She wanted her mother.
She could have reached the dorm room she shared with Willow easily from here. Instead she made the trek to Revello Drive. If she had been missing for seventeen days, Joyce would be freaking out. Maybe she didn't know. Maybe Giles and the Scoobies had managed to keep it from her. But she doubted that. As the days ticked by, Giles would have decided it was his duty to tell her. Buffy only hoped he had kept her mother from calling the cops. They would insist on knowing where she had been and right at the moment she couldn't think up a convincing lie.
All the lights at 1630 Revello Drive were on and she could see shapes moving behind the living room curtains. It looked like the Scoobies were all gathered here instead of at Giles' place.
She was right. Willow, Xander and Giles turned startled faces towards her as she let herself in.
"Buffy!" they exclaimed in chorus.
"Buffy!" Joyce flew out of the kitchen and grabbed her tight.
Buffy hugged her back fiercely. "Oh, Mom! I've missed you!"
"Honey, where have you been? We've been so worried!"
"Kind of a long story." All the Scoobies were around her now, exclaiming and asking questions. She hugged them all, then flopped down onto the couch. "Oh, it's so good to be home!"
"But where were you the last three days?" Willow exclaimed.
"In another dimension. The people there needed a dragon killed and they dragged me and Spike over to do it." Then the number Willow had mentioned registered. "Three days? But we were seventeen days in that other dimension!"
Either time had moved faster there or she and Spike had made a time jump backwards when they had passed through the Void. She didn't know which.
"Spike! Spike was there?" Angel's voice asked sharply.
She blinked when she saw him standing in the doorway of the kitchen. "Angel? What are you doing here?"
"We asked him to come when you disappeared," Giles explained. "We were hoping that he would be able to help find out what had happened to you. We thought Spike might have killed you. You do know that he has the Gem of Amara? Harmony told us they found it."
"Oh, yeah. We were having an argument about that when we got pulled into that other dimension. I got it off him though."
"And then I hope you dusted him!" said Xander.
"No. We kinda made a truce. He helped me take out the dragon."
"You made a truce with Spike?" Xander's jaw dropped. Everybody else was staring at her as well.
"Just like back with Acathla. It was the only sensible thing to do. And it worked out great. Alive here, see? That's thanks to him."
"I don't understand," Giles said. "Spike's evil."
"Well, yeah, he is. But we had to work together there." She gave them an abbreviated and highly expurgated rundown of what had happened in that other dimension. "The one thing about Spike is that if he gives his word, he keeps it. And he did."
"So what happened to him?" Willow asked. "Is he still in that other dimension?"
"No, he's back. We came back together."
"And then you let him go," Angel said grimly.
"What?" Xander exclaimed. "You let him go? You didn't dust him?"
"That wasn't a very wise thing to do, Buffy," said Giles, frowning heavily.
"Well, I couldn't dust him after he'd helped me. Look, he's going to leave Sunnydale. We won't have to worry about him anymore."
"What else happened in that other dimension?" Angel was glowering at her.
"I can smell him all over you!"
Oh, God! The color leaped in her face. Spike and she had made love just before the dragon had come to the square in Emladris and she hadn't taken a bath since then. Angel, with his vamp senses, could probably pick up everything. And from the rage in his face, he was.
"That's none of your business!"
"You don't mean...You can't mean...!" Xander was on his feet, horrified, his fists clenched. "No! He forced you! That's it, isn't it, Buffy? He raped you!"
"No! It was consensual sex!" She gave Angel a furious look, resenting the fact that he hadn't had the sense to keep his mouth shut, had brought that out into the open. "Angelus is the one who likes rape, remember?"
Angel flinched and she smiled with grim satisfaction. Served him right. Idiot!
"You had sex with Spike?" Xander yelped, still unable to take it in.
"Yeah. He's great in bed." She gave him a nasty smile as he flopped into an armchair and sat there gasping like a landed fish.
God! To have to come back to this! Accusations and condemnations and guilt trips. A sudden, furious rebellion welled up in her.
"And I say it again," she snapped. "This is none of your business. My private life is my affair. I don't interfere with yours, you don't interfere with mine. You don't have any right to tell me what to do."
"You're the Slayer," said Giles flatly. "You can't involve yourself with a vampire. Buffy, he's evil! He's a killer a thousand times over! He doesn't have a soul!"
"Yeah, yeah, like I don't know. He's a lot more than that though."
They didn't know what he was. It had only been three days for them. They didn't know him the way she did. She gave Angel a cold look as he stood there glaring at her. Not even Angel really knew him. To Angel, Spike was Drusilla's get and babysitter, the pain in the ass, the one who refused to do as he was told. And now he was the rival who could have what Angel couldn't. They had been at odds for a hundred and twenty years. Angel had never and would never see Spike except through the prism of his own preconceptions and prejudices.
"Look. The point is that he's leaving Sunnydale. Whatever happened between us is over. If any of you see him, I want you to leave him alone. Unless he attacks you. Which he won't. He said he wouldn't do anything that would make me stake him and Spike keeps his word."
"No," said Angel. "No. He won't get away with this!"
"Get away with what?" said Buffy dangerously. "Sleeping with me? You don't have a say in who I sleep with. You're the one who walked out on me, Angel!"
"I wanted you to have a normal life!"
"News flash, Angel. I'm the Slayer. I'm never going to have a normal life. I get that now. Y'know, I really bought into all that crap of yours about having a normal life. And you know what that got me? Parker Abrams." She and Willow shared a look of understanding. "You leave Spike alone, Angel. If anyone stakes him, it'll be me. This is my turf. I decide. No one touches Spike. That's an order."
"What's that on your neck?" Angel said harshly.
