The Letter

Chapter 25:
Phoenix Rising

The Letter
The  Coat
The Man
The Truth
The Talk
The Visit
The Dinner
Friends Come Visiting
Epiphany
Making Contact
Back in the Saddle Again
Pennies from Heaven
The Prodigal
Revelation
Reconciliation
The Salon
A New Beginning
Tea and Sympathy
Convergence
Encounters and Interludes
Desperate Measures
Dancing in the Dark
The Vampire, the Witch and the Watcher
A Week in the Death of William the Bloody
Phoenix Rising
Picking Up the Pieces
I Love a Parade
Mr. and Mrs. Summers

Tears could only last so long and finally there was nothing left in her. She knelt, silent and unmoving, pressing his head to her breast and bringing his hands up across his chest with her free hand. Her fingertips caressed his still body through the thin fabric of his tee shirt.

Buffy froze abruptly as her fingers detected the tiniest tremor in his chest, no more than the faintest trembling of sensation. She pressed her ear to him and was rewarded with an erratic flutter, dup... dup, dup. She surged to her feet, lifting him easily with newfound strength, and ran for the salvation represented by the strobing lights of the ambulance still parked in the street.

The paramedics had stowed their equipment again and were about to pull away with the body from the Orange Grove when Buffy burst out of the alley in front of them. Before she had gone even a few steps, they had leapt from the cab and were easing Spike's limp form from her arms. "He's lost a lot of blood, but he's still alive," she said, her voice controlled and low. "You have to help him. Please." Only on the last word did her voice threaten to break.

Within moments, it seemed, they were in radio contact with the hospital, administering intravenous fluids and had Spike intubated and hooked up to various arcane medical devices in preparation for transporting him. After a moment to find an alternate place for the body they were already carrying, the paramedics strapped Spike to the gurney and loaded him into the back of the ambulance. But when Buffy would have climbed in as well, they blocked her way.

"Are you the next of kin?" one of them asked.

"No, I..." How could she possibly begin to describe her relationship with this man?

"Then I'm afraid you can't come with us. We're taking him to Sunnydale Memorial; you'll be able to see him there." If he makes it, was the unspoken coda. "Don't worry, miss," he added softly. "We'll do our best for him." With that, he slammed the rear doors and the ambulance was underway, wailing down the street.

**********

Less than two hours after they had left Desperados together, Buffy pushed back in through the crowds. She spotted Joey behind the bar and didn't mince words. "I need a phone. Now. It's an emergency." It was her grim expression more than her words that sent him a step back, letting her behind the counter to reach the phone on the wall.

Buffy let Xander's number ring a dozen times before giving up. Leaning her forehead against the wall, she racked her brain furiously, trying to recall Anya's new number. Finally giving up, she called Giles and Willow. When Willow answered, Buffy didn't waste any time letting her interrupt with questions. "Willow, Spike's been hurt. Paramedics are taking him to Sunnydale Memorial. I need you to get hold of Xander at Anya's. Tell him to pick me up at Desperados, over on Roosevelt. Got it?"

"Never mind that," interrupted a deep voice from behind her. "I'll take you there myself."

Buffy let the receiver fall from her ear, Willow's voice continuing tinny and unheeded from the earpiece, and turned to see who had spoken.

"Jake," the large man said shortly in response to her scrutiny. "Spike works for me. Are you coming, or are you going to waste more time?"

She brought up the receiver again. "Never mind. I've got a ride," she said, and hung up without waiting for a reply. "Let's go."

**********

Buffy strode into the emergency department of Sunnydale Memorial ready to demand answers. Unfortunately, expertise as a Slayer in dealing with vampire-inflicted wounds did not translate automatically into respect from hospital authorities. The nurse handling the triage in the emergency room had little patience with her questions about Spike's condition.

"If you have information about the John Doe stabbing, you should be speaking with the police," she insisted, lifting her hand to beckon over one of the officers stationed near the main entrance.

Buffy desperately waved him away. "No! I mean... I don't know anything that would help." There's no criminal left to arrest. "I just want to know how he is. And... his name is William."

