The Demon Trilogy

The Demon Inside Me



May 7. Sunnydale.

Spike looked around his crypt, a puzzled frown wrinkling his forehead. He was exhausted after fighting for hours but something was different, something wasn’t quite – he whirled round and confronted Buffy who stood, innocently bewildered, in the doorway. “What have I told you about potted plants?” he roared. “They die in here! It’s too dark for them.”

Buffy sauntered forward and patted his arm gently. “Special house plants, designed for shady areas,” she said. “And sunny ones, moist ones, dry ones – ”

“Huh?”

“Plastic,” Buffy clarified, smiling up at him sweetly.

Spike sighed and ran a hand over his blond hair, smoothing it back quite unnecessarily. “Buffy,” he began, “it’s not that I don’t appreciate you trying to spruce the place up a bit but it’s just not me. Clem got an eyeful of that bloody throw thingy you put on the couch and nearly choked to death laughing. I can’t show my face at Willy’s without having to beat up some joker calling me Martha Stewart’s toy boy.”

“I just want to feel I’m contributing,” said Buffy. “It’s not good for you living in a dank hole. Besides, I seem to recall you telling me that nothing you owned compared to the joy of loving me – and naturally I took that to mean that it was a sort of swap. Everything you own is mine now. Sweet of you.”

“And you belong to me? “ said Spike, trying to salvage something from the situation and wincing as his romantic words, uttered in the heat of the moment, came back to taunt him. Buffy gave him a pitying look. “Slavery’s illegal in California. I belong to me and don’t you forget it, mister.”

Spike looked downcast and she relented, coming closer and nestling into his arms. “I could loan you bits now and then,” she whispered. He brightened at once. “I get to pick them?” he asked.

She grinned. “I think I can guess which bits you’d go for,” she said knowingly.

Spike smiled slowly, shaking his head. “I doubt it. See, I’d pick this little bit here, just behind your ear. The bit that I kiss and you go all squirmy. Or maybe the part where your back becomes your bottom and it’s the smoothest curve you can imagine, like a sand dune sculpted by a storm. Or the silky bit at the very top of your inner thighs, just below –”

“Spike. Stop talking and –”

“And what?” asked Spike, bending his head and pausing, his lips separated from hers by the width of a sigh.

Buffy pouted and her lips brushed his. Spike growled and pulled her tight against him, his hands caressing her body through what was starting to feel like too many layers of clothing. As she began to tug at the stiff button of his jeans with one hand – tracing the equally stiff outline of his cock with the other – all thoughts of décor squabbles fled.

Until Spike lit the candles by the bed.

“What’s that smell? This candle’s one of those scented ones from the Magic Box!”

“Jasmine and ginger. From the sensual range!” yelped Buffy.

“Do I look like I need any help feeling sensual?” Spike said dangerously. Buffy glanced down and shook her head meekly in the face of overwhelming evidence in his favour. “Then why the hell –”

Buffy resorted to a weapon she rarely, if ever, used as a Slayer. Spike groaned at the large eyes and the quivering lip then spotted the barely repressed giggles. Launching himself at her, he pinned her to the bed and began to tickle her mercilessly.

As the scented air enveloped them, they wrestled together, laughter dying away as passion took over from play.
It was a night neither would forget. It was the last night before they were told of the Journey.

***

May 1. Hampshire, England.

In the library of his country house, Andrew Carlton, the new head of the Watcher’s Council sat, as he had done for three long hours, and tried to find some loophole in the words he was reading. Obsessively scanning archaic, faded script in a demon language, had given him a headache that made every blink feel like a blow from a hammer. “Enough,” he said aloud, pushing away from the desk with a violence born of frustration. Pacing the library, rubbing his temples, he finally capitulated and accepted the situation. The prophecy was valid; the events were almost upon them and the Slayer had to be told. It was almost a relief to begin planning instead of trying to evade what was to come.

Freed from the treadmill it had been chained to for over six months, his brain began to assess possibilities and form strategies. Striding back to his desk, he reached for his phone, intending to call his secretary in London and get him to arrange a flight to California. He hesitated. His predecessor, Travers, had been sentenced by the Watcher’s Council to imprisonment in one of their own facilities. Carlton had visited him there a week after his sentence had been imposed. Travers had stared at him, no recognition in his glazed eyes, his mouth hanging open. It had been a profoundly disturbing sight and Carlton felt no satisfaction as he turned away from the remnants of a man he had known for many years. The days of being controlled by the spell necklace as the evidence against him was presented had broken Travers’ mind and shattered the arrogant personality of the former head of the Council.

Carlton knew that Travers was no longer a threat but he could not be certain that all of his supporters had been weeded out of the Council. Travers had been a compelling character and his influence still seemed to pervade the London office. Flicking open an address book, he called Heathrow Airport himself and booked a seat on a flight leaving on the seventh for Toronto. He would need some time to gather all the relevant texts and to arrange for his deputy to take over for the time he was away. He had an elderly aunt in Canada; pretending to visit her on a long overdue holiday and taking a roundabout route to Sunnydale might keep his purpose secret.

Somehow he doubted it though.

***

April 2. Langton, England.

The White Room of Langton Lighthouse was white no longer.

 The lighthouse itself had long since ceased to act as a warning to ships sailing the turbulent sea that lashed against its base. Renovated by an eccentric recluse, it had been transformed into an unusual home but one perfectly suited for a man who had been known to attack the postman delivering his birthday cards. Of course, most were from ‘loving’ relatives, who licked the envelopes and stuck on the stamps to an accompaniment of heartfelt prayers that this would be Simon Delvers’ final birthday. The old man had hung on grimly until only one relative remained to inherit his small fortune and lonely home and had expired, under rather strange circumstances, soon after.

Entering his new possession, his great nephew, Matthew Delvers had smiled secretively, fingering an unpleasant looking figurine in his pocket. It had to be a macabre coincidence that the small statue was pierced by a sliver of wood through the stomach, exactly as old Simon had been found, impaled on an oddly shaped piece of driftwood.

As he had ‘more money than sense,’ according to the locals in the village on the shore, Matthew had gutted the lighthouse, making it into a decorator’s dream. Indeed, it had featured in more than one glossy magazine. Every article focused on the room at the top of the tower; the room that gave the place the nickname of the ‘Whitehouse’. Everything in the room, everything, was white. It could have looked unimaginative, even bland, but with the salt air sweeping through the open windows and the sunlight splashing over the pristine furnishings, it had the exhilaration of the first snowfall and the ethereal softness of a fluffy cloud. Visitors hovered on the threshold, unwilling to set foot on a carpet that was as silky-smooth as swansdown. They giggled nervously as their host urged them in, an amused smile flickering over his thin lips. If they wore colours, in an attempt to temper the whiteness, they clashed horribly and seemed crass, uncouth. If they tried to blend in by wearing white, they looked a dingy grey in comparison to the dazzling surroundings. Their host was the only one who seemed fully at ease and he invariably wore black. It was the antithesis of white, yet strangely, the two colours complemented each other to perfection.

But the White Room was white no longer.

Gouts of blood, dark red and bright scarlet, were splashed on the walls, soaking into the carpet. And amid the carnage, his mouth still smiling, Matthew finished dismembering the woman who had been his lover for ten years. As her head parted from her body, he began to laugh and behind him, in the shadows that were creeping in as the sun sank down, his laughter was answered and echoed from a mouth not designed to laugh, a mouth filled with sharp fangs. His companion stood as the room was plunged into darkness and walked over to join the man, whose laughter had become hysterical, gasping giggles.

“Enough,” the vampire said softly. “The sacrifice has been made. It is time to open the portal. I must be ready for her when she arrives. I must greet the Slayer when she enters the Realm.”

Grelin’s yellow eyes gleamed as Matthew scurried over to a heap of books and jars and his tongue slid out to taste the blood-drenched air. It made him hungry, of course, but far more delicious than the blood was the sharp tang of defiled purity.

May 8. Sunnydale.

Buffy wandered into the Magic Box an hour after it opened. Giles glanced up eagerly as the bell jangled and his face filled with relief as she entered. “Finally!” he snapped, walking over to her. “Didn’t you get my message?”

“There was a message? I haven’t been home yet. No, I just dropped by to umm, look at the candles.” Buffy blushed slightly but Giles didn’t notice.

Over at the cash register, Anya’s head came up sharply. “Candles? Did the jasmine one work then?”

Buffy’s blush deepened. “In a way. But I think I’ll go for something a little more –”

“Kiwi and lime,” Anya said with a brisk nod. “Works every time.”

Giles was looking between the women, frowning slightly as his scolding was derailed. “To do what, precisely?” he asked.

Anya smiled condescendingly. “It’s so obvious,” she said. “They’re fruits. Be fruitful and multiply. What do we want multiples of when we’re engaged in –?”

“Anya!”

“I’ll take the pillar one.”

Giles and Buffy spoke together and then avoided each other’s eyes. “If we can concentrate - just for a moment - on your duties as Slayer,” said Giles, in a clipped tone of voice, “I’d like you to meet someone. I did tell Dawn it was important but obviously the appeal of multiple, umm, events that is, well, damn it, Buffy! Where were you?”