"My neck?" She had forgotten all about the mark of Spike's fangs on her neck. Her hand flew now to cover it.
"He bit you? You let him bite you!"
"I had to! They didn't have the right type of blood over there. He would have starved to death."
"My God!" Giles gasped. Both he and Angel were looking horrified. "Did he claim you?"
"Did he say anything possessive?"
"Not when he bit me."
"But he did at other times?" said Giles quickly. "Did you agree in any way?"
"Agree? No. What is this claim thing?"
"It's like a minion link. He would have a hold over you."
She shook her head. Spike didn't have a hold on her. If he had, he would have made her stay in that other dimension. Wouldn't have let her send him away the way he had, once they got back. Wouldn't have been so hurt, so grieved.
"He didn't claim me and I didn't agree."
"We can't be sure!" said Giles. He and Angel shared a frowning look. "We have to be sure."
"You can't take my word for it?" Buffy demanded and Giles waved an exasperated hand at her.
"How would you know? You didn't even know what a claim is."
Another thought struck her. "Could he have claimed me that easily?"
"Yes," said Angel flatly. "He could have tricked you into it. You wouldn't have known what he was doing. It would have been easy."
But he hadn't. Despite what must have been an overwhelming temptation, he had left her free.
"I can't believe the way you've acted," Giles was saying in grim, censorious tones. "So irresponsibly! I don't even recognize you anymore, Buffy! Have you forgotten who you are? What you are? You have a duty. How can you forget that?"
A sudden blind rage took her. She hadn't realized how free she had felt in that other dimension. Free of their demands and expectations and lectures. But now the shackles were coming back on again.
"My sacred duty. Oh, I haven't forgotten, Giles." She stood up, her hands clenched into fists at her sides. "If it wasn't for my duty, I wouldn't be here right now! I'd still be in that other dimension. I was happy there. Only my duty brought me back. And, believe me, I'm starting to regret that now!"
"All of you leave her alone!" snapped Joyce suddenly and put her arms protectively about Buffy. "I don't think she's acted irresponsibly at all. In fact, she was doing her job, even if it was in another dimension. Isn't that what all of you keep insisting she do? And she succeeded. She did what was necessary and she survived. She's back safe and no one's been hurt."
"This claim thing. You don't even know if there is one. You're just frightened that there is. Throwing accusations around without a shred of evidence to back them up!"
"But..." Giles began again and Joyce cut him off with a slash of her hand.
"Buffy says there isn't and she's the one who should know. So that's quite enough out of you, Rupert Giles! She's absolutely right. Her private life is none of your business. She can sleep with anyone she likes, just like any other girl in the world, whether you approve or not. You're only her Watcher. Maybe you can tell her what to do about this Slaying thing..." Joyce stopped and thought that over. "I'm even starting to wonder about that. She did quite well in that other world without you, didn't she?"
"Every Slayer requires a Watcher," Angel said in a heavily patient voice, as if he were talking to a child. "Who's going to do the research? Buffy?"
"Well, fine. Even so, Giles, you have no right to interfere with her personal life! Honestly! Willow is in love with a werewolf. Xander has just taken up with that strange girl, Anya, who used to be a demon. But nobody says anything about that." Joyce gave Angel a hard, disliking stare. "And the less said about Angel the better. That's rather the case of the pot calling the kettle black."
"Angel has a soul!" Giles protested. Willow and Xander were both bright red and silent.
"And a curse. I must say, I like the way Spike acts without a soul a whole lot better than the way Angel does without his."
"Joyce!" exclaimed Giles, shocked. Angel hunched his shoulders shamefacedly, looking as if he were trying to disappear into his own black leather coat.
"I want all of you to leave now," Joyce said firmly. "You can discuss all of this tomorrow. Buffy needs a little peace and quiet to adjust to being back. She's told you what she wants and I think you should respect her wishes."
They filed out, looking chastened.
"Thanks, Mom! You were great," said Buffy when they were all gone.
Joyce smiled at her. "Well, it is your own business, dear. And I'm getting rather fed up of the way they all push you around."
"I'm starting to feel that way myself."
"And I can't really blame you about Spike. He's very handsome."
Buffy laughed. "Good eye. You like him, don't you, Mom?"
"Yes, I do. He's a nice boy. He's been very sweet every time I've met him." She gave Buffy a rueful look. "Though, to be honest, I would have preferred a normal boy and grandchildren."
"Being a Slayer makes that difficult. And I'm kinda off normal boys right now."
"Willow said something about that. This Parker person. But that was a rebound, wasn't it?"
Buffy sighed. "Yeah."
Buffy glanced at her. "You don't like Angel."
Joyce looked embarrassed. "Well, he didn't make all that good a first impression, being Angelus and bragging about sleeping with you. And he hasn't really grown on me since."
"I'm not too pleased with him right now either."
She had become used to being treated with respect in the other dimension. For the first time, she realized that both Angel and Giles treated her like an unruly child rather than an adult. They acted as if they thought they had the right to make her decisions for her, ignored her opinions as silly, ignorant whims, didn't even really listen to her during the arguments that went on over the next several days. And she was the Slayer!
She realized that they had always acted that way, right from the beginning. Being her Watcher, Giles perhaps had some excuse. But Angel didn't. Still he kept trying to tell her what to do, but never providing any real support. Like that time she had gone to fight the Master all alone while Angel had skulked in his apartment until Xander had come to drag him out of it. Spike wouldn't have done that. Spike would have insisted on coming with her and fighting beside her every step of the way.
She had let them push her around, accepted it all unquestioningly.
