[identity profile] eee1313.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] dancing_lessons_archive
Part one of three

Episode Six: Statute of Limitations

by cousinjean
1977 by The Clash
All I Ask by Crowded House

Shout-outs & A/N: "NYPD Lou" is TM Abby. Fenwic also contributed a couple of lines, if you can spot them you get a cookie. Well, not really. As usual, major thanks to the DL beta crew. Big thanks also to our readers, especially our perpetual cheerleaders raen, little_bit, AngelChicken and Ms. Friskie, and to all those who take the time to gives us feedback and support.


*
Lou Acosta didn't want much out of life. Time was he wanted to stop the bad guys; but in twenty-seven years as a big city cop he'd gotten his fill of catching criminals and then watching the system put them right back out on the street. These days, he just wanted to get his son through college, be on time with his ex-wife's alimony, and survive to retirement. So when his friend Ben Grant had called him up to tell him about some job openings in the Sunnydale PD, it had seemed like the perfect opportunity to do just that.

Of course, he knew going in that Sunnydale wasn't quite the sleepy little town Ben had made it out to be. He knew why almost half of their police department had to be replaced. He'd seen the riot footage on the news. But Ben said that the gangs responsible for the riots had been run out of town. The community was trying to rebuild, to make Sunnydale into the picturesque ideal that the name implied. Sounded good to Lou. Good enough to convince him to pack up his life and trade in his New York badge and Lieutenant's rank for a Sergeant's desk a continent away. A desk job in a cozy little Southern California town. Just what the doctor ordered.

It hadn't taken long for him to figure out that the story behind the riots wasn't quite what he'd been fed, that there was something ... off about Sunnydale. People generally didn't go out after dark here, and it wasn't gangs they were afraid of. Words like "demons" and "hellmouth" tended to hang in the air, and even the most stalwart atheists in the department carried crucifixes on their rounds. Though as much as something bothered him about the town, he couldn't say the same for its inhabitants. Sunnydalians were a tough breed. Not tough like New Yorkers. Just ... strong. Courageous. Determined to put their town back together. It was why Lou had decided to stay.

It also hadn't taken him long to deduce that there were some jobs in this town that the police didn't handle. Sure, they made a show of it, did what they could. But the real work was left to a couple of girls. Slayers, the people called them, in hushed, reverent tones. They handled the things that defied explanation. The stuff that got the townspeople really scared. Like that mudmonster thing a few weeks ago. Lou still didn't understand what the hell that thing was, but he understood that the system wasn't equipped to deal with it. What made a couple of little girls barely out of their teens equipped to handle it was something else he didn't understand, now anymore than back in the day when he'd first heard of the Slayer. When he tried to -- when he asked questions -- people just exchanged knowing glances and told him that there was good, and there was evil, and true evil was something he'd never known.

That's where they were wrong. He knew true evil. Twenty-five years ago he'd stared it right in the face and lived to tell the tale to a long line of shrinks. And now it sat across from him at the opposite end of the bar.

It hadn't aged a day.

***

*******************
New York City, 1977
*******************

Detective Acosta pushed through the crowd of reporters and gawkers, flashing his badge at the uniformed officer guarding the subway entrance. Halfway down the steps he shuddered and drew his jacket more tightly around him. He couldn't be sure if it was the April breeze or nervousness about his first homicide that chilled him. He passed the token booths and jumped the turnstile, and the train came into view. Yellow police tape cordoned off the last car. About a half dozen people milled around inside. He ducked under the tape and joined them.

A short, fat man with an ugly tie and a bad comb-over looked up as Lou entered the car. "Can I help you?"

"Detective Lubbock?"

The fat man nodded, and chomped down on his cigar.

Lou pulled out his badge. "Detective Acosta, reporting for duty."

Lubbock took the badge and inspected it. "Luis Acosta, Detective, Junior Grade."

"Call me Lou."

Lubbock looked up at him. "Says here you work Vice."

"Just transferred to Homicide, sir. Haven't finished all my paperwork yet."

Lubbock nodded and handed back the badge. "You picked a hell of a first case. The M.E. still has to make the call, but it's a safe bet the girl didn't snap her own neck."

"So it's not our serial shooter." Lou felt a pang of disappointment, followed up by guilt. He hoped neither showed.

"Nope. They wouldn't have called in the pinch hitters if it was." Lubbock waved him further inside the car and led him towards the victim, who'd been covered head-to-toe with a sheet. "Anyway, victim's Negro. Doesn't match the profile. Early twenties, no ID or money on her, so I'm not ruling out robbery." He held a notebook at arm's length and squinted at the page. "Witnesses described a Caucasian man, medium height and build, entering and exiting this car around the time of death. The suspect is in his late twenties or early thirties with white-blond hair, wearing a long, black coat and blue jeans." He lowered his notebook and looked at Lou. "Said he's one of those punk rockers."

"That really narrows it down," Lou said. He crouched beside the corpse. "Any distinguishing marks?"