The nurse made a notation on her clipboard. "Miss, if his condition can be stabilized, he'll be moved to a bed in the intensive care unit. At that time, and not before then, family members can be admitted one at a time to see him."

"It's William Summers," said a voice suddenly behind Buffy. She whirled to see Dawn striding towards her, followed closely by Anya. "He's her husband - my brother-in-law," Dawn added. Buffy frowned at her, trying to convey the furious comments she didn't dare speak lest she attract more unwelcome interest from the attentive triage nurse. Dawn just raised expressive brows. You've got a better idea how to get in to see him?

Buffy spared Dawn another glare, then turned back to the nurse. "I'm sorry, it's just that I'm so worried about him that I'm not thinking straight. I don't know what came over me." She gave the nurse a wan smile and concentrated on looking like a distraught, helpless wife and not like a deadly Slayer of demons various and sundry.

It seemed to work; the nurse thawed far enough that it didn't seem like a smile would shatter her. "In that case... Mrs. Summers, you and your family should wait in the lounge down the hall." She indicated a set of double doors leading to a quiet corridor. "Someone will find you there when there's news. Now, if you'll excuse me." She was soon swallowed up again in the chaos of the emergency admissions.

"You know, Buffy," Anya said, "you could have let us know. On the other hand," she observed brightly, "I don't believe I'm obligated to provide you with a present if you eloped."

"We are not married," Buffy hissed. "That was just Dawn's idea to get us in to see him - and we'll talk about that later," she added, with a dire look at her sister.

Dawn let the implicit threat slide easily by her. "Like you could have done better on short notice. Now there won't be any inconvenient questions."

"Until they want the name of our health insurance provider, or his social security number," Buffy pointed out.

"The first one's easy enough," Dawn retorted. "We don't have health insurance. Just another charity case, you know."

"Who's a charity case?" Xander asked, coming up behind them.

Before dropping her at the hospital, Jake had said 'If there's anything I can do...' But potentially spending thousands of dollars on a casual employee of only a few months? She doubted Jake's philanthropy would extend that far. "We are," she sighed. "And now, thanks to Dawn, they think Spike and I are married. So now they'll be coming after me for all his personal information. And he's never even so much as told me his last name."

"Don't worry, Buffy," Xander said, circling her shoulders with a supportive arm. "We'll come up with something. We always do."

"That's probably what I should be afraid of," she retorted, still worried, but relieved enough by his unwavering support to laugh weakly. "Are Willow and Giles--?"

Xander shook his head. "Willow has got a major wiggins about hospitals right now, so they stayed at home. But Giles said he'd come by later, if you needed him."

What I need is for Spike to live. I can't believe we've let things go so wrong...

**********

In the waiting area, Dawn and Anya were deep in conversation.

"I've screwed things up big time," Dawn admitted. "I never thought past getting us in to see him."

"I've noticed that humans often tend to make snap decisions without thinking of the consequences. It's one of the more interesting parts of being in the vengeance business." Her brow furrowed thoughtfully. "Although what if he actually were an upstanding citizen? With immigration, employment and tax records, and a marriage certificate... and everything. After all, Buffy did summon me for vengeance."

Dawn's eyes widened in sudden comprehension. "He'd hate that! It's perfect."

"Do you really think so?" Anya asked, anxiously. "I haven't managed a proper vengeance since I got my powers back. But if you think he'd really suffer, then maybe it would be enough to satisfy D'Hoffryn. And since there's that whole blood thing between you and Buffy - which I still don't get, by the way - you should be able to take her place in the wish."

"Okay. Let's work out exactly what I have to say, so that nothing backfires on us."

**********

"Mrs. Summers?" Buffy looked around, startled, wondering who could be looking for her mother here, now. A sharp nudge from Dawn reminded her of their ruse, and she stood to meet the doctor.

"I'm Dr. Hernandez," he said, taking her hand. "I've been working on your husband."

"Is he--" Buffy couldn't bring herself to say what she feared most, as though doing so would make it true.

"He's stabilized for now," he said, and she drew a long shuddering breath in relief. "But I need to get your permission to administer an experimental treatment."

"Experimental? What is it? Why?"

