The Letter

Chapter 26:
Picking Up the Pieces

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

"I need to know everything about Spike's history," Buffy demanded without preamble when Giles opened the door early in the morning. "Tell me what you know, or find me the right Watcher's diary or dusty old tome."

Giles cinched the belt of his dressing gown more securely around his waist. "Are you certain? It doesn't make for pleasant reading."

"I'll bet. But I have to know, when I ask him, if he's telling me the truth. I don't want any more secrets."

**********

"Are you finding what you had hoped?"

Buffy looked up and nodded absent thanks when Giles set the steaming cup of tea on the table by her side. She closed the book with a sigh. "You know, five years ago if you'd asked me, I'd have had no trouble at all telling apart the man from the vampire. 'Not the man, but the thing that killed him,' just like you told me."

He settled in to the chair opposite her. "Angel and Angelus certainly provided an object lesson in that regard."

"No kidding. But now with Spike, it seems completely different. Or maybe I should say that almost nothing is different. He's a little sadder, a little less cocky - but he's still Spike. Only more so, if you see what I mean. And then I sit here and I read about the carnage he left behind him and I wonder... if he hasn't really changed all that much, then how do I... how can we ever manage to put it behind us?"

Giles weighed his words carefully. "You've decided that 'we' is something wise to pursue? You and Spike, together?"

"It was all really clear once. I knew that when the end came all I would have would be myself. Maybe that's why Faith and I could never connect - we weren't even supposed to even exist at the same time. One of those weird science ideas that Dawn and Willow like so well, about how two objects can't be in the same space... or something." She shrugged.

"It helped, when my friends, and even my mom, found out that I was the Slayer. I had all of you, and you loved me, and it made me stronger. Gave me a better reason to keep fighting. But no matter how much I talked about it to Willow, or how much my mom tried to be the best and most supportive Slayer's mom ever, no one ever really knew how lonely it was. But Spike knows. More now than ever before.

"Underneath it all, nothing's really changed. I still have that expiration date," she said bluntly. "But maybe... I won't have to be alone. And neither will he."

He had been so certain, when he had returned to England last year, that what Buffy needed was to learn to make decisions for herself. How could he complain, now that she was doing just that, for all that it scared him so?

I had resigned myself to the fact that you were going to die young. It's what we all trained for, after all, and considered ourselves lucky to be given a chance to be Watcher, and not just another trainee. But then you survived, time and again, and it seemed as if you could make anything possible. I grew to love you so... Was it just my own cowardice that made me leave so that I wouldn't have to be here to see you die one day?

"You're the Slayer, Buffy, and a grown woman. I shouldn't be the one to tell you what to do anymore. Not that I ever was able to," he added wryly.

She smiled. "I'm sorry that I wasn't always - okay, ever - the model Slayer for you. I never really did get into the whole 'following orders' thing. Probably got you loads of demerit points with the Council."

"I think that perhaps blind obedience is greatly overrated. You were everything a Watcher... that I could ever have hoped for. And more." So much so that even a vampire would deny his basic nature and change for you.

"So, as my friend, and not my Watcher - who I never listened to anyway - what should I do about Spike?"

"I suppose that depends very much on what you truly feel for him, Buffy." He removed his glasses and looked down at her tenderly. "I won't interfere any more in what you choose. I should have known, from all our experience together, that your heart will lead you to places that logic would never dare - and we're often the better for it. While you have the chance, make the choice that will make you happy."

**********

All four men looked up as the visitor entered, but three of them soon turned away to other distractions.

"Good morning, Spike," Giles said evenly.

"Name something good about it," he retorted sourly.

"You've lost none of your special charm, I see. And yet you still have a clutch of admirers." He nodded towards the ledge where Dawn's flowers had been joined by several other bouquets from his coworkers at Desperados. Corey had come with awkward sympathy, and Tina with cautious smiles. Jake had been his usual booming self. Spike thought he must have been sufficiently surly because Jake was the only one to come by more than once - to tell him that both the staff and many customers were taking up a collection to help defray his medical expenses, which only added to his shame.

"Where's Red?" he demanded, annoyed that Giles had so easily made him remember what he'd rather forget. "She's the only person I'm interested in seeing today."

"I've asked Willow to remain outside for a moment. There is something I wish to discuss with you."

"Why? You planning on going slumming, Rupes?"

"You play the part of the fool well, Spike. But I don't believe it any more. You told me yourself what you feel for Buffy, and Willow has told me some of what you did for her. There's a great depth to you that you've been hiding from us." He took a moment to remove and polish his glasses. He probably wasn't even aware he did so anymore, it had become simply an unconscious technique for focussing his thoughts.

