her a mock growl, then caught her lips with his own. "Alright, I love you. I never stopped."

The young girl he'd known would have squealed and jumped up onto him. But this older, wiser Buffy took his admission of love, looked him in the eyes, and said, "That duster's mine." And she moved back to the pool table.

"Don't think so, luv," Spike said, following her and still grinning. "I haven't made my shot yet."

"So make it and let it be my turn again."

"Won't happen," he told her, picking up his cue.

"And why not?"

Spike bent down and readied his shot, then let the cue fly, all in a single second. The cue ball bounced off three different edges, zig-zagging up the table, before it hit the 8-ball and sunk the 3 in a side pocket. The cue ball stopped in a perfect position to sink the 4, and Spike whipped around the edge of the table to do just that. It now looked like he'd have to hit the 8 to get anywhere near the 5, but he took it in the opposite direction, slamming the cue ball to that it hit a padded edge sharply and rocketed down the center of the table to the opposite end, nudging the 9 over so that it slowly rolled and pushed the 5 into the corner pocket without falling itself.

Buffy stared in wonder. "Holy crap you're good."

Spike smirked at her. "Not the first time I've heard you say that."

She laughed at him from across the table. He was bent down, ready to shoot the 6-ball into a side pocket, when he looked up at her with a grin. "Seeing you like this, all honest and happy: it's really turning my head, pet. It's not how I expected you at all."

"Oh? And what did you expect?"

He slammed the cue ball, knocking the 8 sideways and sending the 6 into the side pocket with the 8 hanging on the edge. Now only the 7-ball and the cue ball rested away from pockets. Spike stood straight again, looking thoughtful, leaning against his stick. "I dunno. Guess I didn't really expect anything. I just concentrated on the last time I saw you and extrapolated from that."

"How'd I look?"

"Majestic," he replied instantly, his eyes cast onto a picture in his head. "It was the day you rode out of town. You were on this giant pale gelding with gray legs."

"Fester," Buffy breathed. She hadn't thought of that horse in years.

"You were up on that horse with your chain mail on, looking for all the world like Joan of Arc about to go into battle. The sun was striking you at every angle, and you had this determined expression, like you were trying your best not to show any o' your soldiers how broken you were feeling inside. But I could see it, though I was hidden in the shadow of a tree a hundred feet away. I saw how it hurt you to leave, but you pushed it aside and went anyway. For Dawn. For a better world. You were grander than any king or emperor I've ever seen or read about, waving that sword over your head, ordering a forward march. Broke my bloody heart."

While he spoke Buffy had come around the table, having gone serious to match his mood. She took the pool cue from his hand and wrapped her arms around him, holding him close. He did the same. "I cried myself to sleep that night," she whispered into his ear.

"I didn't sleep for days," Spike responded. "Didn't seem like there was enough booze in Creation. I couldn't knock myself out no matter how hard I tried. Kept seeing you leave, replaying again and again in my head. Woulda done myself a damage if not for that hope."

"What hope?"

"The thing I've looked for since the day I met you: that one good day."

She pulled out of his arms. "Like today?"

"You know it, luv." They were aiming goofy grins at each other again, and Buffy turned her head to keep from laughing out loud. She felt something wrong with the pool cue in her hand and twirled it in her hand. Then she did laugh.

"What?" Spike asked. "What's so funny?"

She pointed at the cue in her hand. "Your, uh . . ." She suppressed a giggle. "Your stick's bent."

He took the cue from her, their eyes locked in joy. "Never heard you complain before," he said.

"Nothing to complain about," she breathed, her mouth hungry to meet his. She looked at the table to her right, then back at him. "You, uh, want to finish this game? Or do you want to prove your point?"

He threw his cue away from him, not caring where it landed. "Sod. This. Ruddy. Game," he growled out, picking her up and setting her on the table.

In less than a minute they were naked and sliding against each other. She'd forgotten just how delicious his cold fingers were dancing across her skin, and he'd forgotten how she could warm him up. Hell, he'd forgotten what "warm" felt like, period. But they spent an hour reminding each other, and when they found their final release simultaneously it was better than either one had ever known. And Spike had a new definition in his head for "making love." Damn if the bint hadn't been right: it was different.