Buffy folded her arms and fixed him with a measured stare. “I spent the night with Spike,” she said. “Yes, we had sex –”

 “Good for you!” caroled Anya. Buffy gave her a quelling look

“But that was after four hours of the busiest patrol I can remember. We must have staked about twenty vampires, all over town. Spike didn’t recognize any of them as locals. Seems Sunnydale is becoming even more popular than usual. After all that fighting, it was almost two in the morning. I didn’t want to wake up the house, so I went to Spike’s as it was nearby. Any problem with that?” Her voice remained flat and controlled, a sure sign that she was annoyed. Giles took the hint and wisely backed off.

“I’m sorry, Buffy,” he said. “It’s just that someone rather important arrived very early this morning and I’ve spent the last few hours assuring him that you’ll be here any moment.”

“That’s not my problem,” said Buffy quietly. “Who is this person?”

“Andrew Carlton; you remember him, of course. He’s been traveling since early yesterday and he’s – ”

“Jet lagged and weary but delighted to see you again, Miss Summers.” Andrew Carlton emerged from the training room at the back of the shop and came towards Buffy, his hand extended, a friendly smile on his face. Buffy shook hands rather awkwardly and looked to Giles for guidance. Until recently, all her dealings with the Council had been such that an outsider could have been forgiven for assuming the Slayer was the Council’s mortal enemy, rather than its precious charge. Buffy still hadn’t adjusted to the idea that a Council visit was anything but a trial and a tribulation.

“I overheard you telling Rupert that you had a busy night,” he continued, no hint of an apology for eavesdropping in his face or manner. “I’m sorry to be bringing tidings of more work for you.”

“If it’s another apocalypse, we’ve met our annual quota,” Buffy said wryly.

Carlton shook his head. “No, not quite on that scale but serious enough. I’d prefer to go through this just once, as time is short. We need to involve a few other people.” He looked at Giles. “Do you want to include all of Miss Summer’s friends and helpers?”

Giles sighed. “They’ll find out anyway but I don’t want this to get out of hand. Perhaps just Willow, Tara and Spike would be best.”

From behind the counter, Anya made a noise that could best be described as an offended snort. Giles said casually, “Of course, with Anya here to keep the shop open, we won’t lose any revenue. If it were to be a full Scooby meeting, the shop would probably be closed for the better part of the day.”

“I can tell when I’m being manipulated,” called Anya. “But it’s more than likely that whatever you’re bothered about is nowhere near as important as you think it is, so I don’t mind.”

“The Council wants to involve a vampire?” Buffy asked, raising a sceptical eyebrow. “Has to be a first. Anyway, it’ll have to wait a bit. He’s asleep and if the patrol tonight is anything like the last one, I’ll need him rested.”

Andrew Carlton looked at her carefully, noticing a bruise on her cheekbone and faint circles around her eyes. Deciding that for the Slayer to look tired, it must have been a very strenuous patrol, he said, “By all means, let him sleep. I could do with a few hours rest and a bath myself. Suppose we meet here at, say, three? I understand Spike can travel safely in daylight by means of a tunnel system?”

Buffy grinned. When Carlton said, ‘Spike,’ his mouth twisted slightly, like a vegetarian talking about veal. “Sure,” she replied agreeably. “I’ll tell Willow and Tara and swing by for Spike later on.” She yawned. “I could do with a nap too.” She smiled in farewell and started to walk out of the shop.

“Don’t forget your candle!” called Anya, waving a neatly wrapped parcel. “I added it to your tab.”

Buffy took it from her with a nod of thanks, that turned into a scamper for the door, as Anya said in a discreet whisper, audible to anyone in a twenty foot radius, “Happy orgasms!”

Carlton stared at Anya, a question on his lips, and then shook his head; obviously assuming that he’d misheard her. Giles groaned inwardly and ushered him out of the shop as quickly as possible.

***

Buffy slipped inside Spike’s crypt later that day and made her way down to the lower level. She paused for a moment, looking at him as he lay sleeping, sprawled on his stomach, the sheets tangled around his hips. Even after six months, she still couldn’t quite believe that they were together. Her lips quirked upwards as she thought about their frequent quarrels – dramatic explosions of emotion that lasted as long as a summer storm and did as little damage as a pillow fight. Somehow, fighting with Spike always led to spectacular sex, which made her wonder how they’d avoided it back in the days when the fighting was done with fists and feet, rather than words. It also explained why they fought so often.

Every day – or night – she learned more about him, more about the man he had been and sometimes, chillingly, more about the demon he had become. Spike rarely flaunted his misdeeds but his reminisces had a tendency to end with, ‘and then I bit him,’ which didn’t make for comfortable listening when you were the Slayer. But he was changing. Whether the cause was the chip, his love for her or a combination of factors, she didn’t know. It was enough that for the moment, she was happy and so was he.

Sitting down beside him, she drew her hand gently down the sleek line of his back. He stirred at her touch, and nuzzled the pillow like a kitten burrowing against its mother’s side. Buffy felt a wave of tenderness sweep through her. Leaning forward, she planted a line of kisses down his spine, feeling his muscles flex as he came fully awake. When she reached the edge of the sheet covering his hips, he spoke, his familiar husky whisper sparking an equally familiar ache in her. “Don’t stop, pet. I’m sure Sleeping Beauty needed more than just a peck on the cheek and I’m so bloody knackered you’ll have to give me a good reason for turning over, let alone getting out of bed.”

“That’s a tempting challenge but we’re needed back at the Magic Box.” Buffy said, with a wicked grin. Spike rolled over lazily and smiled at her.

“And I need you right here,” he said simply, reaching out a finger and drawing it slowly down her bare arm.

“It’s the Watcher’s Council,” Buffy said with a sigh, allowing herself to relax into his arms briefly. “That Andrew Carlton is back and he wants a meeting. Us, Willow, Tara and Giles. It’s not secret from the others but he seemed to think there wasn’t much they could do.”

The playfulness fled and Spike’s face sobered. He remembered Carlton and he remembered what Carlton had called him when they last met. ‘Guardian and Protector’.

“Fine,” he said abruptly. “I’ll get dressed.”

Buffy stood and moved away from the bed. “I’ll go with you through the tunnels,” she said, looking at him appreciatively as he stood naked, reaching for his black jeans. Spike caught her appraising – and admiring – glance and smirked, his eyes gleaming as he pulled on his jeans with a tantalizing slowness. Buffy threw a pillow at him. “You’re hot. I get it. Now put it away until later,” she said.

“That a promise?” He finished dressing and then turned to her, pulling her close and kissing her almost fiercely.

“What was that for?” she whispered, touching her lips, stinging slightly from his kiss.

Spike shook his head. “I get the feeling it’s going to be a while before we can do that again, promise or no promise.” His eyes blazed suddenly. “You’re mine now. That Council tries to say otherwise and –”

“Since when did I ever listen to anything they said?” demanded Buffy. She kissed him swiftly. “There; see it wasn’t the last time. Now let’s go. Sooner we hear what he has to say, sooner we can get back to normal. If that exists in this town. Did I tell you about that crocodile I bumped into last week in the sewers? Not a demon croc, a real one. Must have been twenty foot long -” Her voice floated back to Spike as she disappeared into the tunnels. He stood for a moment, trying to shake the uneasy feeling that something evil had its attention focused on them, and then shrugged fatalistically and followed her.

***

The Realm. Night.

Grelin stared at Delvers, a contemptuous sneer on his face. The man had seemed so promising, so drawn to darkness, but since the death of his lover, he had changed. As the horror of what he had done to her sank in, the remorse and guilt had eaten away at his resolve. In one way, it had been his salvation. There was no reason to keep him alive now he had opened the portal but Grelin took a perverse pleasure in seeing his gradual disintegration into despairing madness, prodding him with reminders of his actions.

The matter at hand was too serious to permit many distractions, of course, but a clever man – and Grelin never thought of himself as anything less – could arrange events so that pleasure and duty were combined. Take the sacrifice tonight – it had to be a woman, it had to be a virgin. That was set out in the ritual. But it didn’t have to be a woman with the silky blonde hair and deep blue eyes of Delver’s dead lover, the closest match to her face and figure that he had been able to find in the town. Seeing Delver’s face as her blood flowed onto the scrying table would make up for the fact that he had not been able to determine anything useful the last two times he had tried.

He could feel that the time was near when the Slayer would arrive. He knew where the portal would open for her. He could even guess who she would bring with her – and the death of that one would be almost as sweet as killing the Slayer – but he still didn’t know one thing, and until he did, the outcome wasn’t certain.

Grelin liked to be certain. Grelin liked to be certain he would win.


May 8. Sunnydale.

As the door into the training room closed and the meeting began, Anya moved from her usual position behind the counter and headed for a shelf, feather duster in hand. The brass incense burners on the shelf didn’t look all that dusty but the shelf was the closest one to the closed door. As she flicked imaginary dust motes away, she tried to hear anything that was being discussed inside the room, but failed. Frowning, she reached out a tentative finger to touch the door. A blue spark flared as her finger met a magical force field. Anya sniffed disdainfully, a sour look on her face. “Willow up to her tricks again,” she thought. A group of students came in, chatting excitedly about tarot cards. Anya smiled, her mood improving as she took in their expensive clothes. Now if she could just convince them they needed a crystal ball each as well.