She had grown in that other dimension. The people there had treated her like an adult, took it for granted that she knew what she was doing, and she had risen unthinkingly to the challenge. She had matured. Spike had helped, with his unwavering confidence in her. To him, she wasn't a child, as both Angel and Giles persisted in seeing her. Whether as an enemy or as a friend, Spike had never treated her as anything less than an equal, an adult, didn't think of her in any other way.
She missed his unshakable support, the sense of having him always with her, ready to back her up on anything, fight the battles with her. 'Come on' rather than 'Go on.' She understood what he had said to Tariess now. She hadn't realized how used to having him beside her she had become. She felt as if she had lost an arm.
That sense of something missing persisted. She would notice something ridiculous and turn without thinking to share the joke with Spike, see that swift laughter in his eyes—except he wasn't there. Or think, 'I have to tell Spike about that'— and then remember that she couldn't.
How could it all have happened so fast?
Even her own familiar bed at home seemed strange and empty. Because he wasn't in it with her; because that cool, strong body wasn't wound around her when she slept or when she woke up. The bed at the dorm, when she went back to it, was no different. She tossed and turned in it restlessly, waking up Willow who watched her thoughtfully.
"Guess he was really hot stuff, huh?"
Willow grinned. "You're acting as if you're in withdrawal from some drug."
That was the way she felt.
"Yeah, the man was addictive," she mumbled and buried her face in the pillow.
"Man, not vamp?"
Willow had put her finger precisely and accurately on what was the real issue.
She looked up and saw Willow sitting up in bed, frowning and hugging her knees. For Willow, Spike was the vicious vampire who had tried to kill all of them several times, had wanted to eat Xander, threatened to cut her face with a broken bottle. Willow hadn't spent all that time with him, didn't know the person behind that deadly gameface.
"You see the man, don't you?" said Willow. "Spike, not the vamp. The way I see Oz, not the werewolf."
She looked at Willow in surprise. "You understand."
"Yeah, I do. Kinda going through the same thing here." Willow looked at her curiously. "Do you have feelings for him, Buffy?"
"I don't know," groaned Buffy. "How can I? He's a vamp. He doesn't have a soul. He's evil."
"Could he change?"
He had already changed.
"I think he has," she muttered. "But..."
Willow looked sympathetic, not disapproving. "Yeah, the others would have a cow. Xander wouldn't do anything. Your Mom flattened him with that crack about Anya being a demon. But Giles and Angel don't give up that easily."
"They're wasting their time. Spike's gone."
But Angel still hung around. He had taken up residence in his old mansion again, and he and Giles constantly had their heads together. Giles might not like Angel because of Jenny Calendar's death, but he was a pragmatic man, and they had common cause in their mutual dislike and distrust of Spike.
"You think he's still here," said Buffy, watching Angel doing his slow Tai Chi or whatever exercises. "He's not. It's been two weeks and there's no sign of him. He said he was leaving Sunnydale. How long are you going to hang around? "
"Until I'm sure," said Angel grimly. "I keep getting this uneasy feeling."
Could Spike possibly...? Her heart leapt. She shoved it back down again. She shouldn't be feeling like this. Spike was a vamp. She was a Slayer. They had no future. They had shared a dream. A lovely, crazy fever-dream. But now it was over.
"It's just your imagination," she muttered. "Don't vampires know when family is in town? You're both Aurelians. You'd know if he were here."
"I know I would. And I don't sense him around. But the hairs on the back of my neck keep standing up."
A couple of mocking remarks that Spike had made about Angel's hair standing up popped involuntarily into her head and she had to bite her lip to keep from giggling.
"You're starting to turn into weirdo-boy, Angel. Things have been quiet. Unusually quiet, actually. Hardly any demons around when I patrol. Go back to L.A. He...he's gone."
"You don't sound very happy about that," said Angel accusingly. His eyes had gone black.
"I'm neither happy nor unhappy. It's nothing to me," lied Buffy. "Are you still thinking about that claim thing? I looked up claims in Giles' books after you mentioned it and, believe me, Spike didn't put a claim on me."
Angel peered at her neck where the bite marks had already faded, which the books said wouldn't have happened if Spike had established a claim.
"Well, maybe not," he said reluctantly.
"So you're just wasting your time here."
"You're very eager to have me gone," he said. "You didn't used to be."
She looked at him coolly. "That's because I never realized before how controlling you really are."
"Doing things for my own good. Never consulting me. Never listening to what I want. Shouldn't I have some say in my own life? But you make all these unilateral decisions without allowing me any input."
She saw a flash of what looked like panic and guilt go through his eyes..
"When you do things to people without their consent, it's a kind of...a kind of rape, Angel. That's something you seem to share with Angelus, even though it may not be the actual act."
"It's not...!" Angel was thinking of that day he had taken back. But he hadn't meant it as a...as a...as what she was saying. He'd done it for her own good. It was for the best.
"Even if it's without their knowledge. That's like raping their minds. Essentially the same." Buffy was thinking that Spike had been right. Angel and Angelus weren't that different, just two sides of the same coin. "I think you should be more careful how you treat people, Angel."
"As if Spike treats them better!" he flung at her.
"This is not about Spike. It's about you. But while we're on the subject of Spike, I don't want you hurting him. You have no excuse to. He hasn't put a claim on me. If you hurt him, it's because you want revenge on him, not because of any danger to me."
Angel glared at her. "Giles agrees with me about Spike!"
"And that makes me doubt Giles, not excuse you. Both of you are acting like heavy-handed, paternalistic idiots and I don't like it. So knock it off. Oh, for heaven's sake!" she exclaimed in exasperation, "Stop doing those stupid exercises and come and spar with me instead!"
Angel looked shocked.
"You should be doing these exercises too," he said with heavy patience, sounding as pompous as Giles. "Without them, one can't achieve perfection."
