Something was wrong. Buffy knew it the moment she stepped through the cemetery gates. She could pick up vamp and demon vibes. One signature was Spike's. The other two were unknown. The odd thing was that there were no sounds of battle. If there were demons around, Spike would normally be fighting them.
She turned the corner of a crypt and saw three figures standing in the moonlight. A demon and two vampires. One of the vampires was Spike and he looked as if the world had fallen in on him.
"Spike? What's wrong?"
She ran forward and grabbed him, glaring at the two strangers, her arms tight about his waist.
"Get away from him!" the strange vamp snarled and caught at her arm, intending to pull her away from Spike.
Buffy struck his hand away. "Touch me again and you're dust, vampire!"
Spike was snarling viciously, his fangs out and pure death in his eye. Buffy could see that he was in a killing mood.
"Let me handle this," the short demon in the fedora said hurriedly to the vamp, pulling him back.
Buffy ignored them. She was holding Spike tight and looking at the pain that showed even through his gameface. He drew a sharp breath and forced the gameface to fade away to his regular human features.
"Spike! What's happened?"
He caught her to him, his arms fierce around her and his face in her hair. She heard the strange vamp growl behind her and the murmur of the demon speaking to him. But all her attention was on Spike.
"They're gonna change everything, pet. Make it like it didn't happen. Take you away from me."
"No one can take me away from you, Spike!"
"The Powers That Be can." His arms loosened and he leaned back and jerked his chin at the demon. "That one can. Whistler. He's an agent of the PTB."
She let him go and turned to scowl at Whistler who made a patting motion with his hands at the air to try to calm her.
"I can explain," he said nervously.
"You better." She glared angrily at the two strangers, her hands on her hips. "What's this about changing things and who the hell are you and what the fuck is going on?"
"It's a long story," said Whistler.
"Then start talking." She frowned as she finally got a clear look at the vamp beside him. "Hey, I know you. Didn't I dust you last year?"
"The cat came back," growled Spike behind her. He was vibrating dangerously behind her and she was aware that he was only a hair's breadth away from a killing frenzy. "Seems the PTB have plans for him, so they yanked him out of hell. That's Angelus."
"Angel!" said Angel sharply.
"Like that makes a diff."
"Your grandpapa?" Buffy asked and Angel winced.
Spike made a face too. "Rather not be reminded he's part of the family, but technically yes, pet. My sire's sire."
"I've read about you in my Watcher's books," said Buffy coldly to Angel. Her hand was on the stake in the small of her back. "You're one of the worst vampires around. Why did the PTB bring something like you back?"
"He has a soul," said Whistler quickly. "He's had one for a hundred years. He's the only vampire in the world with a soul."
"I'm a good vampire," said Angel earnestly. "I was the one destined to help you, but you dusted me before I had a chance to explain."
"You had plenty of time to explain, but you just kept burbling on about how you expected me to be taller and have bigger muscles and how I wanted to kill things—which I so didn't at the time. You couldn't just have said, 'Hey, I've got a soul and the PTB sent me to help you'?"
Whistler rolled his eyes and sighed.
"You really blew that one, didn't you?" he said to Angel who was looking deeply embarrassed. "I shouldn't have left you to do things on your own. That was my mistake. That's why everything went wrong."
"I didn't want to scare her by admitting I was a vamp!"
Spike made a scornful sound. "Like a Slayer wouldn't have known that right off."
"The thing is," said Whistler hurriedly before things got away from him, "Angel was the one who was supposed to help you with your Slaying and with the Master and dangers like the Three and the Mayor and..."
"The Mayor?" Buffy asked, puzzled.
"Oh, sorry. That hasn't happened yet." Whistler frowned suddenly. "And won't in this timeline," he said in a surprised voice, then shrugged. "But it will when we get things back the way they should be."
"Oh, joy," said Buffy. "Something to look forward to." She scowled at Angel. "So why are you so willing to help me? Because of this soul thing?"