Inside the room, Willow sensed Anya testing the protective warding and grinned a little naughtily as she pictured Anya’s frustration. The spell prevented both magical and mundane eavesdropping and alerted her to any attempts to breach it. She hoped that Anya was the only one trying to listen.

They were scattered around the room in pairs; Carlton and Giles on the sofa, Willow and Tara perched on wooden folding chairs, and Spike and Buffy leaning against the wall. Carlton stood smoothly and smiled round at them. “Thank you for coming here. It’s good to see you all again, but as you may have guessed, this isn’t a social call. I’m afraid I have some rather disturbing news and although the Slayer is the one primarily affected, the, ah, ‘knock on’ effects are such that, in time, the whole world could feel the repercussions. She will need to leave almost immediately to deal with this situation and – ”

“Oh, get on with it!” interrupted Spike rudely. “What needs killing? That’s what it usually comes down to.”

The others said nothing but it was clear from their expressions that for once, Spike had spoken for them all. Giles usually went on like this, too, but they were used to him.

Giles cleared his throat and flinched as every eye turned to him. “Andrew, perhaps you should give them some background.”

Buffy spoke for the first time. “Why don’t you do it, Giles?”

Giles glanced at Carlton. The man sighed and waved his hand towards Giles. “Oh, go ahead, Rupert. You know as much as I do and precious little it is.”

Buffy glanced sharply at Giles. “How long have you known?” she asked. “Six months maybe?”

Giles’ hand went automatically to his glasses and then dropped back to his side. “Andrew shared what he suspected with me when he visited, yes. However, his conclusions were so tentative at that point that there seemed little point in burdening you with them.”

“Newsflash, Giles,” said Buffy tersely. “I’ll take burdens over surprises any day of the week. But go on, tell me now.”

Giles nodded his head, a little taken aback by Buffy’s reaction, and began, his voice dropping into the measured cadences of a lecturer. He looked at Buffy, directing his words to her as she stood, back straight and face set in stern lines.

“Buffy, we’ve touched on the origins of the Slayer’s power in your training and there was that dream experience when you met the First Slayer.” Buffy shrugged noncommittally, waiting to see where this was going. “What we’ve not mentioned because we weren’t aware of it was that the roots of the Slayer’s power - your healing, strength, the premonitions, even the way you’re chosen – flow from a power source located in another dimension. And, from all that Andrew has been able to discover, that power source is drying up, fading. It must be renewed or the Slayer line will end and if it fails soon, you’ll find yourself losing your abilities.”

He paused; letting his words sink in, seeing the shock on the faces around the room. Carlton chimed in, his face grim, “I came across this information in the course of my investigations into Travers’ experiments, before he was set aside. If you remember, he was working on spells to transfer the Slayer’s power from one girl to another. I’m not entirely sure where this particular scroll came from but what troubles me is who else knows of it. As soon as I grasped its import, I took it away from the London office and I’ve been studying it at my home in the country. I don’t know if Travers missed it, or knew I was responsible. I worked on it alone and, to be frank, I’ve had a hard job accepting what it revealed.”

Spike spoke again and Giles was struck by his confidence in the presence of the head of the organization dedicated, amongst other things, to the eradication of his kind. Spike had always been rather brash and yet insecure, so much so that one tended to forget how long he had been on the planet. Since Buffy and he had openly become lovers, a measure of maturity had mellowed him. Not that it was always evident, especially when he tangled with Xander.

“Has this got something to do with you giving me fancy names last time we met?” Spike demanded, his hands thrust deeply into the pockets of his coat, his expression challenging.

Carlton looked surprised, then nodded. “I’d almost forgotten that I said that. Yes, part of what I read before I made that trip last year, indicated that a vampire close to the Slayer would play an important part in the Journey, acting as her guardian and protector to be precise, but until I met you, I thought it would be –”

“Don’t even think about it,” said Spike indignantly. “If Buffy needs a bodyguard, it’s going to be me, not that souled, brooding freak of an Angel.”

Buffy sighed. Spike’s jealousy for Angel showed no signs of dying away. It was one of the few topics that she avoided when she was with him. “What’s this journey then?” she asked Carlton, impatience giving her voice an edge. Giles was so much better at the explaining bit than this guy.
 
Carlton surprised her by being clear and succinct, possibly spurred on by the latent menace in Spike’s eyes. “The scroll says that every thousand years after the birth of the First Slayer, the source must be replenished by the current Chosen One. She travels to the dimension and is directed to what’s referred to as the Wellspring. Once there, she enters a trance like state and, well, I’m not positive, but I believe you’ll be told of what you need to do to recharge the power source once in the trance.”

“Why would the power source not be here, in this dimension?” Tara asked, pleating her skirt with her fingers nervously.

Giles looked at her, his eyebrow raised. “That’s an excellent question, Tara,” he said. “I can only guess at the answer.” He turned to Buffy. “Do you remember, Buffy, I once told you about how vampires began? How this world was inhabited by demons, who gradually left as the race of humans rose in their place?”

Buffy nodded slowly. It had been a long time ago but she remembered. “You told us that the last demon to leave fed off a human, mixed his blood with his victim, and formed a vampire.” Spike made a soft sound that could have been agreement or amusement but said nothing.

“That’s correct,” said Giles. “At least, as far as we know. It makes sense that the Slayer line was forged at the same time, or shortly afterwards, by humans aware of the danger to them and skilled enough to create a defence. Perhaps they needed to base the power in the same dimension that the original demon fled to. That way they could use its own strength to defeat what it had created and left behind.” He sighed. “This is all so vague,” he complained. “We have no enemy to contend with, which is something, I suppose, but we don’t have the faintest idea of what Buffy will need to do.”

Carlton opened his mouth, as though to comment, and then subsided.

“So what’s the friendly vamp for?” asked Spike, his arms folded across his chest, his eyes speculative as he watched Carlton. Bugger knows more than he’s letting on, he thought.

“He, that is, you, will stand guard over the Slayer’s body. Naturally, being in a trance, she’ll be unable to defend herself.” Carlton replied

“Defend herself from what, exactly?” asked Willow, her mind busy with ideas for spells that could help her friend.

Carlton looked uncomfortable. “I think it’s safe to assume that there will be dangers.”

“Be specific,” snapped Buffy. “I need to know what I’ll be up against.”

Carlton rubbed his forehead and said wearily, “Well, vampires of course. What did you expect?”

Silence descended and heads turned towards Spike. Shrugging carelessly, he said, “Makes sense that I go with you then, love. So, when do we start?”

Buffy pushed away from the wall and strode over to Andrew Carlton. “We don’t. Not until we’ve had a chance to look at this scroll ourselves and read exactly what it says. There’s something we’re not being told and I’m leaping through no more hoops for the Council.”

***

The Realm. Daybreak.

“What are you doing this for?”

The voice was rasping and husky, partly because it had been two days since Matthew had spoken, partly because he had screamed a lot instead of talking.

Grelin glanced over to where the human was huddled in a corner, quirking an eyebrow as Matthew emerged from his daze of misery. “I’d almost forgotten you were still alive,” he remarked. “I hope you don’t regret reminding me.”

Matthew didn’t waste energy struggling to his feet to confront Grelin. Wrapping his arms around himself tightly, as though letting go would mean he literally fell apart, he whispered, “You told me that if I opened the portal –”

“I’d reward you with powers beyond those of mortal man, life everlasting, all the usual promises. Yes, I remember.”

“You lied.” It really wasn’t a question.

“I’m sorry, you expected truth and trustworthiness from a vampire?” Grelin asked with polite incredulity.

Matthew flinched as his gullibility was brought home to him. “I expected payment for my – services. Or are all vampires thieves as well as liars?”

Grelin rose from his chair and strode over to Matthew, who looked up at him with no fear, his lips twitching in a travesty of a smile. Grelin recognized the goading as an attempt to win an easy death and halted, curbing his urge to tear out Delvers’ throat.
Squatting down beside him, he stared into the glazed eyes of a man he had known for many years, a man who had called him friend. “You want answers?” he asked softly, his dark eyes filled with unholy delight. Matthew hesitated, sensing a trap, then nodded.

Grelin stood abruptly and walked back to the table, grabbing a pitcher of wine and splashing some into a glass. He took it to Matthew, knelt, and held it to his lips. “Drink then, and listen.” The wine spilled over Matthew’s chin, as he tried to hold it in his parched mouth before swallowing but he drank enough to revive him a little. Pushing himself into a sitting position against the wall, he said in a stronger voice, “No more lies?”

Grelin widened his eyes in pretended shock. “You wound me, old friend, you really do. But have it your way. No lies.” He dragged a chair over to Delvers and began to talk in a low, rather musical voice, his amusement growing as Delvers began to tremble, his head shaking back and forth in rejection of all that he was hearing. Finally, when Delvers was raving, his brief moment of sanity slipping away, Grelin stood and walked away without another glance, chuckling to himself.

Delvers never saw him leave. His world had narrowed to the wall that supported him, the stone floor he lay on and the visions that were etched onto his mind. He saw Grelin rising, bloated with the power of the refreshed Wellspring, saw him take the energy intended for a thousand or more Slayers, saw him strike down the Last Slayer, crippled by her return to humanity. And he saw his world shatter and reform as Grelin decreed, a hell of torment, ruled over by the Immortals, returning from exile to their first home.