Giles replaced his glasses securely on the bridge of his nose and continued. "Knowing what I do of your history, I suspect your education may rival mine. Your Greek and Latin are likely better, and you've shown that you understand and speak a number of demonic tongues as well. And no matter how dissolute your last century, you can't have helped but pick up lifetimes of experience in a variety of areas."

"This is all very flattering, Rupert, but do get to the point," Spike complained. "I've got things to do."

Giles settled himself into the chair at his bedside. "I have something of a proposal to put to you."

"A modest proposal? Best make it swift, then."

Giles returned him only a pained look. "Waste of a good education," he muttered under his breath.

"I'm sure that you knew that I had resigned as Buffy's Watcher and returned to England. While I am still convinced that I made the choice that was best for her, it damaged the trust we once had between us. There's been a certain hesitancy at times when I...

"I've taught her everything that I could, but she will still be much more likely to survive if there is someone in her life whose skills complement her own. Someone who will care about her welfare as deeply as I do, and who will help prepare her for what she may have to face. Someone she trusts. In short, she still needs a Watcher, and I believe that you may be the one who would best serve her in that capacity."

Spike was aghast. Whatever he might have expected, this was not it. "Me? A Watcher? Bloody hell, Rupert, you're off your chump."

"Yes, well... she'll take your advice; she won't take mine any more. And I believe you'll never abandon her." He looked away for a moment. "I may even be able to convince the Council that a small stipend is in order - just a pittance, I'm afraid, since you don't really possess any formal training. But given your, ah, extensive field experience..."

"Will wonders never cease. There's only one thing wrong with your plan."

"And that is?"

"I am abandoning her. One last thing I can do for her, and then I'll be gone."

"I don't understand--" Giles stammered. This was not the same man who had confronted him at Buffy's house, declaring that he would rather die than live in a world without her.

"No, you don't," Spike agreed maddeningly. "Now get the hell out and let me see Willow."

**********

"I am so sorry." Willow surveyed the four faces turned to her, one by one. Dawn was hesitant, Xander forgiving, Anya suspicious and Buffy... inscrutable. She pressed on. "Sorry about everything that happened last year."

"You don't have to apologize to us, Will," Xander protested.

"Yes she does," Anya insisted. "That's the least she has to do."

"Yes, I do," Willow agreed before Xander could take issue with his demon girlfriend yet again. "Xander, even if you don't need to have me apologize, it's still something I need to do, a step I have to take for myself. And Anya's right. It is the very least I can do, and it will never come close to being enough for the things I did."

Anya settled back in her chair, mollified.

Willow turned to Buffy. "I think you're the one I've hurt the most."

Reflex made Buffy shake her head, but Willow wasn't going to let her give in that easily.

"All I knew is that I was hurting, and I had the power to do something about it. I didn't want to think about where you might have gone; I just convinced the others that you were trapped in some hell dimension and that we had to bring you out. I never thought what it would do to you. " She looked down for a moment, before continuing. "And I still can't say that I'm sorry you're not dead - but I am sorry I put you through hell after I brought you back."

"I'm not sorry to be here, Will. Not anymore. However it happened."

"I was selfish. It's not a very nice thing to learn about yourself."

"Everyone is selfish," Anya said. "Just not everyone has the power to indulge themselves. That's why so many people make wishes. And not even just vengeance ones. All sorts."

"Sometimes I think that the only people who should be given power are the ones who don't want it," Dawn said.

"That's ridiculous," Anya retorted. "Everyone wants power. Look at Buffy." Everyone did, of course, and Buffy frowned. "You can't tell me that she'd go back to being who she was before she was the Slayer."

"I so would," Buffy exclaimed hotly. "You have no idea what it's like--"

"You'd still be in LA; you'd never have moved to Sunnydale." Anya ticked off points on her fingers. "You wouldn't have met Willow or Xander..."

Buffy took up the count in her mind. Or Angel. Or Giles. My parents wouldn't have divorced - but I'd still be an only child. She slid her hand over Dawn's where it lay next to hers on the couch and laced their fingers together, then gave her sister what she hoped was a reassuring smile. Dawn squeezed her fingers in return.

I'd never have met Spike. I'd never have seen him undergo such heart-stopping changes, trying to become a better man. I never would have... Her mind shied away from completing that thought.

A lot of people have died, but how many more have lived because of what I'm able to do? Isn't that how Spike's argument went? It's not licence to do as I please, but it's a damn good reason to get out of bed in the morning.

"You're right," Buffy acquiesced. "If I really take the time to think about it, I wouldn't change anything. I've been able to make a difference here, and there are too many things in this world I'm grateful for to want to go back to what I was before. I wouldn't be the same person if I weren't the Slayer - and I think I like the person that I am."

"You've learned the Peter Parker lesson," Anya observed with satisfaction.

"The what?" Buffy raised her eyebrows. Xander just sighed; he knew what was coming.

