[identity profile] eee1313.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] dancing_lessons_archive


Episode Eight: Wrecking Ball

by adjrun, cousinjean, and fenwic
JRS coded part of this too! Thanks Joy! --cj


*

Giles slumped against the wall of the emergency room corridor, his head bowed and his thumb and forefinger pinching the bridge of his nose. Faith hadn't injured him, but his head ached just the same.

It was Ethan ...

The sound of sirens had been constant since his arrival, heralding each new victim with an angry howl. Equipment and gurneys clattered across the unit as the triage team prioritized and tagged the wounded. Armed with the antidote and a few other tricks, Willow, Lydia and Oz helped the staff discern the mad from the merely injured, while police and hospital security handled the continual eruptions of violence.

All around him, everyone helping, or calling for help, and patients thrashing and moaning and pleading for whatever it was that the poisoned water had driven them to seek.

... again.

Giles had been one of the mad, and one of the first to be dosed. The effect had been immediate. He'd come to himself to find Xander and Faith looking at him. Holding him down by the shoulders and legs and looking at him, the demon who had taken over their Watcher and tried to do them harm. That's when he'd known -- remembered -- how Ethan had made him a monster in the eyes of his family. Again. He'd stared back at them, and watched the fear on their faces dissolve into uncertainty.

Excruciating.

He'd sat up on the gurney and dismissed further treatment. Brushing aside their attempts to help, he'd stumbled away from them and into the hall. Not looking at them. Not seeing their bewilderment, and not listening to Faith apologize or to Xander begging him to hold on a second, to please sit down. Instead he'd turned and, bracing himself against the wall, ordered the Slayer and her Watcher back out into the chaos. To help restore order.

And to for God's sake stop looking at him.

After they'd gone, the helicopter bearing one who had been mad and injured landed out back. Administering the antidote had been no easier with Dawn -- Buffy and Spike forced to hold her down, both of them near tears at having to do so, terrified of injuring her even further.

Even further. Giles took a breath as a quiet rage shuddered through him.

After the cure, but before the sedative, he saw Dawn reach for Spike's hand, saw him wince, so tight was her grip.

She opened her eyes, but they were not her own. Glassy, brittle. Focused not on Spike, but on the pain that shot through her worn out body. Pain that tweaked and twisted her voice, making it sound not quite human. "It hurts, Spike. Spike? It hurts."

Giles saw his face contort in anguish, then watched it harden into something else.

Before he could turn away, the ER doors blasted open for the hundredth time that night. Giles couldn't bring himself to look up.

Then Faith's voice smashed through the din. "It's Xander!"

Giles stiffened. Buffy and Spike jerked their heads toward the gurney and the Slayer running along side it. Xander lay on his stomach, unconscious, the left side of his shirt soaked with blood, a ruby red bull's-eye smeared on his back. Buffy gasped. Her hand shot out blindly and gripped Spike's arm. "Easy now," he said. "See what it's all about. I'll stay with Dawn."

Giles knew he should move. He wanted to and yet --

"Xander?" Willow looked up from her latest patient. "No ..." She started to go to him but Lydia took her arm.

"Willow, wait." Then to Faith, "What happened? Is he infected?"

"No! Some 'infected' asshole shot him!"

Willow let out a whimper. "Xander ..." She stopped and turned. "Lydia?! Let go of me!"

"The doctors will take good care of him, Willow. Please, we mustn't stop what we're doing."

Right. Keep everyone focused. Giles knew he should help ...

In the corner, Oz and an orderly struggled with another patient. "Frank, watch the leg. Uuuh, Will? The restraints, try to ... damn. I think I got one for ya. Teeth. Teeeeeth. We need some cure. Ow. And a Band-Aid."

Willow frowned, but went to assist. "Buffy? Faith? Somebody tell me how he is!"

I should find out. I should tell her.

Faith stepped back to make way for nurses and equipment, but her eyes remained fixed on Xander. Buffy touched her shoulder. "What happened?"

"I don't -- We were talking ..." She shook her head. "Fighting. It was crazy. He said ... And I think that I -- " She looked at her hands.

Giles saw the blood there. Xander's? Someone else?

Then Faith turned big, dark eyes on Buffy. "They said he's not gonna die. He's not, right? Right?"

I should --

"No," said Buffy. "He's not."

The gurney began to move and several people with it. Buffy stopped the doctor. "Where're you taking him?"

"Surgery."

"Is he -- ”

"We've seen other cases like this tonight. Gunshot wound to the chest or back. No vital organs hit. It has to do with the small caliber. And the customized bullets."

"Customized?"

"Wood-tipped, with a copper coating. They break apart inside, which, according to the police, they're designed to do. But the sniper seems to have misjudged the range on these things, thank goodness. The trajectory deteriorates. The aim is distorted and the intended impact reduced. So the wood never makes it to -- "

The heart, Giles realized, a second before Buffy said it aloud.

"Yes. Still, it makes for a messy wound."

Buffy winced.

"Your friend is young, and strong. It's too early to say for sure, but we have every reason to believe he'll make a complete recovery."

Oxygen rushed into Giles's lungs as his body suddenly allowed him to breathe.

"Look," the doctor continued, "the OR is on the fifth floor. There's a lounge up there where you can wait for --"

The last word hung in the air and he stilled, as if listening for something. "Please excuse me."

Another siren. Another blasting open of doors. Another gurney rolled in just as the orderlies whisked Xander away.

Giles stared after him.

"I can't believe this ..." he heard Buffy say. Then she turned to Faith and her expression softened. "You wanna go up and wait for him? I'll let the others know. Someone'll be up soon as we get a grip on things down here."

Faith started. "Huh? Oh! God, I didn't even -- How is she?"

"They gave her something for the pain. We can take her home tonight. But Xander ..." Buffy glanced at the elevator just as the doors closed behind him. "Willow and Oz will want to stay. And Lydia. What about you? Are you okay?"

"Yeah." Faith nodded. "Take care of Dawn. I'll be upstairs."

Buffy smiled at her and then went to talk to their friends.

For a moment, Faith didn't move. Giles knew how she hated this place, knew that she was frightened. But he didn't move either.

Then she brought up a hand, and hooked her index finger on the string of silver she wore round her neck. Her wrist twisted from side to side, the necklace sliding along the underside of her knuckle -- a nervous habit she likely picked up from Buffy. Faith had also picked up the hospital habit. The habit of having to "wait and see" while her loved ones suffered. She gazed at Dawn, at Spike and Buffy standing vigil by her bedside. Faith dropped her hand.

Then she stood straight, lifted her chin, and marched to the elevator.

Giles watched her go, while he himself stood rooted to the floor. He bowed his head, confounded by his inability to reach out to them and cowed by his feelings of utter helplessness.

And beneath it all ... fury. Rising, permeating his body the way steam filled the bath. Clinging to tissue and bone, infusing his blood with heat, like a fever. He shoved a hand into his pocket and dug out the laminated card. Fascinated, he stared at the shiny white dot that wavered along the edge, his thumb rubbing circles over it. Around and around. His lip curled. His eyes shone. Then he tucked the card away and walked out of the hospital.