"It's a blood surrogate. We've managed to get his overall blood volume back up with plasma transfusions and saline, but in order to carry oxygen efficiently, he needs more whole blood or something as close as we can get. Without that, he'll eventually suffer brain damage."

Oh god, the thefts. "Give me whatever forms you need me to sign." Buffy scrawled her signature quickly, where Dr. Hernandez indicated.

"Can we donate blood for him?" Dawn asked, coming to stand beside her sister.

He looked at her carefully. "Are you seventeen?"

"Yes," she lied promptly. "Well... in two months."

"I'm her guardian," Buffy interjected quickly. "If I donate blood too, and give my permission for her..."

"Let's get the two of you typed, then. Come with me."

"Buffy." She turned to see Xander had risen to his feet. "I'd like to help too."

With a smile, she beckoned for him to join them, and together they looked back at Anya expectantly.

"Oh no," she said, shaking her head firmly. "My blood is much too precious to me, and it's staying right here in my body where it belongs."

In the end, Xander's type B blood was incompatible with Spike's type A, but he gave a donation anyway, to the effusive gratitude of the hospital staff. Buffy and Dawn had better luck; both were typed O positive, with blood suitable for almost anyone to receive.

They returned to the lounge, identically bandaged, and settled back in to wait for news.

**********

He lay quiescent, insulated from the outside world as though wrapped closely in cotton wool. But when someone moved him, he found that the hollows of his long bones had been filled with ground glass. He would have screamed, but something hard and cold filled the space of his throat.

He swam up slowly from the depths of unconsciousness, past gape-jawed toothy nightmares only dimly glimpsed in the darkness. He thought he saw a pale, watery light wavering above him, and began to discern noises and what sounded like a multitude of voices.

"--pulse ox still falling--"
        "--hang another O-neg, we've got to get that back up--"
                                                          "--none left, MVA in four took the last--"
"--gonna lose--"
                                "--permission--"
        "--okay, hang the damn grape juice, then. I hope it works like they say--"
                                                    "--hang on - I've got two units--"
        "--shit! They're still warm--"
                                                    "--fresh out of the family--"
                            "--type?"
                                                    "O-pos"
                "--what about--"
"--he's Rh positive--"
                            "--sure?"
"double checked"
                                    "--that'll work for him--"
                                                    "--better than nothing--"
                            "--or grape juice--"
        "--do it--"
"--coming up--"

As he surfaced and opened his eyes, both the light and the pain burned fierce and steady. He knew he must have drowned, because he could feel his chest being worked like a bellows, and he choked and gasped against the irresistible force of it.

                                                            "--coming out of--"
                "--trying to breathe--"
                                                                                    "--kill the vent--"

Suddenly he could hear his breath whistling strangely in his ears. There was still something blocking his throat, but he couldn't move to reach for it.

A blurred and mask-obscured face with kind eyes leaned over him. "Relax. You were on a ventilator to help you breathe. We've turned it off, but you've still got the tube in your throat. If you're ready, we can take it out now."

His only response was a minute motion that was nonetheless taken for assent. "Right. I need you to count to three with me, and then blow as hard as you can, okay?"

He must have agreed, because the voice was counting now, and before he could react he felt as though he were being turned inside out. He coughed and gasped, and was more than a little gratified to not see his lungs lying pinkish-grey and wet before him on his chest. Someone slipped a mask over his face and he sucked gratefully at the blessedly cool moist air it provided. His look down his body had shown him tubes and wires emerging from everywhere, and though he couldn't recall how he knew, he understood that it wasn't a good sign at all.

He flailed wildly with one arm, and managed to catch his fingers in the clothing of the person nearest to him. With his other hand, he clawed the mask away from his face, but no words would come - only a growling wheeze.

"Shh... don't try to talk yet." The masked figure gently disentangled his hand.

He had to speak. It was vital, to talk, to communicate in some way. And he had to know.

"Is this..." he finally managed to force out. "Is this hell?"

The figure's eyes darted suddenly sideways above the mask in a manner he didn't trust at all, but this one rebellion had stolen all his strength, and he felt himself slipping away.

"What were the results of his tox screen?"
                                                             "--want a psych consult on this one before--"
                        "--he's going under again--"

He decided to stop struggling, and let himself slide back into the cold, black depths.