And it was all his fault. Deep within him, a spark flickered, the desire to atone, to fight back and undo at least part of the evil he had committed - but the winds of fear and despair that swirled around it were very strong.

Over Anya’s protests, the shop had been closed and all the available people were gathered around the table at the back of the store. Dawn was at Janice’s house and Buffy decided that there was no point in disturbing her study time, even though she suspected that there would be more chatting than book cracking. Xander was working out of town but was expected home in a few hours.

The parchment scroll had been unrolled and unceremoniously pinned down with crystal paperweights taken from the shelves. Anya’s lips had tightened at the disruption of her display but she had let it pass. Willow and Giles were deciphering the text from scratch, to cross check Carlton’s translation. Willow was using her computer, which had so much arcane information on the hard drive that she half expected it to wake up and start talking to her one day. She pictured Giles’ reaction to that particular upgrade and giggled. Giles was delving into books, building a tower of them on the table and stacking them on the floor beside his chair. Tara had retreated to a quiet corner and was poring over Carlton’s version, trying to make sense of it and scribbling down notes as she read.

Buffy had long since laid down unwritten rules that excused her from most of the research – she did the fighting, she didn’t see why she should do the book work too - and she and Spike were talking to Carlton. He was nibbling cautiously on a donut and sipping rather more appreciatively at a latte from the nearby coffee shop.

“This all seems very – organised,” he commented, waving his donut-laden hand vaguely towards the researchers and scattering crumbs as he did so. Spike brushed some powdered sugar off his black jeans fastidiously then shrugged and licked his sticky fingers clean.

Buffy followed Carlton’s look and smiled at him, a hint of mischief in her eyes. “You really have no idea what we do over here, have you? We’ve been researching like this for over six years. Somehow, someone always finds the right text, identifies the crucial weakness of whatever demon it is we’re fighting. I couldn’t have lasted this long without them.”

“Can vouch for that, as a former mortal enemy,” said Spike. “But I still think they’ve got you into trouble as well. They make great hostages, especially Little Bit.”

Buffy ignored him and gave Carlton a long, considering stare. “Why have you been working on this alone? Are you good at translating or something?”

He looked rueful. “’Fraid not. That’s why it’s taken so long.”

Buffy slammed her hand down on the table. “Then why didn’t you let us know earlier? If you didn’t have anyone you could trust in England, well, Giles would have been happy to help. I could have done with some warning that I’m about to lose my Slayer strength. Suppose it happened earlier than you predicted, when I was in the middle of a fight? You’ve endangered me.” Her tone was dangerous and Spike stirred in his seat, the predator in him sensing that soon there would be blood spilled.

Carlton flinched, then rallied. “I had to be sure. This journey is highly dangerous. Sending the Slayer off into another dimension leaves this one unprotected. We don’t know how long you’ll be away, what effect it will have on the Slayer line if you die over there. There was just so much I didn’t know.”

Buffy stood up and leaned over him, palms flat against the table. “When you people learn that sharing information with me should be the first step, not the last, we’ll get on a whole lot better.” She pushed away and walked off to the training room with quick, angry strides. Spike guessed that the punching bag was in for one hell of a session. He turned his head, pursing his mouth as he considered the chagrined man beside him.

“She’s right, you know,” he offered. “Thought you weren’t as much of a prat as the usual Council wankers but you’re proving me wrong. If you’re holding anything back, I’d better not find out about it when I’m up against something with more teeth than me.”

He stood, intending to join Buffy, but Carlton reached up and grabbed his arm, halting him. Spike stared hard at the hand until it fell away but didn’t move. Carlton moistened his lips. “I told you that the dimension was inhabited by vampires. Have you ever heard of it? Is there anything you know that you can share?”

Spike looked dismissive. “There’re thousands of dimensions and plenty have vampires. This one got a name?”

“The only way it’s referred to is as the ‘Realm’. A little like this planet being called ‘Earth’ I suppose -” he broke off sharply as Spike’s face changed. For a second, the vampire looked skeletal, flesh drawn taut against his sharply defined cheekbones.

“You want to send Buffy there?” he said in a ragged whisper. “No bloody way!” His voice rose to a shout and he morphed into game face instinctively. Carlton shrank back, eyes widening in fear. He had never been this close to a vampire who was free of restraints and angry. The chip seemed small comfort when Spike’s fangs were inches away. The others glanced over in alarm but Giles was the first to move. Stepping over to Spike, he said calmly, “Buffy doesn’t like it when you do that here, Spike.”

The vampire stared at him, yellow eyes flaming with anger and fear. Giles gently patted his arm and Spike shuddered, the tension leaving him as his face became human again.

“Get Buffy,” Giles said over his shoulder. Tara ran to the training room and returned a moment later, a concerned Buffy by her side. Buffy went straight to Spike and stood, hands on hips, in front of him. “You starting early on the protector job?” she asked, her voice level.

Spike shook his head wearily. ”I’m sorry,” he said, glancing round the room. “Didn’t mean to scare any of you. Well, most of you, anyway. ” He flicked an angry look at Carlton who had recovered his composure a little. “Yeah, I know that place. Know of it, anyway.” He sat down in a chair and fell silent for a moment. Buffy moved behind him, her hands gripping the back of the chair. Spike began to talk, looking down at the floor, his voice almost dreamy. “Vampires have a mythology, you know.”

Giles frowned in bewilderment. “Yes, of course. I have hundreds of books about them, the legends, the fiction that has sprung up around them –”

“No. That’s not what I mean. They’re books written by humans, poking around trying to explain what they can’t comprehend. We vampires, we have our own myths, our own legends. Doubt you’ve ever come across them. They’re not something we share with – humans.” The gulf between Spike and the other people in the room yawned wide as everyone listening replaced the word ‘humans’ with the more accurate one, ‘food’. “I’m not saying every vampire cares. Most fledglings don’t think past the next neck and most sires aren’t much better. But the older ones, you get them talking and they know things, stories that have been passed down for centuries.”

“And this Realm place is in the stories?” Willow asked, repelled yet fascinated by the idea of vampire fairy tales.

Spike looked up and smiled painfully at her. “It’s in all the good ones, yeah.”

Everyone imagined what a ‘good’ vampire story would be like and shuddered.

Spike stood up, facing them, Buffy still at his back, silent and tense. “Some of the stories talk about it as if it’s real, in some, it’s a place you go to if you’ve been good. Or bad, in our case. Valhalla for Vampires.” He laughed shortly. “I never knew it was where the last demon went to, though.” There was a faint note of derision in his voice. “Seems to me, that’s as much guesswork as anything.”

Giles nodded reluctantly. “So much of our work is based on third hand information. When you consider that most of this world doesn’t even know that demons exist, it’s not terribly surprising that valuable data has become lost or garbled over the centuries. What can you recall of these stories, Spike?”

Spike looked thoughtful. “I got mine off Angelus and Darla. They used to tell them to Dru and me. It was one way to spend the time when we were holed up somewhere, or travelling.” He grinned. “Not the most fun way, but you can’t always be –” He turned and caught sight of Buffy’s face, which looked ominously calm and decided not to finish his sentence. “They got them from the Master, I suppose. The big appeal of the place, for me, was that you could walk in the sun over there. Don’t know why it didn’t burn.” He frowned. “I miss the sun sometimes.” His voice was wistful, the usual sarcasm missing. “Darla used to tease Dru by telling her that you could see yourself in a mirror there as well but Angelus told me that was a load of cobblers. Dru went on and on at me for months, wanting to go, thinking it was real. I’d have to tell her that she was beautiful a dozen times an hour and Angel would draw her, so she could see for herself. He liked doing that.”

Buffy shivered, remembering the drawings Angel had done when he had lost his soul.

“Are there people, humans, I mean, over there?” Tara asked timidly.

Spike flicked her a wry look. “We have to eat, love. Yeah, plenty of humans but they’re not like here. They know who’s in charge, they don’t fight it. The vampires don’t kill them every time they feed though. Always puzzled me that. I was young and the killing was so good, I couldn’t imagine holding back.” He felt the atmosphere change and sighed impatiently. “Look, you asked, O.K.? I can tell it straight or I can pretty it up. You pick.”

Giles said quietly, “Your honesty might save Buffy’s life, Spike, so be open with us. We all know what you are. Just – don’t remind us of how much you enjoyed killing. It might not be prudent.”

There was a flash in his eyes that Spike recognised. He accepted the warning and continued, “You’ve got to remember, this was years ago. Not too clear on the details. We kill you partly for the rush, sure, but partly because dead people can’t go and raise angry mobs. It’s practical. In the beginning, when you’ve just been turned, it’s hard to judge how much you can take but I’m thinking the vampires over there are old enough to be good at it and everyone knows what they are, so they can take just enough and move on.” He looked reflective. “Some ways, it must be worse for the humans over there, never knowing if this time, they’ll get drained, this time the vampire won’t choose to stop –” His voice trailed off as he considered this and he missed the revulsion spreading across Tara’s face.

Willow was as disgusted as Tara but a little more accustomed to horrors. She frowned and said, “I don’t understand why they don’t fight back. I mean, I’ve killed vampires, we all have. Buffy’s best at it but it’s not like they couldn’t just try.”

Spike shrugged. “Don’t have all the answers, Red. Not like I ever thought I’d be visiting the place.”

