Chapter Twenty

Inside the van, Buffy remained quiet – doing her best to appear too frightened and weak to struggle. She sneered mentally at the stupidity of the minions who had not realized that she had no bite marks on her. The vampire holding her licked her lips and leaned in hesitantly as though unable to resist the warm blood pounding so close. A sharp "Lucy!" from the driver made her retreat with a growl and a longing look at her captive's neck, and Buffy slipped the stake back into her sleeve.

When the van rolled to a stop, the driver jumped out and ran around to open the back door. To her surprise, there was no sign of either her fellow food gatherer or their prize for the evening. She put her head into the dark interior, giving a surprised gurgle when she was grabbed by the throat and yanked all the way inside. She barely had time to register that the only thing in the van was the girl they had thought so harmless, before her dust was joining Lucy's.

Buffy peered out cautiously, noting that they seemed to be parked some distance from the building into which were going a steady stream of hungry-looking vampires. Periodically, another door would open and vamps would come out, looking much less hungry, if a bit disgruntled. Suddenly one of the vamps acting as a doorman began walking towards the van, frowning as no one got out or approached the building.

"Lucy? John? Where are you? What did you find? Was there really a rogue vamp trying to keep food for himself?"

He stuck his head into the open back of the van and found Buffy crouching just inside the door.

"Hi!" She gave a little wave. "Rogue vamp, huh? I think Spike'll like that."

"Who the hell are you?"

"Oh. I'm Buffy."

Sudden recognition crossed his face as he remembered overhearing the story with which Willow and Alex had returned from Winterset.

"You're...you're the..."

"The word you're looking for is 'Slayer'," Buffy agreed cheerfully, as she plunged her stake into his heart. She looked around for Spike, sure that she'd felt his familiar signature among all the others filling the atmosphere around her. She spotted him in the line shuffling into the building and settled back against the wall of the van to watch. She partially closed the doors so as to be less easily observed herself as she watched Spike disappear into the building.

Her patience with waiting lasted only until she noticed that there were ground-level windows along the back of the building and that there did not appear to be any guards.

I guess if you're the bad guys and everybody else is food, you don't need much in the way of guards. You'd think they might be just a little bit worried about me, though... Feeling somewhat annoyed that the Master hadn't appeared to take her presence in the neighboring city very seriously, she slipped out of the van and, keeping other vehicles between herself and the line of hungry vampires, she made her way to the end of the parking lot. She was just getting ready to sprint for the wall of the building when she heard a commotion from the exit door.

Snarling and snapping, an angry vampire was being forcibly removed from the building. In spite of his shouted protests that he was hungry and entitled to eat, he was forced into the open area in front of the parking lot. Standing behind the bouncers was a smug-looking vamp Xander, arms folded and face twisted in disgust.

"You know the rules – you either bring in a contribution to the food bank, or you bring something to pay with. You can't just walk in here and demand blood. You have to pay for it."

Snarling and muttering under his breath, the ejected vamp stumbled across the parking lot and into one of the cars. He opened the door, got in and raced the engine before screaming out of the parking area – hitting two other vampires on the way out.

Buffy crouched behind the last car, watching from underneath the bumper as Alex/Xander spoke to the vamps that had thrown the other one out.

"He's going to be trouble. I don't see any reason why he needs to be around anymore. Handle it."

"Yes sir."

She could see Alex swell with pride as the respect they had for the Master was reflected in their behavior towards him.

"What do we know about the pick-up from downtown? Are they back yet?"

They all looked around the parking lot, frowning. "The van's back. I guess they already took her inside. If there really was a human girl on the street. Coulda just been somebody getting hungry for fresh blood and hallucinating."

"I guess. Okay, guys. Get back inside, I'm going to take a look around."

They nodded and went into the building leaving Alex/Xander sniffing the air and staring around suspiciously. He narrowed his eyes at the van Buffy had arrived in and began walking towards it just as Buffy made her break for the back of the building. He spun around, not quite sure if he had caught movement behind him or not. When he didn't see anything, he shrugged and walked towards his original destination, looking inside and taking deep sniffs of the interior.

Buffy, meanwhile, had made her way to the first window and scraped away some of the dirt and paint that covered it. She looked down into a cavernous area that must have once been used for manufacturing whatever the factory had produced. She felt her blood run cold when she saw the aged vampire that was sitting on a throne-like chair at the end of the room.

It's him! The Master. Just like the other Buffy said – he isn't trapped and he is setting himself up to rule this world. Starting with this city.

Fighting the urge to run away from the vampire whose thrall she could remember so well, she forced herself to continue watching the activity in what was clearly his private space. She could see vamp Willow hovering around the Master's chair and cringed when he slid his hand up to cup her ass, making the redheaded vampire giggle and rub against him.

Ewwwwww!

She was so wrapped up in being grossed out by Willow's obvious enjoyment of the Master's attentions that she didn't notice that her vamp tingles had gotten stronger until she heard a chillingly familiar voice behind her.

"I knew I smelled something familiar."

She straightened slowly, allowed the stake in her sleeve to slip down to her wrist as she turned to face the demon wearing the grinning face of one of her best friends.

He sneered at her, walking slowly forward with no fear at all. "You know, I kind of expected a slayer to be a little smarter than this – coming to my home town, walking right into my lair, leaving her scent all over one of—"

Buffy stared at him, her mouth hanging open as she took in his words and the attitude behind them.

"Your home town? Your lair? Oh, I'll bet old Bat Face would love to hear that."

Ignoring Buffy's disbelief, he continued to swagger towards her, growling, "Maybe you just couldn't stay away from me. We must be something to each other where you come from – the way you got all teary-eyed and wouldn't stake me... You want me, don't you, Muffy? You find me attractive..."

"Find you attractive? You're a bloodsucker – like, oh, I don't know – fleas, ticks, leeches... stop me when I get to something that sounds like I might find it remotely attractive."

"You hang out with a vampire!" he snarled. "You must like them."

"I like A vampire. A very unusual vampire – you're just a run of the mill demon. The kind I stake every night."

"But you couldn't stake me—"

Behind the now angry vampire's back she caught sight of a familiar shock of blond hair. Spike was gesturing to her urgently and she put an end to the bantering with the vampire now reaching for her.

"Uh, yeah. About that – I got over it." She ducked under his outstretched arm and kicked him in the knee, sending him to the ground with a howl of pain. The howl cut off abruptly when she ran her stake into his chest, watching impassively as the dust drifted to the ground. Giving herself a little shake, she walked through the dust to join Spike at the corner of the building.

"You alright, love?" In spite of his obvious impatience, Spike touched her face tenderly as he asked his question.

Buffy nodded shortly. "I'm fine. It wasn't my Xander – he was having a little trouble figuring that out."

"Think he's got the picture now, Slayer." Spike's tone held only admiration as he smiled at her. Then he straightened up and looked over his shoulder. "Can you get to the car from here?" he asked abruptly. "Think we need to get out of here before our luck runs out tonight. I just missed gettin' caught by that red-haired bitch, and now you've done for her buddy here – somebody's got to miss him eventually."

"But we haven't done anything yet!"

"This wasn't about doin' something, Buffy. It was about learnin' what we could about them. And we've done that – we know where to find 'em, you've taken out one of his top minions, and I've seen the inside of the place. Time to get out of Dodge while we still can."

Her "hmmph" of disappointment wasn't a serious objection as she realized the truth of what he was saying. With a nod of agreement, she pointed to the cars behind which she had worked her way to the building. "I have to get to those cars and then I can sneak back to the other end of the lot."

"Right then; off with you. I'll meet you at the car – you see where it is? I'm gonna pull it out onto the road and you can just pop out of those bushes. If you run into anything you can't handle, you holler, yeah?"

With a nod, Buffy watched him step back out into the open area and look around – at his quick gesture, she sprinted to the first car and crouched behind it. As soon as he saw that she was safely across the open area, Spike began walking quickly towards the far end of the lot where he had left their car. Buffy darted from car to car, pausing once when her senses told her there were vampires nearby. She waited behind an old station wagon until the vamp couple getting in the next car could get out of her way. Instead of getting into the car, however, the man in the remains of a business suit started towards the rear of the car, saying over his shoulder, "Let me just find something to wear that doesn't look like I was buried in it—"

He was cut off as Buffy rose in front of him and dusted him without a word of banter. Behind the dust that was slowly falling to the ground, his companion was opening her mouth. Her confusion about whether she should attack the small blonde girl waving dust out of her eyes, or scream for help gave Buffy all the time she needed to knock her unconscious and drag her body behind the wagon where she could drive a stake through the vamp's heart.

"Hey! What are you—?"

"Shit!" Without looking to see who or what had seen her, Buffy sprinted for the end of the row of cars, yelling for Spike. Suddenly the waiting car was spinning around in the driveway and roaring back towards the running slayer, who was now being pursued by a rapidly growing group of vampires. Spike drove right through the oncoming crowd, not even slowing down until he had done another 180 degree spin and was moving alongside the Slayer. He leaned over and opened the door, slowing down only enough to allow Buffy to dive through it before putting his foot to the floor and flinging gravel all over the angry demons behind him. The force of their forward motion was enough to slam the door shut, and Buffy quickly squirmed around until she could see out the rear window.

Spike's "Yee haw!" as the car swerved and skidded to the end of the driveway and slid sideways into the deserted street brought her head around in disbelief.

"Did you just say 'Yee Haw!'?"

"Might have," he mumbled, risking a quick sideways glance at her shocked face. " 's fun, you know. Can't remember the last time I got to drive like this – not sober, anyway."

She just shook her head and took a tighter grip on the seat. Suddenly the fact that seat belts had never made it big in this world was beginning to seem like a very large oversight on the part of the Powers That Be. Spike continued to grin manically as he sped through the city, paying no heed to pedestrian safety, now that they knew that only vampires would be out and about in the dark. Not until they had left the city limits far behind and could see no signs of pursuit, did Buffy unclench her fingers and relax a little, suggesting to Spike that he might want to slow down before they got to Winterset.

"I suppose you're right," he grumbled, giving an exaggerated sigh as he allowed the car to slow to a more reasonable sixty miles per hour. "Come on now, Slayer. Admit it. That was fun, wasn't it?"

She allowed a small smile to play around her lips.

"In an 'I-could-die-any-second' kind of way, I guess," she finally allowed.

"Well, there you go! Nothing like a near-death experience to get the old heart pumping." He looked so proud of himself that she had to laugh as she relaxed back into the comfortable seat.

"I get enough of those every night, thank you very much," she said primly, trying not to giggle. "I don't need to go looking for more."

"Bollocks, pet. Most of the vamps and demons that you put away in this world don't even make you break a sweat. When was the last time you were in fear for your life – really in fear?"

Buffy mumbled something even his vampire hearing couldn't catch, repeating it a bit louder when he demanded to know what she was saying. "I said, the last time was when you showed up and had me pinned," she growled, hating to be reminded of how easily he had beaten her that first night.

"Ah," he said softly; then – "You know I wouldn't have hurt you, don't you, love? Not much, anyway."

"Well, I know that now; but not then, I didn't. I thought you were going to kill me."

"Still might," he said. "You never know."

"Oh, I know," she responded, waving her hand around dismissively. "I know you, Spike."

"Hey! That's my line! You don't get to use that, you... you..." The more outraged Spike became, the more Buffy giggled, until he finally finished sputtering and shook his head. "Don't know why I bother. You've got me just as much by the short hairs as your other self did. Might as well just wrap me up and consider it Christmas," he grumbled good-naturedly.

"Wrap you up? You mean like a present? But then I'd have to unwrap you if I wanted to play with you," she teased, miming taking a ribbon off his torso.

Spike's cock jumped to attention at Buffy's surprisingly suggestive remark. Another sidelong look at her face and the way she was biting her lip to keep from laughing and it began to push against the denim in his jeans.

"You sassy bint," he growled. "Do you have any idea what you just did to me?"

"Um, no; not really. I just—eep!"

Before she finished speaking, he had taken her hand and placed it on his erection, pushing down enough to be sure that she didn't miss how hard he was. He released her immediately so that she could move her arm, but to his surprise she just blushed and slid over closer to him, leaving her warm hand right where he'd placed it and squeezing him gently.

The car moved even slower as he sighed and slid down in his seat, taking his free hand and putting it around Buffy's shoulders. His hand was dangling in front of her, his fingers just barely touching the fuzzy sweater over her suddenly erect nipple. It wasn't long before Buffy's breath was getting ragged and her rhythmic squeezing of his cock was getting harder as he teased her nipple until it was almost painfully hard.

By the time he pulled the car into the driveway and around behind the small house, they were both breathing hard and fast. As he yanked the key from the ignition, he turned to meet the lips that were already pursed for the kiss Buffy had been waiting for. For long minutes their lips and tongues battled as though unable to get enough of each other. His hand was now under her layers of sweaters, cupping her beast while he ran his thumb over the nipple and used the arm around her shoulders to pull her closer to him.

When Buffy went to reach for his zipper, he tore his mouth off hers long enough to say, "Let's take this inside, love. Don't fancy watching you get all goosebumps when I rip all those layers off you."

With an agreeable whimper, she nodded her head and pushed away from his chest. Without speaking, she got out and reached into the back seat for her weapons bag and extra clothes. Spike took the bag from her with one hand, and holding onto her hand with the other, he led her around the house to the front door. The visions of naked Buffy that were going through his head dissolved abruptly as they rounded the house to find an angry and shivering Dawn sitting on the top step.

Chapter Twenty-One

"It's about time you two got home," she grumbled, standing up and wrapping her arms around herself. "Where have you been?"

Instead of answering, Buffy put one hand on her hip and asked with some asperity, "Why didn't you just land in the kitchen? Nobody asked you to wait for us out here."

Dawn looked around for a minute, before finally dropping her head and admitting, "I did land in the kitchen. But I got bored and I came outside to look for you and the door locked behind me."

"Brilliant," Spike muttered, not trying to hide his disgust at having his plans interrupted. Buffy poked him in the side and released his hand so that she could get out her key and open the door.

"Hey! Were you two holding hands? Have you been out on a date?" Dawn's excitement was palpable and even Spike broke into a reluctant smile at her enthusiasm.

"Not tonight, Little Sis. Tonight was all business." He held up the weapons bag and shook it at her.

"Last night?"

Buffy blushed and mumbled under her breath. Dawn turned away from the embarrassed girl and continued to badger Spike. "So, did you go out last night? How long have you been dating? Are you having sex yet? Are you in love? What are—"

"Whoa!" Spike's voice was a mixture of pride, embarrassment, and anger. "Not really sure that what we're doin' or not doin' is any of your business, Dawn."

"But, my Spike and Buffy will want to know!" She blithely ignored the yellow flashes in his eyes as she pursued the answer she wanted to hear.

"Not any of their business either," he growled, slinging the bag of weapons into a corner and taking off his coat. "Now, what are you doin' here?" he asked pointedly.

"Fine," she grumbled. "Don't tell me. But I saw you holding hands. You can't deny that."

"What do you want, Dawn?" Buffy's no-nonsense tone reminded Dawn that to these two people, she was just someone who knew their other selves – not someone that either one of them knew well.

"Willow is worried that her vamp self might also be a witch and she wanted me to give you these." Dawn held out her hand and allowed the two amulets in it to dangle from their strings. "She says they should ward off any magics that vamp Willow might try to throw at you, and also block the Master's thrall. Have you seen him yet? Is it the Master that you killed last year?"

Buffy nodded, taking the amulet and examining it curiously. "Yes, we've seen him. Or, I have anyway. I haven't even had a chance to ask Spike about what he saw while he was inside."

"Inside? Inside what?"

"Oh, we went to the city where the master has his lair. I guess you'd better sit down. This could take a while..."

Buffy described what she'd seen; then Spike added his experiences when he'd gone through the line to get blood, including what he'd had to pay for it. He told about seeing Willow about to enter the room and how he'd ducked out quickly before she could recognize him. They described what the master was doing to cement his control over both the human and demon populations and shrugged when Dawn asked if they had a plan.

"For tonight, the plan was to get out of there in one piece," Spike growled.

"Well, be sure to let me – us know when you decide what you want to do. Everybody wants to help if they can."

" 'less the Slayer can toss stakes through portals and hit her target, don't see what any of you lot can do. My slayer will think of somethin' and then we'll send old Bat Face to his reward."

Buffy blushed and stared at Spike as she realized that he meant her, not the older Buffy, and that he was saying that he had perfect confidence in her ability to win. He gazed back at her with an expression that made Buffy's stomach flutter, and she colored even more as she found herself unable to look away. Dawn watched the locked stares and suddenly decided that she'd been there long enough.

"Just don't do anything without letting us know, ok?" she said, edging towards the kitchen. Neither one actually turned to watch her leave, just waving their hands absently as they edged closer together on the couch.

"Right," Dawn muttered as she pulled her portal up around herself. "None of my business." With her usual loud pop, she disappeared back to her own dimension leaving Buffy and Spike alone in the empty house.

"Your slayer?" she asked in a whisper, her irises were big pools of emerald as she held his gaze.

He raised his hand and ghosted his knuckles over her cheek as he responded. "Was a figure of speech, love. Know you're not mine – not really. But had to say something to let her know which slayer I meant, didn't I?"

"Oh," Buffy's face clouded with disappointment. She sat up straighter, and he let his hand drop to his lap. "Sure. I knew that's what you meant."

They sat there uncomfortably for several seconds – the erotic high they had both been on after the escape from the Master's lair having dissipated during their lengthy discussion with Dawn, and their usual miscommunication about their feelings left them both feeling too insecure to pursue it.