**********

After a time, the blackness receded, and the first sensation he felt was that he was flat on his back once more, only this time he was breathing easily. He could feel the hard outline of the plastic oxygen mask pressing into his cheeks. He shifted experimentally to feel the tug and pull of various medical devices attached in intimate ways all over his body. Behind him, something whirred and clicked with every breath, and a muffled beeping kept time with his pulse.

New sensations imposed itself on his awareness; there were fingers entwined in his, and a soft hand caressing his forehead. His eyes opened reluctantly, gummed and crusted from his lengthy unconsciousness, and he had to force them into focus. I've gone from hell straight into heaven, he decided, looking at the face over him.

She found the switch that raised the head of his bed so she could see him better. "I thought we were going to lose you." Unshed tears sparkled in her dark lashes.

Don't. Don't cry. Not for me. Never for me. Memory came back to him, and reason said hospital, and probably going to live. A wave of self-loathing swept over him, and the anger carried over into his voice as he pulled his mask down to reply. "It would have been kinder to let me go. But then kindness isn't one of the Slayer's known virtues, is it?"

"Suicide by Slayer, Spike?" The pain he heard in her quiet tone burned like acid. "Would you really have made me do that?"

"Slayer's job, innit? Get rid of the monsters. No grief, no pity, just... poof! We're gone. Better all 'round."

She looked at him with wounded eyes. "Why?" she cried softly. "Why do I always have to be the one who's so damn hard, and cold? It's killing me, Spike. Can't you see that?"

He went on as though he hadn't heard. "Thought it would be easier for you. If I were only a vampire again."

"I could never kill you, vampire or not. I thought you knew that by now." She tightened her fingers in his.

"I've done... terrible things. I don't deserve to live."

"You've changed," she insisted. "That part of you is gone."

He shook his head. "The demon in me wasn't the monster, Buffy. It never was." An endless loop of violence played itself out behind his eyes. "Learned that this week. I lost control. I... can't be trusted. Safer for everyone to just put me down."

He was frightening her in earnest now - and she'd never been truly afraid of him, from the first - with his flat voice and implacable desire to die.

"I told you," he insisted. "You need to call Angel. He can help you put and end to this charade, once and for all."

"I did call him - the day after I talked to you. I didn't tell anyone - not even Dawn."

"And he hasn't swept into town yet, all righteous and full of himself? That's unlike him."

"If you hate him so much, why do you want to see me with him again?"

"I don't hate him. He's--" --better than me-- "--better for you. He's the one you really love."

"Don't you tell me who I love! I - I love you! "

He shook his head sadly. "No, you don't. I won't be your consolation prize. You belong with Angel. I can admit that, now."

"And I don't get any say in the matter? You and Angel just hand me off between you?" Anger at him flattened her fear for him, momentarily. "Well here's a newsflash - he's not coming."

Spike just lay unresponsive before her, his usually expressive features uncharacteristically void of all emotion. He said nothing, did nothing - and she found herself willing to say anything to fill the unbearable silence.

"He said no." She tried to hide the way her voice trembled when she said it, but he'd known her for too long and too well for it to escape his notice. "He said that he knew it would never work, and that I would just have to trust him that his reasons were good ones. Then he said he loved me, and believed that I would make the right decision... and then he hung up." Her fists shook where they were clenched at her sides, fingernails cutting bloody crescents into her palms.

"I would have thought he loved you like I love you - like I loved you," he corrected brutally. "I loved you. And I will always want you. Would have tried to pull heaven's stars from the sky to cast under your feet, if you'd only asked me."

"I don't need to be worshipped, Spike," she said softly. "I just... want someone to love me. Not the Slayer - me. Someone who will stay by me, no matter what stupid mistakes I make."

He fidgeted, trying to find a more comfortable position on the bed. "Then tell grampa to shift his arse. He doesn't have to be human again. It only took me across half the planet to find someone to make me human again, and all I really wanted was a soul. Someone to just reattach his Peter-Pan's-shadow soul ought to be found practically on his back doorstep."