“But they’re still just vampires,” Buffy said flatly, impatient with theories and legends. “They might be able to walk in their sun, but they come here, they’re toast. And they can be staked, can’t they?”

Spike nodded. “Apart from the sunlight, they’re vulnerable just like they are here, as far as I know, but you don’t get it, Buffy. I don’t know how long this Journey is, but you wouldn’t get more than a few miles before being captured. They stay in game face all the time; they’re in charge, no need to hide. That’s how they’d see you for human straight away. You can’t fight a whole planet of them.” His voice faltered. “And me, they’d tear me to shreds once they found out what I was.”

Carlton frowned. “You’re one of them,” he objected, his calm restored as Spike’s anger seemed to have dissipated.

Spike laughed bitterly and sank back in his chair. “I was one of them. Now I’m a freak. A renegade and a freak. I can’t kill humans and I’d give my life for the Slayer. Doesn’t get much sicker than that.”

Buffy reached out her hand to touch his shoulder and then hesitated. Spike turned and smiled up at her. “I don’t feel that way, sweetheart. You know that. I could do without the chip in my head but I’ll never be ashamed of loving you.” He grinned. “It’s kinky but I’m evil, I’m allowed to be perverse.” Buffy punched his shoulder lightly but the atmosphere remained tense.

Giles swept off his glasses and paced the room, polishing the lenses hard. “We need all the information we can get,” he said. “Let’s get back to work. Spike, if you can think of anything from these stories about this power source, its location, anything useful –”

“I’ll try.”

“Try hard,” said Buffy quietly.

***

The Realm. Moonrise.

When he had passed through the portal with Grelin, Matthew had been too dazed to take note of his surroundings. The portal had opened into a room, empty but for a table, stained dark with dried blood. The lingering scent of terror had completed his descent into what now seemed to be a blessed oblivion.

The days that followed had reduced him to a whimpering, frightened child but he discovered that there is a limit to misery. “You can’t wet water,” had been one of his grandmother’s favourite sayings and Matthew discovered that he was so thoroughly terrified that he was no longer scared. He felt that he could dare anything, attempt any feat and be safe, cocooned in his shell of indifference. He was the walking dead. His soul had surely been claimed by darkness after his actions and his world was about to be destroyed. Nothing more could be done to him.

He spent long hours reliving memories of his time as Grelin’s friend. At first, he had thought him human - what else? When Grelin had revealed himself as a vampire, Matthew had been thrilled by the romance of it and Grelin was careful to do nothing to open his eyes to the truth. When he confessed his longing for the lighthouse, it had been Grelin who showed him the spells needed to kill his uncle and make it seem an accident. After that line had been crossed, Matthew’s grip on morality had slackened to the point where he was willing to do anything Grelin told him. The vampire worked on his love for Antonia, twisting it to suspicion, distrust and finally hatred. Only when his hands were coated with her blood, did Matthew begin to see Grelin’s true nature.

And then, of course, it was too late. Grelin had taken what he needed from Matthew’s collection of antique weapons and ordered him to open the portal. The blood runes could only be drawn by the hands that had spilled the blood, a traitor’s hands. The portal could only be opened by one who had betrayed a lover. Grelin had never loved anyone or anything in his centuries of existence and could barely comprehend the emotion. He needed Matthew’s help to get there, but as soon as they stepped into the Realm, any pretence of friendship sloughed away.

Grelin had been born in the Realm, chosen as a child by a vampire, nurtured and trained until he reached his full growth, and then turned. A thousand children could be chosen in a single year, but by the end of the years of training, it was rare for more than ten to be alive. Newly turned vampires generally fed first on any rejects, draining them and snapping their necks. It made a brutal sense to weed out the fighters from the human population. It made even more sense to kill those who might have achieved high levels of skill as fighters without the necessary cruelty that made them suitable fledglings.

There was never any doubt that Grelin would be turned. As a human, he was already a monster. In time, he had risen to be the most powerful and feared vampire in the Realm. A century later and his boredom was driving him to excesses that endangered the status quo. Inevitably, he was overthrown and before he was killed he escaped through a portal to Earth. It had amused him to stay there, annoying though it was to hide from the sun and be a shadowy figure of legend. The vampires of Earth seemed pitiful to him but that made them all the more easy to control.

When he found out about the Slayer, he had smiled with true pleasure. He had sought and slain her, reveling in her pain, but his victory had been soured. As she died, her eyes had filled with a quiet peace and she had whispered, “I feel her being Called. You have killed me, only to wake the new Slayer. We are deathless and unlike you, we will never end.”

Learning the truth of what she had said, recognizing the futility of killing a Slayer, he had begun to look for ways to break the magic that raised a new Slayer, Phoenix-like from the ashes of the old. When he found a copy of the scroll that had lain for so long in the archives of the Council and knew that the answer lay in his old home, he had screamed with triumph, a soaring elation coursing through his cold veins.

Now he waited, a spider in a web. Waited for the Slayer to touch his sticky trap and be drawn in, helpless as he fed on her. His return had been greeted with suspicion by those who still remembered him, but he was safe for the moment, protected by the dark magicks he had studied in exile.

Soon, he promised himself. Soon, I will have it all.

***

The day became night and after Dawn and Xander had joined the group and been updated, Buffy and Spike left the busy researchers to patrol for a few hours. After the activity the night before, Sunnydale seemed eerily calm. When an hour had gone, with the only vampire in sight walking beside her, Buffy decided to head back to the shop.

“Do you want to feed before we go back?” she asked. “Your place isn’t far, or we could drop by Willy’s.”

“Seen the price he charges nowadays? I swear he’s upped it because he holds a grudge against me.”

“My treat.”

“Huh. He hates you even more. He’d double the price.”

Buffy smiled happily. “We could just steal it from his fridge,” she said. “I’ll divert him, you grab a pint or two.”

Spike refused to return her smile. “Stop trying to cheer me up, pretending to be bad,” he said gloomily.

“Not working, huh?”

Spike shook his head, striding along, his coat flaring out behind him. “I’m too worried to be happy. You just don’t know –” his voice broke off, frustration silencing him for a second. “That place is dangerous. Any human would be at risk but a Slayer? They’ll feel you coming; you’ll be the ultimate trophy. Killing you, drinking your blood…God, they’ll be drooling so much, you’ll probably drown before they bite you.”

“They don’t have Slayers there then?” Buffy asked, her eyes automatically scanning her surroundings as they walked.

Spike shrugged. “It would be pointless. Did you ever think how impossible your job is? Back in the beginning, maybe you humans could have wiped out every vampire if you moved fast enough but now? You kill every night but you’re in one small town. The rest of the world we can do with as we please. If we turned every one we fed off, you’d be over run. We don’t because we don’t like competition. In a way, vampires help you by keeping the numbers down. Funny, isn’t it?”

Buffy remained silent. She rarely gave much thought to the big picture. She didn’t have time – no holidays for the Slayer – and after years of patrolling it had become almost routine. Giles used to lecture her on the history of her calling but she had brushed him off so often that he’d given up. Now she was older, she wished she’d listened more. She also had a feeling that if Spike decided she needed to know more, he’d be impossible to ignore.

“Anyway, over there, humans are in the minority. So they’re not killed so much and when one of them gets turned, it’s rare, it’s an honour. They’re protected by the vampires. No wars, not much crime. A Slayer would mess that all up. That’s another reason I don’t want you going. Seems to me, you’d be in as much danger from the humans as you would the vamps. They’d turn you in and then, well –”

“Well, what?” Buffy demanded.

“I remember stories of hunts they have. Don’t think they go in for prisons much. Someone’s caught breaking the rules, they just let them go, give them a head start, hunt them down and leave them in pieces.”

Buffy shivered. “Nice stories.”

“I used to think so.”

***

They returned to the shop after Spike had fed, to find some progress had been made. Carlton was looking decidedly chagrined that what had taken him weeks of work to translate had taken Giles and Willow a matter of hours. When Tara compared their almost identical results with Carlton’s, she had found dozens of tiny differences. She was trying to be tactful as she went through them with Carlton, like a teacher correcting an essay. “So, you translated the same word two different ways, you see? And I think in this sentence, what you thought was an adjective, is actually - oh, Buffy! You’re back. That was quick.”

“No vamps. All patrols should be so easy. What’s happening here?” she asked, marveling at the way the shop looked uncannily like the school library when all available surfaces were covered with books.

“We’ve managed to put together a fairly accurate translation and I’ve gone over it again and put it into modern English.” said Willow.

“Really? But I like the ‘it came to passes’ and the ‘inasmuchases’” Buffy said, pretending to pout. Willow brandished a hefty looking sheaf of paper at her and she grinned. “Just teasing. Hit me with the simple one instead.”

“I’ll second that,’ said Xander fervently. “Aren’t there any modern prophecies written by people who speak American?”

Giles flinched. “It’s an interesting observation, Xander,” he began. “But –”

“You’re going to deliver one of your witty observations about me reducing things down to ABC level, and make me feel stupid aren’t you?” Xander asked.

“Not now you’re expecting it,” Giles retorted with a sniff. “I hate being predictable.”

He stared at Xander with a straight face before they both began to laugh. Somehow it spread until the whole room, with the exception of Spike and Andrew Carlton, were giggling helplessly. Spike shook his head in mock despair and said loudly, “I’d dock his wages, mate.”