Lubbock flipped through his notepad. "An old lady from the next car claims she spoke to him. The car was full and he gave her his seat."

"What a gentleman." Lou reached down to pull back the sheet as Lubbock continued.

"She said he had an English accent and a scar on one eyebrow. Couldn't remember which one. I sent her back to the station to give her description to a sketch artist, and put an APB out on the guy. With any luck he'll be picked up by morning. The hard part now is figuring out who the victim is. We'll have to check her dental records to--"

"No need," Lou said when he could breathe again. The moment he'd pulled back the sheet had been like a punch to the gut, leaving him winded and nauseated. He gently replaced the sheet, and stood up. "Her name's Nikki."

***

He got to stay on the case. Normally, having an acquaintance with the victim would get him kicked off, but the city was too short-handed, what with every available experienced detective assigned to Operation Omega. That's why Lou had been promoted and reassigned to Homicide in the first place. Of course, he'd been less than forthcoming about his relationship with Nikki. Bad enough that he was a rookie investigator; Lubbock would've put him off of the case in a heartbeat if Acosta had admitted to being best friends with the victim, no matter how desperate the department was for manpower. And Lou wasn't about to leave the hunt for her killer in anybody else's hands.

When he reached the building, Lou's knees gave out as a wave of grief hit him. He stumbled to the front stoop, buried his face in his hands, and tried to block out the image of her corpse. It came anyway. She'd looked so ... peaceful. Almost content. A far cry from the world-weary woman he'd spoken to just that afternoon.

Something else about her, something he'd only just registered. Her coat. As chilly as tonight had been, she wouldn't have gone out without it; yet she hadn't been wearing it when they found her. The descriptions of the suspect replayed through his mind.

Lou's hands clenched into fists. That son of a bitch.

Lou imagined her on the subway, her attacker coming up from behind and strangling her. It had to be from behind. Nikki was a fighter, she'd have defended herself if she'd seen it coming. She probably did fight, and her neck got broken in the struggle. He wondered if she'd been given a chance to just hand over the coat. If so, would she have?

Anger overtook Lou, and he let it. It was easier to deal with than the grief. It gave him purpose, and focus. He got to his feet and forced himself up the stairs, through the door, into the elevator, up to the ninth floor and the tiny apartment she shared with the man who'd raised her. Lou took a deep breath, then knocked.

After a moment the door opened a crack. "Yes?" asked a voice in a crisp English accent. The voice's owner peeked out around the chain. "Oh, it's you, Luis. One moment." The door closed, and Lou could hear the rattling of the chain. Then the door opened wide to reveal an elderly black man in a bow tie and cardigan sweater. Always with a bow tie, Jeremiah. He turned around and waved Lou inside. "I'm afraid Nikki is out for the evening, but I'm expecting her back soon if you'd like to wait. I'm sure she'd be delighted to --"

"Jeremiah." Lou heard his voice crack.

So did the old man. His eyes held concern as he turned back around. "What is it, Luis?"

"Nikki's ... she ..." Lou's eyes watered up. He couldn't say it.

He didn't have to.

"I see." Jeremiah sank into his reading chair, took off his glasses, and rubbed his eyes. "When?"

"Tonight. On the subway ..."

"Was she bitten?"

Lou wasn't sure he'd heard right. "What?"

"Never mind." Jeremiah stood up and went back to the door. "Forgive me, Luis, but there are matters I must attend to." He held the door open and waited.

Lou stared at him for a moment, then nodded. "Right." He started to leave, but paused at the door. "Jeremiah, if there's anything I can do ..."

Jeremiah reached out and gave his arm a gentle squeeze. "I'll let you know."

Lou made his way to the stairs and up to his own place on the tenth floor. Inside, he went to the kitchen and pulled a bottle of Scotch out of the cabinet, but after careful consideration he put it back. He wanted to be fit for duty if they caught this guy. Without removing his jacket or turning on a light, he went to the living room and sat in the easy chair. He didn't turn on the TV. He just sat in the dark, and waited for tonight to soak in.

It didn't take long.

***

Spike felt good. So good, in fact, that he no longer felt perturbed at being forced to clear out so the Bit could have an evening with her dad. Funny what a few beers, some half-decent conversation, and lots of shameless public displays of affection with his lady could do for his mood. He found himself dangerously close to outright liking Harris. He was pleased to see Willow smiling like her old self, and even more pleased to see her and Buffy acting like the old chums that they were. And that Oz fellow was a bit of all right. The bloke had an ear for good music, and lots of good ideas for fixing up the bike. They'd even bandied about ideas for starting a band. But at the moment, winning Spike's regard was easy.

An arm slipped around his. "What are you smiling about?" Buffy asked him.

He looked at her, and his smile widened. "You."

She matched him grin for grin. "Good answer."

He craned his neck down to kiss her, and she met him halfway. They stopped walking and turned to embrace each other in the middle of the street outside the Bronze.