Buffy's face set in hard lines, as an uncomfortable truth made itself known to her. "If he wanted to," she admitted slowly, "he would have tried to find a way by now." A deep breath steadied her voice. "Right now, the work he's doing in LA is more important."

"More important than you?" Spike asked, a hint of his former intensity creeping back into his voice - and just incidentally echoing the words in her heart.

Talk about selfish, egotistical, arrogant-- She administered a sharp mental slap to her inner spoiled brat. "He has to do what's right for him. And at least he isn't giving up!"

"I killed her," he said flatly, undercutting her before she could get started on a really good tirade.

This is what it's all about, isn't it? "You didn't have a choice, once she'd been turned." She tried to keep her voice gentle, tried to draw him out.

"No. I mean that it's because of me that she even considered it. Hell, she wanted it. Wanted to be stronger, faster, more dangerous... She only heard half of what I told her. In many ways I was her sire, more than the one who turned her, because I taught her everything she wanted to know."

"You can't blame yourself for that. We've both met that type before."

"There isn't anyone else I can blame." His voice was raw again with remembered pain.

"Did you... love her?" Is that why you won't let yourself stay with me?

He sighed, and cast his mind back over might-have-beens. "It could have come to that, if we'd had more time. Doesn't matter, though - she'd never have returned the sentiment. To Allie, I love you was about equivalent to I own you - and she'd never let that happen. Even if she'd come to understand I love you really means please, let me be yours, she'd never have put that much of herself into someone else's hands. She guarded herself too closely to ever offer herself to anyone that way." He closed his eyes and let his head fall back to the pillow. "All the same now, one way or the other." Oh Allie. You didn't deserve what I did to you.

"Spike, I--"

"I'm tired now, Buffy. You should go." He slipped the oxygen mask back over his nose and mouth, cutting himself off from her.

"I'm not finished--"

"Get out!" he roared, before collapsing back to the bed, breathing heavily, his eyes squeezed tightly closed in pain. Machinery sounded an angry tone, and behind her Buffy could see curious ICU nurses looking through the observation windows into the room. She gathered herself together and left before they could request it or reprimand her for agitating their patient.

At the door, she paused for one look back. His tired face was lined with sorrow, and his hands twisted in the blankets that lay loosely over him. The sight made her heart ache. What do I have to do to help you find your way back from where you're so lost?

**********

Spike spent half the night dreading that Buffy would return the next day and that he'd not be able to stay strong but would beg her to let him be hers. He knew that the combination of her stultifying work and her worry for her sister and her friends left her vulnerable, and feared he wouldn't be able to resist playing on her sympathy. I have to manage to do what's right at least once in my sodding life.

But it was Dawn whose anxious but smiling face he saw not long after waking.

"I brought you some flowers, but they said I couldn't bring them into the intensive care rooms. So the nurses have them at the desk."

"Thank you, Dawn," he said, and meant it. "No one's ever brought me flowers before."

She just stood for a while and looked at him with huge eyes, until finally working up the courage to ask the question that had been bothering her for days. "What did she mean, when she said you liked her to punish you?"

Spike closed his eyes. "Some things aren't meant for young ears, Little Bit," he sighed. "Let it go." It wasn't ever as much as I deserved, in any case. I should know. The punishment you do to yourself is always the most destructive.

"Buffy said you wanted to kill yourself, that you still wanted to die." She stared at him, pleading wordlessly for him to tell her that it wasn't true, that her sister had been mistaken. He couldn't answer her, and looked away.

"Buffy said that when she found you, you'd drunk Allie's blood so you'd be a vampire again and she'd have to stake you."

"Buffy's said entirely too damn much," he replied hotly.

She threw herself against his chest, sobbing, and his arms came up around her to hold her soothingly. He silently cursed the IV lines and sensor wires that trailed from his arms as he tried to stroke her hair. "You were going to leave me! You promised Buffy you'd always protect me!"

He gently lifted her away from him so he could see her face. "It was because of me that Allie nearly killed you; because I didn't stop her when I first found she'd been turned. That's hardly protecting you," he said, brushing her tears away with one thumb.

Dawn refused to listen. "What about all the times you looked out for me when Buffy was gone? Or when I--" her voice was near breaking.