With a yawn, Buffy finally rose to her feet. "I didn't get much sleep last night – and it's already 3:00 now. I guess I'd better get to bed or I'll be too tired to work tomorrow..."

He flowed to his feet with her, nodding his head, eyes shuttered to hide the disappointment there.

"Right you are, pet. No tellin' what we're gonna run up against tomorrow night – you'll need to be on your toes."

"Yep. Toes on Buffy, that's me," she said in what she hoped was a casual manner. "I guess I'll just..." Moving very slowly, she turned away from the vampire. When he didn't touch her or call her back, she sighed and began walking towards the bathroom. "Good night, Spike."

Spike watched her walk away, disappointment in every line of her body. He watched stoically as she entered the bathroom and shut the door without looking at him again. He replayed the entire night in his head, right up to the point where she'd released his hand in order to open the door. He walked slowly towards the bathroom, stopping just outside the door and leaning against the wall in his familiar slouch. He could hear her moving around inside and could picture her brushing her teeth and washing her face. The rustle of cloth told him that she was taking off the layers of heavy clothing, and he growled softly as he envisioned her standing naked only feet away from him.

When Buffy left the bathroom, she was surprised to find Spike right outside. He quickly straightened, stepping closer to her, as he asked, "No good-night kiss, then, pet? I thought we had an arrangement. Were you going to send old Spike off to bed without his nightly snog?"

"N... no. But I thought you didn't want—"

"Told you last night – don't ever think I don't want to kiss you. Jus' figured your little sis's arrival had pretty much killed the mood for now."

"For now?" Her lips twitched in a small smile.

"Oh yeah. Wasn't givin' up on you – jus' figured I'd have to go find us another good fight tomorrow night if old Bat Face lets me down and doesn't send some minions for us to beat up on." He was grinning, his posture much more relaxed as he saw that she was now smiling happily and moving closer to him.

"So, what are you saying? That I'm only going to be interested in you if I've staked a bunch of vampires first? Or been scared to death in a car?"

"I'm sayin' I think it helps my case a lot," he whispered, dipping his head toward her face.

"I don't think you're giving yourself enough credit," she whispered back as their lips met. "I don't need a fight to want to kiss you... or whatever."

With her "whatever" ringing in his ears, Spike put his arms around her pajama-clad body and pulled her to him as he deepened the kiss. She smelled of soap and toothpaste and he thought it was the sexiest thing he'd ever inhaled – until the scent of her arousal drifted to his nostrils. Growls were rumbling deep in his chest as he pulled her against him, rubbing his erection into her hip. When Buffy gave a little whimper and wrapped one leg around his, he put his hands under her ass and boosted her up until she could wrap both legs around him and grind her pelvis against him. The extra friction had her moaning and whimpering as she used her powerful legs to pull him even closer.

Without releasing his hold on her churning butt, Spike took two long strides to the doorway of her bedroom and kicked the door open. Two more strides had him at the edge of the bed, where he hesitated just long enough for Buffy to begin to worry that he was changing his mind. She flung herself away from him – falling backwards onto the bed, pulling the surprised vampire down on top of her and clamping her legs around him again as soon as he landed. Practically growling herself, she continued to rub against him, his groans and muttered "bloody hell"s only urging her on.

With a supreme effort of will, Spike tore his mouth away and pushed himself up on his arms. Buffy's "nooooo..." of dismay gave him a burst of masculine pride, even as he fought her attempts to pull him back down.

"Easy, love," he murmured. 'Want this as much as you do – I just wanna make it good for you."

"It was feeling pretty damn good to me," she gasped, glaring at him. "Why are you stopping?"

"Not stoppin', love. I jus'... let me... " He used one hand to push her pajama bottoms down to her knees, and then dropped his head and began to kiss his way down her torso, pausing to push her top over her face and to suck on each nipple until they were standing in little peaks and Buffy was arching into his mouth. As he worked his way down her body, she kicked her pants the rest of the way off and yanked her top off her face, smiling at his rumble of approval.

"Ah, love, you are so beautiful. Like a flower you are – and you smell delicious... " He ran his tongue through her folds, sending her hips arching off the bed and bringing a small scream to her lips. "Taste delicious, too," he mumbled as he pulled the swollen and needy bit of flesh into his mouth. He'd barely begun to suck on it when Buffy uttered another shriek and shuddered around him, her thighs clutching his head so tightly he was briefly worried that he wouldn't survive to enjoy his reward. Then, her legs went limp, as did the entire body under him and he looked up to meet her half-closed eyes.

"Kinda thought I might get to do that a bit longer," he said ruefully.

Buffy gave an embarrassed laugh. "I think I was already almost there," she replied, blushing lightly. "Did you know that you give the best good-night kisses of anybody in the whole world?"

"The whole world, huh? Jus' how many good-night kisses have you had, Slayer?"

"Enough to know that nobody else can do it like you can," she said with a smile. "I don't have to try them out to know that."

"Better not be tryin' them out," he growled, smothering the surge of jealousy that went through him.

She tilted her head to look at him where he was lying between her legs, his chin resting on her bare stomach. "I wasn't planning to," she said softly. "I didn't mean to make you mad."

"I'm not mad, love." He wormed his way up the bed until he was lying beside her where he could drop kisses on her neck and shoulder. "Jus' brings out the demon in me to hear you talk about kissin' anyone else... Not my place, I know, but—"

"Why isn't it your place?" Her question startled him and he flashed back to how she'd looked at him when he called her 'his' Slayer.

"Not mine, are you?" His suddenly intent eyes bored into hers, the fierceness there causing her to look away briefly. She felt him sigh when she turned away and she barely heard his whispered, "Didn't think so."

She whipped her head back to glare at him. "I could be," she said angrily. "If you would just tell me you really want me. That I'm not just a substitute for the other Buffy."

"Oh, love," he breathed, cupping her face. "You could never be a substitute for anybody. You're you, and anything else is just a cheap copy. Want you more than anythin', Buffy. Want you to be mine in every way there is – but—"

"Don't 'but' me. If you want me to be yours, then say so. Do something about it."

"Nothing the demon'd like more," he said cryptically, rising up on one elbow, "but we're not there. One day, though, maybe..."

"Okay, I don't know what the demon has to do with anything – and I'm not sure I want to – but if you want me... I... I kinda want that too," she finished with another blush, her voice trailing off as she finished.

"Do you mean what I think you mean?" Hope battled with uncertainly as he tried to read her flushed face.

"I mean," she raised her chin and met his gaze firmly, "that I know I don't look like a little girl anymore; I know that I've had to live like an adult and take care of myself for a long time, and... and I think I'm ready to have an adult relationship. With you," she added, in case there was any doubt.

"Oh, Buffy..." The vampire's soft whisper almost sounded as though he was fighting tears, although her common sense told her that wasn't possible. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her still-naked body against his. "Want you so bad, love. Want to hold you and love you and..."

His still-hard cock pushing against her hip reminded them both that only one of them had actually had a relaxing good-night "kiss" and she said coyly, "Wouldn't that be easier to do if you took your clothes off too?"

"That it would, love," he agreed with a grin. "Don't go away, I'll be right back."

He rolled away from her, already pulling his tee shirt over his head and reaching down to untie his boots. Suddenly Buffy grabbed the sheets and pulled them up to her chest, her heart rate accelerating.

"What's wrong, pet? Haven't even got to the good parts yet," he said with a leer as he began to unfasten his jeans.

"Do you think she's watching?"

"She, who? Watching what?"

"Dawn! She said they can watch us. What if she's – they're watching now? What if Willow's watching? Oh my god! What if Giles is watching?"

"Then I hope they get an eyeful," he said with a grin, pushing his jeans down and kicking them off. In the light coming in from the living room lamps, he looked like a marble statue come to life as he stood, unashamed and unconcerned beside the bed. When he realized that Buffy was close to hyperventilating, he stopped laughing and got back on the bed, sliding under the covers and running a reassuring hand over her shoulder.

"I doubt they're watching, Slayer. You know what she said about never peekin' in at the other two without warning. Now that she knows we've got something going, she'll be just as afraid to surprise us."

"I hope you're right," she said dubiously. "She seemed kinda nosy to me." She allowed him to pull her down beside him, but kept the blankets pulled up to her chin. He nuzzled the side of her neck, reminding her that she was now lying stark naked next to an also naked and still very hard vampire. As she felt their flesh meet – smooth coolness contrasting with silky warmth – she forgot all about any possible onlookers as she gasped into his mouth.

Chapter Twenty-two

The sensation of being skin to skin from head to toe with the vampire that she had finally admitted made her heart race like no one before him was sending Buffy into sensory overload. Spike's lips were caressing the skin on her throat while his hands were sweeping over her bare flanks. His whispered praise for her body's response to him was as embarrassing as it was exciting; his crooning comments about how wet she was and how tight had her both confused and whimpering for more. In a very short period of time, his dancing fingers and bone-melting kisses had her straining towards him, trying to press every square inch of her skin to his while at the same time, parting her legs so that his hand could work its magic.

He pushed her gently onto her back, holding most of his weight on his elbows as he settled between her legs. He took time to suck on her breasts again, humming against the nipples as they rose to meet his tongue before sliding up to kiss her mouth and murmur against it. She could feel his cock just nudging at her entrance as he rubbed himself against her, setting up an urge that she couldn't deny.

"Is it going to hurt?" Her tentative question, gasped out even as her hips tipped up to give him better access, was a reminder that, although the body writhing under his was experienced in ways this Buffy couldn't even imagine yet, the girl inhabiting it was still a virgin.

"Don't know, love," he said honestly. "If the other one told me the truth, this body knows mine like we were born doin' this. Unless the powers that like to fuck with people thought it would be funny to give you a new cherry when they stuck your virginal little self into it, it shouldn't hurt at all. Should feel like..."

He stopped, too embarrassed to say what he was thinking – that it should fell like coming home for her.

"Should feel like what?" she whispered, sliding her legs around his hips and biting her lip as she felt him begin to slide into her.

"Like someone who's loved you a thousand times before is doing it one more time," he breathed, sheathing himself inside her and groaning with relief as he felt her walls around him. He found himself fighting for control as she unconsciously squeezed him and brought her arms around his back, holding him against her as though afraid to let him go.

"Ah, love, you feel so good – like warm silk you are. My sweet slayer."

He began to rock his hips in a timeless rhythm, smiling as she seemed to intuitively know how to move with him. Their bodies moved together, almost independently of the people inhabiting them, quickly building towards a release that had Buffy grabbing his shoulder with her teeth to muffle a scream while she shook and trembled beneath him. As soon as he felt her teeth on him, Spike's demon burst out and he exploded within her, sinking his teeth into his own arm to protect the throat now exposed to him.

When his hips had stopped jerking and he felt as though he was once again in control, he raised his head and lifted his upper body off the girl now staring at him with wide eyes.

"You vamped out," she said quietly.

"I did. I'm sorry – wasn't expecting it."

"Why not?"

"What?"

"Why weren't you expecting it? Didn't you do that with the other Buffy?"

"Sometimes," he admitted. "But she knew what she was gettin' into – you don't. Didn't want to scare you."

She glared at him suspiciously, then noticed his bleeding arm. "You bit yourself? What's that all about?"

He sighed and sat up. "Let me fix this, pet, then I'll explain it to you. Alright?"

She nodded reluctantly and waited while he got a towel and wrapped it around his arm. The bite marks were already closing and she realized that the bruise that her own teeth had left on his shoulder would probably be visible far longer than the mark he'd given himself. He slid back into the bed and put his arm around her shoulders, pulling her next to him as he leaned back against the pillows.

"What do you know about claiming, love?" he began. "Did your watcher ever tell you about it?"

She nodded, a troubled frown on her face. "He told me it was very important that I never let Angel bite me – even in... in an affectionate way. That I would be in thrall to him if I did."

"Ignorant wanker," he growled. "That's Council bollocks, pet. But it's not somethin' to be taken lightly. He was right about that." He shifted so as to be able to see her face. "My demon – he wants to mark you as mine. Wants to put a claim on you. Most of the time, it's not a problem, but when you bit me..."

"It was my fault?"

"No, love. Not your fault. Never your fault. Biting is... I ... I like it. Trust me," he said wryly. "You'll never hear me complain about you putting your little teeth on me while we're makin' love—"

"Is that what we were doing? Making love?"

"I'd like to think so, Buffy," he said softly. "I'd very much like to think so. Can't speak for you, but one of us was – you can count on it."

Her quiet "oh" told him that she'd read between the lines and understood what he was not saying. Before she could break his heart by telling him that she didn't feel the same way about him, he rushed on with his explanation of claiming.

"A claim is a... like a vampire marriage. A mutual claim can be forever if it's renewed every once in a while. It's pretty rare, actually. Most vamps aren't monogamous and they're not interested in making commitments that could last until they dust. A claim a vamp puts on a human marks that human as someone who is precious or otherwise important to him. Other vamps should honor it and leave that human alone. It's for protection, not for control. Your watcher had that wrong – or he lied to you so you wouldn't let it happen..."

"When do you get to the part about biting the other Buffy?"

He sighed and kissed the top of her head. "She bit me first, actually. Knows a bit about claiming, she does, and put her mark on me to try to make sure I would come back to Sunnyhell. Got a little carried away myself and bit her back. Wasn't a really strong claim – just enough to keep other vamps' teeth off her neck long enough for her to stake 'em. I s'pect by now the other Spike has done it up right and they're mated forever."

"So you're... mated... to her?"

He shook his head. "No, love. We didn't go that far. I marked her and she did her best to mark me, but neither one of us was really in the right place for a claim to set up that kind of mystical connection. She was in love with the souled version of me that's living with her now – and I still thought I was in love with Drusilla. We had a connection, but it wouldn't have lasted, and it didn't come through the portal with me. I can't feel her anymore."

"So, you bit your own arm because the demon wanted to bite me." It wasn't a question, and he didn't bother to confirm it for her, he just looked at the bite that was no longer bleeding and threw the towel on the floor.

Buffy snuggled into the arms he wrapped around her and tried to sort out all the events of the evening.

I think he was saying he loves me. But if he loves me, why didn't he want to claim me like he did the other Buffy? Is it because he thinks I don't love him? Do I love him? What did Buffy say - 'give him a chance?' I guess that's what I'm doing. I'm giving him a chance. So far I think—

"Penny for your thoughts, love," he said, nuzzling her neck and noticeably inhaling her scent.

Hope I didn't scare her. I didn't actually come right out and tell her I love her, but she's got to know what I meant. Don't want her worrying that I'm going try to throw a claim on her without her permission...

"I was just... thinking," she answered softly, kissing the inside of his bicep.

"About...?"

"You... us... the way things are changing so fast. I'm just... I need to think about what we're doing and what it means."

"Havin' second thoughts, are you?" His voice was tight and controlled, but she could feel the slight tremor that went through his body and the almost imperceptible tightening of the arms that cradled her so gently. "If I pushed you too fast, Buffy, I'm sorry. I've wanted you so much, for such a long time – didn't mean to—"

"I didn't say I was regretting it," she said quickly. "I'm not. I don't. And you didn't push me into anything I wasn't already thinking about doing; I just didn't know about all the other... stuff."

"You mean, like the biting? I'm always gonna want to do that, pet. It's a big part of being a vamp. But I would never do it without askin' you first. And I wouldn't put a claim on you."

She squirmed around to face him and glanced up at his earnest face, frowning slightly.

"Why wouldn't you?" she asked innocently. "Don't you think I could use a little protection once in a while?"

"Were you paying attention when I told you why it wasn't very strong between me and the other Buffy?"

"Yeah, you said she didn't really love you and that you—" She stopped as her brain caught up with her mouth and she remembered why he'd said it didn't follow him into the new dimension. For long seconds they stared into each other's eyes – Spike allowing everything he felt for her to show in his soft gaze, Buffy's confusion equally visible in hers. He gently stroked her cheek as he put what she'd already guessed into words.

"If I put a claim on you, pet, I'd mean it. In every way. When – if – I say you're mine, I want it to be true. For both of us. Would never force you into that kind of binding relationship unless you wanted me to. I don't need it to love you, to want to protect you and to be with you forever. And, except for old Bat Face, I'd be surprised if there's any vamp in this world that could get close enough to you to put his teeth on your throat. 's long as you don't get careless, that is," he added as he remembered finding the other Buffy pinned under a vampire that had taken advantage of her distraction. My fault, that was. Running out on her –letting the damn poof play me like that. Not gonna happen again. Not this time.

Rather than answering his words, which warmed her heart even as they made her worry that she wouldn't be able to return his feelings, Buffy just kissed him gently and rolled back to her side, letting him pull her back against his chest. As she drifted off to sleep, she mumbled, "I guess this means we need to get a bigger bed... and another chest of drawers... and heavier drapes for this room..."

Her voice trailed off as she allowed sleep to overcome her, so she never saw the smile that spread over the vampire's face as she calmly talked about moving him into her bedroom permanently.

"Get out!" Buffy grinned as Dawn reported on her visit to the Master's dimension. "They were holding hands? That's great!"

"Holdin' hands is great? Oh yeah, I'm sure he was excited about that," Spike grumbled, sticking his hands in his pockets. "Nothin' to get a vamp's blood pumpin' quicker than holding hands with some chit."

Buffy smacked him on the shoulder and glared. "Your blood doesn't pump, asshole. And holding hands means they've started dating... or something. It does, doesn't it?" She turned back to Dawn, leaving Spike rubbing his arm and laughing quietly.

"I think so," she answered with a smirk at Spike. "He kinda said they'd been on a date the night before, but she didn't want to talk about it. She's kinda scary sometimes..."