"Oh my stars and garters!" Xander called from further up the street. "Can't you two stop macking on each other long enough to walk home?"

Spike aimed a two-fingered salute in Xander's general direction while he and Buffy continued to snog.

"Come on," Willow said. "If we wait for them to stop making out we'll never get home."

Buffy broke off the kiss and looked towards her friends. "We're coming!"

"Way too much information," Xander called back.

"Xander!" Willow sounded shocked.

"What?!"

Buffy sighed, and looked back up at Spike. "I think we've become the annoying, gropey couple."

"Yeh?" Spike cupped her ass and gave it a squeeze. "What makes you say that?"

She squealed and shoved him away. He stumbled backwards a couple of steps and fell, grabbing her hand and bringing her down with him. He grunted as he landed on his back and she landed on top. "You got me, Slayer. I give up. Have your way with me."

Buffy giggled as she sat up and straddled him. "You goober. Get up."

"Thanks," he said, shifting beneath her, "but I'm good here."

She put on her stern face. "We promised Dad and Dawn we'd be home by eleven." She climbed off of him and held out her hand.

Spike whined as he took it and let her pull him to his feet. "By all means, then, let's hurry home. Wouldn't want to interfere with Daddykin's schedule."

Buffy sighed again as she leaned on his arm and led him after the others. "Are you guys ever gonna get over this thing between you?"

"Doubt it," Spike said, "seeing as how this 'thing' between us is you."

She pouted at him. "You could lay off some of the macho vampire posturing, you know. Might make it easier for him to like you."

Spike laughed. "Love, your dad's never going to like me no matter what I do."

"What makes you so sure?"

He looked at her like it should be obvious. "I'm shagging the man's daughter. It's against the laws of nature for him to like me."

"Maybe," she said, "but it's also against the laws of nature for us to like each other. And here we are, big with the liking."

He pulled his arm out of her grasp and put it around her shoulders, hugging her to him. "Proof that miracles do happen."

Buffy just smiled up at him and wrapped her arms around his middle. They strolled along in silence. Something in the corner of his vision caught his attention. Someone in a parked car, lighting up a cigarette. Nothing to be alarmed about. Then why did he have the distinct feeling they were being watched?

He glanced back at the car, this time recognizing the occupant. That cop Ben Grant had introduced a couple of weeks ago -- Something Costanza. No, wait. Acosta. That was it. Spike had caught the bloke watching him before, but this was the first time it struck him as so deliberate. The other times Spike had chalked up to curiosity. After all, when they'd met at the Magic Box Acosta had mentioned that Spike looked familiar to him. But now ...

Spike looked right at him, giving him a good, hard stare. The cop held it for a moment, then looked away. When he did, the glow of the streetlight caught his profile and made him look about twenty years younger. Recognition hit Spike hard. He looked straight ahead, and quickened his pace.

Buffy sped up to match. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing," he said. "Just, like you said. We don't want to be late."

***

******
1977
******

Quiet and still as only the dead could be, he concealed himself in shadow and watched the mortals survey his handiwork. He could hardly stand it. He was bursting to gloat, to tell the world what he'd done. Bouncing a little on the balls of his feet, he relived the battle. It had been glorious. The only thing that would've made it better was if he'd drank from her. Not sure why he didn't, and he regretted it. He closed his eyes and tried to remember how it felt to have Slayer's blood rushing through him. It had been so long.

Spike opened his eyes as two of the cops exited the train. He drew deeper into the shadows, wrapping his new trophy more tightly around him. The younger cop looked like someone had just kicked his dog. The older one started in on a lecture, and Spike grew woefully bored. He wondered if he could take them. There were seven total, but Spike felt invincible. 'Course, there'd probably be more up top, and they'd come running soon as they heard the commotion. Plus, they had guns. Spike didn't fancy getting shot. The bullets hurt even more coming out than they did going in, and he wanted to go home to Dru and celebrate, not have her play nursemaid and tend his wounds.

High time he did just that. Unnoticed by the police, he slipped into the tunnels and made his way back to Alphabet City, where he and Dru squatted in a cozy little run down flat on Avenue B. He climbed out of a manhole about three blocks from home, and took his time the rest of the way, savoring his sense of power, enjoying the way his new coat billowed out behind him as he walked.

Home, and up the fire escape to his flat, and there she was: his love, his demented vixen, his queen. She stood in the middle of the kitchen, completely starkers, embracing a thin young man in her arms.

"Honey, I'm home!" Spike called as he climbed in through the window.

Drusilla raised her head from the man's neck and gave Spike a petulant look. "You're late for supper."

"Sorry, Poodle. I ate at the club. You should've come. Wait'll you hear what you missed." He sprawled in their only chair. "Go on, now, finish your meal. Didn't mean to interrupt."

"I think I'm full." Drusilla looked down at her victim, who slumped in her arms. She gave him a shake. His head lolled to one side, and his eyes opened. He looked pleadingly at Spike.