"You know... 'With great power comes great responsibility.' He doesn't look for a way to get rid of his powers, because he knows what good he can do with them. Of course, this means that his life is all angst and drama as a result, suitable for multi-episode story arcs."

"Anya, that's not..." Xander began. "Actually... that's a pretty good analogy."

She beamed at his approval, and at finally feeling as though she were making a useful contribution to a Scooby meeting.

"Angst and drama," Buffy mused. "That certainly describes all our lives, doesn't it?"

"Oh, I didn't mean Willow," Anya explained blithely. "She was more Dark Phoenix than Spiderman."

"Hey! What about you?" Willow protested. "I haven't seen you being all responsible with your power."

"I'm a demon. There are different rules."

"That must be convenient," Dawn said sarcastically.

"Oh, it is," Anya agreed, glad she was being clearly understood. "Very much so. But you all see my point: Buffy wouldn't give up her power that made her life what it is. And especially not now that she's in love with Spike."

There was dead silence except for the sounds of rustling fabric and creaking seat springs as everyone turned to look at Buffy. Again. The colour drained from her face. I'm not ready for this...

"Do you love him?" Willow asked her gently. "Because it's okay if you love him. It's not up to us to decide."

That's what Tara told me. I think I might have already felt something by then, but I couldn't admit it. Who would understand? But now... I told Giles I wanted to know the truth about Spike's past. If I can't tell the truth about how I feel to my friends, then how can I ever hope to tell it to Spike? Or even understand it myself?

Buffy took a deep breath. "When I was with Angel, I gave him my heart and soul. It nearly destroyed me when I had to send him to hell - and then killed something in me when he came back, and we couldn't be together and he left. I'll never love anyone the way I loved Angel."

"Spike isn't Angel," Dawn observed quietly. "You can love him like Spike."

Buffy went on as though she hadn't heard. "But although I know he loved me - still loves me - with all his heart and soul, he never really needed me the way I needed him. That was why he could leave me. That was why he didn't understand how much it hurt when he told me I should have a normal life. What did I care about normal? I wanted him."

Wordlessly, Dawn handed her a tissue to blot the tears she hadn't realized had pooled in her eyes and spilled onto her cheeks.

"Then when I met Riley, I remember thinking that Angel would have to be happy for me because I had found someone normal that I could love. But this time, no matter how hard I tried to love him - and I did love him - I didn't need him. And he knew it."

"But you need Spike?" Anya asked, wishing that Buffy would finally get to the point. "And you love him?"

"He's never lied to me," Buffy said, sidestepping the question. "Not once. And if I'm being a bitch, he'll tell me as much to my face without mincing words."

"Honesty's a good trait in a man," Anya observed. "More men should be like that. But not about our hair. Or our weight. Or--"

"Buffy needs us to listen now, Ahn, not offer opinions," Xander interrupted, taking her at her word.

Buffy smiled weakly at him. "I trust him. And I can't imagine now what my life would be like if he hadn't been in it. Is that love? I don't know. It's... harder than it was before, to figure that out. But I know that he needs me, and I... I need him too. It's like he completes a part of me that I didn't even know was missing, but now I can't live without."

"Then you should go after him, Buffy, if he's the one who will make you happy now," Xander said.

"Why is it that you can offer an opinion on Buffy's love life, but I can't?" Anya queried irately. "Is your opinion more valuable than mine? Is it because I'm not human? And I thought you didn't like Spike, anyway."

"Yeah, what's made you so willing to take Spike's side in this, Xander?" Willow asked, trying to defuse the incipient argument, and honestly curious as to the reason for the about-face in his attitude towards vampires - or in this case, an ex-vampire. More specifically, she thought, in his attitude toward Buffy dating anyone not him, vampire or not.

Xander shrugged sheepishly. "I never liked Angel. I mean, we all know how dangerous he can be when his soul's gone. And I suppose it was really mostly because of jealousy that Buffy would choose him and not me." He patted Anya's hand absently, lost in memory, as though to reassure her it was all in the past. "But I've grown up a bit since then, and if I'm going to be fair then I have to admit I admire what Angel's chosen to do in LA. When he's cursed with his soul, he finally gets around to doing some good with it. He's playing the cards he was dealt." He took a deep breath, struggling for words to explain the contradictory emotions inside. "But Spike wasn't cursed. He... he bullied the dealer into giving him a new hand. A better hand. And he never gives up." He looked at Anya, as though trying to tell her that he wouldn't be giving up any time soon either. Soothed by his clear devotion, she relaxed against him, snuggling in closely.

"Until now." Buffy's voice was tired, and she felt far older than her twenty one years - no, twenty two now, because hadn't another birthday slipped by unnoticed in the chaos that was her life? "You should have heard him, denying that he ever cared about me, trying to make me leave. It's like he's trying to turn himself inside out, and it hurts so much just to see it. That's why I haven't been able to go back to see him," she admitted, shamefaced.

