Next update: Monday December 10th.

Spike listened to the Slayer and her friends' hearts slow as they fell asleep, curled up inside the tent. They'd stayed up quite late; at least the girls had, prattling away with meaningless chatter until they tired themselves out. He was surprised the Slayer'd had the energy after all she'd been through—all she'd put herself through, he amended. Anyone could tell she didn't belong in the great outdoors. At least he could get some satisfaction out of knowing she was having as miserable a time out here as he had been.

Spike shifted, trying to position his back more comfortably against the trunk of the tree he was perched in. A large knot dug into his side. He shuffled over a few inches and had to quickly grab hold of the branch he was sitting on when his coat got caught underneath him and he lost his balance.

"That's right. Survive whatever nasty is prowling the woods just to fall out of a tree. Nice one, Spike," he said, righting himself.

He sighed and looked down at the campfire and the little tent below. What was he even doing here? He was parked up a bloody tree for crying out loud, guarding the Slayer and her pals. If the demon community could see him now…

This was not the way things were supposed to be. He had fully intended for that last trip to Sunnydale to have been just that—his last. He was supposed to find Dru, convince her she was wrong, get her back, and get on with his immortal life. Instead, things had been just as bad as ever between them—worse even. She continued to cavort with any bottom feeding lowlife demon she could find, just to hurt him the way she claimed he'd hurt her with his betrayal and his obsession with…

Spike growled and glared down at the tent before quickly shifting his attention back to the surrounding forest and the cabin—that shadowy monstrosity that sat there facing the lake as though simply biding its time. He didn't like it. He wasn't afraid of it; it was just a building, after all, but it unsettled him, and it took a lot to do that to a vampire.

He still had quite a wait until sunrise. Luckily, the things prowling the Dead Circle hadn't ventured outside that area, though he knew they were extending their range gradually and, after a while, this whole place would be a dead zone. He still hadn't found anything out there. Well, nothing except a lot of pissed off animal spirits he didn't fancy running into again. They'd taken him by surprise the first night and torn him up good. After that he'd been more careful, but they were persistent buggers, and the problem with spirits was having no way to evade them or hit back.

He sometimes wondered how he ended up in these situations. Teaming up with the Slayer had been the most unpredictable turn his life had taken since he'd become a vampire, but he was pretty sure this topped it. He gave it a few seconds thought before deciding that yeah, camping with the Slayer definitely topped any world saving truce.

It was for Dru. All of it. She couldn't see it, but it was. The only reason he had ended up near the Slayer again after that truce was because Dru kept shoving him away. It didn't exactly explain how he always ended up near her specifically but somehow he did, and it inevitably made things worse for him, particularly in regards to Dru. Getting the Piniarneq ring would prove that to her. It would prove that he was hers and she was his. Fate had brought them together and kept them together for over a century. She had to see that.

As much as he tried to ignore it, a niggling voice in the back of Spike's mind kept questioning that conviction. Would she really see it? Would she care if she did? Dru had always been fickle. She cared for him, he knew that, both as a sire and a lover, but she didn't love him the way he loved her. It didn't matter to him of course; at least it never used to.

Except that was a lie too. It did bother him that she'd taken what they had for granted, that she'd been willing to throw it all away if Angelus only beckoned her to him. In his heart of hearts, he knew he would never match up to her 'Daddy.' It pissed him off, but despite that, he'd stayed loyal. He'd tried so hard to prove himself over and over, had gone above and beyond the call of duty to his sire and it hadn't changed a damn thing.

It might have, if the Ponce hadn't come back. That was her fault. Freeing the git from his curse so her psycho lover could ruin both their lives. And she had the gall to criticize him and his relationship? Ha!

Regardless, Dru had been more than happy to let him sit in that chair and rot while she paraded around town with her Daddy like a truly happy princess. Oh, she'd taken care of him as much as she could. Yet she'd ignored his undisguised jealousy and his wounded pride. It was just a game to her. He was nothing more than a toy for her amusement.