Tears of his own now squeezed from under his tightly closed eyelids; droplets of molten lead that seared his skin. "I can't be what you want me to be. I'm not that strong. I never was."

Dawn's face crumpled further. "I hate you!" she cried, pounding at his chest and abandoning any semblance of the poise she'd always tried so hard to cultivate to seem older than her sixteen years. "I hate you!"

Alarms on the monitors brought nurses running.

**********

After a few days, they moved him to a standard ward room of four beds, of which two were momentarily unoccupied. The medical staff had expressed some surprise at the speed with which he was healing, but were still grateful for the opportunity to make more room in the ICU.

Neither Buffy nor Dawn had returned since their first abortive visits, and he let himself settle into the mindless routine of hospital care. Sleep was no refuge for him; most days found him flipping aimlessly through magazines left by aggressively cheerful hospital volunteers, taking in only one word in five.

Willow's appearance in the doorway promised a welcome distraction, even if only for a few minutes. She entered, and pulled the privacy curtain around his bed to shield them from the potentially prying eyes of his lone roommate, currently asleep and snoring noisily.

"You're scaring Buffy, you know," she said without preamble.

Not wanting to face more well-intentioned probing into his mental state, Spike took refuge in sarcasm. "Am I going to get the full-on Scooby presence, now that I'm almost mended? Who's next? Giles? Harris? To what do I owe the singular honour?"

Willow shifted immediately into a take-no-prisoners mode. "How about to the fact that you're treating people who care about you like shit? Good enough reason for you?"

He sneered. "I thought I could come to terms with all the horrors I'd committed as a vampire. Make some peace. But then I...No one knows what it feels like, to have done what I've done - as a man - and still live."

"You mean how you don't know if you're going to cry, or scream, or throw up - or maybe all three at once?" He looked up at her, belated awareness of with whom he was speaking dawning in his eyes. "I won't tell you to snap out of it, if you won't tell me I can't possibly understand," she said. "Deal?"

Willow pulled up one of the room's extra chairs beside the bed and settled herself comfortably into it. "You came and told me things that I didn't want to hear, but desperately needed to. I'm just here to return the favour. Or maybe I'm just here to keep you company while you talk. You decide."

To his mingled surprise and relief, Spike found himself letting the whole sorry story about his life of the past year spill from his lips. He grew hoarse in the retelling, and Willow filled a cup with water for him, and held the bent straw to his lips while he drank.

She listened without comment, but her eyes widened with shock and her face paled at some of what she heard. When he described his assault on Tonio, she winced. And when he told her what he had had to do to Allie, her eyes misted in empathy. It had been seven years since Xander had told her what he'd done to Jesse, but she still remembered every word, and the pain in his voice.

"I'm sorry. I can't imagine how awful you must have felt." Willow chose her following words with extreme care. "But did you ever think that maybe you were using her? You thought because you paid her she'd always be there for you, and you wouldn't have to try to find someone who could care about you for yourself."

He frowned, clearly never having looked at it from that angle.

"I mean... I know you cared about her, but... She'd almost always do what you wanted, because you paid her. You didn't have to risk yourself at all, trying to find someone to care about you in return. She was safe."

"Who gave you the right to criticize my relationships?"

"Relationship?" she said incredulously. "She was a prostitute, Spike. You had to pay her to sleep with you."

He turned his face away on the pillow. "It's easy to just say 'she was a prostitute', or 'she was a vampire'. I may only have gotten what I paid for, but it was mine. I did care about her. I loved her - as her friend. And ultimately, I failed her. As a vampire, she became an abomination, taking everything I told her, everything we'd shared and turning it inside out. Dragged everything into muck and filth. No one sees past that; no one remembers her for anything else.

"But I'm the only one, now, who knew the woman. She was lonely, and scared sometimes - which she hid with cruel words to keep people away - but she could have been so much more than she was. I could see it, there behind her eyes. Maybe if I'd had longer to tell her I believed in her.

"When she was eleven years old, her uncle raped her." Willow's eyes closed in sympathy, and Spike went on. "And then he took her for ice cream. Told her she was his sweet, pretty whore - and that she'd never amount to much else. Told her enough times, and she believed it. Her father - the drunken sot - said she must have asked for it, the way she dressed." He rubbed at his face wearily. "How could I fix something like that?"