"Buffy, if you love him... you have to tell him," Willow said. "Maybe that's the only thing that can help him now. Make him believe you." She looked over at Xander with a soul-deep love in her own eyes. "Because that's the only thing that reached me, when I needed it."

***********

Buffy approached the door to the room Spike shared with some trepidation. She had rehearsed with Willow and Dawn some of the things she might say to him, but none of them, herself included, had felt they would be able to predict his likely responses. Taking a deep breath, Buffy pushed open the door. "Spike?"

Spike's bed was empty, the sheets in disarray. She thought that he might have been taken away for therapy or something, until she saw the meal tray sitting untouched on his side table. A small unconscious frown creased her features. Buffy moved further into the room, looking carefully at the other occupied beds. I'm sure I have the right room...

Another idea occurred to her, and she tapped on the closed door to the bathroom. "Spike? It's Buffy. I need to talk to you."

The door opened suddenly, startling her. "He's not here," said the dark bearded face that appeared in the opening. "He took off."

"What?" she gasped. "When?"

"Prob'ly after lunch. Leastways, I ain't seen him since then." The man - clearly another patient in his thin cotton hospital gown and robe - walked past her, settled back into his own bed and turned on his television. "That's all I know, sister." He shrugged apologetically, and then let his attention be absorbed again by quality programming likely involving car chases and explosions. Or possibly women bouncing on trampolines.

'Network for Men,' my ass. They should just come right out and call it 'the fourteen-year-old's all neat things network.'

A sound at the door made Buffy turn. A nurse entered with a tray of medications for the room's occupants and nodded pleasantly in greeting. She handed out the paper cups of pills to the other patients, but when she took in the state of Spike's bed, she set the tray down, and pulled back the rumpled sheets to reveal concealed IV baggies and assorted tubes and needles.

"Where's Mr. Summers?"

A small twinge of fear twisted Buffy's gut. "That's what I was going to ask you."

"And you are?"

"Buffy Summers. Ah... his wife."

"I don't remember meeting you." Her disapproval was clear from her tone.

So I've only been here once since they brought him in. It's complicated.

She looked Buffy over sharply. "Mrs. Summers, we really must protest. Your husband is in no condition for you to remove him from the hospital."

For the second time in minutes, Buffy was stunned nearly speechless. "What? I didn't--"

"You must understand that doing so is completely against medical advice, and the hospital and staff can't be held responsible for complications in his condition." Her fear was obvious.

Buffy stared her down. "I did not take him out of here... Linda," she read from the woman's nametag. "Anything that happens to him is your responsibility - he could have vanished hours ago, and you've only just noticed it now?"

"He was always so quiet... and we've been so busy..." Realizing that this argument wasn't going to win her any points with Buffy, Linda turned instead to inspect Spike's bed again. "He pulled out the IVs, the catheter - everything - and just walked out, from the looks of things."

Buffy's stomach fluttered at the thought of what that might have involved, and covered the feeling with anger. "He's barely able to walk yet. Isn't that what you just told me?"

"I assumed that you--"

"Well, I didn't. Can't you find him?"

"I'll call security. He shouldn't even be out of bed."

With Linda gone, Buffy inspected Spike's bed, table and locker for any clues to his whereabouts. In the bottom of the locker, she found a small folded plastic bag labelled 'patient personal effects'. Clearly it had lain there untouched since he had been transferred into the room. She rummaged through his meagre belongings, at a loss for what to do next. She picked out a wallet and flipped absently through it until something caught her eye. When did Spike ever care if he had a driver's licence? Or even a wallet...? I suppose if he needed it for some scam... Looking at it more closely, she only grew more puzzled. His name was listed as William Summers, and the home address shown was her own. More inspection of the wallet revealed further mysteries, such as the resident alien's green card and a months-old paycheque stub from Desperados made out in the false name Dawn had given for him only a week before.

What the hell is going on?

Her attention was diverted from this new puzzle by the sound of Linda's urgent voice on the hospital PA calling security to the floor, and realized that the last thing she needed right now was to get further tangled up in hospital bureaucracy. She headed for the stairs and the payphones in the hospital entrance. If he has as much of a head start as I'm afraid of, hospital security isn't going to be enough. I need help.

It took her a few moments to put together enough change for the phone, but then her fingers dialled the old familiar number without conscious thought.

"Hello?"

"Xander, Spike's disappeared from the hospital; no one knows where he is. Can you pick up Willow and meet me at--"

"No." Xander knew exactly what Buffy's shocked expression would be, as though it had traveled to him straight down the telephone line.

"What--?" was all she managed.