***

Spike's presence beside Dawn had been constant since their arrival. She slept now, her hand limp and lifeless in his, but he held on. Even as his legs ached, threatening to rebel against direct orders to keep him standing, he wouldn't let go. Never let go.

He'd done more hospital time in the last year than in the previous hundred. Back in the day, hospital time meant mealtime. Shooting fish in a barrel. They came when they were too injured or too lazy to hunt, looking for juicy little morsels just like --

Spike took a good look around ... None but humans. They were safe. For now.

But an onslaught of images overwhelmed him. His eyes slammed shut, a futile reflex against the torrent of noise and light, darkness and panic. Assailing his mind, rocking the ship of his delusion and pitching him over the side. Into his sea of failures.

Dawn right here. And then not. A portal swirling over his head. His car barreling into traffic. She tears holes in space and he can't ever stop her. Why does she always run? Falling out of the sky. Never fast enough. Lying in the car, broken. Blood never looked so horrible. He was the only one heard her scream. Never told anyone that. What would he do if ... What would Buffy do? How would they ever --

Spike flinched. He pressed the heal of his palm to his forehead as pain radiated through every fiber in his brain. He breathed, fighting to block out all sensation, to quiet his thoughts. Then he opened his eyes and collected another vision for his waking nightmares. So pale, so still. Fear etched in her face even at rest.Her mouth twitched and he didn't so much hear as see her murmur, "Buffy?"

"No, Pet, but she's --"

"You have to tell Spike ..."

He leaned in and laid a hand on her forehead. "Dawn, it's me. It's me. I'm right here."
"Tell him ... Tell him I didn't mean it!"

He winced. They had hoped that, unlike Giles, she wouldn't remember. But she started to cry, unraveling the knot of guilt and grief that held him together.

"Don't --" His voice broke. "Sssssh, don't. I know it."

"You ... You have to ..."

"It's all right. Don't cry anymore, hmm? Please?"

But the tears kept coming, so frantic and remorseful. "You have to tell him! Tell him that I didn't mean it. I didn't ..." She shook her head. "Oh God, I didn't mean it! You have to tell him, okay? He has to know that I ... that I ..."

She drew a shaky breath and slipped back into unconsciousness.

Then somehow Buffy was there, at his side, reaching for the hand he held in his. He finally relinquished it and she asked, "How is she?"

He coughed and stumbled back a step. "Sleeping still. Xander?"

"He's in surgery." Her eyes stayed on Dawn. "They think he's gonna be okay. But the bullet ..."

Buffy lingered on a thought that disturbed her enough to harden her mouth and wrinkle her brow.

Spike hated and adored that look. "What, Love? What about the bullet?"

She shook it off. "You know what? Guns suck."

"Yeh." Xander, covered in blood.

"Hospitals, too."

"Yeh." Giles. Again. Dawn. Again.

"Look at us. They should give us group discounts! Frequent coma cards. After ten concussions, or broken bones, or bullet wounds, we get a free Coke."

He stood amazed.

My God, how does she do this? Almost losing her, almost losing them, ALL of them, all the time ... How do any of them do this?

If he could just find the Everything's-Gone-to-Hell Demon and hurt it for every second that Dawn hurt. If he could heal madness with a sword and bullet wounds with an axe ... If he could just -- please -- kill something to fix it so they could all go home. Not be here. Again.

It was Ethan ...

Willow and Lydia approached, apparently taking advantage of the ten seconds between ambulances to remind them all that their troubles had a name. They gathered at the foot of Dawn's bed.

"I should've given my Ethan-card to Grant," said Willow. "Time to sic the police on him, right?"

Spike didn't bother to hate the idea; he knew that Buffy would.

"No. No cops." She pulled out her card and held it up. "The Initiative couldn't control him; the Council couldn't control him; he'd probably turn Ben into a horny toad and we do this again in six months."

... again.

The tempest in Spike's mind slowly turned. Turned until it spun on an axis of frustration and anger. A cyclone, its mouth at the very top of his head and spiraling down, down, down until the sum of its brutality and force concentrated on a small, black point deep within him. He embraced it.

Now. Finally. Quiet.

Oz appeared beside him. "Where's Giles?"

***

Tires shrieking, he careened around a corner, then ran a shaky hand through his hair while the other gripped the wheel. His fingertips raked the gash on his forehead, smearing blood on his palm, but he paid no mind. The whole town was bleeding. Again. That, he minded.

Every time Ethan came to town he brought chaos crashing down around them. Every time Ethan came to town Giles watched everything he'd worked to become for the last twenty-five years slip through his fingers. Ethan controlled Giles by spinning him out of control. With a pint of ale, a bar of chocolate, a sip of water. With history, and the terrible knowledge that came with it. So much of both crammed into the few years they spent together. Ethan knew Giles like no one alive ever could and he wielded that power like a whacking big stick. Never caring who else stood within striking distance. This town. His Slayers. His family.

Dawn in hospital. Again. And didn't she just get up out of her wheelchair? Giles knew something about physical therapy, knew well that particular brand of torture. And yet she did it. And didn't he -- proud as any father -- just watch her shuffle across a room under her own power for the first time in weeks? Or has she always been in a hospital bed, never left it, never would, because of monsters like Ethan?

Xander shot, bleeding, and no Slayer healing for him and how many more times could he avoid dying? Or was he destined for a life of concussion and guilt? Growing old wondering when Ethan would return to finally finish them off.

Faith hovering over Xander and no, she didn't lose another Watcher but she came perilously close. Again. And what would Giles have said to her? So sorry. It's Ethan, you see. Never have been able to get him out of our lives. Maybe next time. He remembered her face when they'd rushed Xander into the emergency room. Her face on Christmas Day. Giles had woken up and seen her and tried to tell her that it would be all right. You can care. It won’t make you weak.

But of course it did. It always did. So Giles didn't care anymore about goodness and he didn't care about justice. He clung to dull, ordinary self-preservation with just a dash of vengeance. Love for his family did indeed make him vulnerable, but it also gave him the strength he needed to finally defend them from his past.

When Buffy had let Angel back into their lives, he'd been so angry with her for putting them all in danger. But hadn't he done that with Ethan by allowing him to live? Ethan never opened a door to hell. Nor did he raise a hand to Dawn as Drusilla had, but he struck her down just the same. Ethan held them all hostage. He always had.

But for Buffy's ignorance of basic metals, Giles would've died a demon by her hand. But for fortuitous timing and blind luck, she would've died on Halloween years before that -- by Spike's hand. Or by an Eyghon-possessed Jenny.

Jenny ...

***

"Giles? Giles is --" Buffy stopped and did a slow three-sixty.

"Did he go up with Faith?"

"No," said Buffy. "He didn't." She had that look she got when she felt uneasy but couldn't tell why.

"He probably went home" Willow looked hopeful. "Because that's where all the soothing tea is, right?"

Buffy tried to pick up her cue. "Yeah ... After everything he's been through tonight? Of course he went home!" She pulled out Lydia's cell phone. "I'll just call him. At home. And he will answer because home is where he went."