"You can't. It's something she would have had to do for herself."

"I had to try. But if she'd known what I did to Tonio on her behalf, her only thought would have been that another man was trying to interfere in her life. And it was all for nothing in the end. Even if she'd lived, I'd still have to pay for what I'd done."

Willow surveyed his injuries with a critical eye. "Seems to me like you already are."

"This?" His laugh held no trace of humour. "This is nothing."

A nurse entered the room bearing a tray of medications and diverted their attention. "I'm sorry dear," she said to Willow. "Visiting hours are over for the day. You can come back and seem him tomorrow, if you like." She bustled professionally about the room, making further private conversation impossible in any case.

Willow levered herself up out of her chair and turned to go, then hesitated. "I know how it feels to want to make yourself pay. I'm keeping the geas," she admitted.

He nodded understanding. "Will you come back tomorrow? There's something I'd like you to find out for me. And... it's good to have someone to talk to."

She agreed, smiling to acknowledge receipt of his unspoken apology, and left. Spike accepted his allotment of pills from the nurse, swallowed them under her watchful eye, and closed his eyes to begin the wait.

**********

"I hate this place," Willow said conversationally the next day as she entered his room. "Hospitals have this... smell, you know? You just can't get used to it."

"I'm sorry. If I'd known, I'd not have asked you to come back." He pushed his tray table aside to make more room for her.

"It's all right. Having something to complain about is almost as good a distraction as researching, at least for a little while. I've got my laptop, so I thought I'd come by and-- Oooh... is that strawberry Jell-O?" she asked, catching sight of his lunch, barely touched on his table.

A weak smile tugged at his mouth. "Knock yourself out, Red."

Willow took the dish and settled cross-legged on the end of Spike's bed. "So," she began, after a large mouthful, "you want me to look something up for you."

"I want to know if there's an official police record of my... assault on Tonio."

"That's simple enough." Willow reached into the bag at her side and pulled out her laptop and a phone cord. "I'll just plug in and see what's the what."

"Didn't pay for a phone," Spike observed, as Willow hooked her computer to the room's phone jack.

"Oh, that doesn't matter," she replied. "A little tweak here, and... there!" She settled back onto the bed at his feet, tucked the wings of her hair securely behind her ears again, and began typing in earnest. "Just have to access some of the police files."

Spike reflected that it didn't take magic to make Willow one of the most dangerous people in the world, and that it was a very good thing she didn't realize it. In only minutes she had found what she wanted.

"Here he is. Tonio - Antonio Vigna. Hmm. He's got quite the record: assault; racketeering; pandering... But there's no record of a recent assault on him. He never reported it. Must have thought it was some rival challenging him for territory. And the injuries reported at the autopsy match those that Allie inflicted, before she killed him, not... what you did. You're in the clear."

"Never that," he replied darkly.

"Spike," she said gently. "I'm not in jail either, though I should be. What would they do - lock us up because we said we'd done something? There will never be that much room in prison. We'll still pay, both of us, because we can't live with ourselves unless we do. But maybe we have to find a way to pay it forward to the people who are still living."

He frowned, an idea forming in the back of his brain. "There's something else I'd like you to check out for me, Red. Something about the blood."

"What is it?"

"Somewhere in the industrial district, probably near Desperados, there's a warehouse that's a base for the theft ring - and more, if I'm right. See if you can find anything, any records that don't quite gel, something to help me locate them."

"Oh, that narrows it down a lot. Could you possibly be less helpful?"

"Don't snark, Red. It doesn't suit you. And lack of information's never held you back before."

"Well..." She nodded, in spite of herself. "Okay. I'll see what I can do."

"When you do find something, don't tell Buffy. Come straight to me."

"You shouldn't keep her out of this, you know." But some part of her thrilled to the secret, and to the fact that Spike simply assumed that she'd be able to do what he had asked.

"Just call it my reason to go on, then. Something I have to do for myself - and for Allie."

Willow nodded. That was something she could understand. 

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Chapter 26: Picking Up the Pieces>>