Carlton smiled. “If we paid him more than a pittance, I’d seriously consider that.”

Giles recovered first and cleared his throat rather guiltily. “Yes, well, perhaps we should get on. If you’ll all settle down, I’ll read what we’ve all come up with.”

Giles began to read aloud and the room settled down to listen, the shadows seeming to creep into the shop and carpet the floor with darkness.

“She is chosen from the multitudes and she is made strong like her adversaries. She must fight until she dies, she must fight the Vampires, the demons that hell brings forth. She cannot remain human, as is her birthright, for then she will be overcome. She must steal from the dark and drink deep of it. The fusion of life and death, light and dark blend within her and make her strong. The Slayer is the Vampires’ Bane and their Beloved for she carries them deep in her heart. Like them she is swift, like them she takes no heed of wounds, like them she is eager to kill. The night is her world and she shares it grudgingly.”

Giles paused. “I think what it’s saying is that the Slayer is –”

“Part vampire?” exclaimed Xander, giving Buffy a horrified look. Spike raised an eyebrow and smiled. “Explains a lot,” he drawled.

Giles looked at Buffy, a wordless question in his eyes. “Carry on,” she said quietly, wrapping her arms around herself tightly.

Giles found his place, gave Buffy an uncertain look and then continued. “ But for every gift, there is a price. Every thousand years, the source of the Slayer’s power must be replenished. She must Journey to the Realm and drink deep of the Wellspring. She will slip into oblivion and in the emptiness will find the Answer. If the power fails, the Slayer line will be broken, the hell spawn will rage unchecked, and all shall be plunged into night without end as the screaming of the souls in torment rises in vain to the indifferent heavens.”

Giles coughed. “Poetical license, no doubt. These prophecy writers tend to get carried away. This is the really important part though.” He pushed his glasses firmly into place and read, “ It may come to pass – I thought you got rid of all those, Willow – that this lore is lost and forgotten as the ages pass by. You will know the Slayer who is fated to make the Journey by various signs and portents. She will not stand alone as is her custom, but will gather to her those pure of heart and purpose –” Xander looked astonished and flushed slightly, ducking his head in embarrassment, “and her strongest enemy will fall to her power and range himself by her side. She will drink of his unliving blood in her darkest hour and her power will quicken it. As the Chosen One begins to falter, it is a vampire who will lend her his strength and walk beside her in the Realm, to stand guard over her as she drinks and enters the Inner World to learn her fate. She will be a Slayer who has gone beyond and returned twice over, a Slayer who broke the chain and forged it anew.”

“That would doubtless be your first death, Buffy,” Carlton said quietly. “ The event that resulted in the unprecedented calling of another Slayer. And am I right in saying that you drank Spike’s blood after that demon poisoned you?”

Buffy’s right hand went to her throat, nervously fingering the scars left by Angel and Dracula, her left hand still wrapped across her body. She ignored Carlton, her eyes fixed on Giles, her cheeks waxen in the artificial light. He smiled at her gently. “This is a lot to take in, Buffy, I know.”

Tara spoke up, as Buffy remained silent. “W-wasn’t that all six months ago? If Buffy’s powers are still the same, then it can’t be the time. There must be a mistake.”

Carlton shifted uneasily in his chair. “Well,” he began but Xander cut him off. “Let me guess your next words,” he said. ‘’There’s something I didn’t tell you’. Am I right?”

Carlton glared at him, then nodded reluctantly. “I was trying to present things in a logical order,” he complained. “Giles, finish reading it. Get to the part about how the portal is opened, what the Slayer has to take with her and I’ll finish telling you all I know so far.”

Giles gave him a level look, glanced down at the paper he held and gave a summary of the remaining text. “The portal is opened when Guardian and Slayer feed on each other and she has to take the Shield of Andar, which translates as, hmm, snow or possibly frost, with her to the Wellspring. Not sure why. A gift or a proof of identity, perhaps? I think that just about covers it.” His voice became dangerously cold. “And now I’d appreciate it if you told us everything you know and the hell with logical order.”

As Giles mentioned feeding, Buffy and Spike exchanged looks, their faces impassive. Dawn pulled a disgusted face but kept quiet. She was curled up next to Tara, unwilling to attract attention in case someone remembered that it was way past her bedtime.

Carlton stood up. “ I will tell you, Rupert, I promise, but first I have to make a phone call,” he said. “Is there a telephone I might use –?”

“Is that going to be a local call, mister?” Anya said sharply.

“Anya, be still,” said Giles. “You need to call the Council?”

Carlton nodded. “Something happened a month before I left. A particularly gruesome murder. It wouldn’t have been any business of ours normally, but the report referred to occult symbols drawn in blood, so naturally, I sent someone down there to investigate. There was every indication that a portal had been opened from the symbols drawn on the floor. When I examined the photographs of the scene, which I have with me if you’re interested, it looked alarmingly as if the symbols relate to this matter. In fact, I believe whoever used the portal used it to go to the Realm. It’s what spurred me on with my research, when I was at the point of giving up.”

“But why did they kill someone?” Willow asked. “You didn’t say Buffy had to perform a sacrifice.”

“It could be that she’s an invited guest, so to speak,” said Giles, tapping his fingers thoughtfully on the table as he spoke. “If someone else tries to enter, they’re going to have to do a little extra to force open the door.”

“There’s more,” said Carlton. “The section about the shield was one of the first parts I translated in the scroll. Naturally, I began to look for it, discreetly of course. I made no headway at all. Vague hints about what it looked like but the trail of ownership seemed to lead nowhere. Then came this murder. The victim was Antonia Ferrell, the partner of a rather unpleasant man called Matthew Delvers. I knew him as a dabbler in the black arts but wrote him off as a dilettante. He lived in an old lighthouse and the top room was where the murder took place. Antonia was literally torn apart. Because of the isolated location and Delvers’ disappearance and occult leanings, the police are naturally looking to him as the murderer.”

“What does this have to do with the shield?” asked Buffy. The colour had returned to her cheeks and she seemed to vibrate with suppressed energy. Giles looked her, frowning slightly. She seemed to be wound too tight, somehow, far edgier than normal.

“Attached to the report I received were various magazine articles about the lighthouse. The man had decorated the room where the murder took place completely in white. It seemed to make quite a stir, though to my mind, it would have been impossible to keep clean. However. I was just flicking through them when something caught my eye,” Carlton continued.

“I’m guessing this shield is white?” said Xander.

Carlton grinned unexpectedly. “Smart young man,” he remarked. Anya beamed at him, the potential overseas call forgotten. “Yes, there it was, hanging on a wall, plain as day. Small, decorative rather than functional, and totally plain. Delvers collected old weapons and this would have been just up his street. I very much doubt he realised what it was and I have no idea where he acquired it, but it really doesn’t matter now.”

“So did you tell your people to grab it, then?” asked Spike. “Tucked it into your overnight bag with the duty free booze, did you?”

Carlton shook his head. “I would have done precisely that but for the fact that the photographs taken of the murder scene show that the shield is missing. It seems to have vanished along with Mr Delvers.”

“Oh, well, that’s great!” exploded Spike. “So you’re saying we can’t even get to this place without it?”

“You can go – but you need to find the shield when you get there or it will all be for nothing. The Slayer will not be able to complete her task”

“I don’t understand,” said Willow reflectively, pushing her hair behind her ears and leaning forward slightly. “Buffy’s the Slayer and Spike seems to think even she’ll have a hard time in this place. How can a human hope to survive? What’s he gone there for?”

Carlton shrugged. “Possibly he isn’t working alone. There was mention of a friend he had to visit around the time of the sacrifice. He seems to have vanished too, but according to the police, nothing is known about him. That’s suspicious in itself nowadays. It’s difficult to avoid showing up on computers and the like. I can also think of several groups who would be very glad to see the power of the Slayer dwindle and fade. They might know of this prophecy and believe that this is the time it talks of.”

“Do you have a name for this friend?” asked Giles. “Is he known to the Council, if not the authorities?”

“That’s why I want to call the office. They were looking into it when I left. We have a name, ‘Grelin’, but that’s all.”

Spike’s head jerked round. “Grelin is a vampire. One of the oldest ones I know. He’s a sneaky little bugger. Tangled with Angelus once, back when it was just him and Darla. He took a fancy to her, see, but the lady wasn’t interested.” Spike grinned, lost in memories. “Angelus was bad but no one messed with Darla. She sliced his face so deep, he still had faint scars when I met him, oh, must have been a century later. We didn’t get on.”

“Why does that not surprise me?” muttered Xander.

Spike laughed. “Are you saying you’d be matey with someone who liked to start the day with a newborn baby? He’s a mean one but he’s got no guts.”

Dawn paled and clutched at Tara’s arm. “Did – did you eat babies, Spike?” she squeaked. Xander turned a hard look on Spike.

“No, I bloody didn’t!” said Spike, “For one thing, they’re barely a mouthful and for another, I like – liked - food that can fight back.” He looked around at the disapproving faces and said, “What? Look, you’ve got to understand what it’s like. You lot aren’t people to us, you’re just –”

“Spike. Shut up,” said Xander firmly. “Last thing we need is you giving us a vampire’s eye view of the world as a giant butcher’s shop.”