"Not just because of the soul." Angel looked down and shuffled his feet a little, embarrassed. "Because of you. Whistler took me to see you in '96. You were sitting on the steps in front of Hemery High, talking to your girlfriends and sucking on a lollipop and I just...well, I just kinda...fell for you."
"When I was barely fifteen? Eww, perv!"
Angel looked thunderstruck and Spike looked as if he was desperately trying not to laugh. Whistler rubbed both hands across his face.
"This is not going the way I expected," he muttered to the air and Buffy shot him a scornful look.
"You thought you'd just pop in and turn our lives upside down and we'd be grateful? In what universe? Why'd the PTB pick him anyway?"
"I told you. Because he has a soul. And I'm the one who picked him," said Whistler proudly.
"Ri-ight. And you've done so good so far." Buffy rolled her eyes. "This whole thing is your idea, isn't it? And the way it's gone is your responsibility."
"In a way..."
"You screwed up and you're trying to fix it."
Whistler flinched and looked nervously upwards. "That's beside the point. What matters is..."
"And now we've got two ways for things to go. The soul's the big deal, is it?"
"Well, that was the deciding factor. But there's also Angel's vamp strength and abilities. And his willingness to do good, to redeem himself. I knew he'd help, become your partner, keep you safe..."
"Well, Spike may not have a soul, but he's helped me and he's kept me safe. He helped me fight the Master. He revived me when I died. He dusted Darla and the Anointed One..."
"You dusted Darla?" Angel said sharply to Spike.
Spike gave him a flatly unrepentant look back. "She was going to kill Buffy."
"And he got rid of all the Order of Aurelius and made himself Master in Sunnydale now, which means..."
"You're the Master now?" Angel frowned heavily at Spike.
"Oh, yeah." Spike grinned nastily back, his fangs extending. "Care to challenge? Love to take you on, Peaches. I've come a long way from the fledgling you used to kick around. Won't take but a minute now to send you right back to that hell my girl sent you to. Wonder if the PTB will bother to bring you back this time around."
"She's not your girl!"
"More his than yours," said Buffy sharply. "I don't even know you, Angelus, Angel, whatever the hell you're calling yourself these days. You're a stranger to me."
Buffy made an irritable slash of her hand, cutting Angel off. "Getting back to what I was trying to say. Spike being Master means that I don't have a horde of vamps attacking me en masse. Plus, Spike helps me take out other vamps and demons. Partner? I've already got a partner and that's Spike!"
"That's not the way it's supposed to be!" exclaimed Whistler.
"But that's the way it is! And I like it."
"He doesn't have a soul!" Angel snapped.
"He doesn't need one!" She smiled at Spike. "He has a heart."
His eyes lit up. "Which is all yours, pet."
"Don't believe that!" Angel yelled. "He can't love without a soul!"
"Oh, don't give me that crap. I get enough of that from my Watcher. He loved Dru for a hundred and twenty years, didn't he? You sired her, but where were you when she needed you?"
Angel looked abruptly down at the ground, shamefaced. "I couldn't help her," he mumbled.
"You didn't even try," said Buffy scornfully. "You got your soul and you just left. Spike stood by her - without a soul. He was her knight, Darla said. Now he's mine. My partner, my dearest friend, my lover..."
Angel snarled and jerked forward, then stopped abruptly when the point of Buffy's stake pricked his chest.
"That's what he is. Deal. I dusted you once. I'll have no trouble dusting you again if you try to hurt him."
"Don't be a fool, Angel," Whistler said sharply. "It doesn't matter what they are to each other right now. When I turn back time, none of this will have happened. You'll all go back to the moment she entered Sunnydale. You'll all be just as you were then and none of you will remember anything different. You'll be back to square one with a clean slate."
Buffy caught her breath. Back to square one, with not even the memory of Spike. All that love and devotion gone. Not even the memory of that look in his eyes, his arms around her, his scent, the taste of his mouth, the way he made love to her...
"I'll remember," Spike said, almost under his breath. "You can take away every memory, but there'll always be that emptiness, that gaping hole in the middle of me where she should be. You won't be able to take that away. She's the only one who can fill it. I'll feel that emptiness every day of my life."