"Still not acceptin' you as her sis, huh?" Spike asked sympathetically.

"I guess being stuck there by herself all that time... she probably felt pretty alone in the world. And now she's got Spike – I think they're pretty dependent on each other. I got that feeling even before they started holding hands."

"I guess they feel like all they have is each other," Buffy mused. "I wish there was some way for us to talk to them..."

"Oh! I forgot! I talked to the coven and we're going to see if I can take somebody with me when I teleport somewhere! Wouldn't that be cool? If I take an army of slayers through with me, the Master is history!"

"That would do it," Buffy agreed slowly. "But if it's that easy to move people around, why didn't the powers just drop Spike into my bed in London and tell you to bring us here to help out?"

Dawn's face fell. "I don't know. Maybe it's not as easy as I think... I said something about you guys wanting to help and Spike said unless you could throw stakes through a portal and hit something, he didn't see how you could help them. That's what gave me the idea – that I could bring slayers with me."

"It's a good idea, Bit. Jus' might not be part of the Powers' over all scheme, you know? But let us know what you find out. Could do with a bit more exercise myself."

"If we don't do something about the mayor before next month, you're going to get more exercise than you want," Buffy grumbled. "It's not like we need to go looking for trouble – we've got our own right here."

Dawn looked back and forth between them in surprise. "I thought it would be easy this time. You know what he wants to do and you know when he's planning to do it. Don't you think you can stop him?"

"He's a pretty wily old demon," Spike said diplomatically. "So far, the Slayer hasn't been able to do much except plan to blow up the school again if it goes that far." His eyes lit up. "Which, is alright with me. I'm sorry I missed that the first time – sounds like a lot of fun. I want to be the one who sets the explosives off this time. No sense letting the watcher have all the fun."

"Well, he doesn't have Faith this time – at least I don't think he does..." Buffy's lack of confidence in Faith's loyalty was evident in the disappointment on her face. In spite of her best efforts, the younger slayer remained somewhat alienated from her and from the other Scoobies. At this point, they were counting on Angel to keep her on their side in the coming battle.

"Oh, the big poof will talk her around," Spike said, rubbing her back reassuringly. "Don't know what went down that first time, but I think she's feelin' a bit better about herself than she prob'ly did then. Hearing you talk about her coming back to help out against the First seems to have perked up her interest in playin' on the right side. And she likes Joyce a whole lot more than she lets on – I can see it when she looks at her. A lot of that big bad stuff is just a front she puts on to keep from gettin' hurt."

Buffy and Dawn looked at the vampire with identical smiles and then giggled softly.

"What?"

"Nothing," Buffy said soothingly. Dawn was less willing to pretend and grinned at him as she said, "Well, you'd be the expert on that, wouldn't you?"

While Spike growled with feigned anger, the two sisters hugged each other and said "good-bye". "Be sure to keep us in the loop," Buffy urged. "Even if you do end up taking some slayers with you – I want to know what's going on."

Dawn waved her agreement and summoned her portal, stepping into it and disappearing with one of her loud 'pops'.

"Bloody hell, that hurts!" Spike grumbled, rubbing his ears. "What d'you suppose chances are that she can learn to do that without sucking all the air out the room?"

Buffy laughed softly and began tugging him towards the door. "Come on," she said, "you can rub your poor ears while we walk to Giles' apartment for the Scooby meeting."

Chapter Twenty-three

Buffy awoke from a dream in which Spike was showing her why he'd been disappointed that she'd come so quickly the night before; only to find that it was not a dream. The vampire was kneeling on the bed, his hands under her hips, holding her to his face while his tongue swirled and probed her open sex. It briefly occurred to her that she should be embarrassed about being exposed like that, but she couldn't hold the thought while he was doing wickedly wonderful things with his tongue and lips.

"Guh!"

"Ah!" He raised his head for a second to grin at her. "Good morning, love. I thought you were going to sleep forever."

"I... I was... having... a... really... nice... dream," she managed to gasp out as he went back to licking her. She found that the position in which he was holding her made her completely dependent upon him. She had no leverage by which to increase the pressure and she could see that he was taking great delight in her whimpers and attempts to raise her pelvis higher.

When her whimpers began to sound more like sobs, he took pity on her and pulled the needy piece of flesh into his mouth where he began to suck on it while continuing to tease it with his tongue. Her sobs soon turned to gasps and shrieks as she trembled in his grip, arching her back almost into a bow until nothing but her neck and head were left on the mattress.

Instead of letting her go, he lowered her hips until they were just over his thighs, then slid his hands up to her shoulders. He pulled her up and forward until she was sitting on his lap, his cock having slid easily into her well-lubricated body. Her legs automatically went around his waist and she sighed when he pulled her close and nibbled on her neck.

Clenching muscles that she hadn't realized she had, Buffy smiled to herself when she pulled a heartfelt groan from the cocky vampire. Without moving, she continued to squeeze and release him until he was involuntarily pushing into her and babbling in her ear.

"Oh, yes, pet – god, yes, love. Oh, so strong, so warm and wonderful, Ah! Going to make me... Buffy!"

He managed not to vamp out this time as he clutched her tightly and let himself find his release in her quivering depths. His actions as he approached his orgasm provided stimulation to a whole new set of nerves that set Buffy off into another shrieking spasm that matched his in intensity.

When their bodies had finally stopped trembling and jerking, they remained wrapped together, clinging to each other as though to a life preserver. When Buffy's breathing had begun to drop back to a manageable level, she raised her head from its place on his chest.

"Wow," she managed to gasp. "Wowie, wow, wow."

Trying not to appear as shaken as he felt, Spike could only echo her.

"Wow works for me. Don't think my brain is capable of comin' up with anything more complicated just now."

Buffy remained happily cradled in his arms, still intimately connected while she waited for her heart rate and breathing to approach a normal rhythm. She noted idly that, although he seemed as shaken and sated as she felt, he was still hard and she squeezed him experimentally.

"You're kidding, right?" she asked when she felt an answering twitch.

His chuckle vibrated against her cheek and he hugged her tightly before releasing her and pushing her slightly away from his body.

"Vampire stamina, love. What can I say?"

"You could say, 'Wow, Buffy, that was so awesome I don't think I can move for the rest of the day," she grumbled, a bit put out that he could be wanting more so soon.

"'s not a reflection on how satisfied I am," he explained quickly. "I'm every bit as knocked out by what just happened here as you are. It's just that being in you like this is... Never want to leave here, love. Could stay in you till I dust and be perfectly happy about it."

Not sure how to respond to his remarks, she chose to ignore the implication behind them and reply to the actual words.

"Well, you can't do that – cause I have to go to work now and I'm pretty sure there's, like, a health regulation or something that says we can't walk around a restaurant like this."

"More's the pity," he laughed as he lifted her off his cock and set her gently on the bed. "But you're right, love. You're runnin' a bit late this morning. Best get yourself all showered off and out the door."

"Oh, now you can't wait to get rid of me. I see how it is," she said, sticking her tongue out at him. "Got what you wanted and now you're sending me away."

He grabbed her arm almost hard enough to hurt and met her eyes firmly. "You know that's not what I'm doing." It wasn't a question, but a flat statement and she immediately dropped her teasing.

"I know," she whispered, leaning in to brush her lips across his. "Don't be so touchy."

Trying to salvage something of his image, he threw himself back on the bed and closed his eyes. "Not touchy, just tired. Tryin' to get rid of you so I can get some kip before tonight."

"Sheeyah, right." She stood up and grabbed some clothes as she headed for the bathroom and a hot shower. The hot water felt good on her achy body and she luxuriated in it until she was afraid that she was going to be late for work. Drying off and dressing quickly, she grabbed a couple of pieces of bread from the kitchen, put on her coat and, after peeking into the bedroom to be sure that the sun wasn't going to reach the sleeping vampire on the bed, she went out the door, feeling very much like the adult she told herself she now was.

After an uneventful day at work - where she blushed every time someone looked at her too long, sure that they could tell how she'd spent the morning – she walked out into the alley, surprised to find that Spike was not there waiting for her. She frowned and absently staked a vampire that clearly didn't know he was seeking food in the Slayer's alley, before she started towards her home.

She was almost to her street when a familiar-looking black van came roaring past her, going so fast she almost missed the strong vamp signatures coming from it. Fear such as she'd never felt before seized her, turning her stomach into a hard knot as she ran towards her little house. She froze as she entered the front yard and saw the signs of a massive struggle. The fence had been knocked down, there was vamp dust everywhere, and a stake lay on the ground.

With a moan of fear, Buffy knelt down beside the biggest dust piles and lifted the fine powder in her hands. She tried to control the hysterical urge to chase after the long-gone van, and force herself to think clearly. She could hear Spike's voice in her head saying, "You're stronger than they are, pet, but you have to be smarter too."

She got to her feet and stumbled to the door, operating on automatic pilot as she unlocked it and entered the house that she had left in such a happy mood only hours before.

Think, Buffy! Think! If they killed Spike, why would they be in such a hurry to leave? Wouldn't they stay here and try to take me out too? So, he has to be alive. They've taken him away for some reason.

Once again, she could hear Spike's voice in her head. "Don't do anything stupid, Slayer. It's a trap. You know it's a trap. Don't fall for it."

Out loud, to herself, Buffy growled, "If they wanted to get the Slayer to come back – they're going to get their wish. I'm going to take that place apart brick by brick until I find Spike – and he'd better be in good shape when I find him, or..."

She walked into the kitchen and yelled, "Dawn! Where the hell are you? Why weren't you watching? Dawn! I need you!"

Her shoulders slumped in defeat as she realized the futility of trying to reach someone who was in another dimension by screaming at her. She changed her clothes quickly, gathered her weapon bag and extra stakes. She picked up the key to the car and stared at it, saying firmly, "I can do this. How hard can it be? I turn the car on, step on the gas and it goes. I can do this."

She tore apart a paper bag and scribbled a large note to Dawn, propping it up on the kitchen table where she would be sure to see it if she looked in.

"They have Spike. I'm going to get him back."

Carrying her weapons bag and a sword, she went out the door and around the house to the car. She threw her things on the passenger seat and sat behind the wheel, staring uncertainly at the dials in front of her.

"I can do this," she muttered again, putting the key in the ignition and turning it until she heard the motor catch. Then she realized that she couldn't reach the gas pedal, and growled in frustration as she pulled the seat forward until she could reach the pedals and see over the steering wheel. Taking a deep breath, she moved the gearshift lever to "R" and began to back up. Which went well until she found the tree growing on the side of the yard.

"Okay, not a problem. Now I go forward until I can't go any farther and then I back up again – I'll just keep that up until I've turned around. Damn! It looks so easy when Spike does it..."

The car shot forward as she changed gears, bumping into the side of the house so hard that she hit her nose on the steering wheel. Tears of frustration were filling her eyes as she continued to try to wrestle the big car around far enough that she could pull into the street. When she had finally mastered the art of turning around without sending the car leaping in one direction or another, she breathed a sigh of relief and edged down the driveway.

She stared at the other cars moving smoothly down the street and gripped the steering wheel with clenched fists.

"I can do this," she muttered, over and over. "I can do this. I'm the Slayer and I have superpowers – how hard can it be to drive a stupid car?"

Just as she was about to take the plunge into the, fortunately, fairly light traffic, she thought she heard her name. She glanced around quickly, saw no one, and focused her eyes on the road again. Slayer reflexes allowed her to catch the movement behind her, and she glanced in the rearview mirror to see Dawn standing in the driveway behind the car, screaming at her and waving frantically.

With a grateful prayer to the Powers that Be, she turned the car off and remembered to put the hand brake on before opening the door. Her wariness of the sister she didn't really know evaporated in the face of their mutual fear for Spike's safety, and she allowed Dawn to hold her shivering body as she tried to explain what she'd found when she got home.

"They've got him. I know they do. They want me to come running in there to rescue him, and..."

"And you were about to do just that," Dawn said wryly, as she released Buffy. "Weren't you?"

"Well... yeah. I mean, that was my plan..." Buffy stared dubiously from the parked car to the still-busy street. "I was working up my courage to take the car out where there are, like... other cars... moving."

Dawn shook her head. "I knew you didn't know how to drive yet. Okay, here's my plan. Wanna hear it?"

"Is it better than my plan?"

"Well, it's a lot safer for the poor citizens of this world who are out and about," Dawn said with a small smile.

"Ha, ha."

"Okay, here's the sitch – I can drive. I have a license and everything – not that I guess that's going to matter to the cops here, but..." She shook herself. "Doesn't matter. The point is, I can get you there, which will also help me know where it is. Then we can reconnoiter—"

"Reconnoiter? What the—?"

"Souvenir word from one of your exes – never mind, it's not important – the point is, we can see what's going on, maybe figure out where they're keeping Spike and then I can go back for help—"

"Help? What kind of help?"

"Well... I haven't actually gotten that far with the plan yet. But I know we can do something! I just have to know where the place is so I can get back there; and you have to promise not to get killed until I figure out what to do."

Buffy shook her head in disbelief. "Except for the whole knowing how to drive part – which, yay – you aren't going to be any help at all."

"We'll see. Get in."

Dawn walked around to the driver's side, let the seat back until she could fit her long legs into the car and turned the engine on. Buffy meekly climbed into the passenger seat. As soon as she was in, the car shot out into a break in traffic and Dawn was heading in the direction Buffy had pointed.

Buffy watched silently for a while as Dawn weaved skillfully in and out of traffic until they reached the road to Petersburg. As the car rocketed forward, Buffy ventured, "Let me guess. Spike taught you to drive?"

Dawn took her eyes off the road long enough to flash a grin. "Yeah. He didn't want to, but when you were dead—"

"When I was what?!"

"Oops? Another one of those stories for another day." She rushed on. "Anyway, he needed to distract me – to distract both of us, really; and teaching me to drive before I was old enough for a license was how he did it. Did a good job, too. I aced my test when I was old enough – and I've driven in Rome!"

"So, it just feels like we might crash any second – we're not really going to?"

"Of course not!" Dawn sounded hurt. "I thought you'd be in a hurry. Just because they took him alive doesn't mean they aren't torturing him or something."

"I am in a hurry," Buffy sighed. "And I do appreciate this. Really. I just—There's so much you know about me and my future, and I—"

"It's not really your future," Dawn said kindly. "Not anymore. It would have happened if the Powers hadn't sent my Buffy back there, but now, who knows what's going to happen in Sunnydale? Or here. This is your future now."

"Oh joy," Buffy muttered.

"Hey, on the plus side, it took the other Buffy and Spike years to fall in love with each other – or to admit it, anyway. And look at you two already. All hand-holdy and dating and... stuff."

"Yeah," Buffy said. "And look what it got Spike – captured and probably tortured by some old vamp that he hates."

"Spike's tough. He'll hang in there."

Dawn spoke with more confidence than she felt, the miles rolling by so quickly not really bringing her any closer to a real idea about how to help Buffy save Spike. Her experiments with taking Suki with her on trips had convinced the coven that, while she could bring other living beings into a portal with her, they could not step out of it without causing disruption to the dimensional walls. So, her plan of bringing a small army of slayers back with her wasn't going to work.

After a lengthy silence, Buffy spoke softly.

"It's all right, Dawn. This has been a big help. If you can't bring any help back – and who would you bring, anyway? We—I'll be all right. I'll find Spike, cut him loose and, if we have to, we'll run away again." She was quiet for a minute, then growled, "But I really, really want to turn that ugly old vamp to dust for the last time..."

She gestured to Dawn to go past the driveway to the Master's lair. Once again, the building was well-lit and a small but steady stream of vamps seemed to be going in and out. They turned off the lights and coasted to a stop where they could watch the entrance through a gap in the trees. Buffy studied the building for any sign of additional guards, but saw nothing but the one vamp at the door to the blood dispensing area.

"I know they have to be expecting me. I don't understand why they don't have guards."

"Maybe they thought that you'd be afraid to come without Spike," Dawn ventured in a whisper. "Or maybe they think you can't get here by yourself. They probably don't expect you to show up this soon."

"Good point." Buffy nodded. "Maybe I can catch them by surprise before they get ready for me. Well," she said briskly, reaching over the seat for her weapons bag," Thanks for the ride. I'll let you know what happens."

"I'm going to think of something," Dawn said firmly. "I'll be back – and I'll have some kind of help with me."

"It's okay, Dawn," Buffy insisted. "This is what the Slayer does. I don't think we're meant to have help."

"Can't you just wait here for a little while?" Dawn pleaded.

Buffy shook her head stubbornly. "No. I think you're probably right; they aren't expecting me this soon. It's probably my best chance to get inside and find Spike before they..." She bit her lip. "To find Spike," she finished firmly. "Thanks for the ride."

Throwing her bag over her shoulder, Buffy slipped into the bushes and trees that separated the factory's parking lot from the main road. Dawn watched her go, a frown creasing her brow as she tried to think what to do. With a determined clenching of her teeth, she pulled a portal up around herself and disappeared into the night.

Chapter Twenty-four

Buffy, in the meantime, was doing her best to sneak quietly through the woods and make her way around the parking lot so as to approach the factory from the back. Her bag full of extra stakes, cross bows, and holy water kept catching on bushes and yanking her backwards to the accompaniment of muttered curses. When she realized that she was making enough noise for a normal human to hear her, never mind a creature with super-hearing, she stopped and set the bag down with a sigh. She glared at it, as though she could intimidate it into being smaller and less unwieldy, but the bag just sat there looking large, heavy and lumpy. With another sigh, she opened the recalcitrant bag and pondered what she really needed. Her favorite sword was already hanging over her shoulder, so she reluctantly decided to abandon the cross bow and it's quiver of wooden arrows. She tucked a few more stakes in and around her clothing and put a water pistol filled with holy water in her front pocket before patting the bag fondly and saying, "Wait here. I might need you again."