Static perfection. Exercises were all well and good, but there were other ways of honing one's skills. She thought of her sparring matches with Spike, the unexpectedness of the things he threw at her, the way he turned anything available around him into a weapon and forced her to do the same, made her dig deep inside herself for move and countermove—the way it would be in a real battle. And the flash and flare and fun of it. The laughter.
Angel wouldn't even consider that. His way was the only way.
"I don't think I've ever really known you," she said with wonder and walked out, leaving him staring.
Where were all the demons? It was close on three weeks since she had come back from that other dimension and Buffy had only seen a couple.
She dropped in at Willie's. There were a few of the troublemaking ones there, but those looked remarkably subdued and none of them offered battle, snuck out instead the minute they noticed her. She left them alone. It was tacitly understood by both sides that Willie's was neutral ground until one or the other made an aggressive move. Willie gave her a strangely resentful look when she came in. But all the peaceful demons bowed when her gaze ran over them. She nodded back indifferently. She had never bothered to harass the peaceful kind. There was a whole community of those in Sunnydale, but she left them alone. She had her hands too full with the troublesome type to want the hassle of running the others out of town.
She saw Angel and Giles walking along together in Shady Rest cemetery, probably doing another useless sweep for Spike. She gave them both a wide berth. She was really not in the mood for arguments and lectures tonight. She headed north instead, working her way through Tranquility and then Restfield cemeteries. Tranquility turned up the nothing that had come to be the norm these days, but the minute she turned into Restfield she heard a snarling fight going on. She ran forward quickly, but the sound broke off with a crack that resounded through the night and then everything went silent. She rounded a crypt and saw a massive body lying on the ground.
It was a Grathar and it was very, very dead, its neck broken and its head turned right around on its shoulders. She stood over its body, wanting to laugh hysterically in relief. The handiwork was familiar.
"Spike!" she yelled at the night. "Spike, I know you're there! Come out!"
There was a hesitation. Then he stepped resignedly out of the shadows.
Her heart jumped, then started to beat overtime in her chest, hurting her. The very sight of him was a joy—the white-blond hair glinting in the moonlight; the strong, cut-glass planes of his face, strained now with tension; the vivid blue gaze watching her so intently, a tiny wary frown in his eyes. She couldn't stop looking at him, the same way that he was looking at her, with helpless pleasure and yearning.
"What the hell are you doing here? I told you to leave Sunnydale!"
"And I told you, pet. I don't leave. Monsters never leave, remember? They're always somewhere around in the shadows."
"Have you been doing my patrols for me?"
"Well, y'know. Got bored. Had to do something to keep myself occupied."
"I see." If anything illustrated the difference between him and Angel, it was this. There Angel and Giles were, wandering through the graveyards, hunting Spike and ignoring the demons, leaving them all to her because they were supposed to be her job. And here was Spike, doing a careful sweep before her path, taking out any demons that might potentially harm her, protective as usual.
Angel and Giles left the physical dangers to her, but protected her from the dreadful possibility that she might make the wrong decision. Spike protected her from the physical dangers and left her choices up to her, trusting her to know what was best for herself, even though that choice might go against him. She knew which one she preferred.
A flurry of small, gray forms filtered out of the shadows behind Spike and surrounded the Grathar, gathering it up and carrying it away, rather like ants toting away an oversized breadcrumb. Firoud.
"Good eating for them," Spike explained.
"No wonder I've seen hardly any demons the last three weeks!" Buffy looked at him suspiciously. "And what have you been eating, Spike?"
There was a silence.
"Spike!" she exclaimed. "You haven't been feeding on people!"
"Well, yeah. I don't kill 'em though," he said quickly. "Just take a drink and let them go. Don't have Slayer blood anymore, right? And really can't stand that pig's blood crap. 'M not Angel, pet. Don't have a soul. Evil here. Figure I'm doing my bit just by not killing them."
It was in fact a major concession. And the victims wouldn't remember having been fed on.
"Angel and Giles are looking for you."
"Told them, did you?" He looked amazed.
"Angel smelled it. That first night we got back."
"Oh!" He almost laughed, then bit it back hastily. "Would have warned you if I'd known he was here. Out for my blood, is he?"
He grinned. "Never thought I'd get to shaft him like that. Bonus. Frothing at the mouth, huh?"
"Pretty much. How come he doesn't know you're here?"
"Didn't want any of you knowing I was still in Sunnydale. When I saw Angel here, I knew he'd twig to it right off. Would have liked to have taken him on. Got a few scores to settle and would really have enjoyed dusting him. But you wouldn't have liked that, would you, pet?"
"No." She didn't want Angel dusted. And Spike would have managed it. Angel was a good fighter, but Spike was the best she had ever seen. Over the last twelve decades, Spike had made battle an art form.
"Didn't think so," he said wryly. "There's this legal firm. Wolfram and Hart. Specializes in demon and witchy affairs. Bought a couple of charms from them. One for the place I'm at, so I can sleep safe. One to carry."
"It keeps Angel from sensing you?"
"Yeah. Cost me a packet, but I had enough for that. Brian and Harmony didn't take much from the treasure lying around the Gem of Amara when they took off for France. Got a nice little crypt now too. And enough to set me up sweet for a while."
Buffy was trying to make sense of his words. "Brian...?"
"Vamp I had working for me. Always had the hots for Harm. Grabbed his chance when I went and disappeared like that for three days. Left a note saying he'd taken only enough of the treasure to set him and Harm up in Paris, so please don't come after them. As if I would! Feel like sending him a gift basket for taking Harm off my hands. He'll get tired of her verbal diarrhea soon enough, but until then she's not a bad lay."