She knew exactly what he meant. She would feel that too, the emptiness that wasn't him.
Angel was scoffing. He didn't understand. But anyone who had ever really loved would understand. She saw that the man Angel was would never fill the place Spike had in her heart. He couldn't, even if they started, as Whistler promised, from square one. There would always be something missing.
Whistler himself was frowning, deeply troubled. Some comprehension of that had reached him.
"So you'll take away all my choices," she said to him. "You'll allow me no power over my own life. Even Spike didn't do that to me and he doesn't have a soul."
"But this is not the way things are supposed to go!"
"But this is the way it has! And I like it! I want it to stay this way! I don't want to go back! You may take away my memory, but something in me will always remember and resent what you are forcing on me. I wish you joy of the Slayer you're going to have once you turn things back."
"It's for the best," said Angel. "It's for your own good. It'll be the way things are supposed to be."
She glared at him, thinking that it would be very easy to hate the man. It was her life. She should be the one to decide what was for her own good. Her eyes widened on a sudden thought.
"I'd have to go through all that with the Master again! He killed me! And it was Spike who brought me back! How do I know you'll do the same? You're not Spike! You don't think the way he does!"
"It's all right," Whistler soothed. "You'll be brought back."
"And Darla! And the Anointed One! Spike's the Master in Sunnydale now. From the sounds of things, I don't think Angel is planning on becoming that. It's all going to be screwed up!"
"I could send you back to this moment in the other reality," said Whistler dubiously. "With the Master gone and...Nah, that won't work. Too complicated."
"You're just winging it, aren't you?" Spike snarled. "You don't really know what you're doing!"
Buffy put a hand on his arm, holding him back.
"Whistler, that thing you said about some Mayor. You said it didn't happen in this timeline. That means you looked into the future."
"The PTB let me do that sometimes."
"I want you to look into my future in that other reality."
"You don't have to tell me anything. And I'd forget, wouldn't I, even if you did. We all would. You say this isn't the way things are supposed to be. But are things better there? Am I healthier, happier, safer? What if you're wrong about all of this, Whistler? You've already messed things up pretty bad."
Whistler winced, then said hesitantly, "I don't know if I can."
Whistler's gaze unfocused itself and fixed on nothing. There was a long silence while they all stared at him. Angel was frowning. Buffy was holding her breath. She was aware that Spike wasn't breathing either beside her.
Whistler's brows suddenly flicked together.
"Why didn't you tell me about the sting to your curse?" he exclaimed, turning to look at Angel.
"What?" said Angel blankly.
"You don't even know, do you? You could lose your soul!"
"Lose my soul?" Angel was appalled.
"We'll have to discuss this later," said Whistler sternly.
"Didn't check back far enough when you looked at his credentials, did you, you pillock?" said Spike scornfully. "May not like Angel, but gotta say: that's your fault, not his."
"It is. It is. And there's a sting to the redemption drive as well. He leaves Buffy because of it. Because of both, really. I should have looked into the future," muttered Whistler to himself. "I should have been more careful."
"Leaves her, huh?" Spike was scowling. "Just like with Dru. It's a thing he does. For her own good, I suppose. He just won't be able to help it, right? It'll be all for the best."
"I'm guessing I don't take that well," muttered Buffy.
"No," Whistler admitted.
"And I'm also guessing I'll meet up with Spike. We won't remember, but I'm betting what we've got right now won't die. There'll be a pull. We will come together somehow."
Whistler bit his lip and said nothing.
"And does it go well?"
"I'm betting not. I'm betting it all gets screwed up, because the memories will all be screwed up."
Whistler sighed. "It goes very badly."
Buffy folded her arms and glared at him. "And you want us to go back to that?"
"But that's the way it's supp..."
"I want a second opinion!" Buffy yelled at the heavens.
Whistler gasped. "Miss Summers!"