Now relieved of the bulky object that had been impeding her progress, she resumed a much more stealthy path through the trees and around the building. The closer she got, the stronger the vamp vibes became, until she felt like she was immersed in a sea of vampires. And yet, she saw nothing as she crept up to a closed door that had a small window in it. Grumbling, not for the first time lately, about her lack of height, she jumped up and down, trying to see through the window and into the lighted interior.

Giving that up as a bad job, she walked along past the windows, noting with interest that none of them were darkened the way they were on the side that overlooked the Master's 'throne room'. She crouched down and peered into one window, flinching back when she found a room full of people. A second, more cautious, peek showed her what appeared to be humans in various stages of illness. A closer look at the listless people lying around below her revealed that they all had bite marks and makeshift bandages scattered around their bodies, as well as bruised and bloody arms and wrists.

As she watched, the door to the room opened; two vampires came in, looked around, and pointed at two young women who appeared to be slightly less anemic than most of the others. Crying softly, the two girls obediently followed the two vamps out the door and into what Buffy presumed must be the area where the draining took place. Every slayer instinct that she had was insisting that she crash through the window and rescue the two girls from what she was sure was going to happen to them. However, she was able to smother the urge to charge in, stakes flying, and she moved down the row of windows, searching for more information. The last window was covered with dirt, and clearly did not look into a frequently used area. She knelt down and scraped some of the dirt away, catching her breath with a gasp as she stared into the small cinderblock room below. Hanging from manacles that were bolted to the wall, was a bloody and seemingly unconscious Spike.

If Buffy had thought it was hard to resist charging in to the room full of partially drained humans, she was literally digging holes in the windowsill with her fingernails as she stared at Spike's abused body. Just as she was about to throw caution to the winds and break the glass, the door opened and Vamp- Willow slinked her way into the room.

"Wakey, wakey," the red-haired vampire said cheerfully. "I want to play some more."

"Sod off," Spike croaked out, raising his head just enough to be sure that she heard him.

"Oh, now see, that's not cooperative. I know I explained to you how important it is that you be cooperative."

There was no response from the chained vampire, and Buffy clenched her teeth as Vamp-Willow walked back to the door and shut it tightly. She strolled back to Spike and purred, "We don't want to be disturbed, now, do we?"

When he didn't respond, she grabbed his hair and yanked his head up until he was eye to eye with her.

"What happened to Alex?" Willow snarled, her fangs only inches from his face. "And where is that slutty little cheerleader?"

Spike remained silent, only the snarl that escaped his lips when Willow slashed his already bloody chest with her nails indicating that he even knew she was there. When her hand went to his belt and she began to unbuckle it, saying "Let's see what you've got in here – and how attached to it you might be..." Buffy gave her own silent snarl and sat on the ground, her legs drawn up and feet facing the window. As Willow continued her taunting, taking Spike's balls in her sharply taloned hands and holding them loosely, Buffy took a last look around to be sure that she was alone on the back side of the building.

"Now," Willow said with deceptive mildness, "why don't you tell me what the deal is with you and that bottle-blonde wannabe slayer? Huh?" Her tone changed as she dug her nails into Spike's scrotum, wringing a strangled howl from him. "Where can I find her? I don't want to wait for her to show up here. I want her now!"

"Be careful what you wish for, Red," Spike gasped, having spotted Buffy from the corner of his eye. The sound of breaking glass accompanied the Slayer's feet-first entrance to the room. She landed lightly in a shower of glass and fell into a fighting stance.

"Were you looking for me?" Buffy cocked her head and gave a smile that didn't reach her eyes.

"Oh, isn't that cute?" The surprised vampire tried not to look as shocked as she actually was. "She's come to rescue her pet vampire." She released Spike and took an unafraid step towards the small angry woman facing her. "You know," she said conversationally, "you might be taking that whole 'slayer' thing a little too far, coming here like this. Even a real slayer couldn't get out of here alive – and you're not a real slayer, are you, Muffy?"

"It's Buffy, and, news flash – I am a 'real' slayer. All Chosen and everything. I put your Master out of our misery a couple of years ago, and I'll do it again."

A moment of doubt crossed the vampire's face, before she drew herself up and said haughtily, "Well, you'll have to get past me to do that, won't you?"

"Oh, I'm counting on it," Buffy growled, risking a meaningful glance at Spike. "That's going to be the fun part."

"I don't see a stake in your hand," Willow hissed, crouching for an attack.

"Did you miss the part where I said getting around you was going to be the fun part? I'm not ready to stake you, yet. You're not getting off as easy as your horny friend did."

"You staked Alex?" With a roar, Willow launched herself at the Slayer, only to find that Buffy had side-stepped at the last second. As Willow flew by, Buffy's foot caught her in the stomach, the force of the kick multiplied by the vampire's momentum. Before the gasping vamp could straighten up, Buffy was on her, an uppercut to Willow's jaw bringing her to an upright position again. Willow hadn't even registered that she'd been hit twice already without drawing any blood from the slayer, before she found herself on the receiving end of a flurry of punches that drove her back until she was pressed up against the very vampire that she had been torturing. Immediately, Spike struck, holding the snarling vampire in place with his fangs, which were buried in the muscle on the side of her neck.

Buffy walked up to the now frightened vamp that looked so much like her best friend and took a stake from her pocket. "That stake you didn't see?" She held it up in front of Vamp-Willow's face. "Here it is." She drove the stake in, being careful not to strike so hard that she accidentally drove it into Spike also. They stared at each other as Vamp-Willow's dust drifted to the floor, Spike in awe, Buffy with great relief at finding him alive and relatively uninjured. After a few seconds, Buffy turned away to search for the key to the manacles.

"You shouldn't have come here, love," he growled as she picked the key up from a table by the door. "It's a trap. "

"Of course it is," Buffy said blithely. "Do you think I'm stupid? How do you feel? Can you fight?"

"Buffy, old Bat Face wants a chance to see if you're really a slayer before he kills you. He's got half the vamps in the city on their way here to give you a welcoming party."

"Only half? Against the two of us? Pffft!" She waved her hand with more confidence than she actually felt. "I almost feel sorry for them."

As Buffy released his arms, he brought them down around her, pulling her into his bloody chest.

"Sweetheart, I love that you came for me. You have no idea what that means to me. But I really wish you hadn't done it. If something happens to you because of me—"

"If something happens to me," she interrupted, putting a gentle finger against his lips, "It will be because I'm the Slayer and things happen to slayers. It won't be your fault. It will be because that ugly old bat out there is evil."

"He's not touchin' you." Spike's snarled promise would have been more impressive if he hadn't been leaning heavily on her for support. Although he had no serious injuries, he had lost a great deal of blood and was weak. Buffy frowned when she felt him swaying, then lowered him gently to the floor.

"What's wrong? Did I kill that bitch too fast? What did she do to you?"

"Jus' lost a lot of blood, pet. If I can get to their supply..." He stopped and shook his head. "Not much chance of that, I guess." His head dropped between his knees as he growled, "Can't be much help to you like this – got to think of somethin'. I'm not sendin' you out there alone..."

While Spike was talking, Buffy had been absently tugging on her sleeve where the shattered glass had ripped it as she came through the window. With a gasp, she realized that she was bleeding from a small cut on her arm – a cut that she hadn't noticed in her eagerness to kill Vamp-Willow and free Spike. She quickly ripped off the sleeve and held out her arm, waving it under Spike's face until he looked up.

"Here! No sense in wasting this on a ruined sweater." She continued to hold her arm out and waited patiently for him to notice.

Without conscious effort on his part, his fangs dropped and his tongue snaked out to lick the cut. He looked up at Buffy, his adoration plain, as he carefully licked every trace of blood off her arm.

"That's not enough," she said firmly, shoving her arm at him. "Go ahead and take some."

"Buffy..."

"Don't argue with me. How are you going to watch my back if you can't stand up? Now, come on. We've got evil vampire butt to kick. Start sucking."

Never taking his eyes off her face, he put his lips over the cut and began to suck as gently as he could. He immediately stopped when Buffy unconsciously winced, but began again when she glared at him. The elixir that was the blood of a slayer more than made up for the pig's blood that Willow's attentions had caused to drain from his many wounds and he soon felt his strength coming back. He took his mouth off the cut, kissing it softly and licking it closed.

"Thank you, love."

"Are you okay? Cause you still look kinda—"

"We heal from the inside out, pet. Might take a while for all these cuts to heal up, but they won't bleed any more."

"So, are you strong enough to fight?" She looked at his ravaged body dubiously.

"Feel like I could take on a whole army of slayers – that's how strong I am," he said with a smirk.

"Yeah, well, army of slayers probably not happening... So I guess it's just you and me."

"Buffy..." He put a hand on her arm as she went to stand up. "We could just leave, pet. Go back out that window and slip off into the woods. Even if they come lookin' for us, we'd be able to pick 'em off a few at a time." His eyes pleaded with her to take the safe option, even as his heart told him that it wasn't going to happen. She didn't disappoint.

"There are people here, Spike. People being bled every day so that your ugly old cousin—" "Great, great grandpa," he interrupted. "...so that your grandpa – and ewwww – can act like... like some kind of evil, famous person," she finished lamely. "We have to help them. I have to help them, Spike. It's what I do. It's what I am." Her eyes pleaded with him to understand.

"Know that, love," he soothed. "Jus' wanted to be sure you knew there was another option."

"Not for me, there isn't."

Instead of answering her, he pulled her closer and kissed her, holding the kiss until she melted into him and sighed contentedly. When the kiss ended, he stood up and pulled her to her feet.

"Alright, Slayer. I've got your back. Let's see what you've got."

"I think you've already seen everything I've got," she muttered, earning a muffled laugh from the vampire as he put his ear to the door and tried to figure out if there were any minions close by.

"Alright, pet. I think it's pretty clear. How do you want to do this?"

"Um – find the old guy and kill him?"

"Not bad as plans go, love. Bit more specific?"

"I don't know. You're the one who's been inside this place. Where are we?"

"Wasn't really conscious when they brought me in," he growled. "I know we went through the blood dispensing area. Think it's on the other side of the hallway out here." He nodded to the still-closed door. "Don't know where old Bat Face is, though."

"I do," Buffy said grimly. She pointed to the west end of the building. "The victims are in a big room right next door to us. And he's in another big room at that end of the building."

She chewed her lip for a minute, then said, "If we release all the prisoners first, and I tell them where to find my bag with the extra stakes and holy water, that will create a lot of confusion. But I don't want to get them killed," she worried. "Right now, they're pretty safe..."

"Once you take out the Master and some more of his minions, they aren't gonna be all that safe. All those vamps that are already brassed off about having to buy blood from the old fart are gonna head right for that holding area for an easy meal. If we let 'em out, at least they'll have a chance."

She nodded her agreement. "Okay, let's go. That room first."

Before Spike could open the door, a sound from outside froze him in place, and he held his hand up for silence. They watched as the knob turned far enough for the hand outside to realize that it was locked.

"Willow? Are you in there? The Master wants you. He says to leave your new toy and come back to his quarters." When there was no response, the minion outside rattled the doorknob again, repeating, "Are you in there? Willow? Open the door."

With a nod at Buffy, Spike yanked the door open and pulled the minion inside before he could yell. Buffy's stake was in his back before it even registered that Spike was free; his dust was still floating to the floor as they stepped silently into the hallway. In just a few long strides, they were at the unguarded door of the holding area and one kick from Buffy's foot pushed it open.

They slipped inside, closing the door behind them and holding up fingers to their lips for silence. Buffy pointed to the window and made a shooing gesture, huffing with irritation when most of the people in the room just stared at her apathetically.

"Okay, people," she said to the few that seemed to have enough energy to appear interested. "We're breaking you out of here." She gestured for some of the more alert-looking people to come closer and explained in a whisper, "You can get out that window and run into the woods. There's a bag out there, near the road, with weapons – crossbows, holy water, stakes, stuff like that."

A large man with bite marks on both sides of his neck and one crudely bandaged wrist, asked, casting a suspicious eye at Spike. "And why are you helping us?"

"It's my job," Buffy said shortly. "I save people."

A sound behind them and the frightened expressions that flew across the faces of her audience had her spinning just in time to see Spike pulling a surprised vampire guard into the room. Moving with inhuman speed, he snapped the minion's neck, then grabbed the one still outside the door and threw him towards Buffy, who calmly impaled him on her stake before she turned back to the astonished humans watching.

"Oh yeah," she added cheerfully, "and I slay vampires."

She bent over the one with the broken neck and quickly added his dust to that from the unfortunate second guard. Spike pushed the door closed again, leaning against it while he waited for Buffy to finish explaining.

"How did he do that?" The people who had begun to cluster around Buffy began backing away as Spike's pale skin and obvious strength gave away his non-human status. "You're not here to help us!" a woman whimpered. "He's just another vampire."

Buffy rolled her eyes. "I don't have time for this," she snapped. "He is not 'just another vampire'. He's my vampire; and he's going to help me get you out and take down the demons that put you here."

"I don't trust you," another man spoke up. "We're safe here. They need our blood, they won't kill us." There were nods of agreement and muttered assents as many of the victims moved back to their places on the floor.

Spike's roar and shift into game face changed the complacent looks to expressions of terror as he snarled at them.

"You bloody idiots! You are dying. You're just doing it a bit at a time. And if you don't think they're goin' to kill you once they can't bleed you any more, you're even stupider than you look." He strode through the cringing humans to the window, grabbing the frame and ripping the entire window out. "Now get off your arses and get out of here. Find the slayer's bag of tricks and get some of your own back, or just run away. Don't much care what you do, but you're not stayin' in here to distract my girl while she's tryin' to fight!"

Days and weeks of obedience to their captors had programmed even the most anemic of the victims to do whatever they were told by vampires, and Spike's snarling orders reached them in a way that Buffy's pleading had not. They shuffled towards the window staring up longingly at the sky visible outside. Taking advantage of their fear, Spike continued to snap orders while Buffy went around the room assisting the weaker people to their feet and urging them towards freedom.

Spike stopped one of the more vigorous-appearing men and pushed him under the window. "You first," he barked. "You can help pull people out. And you," he continued, grabbing another muscular young man, "You take this and keep watch." He handed the bewildered man one of Buffy's stakes, then turned back to the first man, picking him up effortlessly and pushing him through the now-gaping hole in the wall. Before the other man's feet had even disappeared, he was throwing the stake-holder up to the exit, nodding in approval as the first man rolled over and grabbed the other one's arms.

As soon as the first two were free, the others began to crowd around the wall where Spike and Buffy took turns lifting them up to where the people outside could pull them to safety. Spike nodded in approval as two men wearing the remnants of police uniforms moved to the back of the line and began to assist weaker prisoners. When they were the last two left in the room, Buffy described as best she could, where she had left the weapons bag. They nodded and waited for the small blond woman and her vampire to help them reach the opening to the outside world.

"Crossbow's gonna be your best bet from a distance," Spike growled as he pushed the last of the prisoners out the window opening. "Give the women the holy water and give the stakes to the strongest men. Takes a bit of force to drive a stake home if you're not a slayer."

The man bent down and looked in at their two small, but incredibly strong rescuers. "What are you going to do?" he asked, looking back and forth between them. Spike looked at Buffy and shrugged.

"Whatever the Slayer wants me to," he replied easily, "It's her show."

The brawny cop turned his curious gaze on Buffy, who said flatly, "I'm going to slay vampires."

With a final wave, they turned away and began walking towards the door that led to the rest of the facility, moving with a grace and athleticism that was clearly more than human.

Chapter Twenty-five

They stopped at the broken door to give Spike a chance to listen for other minions and to try to sense where the Master was. Buffy's vamp senses, which she had been ignoring since she arrived, were now telling her that there were a large number of vampires close by, including at least one very old and powerful one. She clutched the amulet that Dawn had given her, shivering as she remembered how easily the Master had enthralled her the first time she faced him. Spike saw her hesitation and the way she touched her protection.

"You're not that girl, love," he said softly. "You took him out when you were just a baby slayer; he won't know what hit him this time."

"I know," she said with a small smile. "And, anyway, this time my vampire boyfriend isn't sitting at home waiting for me to be killed; he has my back."

"Always," Spike replied, trying not to give her words about Angel more importance than they deserved. He pulled her in for a quick hug and repeated, "I will always have your back, Slayer. Count on it."

"I am," she whispered, brushing her lips across his briefly before stepping into the hallway and beginning a determined march towards the door to the blood delivery area. She hesitated as she reached the entrance, ducking back when she saw the number of hungry vamps that filled the room. The minions were pumping blood from what looked like a large beer keg, parceling it out in one-pint containers as the vamps moved through the line.

"Step up," one of them said loudly. "As soon as the Slayer shows up and we've captured her, there will be Slayer blood for everyone."

Buffy gave a credible growl under her breath, earning an appreciative smile from Spike. Before they could decide how to approach the coming battle, one of the female minions ordered a tall, skinny one that she called Ralph to "check on those idiots that we sent to get more blood. Tell them to get their asses out here with some fresh food."

As the minion came through the doorway, Buffy tapped him on the shoulder, staking him efficiently when he turned around. They were able to do that several more times before the remaining minion halted the line, saying, "You'll have to wait while I get some more help. I'll be right back."

She cast a look in the direction of the prisoner holding area, then changed her mind and hustled to the door to the Master's throne room. She knocked, then stuck her head in.

"It's me, Terry. Are Ralph and Alice in here? What about Michael?"