Spike felt a gust of wind blow through the trees and wrapped his coat around him for protection. The camp was as secure as ever and nothing had moved anywhere. Even the owl that had been making noise earlier seemed to have fallen quiet. There were no other unnatural sounds either, which he supposed was a good thing.

Spike realized that he was on the verge of moping while up a bloody tree. He shook his head to clear it of negative thoughts and glared at the still and silent lake. That ring would be his soon enough. His plan would succeed as long as he remained focused on it and saw it through to the end this time.

Those other thoughts… they weren't true, not really. It was just his own misery talking. And even if they were true they didn't matter. Not once he had what he was after.

Spike straightened his back up against the tree trunk again and banished the annoying thoughts, focusing on the woods and his job of guard duty. He'd be back in the basement of the cabin to sleep soon enough, then he'd have to take the Slayer to his least favorite place at the moment. He'd need all his strength for that.

He cast another glance down to where three warm bodies lay sleeping.

So would she.

The sounds of metal clattering against metal dragged her slowly from her dream. It faded fast like dreams do, but she could remember that it had been nice and Angel had been there. It left a small smile on her face as she stretched and yawned. She felt the bones in her legs pop and wiggled her bare feet a little inside the sleeping bag. There was soreness, but nowhere near the amount of pain she'd experienced yesterday. Excellent. By noon she should be good as new again, thank you Slayer healing.

When she crawled out of the tent and blinked up at the sun, she was forced to amend that estimate – it already was noon, so she should be fine by mid-afternoon or so. Wondering why Giles had let her sleep so long, she padded barefoot over to where he was sitting with Willow.

There was something yummy-smelling simmering on Giles' little cooker that looked like rice with bits of veggies and sausage in it. A metal spoon was inserted in the mixture. That would be the sound she'd heard. Giles had several books open around him and appeared to be cross-checking something. Willow sat beside him, taking careful notes in a spiral notebook.

"Morning," she greeted.

"Hey Buffy," Willow chirped.

"Morning. I let you sleep in, since the spirits are most active at night and you'll likely have to stay up late."

"Thoughtful of you." Buffy smiled at her Watcher.

Willow cleared her throat and nudged Giles.

"Ah, yes, well, it was Spike's suggestion, actually. He woke me up just before sunrise to let me know he was going to the basement to sleep."

"Right, okay."

"He wants you to wake him as soon as it's dark," Giles went on. "And he muttered something about not using boots? I wasn't sure what he was on about but he left before I could ask."

"No worries, I know what he meant," she said, and stifled a giggle. She caught Willow giving her an odd look so she winked in reply, a signal they used which meant 'I'll fill you in later'.

"We already ate, so help yourself." He nodded at the pot.

"Think I'll freshen up first," Buffy said and lifted a hand to shade her eyes so she could look down towards the lake. It looked very tempting in the heat of the California sun. "Is the lake water clean? I mean, would it be fine to use it to like, wash my face and stuff? And do you think spirit lady would be okay with it?"

"I sure hope so." Willow grinned. "I did earlier."

"As did I. And since neither of us has broken out in boils yet, I'd say the water is safe. Don't drink it though."

"Roger that." She set off at a brisk trot down the little pathway that connected the cabin and the lake. The earth was warm and felt rather nice against her poor abused feet.

While she walked, she let her eyes wander the surroundings. In the bright light of day the entire area had once again taken on a pleasant and peaceful appearance. It was hard to remember how not-at-all peaceful everything had looked at night. Somehow she just couldn't picture the glittering, blue water as anything but inviting or the surrounding forest as anything but refreshingly cool for when it got too hot. Even the cabin behind her couldn't muster up more than a derelict front, yet in the dark it had sent chills up and down her spine.

Shrugging it off as just her imagination running off with her after all of Spike's hype, she practically skipped the last stretch down to the water's edge.