"Help me," he croaked.

Spike rolled his eyes and stood up. "He's not dead yet, Love. Want me to help finish him off?"

"I think I'll turn him."

"I think not." Spike picked up the man's arm and examined the needle tracks. "Haven't we talked about being more discerning about who you bring over?"

"But his head is filled with such lovely pictures." She closed her eyes and swayed, a smile forming on her lips as her features changed back to human. "I feel like I'm flying."

"Yeh," said Spike. "I'm sure he was flying when you found him." He took the man's head in his hands and snapped his neck.

Drusilla's eyes flew open, and she looked down at the body in her arms. "You've broken him." She let go and watched him fall to the floor.

"Never mind that, Princess. Let me tell you what I've done."

She looked at him like she'd just seen him for the first time. "Oh, Spike. Look at you," she said, stroking the lapels of his coat. "A wolf in Slayer's clothing."

"You like?"

Her fingers kneading the leather, she nodded. "It suits you."

"Then I guess I'll keep it. Not like the Slayer needs it anymore, her being dead and all."

Dru gasped, and clapped her hands. "You've done it Spike? You've killed her?"

"I have, Princess." He took her hand and spun her around, then grabbed her around the waist and dipped her.

"My strong, brave boy," she said, then gasped as he lowered his mouth to her bare breast. She ran her fingers through his hair, smoothing down the spikes. "William the Bloody, Slayer of Slayers," she sing-songed. "They'll tell your tale to generations, frightening young Slayers to keep them in line. Your name will be legend."

Spike raised his head to look at her. "You think so?"

"I know so." She frowned. "Until ..."

Spike straightened up, bringing her with him. "Until what?"

"Until the Slayer takes you away from me."

Spike looked at her for a moment; then he laughed. "Never happen, Baby."

"But it will. Someday. You'll be lost to me forever."

He shook his head. "I'll kill anyone what tries to come between us, Pet."

"Do you promise?"

"I swear it."

Drusilla smiled. "Tell me how you killed her, Spike."

He told her all about the battle, how the Slayer almost got the better of him before he turned the tables on her, describing in detail the sensation of snapping her neck. As he spoke, Drusilla turned in his arms and writhed and wriggled against him in all the right places. Cupping her breast, she reached down to touch herself between her thighs. She let out a happy moan as Spike's hands replaced hers, and then he was done talking, using his mouth instead to devour her milky skin. She tore his hands away and turned, pausing to give him a predatory, possessive look before leaping on him, wrapping her legs around his waist and crushing her mouth against his.

Spike dropped to his knees and lowered her to the floor as she tore at his fly. He started to take off the coat, but Dru grabbed the lapels. "Leave it on," she commanded, and he obeyed. She rolled her head back as he entered her, and grinned at the junkie's corpse lying next to them, staring at them with its dead eyes. "Our friend likes to watch."

"Then let's give him a good show."

***

The house on Revello Drive was lit up like a Christmas tree. From the street, Lou could see right into the living room, where the blonde Slayer was gathered with her friends. He was there too, of course. Lou felt bile rise in the back of his throat as the Slayer perched on the monster's knee and showered him with affection. He wondered if the bastard planned the same thing for her that he'd done to Nikki. At least he hadn't wormed his way into Nikki's life, passing himself off as human and seducing her into trusting him. Convincing everybody that he was some kind of hero.

Lou had to act soon. He'd been clumsy in the alley behind the Bronze, and the vampire had spotted him. Even worse, Lou suspected he'd recognized him. Now that the parasite knew someone was on to him he'd probably step up his plans. Lou had to take him out before he got the chance to hurt anybody else.

He felt a pang of sympathy for the Slayer. She was obviously in love. Lou didn't want her to suffer. But better for her to grieve than to end up dead. If she knew what it was she'd given her heart to, if she could see that thing's true face ...

Lou shuddered. He tossed his binoculars into the passenger seat, and swallowed down the rest of his coffee. He was hunting a creature of the night. Sooner or later, it was bound to leave the safety of the house. Lou could wait. One way or another, that bastard was going down tonight.

***

******
1977
******

Lou craned his neck out the car window and looked up at the pre-dawn sky. The lighting around this tenement was so shoddy that if he squinted, he could almost see the stars. He yawned and reached for his coffee. This was the fifth anonymous tip he'd run down in almost as many weeks. Someone had called the station claiming that another someone who matched his suspect's description had been lurking around this place for the last couple of days. It was probably a false lead. So far they'd all been false. Still, it paid to be thorough.

The city was actually quiet. Lou had managed to hit that window of time after the all-night crowd turned in and before the rest of the city woke up for the day. The relative silence was broken only by the muffled sounds of a baby's cries drifting down from a third-story window. He leaned back against the headrest and let the sound take him back to his youth, to the racket of his baby brother wailing from the bassinet in the kitchen. Flash forward a few years, to watching his abuela show Nikki how to change his cousin's diaper. He remembered imagining what their children would look like. Not that he'd ever told her that. Now he never would. And Nikki would never have anybody's kids.