Spike growled in frustration, his fangs appearing for a second. “That’s it, whelp,” he gritted. “Close your ears, because it’s getting too scary. Don’t want to risk learning something, now do you?” He rounded on Giles. “All this time you worked with Angel and me and you’ve never really bothered to ask us about vampires, what makes us tick. All you care about is turning us to dust. Call yourselves students, researchers - you’re the bloody butchers. Sure, we feed on you but we need you too. It’s not that simple, it’s not - ” He stopped and looked from face to face and then, overcome by the futility of it all, walked to the door, his jaw clenched in anger. “I’m going to get some fresh air.”

“Spike, wait!” called Buffy, but the door slammed behind him as she spoke.

“Let him go, Buffy,” said Xander, his voice cool. “I think we could all do with a break from Mr Fangface.”

Buffy gave Xander a furious look. “Don’t talk about him like that!”

Xander refused to back down. “He’s a killer.”

Buffy jerked her head to one side, her lips pressed tightly together. She said in a cutting voice, “Got a lot in common with your fiancée, then, hasn’t he?” Ignoring Xander’s splutters and flashing Anya a glance that could have been interpreted as apologetic in a poor light, she went after Spike.


She found him in the alley beside the shop, methodically kicking a can against the wall. In the enclosed space the noise was deafening but he turned as soon as her footsteps entered the narrow corridor. Giving the can one last kick and sending it ricocheting out of sight, he began to brush past her without speaking. Her hand shot out and grabbed the sleeve of his duster. “Don’t shut me out,” she said softly.

He paused without looking at her and said bitterly, “Hurts, doesn’t it?”

Buffy acknowledged the meaning behind his words, remembering how often she had pushed him away and belittled him.
“Spike, you know how I feel about you, and you’ve never cared enough about Xander for his opinion to matter, so why –”

“You’re wrong,” he interrupted, finally turning to look at her. “I don't know how you feel, not for sure, and Xander’s your friend; I don’t want any of them to hate me, because it makes it awkward for you.” He hesitated and then said, mumbling a little, “Besides, it’d be nice to have someone to go for a beer with now and then. Harris isn’t that bad, he’s just got a grudge against me for some reason.”

“Well,” said Buffy, trying to be impartial, “The first time you met him, didn’t you nearly take a bite out of his neck?”

Spike waved an impatient hand. “I’m willing to let bygones be bygones,” he said.

“Not sure he is,” Buffy said wryly, “but I’m more interested in us. What do you mean, you don’t know how I feel? We’ve been together for six months now!”

Spike gave her a level glance. “I love you, Buffy,” he said deliberately spacing the words, and waited, his scarred eyebrow arched, for her to grasp his meaning.

She did, almost at once and panicked, realising that this was it, it was time to commit – or reject. She had never told him she loved him, never, even when she had screamed his name as his mouth and hands dragged her into the hot darkness. As she looked into his eyes, dark now, in the shadowed alley, she felt the indecision leave her and her mind cleared. Glancing up at him, she replied, “I love you too, Spike.” He looked at her in shock, an inarticulate sound escaping his parted lips. “I’ve loved you for so long now,” she went on, the words tumbling out, her eyes taking in the play of emotions over his face as he listened to her. She stopped, expecting him to kiss her, to hug her close.

He stepped back instead and with a low growl, went into game face. She flinched but didn’t move away. “And do you love me now?” he asked, a terrible entreaty in his voice. “Do you trust the demon, too?”

Buffy had gone too far to retreat. “You heard what they said in there. I’m part vampire, too.”

“I doubt it. Distant cousin, maybe, but you’re human where it counts. You have a soul, remember?” said Spike, bracing himself for the pain he would have to hide if Buffy sidestepped his question.

“Kissing kin?” she asked, sliding her arms inside his coat and around his waist. Before he had time to change, she fastened her lips onto his neck, and nipped at him with her teeth, feeling him shudder with need. She looked up into his eyes, slitted and inhuman. “I trust you with my life, and I know that’s a safe bet,” she whispered. “I love you, all of you. But I’d rather kiss you without the fangs, if that doesn’t hurt your feelings too much. They’re too sharp.”

His vampire features melted into human again and she saw that tears were falling from his eyes, the tears the demon would not allow to flow. His head sank onto her shoulder for a moment as he regained control of himself. She stroked his back soothingly, murmuring to him, then cried out as he twisted his head and sank his teeth, blunt and harmless in comparison to his fangs, into her neck, teasing her, arousing her so fast that she felt the lust surge through her blood like fire through dry grass.

“Now,” he said hoarsely, his hands sliding up her arms to cup her face. “I want you now.”

Buffy locked eyes with him and said, “It’s mutual, believe me.”

Spike looked around them, the hard ground, the dumpsters lined up a few yards away and groaned. “No, not here. It’s not going to be here, not the first time I know you love me. It’s going to be special.”

Buffy caressed his face gently, the lust simmering within her transforming to tenderness. “You old romantic, you,” she murmured softly. He kissed her, his cool lips hard against hers and her response was immediate. Arching against him, she returned his kiss, her mouth hungry and demanding. Spike’s resolve began to shred as her busy hands slid inside the front pockets of his jeans. He was evil, wasn’t he? Didn’t that mean he was supposed to give into temptation? Even as he thought this, he was gripping Buffy’s wrists and pulling her hands away from his body. It was a valiant effort but somehow it finished with Buffy’s back flat against the wall, her hands held over her head by one of his, while his other hand roamed her body. She squirmed with need, allowing him to hold her in position, moaning as he cupped her breast, flicking the nipple erect, then scraped his nails down her stomach, sending quivers through her. When his hand slid knowingly between her legs, she gasped, thrusting up against it, wordlessly pleading with him for more.

Spike growled deep in his throat, all thoughts of waiting forgotten. Their surroundings faded from their thoughts as he leaned in to kiss her, his tongue sliding over hers, as the kiss deepened. Buffy tore her hands free and wrapped them around him, her nails digging into his back through the leather of his coat.
 
They both heard the purposefully heavy footsteps at the same time and twisted apart, dropping into fighting stances automatically. An outbreak of tactful coughing had them both exchanging rueful glances. Dropping a last, lingering kiss on her lips, Spike hugged her swiftly and then stepped away. She took a deep breath, trying to calm down, then reached for his hand and led him out into the street, where Giles was waiting, a look of pure, undiluted embarrassment on his face.

“It’s all right, Giles, we were just talking,” she said. “Just – clearing the air.”

Giles looked at them both and unexpectedly smiled. “I think you’ll find Xander in a rather less hostile mood.” he said.

“Anya ripped him a new one, huh?”

“Spike!” Buffy protested.

Giles and Spike exchanged looks of male complicity and Giles replied, “That just about covers it, yes. She seemed to be torn between anger at being labeled a murderer – that really wasn’t very tactful, Buffy – and an upsurge of demon fellowship with you, Spike. But I’d appreciate it if you would refrain from gloating when you go back in. You’re far from blameless yourself. You know Xander too well not to be aware of what his reaction would be to your words.”

“’S’all right, Watcher. Buffy told me off good and proper,” said Spike audaciously. Buffy gasped at this fabrication but settled for pinching Spike’s backside hard as they went back into the shop.

“Do that again, Slayer, and I’ll take you on the shop counter and the hell with the location or the audience,” Spike murmured in her ear. He sounded serious but she couldn’t resist the urge to test him. She learned that it’s never wise to challenge a demon.

“You wouldn’t dare – no! I didn’t mean it! Spike!”

“Put her down, Spike. Playtime’s over,” said Giles firmly, turning his back on his Slayer as she thrashed helplessly in Spike’s arms.

To Buffy’s surprise, Spike not only obeyed but walked over to Xander and said casually, “Sorry, mate. Got a bit out of line there.” Basking in Dawn’s approving smile, Spike sauntered over to a seat, inwardly relishing the way the whelp had had the high ground swept away from him. Xander gave him a sickly smile and a deadly glare. Anya settled for just the glare and sent it winging towards Buffy. It failed to have an effect because Buffy was still thinking about what had just happened. Or hadn’t happened.

Buffy sighed inwardly. Sex – especially with Spike involved – wasn’t a spectator sport in her opinion, but if the shop had been empty, she knew she’d have been on that counter by now. Or bent over it – or straddling Spike as he sat on it – or – she made an effort to wrench her thoughts away from sex but made the fatal mistake of sneaking a look at Spike as she walked to a chair. He was doing that thing with the arched eyebrow and he was biting his lip, trying to keep back a grin. He couldn’t read minds as far as she knew, but she was certain he knew exactly what she was thinking. The last time he’d looked at her with that much heat, they’d been in bed, talking after making love. She’d asked him if there were anything at all he wouldn’t let her do to him. He’d looked at her just like that and slowly, oh so slowly, shaken his head. “Not a single damn thing, pet,” he’d drawled. “And you come up with one I haven’t tried and you’ll get –”

Carlton, seething with impatience, stood up, interrupting Buffy’s thoughts with uncannily bad timing “I really think we need to remain focused,” he said. “If Grelin, and possibly Delvers, have taken the shield into the Realm, all they have to do is destroy it and the Slayer will be unable to complete her task. We have to follow them, locate them and –”

“’We’?” asked Spike in pretended surprise. “You’re coming too, then?”