"Shut up, Whistler! I have a right to an impartial judgment from the PTB. You're too involved. This whole thing with Angel was your bright little idea. You're the one who chose him. And it all gets screwed up! But I'll be the one who has to live it, not you! Force me into that reality and you'll have one very angry and resentful Slayer on your hands, even if I don't remember anything."
"You're the one who's put us in this position with two realities. You don't get to choose! I do! It's my life! And I choose Spike! I'm not going to lose him!"
Spike, who had been watching Whistler and Angel with a feral and coldly lethal gaze, whipped around to stare at her. His eyes blazed.
"You can't..." Angel began and she swung on him furiously.
"Don't you say one word, you...you...self-satisfied, egocentric... prick!"
Spike made a strangled sound somewhere between a laugh and a snarl of satisfaction.
"How dare you think it's right to force me to do what you want?" Buffy spat. "Fuck you both!"
Whistler started to speak. Then he went abruptly rigid and voiceless, as if something had seized him.
"Think the PTB are putting their two cents in," remarked Spike dryly.
A minute later, Whistler was released. He staggered, but managed to keep his feet. His face was bright red and he refused to meet anybody's eye.
"Looks like he got his arse kicked," murmured Spike to Buffy.
"What did they say?" Angel demanded, grabbing Whistler.
Whistler pulled away. "Come on, Angel. We're going to L.A."
"She gets anything she wants. They're not going to mess with her. She wants to stay here, she stays here. And that means your destiny isn't here. It's in L.A., helping the hopeless, which it would have been in three years in the other timeline anyway."
"But I want to stay here!"
"You've got no place here. Everything's changed. Those two have changed it. I should have looked. They were right. It was sloppy," Whistler mumbled, wincing at the memory of what the PTB had just said to him. "No resurrections here, no Firsts, no burning up in Hellmouths. You're not her champion, Angel."
"You mean he..." Angel glared at Buffy and Spike hugging each other triumphantly.
"That's the way it's supposed to be!" Spike shouted after him on a yell of laughter as Whistler dragged him away.
"Had to rub it in, didn't you?" grinned Buffy.
"Oh, yeah. Wanker!" He looked down at her, his eyes very blue, full of awe and wonder. "Buffy. You chose to stay with me."
"I did, didn't I?"
"Why?" he breathed.
She wrapped her arms around his neck, her cheek pressed hard against his jaw, breathing in the scent of his skin and feeling the reassuring solidity of him against her, the tenderness in the way he held her so tightly to him.
"Couldn't lose you, Spike. Couldn't bear that you wouldn't be with me."
"Oh, I'd have been with you, pet. Whistler said so."
"But you wouldn't have been mine."
"I'd have been yours, luv," he said wryly. "That wouldn't have changed. Memory or not, I'd still have been yours."
"Not the way we are now—partners, lovers, the dearest of friends." Her breath caught in horror. "God, Spike! I can't even visualize that. It would have been terrible—the kind of hole that would have made in my life!"
His hand caught the back of her head, pressed her temple against his parted lips. She felt his breath shake against her skin.
"You wouldn't have known it, luv."
"I'd have known it. It's like what you said. An emptiness in the middle of me. A gaping void only you can fill. No one but you. You're part of me, Spike. Losing you would be like tearing away half of myself."
"Yes," he whispered. "For me too. Like having my guts ripped out."
"Let's go home to your place," she muttered. She was trembling. Feeling violently ill. Reaction. "We can skip patrol for one night. We need to talk."
His flat was not that far from Shady Rest. They made it there in no time at all, leaning against each other as they walked, arms about each other's waists. His gaze never moved from her face, as if he couldn't stop looking at her.
Once there she shrugged out of her leather jacket and sneakers, then looked around to see that he had discarded his duster and Docs. Then he just simply pulled her into his arms and held her, his face in her hair.
"What?" she said, her own arms fierce around him.
He leaned his forehead against hers, his breath shuddering against her lips and his eyes closed.
"Can't believe you're still with me."
"Did you really think I'd choose otherwise?"