Something warm and wet on his hand brought him back to the present. He'd crushed the paper cup in his fist, dumping coffee all over himself. At least it had cooled enough not to burn. With a disgusted grunt, he threw the cup on the floorboard and looked around for something to clean up the mess. Hadn't he stashed some napkins in the glove box? He leaned over to check.

"I told you, Dru, no kids! How many times do I have to explain it to you?"

"But it's so soft and plump, not at all like my dollies. Don't you think I'd be a good mummy?"

Lou abandoned his quest for napkins and sat up. A man and a woman had exited the building and were making their way down the sidewalk. The sky had lightened up enough for Lou to get a good look at them. The woman was pretty, albeit too pale and thin for Lou's tastes, and severely overdressed for this neighborhood. Lou observed this even as he took in the man's hair and accent, and more importantly, his coat. Her coat. "Son of a bitch," he muttered, and got out of the car.

"No, I don't. You'd forget to feed it just like you do with all your other pets, and it would waste away."

She pulled away from him and began to moan.

He groaned, and reached out to take her hand. "Sorry, Princess. But even if you fed it and took care of it like a good mum, you're talking about an eternity of crying and diaper changing ... neither one of us needs that. You don't want to be saddled down like that, do you, Love?"

"But we could be a family --"

"Freeze!" Lou trained his gun on the suspect. "Hands in the air."

The couple merely glanced at him.

"The nuclear family bit's not for us, Pet," the suspect continued as if Lou wasn't there. "Now come on. Sun's coming up, we don't have much time. Tonight I'll get you a new doll. Or maybe a nice, warm puppy. You like puppies, don't you, Sweet?"

"Mmm." The woman smiled and licked her lips. "I do."

"I said hands in the air!" Lou stepped forward.

"Do you mind?" asked the suspect. "I'm having a conversation with my lady."

Were these people high, or just stupid? Lou took another step forward and cocked his weapon. "Both of you, turn around and place your hands against the wall."

The suspect laughed. "What's this about then, mate?"

"You're wanted for questioning in the murder of Nikki Epps. Now turn around and place your hands against the wall. Now! You have the right to remain silent --"

"Nikki? That's the Slayer, innit? Why would I remain silent about that? 'Course I killed her."

It took every ounce of will not to put a bullet in the punk's brain right then and there. But the bastard was unarmed, and with the woman there to witness there was no way he could justify it. "Anything you say can and will be held against you in a court of law --"

The suspect burst out laughing. "Oh, man. You're lucky we're both full and in a hurry. Now come on, Love. Best hurry home." The woman took his arm and they both started to walk away.

"Stop!" Lou shouted. "I'll shoot!"

"Oh, Spike, I don't like getting shot. Let's kill him."

"Yeh, I think you're right."

They stopped and turned around, but as they did the sun peeked up over the fence on the adjacent lot and blinded Lou. When his vision adjusted they were standing on the edge of the building's shadow, just out of reach. Their faces ... Lou took a hand away from his gun and rubbed his eyes. It had to be a trick of the light.

"If you think your little toy's enough to stop us, Junior, then why don't you come on over here and arrest me?"

As he spoke Lou could see a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth. "What ..." Before he could piece the thought together he heard a piercing scream. He glanced up at the third-story window it had come from, then back at his suspect. Or rather, the empty space where his suspect had stood a second ago. Lou looked around but couldn't see any place they could have gone. Another scream grabbed his attention. "Dammit!" he shouted as he ran inside to check it out.

The screaming stopped by the time he reached the second floor. He kept his weapon ready as he approached the third. He stepped into the hall with care. All clear. Not even any curious neighbors poking their heads out to see what was going on. Typical.

One of the doors stood ajar. Lou made his way towards it, his back to the wall. He pushed the door open and went inside. A young woman sat on a threadbare sofa, nursing a baby. "Miss? Is everything all right?" She didn't answer. Her eyes, glazed over, peeked out from beneath stringy, unwashed hair, her expression blank. Great. She was high, and she was nursing her baby. What a wonderful world. "Miss? I heard a scream. Can you tell me anything about that?" She still didn't answer, just stared into space. Lou went over and put a hand on her shoulder to shake her. When he did she slumped over and her head lolled. Dead. Lou sighed and looked down at the baby, still sucking frantically at its mother's breast. She'd probably turned her baby into a junkie. Lou hoped he could get the paramedics here before the kid OD'd too.

He reached down to pick up the baby. When he touched it, it turned its head and hissed at him. Lou snatched his hands away. The baby fucking hissed! He stared at it in stunned horror. It's face ... it had to be some kind of birth defect. But it looked just like ... No.