"I'm sorry Buffy, but this time I can't," he went on. "Anya's here. She's in pretty bad shape right now, because we've just had a visit from D'Hoffryn and some of his goons. I guess the last wish she granted didn't go over too well with the boss - he's revoked her powers again. To make it worse, he's also threatened to have her killed if she so much as thinks of trying to contact him again."

He tried hard to keep his voice gentle. "Buffy, you know I love you - and if it meant the end of the world then I'd be the first one there by your side. But Anya needs me right now - like maybe Spike needs you - and if I really want this to work, I've got to be here for her. She's got to know she's number one in my life."

Buffy leaned her forehead against the cool plaster of the wall and closed her eyes. "I understand, Xander. Really, I do. I hope... good luck to you both. If there's anything I can... if there's anything you need slayed... call me, okay?"

The relief in Xander's voice was palpable. "You know I will. And Buffy?" He concentrated carefully so he wouldn't begin his next sentence with 'if'. "When you find him, don't let him go again. Do what you have to do. Make it right."

Buffy couldn't answer. She made a sound that she hoped he would take as 'goodbye' and hung up the phone.

After several deep breaths - and another frantic search for coins - she picked up the handset again and dialled Willow's number. When her friend answered, she wasted no time. "Willow, Spike's missing. I think he left the hospital some time after lunch, and I need your help to find him."

Willow was silent for so long that Buffy was afraid something was wrong with the phone. "Willow? Are you still there?"

"Buffy... I think I know where he's gone."

She sagged against the wall in relief.

"We'll be there in ten minutes."

**********

Buffy was so busy looking for Giles's nondescript rental car that she didn't notice her own mother's SUV pulling up - she still couldn't think of it as hers - until the horn beeped for her attention. Peering in through the tinted glass, she was astonished to see Dawn behind the wheel, with Willow belted into the passenger seat. Frowning, she pulled open the rear door and wedged the bag with Spike's personal effects in beside the satchel of assorted weapons on the back seat, and climbed in herself.

"What are you doing here?" Buffy demanded as Dawn pulled away abruptly from the curb. "And when did you get your licence?"

"I didn't," Dawn confessed with a grin, ignoring her sister's dark look. "But I did take driver's ed this year," she went on earnestly.

"Yeah, Buffy, Dawn's a great driver," Willow insisted, though Buffy looked scandalized at this mutinous show of support for her little sister. "Besides, licence or not, no reasonable person should ever have to be a passenger with you."

Buffy finally had to let her face crack into a smile as the two of them giggled. At least things seemed to have thawed between them.

"And I can help you out if there's a fight, too. Spike taught me a lot of stuff, and I've been practicing every day." Dawn caught Buffy's gaze in the mirror, and braced herself for the automatic rejection of her offer. To her surprise, her sister only nodded.

The mention of Spike's name had thrown cold water on Buffy's emotions again. "If we find him. Will, you said you knew where he went?"

When she turned in her seat to face Buffy, Willow's face was troubled. "When I saw him this morning, I had information for him on a possible location for the vampires involved with the blood bank robberies."

"And you didn't tell me?" Buffy protested. "Will--"

"Spike asked me not to. He said that it was something he needed to do for himself. His reason to go on living." I couldn't take that away from him.

"He'll be too weak to defend himself properly, and he's probably headed into the midst of a nest of vampires." She had a sudden terrible insight, as though she could clearly see all of Spike's motivations laid out bare before her. "He meant something he could do to himself. He's not looking for a reason to live - he's trying to find another way to die."

The truck lurched as it picked up speed, but no one commented.

"So, is Xander meeting us there?" Dawn asked. "If we're picking him up, I need to turn up ahead."

"No. It's just us on this one." Buffy filled them in on her earlier conversation.

Dawn's lips pursed in a silent whistle. "Wow. Good for Xander."

Willow nodded. "Yeah. But his timing stinks."

Strained laughter diverted their thoughts for only a moment. Searching for a new distraction so she didn't have to let her mind dwell on what they might find when they located Spike, Buffy pulled his wallet from the bag on the seat beside her. "What do you make of this?" she asked, holding out the faux driver's licence to Willow.

"Nice picture?" Willow took it and read out the name and address in a wondering voice, turning it over in her hands. "I guess we have another mystery on our hands."

Dawn had paled as soon as Willow had started reading. "Um," she ventured, wondering just how she was going to talk her way out of this one. "That one I can explain..."

**********

Dawn brought the vehicle to a halt outside a nondescript warehouse with only one tire up on the curb. Buffy climbed out first and looked it up and down. "Are you sure this is the place, Will? 'Cause it looks kinda non-headquarters-y."

Willow joined her on the sidewalk. "I checked everything on this place: deliveries, shipments, utility payments - you name it. Too many things didn't add up for it to be a legitimate business."