"Or not." Willow looked sideways at Lydia. "Buffy ..."

"What?" Buffy looked up to find the Watcher and the witch staring at each other. She lowered the phone. "What?"

"I gave him my card," said Lydia.

"You --"

"It seemed prudent at the time." Lydia looked at each of them in turn. "Surely you don't think that Rupert would harm him! I'm well aware of how volatile he can be at times but I find it difficult to believe that ... that ..."

They all fell silent. In his mind's eye, Spike saw Rupert swinging a bat. A bat on fire.

Buffy spoke first. "If he knows where Ethan is ..."

"Then I'd better get goin'." Spike reached for Buffy's card but she closed her hand over it.

"Spike, no. I have to --"

"Go back out there."

They all looked at Lydia.

"What?"

"Buffy, please ..." Lydia stopped and Spike watched the new Watcher reach up to fiddle with her glasses.

Then she abandoned the gesture and looked straight at Buffy. "This town is still in trouble. And, at present, without a Slayer. Faith is hardly in a state of mind to enforce peace."

"I know, but what about--"

"Let Rupert and me handle Rayne," said Spike. "Englishman to Englishman to about-to-have-his-head-ripped-off Englishman."

Lydia nodded. "I think that's the best course of action. Erm, except for the head-ripping. When I've finished here, I'll go up and see about Xander."

"And Oz and I'll look after Dawn," said Willow. "We'll take her home. Stay with her until you get back."

Buffy looked at them, then back at Dawn. Spike knew from experience that kidnapping her friends only sharpened her focus, but this ... She was torn. Distracted. Attacking the Slayer's nearest and dearest? Always effective. In the short term, anyway. But the team was stronger now.

"We've got your back," he said, reaching for the card.

She nodded. "Okay." And handed it to him.

Spike squinted at Willow's handiwork. Then he pocketed the card and made the threat he'd made a thousand nights before about a thousand different people, including his best love and her pals.

"I'll kill him."