"No," her master said with a snarl. "Nor is the underling I sent to find my Willow. What is going on out there?"

"I don't know," Terry whimpered, cringing in the face of her master's wrath. "Nobody that's gone into the hall has come back. It's just me and a lot of hungry customers."

The Master raised his head and sniffed the air, his face taking on a truly terrifying expression.

"Slayer," he growled quietly.

"The Slayer? She's here?" Terry's eyes darted around as though looking for an exit that wouldn't send her into the hall from which no one had returned. Before she could retreat to the blood dispensing area, the Master ordered her through another door and into the hallway where Buffy and Spike were preparing to attack the Master's private quarters. Obeying her master very reluctantly, Terry slinked through the door, whirling when she heard it slam behind her. She reached for the doorknob, but found that it had been locked behind her.

She turned slowly, her vamp hearing telling her that there was a human heartbeat close by. When she saw, not the fearsome amazon that she expected the Slayer to be, but a petite blond girl and the grinning man behind her, she was temporarily nonplussed. This was the infamous Slayer that had the Master in such a tizzy? This rather ordinary-looking little girl? Terry narrowed her eyes at the man standing behind the Slayer and realized that there was no heartbeat coming from his body.

"So," she said, stalling for time and hoping for reinforcements, "she claims to be the Slayer and you do her killing for her? Is that how it is?"

"You wish, pet," he said amiably, leaning against a wall and lighting a cigarette.

Refusing to give up her misconceptions yet, Terry scoffed. "Yeah, and I suppose you don't expect to take over from the Master? Why else would you be here?"

"I'm here 'cause your 'Master' thought kidnappin' me was the fastest way to get the Slayer. Turns out he was right. Girl got here a bit faster than anybody expected, yeah?"

"You don't want to be the Master?" Terry was still struggling to understand what was going on. Buffy, in the meantime, was bouncing impatiently, tossing her stake from hand to hand.

"Spike, the longer we stand here talking to this ho-bag, the more old Bat Mouth has time to get ready for us."

"You can't kill him," Terry said with great finality. "He's the Master."

"Yeah, yeah, that's what everybody said the last time." Tired of the conversation, Buffy didn't wait for Terry's "Huh?" to finish before driving her stake into the vampire's chest.

Spike pushed himself off the wall, tossing the cigarette behind him carelessly.

"Alright, pet. I guess it's show-time."

As Buffy preceded him to the entrance of the large area full of expectant vampires, Spike leaned in to whisper in her ear, "You know I love you, yeah?"

Buffy nodded silently, turning her head to meet his eyes. "I know", she responded, hesitating just long enough that he nuzzled her neck and rumbled, "Wasn't askin' for a reply, love. Don't worry yourself. Jus' needed to say it."

She smiled gratefully, then turned to take in the crowd now staring at them in confusion.

"Hi, guys!" she said, waving cheerfully with one hand while she pulled her sword off her back with the other. "There's been a little change of plans. All the meals have gone home. Guess there's nothing for you to hang around for now."

"You're still here," a familiar-looking vamp growled. "You look like a meal to me."

While Spike went into game face and snarled at him, Buffy just nodded. "Good point. Kinda like the one on my sword. Which is gonna make eating me kinda tricky, doncha think?"

The one that had spoken, which Buffy now recognized as one of the bouncers from her first visit, gestured to a few others to spread out. He narrowed his eyes at Spike, who was still snarling at him and moving into position on Buffy's left. None of the vampires in the room had ever seen a real Slayer – in fact, most of them had assumed that she was a myth.

Several minutes after the first coordinated attack, the remaining vampires were clustered on one side of the room, their faces reflecting a new understanding of just what it meant for a girl to be called a Slayer. Those who were merely injured, rather than dust, crawled away glaring at the impossibly strong and fast girl and the traitorous vampire who was watching her back.

Although Buffy had made a serious dent in the number of vampires facing them, those that were left were not only wiser, but angrier. As she and Spike worked their way towards the entrance to the Master's quarters, they could see the remaining vampires gathering their courage for another attack. Quickly, they kicked the door open and slammed it behind them, locking it and shoving a heavy table in front of it.

While Spike looked for more heavy furniture to pile in front of the door, Buffy turned to face several of the Master's bodyguards who obediently followed his order to "Get her – but get her alive." It took Buffy several minutes and an assist from Spike before she had turned all of the Master's favorites to dust that coated the floor. From the other side of the door they could hear the snarls and roars of the other vamps, and they could feel the door shiver as they pounded on it. The remaining bodyguards looked to their Master for instructions, none of them being very interested in testing their own luck against the deadly girl in front of them.

The very old vampire waved them back and arose from his throne, walking slowly to the edge of the dais upon which it sat. He studied the girl in front of him, his eyes narrowed and his mouth twitching.

"There are no slayers in this world, he said finally. "I made sure of that a hundred years ago."

'There is now," Buffy said cheerfully. "And this one has already kicked your ass once. Second time should be a breeze."

Instead of answering her, he held out his taloned hand, curving it into a macabre gesture of welcome. As he drew it back towards his chest he frowned when Buffy just stood there, grinning at him.

"Oh, I'm sorry. I was supposed to do something there, wasn't I? Like walk over and let you bite me? Sorry, BatFace, not this time." She touched the amulet around her neck and shook her head. "It's just you and me – no thrall, no magic tricks."

The old vamp shifted his gaze to Spike and frowned again. "Do I know you? Why do you feel like family? Surely no one from the Aurelian line would stoop to helping a slayer against the head of his family?"

"Always been a bit of a black sheep," Spike replied. "Even Angelus couldn't beat the disobedience out of me – not likely you're gonna be able to talk it out of me."

"Angelus...He was your sire?"

Buffy was getting impatient as the Master seemed more interested in discussing Spike's ancestry than in fighting, but the mention of Angel's name got her attention. She listened with interest as Spike nonchalantly replied.

"Grandsire, actually. Guess that makes you my great, great granddaddy." He grinned wolfishly and continued, "I'll try to make you proud."

He whirled just in time to intercept one of the bodyguards that had been trying to get behind Buffy, taking a minimum amount of time to dispense with what the Master had considered one of his smartest and strongest minions. The Master gestured with his clawed hand, and the other bodyguard minions attacked, two of them going for Spike and the other three leaping at Buffy. The old vampire watched with interest as the two intruders moved so that their backs were to the outside wall and Spike was on Buffy's left where he wouldn't interfere with her sword arm.

Buffy quickly took the head off one minion, ignoring his dust as she spun out of reach of the other two. The vampires she and Spike were facing now were older and smarter than the others they had disposed of so easily. Now well aware of what they were facing, they were appropriately careful as they worked to separate the two warriors. While the door to the outside room continued to hold against the onslaught of hungry vampires left behind, Spike and Buffy tried to dust the remaining bodyguards before the door could give way and allow those overwhelming numbers to pour in at their backs.

When Spike threw one of his assailants towards Buffy with a "catch, Slayer", she staked the vampire with her left hand without even looking in his direction or interrupting her swordplay. When one swing hit a pole in the center of the room, breaking the blade, she threw the remaining stub at the Master before switching the stake to her right hand and glaring at the suddenly more-confident vampires facing her. An angry snarl from the dais told her that her throw had reached its target and she grinned at the minions in front of her.

"Oops?" she chirped. "My bad!"

With only one vamp left to fight, Spike let his demon take full control, and he was soon holding the head that he had wrenched off his last opponent, watching it crumble to dust in his hands. Carefully positioning himself between Buffy and the still non-participating master, he watched as she spun and kicked, jumped and ducked, and flowed around the two snarling vampires until she could plunge her stake into the taller one's chest. Spike was already moving as the tiny interruption in Buffy's constant motion gave the remaining vampire the opening for which he'd been waiting.

Suddenly Buffy was being held against a powerful chest, her arms pinned to her sides and her feet dangling off the floor. Spike was behind the vampire that was holding her before his fangs could reach Buffy's throat, grabbing the vampire's head with his hands and twisting it completely around as he snarled a guttural "Mine" into the vamp's ear. As soon as she felt her arms released, Buffy turned and drove her stake into the vamp's chest so hard that Spike had to flinch back to avoid being staked himself.

They looked at each other for a second, sharing a triumphant grin before turning as one to glare at the ancient vampire now frowning at them from his raised platform. Appearing more angry than frightened, he gave them a toothy grin as he said, "I believe you will find me a more difficult kill than you did my soldiers."

Buffy shrugged. "Yeah, that's what you said the last time. Right before I dropped you three stories onto a really big stake."

Taking his eyes off the slayer, he addressed himself to Spike.

"I can see that you are a fighter worthy of being called an Aurelian. If you deliver your pet slayer to me, I will seat you at my right hand and you will rule with me. I will even permit you to turn her, if you desire to keep her. She can continue to be yours."

"Think you're a mite confused about who belongs to who here, Grandpop." Spike moved closer to Buffy and touched her arm lightly.

"I heard you claim her as yours. Your demon spoke."

"Figure of speech. I jus' meant I wasn't lettin' any other demon's teeth anywhere near her neck. I'm hers – for as long as she wants me – and I won't let you put your fangs anywhere near her. Or," he continued with a sideways glance at Buffy, "I wouldn't allow it if I thought I had any reason to get in her way. But I think the girl can take of herself. I'm just here to keep the fight honest."

"Nice save," Buffy muttered, letting go of the righteous indignation she'd been building up as he and the older vampire discussed her as if she wasn't even there.

"I'm not completely stupid," he smirked. "But, just so you know, l if I think you're losin', I'm in and you can yell at me after."

"If I'm losing, I expect to find you with a mouthful of ugly before I have time to yell for help," she admitted with a small smile.

"You've got it, love." He grinned and gestured towards the Master who was still staring at them with curiosity. "Show him what it means to face a real Slayer."

Spike began to move away, giving Buffy room to fight the older vampire. The Master seemed to have resigned himself to having to kill Buffy himself, and had just gathered himself to leap at her when the door finally burst open. For a few brief seconds, the press of bodies attempting to get inside kept the horde of hungry vampires trapped behind a dam of snarling minions; but it quickly dissolved and the vampires fell into the room. With a quick shove, Spike propelled Buffy towards the dais, saying, "Do what you need to do, pet. I'll deal with the riff-raff."

With a nod, Buffy left her feet, flipping herself up and over the Master's head and landing behind him. She swung at him with her stake, hoping for a quick kill, but his speed made that impossible and she settled down for a prolonged battle.

Spike rolled his shoulders and snarled at the hesitant vampires in front of him. "Alright, then, who wants to be first to go to hell?"

Chapter Twenty-Six

By the time she had countered a surprisingly agile and potentially deadly attack from the deceivingly ancient-seeming vampire facing her, Buffy was more than grateful for Spike's more vigorous training sessions. Only the stamina he'd forced her to develop kept her muscles fresh and her reflexes sharp enough to prevent the fight from having a short, fatal ending. The Master's lips parted in a parody of a smile.

"It's been a while since I was truly challenged," he purred. "This might be more fun than I expected."

"This might be more terminal than you expected," she muttered, attacking with a ferocity that surprised both of them. Visions of being bitten and left to drown in a puddle mixed with scenes of waking from nightmares that he had returned from the grave. Nightmares that she remembered didn't end until she had destroyed his minions and turned his bones into a fine powder. Fueled by a combination of fear and fury, she pressed her attack, ignoring the blows that she couldn't dodge and striking the snarling vampire over and over again.

Behind her she could hear the snarling and snapping of the horde of vamps that Spike was attempting to keep away from the dais, and for the first time she worried that she might have doomed them both by refusing to leave when they had a chance. She saw the Master's eyes light up and risked a glance over her shoulder to find that Spike was being pushed closer and closer to the stage upon which she was facing only one vampire while he was fighting a dozen at a time. Only the lack of space in the long narrow room and his own uncanny ability to sense the direction from which the next attack was going to come kept him from being completely surrounded.

Spike's ability to keep the outraged and hungry vamps at bay was gradually succumbing to the sheer numbers that kept him constantly facing newer, fresher opponents, even as he dusted the ones closest to him. He was forced back, his arms dripping blood from newly opened wounds, and one eye swollen almost shut from a kick that had got past his usual defense.

When he was forced to use the last of his energy to jump onto the stage where he could use his booted feet to temporarily form a barricade of unconscious bodies, he could feel Buffy behind him.

"Might be time to re-think leaving, love," he grunted, grabbing the Master's throne and swinging it like a large, unwieldy mace. "I can hold them off long enough for you to get back to the window."

"I'm not leaving you here!" Her shocked reply warmed his heart even while it brought a groan from his throat.

"Buffy, I can't hold them much longer. Either dust that ugly old bugger, or get your sweet little arse out of here while you can."

She risked another quick look at the exhausted vampire, seeing the truth of his words. He was wielding the chair by sheer force of will; blood flowed freely from wounds both large and small as he tried to remain strong. The moment's inattention gave the Master the opening for which he'd been waiting and suddenly Buffy was clutched against his chest, her arms pinned, her stake clenched uselessly in her hand. The old vampire's fetid breath made her gag as he laughed in her ear.

Buffy struggled vainly, the Master's superior strength making it easy for him to keep her immobile while he gloated loud enough to be heard by the other vampires in the room.

"Look at this. It turns out Slayers are just little girls, with soft skin and warm blood – just like any other piece of food."

Spike whirled, trying in vain to avoid the hands clawing at him from behind as his deadly feet and fists were no longer facing the crowd. Buffy moaned as she watched him get dragged onto the floor where, still screaming her name, he disappeared under a pile of snarling, snapping vampires.

"Spike!" Her terrified scream had barely left her throat when there was an ear-splitting shockwave that left every vampire in the room clutching his ears and shaking his head. Before they could recover, they began exploding into dust, the survivors spinning around in confusion as they tried to identify their new enemy.

Filling the space behind the Master, who was trying to maintain his grip on Buffy even as he shook his own head in an attempt to clear his ringing ears, was a large, glowing portal out of which came a rain of crossbow bolts and stakes. As Buffy tore herself free of the Master's deadly embrace, she whirled and drove her stake through his heart in one smooth move.

Not even waiting for his dust to settle, she dove off the dais and pulled the few remaining vamps off Spike, flinging them aside without even bothering to stake them. She fell to her knees beside the unconscious man on the floor, holding his head in her lap and begging him to open his eyes and tell her he was going to be okay. Tears fell freely onto his battered face, washing weak pink trickles of blood down his cheeks and onto her lap.

Over her head, the barrage of crossbow bolts was taking its toll on the remaining vampires still trying to get into the room. Those closer to Spike and Buffy were rapidly disappearing as a duplicate Spike and Buffy threw stakes with unerring accuracy and force. Safely behind that Spike and Buffy, as well as Angel and Faith who were continuing the deadly and systematic fusillade of wooden crossbow bolts, Dawn was cheering and shouting.

"See! I told you I'd come up with something!"

None of the attacking vampires had noticed that the reinforcements had not stepped outside the portal's walls, and, as their numbers dwindled, those that could began to slip away. They retreated through the ruined doorway into what had been the blood disbursing room, only to be met by a group of angry humans wielding holy water, more crossbows, and stakes. Those that successfully ran the gauntlet of vengeful humans quickly disappeared into the woods, vowing to find real jobs and to buy their blood from butchers in the future.

Buffy had paid little attention to the activity around her, raising her head only when she heard Dawn's triumphant shout. She stared in amazement as her own face stared back at her briefly before the Buffy who was now living in her body returned to methodically dusting the vampires left in the room. To that Buffy's left, another, somehow softer-appearing version of Spike, winked at her while still throwing his own stakes with competent and joyful accuracy.

Buffy frowned in confusion at the dark-haired girl who was loading and firing a crossbow with calm expertise and a fluid motion that should have been impossible for a mere human. Beside her was a much larger man, his face achingly familiar.

"Angel," she breathed. He faltered for a second, looking at her and the unconscious vampire that she was holding so tenderly, then turned back to his skillful shooting. On her lap she felt Spike tremble and she glanced down happily, only to find him forcing his abused body off her lap. His face, what could be seen of it, was as closed and unreadable as she'd ever seen it and she recoiled involuntarily from the coldness there.

When she flinched, Spike pulled himself completely away from her and struggled to sit up, leaning his back against the stage and watching dispassionately as the four new arrivals decimated the mob that had been attacking him. Buffy stared at him in confusion, not yet realizing that she had spoken Angel's name aloud. When he resolutely continued to face away from her, she got slowly to her feet and stepped up on the stage to hug Dawn. The dimension-jumping Key had stepped out from the shelter of the portal as soon as it became clear that she would be in no danger and she was now looking back and forth between Buffy and Spike with a frown on her face.

"What's with him?" she asked. "It seems to me he should be thanking me for saving his butt, not pouting."

"I'm not pouting," came the growl from the floor. The first words he had spoken since awakening on Buffy's lap to find her staring at his grandsire with her mouth open and Angel's name still on her lips.

"So, then, you're just brooding?" The other Spike's voice carried just a slight edge to it as he recognized immediately what was wrong with his unsouled self.

There was no response but a murderous glare from the battered vampire now struggling to pull himself to his feet. Without thinking, Buffy rushed to his side and put his arm over her shoulders. He stiffened when he felt her touch, but was too unsteady on his feet to pull away.

"What's wrong?" she asked, not bothering to lower her voice.

"What's wrong is the stupid wanker has forgotten what I said in the note I sent him and he's about to do something bloody stupid. And probably for no good reason," he added, taking a look at Buffy's anxious face and making a shrewd guess about her feelings for his younger self.