"It does seem awfully quiet for being the centre of vampire activity, though," Dawn said as she came around the front of the truck, Buffy's bag of weapons over her shoulder.

Willow looked uncertain. "Well... whether or not there actually are vampires here, this is the address I gave to Spike. So that makes it the best place to start looking for him."

"Right." Buffy rummaged in the bag that Dawn held open before her to retrieve a couple of stakes, which she tucked into her waistband. Dawn armed herself in turn with more stakes, but added a pistol crossbow and a quiver of bolts for it that she strapped to her forearm.

When Willow went to pick out something for herself, Buffy laid a hand on her arm. "You don't have to come with us, Will."

"Hey," Willow protested. "Let me remind you that even before the big magic, Xander and Cordy and I patrolled together. We did a good job, too."

"I remember," Buffy said fondly. "You dusted six out of ten on average, right? I just want you to be sure."

"I am sure. Don't make me pull out my resolve face..."

Buffy made no more protest. With her in the lead the trio approached the doors. They opened outward to reveal a small reception area, complete with desks and cabinets, but no sign of life. A glass-walled private office took up one corner of the room, and double swinging doors presumably led to the warehouse space that made up the bulk of the building.

"Hello?" Buffy ventured quietly as they entered. When there was no response, they readied their weapons and moved in. Buffy peered over the counter that ran the width of the space. "This is the place, alright," she said.

"You can feel vampires in here?" Dawn asked.

"Don't have to," Buffy replied, pointing at something behind the counter. "Look." She could feel it now though, a subsonic buzz that settled like an ache into her bones. Vampires. A lot of them.

A man in a lab coat lay sprawled face-up and unconscious on the floor behind the counter. Wire-rim glasses hung askew from one ear, and blood trickled slowly from his nose and the large and very painful-looking lump at his temple.

Willow was at the man's side in a moment, fingers reaching for his throat. "He's human, and he's still alive," she reported. "Buffy, he's still bleeding. That means this couldn't have happened more than about ten minutes ago."

"Nice to know we're not too late for the party," Buffy observed dryly. "Will, do what you can for him and call 9-1-1. Dawn and I will check out the back." Despite her earlier protests of wanting to be involved, Willow looked relieved.

Buffy eased open one of the large doors and peered into the dim warehouse. Nothing visible moved within.

Dawn manoeuvred to look in over Buffy's head. "Do you think we should scout around from up there first?" she asked, referring to a set of stairs just inside the doors leading to a catwalk around the perimeter of the building. A loud splintering crash resonated throughout the space before Buffy could reply.

"Oh yeah. Because Spike's always been known for his stealth," she sighed, when the echoes had died away. "Let's move. But stay behind me."

They came around the corner into a scene out of hell. The warehouse lights were dimmed because much of the power had been diverted to the dozens of commercial refrigeration units lining the walls, stacked high with plastic baggies of presumably human blood that glowed like rubies in the gloom. Weak light from the refrigerators, filtered by the blood, cast a lurid pall over the figures before them.

Spike stood unsteadily in the open space, challenged by three vampires while a dozen or more grinned down in anticipation from their various perches on shelves and walkways overhead. From somewhere he had obtained a sword, which he held upright before him, pale light shivering along its length as his hands trembled. He was stained crimson from his neck to his knees, and he stood in a lake of blood spilled out from a glass-fronted case that now lay overturned and shattered.

A bowstring thrummed behind her, and Buffy saw one of the vampires facing Spike explode into dust. She looked back over her shoulder to see Dawn calmly loading another bolt into the crossbow.

"Well, you said there wasn't much point in stealth any more," she said defensively, in response to Buffy's sharp glance.

"I didn't mean us," she hissed in exasperation, then turned back to attack. Spike had taken advantage of the distraction to strike at the two remaining vampires directly in front of him, taking both heads off with a single clean stroke. Untold more poured down from the walls.

Everything descended into red-tinged chaos after that.

Buffy's focus narrowed until her entire world contained only the smooth rise and fall of the stake in her hand - twist and bend and strike, then recover to strike again and again. The sound of her own quickening breaths and the stamp and shuffle of feet filled her ears. She was dimly aware that Spike had fallen under the onslaught, his sword skittering away across the floor. But before she could do more than start towards him, he'd thrown one off of him and at least ten feet across the room with a well-placed kick. He kicked out back to his feet, knocking down a second with a wild swing, and then he reached over the head of a third, jammed his fingers into its mouth and tore the head away from the body entirely.

Some part of her brain found time to register this anomalous strength, but all she did was toss him her second stake, saying "Here. It's easier."