***
A figure darted out into the road.
"Blast!" Giles slammed on the brakes, screeching to a halt within inches of the girl.
She stopped and turned to him, swaying in the harsh glare of the headlights. "I know her ..." he whispered. She was a regular at the Magic Box. A quiet thing with a fondness for fuzzy-worded books and the more innocuous crystals.
But she'd wandered far from the shop's reading section -- and her own sanity -- to stand before him, rending the air, screaming like a banshee. Leaves and twigs tangled in her wild, pale hair and her eyes glowed with deranged purpose. "I can't find the path! I lost the map! How am I supposed to get to the place if I can't find the path?!"
The sight of her sickened him. His hand clamped down on the door handle. He should get her to hospital for the antidote --
No.
Better to be rid of the poison once and for all.
Giles maneuvered the car carefully around her and continued on his way.
***
Spike's head still ached and if scaling the leaning tower of cars hadn't already turned his legs against him, riding vengeance on a thousand pounds of thundering horsepower definitely would. A dogsled would've been easier on the old carcass; but he didn't give a damn.
He ripped through town, and sights that not long ago would've cheered him just pissed him off. Dead and injured humans everywhere. Some had fought like champions in the War only to die like chumps less than a year later. High on fire water, or done in by someone who was. Their neighbors. Their mates.
Cops worked to keep them from killing each other and firemen tried to coax them down from ledges. Well, let the heroes do the rescuing. Let Buffy. She was a damn sight better at it. No more plucking kittens out of trees for him. Rescuing meant that someone else cocked it up and made a mess needed cleaning. Rescuing rarely involved hacking things to bits with a sword. There hadn't been any good hacking in a bloody long time. Any good anything.
It hurts, Spike.
Nor had there been any talk of hurting in weeks. Even then it was bitch and moan, bitch and moan. Not this, that made her tremble and clutch at his hand. Pain that had somehow become his own. Pain and fear and need that gave his life meaning, but made it so much harder.
He was never any good at dealing with loss. At thirty years, he'd lost his first family. Another twenty and he'd lost his second. A hundred years with Dru, and losing her ... every time he'd lost her, including the last ... He'd never handled it well.
He'd be lucky to get five years with Buffy. Two. Less with Dawn, her track record. It hurt just thinking about it.
Bloody mortals and their bloody stupid mortality.
At least Glory had needed her for something, needed her to get home. And Dru had been mad, or hungry, or both. But Rayne poisoned a little girl -- a whole town of little girls. For kicks.
Not that Spike didn't understand, even appreciate the scheme. He knew all about chaos for the sake of chaos. Bedlam for fun, the rush of smash and bash. And he knew that in his own ruthless existence, he'd done much more taking than he'd ever given.
But understanding didn't earn mercy, only a different sort of hatred. The sort reserved for his own kind, his own family. And now, this human. Who almost took from him a thing he could not -- would not -- lose. Not after everything. After fiery trips to Hell, a disastrous ride in his car. After blood and bones and vampire boyfriends and he'd killed Dru to save her!
When did it end? When she was dead?
After generations of fearing nothing, he found himself terrified of a fifteen-year-old girl and the countless ways she could get herself killed.
Spike? It hurts.
He gunned the engine. Power surged through the machine, kicking it forward and distressing every barely-healed wound in his body, ankle to eye.
Pain rippled through him, and he smiled.
***
Mere hours after wreaking havoc there, Giles returned to the villa. He sped through the gate, swerved around the fountain, and stopped just short of putting his car through a wall.
He got out and glared at the facade. Noble arches guarded pane-less windows, the remains of which littered the portico and driveway, twinkling like lethal snow. Light flowed from every orifice and the front door stood wide open, just as the Watchers had left it.
Giles had taken the cure, but he remembered the disease. This time, and the last. ... changing ... this sort of mindless need to destroy ... snapping necks until everyone's dead ... This anger ... rage ...
He more than remembered. He felt it, still. Felt it carry him over the threshold, past the debris in the foyer, and straight into the great room where Ethan worked, looting the place, tossing valuables and supplies into an open case. As usual, he didn't hear Giles approach. His hearing had always been as bad as Rupert's eyesight.
Just as Ethan turned toward him, Giles curled a hand round the back of his head, seizing him by the hair. "Returning to the scene of the crime. How terribly common."
Ethan strained against his grip. "I wouldn’t throw stones if I were you." He arched an eyebrow at the wreckage Giles had wrought. "Oh." He smirked. "Too late."
Giles shoved him. Ethan stumbled back, rubbing his neck.
"And here I thought you were ignoring me," he said in the full, rich tones Giles knew so well.
Ignoring him. Would that he could. Would that he had, all those years ago.
“But you were just being coy, weren’t you? Waiting for the perfect moment to unveil your masterpiece. I thought you might finally take a switch to that brat Slayer of yours, but this." Ethan gestured at the destruction all around them. "This is your best work yet. Inspired. You give me hope."
Giles noticed a small table that had escaped his wrath. In a far corner, a round, unassuming piece with a dark cherry finish and an object positioned dead center: The ... Something-or-Other of Subukan. Ancient. Bronze. And phallic, just like everything else about the damn Council.
He scowled. "This is as much your doing as what happened to Dawn Summers. Xander Harris. And those children ..."
“Oh, please. I've been waiting for this for twenty-five years. Look at you ... after everything ... You hate your precious Council even more than I do! Almost as much as you hate me.” He laughed, but Giles felt the anger flowing off him in waves. Heard the gentle knocking of The Something of Subukan trembling against cherry wood. Ethan's face changed and he sneered, “You ... stupid ...”
"Another word and I shall have to kill you more slowly than I planned."
The Subukan stilled, and Ethan's rage receded as quickly as it had risen.
Giles watched the mask fall. Once again, the voice had the quality of fine cognac. "You always tease. Letting your indignation write checks your conscience isn’t willing to cash."
"You don't know anything about my conscience. I should have killed you long ago."
Ethan laughed. "God knows you should have. But you've always had a blind spot where I'm concerned, Rupert. I love that about you. It's one of the things I count on."
"Not this time."
"Really? Why don't you tell me what you've learned."
"I'm not letting you get off."
"Oooh." Ethan leered. "But I already have." He returned to his packing. "And I will."
***
Spike pulled up to the villa. Ears ringing. Body humming from the vibration of Harley on pavement, running on instinct and hunger and rage. His eyes swept the scene.
Giles here. Lights on. Shouting. Door open. Go around back. Find Rayne. Find Rayne. Find Rayne and stop him.
***
"Ethan ..."
"What? More threats? More lectures? More noise about evil and innocence? I've been to that sham you call your Magic Box. Trinkets and scents and What Color is Your Aura? It's like a butcher's shop with nothing but lamb." He elongated the vowel, punctuating his disdain. Then he looked sideways at Giles. "Except ... up the stairs, on a high shelf ... or around the corner, in a low cabinet. That's where the meat is, isn't it? And the blood ... I can feel it!" He laughed. "Just like you, my own little Magic Box. Milky shopkeeper on the outside, but one need only crack open a door, and the hidden darkness blasts its way out."
Ethan's mouth quirked. "Thirsty, Rupert? The bar's closed, but I think I can scare up some water."
Giles winced, and just for a moment, something within him slipped. "Why do you come here?"
Ethan exhaled. Across the room, The Subukan rocked back and forth. Slowly, like a metronome set for a dirge.
"You forget. They dragged me back to the Hellmouth on a leash." He shut the case. When he spoke again, his voice held the unmistakable ring of truth. "But you know I'll always come back for you. And one day Ripper may actually be here when I do."
Giles smiled. "He never left."
The Subukan flew at Giles's head. He spun, snatched it out of the air, and held it aloft as he advanced on Ethan.
Ethan's eyes widened. "Ripper…"
Giles brought the relic down hard. Ethan dodged, taking the brunt of it on the shoulder. Giles struck again, but Ethan whirled and used the case as a shield. Then he swung it, knocking Giles to the floor. Ethan loomed over and raised the case high overhead. As he drove it down, Giles rolled back and put up both feet. He bent his knees to absorb the impact, then snapped them straight, flinging Ethan backwards and exploding the case and all its contents.
Giles leapt to his feet and bounded after him. Smash! His ring left a thin line of blood across a high cheekbone. Bash! He meant to eradicate that smirk for all time. Bash! Bash! Bash! Ethan's grunts and cries grew louder. Ah yes, there's the song Giles longed to hear. He swung again. Blocked, but no matter. More where that came from. Giles attacked with clipped, controlled strokes -- and just a hint of pleasure.
Battered and bruised, Ethan grinned his defiance and made a noise like a strangled laugh. Giles reared back to silence him once and for all.
Then the back of the room erupted. A cataclysm of glass and splintering wood; a screaming engine and the roar of a creature angered beyond reason; a blur of metal and leather blasting through the fissure and sailing into the room.
Giles dove for cover too late to avoid catching a tire -- or was it a boot? -- in the back. The blow sent him crashing into a pile of occasional chairs.
He felt and heard the intruder land. Heard machinery groan, pushed to its limits. Ethan hollering, engine revving to a sudden crescendo, then both sounds pulling away.
Sprawled across a heap of antique, overpriced kindling, Giles raised his head. He squinted toward the front door, willing his vision to clear and his body to move.
Spike --
***
-- shot out of the house. Then he braked and planted a boot. The back end of the cycle flared out in a crescent motion, kicking up dust and glass. The arm clutching Rayne flung him forward, and he skittered across the driveway, bits of window shredding silk and skin.
Spike let the cycle fall and he moved on Rayne, pulling him up for the sheer pleasure of slamming him back down. It hurts, Spike.
His fists. Rayne's face. Knuckles seeking cartilage, teeth, the most delicate bones in the human body, and oh, it felt so good to hit him. No more fear or confusion, just skin smashing into skin. Turning red, turning purple. Flesh tearing. Bones cracking. Blood spattering off his face with the force of every blow. Hands up. Lips moving. Crack! None of that. Never again.
Emotions and senses all tangled up now. The gurgle of the fountain too bright. The light shining from the house too loud. And all of it entwined in -- all of it floating over -- all of it covered with -- washed with -- blood. Gorgeous and fragrant and warm. His own blood screaming its rage until he heard nothing else. Spike hauled Rayne to his feet, sucking in a breath as Rayne's head lolled to one side. Then he sank his fangs into Rayne's throat. Rayne gasped and shuddered, clawing at the hands that gripped his shirt. Spike snaked his arms around him, and he drank.
The first rush of blood hit the back of his throat, staggering him. A taste so pure and rarefied, it made him dizzy with power. He could do anything. See know have feel be everything. Flying high at full throttle, but everything clear as bell. Colors glowing and singing ... every breath like wind in his ears ... the aroma of copper filling his head the feel of human skin beneath his hands and dear God the taste!
He drank.
Then he tightened his hold and the pulsating within both of them quickened. Now everything that was Ethan Rayne in this moment spilled into Spike. Fear, loathing, excitement, sadness, magic, insanity, satisfaction ... He drank and he drank, growing stronger as the source weakened. And hadn't this always been his calling? Wasn't he Chosen for this, after all? Exactly this, that was, above all else, supremely --
Natural.
Rayne's pulse finally slowed to the melancholy rhythm of surrender. For Spike, this had always been the sweetest of moments. One that he'd denied himself for so long. Why? When he needed it so much? Needed it more than violence, more than sex, more than life ...
More than ... more than…
***
Giles lurched to the door, gripping the jamb with one hand and his ribs with the other. He stopped, stunned by the terrible and beautiful sight before him. Bathed in light, yet seemingly lit from within, hair and eyes and vengeance gleaming, Spike bit into Ethan. A primal force. Inexorable.
"Spike!"
Giles stepped toward them, but his legs buckled and he fell to his knees. He cursed and struggled to stand. Ethan had to be stopped. But not like this. Spike wasn't meant to do this. It was ...
***
More than --
Oh, God. What have I done?
Spike froze, and in a heartbeat took a tumble deeper and darker than Man's fall from Paradise. He plunged through hell and descended into nothingness, where the only thing worse than being, was being without her.
His arms went limp, and Ethan Rayne slipped to the ground.
The power and sweetness and warmth vanished. The air stung his skin and his clothing felt like the shattered glass beneath his feet. That must be the sound in his head: his body crying out for relief. Trying and failing to drown out the voice -- so soft, yet resolute. Unyielding.
You've lost her.
***
Giles limped forward and stood opposite Spike. He crouched down and looked at Ethan.
Alive. But not for long.
Giles heard boots crunching glass as Spike paced. "Giles, your car. Maybe we can… we can still…"
Giles tilted his head and regarded the wound on Ethan's throat. Watched the life leak and trickle away to the low, low points.
"Giles! He can't be dead yet! We can still save him. If we go now!"
Then Ethan blinked, and stared straight up into the blackness. "Rupert?"
Giles didn't move. He waited for Ethan's eyes to find him. Then he smiled his farewell. "Be seeing you."
Giles moved to stand, but Ethan's hand shot up and grabbed the side of his head. "Oh, yes. You will."
Then it was over.
And the Earth shifted on its axis yet again.
The moment meant to free him ... the death meant to end the suffering, to make up for the past ... did none of those things.
"I…"
Not his voice. Spike's.
"No ..." Spike fell back a step. "I wasn't supposed to kill him!"
"No," Giles whispered.
Spike looked up. "No," he repeated, and Giles saw the truth dawn on him like the morning sun. "You were."
He didn't answer.
"Oh, God." Spike shook his head. "You ... Oh, my God."
"Spike --"
"You ... loaded me up like a shotgun and set both barrels on your old mate!" Words heavy with accusation. Panic. "You couldn't do it. With your delicate head and your delicate stomach and your delicate conscience!"
Giles shook his head. "Not you, too." He rose to his feet. "God's teeth! I suppose you tore in here on that thing to talk? Now what? CPR? Emergency transfusions? Tell me! Did we really come this far to save him, Spike? To save him?"
"You think I give fuck all about Ethan Rayne? You should've killed him years ago! Any one of the, what, twenty times he turned you lot into idiots. You didn't. You ... you ..." Spike looked down at Ethan and his face crumpled. "Oh, God. I really did this. I really killed him. I ... I killed ..."
Giles looked away. "I let you do it," he admitted. "It shouldn't have happened this way."
Spike barked out a laugh. "Well, why ruffle the moral feathers? We got Slayers for slaying, Watchers for watching ... But for the really monstrous, we got a monster in the family, don't we? Why not Spike? He's already damned. Got nothin' to lose. Only everything I tried to be. Everything I have. Everything, of course, except a s --"
"Don't you dare say it! You killed thousands and feel no remorse whatsoever. Don't start now, Spike. I couldn't abide another morose, vampire puppy."
"Giles ..." Spike choked on a sob. "I think I'm in over her head this time."
Giles stopped and looked at him. He understood the fear. Remembered the loss. People who liked you well enough long as they didn't really see. Jenny pulling away from him. Olivia never coming back. His Slayer glimpsing the darkness. He remembered what that cost.
He tried to be kind. "She forgives. Slowly. But finally."
"All she does is forgive me."
"For what? A hundred years of damnation?"
"That. And ashes all over the porch. Clothes on the floor. Crumbs on the table. The mess that is me. She forgives me every day. For the sun we never get. The brats we'll never have… Nature of the beast."
Giles grimaced. "Oh, for God's sake, stop that. You're being unbearably morbid. I thought you knew better."
He nodded, but pain and guilt still marred his face. "I know better ..."
***
Spike tried to pull himself together. He ran a hand over his face, then cleared his throat. "The body ... We have to --"
"Go home, Spike."
"I know how this ... uh ... I know how --"
"So do I."
"-- how this goes." A plethora of crime scenes flashed through his mind, but this one was different. "Or ... Should we call? Giles?"
Spike looked at him, but Rupert's gaze never left Rayne.
"Hmm? What're you talking about? Call whom?"
"Grant. Right? We should call?"
Giles finally turned to him. "What? No!"
Spike nodded. "Right. Right. No police." He dragged his hands through his hair as he fumbled for the correct answer. "The Council? You'd tell --"
"The Co --" Giles sputtered. "Are you mad?! These people don't blink at killing Slayers -- what d'you think would become of you? There'll be no turning in of anyone. There’s no reason to. Do you understand?"
He thought he did. "The Slayer, then. Buffy will ... Buffy ... Oh God, Giles, I really --"
"Spike. Go home." His tone softened. "She'll be worried."
Spike moaned and squeezed his eyes shut. He wrenched his head from side to side, clamping both hands to his ears. Not happening. Not happening. Not, not, not happening ...
Senseless, stupid acts of denial. When he looked up, Giles hadn't moved. And Rayne was still dead.
Spike finally turned away from the old friends and stumbled to the cycle. Pulled it upright, swung a leg over.
He sped through the gates, wound on down the hill, and took the long way home.