His eyes drifted to the mother's breast. The nipple was soaked with blood and surrounded by bite marks. "The fucking hell?" He looked back at the baby. As he watched, its face became normal, and it started to cry. Lou shuddered and picked it up, holding it at arm's length. It felt cold. Cold as its dead mother. "There, there," Lou said as he carried it over to the baby carriage. He laid the baby inside and stood back to stare at it.

He realized he was shaking. Stories Nikki had told him ran through his head, tales she'd made up to try and scare him. They were only made up. They had to be. Even so, Lou looked from the baby to the sunlit balcony. He walked over and opened the sliding door, then he went back to the carriage. "It's all right," he said to the thing inside, and it seemed to calm a little at the sound of his voice. "Everything's gonna be all right." He pushed the stroller out on the balcony. The baby shrieked as it entered the sunlight. Lou somehow failed to be surprised as it burst into flames and disintegrated, leaving behind nothing but a tiny pile of ash.

He turned around and went back inside. On instinct, he found the phone and started to call this in, but hung up when he realized he had no idea what to say. Instead he slumped against the wall, slid to the floor, and stared at the bloodless corpse on the sofa across from him.

***

Buffy was having one of those moments where it hit her how much she liked her life. Those moments came more and more frequently these days. She didn't know if she'd ever get used to it. Probably she shouldn't. Probably the instant she did it would all end. But sitting here now, in the lap of her lover, surrounded by her nearest and dearest, each of them giddy with the excitement of beginning a new phase of their lives ... Buffy was happy.

Sure, it wasn't perfect. She missed her mom. And Anya should be there, basking in the glow of Xander's newfound purpose and confidence. Also, Buffy was just as ready as Dawn, if not moreso, to lose that wheelchair. And then there was the ever present knowledge at the back of her brain that she had an expiration date while the man in her arms had the shelf-life of a Twinkie.

That last one she figured she could ignore for at least another twenty years before it started to be a problem. How many "normal" relationships lasted that long, anyway? Her parents' sure hadn't. But somehow she had the feeling that Spike would still be there well into her blue-haired little old lady phase, if she lived long enough to have one of those. Hell, he'd probably dye his hair to match.

"So, you want to sleep with Oz?" Buffy asked Xander. "Down here," she clarified off of Xander's horrified look. "Down here with Oz. In a very manly, non-homoerotic way."

Xander nodded. "And by the way, thanks for introducing the word 'homoerotic' into the equation. That makes it so much less uncomfortable."

"I said non!"

"I'll try to restrain myself," Oz assured him from the other end of the sofa.

"Thanks, buddy," Xander said. "Appreciate that."

"Won't be easy." Spike looked sideways at Xander and ran his tongue along his upper teeth. "Xander's quite the morsel."

Buffy tapped him on the chest. "Don't start."

As he turned his gaze on her, his expression became purely predatory. "How 'bout I start with you, Baby?" He nibbled her shoulder, sending tingles all through her.

"Is it me?" Willow sat in the center of the couch, hugging a pillow to her chest. "I mean, I know sometimes I snore, but Tara always said it was a cute snore. A... and so did Oz! Right?"

"Very adorable," he agreed.

"It's not you, Will," Xander assured her. "You're the bestest sleepin' buddy ever. It's Orgazmo and Orgazma over there. How in the sweet holy heck do you girls sleep through that?"

"I have drugs," said Dawn. "It helps."

Buffy felt heat rise to her cheeks. Spike just looked proud as he wrapped his arms around her in a proprietary manner that thrilled her even as she rolled her eyes at the manly gesture. "We're sorry," she said. "We'll try to hold it down."

"No we're not, and no we won't."

"Spike!"

He raised an eyebrow at her. "Are you? Really?"

"I gotta go with Spike on this one, Buff. You sure didn't sound sorry last night. Or early this morning."

Buffy's blush deepened. "Fine," she said sheepishly. "It was a sympathetic 'sorry' anyway."

"Well hopefully you won't have to pretend you're sorry for very long," Willow said. "This is all pretty temporary."

"But you guys know you're welcome to stay as long as you need to," Buffy said.

Spike coughed. They all looked at him. "Well, I mean ... Dawn. I think the Bit's uncomfortable having quite so many people about."

Dawn's eyebrows shot up. "Me?"

"But, yeah." Spike nodded. "Long as you need. Or whatever."

"And we really mean that," Buffy said, giving Spike a look.

"Don't worry," Willow said. "We're all going apartment hunting tomorrow, so we'll be out of your hair before you know it. Besides, you guys have got this whole Ozzie and Harriet thing going --" She glanced at Spike. "Well, okay, maybe Ozzy and Sharon, but still. It's a happy home. We don't want to intrude."

"You're not intruding," Buffy insisted. "Besides, I'm kinda having fun. It's like a big ol' slumber party."

"Except without the Truth or Dare or the frozen bras," Willow said.

"Or the warm water-induced bed wetting," Xander added. His eyes widened, and he looked around the room. "I didn't just give anybody any ideas, did I?"

"No," Oz said, "but now I'm a little worried."