Behind her, Dawn continued methodically reloading and firing until her supply of bolts finally ran out. She dove and rolled across the dusty floor in an effort to get to Spike's lost sword. Just as she reached it, a vampire caught her, tangling one hand in her hair and raking at her face with the other. She spun, adding the force of its pull to her own movement. The vampire didn't even have time to look surprised as its head parted company with its neck.

Almost as suddenly as the battle had begun, it was over, and the three of them stared bemusedly at one another through the ash-hazed air.

Dawn leaned on the crosspiece of the sword that was balanced point down between her feet. She looked for all the world like a valkyrie, Buffy decided, with her long hair wild about her shoulders and blood from a gash on her forehead streaming down her face to drip from her chin.

"What?" Dawn asked sharply, seeing her sister's gaze resting on her. "I told you I've been practicing." For all her bravado, her voice trembled.

"Why am I still alive? I wasn't supposed to be alive." Buffy tore her eyes away from her sister in time to see Spike collapse to his knees, his hands fisting in his hair and streaking the dark and light strands with bright gore. "What have you done to me?" he raged, bowed over on the dusty floor.

"I don't know," Buffy whispered. I let you love me, and just see what it's done...

She went to her own knees before him then, taking his wrists in a firm grip and pulling his hands away before they could crook into claws and tear at his face. He offered no resistance. Releasing him, she tore his blood-soaked shirt in two from neck to hem, and then ran her hands over him frantically searching for the source of the bleeding.

"It's not mine," he said, with a disturbing sound somewhere between a manic giggle and a sob. "Not a scratch."

She'd just seen him take the most appalling beating, but apparently he wasn't even bruised. His heart pounded heavily under the hand she'd laid on his chest. Not a vampire... what are you?

"Now what?" Dawn wanted to know.

If I only knew... Buffy got up reluctantly from Spike's side, hoping that his life wouldn't be in danger - not even from himself - in the next few minutes. "Now we have a quick look around to make sure we haven't missed anything, and we call the police and report that the blood's here. Then we get the hell out of here before they arrive." She wiped as much blood from her hands onto her jeans as she could. "Come on."

Buffy and Dawn moved further into the warehouse. Instead of more shelves and the refrigeration units she had expected to see, they were surprised to find a large area left clear. The floor had been swept clean, and a giant ring of twisting symbols had been painted onto it. Buffy's stomach gave an unpleasant lurch at the sight of it, and the traces of blood on her hands grew warm. Her palms tingled as she approached. Voices whispered and muttered in her ears, and she thought that if she held her head in just the right way, she might make out what they were saying. She stepped forward - it was some sort of invitation...

"Buffy, stop! "

Willow's voice - better than a bucket of ice water over the head - snapped her back into reality, one foot poised to step into the circle. Wincing with the effort required, Buffy drew herself back from the brink.

"It's a summoning circle," Willow explained as she drew nearer. "If you had--" she bit off her words and doubled over, clutching at herself.

"Willow, what's wrong?" Dawn exclaimed, taking her arm in support.

Willow exhaled noisily. "Ooh. Just a few bad thoughts. I'm okay."

Buffy examined her friend more closely. The sleeve of her sweater was torn, and when the fabric fluttered open it revealed an angry-looking slice down her forearm.

"Surprised a pesky pint-sized demon in the inner office when I went to use the phone," she explained, seeing Buffy's concern. "It took me a little while to get rid of it." She mimed pounding motions.

"Interesting security system."

"It turned out that it was really trying to keep me from getting near the computer in there, not the phone. I've found some incredible stuff - I'll show you. Whoever was behind all of this was setting up to summon something - something really big, from the looks of that circle. I didn't have time to look for the details. The plan was to collect an enormous amount of human blood and then pour it all in at once as an offering to open the door between dimensions."

Buffy looked around the warehouse, at row upon row of tidy packages of blood, refrigerated and waiting. "All that blood..." she whispered.

"It would have been huge," Willow confirmed. "End-of-the-world huge. Or at least most of the state."

"So we actually prevented another apocalypse without even realizing it?" Dawn asked, and Willow nodded. "Cool."

Buffy smiled at her little... her not-so-little sister's enthusiasm. "That would make what now, Will? Seven? Or is it eight?"

"Depends what you count as really apocalypse-y, I suppose," Willow replied. "Glory... or me... sure. The mayor or Adam maybe not so much."

"Watch that ego there, Will." Buffy grinned. "Whichever. If it had happened, it would still have been one too many." Buffy took the sword from Dawn and swung it with all her strength at the edge of the circle. Shards of concrete flew at the impact, and she thought she heard a protesting scream deep inside her head. It faded as she continued to strike, until most of the circle's symbols were obliterated. "There. No one will be messing around with that again any time soon."

Abandoning the ruined sword, the three of them linked arms and turned towards the front of the building and the office. In the distance, they finally heard a siren wailing. "Sunnydale paramedics have impeccable timing," Buffy observed. "Let's collect Spike and get the hell out of here. They can call the police themselves, when they see this place."