***

Giles closed his eyes and allowed the spray of hot water to flow over his face, stream down his chest, run off his arms. He ducked his head to soak his hair. Then his hands came up, scrubbing away the blood and grime of the night's madness. Murder. As moisture and heat disturbed the bruises covering his body, he winced. Then the sting became an ache, and the ache became just another part of him.

They'd been mates, Rupert and Ethan. Now one of them was dead, killed by the other. Hadn't they always known it would end this way? From the moment Rupert had walked away. Decades ago, yet the wounds from that night still fresh and the memory so vivid ... Ethan standing in the middle of the room, glasses and bottles in orbit around him, a vortex of rage whirling out of control. He'd screamed of betrayal and one by one sent the objects flying -- past Rupert -- into the door.

Don't go.

But Giles did go. Back to Oxford and into the waiting arms of his legacy.

Ethan had punished him many times over for ultimately choosing the Council. And the Council had punished him for having ever chosen Ethan -- using Ethan himself as the instrument of their retribution. At least Ethan's death was the last he could heap upon Giles's beleaguered conscience. But Giles felt no righteousness. Only relief. One less monster threatening the family. The grand, operatic emotions of his youth had long since ceased to appeal to him. He yearned for peace at the precise moment he realized that he would never know it.

But relief would do. It would bloody well do.

Giles reached out and shut off the water. He grabbed a towel and emerged from the shower, stepping over the clothes that lay in a mound on the floor. More for the pile of things to be got rid of.

He swiped a hand over the mirror, clearing a blurry swath by which he shaved, brushed, flossed. Moving through his morning routine in the dead of night allowed his mind to fine tune the details of his to-do list.

It never disturbed him how easy it was to dispose of bodies in Sunnydale. In fact, he'd always been grateful. Some part of their sworn duty ought to be easy. Now that the whole town was in on the Slayer secret, it was even more so. He found that he could gain full cooperation and ready access to whatever he required just by behaving in a mysterious fashion and speaking in low tones about "our work". The citizenry actually asked fewer questions, now they thought they knew the answers.