She was fighting an urge to laugh helplessly. "I see."
"Oh, here." He handed her a bank passbook. "This is for you. Was gonna drop it off at Revello Drive, but since you're here..."
She opened it and nearly passed out at the balance showing in it. "What the hell!"
"That's from Tariess. Git slipped a little bag of gems into my pocket while we were talking. Said he wanted you taken care of proper. That'll do it. Wolfram and Hart set it up for me. Buggers nearly had a seizure when they saw those gems. Some of them don't even exist in our dimension. Rarity. Wouldn't believe the price they fetched at auction."
He hunched his shoulders awkwardly. "Yeah, yeah. Know I shouldn't have stayed, Slayer. Know you don't want me around. But...Nothing out there for me, yeah? Heart's here. Won't get in your way. You won't even know I'm here. Could be of use, y'know. Could help..."
He broke off, his lips tight, his face strained and vulnerable.
"Gonna stake me, Slayer?"
Slayer and vampires were supposed to be sworn enemies. Any connection between them was unheard of, reprehensible. The Council of Watchers would consider it anathema. But suddenly Buffy didn't care. He was the other side of herself, her right arm, her other half. They were partners in every sense of the word, matched, balanced, equal. With him beside her, she was a better Slayer. He was her heart.
She flung herself at him.
The movement was so abrupt that he flinched involuntarily, a tiny backwards jerk of his head and shoulders. Then he recovered himself and stood his ground, making no attempt to defend himself should she indeed decide to stake him.
Her arms wound around his neck, holding him fiercely tight. She felt his body jolt against hers, heard him gasp in shock.
"Buffy?" he breathed incredulously.
"God, Spike! I've missed you! I've missed you so much!"
"Buffy!" His arms closed about her, holding her so tightly to him that she felt their bones would fuse together.
"These last three weeks, I've felt like I've been missing half of myself." She felt whole again now, feeling that cool, strong body vibrant against hers, the texture of his neck against her face as she clung to him, the scent of his skin, all those myriad tiny details that made up the reality of him. "I need you with me."
"Need the dark side, do you, Slayer?" he said wryly.
"The dark side! What a crock! There wasn't a dark side to it. Not for one moment. There was always light. And joy and happiness." She drew back to look at him and see the wonder and bewilderment in his eyes. "You're not a monster hiding in the shadows for me, Spike. You're a person. Just like that dragon was a person. You're a freaking Champion."
He laughed involuntarily, then leaned his forehead against hers, his eyes closed, his breath shuddering against her mouth. "Still got no soul, pet."
"Got a heart. You don't need that soul. You do better with that heart of yours than Angel does with his soul."
He looked at her in amazement. She kissed him tenderly and felt his mouth respond helplessly to hers.
"Evil here, pet."
"Are you? You're not acting like it. What's with the patrolling and the no eating people ?"
"That's for you, luv. You know that. Can't claim to be good."
"Maybe doing good is enough. It is for me."
She kissed the corner of his mouth and then the flat plane of his cheek beside one arrogant nostril and then his eye, felt the tremble that went through him when her lips pressed against his lashes. Tenderness hurt him, he wanted it so badly.
"Can't do without you," she whispered. "I found that out these last three weeks. God, I've been so lonely for you! Need you with me—fighting, laughing, loving. We're partners. In everything."
He seemed to be beyond words. His hands stroked her hair, delicately, disbelievingly, cupped her face.
"Why didn't you claim me?" she asked. "Giles and Angel were so terrified of that. It would have been so easy."
"Wouldn't have been right. Would have been a kind of rape. Told you. I don't do rape. The claim—any connection at all, for that matter—it's meaningless unless it's willing."
"And with full consent and knowledge of all the facts."
Yes. If she had needed anything to prove to her how different he was from Angel, this would have done it. He wouldn't do things to her without her consent for her own good. He wouldn't trick her into anything. He might use all his powers of persuasion maybe, might yell at her and call her a stupid bint perhaps, might flatly defy her if they disagreed—but he would never lessen her by taking her decisions out of her own hands. She could trust him. With more than her life.
Angel's love was selfish. She saw that now. Spike's was unselfish and unconditional.
"I've been thinking a lot over the last three weeks," she said. "I've been making some changes in my life. Angel and Giles haven't accepted them yet. But they will. They'll have to. Do you remember saying that I let other people's opinions matter too much?"
"I shouldn't have..."
"No, you were right. I did put all their opinions ahead of mine. I've made a few adjustments there. Decided to trust my judgement ahead of their opinions. The people I love, right? Well, I found out my real hierarchy there. And you know who comes right at the top of the list, Spike? You do."
His lips parted, shaping her name, but he couldn't make a sound.
"I love you," she said and kissed him.
He kissed her desperately, crushing her to him. She could feel him shaking.
"This isn't happening," he said blankly.
"I love you," she repeated, smiling.
"I have to sit down," he said suddenly and thumped down onto a gravestone and sat there staring at her.
She laughed and stepped between his legs, leaned against him, tilting his head back between her hands and running her lips all over his face. He seemed to be in shock, his breath shuddering in his throat.
"You love me?" he whispered. "Me! No one ever..."
"Always wanted to be loved, never was, right?" she murmured. "Well, you picked the wrong ones, sweet. No flaw in you, just in your choices. Cecily and Dru? They don't deserve you. They're not good enough. They're not worthy. I only hope I am."
"Christ, pet! You're my North Star!"
"Your guiding light? No. Unless you're mine. We'll light each other's way, dear heart."
"God, I love you so much!"
He caught her to him, pressing his face between her breasts. She felt his lashes fluttering against her skin in the vee-neck of her loose shirt, the shudder of his breath in his open mouth, kissed the top of his bright head.