Once Spike had reached the stage again, he sat down heavily and removed his arm from Buffy's shoulders, giving her a little shove and saying with forced calmness, "Guess you'll be wantin' to say some 'hellos' then, won't you?'"

Before she could respond, Angel had walked to the very edge of the portal to stare at the unfamiliar Buffy now frowning at the Spike he assumed was the one he had fought with in Sunnydale. The Spike who had been replaced by the souled version standing closely beside "his" Buffy, now lost to him. He drank in the mature face and body of the woman outside the portal, searching for some sign of the innocent little girl that he'd known before.

Buffy smiled back at him tremulously, her heart rate going up as she finally realized what was wrong with Spike. Her eyes darted back and forth between the two vampires, one waiting quietly for her to speak to him, the other staring intently at the ruined doorway at the other end of the room. Biting her lip, she smiled at Angel again and whispered, "Hi, Angel. Thanks for coming."

Warm brown eyes peered into hers until he saw what he was looking for; then he nodded as if to himself and said with a sad smile, "You're welcome, Buffy. I'm glad we could help. And I'm glad to see that you've survived here... and that you aren't alone."

Spike's whole body twitched at his grandsire's words, but he stubbornly refused to turn around. While everyone else in the room could see that Buffy's attention was completely focused on his stiff back, he continued to believe that she was staring at Angel with adoring eyes and a wistful smile.

Angel turned to the Spike within the portal and grinned. "I see he's not any smarter than you are," he said with great satisfaction. "Too busy feeling inferior to see what's right in front of his face."

With a growl at his grandsire, Spike shouted at the blood-soaked version of himself, "Oi! Quit behaving like a bloody wanker and talk to the girl."

With a silencing glare at both vampires, Buffy moved closer to her younger doppleganger and said softly, "Just tell him. He needs to hear it." She had been watching the younger Buffy's face constantly since the fighting had tapered off, and she knew herself well enough to understand what she was seeing. She also knew that there was no way that Spike was going to believe that she would choose him over Angel unless Buffy made it very clear. And she knew herself well enough to know that it was only a question of time before the vampire's behavior caused the younger Buffy to lose her own temper and make things worse.

"What if he doesn't believe me?" Buffy asked the mirror image frowning at her from within the glowing walls. "All I've done the whole time he's known me is talk about Angel." She saw the dark-haired vampire start to preen and sent him an apologetic smile as she added, "Well, not so much lately, I guess. I've kinda... moved on."

A satisfied, "Ha!" from the older Spike and a growl from Angel had Faith stepping between the two Sunnydale vampires and holding up her hands.

"Easy there, guys. Let B handle this. It's not like either one of you is in a position to do anything about it anyway."

The reminder that they could not step outside the portal's walls without risking serious damage to the fabric between dimensions was all it took to defuse the building tension. Angel's gradual acceptance of Spike's soul and his place in Buffy's life had gone a long way towards reconciling the differences between the two vampires and they no longer looked for reasons to try to kill each other. Most of the time they managed to co-exist relatively peacefully, even though Spike's soul wasn't a sufficient hindrance to his constant needling of the older vampire. And Angel's acceptance of Spike's place on the side of Good wasn't enough to prevent him from finding the younger vampire a constant source of annoyance.

Ignoring the conversation going on behind her, Buffy continued to prod her younger self to cross the few feet between her and the still-pouting vampire. "Just tell him," she urged. "He heard you say Angel's name and he thinks that's who you were worried about."

With sudden understanding, Buffy remembered her gasp of recognition when she'd first realized who was holding the other crossbow. She nodded silently and walked the few steps to where Spike was sitting. She knelt down behind him and put her arms around him gently. When he didn't push her away, she moved closer and put her mouth close to his ear.

"I don't love him anymore," she whispered. "I was just surprised to see him. I have a new boyfriend now, and I... I think I love him more than I ever did Angel. Even if he is kind of a stubborn poophead sometimes," she added when he didn't respond to her except to take a sudden surprised breath.

With a snort of laughter, he finally relaxed against her and turned his face to hers.

"I'm makin' a right arse of myself, aren't I?" he admitted, gazing into her eyes with a mixture of awe and embarrassment.

"You are," she agreed. "But it's okay, cause you just helped me dust the Master and his minions so you get a free pass for being a hero."

"You love me?" he asked, abruptly changing the subject. "Did you mean that?" His eyes searched hers with an intensity that was almost frightening.

She nodded, forcing herself to maintain eye contact. "I meant it. When I thought you were going to be dust, I wanted to die too. I couldn't be here without you, Spike. I wouldn't want to live without you."

"I'm sorry I'm such an insecure wanker," he whispered, brushing his lips against hers. "I just love you so bloody much, and..."

"You can show me later," she smiled against his mouth before moving back and standing up. "Now we've got people to thank and then I have to get you home and start taking care of you."

She extended her hand and, with more effort than he cared to admit to, he got to his feet and stood beside her to face the curious group in the portal. Dawn ran over to him and hugged first him and then Buffy, exclaiming, "I was so afraid we wouldn't get here in time; and when I saw you go down..."

"Ah, I'm tougher than that, Little Sis. But thank you for bringing in reinforcements. Came in right handy, they did," he said with a nod at the two slayers and older vampires facing them with grins on their faces.

He studied the Buffy inside the portal, recognizing the more rounded body and wiser eyes that he'd first seen what seemed so long ago.

"You're lookin' good, love," he said softly. "Bein' with a vamp what has his soul seems to be agreein' with you."

"You look good, too, Spike," she responded with a warm smile. "Or, well, you look happy anyway. Good probably isn't the right word for the way you look right now, but... I'm stopping now. It's nice to see you again," she finished with a flustered laugh.

He laughed too, and pulled his Buffy into his side. "Nothin' like the love of a good woman to make a man – or a vamp - feel like he could take on the world."

"You look like you did take on the world," Dawn said dryly. "I think I need to get you guys home so you can lick your wounds. I'll just return the reinforcements to Sunnydale and be right back."

"Why don't you take everybody back to our house?" Buffy asked, smiling as Spike squeezed her hand. "Then I can patch Spike up while you explain who she is," she said, pointing to Faith, "and how you did this."

Dawn shook her head. "How are you going to get back without me? He can't drive in that condition."

"I bloody well can," Spike growled indignantly, his bravado not quite making up for the fact that he was swaying on his feet and leaning heavily on the Slayer.

"You can not. You can barely stand." Dawn dismissed him with a wave of her hand and turned to the others waiting in the portal. "How about if I take you guys to their house and then come back and get them? It'll only take an hour or so to drive them home."

"Why doesn't one of them drive us?" Buffy scrunched her face up, wondering why, with four other adults present, Dawn felt she needed to drive them home.

"They can't step outside the portal," she explained. "I can, for some reason, but if anything else bigger than say a rat or a maybe cat does it, bad things can happen." She shuddered and didn't elaborate on what those 'bad things' might be.

"Oh."

"Yeah, big 'Oh'. Okay, you guys ready to go?"

Without waiting for an answer, she stepped into the portal and pulled it around herself and her four companions, disappearing with another louder than normal clap of thunder. Buffy felt Spike wince and she began rubbing his ears while he groaned at the additional insult to his already battered body. He leaned on her briefly, then forced himself upright.

"Let's go then, love. Where did you leave the car? Do you think Little Sis will be able to find it if we wait for her there?"

"I'm sure she will. She's the one who drove it here. But we need to find some blood for you first. Stay here."

She lowered him to the floor of the stage again, smiling at his attempt to look disgruntled about being babied. She brushed her lips across his and said, "I'm going to go see if there's any blood left in those vats out there. Okay?"

He nodded, closing his eyes and resting his head on his knees.

"Go on, pet. I'll be fine here. I'll jus' rest a minute..." He slumped forward and Buffy grabbed him just in time to lower his head to the floor and turn him so that he was lying on his side.

"You do that," she whispered, kissing his forehead.

Chapter Twenty-seven

With a last touch on his shoulder, she got up and walked through the gaping doorway into the room where the Master's minions had dispensed the blood drained from their captives. She halted, reaching automatically for her stake and then relaxed as she realized she was looking at a rag-tag army of former blood donors. They faced each other silently, the small blonde slayer and the humans who had been held captive while their life's blood was taken from them. They were still clutching the crossbows, stakes and now-empty water pistols that they had found in Buffy's bag.

Buffy looked at the piles of dust covering the floor of the big room and smiled. "Good job, guys. You can keep those bows if you want. You never know when you might need them again."

One of the men who had been among the last to leave nodded his gratitude, then asked, "Where's your vampire?"

Buffy gestured to the other room. "He's in there, but he's hurt pretty bad. I came out here to find him some blo—" She stopped, embarrassed to say that she was looking for blood – probably theirs – to feed Spike. Instead of being angry, the man nodded again.

"Whatever he needs," he said. "You two saved us. If blood we've already lost can help one of you, you're welcome to it."

Breathing a sigh of relief, Buffy quickly went to the dispensing area and found the containers that were waiting to be filled. It took her three tries to find a vat that still had blood in it, but she finally was able to fill several containers with the not-yet-congealing blood. As she tried to juggle all the containers, she found people stepping up to help. She reentered the Master's lair followed by several of the released prisoners, each one holding a container of blood for their vampire savior.

They all halted, gasping, as they saw Spike's bloody and battered body lying on the stage, looking exactly like a corpse.

"He... he looks dead," an older woman whispered.

"He is dead," Buffy said quietly. "Has been for over a hundred years. But if we can get some of this blood into him, his demon will be okay."

The humans who weren't familiar with vampire physiology frowned, although the cop nodded again as though he understood all about animated corpses. Buffy knelt beside Spike and tried to raise his shoulders and head so that she could pour blood into his slack mouth, but she had trouble doing it with one hand. Suddenly the other woman was beside her, taking the blood from her hand and holding it ready as Buffy pulled Spike into a slumped sitting position and tilted his head back. The woman gasped at the damage to Spike's formerly handsome face, but bravely held out the container as Buffy reached for it.

"Come on, baby," she murmured. "Drink this for me. I know it's not the good stuff, but that will have to wait until we get home. Come on, Spike, swallow. Please?"

With a sigh of relief, she saw his throat working and the blood that she had watched pool in his mouth disappeared. She quickly tipped the container up and poured more in, smiling as he began swallowing in earnest. When the container was empty, she set it down and smiled gratefully as another one was placed in her hand. By the time Spike had finished the new one, his eyes were open and he was blinking in confusion at the concerned human faces staring at him.

He glanced up at Buffy and managed to say "Wha-?"

"You've got fans," she said with a grin. "They wanted to help. Here, have some more." She put another container to his lips, smiling when he raised his hand and held it himself while he gulped the contents. With a groan, he managed to put the empty container down and draw himself up to a more erect position.

"Feeling better?" The concern on the faces of the watching humans caused an unfamiliar sensation in his unbeating heart. A sensation he hadn't felt around a strange human in over a hundred years.

He nodded, afraid for a moment to trust his voice. When he thought he had control, he cleared his throat and said, "Much better. Appreciate the help."

"No sweat, dude. You saved our lives." There were nods of agreement from the small group surrounding them.

Buffy jumped to her feet when Spike pushed himself up and tried to stand. "I don't think you can do that yet," she scolded. "You're going to wait here until Dawn comes back with the car."

"I'm fine," he insisted, leaning on her for support. "Ready to go again."

Buffy rolled her eyes and exchanged a look of feminine solidarity with the other woman.

"Fine, let's try walking into another room first and then we'll see about anything else. 'K?"

He nodded and began limping towards the doorway, more grateful than he let on for the strong support under his arm. When he faltered, the other woman was suddenly on his other side, smiling timidly as she offered her own shoulder as another crutch. Spike gave her one of his patented smiles, and was rewarded by her blush and giggle. Buffy's soft growl and pinch on his ass reminded him that flirting openly with another woman when you were involved with a Slayer probably wasn't a good idea, and he turned his head back to her.

"So, Little Sis is comin' back for us?"

"That's what she said. She's going to drive us home."

"Where's home?" The man's voice contained nothing but curiosity and Buffy answered readily.

"We live in Winterset. And I need to get home. I have to be at work tomorrow."

Before anyone could express their surprise that heroes had jobs just like everyone else, they reached the bigger room. As Spike and Buffy walked slowly into the room, a smattering of applause greeted their arrival; a smattering that grew into a genuine ovation as the humans took in the battered condition of the two people who had engineered their escape, provided them with weapons, and apparently defeated the Master and all his minions.

Buffy blushed, hiding her head in Spike's shoulder as he shook with gentle laughter.

"This is embarrassing," she whispered.

"Nothing more than you deserve, pet," he whispered back. "Enjoy it while you've got it."

The applause tapered off and they were all able to hear the sound of a car horn coming from right outside the front door.

"That's our ride," Spike said as he and Buffy walked slowly out the door to the accompaniment of offers of hospitality and suggestions that they come back soon. Waiting right outside the door was their car, a grinning Dawn at the wheel.

"Let's go home, Spike," Buffy said, opening the back door and helping him into the car. As soon as she saw him lying comfortably on the seat, she got into the front with Dawn and gestured expansively. "Home, Jeeves. And step on it."

"Yes 'm," Dawn nodded. "Home it is."

The ride home was swift and uneventful. Buffy turned around several times to see how Spike was doing, reassured when he smiled at her every time. Although his eyes were inevitably closed when she turned around, they always opened immediately and sought hers. As soon as they had exchanged soft smiles, he closed them again and she turned back to the front.

When they got home, Dawn parked as close to the front door as she could and waited while Buffy opened the door and helped Spike out of the back seat. The several pints of blood, as well as the enforced rest of the ride home seemed to have done wonders for the vampire's condition and he managed to walk up the front steps with a minimum of assistance from Buffy.

They entered the house and stood awkwardly in the front hall while Dawn and the portal full of people all stared at them curiously. When no one spoke, Dawn finally asked, "Would you rather do the visit thing tomorrow? You guys look pretty wiped out."

Buffy smiled at her in relief.

"I really would," she said, grateful that Dawn had picked up on what was wrong. "I need to get cleaned up and try to get some sleep before I have to go to work tomorrow – and Spike needs more blood and some more rest."

"And a shower," he put in, plucking at his tattered and blood soaked clothes.

"That too," Buffy agreed with a small smile. "I don't want to be washing blood out of everything in the house." She pushed him towards the bathroom, saying, "Go on. You can be first."

He nodded and headed for the bathroom, stopping once to turn and look at Dawn with eyes that looked more like "her" Spike than she'd yet seen from him.

"Thank you, Little Sis," he said simply. "We owe you." He glanced towards the two slayers and two vampires standing within the portal and smiled at that Buffy. "Thanks to you too, love, and your friends there." He nodded at the vampires and winked at Faith before limping into the bathroom.

"You're welcome, Spike." Dawn smiled at his use of the nickname he had obviously settled on for her. "You're very welcome."

When the door had closed behind him, Buffy let the tiredness show as she slumped against the wall. She looked at her own blood-covered clothes ruefully.

"I guess I can't touch anything either," she said. "Most of it's Spike's blood, but I seem to have a lot of it on me too."

"The Spike inside the portal raised his eyebrows and wiggled them at her.
"Maybe you should join him in the shower, pet. You could wash each other off and—"

He stopped abruptly when his Buffy punched him in the stomach. From outside the portal, Buffy shook her head. "Still a pig, huh? Even with the soul?"

"Still a pig," her older self agreed. "Some things just don't change."

"I guess that's a good thing, then."

"It can be."

The two Buffys smiled at each other.

"Okay," Dawn said briskly. "We're going back to Sunnydale and let you two get some rest. Leave me a note when you want us to come back ... or... nevermind." Without elaborating, she stepped into the portal and waved her "good-bye."

Buffy's "Thanks, guys. We really appreciate the save-age," echoed into the empty space left in the wake of the loud noise. She blinked at the now-empty hallway for a few seconds, then shook herself and walked towards her bedroom. She was almost to the door when she stopped, biting her lip with indecision, then spun around and followed the sounds of running water.

Spike was standing in the tub, his eyes shut as he let the hot water pouring over his head wash away the dried blood and weariness. Only his vampire hearing allowed him to hear the whisper of Buffy's clothing as it joined his on the floor. He smiled, eyes still closed and waited for her timid hand on the shower curtain. When she just stood there, hand clutching the plastic and heart rate increasing, he opened his eyes and met hers, smiling warmly.

"Come on in, love. There's plenty of room for two of us. Or were you just planning to stand there and ogle me all night?"

Blushing, she slipped inside the curtain and stepped into the tub. Without speaking again, Spike moved her under the running water and let it rinse the blood out of her hair and off her face. When her hair was thoroughly wet, he took the shampoo out of her hand and poured a liberal amount onto her wet scalp. His gentle massage as he worked the shampoo into her hair had Buffy closing her eyes in bliss. She relaxed and allowed him to move her limp body around as he rinsed her hair, applied conditioner, massaged that through and then rinsed again.

He picked up the bath gel and put some in his hands, which he then began to run over her body, spreading the gel and massaging her tired muscles. For long minutes, Buffy allowed herself to drift into a sensual haze as his hands traveled around her body, soothing and stimulating at the same time.

With a guilty start, she came to her senses, remembering which one of them had been the more seriously injured that night. She pulled herself out of her Spike-induced lethargy and reached for the gel and the sponge.

"My turn," she whispered, beginning to stroke the sponge over his smooth skin, taking care to clean the wounds gently so as not to irritate them. He obediently stood still while she washed his body, closing his own eyes and enjoying the soft slide of the sponge and Buffy's hands. When she had done all she could, including reaching around him to do his back, bringing their naked bodies into contact and temporarily interrupting her ministrations while the vampire took advantage of the position to kiss her breathless, she dropped the sponge and used her hands to gently stroke the suds over his rapidly hardening cock.