Dawn yawned and stretched her arms over her head. "Well I hope nobody freezes my bra or makes me wet the bed, but some of us have physical therapy in the morning."

"Right then," Spike said.

Buffy got out of his lap to let him up. "You sound unusually eager for PT to happen."

Dawn looked up from releasing the brake on the chair. "Well, you know. I get the big cast off next week. I'm almost ready to get out of this thing."

"Uh-huh," Buffy said. "So what's his name?"

"Huh?" Dawn tried to look innocent, but her blush betrayed her. "Him who?"

"I met him," Spike said. "Soccer injury bloke, thinks he's the second coming of Eddie Haskell." He changed his voice to a high falsetto. "He's dreeeamy."

"Shut up!"

Buffy suppressed a giggle. "In that case, you better go get your beauty sleep. I'll be up in a minute." Spike rolled Dawn backwards to the stairs and began to pull her up, chair and all.

"Be ready for girl talk," Buffy called as they went. Once they were up the stairs, she sat back down and curled up in the chair.

"It's hard," Oz said.

Buffy blinked in surprise. "What's hard?"

"You know. The darkness. Keeping it in check. Not easy for me, and I'm human." His eyebrows drew together. "Mostly."

Willow reached out to pat him on the shoulder. "Yeah. I think we all know a little something about what that's like."

Buffy nodded.

"Not me."

They all looked at Xander.

"Except, there's that whole long-standing tradition of Harris men behaving like idiots that I'm struggling in vain to overcome, so, yeah. Me too."

Buffy smiled. "I know. It's so easy to forget sometimes, but I don't take it for granted." She looked over at the stairs. "Neither does he."

Oz followed her gaze. "He really doesn't."

***

Spike parked Dawn in the bathroom and left her to go about her business. Buffy would be up soon to help her with the more troublesome stuff, but the Bit could manage pretty well on her own these days. She did Spike proud. The most humiliating thing about his time in a wheelchair was not being able to do for himself, having to constantly be taken care of like a small child. One of the lowest points of his life. Though the memory of being stuck in that chair didn't twist his gut like the thought of where he'd be now, had those assassins he'd hired done their job.

In the bedroom, he stopped to empty his pockets onto the dresser before crossing to the window. He looked out at the spot where he used to stand about and watch this same window, and made sure it was empty. A couple of lifetimes' worth of being up to no good tended to make one a bit paranoid. His eyes moved from that spot to scan the rest of the yard and street. They landed on a familiar car parked in front of a neighbor's house.

Acosta.

Well, now. This was an outright invasion of privacy. It was one thing for him to follow Spike around, but spying on his kith and kin? He considered going down there and telling NYPD Lou to bugger off. Or maybe call Grant, see if ol' Benji could call off Spike's new shadow. Or at the very least find out what the bugger was up to. Probably still trying to work out where he knew Spike from. How long till he figured it out? Spike didn't like it. There was too much history down in that car.

"Whatcha lookin' at?"

Spike reached up to draw the blinds, and turned around. "Nothing. Stray dog."

"Hm." Buffy removed the clip holding up her hair and tossed it on the dresser as she shook her hair out. For a moment the world seemed to go into slow motion as she ran her fingers through her locks, like a bleeding shampoo commercial. Spike caught his bottom lip in his teeth as he watched her. God, she was beautiful. He couldn't believe his luck sometimes. If that wanker out front did anything to mess this up...

"What's wrong?" Buffy was looking at him, concerned.

He opened his mouth to tell her, then closed it and shook his head. "Nothing." That was most likely the truth. No reason to get her all worried. Not when everything was going so right for them for once.

"Then why do you have pensive face?"

He shrugged, and moved away from the window. "Just thinking."

"Thinking? You looked like you were dangerously close to brooding."

Spike smiled. "That ever happens, by all means, put a stake in me."

"How's about I just smack you around until you snap out of it?" She crossed over to him and wrapped her arms around his waist.

"That might work," he said. Buffy raised up on her toes and kissed him. "Although, this seems to be getting the job done." He kissed her again, then pulled back and quirked a suspicious eyebrow at her. "I thought you got turned on by the whole dour, 'woe is me and my immense furrowed brow' bit."

"What, the whole angsty, tragic Heathcliff act? I am SO over thinking that's sexy."

"Ah. So, what is it gets you going these days, Love?"

She traced a finger down the side of his face, then leaned in to whisper in his ear. "Han Solo."

Spike snorted. "Is that a fact?"

"Mmm hmm. Irascible space pirate gets caught up in the fight between good and evil and ends up fighting on the side of good, all for the love of a princess. How can you not love that?" She grinned slyly. "Plus, Harrison Ford at his second yummiest."

"Yeh, poor sod didn't stand a chance once he met Princess Leia. Quite the dish, she was."

"Dishier than me?" Buffy pouted.

Spike tilted his head a little and scrutinized her. "Hard to say. Never seen you in a gold metal bikini."