"I want you to claim me," she said and felt the jolt of shock and utter disbelief jerk through him.
"Giles and Angel were afraid of a one-way link. I looked that up. That's like a minion link, isn't it? But there's another type of claim. A mutual claim. That's like a marriage. We'd belong to each other."
"Yes," he whispered, staring up at her. "We'd own each other. But that's forever, Buffy. That's irrevocable. Only death would break the link and the death of one is always the death of the other. Are you sure you want it?"
"Yes. Do you want it?"
"God, yes! With you? I'd give anything for it! But...Buffy, you don't have to do that! You already own me. I thought you knew that."
"Oh, I do." She brushed his lips with hers. "You belong to me. But I want to belong to you as well."
"Oh, God, Buffy...!"
"Can we do it now?" she purred.
"Now?" he said incredulously.
"Yeah." She laughed against his temple. "Kinda miss the marks of your fangs on my neck."
"I was sorry when they faded. Thought that was all I had left of you."
"God, woman! Do you know what you're doing to me?"
She kissed him. "Have an idea."
He stood up and caught her face in his hands. "Buffy. Be sure. There's no going back."
"I'm sure," she said quietly, not laughing now, meeting his intense stare with grave, steady eyes.
He bent and she felt his lips against her neck, the cool exhalation of his breath against her skin, then the prick of his fangs above the vein. But he didn't bite, waited, as if to be completely certain that this was what she wanted.
"I want it," she said with calm certainty and pressed his head to her neck.
His fangs slid smoothly into the vein and she shivered with pleasure as she felt the slow, careful draw. He took no more than a sip, then retracted his fangs and licked the puncture marks to seal them.
"Mine," he said breathlessly.
"Yours," she agreed, then caught his head in both her hands and pushed it sideways to expose his neck. She heard his breath catch sharply. She bit him as hard as she could in the junction between his neck and shoulder, tasted the coppery tang of his blood. "And you're mine."
"Always," he whispered.
She could feel something sliding and clicking into place between them, like hands interlinking, like puzzle pieces interlocking, a link that was absolutely sure and precise and unbreakable joining them together. Suddenly, everything felt incredibly right, unbelievably perfect.
Somebody howled behind them.
Giles had had a very exasperating three weeks. First, Buffy had started acting very strangely, not listening to him and talking back in an unacceptably rebellious fashion that she had never done before. Buffy had always given him backchat. That was only normal. That's what teenagers did—back talk and wisecracks. But behind the quips, she had always been compliant, willing to do what he said, follow his suggestions. She wasn't doing that anymore, kept questioning his judgement, refused to listen to his strictures and insisted that he accept her decisions instead. It was all very worrying.
It hadn't been difficult for Angel to persuade him that Spike had done something to her. The idea of a Slayer claimed by a vampire and obeying his orders, was terrifying to Giles. If he and Angel could not free Buffy, either by forcing Spike to relinquish his claim or removing him from the face of the earth entirely, Giles was fully aware that the Council of Watchers would take matters into their own hands and send out their hired killers to eliminate Buffy. A Slayer controlled by a vampire could not possibly be allowed to exist. But Giles loved Buffy like a daughter and would do everything he could to see that did not happen. And if that meant dusting Spike, he would do it.
But as time went on and the bite marks faded from Buffy's neck and Spike didn't seem to be anywhere around, Giles started to get the niggling idea that he might be mistaken. Buffy was in college now, finding her own feet, moving towards independence and adulthood. Maybe he should be listening to her opinions, instead of insisting that she follow his.
And Angel's motives were certainly not pure. Giles was well aware that what Angel wanted was revenge on Spike. Giles was just there to give Angel legitimacy, so that if Buffy was angry at him for dusting Spike, Angel could say with perfect truth, "Well, your Watcher thought that it was necessary."
But after three weeks, even Giles' patience was coming to an end. As Angel and he walked through Shady Rest cemetery, Giles was trying to find a way to say politely, "Angel, this is getting us nowhere. Spike's gone. And you should go too, back to Los Angeles."
He was just opening his mouth to say that when Angel's head snapped up.
"Did you hear that? It's Buffy! She's yelling! She's yelling, 'Spike!'"
"Oh, dear Lord!" gasped Giles. "Is he hurting her?"
"I don't know!" Angel broke into a run, dragging Giles panting after him. "We're in the wrong cemetery! They're in Restfield! Come on, man! Run!"
Galvanized by fear, Giles did manage to keep at least within sight of Angel, who slowed down at the gates of Restfield, where Giles caught up with him.
"I can't sense Spike!" Angel exclaimed in frustration. "I don't know why! I'm trying to home in on Buffy."
He was going slowly enough now, relatively, that Giles, running his hardest, was able to keep up with his flapping coattails. Then Angel stopped short. Giles almost ran into his back, recovered himself, then realized that they had found Buffy and Spike. The two of them were standing in front of a crypt, their arms around each other and their faces bent to each other's necks. Angel howled.
Giles stumbled to a stop, shocked into stillness by that animal sound of rage and anguish tearing from Angel's throat.
"What?" gasped Giles. "What?"
Buffy and Spike turned to look at them. Giles saw blood on Buffy's lips. She licked it away.
"Oh, dear Lord!" he gasped. "He's turned her! She's a vampire!"
"Don't be silly, Giles," said Buffy, amused. "No such thing! That takes a whole lot longer."
"He claimed her," Angel said in a dead voice.
"He what? No! We have to... we have to..." Giles yanked out a stake and headed towards Spike, then was brought up with a jolt when Angel's hand grabbed his wrist, holding him back.