"I'm bored!" Buffy cried out for the third time, but by now there was little sympathy left in her friends.

"Did you try reading that book?" Willow asked.

"I made it to page three."

Willow shook her head, a small smile on her face.

"I'm not a book reading kinda gal," Buffy said in her defense.

After taking off her bandages and inspecting the damage down by the lake, she'd confirmed that the blisters were healing nicely. They would easily rip open again, however, if she pushed it and put her boots back on. Thus, she'd been chained to the campsite with nothing to do all day. It was driving her batty, which in turn was driving the others batty by extension.

Giles looked up from the scribbled notes he'd been poring over for the last few hours, but made no comment.

"Why do we have to wait for Spike before we can do the spell again?" she whined.

"It's not technically for Spike's sake," Willow patiently explained. "The hour of twilight is one of the times of day when magic is supposed to be at heightened power. Like midnight. But it's probably a good idea for him to be present anyway, since he's already spoken to her. Or been spoken to by her at least."

Buffy sighed. "I really should have brought something to do."

A minute or two passed during which the only sounds were the rustling of Willow turning a page in her book and the soft scratchy noise of Giles noting something down or underlining a word.

"Like a crossword puzzle book or something, or maybe my jump rope."

Another couple of minutes passed.

"What I wouldn't give for my hula hoop or Xander's Game Boy."

Giles gave her A Look, but said nothing.

"I'd even be willing to do homework."

Nothing. Not even a teasing comment about how you knew it was bad when Buffy Summers was volunteering to do homework. She let out a dramatic sigh and set off to wander down to the lake again. Maybe if she found some small rocks she could try to skip them on the surface.

Ten minutes later she'd given up on that idea. It wasn't her fault the rocks were being stupid and refused to skip. They just plopped into the water and sank to the bottom. They were stupid rocks.

"I'm bored," she announced as she reached the campsite again.

Willow sucked on her lower lip for a moment as she finished the page she was on, then glanced up at her. "Did you bring some extra socks?"

"Uh, yeah, a couple pairs," she confirmed. "Why?"

"I've got an idea."

Thankful to have anything at all to do, Buffy followed Willow to the cabin and into the bedroom where their non-essential stuff was tucked away.

"I brought an extra pair of sneakers with me, in case my hiking boots got wet," Willow explained as she rooted around in a bag. "I know my shoe size is bigger than yours, but if you double up on socks, or maybe triple…"

Buffy eyed the battered sneakers that Willow held up with a raised eyebrow. They certainly weren't very fashionable, and she wouldn't be caught dead wearing them back in Sunnydale, but out here they just might do the trick.

"Worth a shot." She grinned.

With some trial and error back at the campsite, she decided that three pairs of socks were necessary for the sneakers to feel like they weren't going to slip off her feet any moment. They were still a little loose, but she could work with that. She'd be willing to work with much more if it just meant she could do something other than sit on her ass and wait for the sun to set.

"How are we for firewood?" she asked brightly.

Giles glanced at the large pile next to their tent and was about to speak when he caught Willow's not-so-subtle signaling behind her (she could hear the frantic waving of hands). He cleared his throat. "We could definitely use some more, I'd say."


Joyce had just been about to call Buffy when there was a knock at the door. She wondered who on earth it could be since she wasn't expecting anyone. She made her way into the hall thinking it might be a neighbor looking to borrow something. At least she was fairly sure it wasn't a vampire this time as the sun was still up.

"Mrs. Summers. Hi. Is Buffy home? And is Willow here per chance?"

"Xander." Joyce took in the unexpected appearance of her daughter's friend standing on her doorstep. "Buffy said you were gone travelling."

"Yeah, well the thing about travelling is it's really not all it's cracked up to be. You're by yourself, and you have to pay for stuff all the time." He stepped into the hallway and looked around. "Like gas for instance." Xander turned to her and gave her a lopsided smile as she closed the door.

"I see. Well, I'm sorry to tell you that your timing is a little off. Buffy isn't here right now."