She rolled her eyes. "And you never will." She unclasped her hands from behind his back and ran them slowly up his chest. "You know who else I think is kinda sexy?"

He pulled her closer. "Who might that be?"

"Anakin Skywalker."

Now Spike rolled his eyes. "You do like the bad boys, don't you?"

"Oh, sure," Buffy said, "he's on his way over to the Dark Side now, and, okay, he'll spend half his life doing hideously evil things, but in the end he's able to find the good in himself and do the right thing." She twirled a finger in his hair. "Sound familiar?"

"We back to talking about Angel now?"

"Spike!" She slapped him lightly on the chest.

Grinning, he caught her hand in his and brought it to his lips, keeping his eyes locked on hers. Then his grin faded. "I'm afraid you've got it all wrong, Pet." He held both of her hands in his. "The only thing good in me is my love for you and Dawn. And sometimes ... I worry that it won't be enough."

Buffy held his gaze, her expression unreadable. "You're wrong," she said at last.

He sighed. "This isn't a Lucasfilm fantasy, Pet. I'm evil. I can keep fighting it, but ... I can't ever change it." He let go of her and sat on the foot of the bed, palms on his knees.

Buffy folded her arms and came to stand in front of him. "Do you think I've forgotten what you are? The things you've done? Remember who you're talking to, Spike. I knew you before the chip, and I have very vivid memories of that time."

"Then you know what I'm capable of."

"Yeah, I do." Buffy crouched before him, placing her hands on top of his. "Remember that convenience store in LA?"

Spike nodded.

"What would you have done if I hadn't been there?" Spike was taken aback by the question, and it must have shown. She squeezed his hands. "It's okay. You can tell me the truth. Even if it's not what I want to hear. Would you have done anything differently?"

He considered this, then shook his head. "No."

"Why not?"

He rolled his eyes. "I don't know. It's like I told that big vamp before I dusted him. I like people. Hate to see 'em go to waste."

"You care."

Spike hung his head and shrugged. "Yeh, whatever."

She let go of his hand and ruffled his hair, then kissed the top of his head. When he raised his head to meet her gaze, she was smiling.

He narrowed his eyes. "What?"

Buffy just shook her head. "Silly rabbit." She stood up, then settled herself in his lap. "I do know what you're capable of," she said, laying her head on his shoulder and letting him cradle her. "I know you're capable of compassion and kindness, empathy, courage, forgiveness ... and let's not forget big, scary, overwhelming love." She put her hand on his cheek and turned him to face her. "And I know it's not easy. Those things don't come naturally to you, I know that. I don't pretend to know how they got in you, but they did."

"But what if that's not enough?"

"It is."

"But what if it's *not*?"

She traced a finger along his jaw. "I know you, Spike. I know you'll make it be enough."

He brushed her hair out of her face, and touched his forehead to hers. "I love you so much, Buffy."

"Love you too." She kissed his forehead, then sat up straight. "So what brought this on, anyway?"

He shook his head. "Just ... memories."

Buffy frowned. "Not good ones, I take it?"

He looked at her for a moment, then down at her hand, so small in his, so deceptively delicate. "I just ... I think about her sometimes. The last Slayer I killed."

"Oh."

"Sometimes I dream about the moment I killed her. Choking the life out of her, feeling her pulse fade away beneath my hands until it's nothing." Spike could see it, could practically taste that kill. That was such a sweet memory, still. He closed his eyes, and he was there. "Then I reach down and grab her head, to snap her neck and finish the job."

He felt Buffy tense up in his arms, her fingernails digging into his shoulder, and he remembered why that memory came with a heaping dose of bitter.

He opened his eyes and looked at her. "And that's about the time she turns into you."

Buffy didn't say anything.

Spike shook his head. "I'm still a demon, and demons destroy things." He let go of her hand and caressed her hair. His hand trembled a little. "Sometimes, I'm ... I'm scared that I'll destroy you. Like I did her."

She relaxed a little. "You could, you know." She focused on her finger as it traced a pattern on his chest. "You wouldn't even have to kill me. There's at least a dozen ways you could break my heart, and make me wish I could die." She rested her hand over his heart and looked him in the eye. "Do you really think I'd give you that kind of power if I thought for a second that you'd really do that?" She shook her head, then grabbed his face in both her hands and kissed him. When she broke it off, she smiled. "I trust you not to."

All he could do was look at her in utter amazement.

She planted another quick kiss on the tip of his nose, and stood up. "I'm gonna go see if Dawn needs anything else and let the others know we're turning in. When I come back, we'll work on making you some better memories."

She squeezed his hand, then let it go and left the room. Spike stared after her. His worries melted away and the warmth she instilled him with turned to heat as he considered the implication of her last words. Grinning, he peeled off his button-down shirt and tossed it over the back of the chair. His tee-shirt followed suit. He stood to finish undressing, but first he went to the window and peeked down into the street.

Acosta's car was gone.

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