"You can't," Angel said with deep and painful regret. It killed him to have to say that. "You can't dust him. If he dies, she dies. If you dust Spike, you'll kill Buffy."
"Mutual claim, Giles," said Buffy happily. "Spike claimed me and I claimed him back."
"Oh, no! Oh, no!" exclaimed Giles, appalled. "Buffy! Why?"
"Because I love him."
Giles's legs folded under him and he sat down hard on a tombstone.
"How can you?" Angel shouted at her furiously. "He's a...He doesn't have a..."
"He's a vampire. He doesn't have a soul. And you know what?" said Buffy joyously. "I don't care. I love him."
"No," said Angel numbly. "No."
Buffy felt Spike shift a little against her. Still leaning against him, her arms around his waist, she drew back slightly and looked up into his face. He was looking at Angel and the corners of his mouth were deeply indented, holding back a tight grin. He said nothing, made no sound at all; but she could feel the crazy yell of triumph and wild laughter thrumming through him.
"Payback time, huh?" she murmured. "Payback for what, a hundred and twenty years of shit?"
"Oh, yeah," he murmured. "Couldn't be a better revenge. It's gonna burn him every time he thinks of this. It's gonna chew him up proper. You choosing me over him. You loving me. Sodding berk. And he's a vamp. He's gonna live forever. It's gonna burn him forever. Bonus!"
"Damn straight." He looked down at her, dismissing Angel completely from his mind, focusing solely on her. "I'll try to be a champion for you, pet. I really will. But doing good isn't being good, if you see what I mean. Don't think I'll ever be able to be that, luv."
She tiptoed and kissed him softly. "What you are right now is what I want, Spike."
She could feel his happiness, the love and devotion coming from him.
"I can feel you," she murmured. "I can feel what you're feeling."
"That's the claim." He leaned his forehead against her temple, his breath shuddering against her face. "And I can feel you. Loving me. God! My heart's so full, it hurts!"
Angel made a disgusted, disbelieving sound and they both looked around, surprised. They had forgotten that there was anybody else here.
"He doesn't have a soul," said Angel. "He can't love. You're a fool if you believe that, Buffy."
"Angel," said Buffy patiently. "We're claimed. I understand that you've never claimed or been claimed by anyone, so you don't know what it's like. Take my word for it. I don't need to believe that he loves me. I know it. I can feel what he's feeling."
"Never could believe anything you haven't experienced, could you, you stupid pillock," said Spike. "Go back to L.A. and help the whatevers. You're not needed here. Sunnydale's already got two champions."
Angel gave him a look of purest hatred, then spun on his heel and stalked away. Spike laughed out loud behind him.
"Giles," said Buffy and Giles looked up dully. "Are you going to tell the Council?"
"No," said Giles. "You may not believe this right now, Buffy, but I do care for you. I'm not going to tell them. What I'm going to do is make every effort to ensure that they never find out."
"Thank you, Giles."
"This is going to take a lot of getting used to," Giles sighed. He got up stiffly, shaking his head.
"It'll all work out, Giles."
Giles nodded dumbly and walked slowly away.
"Alone at last," said Buffy and grinned at Spike. "So, do I just yank you straight down to the ground here or what?"
"Losing all those inhibitions, are you, Slayer?" He laughed down at her.
"You pretty well destroyed them back in the Hasjarad."
"Got a bed," he purred.
"See that crypt over there? That's mine."
"Ooh. Convenient." She bit him softly, just over the mark she had left on his neck, and felt him shudder violently against her. She shuddered too. Biting the claim mark had sent a flash of intense pleasure through both of them. "Three weeks has been too long."
"Tell me about it," he muttered and scooped her up.
A flash of vampire speed had them in the crypt. He kicked the door shut hard enough to jar the bar down, locking them securely in. Buffy got a glimpse of a dusty, cobwebby ground floor in the light of one burning candle, then he was dropping them both through a hole in the back down into a lower level.
He set her carefully on her feet and went around lighting lamps. She looked around with interest. All the work had been done here. It was luxurious—big bed, comfortable furniture, rich hangings, expensive rugs...
"All bought by the Amara treasure, right?"
"Oh, yeah." He raised his brows at her meaningfully. "Got a Jacuzzi built for two as well. Might not be porphyry, but it's got some interesting jets and things."
She laughed involuntarily. "Were you planning more seduction?"
"You never give up, do you?"
He came and took her face gently in his hands. "Not when it means this much."
They kissed slowly, tenderly. She leaned against him helplessly, her bones going liquid with the sweetness of it.
"I love you," she said.
"God! Never thought I'd hear that," he muttered. "Never even hoped for it. All I ever hoped for was that you'd be with me sometimes. That you'd come for the dark side sometimes."
They were stroking each other's clothes off, hands running caressingly over each other's bodies.
"Never thought you'd be so dumb," she murmured. "It was never dark. Not once. Not ever."
The link was picking up every touch, every caress, relaying it to each other.
"I can feel you feeling me," she said in wonder. The sensation echoed back and forth over the link, like two mirrors set to reflect each other; but in this case the feeling doubled and re-doubled, deepening and strengthening with each pass. "Is that the claim?"
"Yeah," he sighed. They were both drowning in each other. "God, pet! I'm so happy, it hurts!"
She knew what he meant. Every caress went deeper than the body and caught straight at the heart. Her heart was so full it felt as if it were going to burst.
"Love you," he said. "Love you so much."
Emotions came across the link too, a flood tide of love and joy and passion, engulfing them.
All clothes gone now. They fell onto the bed, bodies sliding and coiling about each other.
"How'd we get here so fast?" she muttered. "It was only seventeen days in that other dimension! But by the end of that time, I couldn't do without you."