When they rounded the corner again, all they saw was a set of sticky red footprints that faded away near the front door. Spike was gone.

**********

"He's strong," Buffy commented as she placed the last of the butterfly bandages across the cut on Dawn's forehead. "More than human strong, I mean."

Giles looked up from where he was performing a similar service for Willow's injured arm. "But not a vampire."

Buffy shook her head. No. I don't know. "And he only left the hospital this afternoon. According to them, he should have had trouble walking, much less fighting off a dozen vampires on his own."

"Fascinating." Giles straightened in his seat, his eyes bright with the promise of an intellectual challenge. "Let me think about it for a while."

Thinking, for Giles, always seemed to involve riffling the pages of some ponderous dusty tome, whether or not his limited travelling library contained anything relevant to the subject. Buffy left him to it and turned to cleaning up the debris of first aid they'd left scattered about the small living room of the apartment he shared with Willow.

"Shit!" Dawn exclaimed suddenly, startling them all. Three pairs of curious eyes turned her way, and she reddened. "Um... darn?"

"What is it, Dawn?" Giles inquired. "Is there something you need to add regarding the events of the day?"

"Oh no, no," she was quick to insist. "It's nothing, really." Under their insistent stares, she found herself forced to continue. "It's just that..." --she took a deep breath-- "I was supposed to meet Phil Letourneau tonight. What with all the fun we've been having, I completely forgot. "

"Phil of the algebra notes? Creepy Phil?" Buffy smiled in amusement.

"Yeah, well... he's not really that creepy, I guess," Dawn admitted. "He was going to pick me up for a movie."

"You should still go," Willow insisted. "It's important to keep your life as normal as possible, between apocalypses. Good mental health and all."

"So that's the plural of apocalypse," Buffy said thoughtfully. "I've always wondered about that."

"Do you think I should tell him I ran into a door?" Dawn asked, fingering her bandaged forehead gingerly.

Buffy grinned. "Welcome to the world of creative slaying-related excuses. You'll think of something. I'm still not sure I'm going to be able to come up with something that's going to do the trick for me. I may already be fired." Her grin slipped and she sighed heavily. "I'll worry about it tomorrow, I guess. Tonight I find Spike. Are you okay to get home alone?"

"I'll walk her home, Buffy," Willow volunteered. "It's not that far, and Giles can come and pick me up after he's done with all the thinking."

Dawn looked up, her face grave. "Buffy? When you find him... bring him home."

Buffy nodded. "I will," she promised.

**********

"Do you have anything yet?"

"Possibly. I have a theory that it might be a synergistic consequence of the combination of --"

"In English, Giles? Buffy English, not English English."

"Yes, right. Actually, it depends on your understanding of the origin of the Primal Slayer."

Buffy frowned at this non sequitur. "To know what happened to Spike, I need to know about the first Slayer? What's to know? 'One girl, in all the world, she is the chosen one,' yada, yada, yada. She was just the first one of all of us."

"There's rather more to it than that. To create the first Slayer, the men who would become the first Watchers summoned a demon. A girl was... bound... to the earth, and the demon's essence merged with hers, to give her power over other demons."

"Like rape? That's... that's just sick." Oh god, what if Spike was right all along? Does that mean I'm-- "I'm not a demon!"

"No, you're more than human, not less. But that is the source of your power, all the same. And at the moment of a Slayer's death, that essence is transferred to another girl capable of receiving it. To be a potential Slayer is to simply be strong enough to be able to hold that kind of power.

"Now consider what has happened to Spike. He was literally minutes away from death - killed by a vampire whose blood he had drunk."

"So he could be a vampire again, so that I would have to kill him." Her face was cold. "I know that part."

"And he was held by medical science just at the very moment of death, at which point his body should have become host to a demon - and given the blood of a Slayer."

Buffy's eyes widened in sudden comprehension. "So he received... some of my demon? He's a... a Slayer now?"

Giles shook his head. "I don't know. Let's not forget that he also received an experimental blood substitute, of which we don't know the long-term effects, as well as blood from Dawn. And I don't believe that anything has fundamentally changed about Dawn simply because Glory was defeated. The mystical nature of the Key has never been fully understood."

"So we don't know what he is now, or what he can do."

"No. It's definitely a topic that requires in-depth research." Giles sounded very kid-in-a-candy-store about the whole prospect. "Perhaps it's only that he was a vampire, his body hosting a demon for more than a century, that gave him the ability to survive such a thing. There's a reason there are no male Slayers, after all. They aren't strong enough, in the ways a Slayer must be."

"When you figure it out, you let me know. I'm going to find him." There's just one stop I need to make on the way.  

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