"Okay. Any idea where she is? I went to Willow's but no one was home. Did they go to see Giles? Say, they aren't off on some Slayer related business are they?"


"Aww, I hope it's nothing exciting. I hate missing the good stuff," Xander interrupted. "So Giles' house?" he asked again, heading for the door she had just closed.

"I'm afraid you won't find them there," Joyce said loudly. "They're all out of town."

"Out of town?" He cocked his head and frowned a little.

"Yes, they've gone camping somewhere near Lake Tahoe with Spike."

The stunned look on Xander's face caused Joyce some concern. When he didn't speak for a long time she placed a hand on his arm and gave it a squeeze. "Xander, dear, are you all right?"

"They're whatting where with huh?"

"Okay," Joyce said. "I'm going to interpret that jumble of words as a question. They're camping near Lake Tahoe with Spike… Xander? Are you sure you're okay? You look sort of—pale."

"Did they say when they'd be back?"

"No, I'm afraid not. I can tell Buffy you came by when I call if you'd like. I wanted to thank Spike about some advice he gave me too if I can get a hold of him. I suppose I should wait until late evening to call," she added as an afterthought.

"Oh God, I drove myself into a parallel universe. Excuse me Mrs. Summers, I need to go."

"Wait. Go where?" she asked, watching him hurry down the path.

"To find the world that makes sense again," he called back.

Joyce just shook her head and closed the door. Buffy and her friends could be so melodramatic at times.

Careful to avoid the broken step and feeling more confident this time that the stairs would hold her weight, Buffy made her descent into the dank basement of the cabin in search of Spike. When she reached the bottom, she was met with the usual skittering noises of rats and shuddered at the sound. How Spike could stand to sleep down here with them was anyone's guess. Then again, it wasn't like he had any choice in the matter, and he wasn't known for his sense of taste anyway.

She swung her flashlight around the pitch black room, its glow illuminating the empty and abandoned furniture again as she grew accustomed to her surroundings and sought out the spot where she'd found the vampire sleeping yesterday.

"Spike?" she called, wondering if he might already be awake.

There was no answer so she continued across the room, spotting a couple of cobwebs trailing down from the ceiling and dodging them with a grimace. The last thing she wanted was spiders in her hair.

"Spike?" she tried again, but was met with the same silence as before. "Don't blame me if I have to hit you to wake you up, okay? I'm taking your silence as a yes."

Not a sound. He was definitely out of it or he would have made some smart ass comeback or empty threat. She located the blanket he'd been sleeping on but frowned at the lack of a vampire lying on top of it. Surely he wouldn't have picked some other spot and left the blanket here?

She got closer and saw his boots and coat still sitting on the ground next to the blanket, as well as a small duffel bag that was partially unzipped. She shone the flashlight around again but couldn't see any sign of him.

"Spike? Where are you?"

He hadn't gone and dusted himself had he? But that didn't make any sense. He hadn't been upstairs and there was nowhere else he could have gone, not to mention he'd hardly have left his boots behind to go for a stroll.

Buffy turned her attention back to his duffel. She could only guess at the contents. Lots of cigarettes and booze probably. He always seemed to be wearing the same old clothes every time she saw him, so there was slim chance that he had any of those tucked away in the bag. What else would a vampire own? Angel had liked books, classical music, and art. Spike didn't strike her as the reading kind… although he'd found information on the ring in a book, so who knew?

Her curiosity piqued, Buffy hunkered down and reached a hand out to the bag. She'd only take a tiny peek and then keep looking for him. Just to make sure he wasn't up to anything else while he was here. It would go against her duty as the Slayer not to investigate a notoriously evil vampire's belongings to ensure he didn't have some nefarious scheme in mind. Who knew what dangerous mystical objects he might have? She slid the zip open a tiny bit more and reached inside.

"Not nice to snoop, Slayer."