"Don't know about you, pet. But me?" He purred as her mouth slid down his throat. "Wanted you since the first time I saw you, dancing in the Bronze. Thought it was just lust. But it wasn't. It was more than that. Know why Dru dumped me? Because she said that she saw you floating all around me, because she said I was covered in you."
"Back then?" she exclaimed in astonishment.
"She knew. Way before I did. Didn't want to believe her. Wanted the Gem of Amara so I could kill you, prove her wrong. Never could kill you, y'know. All those times we fought, I think I wasn't really trying."
That fight they had had when he was wearing the Gem. He could have killed her then several times. He had had the advantage. He had knocked her about, but hadn't really made a killing move, subconsciously holding back without even being aware of it.
"Wish I could say the same," she murmured. "Didn't really see you until that other dimension. Didn't know what you really were. Saw you there. Saw what we were, what we could be. Partners, lovers, the dearest of friends."
"Everything I ever wanted," he said very low, his face in her throat.
"You knew by the time I gave you my blood, didn't you?" she said. She remembered the way he had said, 'I have a fatal attraction to the best,' and the way he had looked at her. She had never realized. "I've been so blind."
"We both fought it."
His eyes had gone yellow; his tongue had turned rough, like a cat's. She shuddered helplessly as it rasped over her, setting her nerve ends on fire, sliding down her spine, along the inside of her thigh, across her breasts to linger on and torment her nipples until they hardened to the point of pain. She caught at him, arcing to him, little moans of helpless delight purring in her throat. He smiled down at her, his eyes soft with pleasure at her pleasure.
She stroked him too, lips and hands sliding over every inch of his skin, feeling him thrill and shiver to her touch, felt the depth of his pleasure over the link and delighted in it just as he was delighting in hers. He was surrendered to her as much as she was surrendered to him.
They twisted around each other like snakes, limbs twining, mouths and hands demanding and devouring, friction building a rising spiral of exquisite sensation that the link caught up and raised higher and higher until it was almost unbearable.
"Want you," she gasped, arcing to him.
"Not yet. Not yet." His hands raked and kneaded over her body, and she keened helplessly. "Not going to give this up yet. Not half through yet."
His fangs were out, their tiny pinpricks across her body hopelessly arousing as he twisted and turned her to his mouth. Her brain was shorting right out. She arced and writhed mindlessly against him.
"You're killing me, Spike..."
She clawed involuntarily at his back, bit at his mouth, and heard him laugh. Then he was coming into her hard. She cried out in satisfaction, clenching upon his thickness within her, and heard him groan with pleasure. He filled her to the utmost, made her feel so utterly complete. Absolute perfection, the deep drives of his cock, the draw of his fangs sliding into the claim mark on her neck, that unbearable, excruciating rapture going on and on and on.
The link flared wide abruptly. They surged against each other, drowning in that tsunami of feeling, bodies locked and mouths locked and minds locked. The claim bound them together, merged them, made them one being. She felt him judder and pulse within her, felt his mind blank right out, blanked out herself from the unendurable perfection of it.
"OhmiGod," she muttered, staggering back to consciousness an eternity later. "Thought I'd burn right up..."
"Thought I'd died and gone to heaven," he agreed, limp and heavy upon her. He licked the claim mark on her neck to seal the puncture wound and they both shuddered.
"Is it always gonna be like that?" she asked in amazement and disbelief. It had been wonderful before, but it was unbelievable now.
"God, we'll never survive it!"
He laughed breathlessly and slid downwards a little to burrow his face between her breasts. She wrapped her arms around his head.
"What a way to go, huh?"
"I'm so happy," she murmured.
They could feel the depth of each other's contentment.
He raised his head suddenly. "Got something for you."
He pulled out the drawer of the night table beside the bed and reached for a little box within it. She saw the Order that Tariess had given them lying neatly in a transparent case to one side.
"Thought you were going to hock that."
Spike looked embarrassed. "Didn't need to. What with the treasure and all. Will if I ever have to."
She laughed. "Sure you will. Big softy. I'm keeping mine safe too. You liked it in that dimension, didn't you? You liked them and you liked them liking you. You were accepted there. Valued. Are you sorry I made you come back?"
"I'm valued here too, aren't I? By you. That's what matters. Being with you."
They kissed softly.
"If we're married, you need a ring," he said and held one out to her.
The stones looked similar to emeralds and diamonds, but they weren't. The green of the large central stone was at once warmer and richer than an emerald and the diamonds on either side of it had a strange rainbow sparkle.
"Thought of you the minute I came across it among the gems Tariess gave me," he said. "Wolfram and Hart had a stroke when they saw it. No equivalent for that in our dimension. Then they had another stroke when I said I was keeping it. Had it sized for your finger. Will you wear it?"
"You know I will," she said and kissed him, then smiled at him as he slid it onto the ring finger of her left hand. "Got something for you too."
She reached for her jeans lying on the floor, opened a zipped pocket and dug into it.
He looked at the Gem of Amara lying on her palm.
"Want you safe," she said. "The Council might come after you if they learn about us. Don't want you dusted."
She slid it onto the ring finger of his left hand.
"Come full circle, haven't we?" he said and they grinned at each other.
She couldn't even visualize it anymore. There they had been, such a little time ago, trying with all their might to kill each other on the campus of UC Sunnydale. And now...
He reached out and gathered her up against him.
"Best thing that ever happened, our falling into that other dimension," he murmured.
"Oh, yes," Buffy agreed, holding him tight. "If it wasn't for that, I would never have seen you for what you are. My dearest friend, my partner, my..."
"Mate," he said with profound satisfaction. "My mate."
"In every sense of the word," she purred and kissed him.