When she realized the effect she was having on him, she glanced up apologetically and began, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean for that to happen – I know you're probably too—"

"I'll never be too anything to not react to those magic little hands, love," he growled, placing her hands, which she had dropped to her sides, back where they'd been.

"Oh, okay," she giggled. "That's good, cause I think I might have missed a spot...right here..."

Her rapid rubbing of the imaginary spot of blood was rewarded with a heartfelt groan and a hard push into her hand. Her rubbing became slower, her strokes firmer as she watched his face contort with passion. When he suddenly pulled her against his body, she felt his release spurt onto the skin of her stomach while he held her in place. He continued to hold her after his hips had ceased jerking, his hands stroking her back while he buried his face in her herbal-scented hair.

Buffy was feeling very pleased with herself. Instead of the vampire leaving her a quivering, limp heap, she had reduced him to gasps and purrs. She allowed him to turn her around so that the warm water could wash down her stomach, rinsing off the evidence of his release and sending it swirling down the drain. He pulled her back against his chest and ran his hands down her body, cupping her mound and murmuring in her ear.

"How about you, love. Are you too tired for..."

He didn't finish his sentence, but simply parted her folds and began to stroke her with strong talented fingers. When she was whimpering and her hips were moving with his hand, he changed his motion and began rubbing in small circles until she squealed and shuddered against him. He held her firmly as her weakened knees gave way, smiling at her sigh of completion. He held her loosely until the water began to cool, then reluctantly let go.

While Buffy leaned down to turn the water off, he pushed the curtain back and picked up a towel, wrapping her in it as she stepped out. His plan to take his time drying her off evaporated when he saw her shiver and realized how cold it was in the poorly insulated house. Instead, he pulled the towel off and rubbed her briskly until she was dry, then pushed her towards the bedroom saying, "Go get one of those fuzzy nighties on, pet. Don't want that pretty body to catch a cold."

While Buffy ran to find her flannel pajamas, Spike quickly dried himself off and followed her into the bedroom, sliding between the cool sheets and waiting for her to join him. Which she did immediately, curling up into his waiting arms and nuzzling his bare chest. Her flannel-clad body soon had the space comfortably warm, and they drifted off to sleep as though they had been sharing a bed for years.

Chapter Twenty-eight

Buffy was dreaming that she and Spike were lolling on a beach, the vampire under the protective shade of a very large umbrella while she baked in the rays of a late afternoon sun. For some reason, the waves were particularly loud at this beach, sounding almost like they were literally pounding against the shore. They got louder and louder, until, with a start, she woke up. The sun was streaming in through a gap in the curtains and the pounding was continuing.

Buffy groaned and lifted Spike's arm off her waist so that she could get up. She stumbled to the front door and opened it, giving the apologetic-looking young man standing there a bleary stare. She blinked, then recognized him as one of the waiters in the restaurant.

"Wha-?"

"Henry says you don't have to come in today. He said to tell you that he knows you probably need a rest after last night and it's okay to take the day off."

"Wha-?" Buffy's mouth had not yet caught up to her brain, which was just beginning to function.

"Problem, pet?" Spike's guttural growl from the safety of the shadowed hallway caused the waiting boy to jump, before he realized who had spoken. Eyes shining with hero-worship, he asked, "Is it true that you dusted two hundred vampires all by yourself? Cause, if you did, that would just be... awesome."

"I wasn't countin'," Spike responded, standing a bit taller and sticking out his chest. He could see the boy's eyes drifting from his chest down to his tight abs, which were well set off by his barely zipped jeans.

Rolling her eyes at his preening, Buffy asked, " Andrew... is it? How did you know..."

"Um..," He tore his gaze off the grinning vampire's bare chest. "Oh, yeah. There's this thing... called a telephone? You should look into it, by the way, then I wouldn't have had to wake you up to tell you that could sleep in. Anyway, turns out Henry's brother lives in Petersburg and he called him early this morning to tell him about the big excitement there last night. His wife's brother was one of the captives and when he started describing the two people that freed them and said they were from Winterset, he knew it had to be you guys. His brother said no way should you have to worry about coming to work today – that you should stay home and rest and take care of..."

His gaze drifted back to the vampire now lounging against the wall, well away from the sunlight that slanted through the open door. Spike straightened up and somehow managed to look sexy even as he edged his way closer to the doorway and the deadly rays warming the area rug.

"I'm Spike," he offered with a lascivious smile that held just a trace of tongue. "And if we're done here, the Slayer and I are going back to bed now. 'ppreciate you bringing the message."

Andrew's eyes darted back and forth between the leering vampire and the blushing girl, his voice failing him as he got an immediate mental image of the two of them in bed.

"Uh... guh... whu... I mean, you're welcome. Anytime. Really. I could come by any..."

"Thank you, Andrew," Buffy said kindly, beginning to close the door. "I think I'll look into that phone you mentioned. Good idea. See you tomorrow."

She closed the door firmly and turned around to smack the laughing vampire on his bare chest.

"You are such a slut!" she giggled. "That poor boy didn't know if he wanted to shake your hand or kiss you."

"Can't help it if I'm irresistible, love," he murmured, pulling her against his chest. "You do think I'm irresistible, don't you?"

Against her will, she found herself pressing against him, seeking closer contact with the body she was just beginning to know. She dropped her hands from his bare back to his denim-covered ass and squeezed both cheeks. Struck by sudden inspiration, she ignored his question, pushing him towards the bedroom and saying, "Go back to bed. I'll be right there."

When she pointed to the bathroom, he dropped the automatic objection he'd been about to make and walked into the bedroom, unzipping his jeans as he did so. He dropped them on the floor and got back into the still-warm bed, putting his hands behind his head and waiting for Buffy to come out of the bathroom.

She paused when she entered the room, gazing at the smiling vampire who was stretched out under the quilt, his muscular biceps and shoulders on display above the covers. It had occurred to her that her careful washing of his wounded body the night before was the closest she had come to the kind of exploring that he done to her. His hands, eyes and lips had mapped her body over and over again that first night, whereas Buffy had been a mostly passive if willing subject for the vampire's lustful explorations.

"Just stay like that," she ordered, feeling a burst of pride as he nodded in agreement and wriggled his body down lower in the bed.

Buffy stalked towards him, licking her lips as she said, "You've been all over my body – with all your body parts, but I haven't had a chance to really look at you."

She flicked the covers back and stared at the lean, muscular body spread out in front of her. All of his wounds had closed; angry red lines, which would soon be gone, were the only signs of the fight less than twenty-four hours ago. Beginning at his head, she traced the sharp planes of his face with her eyes and then her fingertips. She lingered over his full mouth, losing focus briefly when he sucked a finger into his mouth and caressed it with his tongue. Before she could forget what she was about, she pulled it out and traced a damp trail down the side of his neck, pausing at the bite scar from Drusilla.

The growl that erupted from her throat surprised them both, although not as much as the sudden application of her lips and teeth to the scar. Kissing, licking, sucking and biting gently, she muttered over and over, "My vampire. Mine. Not hers. Mine." She could feel Spike's body trembling and his breath rasping in his throat as he struggled to control his demon. With a gasp, he pulled her from his neck and held her away from his body with arms that were shaking.

"Buffy... love... I can't... you shouldn't... Bloody hell, Slayer, have you forgotten everything I told you the other night?"

She blinked, momentarily distracted, then with a blush she remembered what he'd said about claiming rituals.

"I'm sorry," she said, her eyes cast down. "I didn't mean to—I'm sorry, Spike."

" 'S alright, pet," he said in a still-shaky voice. "I'm chuffed that you feel that way – an' trust me when I tell you that I'm yours in a way that I never was hers. But with both the man and the demon wantin' you... I'm just not that strong, love. I wish I could be for you, but I'm not."

"I didn't mean to..." she stopped, her lip trembling as she spoke. "I just hate looking at that mark!"

She gasped and clapped a hand over her mouth, amazed not only that she knew it to be true, but that she had said it aloud. For long minutes their eyes remained locked, his intent and fierce, Buffy's embarrassed, but defiant. Spike continued to stare into her eyes until he was satisfied that he wasn't reading any more into her remark than its face value.

"'S alright, pet. You didn't know what you were doin'. Now you know what to be careful of." When she still didn't move, he gently lowered her back into the kneeling position she'd been in when she attacked his neck. "Now, weren't there other parts of my body that you were interested in?" He gave her his best leer and she giggled.

Putting aside the thoughts swirling through her head at her own reaction to a bite that Spike had never indicated meant anything more than the death of his human self, she dropped her gaze from his neck to his chest and licked her lips at the pebbled nipples standing up on his marble-smooth skin. Her fingers skimmed over the brown peaks, bringing a hiss from the vampire. She laid her hands flat on his chest and began to run them over the smooth muscles there, smiling when he would twitch or hiss.

When she had touched every inch of exposed skin between his chin and his navel, she then began to kiss her way around his upper body, nibbling lightly on his nipples and basking in the low growl it brought from him. She licked her way down his torso, pausing to stick her tongue in his belly button and wriggle it until he gave a very unmanly giggle. She glanced up at him with twinkling eyes, then continued her hands-on exploration of his body.

Ignoring the eager cock begging for her attention, she ran her hands over his taut stomach and prominent hip bones, sliding them around to stroke his flanks and then down his muscular thighs. She pretended a great interest in his knees and calves, even taking time to count his toes and play "this little piggy" with one foot.

She watched his face as she slid both hands up his legs until they reached his lower abdomen. She rested them there, her hands framing his cock, her fingers playing with the curly hairs surrounding it. Still not touching him, she traced the light brown hairs down his stomach with one finger while she studied the rigid shaft in front of her with curious eyes.

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see that Spike's hands were clenched on the sheet, his fingers digging into the mattress in an attempt to remain still. She cupped his balls, rolling them experimentally in her hand and smiling when he couldn't smother a groan. She began to kiss her way around his lower abdomen, nuzzling through the hair with her nose and continuing to roll his balls with her free hand.

When she felt that she had tortured him enough, she ran her tongue up the side of his cock, laughing with delight when he yelped in surprise. She continued to lick her way around it as though it were one of the ice cream cones that he bought her every night during the summer. Her hair spread across the clenched muscles of his stomach as she finally lowered her head and took him in her mouth. Not quite sure what to do next, but encouraged by the barely articulate sounds coming from the vampire, she experimentally swirled her tongue around the head of his cock, nudging the foreskin and poking it into the little slit on the end.

At Spike's whimpered urging, she moved her head up and down, trying to get as much of his thick length into her mouth as she could without gagging. As he began to involuntarily move his hips, pushing into her mouth even as he apologized for his actions, she petted him on his tightly clenched thigh and hummed around him.

"Oh, Buffy... love... my darlin' girl...I 'm sorry, love. Don't want to... but your mouth is like heaven. Could bring me to my knees with it, you could. Can't help... need to stop, love, or I'm goin' to..."

Shaking her head, Buffy stepped up her motions, taking her cue from the way his hips were jerking and the way he was gasping her name and begging her to stop. With a final guttural cry, he arched into her mouth and shuddered his release. Buffy swallowed as fast as she could, but had to give up and pull away before she choked on the thick, milky liquid coating the roof of her mouth.

She dropped her head onto his now-still body and licked at the remains of his spendings coating the skin of his abdomen.

"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I thought I'd be able to do it better."

"Bloody hell, love!" The disbelief in his tone was palpable as he pulled her up beside him and tipped her chin so that he could meet her disappointed eyes. "You damn near made my heart start beatin'. I'm not sure that you could do it better than that. Not without causin' me to spontaneously combust, anyway."

"Really? It was okay, then?"

"It was more than okay, love. It was bloody magic, is what it was. Don't know what I've done to deserve you, but whatever it was, I hope I don't ever stop doin' it."

She giggled with relief and snuggled into his side. "I hope you don't, too. I think I'd miss you if you weren't here."

His arms tightened around her as he said with an intensity that belied his casual words, "Well, can't have my girl being unhappy, can I? Guess I'd better plan to stay around."

"Your girl, huh? Is that what I am?"

"I hope so, love. If you want to be. 'S up to you."

"I think I'd like that," she said, tracing small patterns on his chest with her fingernail. "I want to be yours. Are you mine?"

"Always will be, love. Whether you want me or not."

"I want," she said firmly. "And you know what else I want?" She squirmed around until she was lying on top of him. "I want kisses."

With a happy chuckle, he met her eager lips with his own, letting her set the pace as the kisses ranged from light and playful to deeper and more fraught with meaning. As they continued to explore each other's mouth with lips and tongue, Buffy could feel Spike's response pressing against her thigh. His hands slid into her pajama bottoms, cupping the globes of her ass and pulling her against his body. She opened her thighs, allowing his erection to slip between her legs and press against her increasingly damp sex.

With an impatient whimper, she sat up abruptly, her crotch now pressing down on his cock while she shrugged out of her pajama top. She remained where she was for a minute, rotating her hips against him and whimpering in need before he grabbed her waist and held her still.

"Would be a lot more fun if we got rid of these fuzzy knickers, love," he growled, pushing the waistband of her pajama bottoms down as far as it would go in her straddled position. Light brown curls were just visible above the tightly stretched fabric; he brushed his knuckles over the skin of her stomach, then dipped into her hidden folds. Pulling away from his hand and standing up on the bed, Buffy allowed the pants to fall to her ankles, stepping out of them one leg at a time. She paused, still straddling the vampire who was staring up at her glistening curls and licking his lips.

She tried not to blush at the expression on his face as he continued to stare.

"Are you drooling?"

"I might be," he responded with a smirk. "Looking at one of my favorite things right now – if I wasn't drooling, I'd think something was wrong with me."

"Something is wrong with you, you perv," she giggled, torn between embarrassment and pride.

Instead of responding, he spread his arms suddenly, knocking her legs apart even farther and causing her drop down onto him.

"Ah, that's much better," he purred, letting his cock rub against her wet flesh and smiling at her gasps. Buffy rubbed herself against him until she felt herself teetering on the edge. Spike grabbed her hips again, holding her tightly while she ground her clit against him. When she was shuddering with her orgasm, he lifted her slightly and slipped into her spasming walls.

"Heaven," he gasped, arching his hips up into the powerful muscles clenching around him. "Being inside you is as close to heaven as this vampire ever wants to get."

Buffy didn't respond, being too busy shaking with another small orgasm brought on by the sudden pressure now coming from both sides of her clit. She threw her head back and began to ride his cock as though they had been making love in that position for years. With his vocal encouragement, she experimented with moving up and down until she was almost lifting herself off his cock, then shifted to rotating her hips around it while grinding down onto his pubic bone.

With a quick twist of his body, Spike flipped them over so that he was looking down into her startled eyes.

"Much as I love seein' you like that, sweetheart, want to feel your arms and legs around me when we come. Want to know that you're lovin' me with your whole body."

Buffy nodded dumbly. She understood what he was saying. With Spike on top, her arms and legs automatically came around his body, holding him to her while her face pressed into his neck. He rained kisses on her face and head, coaxing her to raise her head so the he could reach her mouth. He lavished surprisingly gentle, if breath-taking, kisses on her, pausing only to whisper in her ear.

"Love you more than anything, Buffy. Will love you forever, if you let me. Never want to leave you. Tell me you're mine, love. Tell me..."

Buffy tightened her arms around his tense back, her grip so strong that even his vampire strength would have been challenged if he'd tried to move. Unable to meet his intense gaze, she buried her face in his neck again, inhaling his scent and reveling in the sense of security it gave her.

"I'm yours," she murmured. "I don't think I could—" She stopped and forced herself to raise her head and meet his eyes. "I love you, Spike," she said clearly.

The look on his face immediately wiped out any lingering sense of embarrassment she may have felt at saying those words to an unsouled vampire. With awe, love, and perhaps a glimmer of a tear in his eyes, he silently begged her for the final proof his demon was craving.

Rather than give him a verbal response to his unspoken request, Buffy kissed her way down his throat until her mouth was once again positioned over Drusilla's siring bite. Tightening her arms again, she grabbed the scar in her blunt human teeth and bit down until she felt the skin give and a trickle of blood flow into her mouth.

"Mine," she said. "You are mine, Spike."

"Yours," he gasped, his face shifting. "Yours forever."

He slid his sharp canines into the soft skin on her throat, on the side opposite from the barely-visible marks where other vampires had put their teeth into this body at one time or another. With infinite care, he allowed her blood to flow into his mouth, swallowing slowly and savoring the power he could feel there. His body shaking with the orgasm brought on by Buffy's own cry of release and her clenching vaginal walls, he quickly growled, "Mine. You are mine, Buffy. Forever."

"Forever," she gasped. "I'm yours forever."

For long minutes, their bodies shook together, the magic of the ritual adding to the physical effects of the massive orgasms that continued to sweep through them. When the sensations became too much, they both lost consciousness, coming back to themselves slowly.

Spike licked the tiny wounds on her neck, knowing that those particular scars wouldn't fade with time the way the others had. His whole body vibrated with the purring that he couldn't control.

Fuck. It's a good thing I don't have a soul to lose. If I got any happier I think I might just...

Oh my god. Ohmigod, ohmigod. Oh. My. God. The other Buffy waited how many years for this? Is she stupid? Oh my god.

"You alright, love?"

She nodded mutely, then managed to say, "I'd ask if you were all right, but I'm guessing the non-stop purry pretty much answers that question."