"Yes. I thought...there's nothing to hold you here. After all, you don't love me."
"I love you, Spike," she said quietly. She knew that now.
His body jolted against hers.
"What?" It was a breath of a sound, incredulous and disbelieving.
"I love you."
He was totally beyond words. She drew his head down and kissed him. Even then his eyes didn't close, stayed halfway open, staring at her in wonder.
"I'm sorry it took so long for me to realize it. I was scared to love. It wasn't that you were a vamp or had no soul or any of that other stuff Giles keeps freaking about. That stopped mattering to me a long time ago. But I was a coward, just too scared to risk myself after both Pike and my Dad left me. Didn't know it. It was all unconscious. Didn't even admit it to myself. Scared that you too would leave me."
"I could never leave you. Dust first."
"I was selfish," she confessed. "Wanted to be loved, but thought I could get away with not returning it. Then Whistler said he would take you from me. That we'd be back at square one with a clean slate. That I wouldn't have even the memory of you. It hurt so badly I finally realized the truth. Love you, Spike."
"Buffy!" he whispered. "God! I love you so much!"
"Always wanted to be loved the way you loved, never was. Wasn't that what you said? Well, you are loved, Spike. So much. So much."
He didn't say anything, just held her; but she could feel the fierce tremors shuddering through his body. He was wound tight, had been ever since that moment when Angel had tried to pull her away from him in Shady Rest and he had gone into gameface. He was only just starting to come out of it.
"You were going to kill someone, weren't you?" she said.
"Take Whistler out, Angel wouldn't matter. Couldn't have done anything. Could dust him later. Dead, Whistler couldn't have turned back time."
"You really meant to do it, didn't you?"
"Yeah. Would have torn down worlds to keep you anyway. But they were gonna force you into something you didn't want. Couldn't allow that."
"The PTB would have..."
"Didn't care. Didn't care what they did to me. Was just so angry."
"So was I. The PTB knew. They felt the rage. They knew that, memory or no memory, I'd hate them if they took you from me."
She laughed as he scooped her up. He dropped her onto the bed, stretched out on his side beside her. She turned to face him, gathering him to her. They held each other, content just to feel the reality of each other in their arms. His lips were sliding all over her face. She purred.
"Couldn't have given this up," she murmured.
"He has a soul," he said under his breath. "I don't."
"You don't need one."
"Will make a lot of mistakes."
"Who doesn't?" She grinned at him. "What's the big deal? It's simple. Don't kill anyone but demons, fight at my side, drink only from me, ask if you're not sure. Nothing complicated about that."
He laughed involuntarily. "I can do that."
"Good." She pulled his T-shirt over his head and threw it away, then pushed him onto his back, leaning over him, smiling. "I own you, right?"
"I think you owned me from the first time I saw you," he sighed. "Why else wouldn't I have ripped your throat out right there and then?"
"Such a sweet talker." They both laughed.
She was unbuckling his belt. He twisted to unzip his jeans and shove them off, then reached to pull off her clothes. She let him, but resisted when he tried to roll her over, moved with a long, snaking stretch of her body to lie upon him instead, holding him down with her thighs on either side of his hips and her forearms on either side of his head.
His eyelids shuddered closed for a moment at the feel of her sliding upon him, then opened again, his gaze smiling but puzzled as he looked up at her in the golden cage made by the curtains of her hair falling on either side of his face.
"Not that I don't like it when you drive, pet," he murmured, his hands stroking up and down her back, pressing her to him. "But what's going on?"
"You're not mine," she said, watching him intently, her forehead almost brushing his. "Not really."
"'Course I'm..." His eyes widened. She smiled as she saw his pupils suddenly enlarge. The blue rings of his irises abruptly went gold. "Buffy!"
"You gonna say no this time?"
"God! How can I? It's everything I ever wanted," he groaned. "But, Buffy, are you sure? There's no going back!"
"I'm sure." She kissed him softly. "That's when I knew you really loved me. When you said no. When you refused to take away my choices, whatever it cost you."
"Couldn't do anything else."