Giles exited the bathroom and climbed the stairs, dripping water as he went. He tossed the towel over the footboard and, after some rummaging, pulled on the jeans he liked least and the shirt he wore when he detailed his car. With almost all of the dirty work done, he thought more about the covering up of it. The Council would actually be of great help there. No doubt, the sweep of the villa had already begun. All evidence of Ethan's association with them would be systematically destroyed, and it would never occur to anyone to wonder what became of him. The experiment that failed.

Spike would tell Buffy. There was nothing Giles could do about that. Nor would he try. He couldn't predict how she would react, but he knew he could count on her silence. If the Council learned the truth, nothing would stop them coming after Spike. But no one else must ever know. Xander, Faith ... and Lydia. They must not be compromised. For everyone's sake.

The Council would leave immediately. And the town would -- until the next loud noise -- be relatively quiet.

As it was now ... in these hours before dawn. Giles's mind fell silent for the first time since he sent Spike home and began the tedious work of cleaning up the mess. He closed his eyes and images from a lifetime ago crept into the stillness.

Ethan, young and gifted. Not the heart of their little group -- that was Randall -- and certainly not the soul -- for Ethan never had one -- but Rupert was drawn to him instantly. His sadistic humor and ready laugh the source of many a night's entertainment. So different from his Oxford colleagues. From his family. From the tiresome destiny that Rupert had fled home to avoid.

Ethan, cruel and seductive. They'd used their nascent power to tease and toy with whomever happened by. But Ethan sniffed out a deeper curiosity in Rupert and set fire to it, drawing him into an exploration of magic's black depths. Together they discovered rituals that made Rupert want never again to return to his own body. And a ritual that gave his body over to something else. This they shared with the others.

Ethan, afraid, crying like a little child on the night Randall died.

But fear never taught Ethan compassion, only that he much preferred causing fear to feeling it. He came to worship that power, and he relished visiting madness and pain upon Rupert, with whom he'd fought for Ripper and lost.

Giles went to the stairs, and the several hours between the person he was yesterday, and the old man he was now weighed heavily on each step downward.

Faith had thanked him once for "getting" her. The shy eyes and serious mouth indicating her belief that this capacious understanding came from some wise and brilliant place, when in fact it was borne of ugly experience. He knew what it was to choose hate because it hurt less than love. He'd known rage; he'd lost control. But he'd also reveled in rage. And he knew what it was to possess iron control and still crave to do murder. The only difference between himself and Faith was a bit of impulse management. A cool drink of water.

He also knew what it was to harm those you love with your own darkness, and to need -- with all of your desperate heart -- forgiveness. Not for what you've done, but for who you are.

And that was the difference between himself and Ethan.

Giles went to the counter and poured a drink. He walked to the desk with it, shuffled the papers there. Went to the bookshelves and ran a finger over row upon row of first editions. So hollow were his movements that not an atom was disturbed in the performance of them. He cast a look around his home. Nothing seemed changed from when he'd left it hours ago. Except that the things most precious and familiar to him offered none of the same comfort. Touching them ... a gesture connected to nothing.

He went to the window. The sky turning that particular shade of blue-black that Giles had always found intriguing. But dull eyes stared straight ahead. Seeing nothing. Choosing nothing because that hurt less than hate.

Yet between each breath he could hear ... reaching out from somewhere deep down and long ago ... From a thing ageless and hopeful, to whom Giles's life had never really happened.

A piteous, mournful wail. Lamenting young men of promise and the monsters they had become.

Unable to silence it, Giles listened. Then he drifted, without issue, to his knees. His glass tilted all the way to one side, and the contents dribbled onto the rug, unnoticed.

***

Faith sat in the quiet hospital room. Leaning forward, elbows propped at the edge of the bed.

She’d been there - hard to say. A while. Long enough for her ass to go numb in a molded plastic chair, at least. Watching him breathe. In and out. Nice and slow. Regular. He’d been in surgery forever, though only two hours ticked by on the hospital clock in the waiting area. She’d spent the whole time pacing back and forth.

Except for the time she’d spent in the bathroom washing his blood off her hands. Her face, neck, arms. The hem of her tee-shirt was stiff and dark with it, scratchy against her stomach.

In the ambulance, blood had spattered across his shirt like Technicolor in a black and white film. Thick syrupy puddles soaking his shirt, on the stretcher, dripping to the floor. His face looked gray, tight with pain and with fighting to stay awake. Trying to reassure her that he was okay. And then slack, unconscious. Out.

There was that moment when he was dying, he was gone. And the thought of him not being there, the thought of World Without Xander? She couldn’t picture it. Like, the world stopped, the edge of a cliff. And beyond that?

Nothingness.

Void.

Big empty.

Here in the hospital bed, he just looked like crap. Exhausted. Pasty and pale - like he had the flu or something, kinda pukey but he’d be better in a few days. She could deal with him like this.

A weird hank of hair stuck to his forehead and she brushed it back out of his eyes. He had really thick eyelashes. Not long, but thick. Pretty. His lips were all chapped. She could see the skin flaking up, and a crack right down the center that was gonna bleed if he grinned. They probably had Chap Stick down at the gift shop, she could run down there and grab some…

Later. After he woke up. Her luck, he’d wake up in that one damn second when nobody was by his side. And he’d be scared, and alone, and not quite sure how he ended up in the damn hospital. He didn’t haveta go through that. So she’d wait ‘til he woke up, or ‘til Willow or Buffy or somebody got back to sit with him. ‘Cause waking up alone sucked.

This was stupid. Xander danced like someone was poking a cattle prod at his butt. He wore khaki pants and vee-neck sweaters and was freaky proud of his Star Trek Christmas ornaments. He had nice girlfriends - okay, he had totally loudmouth girlfriends, but they wore frilly dresses and stuff, and they’d never done time for manslaughter.

And Xander knew her. Knew all her flaws, all her bullshit. Knew the way it felt to have her hands wrapped around his throat…

He was her Watcher. Others called themselves that before - whacked-out Giles had flung their names at her like ninja stars. But they weren’t. Not really. They’d cared about the Slayer, the job, the big fat mission. Only this man had watched her, seen her. Given a shit about her. Put her above her function and her lame-ass destiny and her failure. Only this one.

When he had every reason to hate her. Hell, he should hate her. He only didn’t because - well, not from anything she’d done. Just something in him that… that got past it. She so didn’t deserve it but she didn’t care because she sure as hell wasn’t gonna let it go or screw it up. Not this time.

His hand lay on the bed. Knuckles all scuffed and bruised - they’d hurt like a sonuvabitch when he woke up, except he’d probably be riding the Morphine Express. She could loop her fingers around the web between thumb and forefinger, hold his hand for a while? Nah. Maybe not. She’d lose track of time and he’d wake up with her clinging to his hand and she’d look like a total doof. Just let a fingertip trace along the back of his hand, up along the bones under his skin. He felt warm - but then he was always warmer than her, just by a bit.