Laughter rumbled in his chest, setting up counterpoint vibrations and causing her to give a responsive giggle. They were soon laughing together, rolling over and over on the bed until they reached the edge and fell to the floor with a 'thump'.

"Ow," Buffy said, an elated smile on her face even as she complained of being the cushion for the still-laughing vampire. They lay on the floor, still laughing softly until Buffy shivered as the cold air in the room finally made itself known. Immediately, Spike was apologizing, leaping to his feet and scooping her up. He put her on the bed and pulled the down comforter up, tucking it around her shoulders before sliding in beside her.

"Better, love?"

"Mmmmm, much better. Warm covers, sexy vampire mate, what more could a girl want?"

"Few more hours of sleep?" he asked, trying to suppress a yawn.

"Good idea," she mumbled, already being lulled into slumber by the exhaustion from the emotional and physical highs they had just experienced. "Few more hours. Good plan, Spike..."

Chapter Twenty-nine Epilogue

By the time the two sated and exhausted heroes woke up, it was late afternoon and Buffy insisted that they get dressed before Dawn showed up with the entire Sunnydale crew in tow. She was eating a bowl of cereal while Spike sipped at his second cup of blood when the usual 'pop' signaled the arrival of the Key.

Looking disappointed, Buffy said, "I thought you were going to bring everybody back for a visit. Where are they?"

"I had a better idea – I thought maybe I could take you to them. Then you could see Mom, too."

"Oh, that would be so... Isn't that a great idea, Spike? Spike? What's wrong?"

"Nothing, Slayer. I know how much you want to see your mum." His quiet voice and turned back were her only clues that he wasn't as happy about the trip as she was. "It's a good idea," he added, turning around a forcing a smile. "Little Sis is thinkin', as usual."

Walking up to him, Buffy slipped her arms around his waist and asked softly, "What's wrong?"

"Nothing, love. I'm just being a selfish wanker. Let me get my boots on and we're out of here." He dropped a kiss on her dubious face and excused himself to go get his boots.

"What's going on with him?" Buffy muttered almost to herself.

"I think he's afraid," Dawn replied, looking in direction of the bedroom. "He's afraid you're going to want to stay there."

"Could I do that?" Buffy's eagerness caused Dawn to frown. In the bedroom, Spike froze with one boot in his hand, holding unnecessary breath as he heard the eagerness with which she'd asked the question.

"Would you want to?"

"Well, of course! It's my home. My mom is there, Willow and Xander, Giles, Angel..." She trailed off as she realized what she was saying. "Spike. He... he would come with me. Wouldn't he?"

"Why would he want to?" Dawn asked coldly. "Those are your friends – not his."

Buffy bit her lip, remembering her initial excitement about going to Sunnydale and Spike's reaction to it. When he came back into the room, boots on and duster in place, she went up to him immediately.

"I wouldn't leave you here, you know," she said, staring up at him with glistening eyes. "I wouldn't. If I could go back, I'd want you to come with me. We could be mated there too."

He cocked his head and raised one hand to her cheek. "My beautiful, innocent little Slayer." He shook his head and dropped his hand. "I'm not all souled up like that other git. And if I understand what I heard from Buffy, even the soul didn't make him anybody's idea of a fit companion for her. They would never accept me with you – even your mum. She wants more for her daughter than another vampire. If you go back to your old life, there isn't going to be room in it for me." He shrugged and turned away, striving for nonchalance, "'sides, I like it here. Got some mates, nice little house, people who think I'm a hero..."

"I won't go without you! You said we were forever. That's what you said it meant to..." The tears that had only been threatening now trickled down her cheeks as she flung herself around him. "I won't go without you. You can't make me!"

"Bloody hell, love," he rasped, his own voice choked, "I don't want to make you go anywhere. I love you, Buffy. Never want to be without you by me side. Never. I thought you wanted to go. Was jus' trying to make it easier on you, that's all."

They clung together, completely forgetting the other person in the room as whispered promises and words of endearment flowed back and forth. Buffy kissed the mark on his neck, sighing when he licked the tiny wounds on her throat. When their mutual reassurances and petting didn't seem likely to end anytime soon, Dawn cleared her throat, over and over, getting louder each time, until they looked up as if surprised to find her there.

Embarrassed, Buffy disentangled herself from the vampire and stood up straight as she said politely, "I'm sorry Dawn, but I can't go back to Sunnydale. I won't leave my mate."

"Glad to hear it," Dawn replied wryly. "Since I wasn't offering to leave you there. I just asked if you'd want to; I didn't say that you could."

"Oh."

Dawn sighed and tried not to sound exasperated. "You know how everybody except me had to stay in the portal? Well, that's still true. I can take you there and let you say "hi" to everybody, but you can't step out into their dimension. Only I can do that."

"I knew that," Spike muttered, embarrassed by his knee-jerk reaction.

"Sure you did." Dawn rolled her eyes. "So, are we going to do this or not? Everybody is at Buffy's mom's house waiting for me to bring you two there."

"At my mom's house? I don't... doesn't Buffy live there anymore?"

"No, she and Spike have their own place. She's older than you, you know. And she's been on her own for a long time. She wasn't really happy living with Mom like she was still a kid."

"Oh," Buffy said dubiously. "I guess I can see that. I'm pretty used to being on my own too. I guess it would be hard to go back to curfews and chores and..."

"Exactly," Dawn said surprisingly tersely. "You get used to taking care of yourself." Buffy frowned at her, but Spike, who knew that Joyce had died in Dawn's dimension, shook his head slightly in warning. Dawn nodded once, then gestured for them to step into her portal. "Let's go, guys. It's not like I don't have a life somewhere else, you know."

As soon as they stepped into her space, Dawn pulled the portal walls around them and with the now-familiar 'pop', they appeared in the Summers' living room. Buffy unconsciously reached for her mother, only Spike's quick grab preventing her from crossing the glowing limit to her safe area. Joyce smiled sadly and stepped closer to the portal, studying the unfamiliar face before her.

"Buffy? My Buffy?" She turned to the blonde teenager standing behind her and asked, "Is this what you look like now? This is you at twenty-five?"

"No, Mom," Buffy said softly. "This is what I look like now. That's what I used to look like..." She paused and moved closer, focusing on younger Buffy's neck. "Except I never had any bite marks on that side of my neck." She stared at her younger self with wide eyes. "You've done it already?"

"Good on you!" Spike said, moving up to put his arms around his Buffy. "Made her yours, did you?"

"I'm not stupid, you know."

The two Spikes exchanged looks, then gave identical smirks. The Spike holding Sunnydale Buffy studied the one standing in the portal.

"She's put a bit of weight on those skinny bones, love, but that's your body, for sure." He continued to gaze affectionately at the Buffy inside the portal while his counterpart looked with unabashed admiration at the Buffy that he'd known first. There was no way of knowing how long they would have stared at the bodies belonging to the girls they loved, had not both Buffys simultaneously elbowed their Spikes in the stomach with matching, "Stop staring at her!"

While laughing apologies and explanations were offered to indignant slayers, Angel, who had been standing quietly in a corner of the room, stepped closer to the softly glowing portal and stared intently at Buffy's neck. Even with the barrier of the portal walls, his demon could feel the claim between them.

Ignoring the soft growls coming from the vampire with his arms around her, Angel said plaintively, "Buffy? How could you? Do you know what you've done?"

Sunnydale Buffy stepped up beside him and put a sympathetic hand on his arm.

"She knows, Angel." She squeezed his arm with easy affection. "Let it go. This what the Powers want – for both of us."

"I'm sorry, Angel," 'his' Buffy said softly, clinging to Spike's arm where it circled her waist. "It's good to see you again, but I belong with Spike. I love him."

The old vampire nodded sadly and walked back to his corner, finding to his surprise that Faith had joined him. A blatant offer of public sympathy was out of the dark-haired slayer's comfort zone, but she stood close enough that her arm was pressed against his, and he smiled at her gratefully. She gave him a wink and whispered something in his ear that brought a reluctant smile to his face.

Shaking her head at the romantic entanglement her daughters had with the souled vampire, Joyce took over the conversation, grilling Buffy about where she was living, how she was doing for money, what she planned to do about her education and a myriad of other motherly concerns. Buffy did her best to provide answers, counting on Spike to fill in with reassurance every time the responses caused Joyce's mouth to tighten with worry. When Buffy began getting visibly upset at her mother's growing concern, Spike tightened his arms around her protectively and said, "I know you're worried, Joyce. But you have to believe me when I tell you that I'm going to take the best care of her that I possibly can. Your daughter is an amazing woman – gets it from her mum," he added with a smile. "An' she was already doin' alright for herself when I got there. Now she's got someone in her life who would die before he'd let her be unhappy or needin' for anything. She's gonna be fine. And if Little Sis is willin', she'll be coming back to visit every once in a while so you can see that for yourself."

"He's right, Mom," the older Buffy said, hugging her mother the way she knew the woman was wishing the younger girl could. "You know how Spike is. He took care of a crazy woman for over a hundred years; taking care of me should be a breeze. They're going to be fine."

Trying to change the subject, now that her mother seemed to be temporarily mollified, Winterset's Buffy pointed to Faith and asked, "Who is she? And why does she act like a Slayer?"

"Nice to meet you too, B, jr," Faith snarked.

A quick explanation of the way Buffy's short period of deadness had brought on the calling of another slayer, brought an understanding nod from Buffy and a speculative look from Spike. Noticing the way the notorious killer of slayers was sizing her up, Faith mouthed, "Anytime, William the Bloody," at him. He gave an appreciative laugh and turned back to listen to the explanation of Faith's appearance in Sunnydale. Buffy glossed over the reappearance of Angelus, just saying that Kendra had been killed in the line of duty and Faith had come to take her place.

Any more elaborate explanations were interrupted by the arrival of Glies, Willow and a very reluctant Xander. Willow had to be cautioned as she ran at the portal, thinking to hug the girl waving at her from inside it. She stopped just outside and began a rambling monologue about Sunnydale High School and everything Buffy had missed since she left. When she finally paused for lack of breath, everyone sighed in relief, even though Buffy began to ask questions about many of the people that Willow had mentioned.

The gossip session ended when Giles stepped closer, saying with barely contained emotion, "Hello, Buffy. I am so pleased to see that you are well and... well, and alive. We were quite concerned for awhile there."

"Yep, all alive and well," she answered cheerily. "But I miss having a watcher," she added with a soft smile. "It's just me and Spike, and I don't think either one of us is very thinky."

Spike's indignant "Hey!" was quickly forgotten as the older Brit fixed a hard eye on him.

"Then I propose that the one with the years of experience had best put that knowledge to work and fill the roll of watcher. Do something with that expensive education, Mr Pratt."

While Buffy looked at Spike with a question in her eyes, the vampire was glaring at his souled counterpart, his anger battling with his disbelief that Spike would have given the watcher that much information about his human self. His only response was a shrug and an apologetic grin from the older vampire. He turned his attention back to the watcher, saying, "I'll do what I can, but don't be referrin' to me as a bloody 'watcher'!"

"Xander?" Buffy's tentative smile at her oldest male friend interrupted the laughter that followed Spike's indignant agreement. She waited for the boy to respond to her greeting.

"Hello, Buffy," he finally said, his cold glare saying more than words could about what he thought of finding her holding hands with the vampire he'd tried to kill the last time he saw him. He had just barely begun to make his peace with the souled version of Spike with whom the older version of Buffy was openly living. Finding that "his" Buffy was also living with the blond vampire was a blow to which he was still adjusting. "It's good to see you – even if you did have to bring Deadboy, Jr. there with you."

"I love him, Xander," she said, a plea in her voice. "Can't you try to be happy for me?"

"Don't be a stupid git," Spike growled in his ear, pushing him closer to the portal. "Tell the girl you love her enough to want her to be happy. Even the big poof managed to do that," he added, knowing that the boy wouldn't want to be outdone by the vampire that he really hated.

Pushing Spike away, Xander smiled and said with as much grace as he could muster, "I'm only kidding. You know me; I'm a kidder. I'm glad you're happy there in wherever it is. We miss you," he added, with an apologetic glance at the older Buffy. "She's not as much fun as you are."

"I miss you guys, too," Buffy said sadly. "Every day. But, it's not too bad there – and hey, big plus – no algebra!"

"They don't have algebra there? Can I come back with you?"

Xander's semi-serious request broke whatever tension had been left in the room and soon he and Willow were chatting with Buffy as though it hadn't been over a year and half since they last talked to her.

It what seemed like a very short time, Dawn was waving her hands, interrupting to insist that she had a life and "a very nice boyfriend who hasn't seen me for a while" and that she had to return Winterset's Spike and Buffy so that she could go home. She hugged Buffy, Spike and Joyce, smiled at everyone else and stepped inside the portal.

Joyce reached a tentative hand towards the glowing wall, smiling when Buffy extended her own hand to meet it. Separated only by a softly glowing energy barrier, they promised to stay in touch – giving Dawn letters to send back and forth when she didn't have the time or energy to transport herself or anyone else.

With final "good-bye's", waves and promises to write, the walls closed around the three dimensional travelers and they vanished into the air, leaving Spike and Angel shaking their heads and rubbing their ears. A much sobered, if relieved group sat down to talk about what they'd seen and to share thoughts about how Buffy seemed to be doing.

Leaning back against Spike's chest, Buffy said softly, "I think they're going to be just fine. It doesn't sound like a bad world, now that the Master is out of it. And they have each other."

"That they do," Spike murmured. "An' that's really all they need."

The tender moment was interrupted by Faith, who came up to peer into Spike's face and ask, "Pratt? Your name is really Pratt? No wonder you changed it to "the Bloody"." Roaring at her own wit, she led Angel out of the house to the accompaniment of Spike's snarled threats to make her his third slayer.

Dawn didn't even step out of the portal when she dropped them in their kitchen, saying, "I wasn't kidding about having a boyfriend. Fortunately, he's studying to be a watcher, so he understands this stuff; but he's getting a little testy about me being gone all night two nights in a row."

With final hugs and another "thank you", Spike and Buffy stepped out of the portal and waved their good-byes to the dimension traveling Key. Buffy put her hands over Spike's ears just before the portal disappeared, holding them there until he smiled his gratitude and covered her hands with his own. He turned her hands over, bringing them to his lips one at a time and planting light kisses on each palm.

"She's a bit of alright, your little sister," he said. "Those monks knew what they were doin'."

"It's all so weird. I don't have a sister – but I do. And pretty soon there's going to be another Dawn in Sunnydale. I wonder if she'll be able to travel back and forth too?"

"Don't see why not; but she's not going to be very old when she gets there. Kinda think she'll need to work her way up to something like dimension-hopping. Don't forget, 'our' Dawn has a coven of witches and seers to work with and help her figure things out."

Buffy nodded. "Well, I guess if I have to have a sister, she's a pretty good one to have. I wonder if I'll get one in this world?"

"We won't know till it happens, love. This is a whole different place – I don't think we can go by what's happenin' or has happened in Sunnydale. We're on our own here. Got our own big bads to worry about. Which reminds me," he said with a grimace, "If I'm gonna take the place of your watcher, I need to start findin' some books to research this world's demons and what not."

"What did Giles mean by "putting that expensive education to use"? Have you been to college?"

The vampire shuffled his feet with embarrassment. "Bloody wanker – can't believe the other me told him that stuff."

"So, you have been to college? And your last name is Pratt? What kind of a name is that?"

"Hey, it's a perfectly respectable English name, I'll have you know!"

"Uh huh," she said dubiously. "Well, I'm just glad being mated isn't like getting married. I like Summers a whole lot more than Pratt, thank you very much."

"So, you wouldn't become Mrs. William Pratt if I asked you to?" he asked, pulling her into his arms and nibbling on his marks. "Not even if I asked really, really nicely?"

She shivered at the sensation of his mouth on his marks and whispered, "Maybe, if you asked really, really, really nicely."

"I just might do that someday," he whispered back. "Might surprise you with a diamond ring and go down on bended knee to ask you to marry me."

She snorted, wriggling against him as his hands began to roam her body.

"Like you would ever bend a knee to me," she scoffed.

"What makes you think I wouldn't?" His deft fingers were unfastening her jeans while his lips continued to worry his healed bite marks.

"I know you, Spike."

"Not as well as you think you do, pet," he laughed, dropping to one knee and pulling her jeans down at the same time. "I'd bend both knees on a regular basis if it puts me here." He buried his nose in her curls, his rich chuckle at her surprised squeal stirring the hair and causing her to gasp and tremble.

"See, pet," he murmured as his tongue coaxed more gasps and whimpers from her. "I know you, too."

He stood up effortlessly, lifting her as he did and carrying her into the bedroom. "An' we're gonna know each other even better before I'm done with you."

"You're going to be done with me?"

"Figure of speech, love. I'll never be done with lovin' you, wantin' you. We're forever, Buffy."

"Forever," she echoed, sinking onto the bed and shedding the rest of her clothes. He joined her before she had completely taken off her shirt, skimming it over her head and wrapping his arms around her neck. He pressed his forehead to hers and gazed into her eyes.

"Forever's a long time, love. You think you're up for that?"

"Anything you can do, I can do too." She frowned, her wrinkled brow tickling his forehead. "Except for the whole immortality thing, anyway." Her eyes flew open and her breathing increased suddenly. "What if you don't want me any more when I get old? What if I still love you and you don't love me any more when I'm old and ugly? What will I do?"

ah

"You will never be ugly to me, Buffy. I don't care how old you get. I will always love you, and I will always think you are the most beautiful woman in the world."

"How do you know I'll be beautiful?" She refused to give up her worrying, now that it had occurred to her.

"Because I know you, my pet. I know you."

THE END