"You couldn't." But Angel and Whistler, even Giles and Xander, had been prepared to, couldn't see that she had the right to make her own decisions, run her own life. "Evil vampire, huh? You're doing better than the 'good' guys."
He was looking at her in wonder, his face helpless.
"Wish I still had those fangs," she muttered and he laughed a little.
"Oh, pet, just bite. Hard. I want the mark. Your mark, like a brand on me."
"Will I have a mark?"
"When I bite you, yeah. A claim mark doesn't fade. Neither Slayer nor vamp healing will take it away. You're gonna freak out your friends."
"Don't care. They'll just have to deal." She slid her lips down the strong cord of his neck to the junction of his neck and shoulder. "Here, right?"
"Yeah," he said on a lost breath.
She bit, as hard as she could. A little blood welled up and she lapped at it.
"Yes, yours," he whispered. "Forever."
He rolled her onto her back and leaned over her, stroking her hair back from her face. His eyes were awed.
"We could stop right here, you know," he said quietly. "I'm bound, but then I always was. You don't have to bind yourself to me. You could still be free."
"You'd let me do that?"
He would let her get away with that. But she wouldn't cheat him like that, wouldn't use him even when he offered himself up to be used.
"I love you, Spike. I'm already bound. I'm yours, just as much as you're mine. We belong to each other. Even the PTB knew that. So complete it." She wrapped her arms around his head, drawing his mouth to her neck, felt the shuddering exhalation of his breath against her skin. "I want it all."
She heard the little catch of his breath. Then his fangs slid painlessly into the vein and that rapturous draw started.
"Mine, " he whispered. Then with intense possessiveness: "Buffy, you're mine."
"Yes," Buffy agreed, smiling. "I am."
Something locked, clicked into place between them. An absolute rightness, absolute perfection. They both gasped.
"I can feel your heart beating," Spike breathed. "As if it's in my chest."
"It is," she murmured. "It's yours, just like I'm yours."
She could feel him too, the essence of him, not just his body, but his mind and his spirit, like the soul he didn't have. They were inextricably linked—one being.
She felt a sudden wave of rage from somewhere, someone snarling and furious. And then a surge of grief and sorrow, a woman's voice whispering, "Lost. My Spike's lost. My deadly boy's gone. The sunshine's taken him."
"What?" Buffy exclaimed.
"You're picking up the link," said Spike. "The Aurelian link. You shut it off like this."
He showed her. She followed the path he mapped in her head and her awareness of Angel and Dru snapped and vanished.
"Can they harm you?" she asked worriedly.
"No. We don't have to worry about them. Angel can't harm me without harming you and that soul will keep him from doing that. And Dru knew ages ago. That's why she dumped me. She must have known this would happen, accepted it even then."
She laughed suddenly. "She's wrong on one thing though, Spike. You're still deadly. Still that mad, bad dog."
"But leashed. And the leash is in your hand. Your dog, Slayer."
"Leash has two ends," she murmured. "I'm yours just as much as you're mine, Spike."
"Mine," he said intensely and kissed her demandingly.
She shuddered under that suddenly overwhelming flood of sensation. Not only his mouth and his hands and his body moving upon her, but also the sensations that he was feeling, reflected back over the link. Sensation doubled and redoubled. And wound through it all, woven over and under and through it all, his love and his now certain knowledge that she loved him, his joy at that.
Making love was unbelievable now, every touch reverberating across the claim, endearments whispered into each other's skin going deeper than the body to catch at the heart.
She caught her breath as he came into her. He gasped too. The muscles of her Slayer sheath were just that little bit too tight; he was just that little bit too big. That first thrust was always an excruciating rapture. Then the link caught them up, wove them inextricably together in that most shattering and joyous of dances.
Not the partner that Whistler had intended her to have in this dance. Chance had given her a better one, the right one, the one fated to be the other half of herself.
"I love you," she said and heard him say it back to her across the link as his fangs slid into her neck and that blaze of white fire splintered her brain. "This is the way it was meant to be."