The doctor said he’d be unconscious for at least another hour. So she had time.

“Love….”

Her voice came out kinda scratchy. Skipped a little. Her throat felt thick.

“I…”

She couldn’t do it. Couldn’t say it. Even though he was sleeping the sleep of the drugged up the yingyang, even though they said he couldn’t hear her, the words just weren’t gonna come.

Then, fuck it. She would hold his hand. ‘Til he woke up.

***

Niamh popped her head in just as Magnus zipped up his suitcase. "Limousine's here," she said. "Shall I have your bags taken down?"

"Thank you, Niamh, but I'll get them." He looked at his watch. Their flight was scheduled to depart in less than an hour; they really didn't have time to dawdle. No matter. The plane would wait for him. "You and the others go on ahead. I've one last matter to attend to, I'll meet you at the hangar."

She stepped into the room. "Mr. Travers ordered us to depart Sunnydale ASAP. He'll wonder why you're late."

"Quentin Travers really shouldn't criticize after the way this operation has fallen apart under his command." Magnus smiled. "Besides, our days of answering to Travers are numbered."

Niamh returned his smile. "A definite change for the good. He has been far too lenient with the Slayers."

"A mistake you can be sure I won't repeat in his stead."

A dark look passed over Niamh's face. "It's a shame so many innocents had to be hurt, though."

"Yes, well. You know what they say about making omelettes."

"Of course. It was a necessary evil. Still, a shame. And we're lucky to have come through it ourselves intact," she added, rubbing her temple. Then she sighed. "I'll pass along your message to Mr. Kim and call us another taxi."

"There's no need for you to wait, my dear."

Again, Niamh smiled. "I don't mind."

She turned, and Magnus watched her walk out of the room. Lovely girl, really. He went to take one last peek as she sashayed down the hall before shutting and locking the door. Then he went back to his luggage and pulled something out of the carryon. Turning the talisman over in his hands, he tried to recall the incantation as he crossed to the dressing table, where a pillar candle waited. A jolt of pain from his bruised ribs made him lean against the dresser and clutch his side. Rupert Giles should count himself fortunate that his forced retirement had placed him out of Magnus's reach -- at least so far as the legitimate power he held.

Magnus recovered, found his matches, and struck one. Before he could touch the flame to the wick a gust of wind from behind blew it out.

The wind died down as quickly as it had arisen, but not before surrounding him with the sweet, fetid scent of rotting flowers. Magnus raised an eyebrow at the hooded figure in the mirror. "I was just about to call you."

"No need." Aton's voice resonated from deep within its robes. What should have been a muffled sound filled the room and reverberated through Magnus's bones. "That talisman will no longer work to summon me. Do not use it again."

A corner of Magnus's mouth twitched. He played it off as a smirk. "Mind if I keep it as a souvenir?" When Aton said nothing, Magnus shoved the coin-like artifact in his pocket. "I take it your task is complete."

"Do you question me?"

"Not at all. I simply wonder about the specifics."

"You know the specifics. It was why you summoned me in the first place."

Magnus nodded. "Quite right. How long until the effects become apparent?"

The creature waved a hand, allowing Magnus a glimpse of the claws peeking out from the end of its sleeve. "Soon," it said.

"Yes, but how soon?" Magnus worked to keep the impatience out of his voice. He had no desire to anger the demon.

A slight rustling of fabric that might have been a shrug. "Typically, one week. Though the last one took only three days."

Magnus smiled. "Excellent." Then he remembered the news he had yet to deliver and his smile faded. "Ah ... about your payment."

"Yes?"

"I'm loathe to admit that Mr. Rayne seems to have outwitted us. He, ah ... he esc--"

"He is dead."

"He's... you're quite certain?"

"The vampire and the former Watcher performed the sacrifice in your stead. Their method was infinitely more satisfying."

"I see." Except, he hadn't seen. This was a surprise, and Magnus hated surprises. Hated chaos. Almost as much as he hated dealing with this demon. But as Niamh had pointed out, these were necessary evils. Unpleasant means to a just end. Magnus forced a jovial smile. "Saves me the work then, doesn't it?"

"The payment was never more than a formality," said Aton. "The task is truly its own reward."

"Good to know." Magnus made a show of checking his watch. "So, how do I contact you if something goes wrong?" At the sound of moving fabric, he looked up. And wished that he hadn't. Aton had removed his hood, and as Magnus stared into the creature's face, he felt all of the color drain from his. He couldn't be sure, but he thought the bastard was smiling at him.

"You don't."

Then he was gone. Magnus slumped against the dressing table for a long moment, waiting for the violent shaking to subside. When he recovered enough to stand, he went to the phone and rang for assistance with his luggage. Then he sunk onto the bed, dropped his head in his hands, and hoped like hell it wouldn't take them long to serve drinks on the plane.

***

Over the years, a long line of guys had taken on the job of Summers Family Gardener. High school guys, retired guys, foreign guys, and wannabe-landscape-architect guys came and went. Their going had nothing to do with the insane world of slaying (cats rising from the dead in the petunias, anyone?) and everything to do with the insane world of cutting grass.

The thing with Oz had been convenient, but temporary. Will mow lawns for kitchen privileges and a bit of couch. Just while their regular guy was on vacation. Besides, Oz mowed lawns like he played guitar: with the best of intentions.

But soon Jorge would be back on the beat. First (real) gardener to know what the boss lady did for a living. First one to dust a few vamps himself -- with his own hedge clippers. Nothing got the better of Jorge. Nothing, that is, except for a stubborn patch of weeds in the farthest corner of the back yard. Every Saturday, Jorge had slain the evil weeds, then anointed the ground with his own brand of holy weed killer. But they always came back. And always in the exact same spot.

That's where Buffy found Spike, finally. Standing in the yard. Staring down at the weeds.

"Where the hell have you been?" she demanded as she marched across the lawn, the first hint of dew chilling her bare feet. "Giles got home over two hours ago. I know because I went over there." She frowned. "And he's acting weird. Like ... when really bad things are happening. You wanna tell me --"

She stopped when she got within a few yards of him. Stopped because Spike hadn't spoken, hadn't moved, hadn't looked at her. The tree cover was thick where he stood, casting him into shadow, with only the glow of the neighbor's porch light outlining his profile. Something was missing… no cigarette. And his stillness belied the desperate energy she felt swirling all around him.

She stepped forward. "What --"

"Dawn?" His voice so hoarse and pained that Buffy stopped at the sound of it.

"She's fine. She's asleep. Spike? What's going on? Where -- What's going on?"

He glanced at her. Then he stared straight ahead. As if the sight of her hurt him somehow. "You ... When you ... I remember ..."

He'd looked at her like one of them was dying. The way he'd looked at Dawn in her hospital bed. Buffy's instincts bristled, but she waited.

"When you asked me to live here. With you ..."

"Yeah?"

"I didn't think it was a good idea, remember? With Social Services, and ... I didn't think it was a good idea."

"I remember ..."

"But I wanted to." He shut his eyes. "God, how I wanted to. And the room ..."