Buffy yanked her hand back as though it were on fire and shot to her feet. She spun around to find that Spike had snuck up on her. He stood, arms folded across his chest and a smug look on his face, no more than two feet behind her.

"I wasn't snooping."

He raised a scarred eyebrow at her and glanced down at his bag.

"I wasn't! I was just—investigating."

"Not seeing the difference."

Buffy sucked in her cheeks. She knew she'd been caught red-handed with no explanation other than the truth—that she'd been snooping. Of course, she had a right to snoop. He was evil. He could be up to anything.

"Okay, so I was looking through your stuff—or going to anyway. It's reasonable. I have to be sure I can trust you, don't I?"

"Trust? Right. We both know that's a load of bollocks, Slayer. Keep your hands to yourself, and maybe you ought to pay less attention to my belongings and stay alert for people sneaking up on you. Be right easy for a spirit to take a bite out of you otherwise. I could have taken a bite out of you just now, come to think of it."

Buffy brought into view the stake behind her back that she'd instinctively grabbed for, waving it in front of him to emphasize her point.

"You would have ended up adding to the dust on this floor if you'd tried, bleach boy."

Spike cocked his head and smiled in a half amused, half impressed look, took hold of her wrist, ignoring her flinch, and lowered her hand.

"Not so fast, pet. We've still got work to do, but at least you're not completely hopeless."

Buffy scowled and looked away, dropping her eyes to the floor as he let go of her hand. She could still feel the sensation of his cool grip on her skin; she fought the urge to rub the spot with her other hand in an attempt to shake the feeling. It was then she caught sight of his bare feet.

"Hey! You were hiding on purpose, weren't you? You tried to sneak up on me!"

"Didn't need to try all that hard either." He brushed past her to pick up his boots.

"What were you trying to do? Get yourself staked by attempting to scare me?"

"No," Spike said, his back turned to her. "I heard you coming and decided I'd rather not risk another rude awakening. Was just going to get up and meet you when I realized it would be a perfect opportunity to test your reflexes."

Buffy waited until he had his boots on, picked up his coat and turned to face her again. He stared at her glare before finally asking, "What?"

She shoved him hard.

"You were trying to scare me, you asshole."

"What of it?" Spike retorted. "You were trying to go through my stuff."

"To see if you were hiding anything which, by the way, wouldn't surprise me. What's in the bag, Spike?"

"Nothing," he said, irritated. "Smokes, some Jack and a few other harmless personal belongings. Nothing that would interest you."

Buffy narrowed her eyes, and he copied her expression. Eventually, she gave in and turned to lead the way back upstairs again.

"You're insufferable."


Buffy ducked under the cabin door and took in a deep breath. Already, the dark shadows of the trees and the cabin had spread across the clearing and turned it from a serene hideaway into an unwelcoming, almost otherworldly, realm inhabited by the supernatural.

She spotted Giles and Willow carrying things down to the lake in preparation for the ritual that would – hopefully – allow them to communicate with the Manitou. She felt Spike come to stand beside her, looking at the pair as they discussed the details of the offering. Willow was excited to see the lake spirit and speak to it. Giles had been enthusiastic, too, no doubt pleased to record the experience in his Watcher's diary.

"You think she'll show?" Buffy wasn't quite sure why she felt the need to break the silence between her and Spike considering the way most of their conversations went.

Spike gave her a look before he shrugged and turned his attention back to the lake.

"Probably. Not too many people making offerings these days, I'd wager. Plus you lot are here to help. Don't see why she'd ignore you."

He had a point. As interesting as meeting this lake spirit would be, Buffy was itching to get to the Dead Circle Spike had mentioned. After such a long day of nothing happening she was looking forward to some action. Even if it meant walking to get said action.


Buffy looked up when Willow called her name. She saw her friend waving to her from the lake.

"Looks like they're ready," she said. "Time to go meet the lady of the lake."

"It's quite simple. There are some incantations in Latin to invoke any nearby deity, then I light the candle to draw her attention to the offerings we've brought," Giles explained.