Afterwards, cuddling in each other's arms, they had three whole seconds of complete bliss. Then Spike's head shot up and he stared at the Bronze's open entrance. "Buffy—" he began.

She also sat up on the table. "Three hostiles, heading our way." She was off the table in an instant, moving toward the coat-rack. She caught Spike's look and said, "What? I've had a long time to improve my Slayer senses." Not having time to dress, she wrapped herself in Spike's duster and pulled her gun from her own jacket.

The three men shot through the entrance at almost the same moment, taking cover behind some dustcovers on what used to be the dancefloor. Buffy couldn't have drawn a bead on any of them—they moved like liquid shadows. In fact, they moved like . . . "Hey!" she called. "This is General Summers! If you have any allegiance to me at all you'll step out now and surrender yourselves."

Buffy heard distinct sighs. Then three large men in black uniforms stepped out from behind the dustcovers, hands and guns raised. "Move forward!" Buffy ordered, and they did. To her right, Spike was stepping off the pool table and pulling his jeans on.

Of the three men, the one to the far left walked ahead while the other two hung back. He looked to his general and said, "Madame General. We do apologize. We work for the Intelligence Chief. She sent us to guarantee your safety."

"My safety?" Buffy barked, in a voice Spike had never heard her use before. "I'm the safest person in this room, because I could kill you three with my bare hands before you got two shots off. Why the hell did you come in here with weapons drawn?"

The spokesman hung his head, now in serious misery. "We do apologize, Madame General. But we heard you scream."

"You heard—" And now she got it. Behind her, Spike's grin was huge and he struggled not to laugh out loud.

"Yes ma'am," the soldier said, still not looking up. "We, uh, didn't know what was going on in here. And we didn't mean to intrude. But we heard, uh, what we THOUGHT was a cry of distress."

The general addressed them with a cold look. "Well you were obviously wrong. I'll tell you what: why don't you men go back into the alley and protect my car? I think my friend and I will be ready to leave within a half hour."

All three soldiers saluted. "Yes ma'am!" they barked and sped out the entrance.

Buffy turned back to the still-insanely-grinning Spike. "You can get packed within a half hour, right?"

"Sure thing, luv," he answered, turning toward the bar, then turned back to look at her. "'Hostiles?' That military speak has taken you over, pet."

"Yeah, I guess it did rub off on me. Just like my time with you had me saying 'bloody hell' the second time Xander was at the altar."

He giggled, his good humor completely possessing him. "That still gets me. All those clues—he bloody well walked in on us when you were invisible—and he didn't catch on 'til that moment. Ya gotta love the guy: he spends months in willful ignorance and then turns into Sherlock bloody Holmes in two seconds."

"I never saw him so red before in my LIFE! I nearly called the paramedics." She was laughing along with him.

"And then— and then—" He couldn't finish, he was laughing so hard.

"What? What are you thinking of?"

"The— the—" he gasped. "The unicorn—" he moaned.

She let out an explosive laugh. "OH MY GOD! Yes, I haven't thought of that in— Oh My God! That poor statue, with the phallus on its head." She also began a steady stream of laughter, actually falling against a post by the pool table and sliding down to the floor.

Spike looked down at her in pure affection. "Guess I shouldn't have told Harmony where the wedding'd be."

Buffy pointed up at him, still giggling. "You're a bad, rude man, y'know that?"

He helped her up. "Yeah. How's Xander doing these days?"

"He's got his hands full with Anya. She's my Intelligence Chief, y'know."

Spike hooked a thumb over his shoulder. "What, she commands those clowns?"

"They're good soldiers," she said, mildly slapping his bare chest. "And Anya's so paranoid that she does a very good job for me."

"You have a job for me at that camp, pet?"

She grinned up at him. "Oh, I already know what your title is going to be. It's the same title as this duster," she said, hugging it closer to her. "Mine."

"Oh, I'm yours, am I?"

She leaned forward and looked into his eyes challengingly. "You bet your sweet ass, pal. I own every inch of your tight, hot little body. And that's how it's gonna be from now on. Do I make myself clear, mister?"

Spike drew her in for a long kiss and they melted into each other's arms. "Yes ma'am," he said.

THE END