"Our room. It's our room, now. And Dawn's okay. She's had a rough couple of months, but she's gonna be okay. We're all--"

"You get used to it, y'know. Warm house. Comfy bed. Tub. It all felt so good. You felt ..."

"What are you talking about?!" Patience gave way as the first inklings of panic tickled her stomach. "Spike! I need you to tell me what happened tonight. You --" Her arm flung out. A wide, wild gesture. "-- and Giles. You both sound like the world ended, and that wasn't even on the bill this time. What did Ethan --"

"He's dead."

Drowning had nothing on what she felt at this moment. "What? Giles didn't say anything …"

"Giles didn't --" Spike shook his head and looked back down at the weeds. "He didn't. Rayne's dead and I'm the one who killed him."

"I don't understand." Now the first bands of steel wrapped themselves around the panic. Slayer M.O. Get the facts. Then deal with them. "You were supposed stop Giles from killing him. What the hell happened?!"

"Well, I stopped him."

"No! You said you'd handle it. You said you had my back. You don't get to fail and then come back here and get cute with me! You --"

His face got that look like when sunlight found a hole in his blanket. The flare of her anger burned out.

"Oh, God," she whispered. "Tell me what happened."

"What happened is I bit him. And then I drank until he was dead."

The bottom fell out of her world and she reached for something to hold on to. "Did he --"

"No. Rayne didn't fight. Rayne surrendered. He surrendered, but I kept drinking. I liked drinking him, Buffy. I liked killing him."

She heard the words. She saw him speak them, and she understood their meaning. But something inside her refused to put it all together. She shook her head. "No. There has to be --"

"It was fun. I had fun."

"No. Because of Ethan, Giles almost got himself dead. Because of him, a lot of people in this town are dead. Xander's got a hole in his back and I think Ethan went after Giles and Dawn on purpose. I'd've killed him myself."

Spike chuckled. "No you wouldn't. 'Course you wouldn't. And if you did, you wouldn't've liked it."

"Don't be so sure."

"I am sure. You don't get it. Rayne isn't dead because he was bad, or because he had it coming, or even because he hurt Dawn. He's dead because I like to kill people. He's dead because it's fun."

"I've seen people kill for fun. Angel ... Faith ... You. Look at you. Are you having fun now?"

"Buffy ..."

"Ethan isn't dead because you're evil." She groped for answers -- and a way to make them fit. "He's dead because he was evil and you were provoked. It matters. Who he was, how it happened ... It matters. That much I've learned."

"You weren't there."

"I didn't have to be." She took a tentative step toward him -- "I know you." -- trying to convey her faith with her eyes and her voice and that invisible thing that had always connected them. "I know you."

He shook his head. "You don't! I get so mad. Crazed! Hungry … And it's not the same. It'll never be the same. I will never be safe."

Slayer instincts kicked in again. Another tactic, another plan. Never give in. You always find a way. "I'll tell you what I know: I know how it feels to want someone dead. To want to kill her myself. She didn't stay dead but what're you gonna do?" Buffy shrugged. "Slayer healing."

He sobbed. And then the sob became a laugh, a low, growly sound, tinged with hysteria.

"Angel," he said, laughing still, and shaking his head. "You were trying to save Angel."

You're losing him ... "That's not --"

"Only reason you'd ever harm someone. To save someone else. And you did. Save him, I mean."

Make him understand. "Spike ..."

"Like me. Like you tried so hard to save me."

"We save each other. Every night. Not just in battle. We're each other's reason for coming home from the fight. And Dawn. Everyone. The life we made. The life we're making. You used to know that."

"We play house." His voice was level. Dead. "Acosta was right. He didn't even have to exaggerate." Spike moved on her. "I'm a monster. A killer, remember? The big leagues." He didn't stop until they stood toe to toe. "You were right about me, too. The first time."

He glared down at her and her body tensed. Then a determined sort of calm took over. Her shoulders fell back and her chin came up. "Look at my neck. Bare ... exposed ..."

His jaw clenched. "Don't."

"Any 'killer' vampire slick enough to get this close to the Slayer would've had himself a couple pints by now ..."

A sad smile curved his lips. He reached up. Ran a finger from behind her ear to the hollow of her throat. "You think I don't want to?"

She shivered. Twice she'd bared her throat to Angel, knowing both times what he would say and do. Just like she knew now that Spike wouldn't drink her. But the longing in his eyes ... The catch in his voice ...

His gaze dipped as he caressed her throat, as if he could read her heart and mind through his fingertips. "Angel? Drac? I don't know what they're dining on now, but don't think for a second they've forgotten. The taste…" He tilted his head. "Another century, another bleeding continent ... but I haven't forgotten either."

"You --?" She tried to piece it together. "So, you would then?"

He swallowed and dropped his hand. "Never." He looked at her. "Nor Key blood. Nor witch nor Watcher blood, neither. I crave you, Buffy, but not like that. I can't. Ever."

"But -"

"Listen to me. Once ... Once you've ..." His eyes narrowed. "You and I stand on the brink of oblivion because I drained a man tonight, and you know what I want? More."

"No. No, that's not who you are now. Tonight -- That isn't you anymore. It -"

"It is. It will always be me. Buffy! Look at me."

She did. He stood before her, blood-spattered and stunned, like Carrie at the prom. She could feel him needing her to really see, yet dreading it with all his might.

"This is the me I beat down every day so that I can be with you. So that I can be someone who can ... who can be with all of you. It's a fight to the death every day. And tonight?" His eyes drifted from hers ever so slightly and his mouth formed a rough 'O' as it came to him. "Tonight, I finally won."

"No! I am not doing this again. What is it with --?" She planted her hands on her hips. "To save me, you'd fight a seven-headed, fire-breathing, acid-bleeding, really ugly monster, wouldn't you? Every day if you had to? So fight this. To save you. To save us. I know it's not easy tonight. Lots of nights. But we're worth it, aren't we? Aren't we?"

He nodded slowly. So much fear. His fear of hurting her. Her fear of losing him.

"Spike ..." She laid a hand on his chest. "We'll figure this out. We will. But not tonight, okay?"

"I'm not okay. I think ... I think I'm lost."

Her hand moved to his face. "As lost as you get, I'll always find you."

She felt him trembling. "If I ever ... If I ever did anything that made you and Dawn --"

"Sshhh. Not gonna happen."

He exhaled then, as if he'd been holding his breath for a hundred years. His face looked shock-y, like he was gonna pass out. Could a vampire have a stroke?

"I don't know how to be without you, Buffy." His eyes glistened with fear. "But what if I can't learn how to be with you?"

They stared at each other in silence.

A whisper of a breeze floated over them and he looked up at the trees, at the leaves shifting and rocking back into place. Her gaze followed his, then moved past it.

The sky was just a purple bruise. Or some other song. And getting more orange and yellow every second.

She reached out and took his hand. "You know what? I'm really tired. Let's turn in."

"Buffy, I ... I lo --" His voice lost all foundation, but he seemed determined to get the words out. "I'm sorry."

"I know." She pulled on his hand. "Come inside, now."
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