Willow beamed proudly at the little makeshift altar they'd built, on which sat a bowl full of trail mix and another, smaller one with salt in it. There was also a plastic glass of water. Probably of the holy kind.

Spike was only half-listening as the watcher went over the details of the spell. Being evil and all that, he had taken the liberty to look at the book itself while the humans slept. As spells went, it was indeed a simple one, but that didn't change anything.

"Then, I, er, give a speech, which must be individually tailored to suit the given situation and the specific deity that you hope to communicate with."

"There's a speech?" the Slayer asked.

"Just a short one," Willow said. "It's basically us telling her who we are and what we want, in a really polite way."

He tuned out completely.

While he did not like magic and preferred to stay far away from it (desperate drunken stupors aside), Spike was pretty well versed in the art. Drusilla had regularly done spells, and he'd hired a witch or a warlock from time to time when magic would make a complicated situation a whole lot easier. He'd always made sure to hire professionals, however, and he'd made a habit of looking over whatever spells Dru did before she went through with them. For as long as he could remember, he had a healthy respect for magic – something which his experiences over the years had only strengthened.

You did not fuck around with magic. At least not if you wanted to remain alive and in one piece.

The witch and the Watcher finished laying out the circle at the water's edge. The Watcher's movements were measured and precise, but the little witch—She had entirely too much passion and far too little control as far as he was concerned. He could almost smell her excitement. It made him nervous. If the girl overlooked or messed up even the smallest aspect of the spell it could be disastrous. He hoped the older and clearly more experienced man would look over everything before he began.

Buffy looked over at him curiously, and he realized he'd been tapping his fingers against his coat. He stopped instantly, but didn't offer an explanation for his skittish behavior. If he knew her right, she probably wouldn't handle criticism of her best friend very well. The thought made him pause. Did he really know the Slayer this well? How the hell had that happened? Again, he wondered how he'd ended up here in these ridiculous circumstances. Too late to back out now, though.

"Venio excolo obtestor propinquo," Giles spoke aloud, and lit the candle by their improvised altar. Spike had to resist the urge to correct his grammar. "Orior iam! Offero divines sacrificum, gratia agree."

It was still light enough that they could see to the other side of the lake without difficulty. The little candle flickered, but nothing else happened. The Slayer shifted her feet next to him and crossed her arms. She appeared as wary as he was. Good.

"Benevolent and protective guardian, I call on you to reveal yourself. Open my heart to understanding. Open my eye to inner sight. Reveal yourself to us, so we may talk to you and aide you."

For several long seconds nothing at all happened. He could sense that the Slayer was getting antsy, but just before she reached the point of moving or speaking, there was a sound. The soft, barely-there sound of a ripple in the water. Then another. He doubted that the other two could even hear it, it was that low, but Buffy did.

Then, slowly, the water bubbled like a geyser getting ready to burst. It never did burst, though, it merely continued to rise up and up, until it became clear that it wasn't a bubble but the top of a head. Her head.

She looked different when she was out of the water. Down at the bottom of the lake it had been dark and the mud he'd stirred up as he searched for the ring had only made it worse. She'd been shimmery and otherworldly beautiful but otherwise human looking. Now it was much more clear that she was a spirit and not human at all.

Oh she still had the basic body of a human female (and she still had those rather nice breasts, he was pleased to note) but water ran down her dark hair and along the length of her body almost like cloth, in a constant stream that had no beginning and no end. The bottom of her legs did not end in feet, but sort of faded out into nothing but water, dripping down into the lake as she hovered a few centimeters above the surface. She was naked, but the water covering her body and its constant movement blurred the details of her genitalia.

He stared in fascination at the way the water seemed almost to flow around her, up one side and down the other. What would happen if she froze, he wondered. Would she turn into a giant ice sculpture?

The Watcher cleared his throat, but the Manitou beat him to it.

"You have called me, humans. You seek answers. What is it that you wish to know?"