Carlton turned to him, bewilderment crossing his face. “No, of course not. I’m simply saying –”

“Don’t bother. I’m going, so I get to say simple things. You’re not, so you don’t.” Spike looked over to Willow and Tara. “Heads up witch girls. Got any spells that might come in handy?”

Tara and Willow exchanged glances. “We might have,” Willow replied cautiously. “We’d need to make them ones you could use by yourself though and that’s trickier.”

“Oh, oh, I’ve got an idea,” Dawn said, her face lighting up as she tried to be helpful. “ They’re not going to be talking English over there, are they? So you’re going to need a translation spell.”

Tara looked thoughtful. “We can do that, yes. That’s a great idea, Dawnie!” She continued to look pensive and then said, thinking aloud, “You know, we should be able to adapt that spell to cover written as well as spoken. So we’d get absolutely accurate translations.”

Giles looked at her, his eyes sparkling as the implications sank in. “That would be an invaluable research tool, Tara,” he said. “When this is all over, I’d be very interested in helping you work on that.”

Tara blushed, looking pleased. Willow squeezed her hand, smiling, and then came up with an idea herself. “Going on with the fitting in part, I wonder if we could do a seeming charm that made Buffy look like a vampire? It wouldn’t fool anyone who got really close but if the portal brings you out near to this well, then maybe it’ll be enough. After all, it could be that you won’t see anyone. Go in, have vision, get out.”

“You’re forgetting I have to find the shield,” said Buffy with a sigh. “So I’m going in all bumpy face and babbling demon talk. Great.”

***

The Realm. Morning.

Matthew reached out for the shield, his hand trembling slightly. It was his shield; the one Grelin had brought through the portal with him. Of all the ornaments in the White Room, it had been his favourite, combining his passion for ancient armour with his obsession for white. It was fashioned from metal but he had no idea how it had been coloured white. It wasn’t paint, or dye. It seemed as if the metal itself was white, a pure, smooth, white unmarred by scratches, despite its age. He had toyed with the idea of having it analysed, but had been reluctant to let it out of his possession.

And now it was here, in the Realm, hidden deep within a chest in Grelin’s private chamber.

Matthew had been told of Grelin’s plans by the vampire and he had overheard much as he huddled in a corner, ignored and overlooked. Other vampires had visited Grelin, cautious, wary of his ambitious schemes. Grelin, his eyes sparkling, had charmed them into reluctant acquiesance with vivid descriptions of Earth and its riches. Not least of which was a population in the billions. He spoke of sharing the power that the Slayer would kindle at the Wellspring but Matthew felt certain that here, at least, he lied. They had been intrigued by the idea of a Slayer and their plans for her death made him shudder. Grelin had applauded their inventive imaginations and sent them away, a satisfied smile on his face as soon as the door closed behind them.

But he had never mentioned the shield. Matthew frowned. He had discovered it as he searched the room for a weapon small enough to hide in his clothing. Why would Grelin have bothered with it unless it was to play some part in his schemes? He dared not remove it but even as a sudden noise in the corridor sent him scuttling back to his corner, his thoughts returned to it. It might be that in depriving Grelin of the shield, he could in some small way, hinder his plans. It might be that the Slayer would need it to defend herself. It was beautiful, fashioned of light and purity. She fought the darkness – she must also be pure, an angel of light. The shield would be perfect for her.

His mind, wavering between sanity and madness, fastened on this idea with the tenacity of a child demanding a treat. It was his shield and he was going to give it to the Slayer when she came.

Then she would make it all safe again and he could die in peace.

May 9. Sunnydale.

No one had really expected to sleep well, but Giles had insisted that they tried. Carlton was staying with Giles and they talked far into the night, until Carlton fell asleep on the sofa in mid sentence, looking much younger as he rested and the frown between his eyebrows smoothed out. Giles looked down at his old friend sympathetically. Andrew Carlton had taken on a job that would have crushed most people, and he wondered how long it would be before he either gave it up, or changed into the kind of man who could send others to their deaths without a tremor. The Council did so much more than guard the Slayer nowadays. Giles gave a philosophical shrug. Andrew had dealt with Travers well enough and he’d lasted this long. Maybe he would find a middle ground. He draped Carlton with a blanket and went to bed.

Spike tactfully went home alone so that Buffy could spend as much time as possible with Dawn. Halfway back to the crypt, he realised that he wasn’t going to get any chance to be alone with Buffy before they left. In an effort to cheer himself up, he staked two vampires who were so fresh from their graves that they still had dirt under their nails. It didn’t make up for a crypt that seemed desolate. He went to bed, clutching one of the throws she’d draped over his tatty chairs, cuddling it like a security blanket. Halfway through the night he came to his senses and regretfully let it slip to the floor. The pillow was softer anyway and it was redolent with Buffy’s scent.

Buffy appreciated Spike’s gesture and was fully aware of his need to be with her, as she felt it too. After an hour of Dawn trying to be brave and supportive, she found herself so tense that sleep was impossible. Once again, her responsibilities as Slayer and Dawn’s guardian had clashed and once again, Dawn had come second best. Reminding herself that Dawn would be lucky to make it to her next birthday if the Slayer was no longer keeping the demon population of Sunnydale to manageable levels, she tried to stop the guilt from eating away at her resolve to go through the portal.

Willow and Tara had followed Spike’s example and gone to their room early. They listened to the quiet murmur of voices from the room below, winced as Dawn’s rose at one point as she made a point with some vehemence and then, as silence fell, they drifted off to sleep. As they slept, they cuddled close, as if losing touch with each other would allow the monsters to enter.

Xander and Anya slept with as much space between them as was possible without running the risk of falling out and landing on the floor. After the first half hour of listening to Xander rant about Buffy letting Spike feed off her, she had been bored. As the minutes went by and he showed no signs of stopping, she got angry. When even that didn’t shut him up, she took his favourite hammer down from the pegboard on the wall and held it poised over a stack of his Babylon 5 plates. When he opened his mouth and said, “And another thing – ”, she let it drop and stalked off to bed.

The next morning, the group gathered again, sleepy eyed and tense, at the shop, closed for stock taking, according to the sign on the door. Willow and Tara began work on the two spells they had decided would be useful, and the others continued to search for information about the Realm, Grelin and the source of the Slayer’s powers. They found little and what there was did nothing to reassure them.

Grelin featured in several Watcher diaries and seemed to be capable of any atrocity. Giles read through the diaries he had, his face growing pinched with concern as he read of horrors that went beyond anything a normal vampire would do. The average vampire would kill, to be sure, would have no qualms or mercy, but few of them would bother with the elaborate scenarios that Grelin had set up to torment his victims. They fed and hid, conscious of their vulnerability against humans aware of their presence and pushed too far. As Buffy’s friends had proven so many times, a human could kill a vampire. It was an unequal contest, but not one with a completely predictable outcome.

As lunchtime approached, Xander volunteered to go for pizza. “Want to come with and help carry all the cheese laden goodness home, Buffy?” he said casually. Anya gave him a look that both warned and appealed but his eyes slid past her.

“I’m in,” said Buffy, slamming shut the book that Giles had forced into her unwilling hands. “Don’t suppose they deliver to other dimensions, so this might have to last me a while.”

Spike lounged in his chair and studied Anya. He picked up on tension like black velvet picked up fluff and the air around Anya was crackling with it. Fellow feeling overcame the urge to be malicious and he slouched over to her and said quietly, “Don’t worry, love. He’s stuck in a groove but I’m betting Buffy’ll kick him out of it.”

She continued to stare at the door. He shrugged and began to move away but paused as she said reflectively, “Ever wish you could still kill things?”

“Every day, love, every day.”

***

Xander tried to start the conversation he’d been rehearsing three times, only to have trite comments about the weather spill out of his mouth. Buffy turned and gave him an amused look. “It is a nice day, the breeze is refreshing and why don’t you just spit it out, Xander? I know there’s something bothering you.”

Xander nodded eagerly. “There is, Buffy and I’m guessing you’re bothered too but you can’t admit it.”

She gave him a puzzled smile. “I’m a bit uptight about this journey, sure, but we’ve been up against worse. What makes you think I’m bothered?”

Xander spread his hands out and shrugged, “Oh, day tripping through portals, humans hacking up their girlfriends, Slayer powers fading, vampires feeding off you and –”

“And stop right there, because it’s that last one that bothers you the most, isn’t it?” she replied, a hint of sarcasm in her voice. “Xander, you hate vampires and you hate my boyfriends. When they overlap, you seem to hit all time lows of being bugged. Why is that?”

He opened his mouth to reply with a quip, an insult, anything but the truth and then he saw her eyes. She looked tired, drawn and he just couldn’t hurt her anymore.

“Can we sit down?” he said. Relief flickered in her eyes as she sensed his lack of hostility. They made their way to a bench and sat down, staring out at the street.

“I know what you’re thinking, Buffy. You’re thinking I’m still in love with you and I’m jealous of Spike.” Buffy moved uneasily, unsure of how to reply. “Well, yeah, maybe I am a little. I do still love you, and I don’t plan on stopping, but it’s the love of a best friend now and that goes for Willow, too. Just as well, the way things have turned out. You’d break my ribs if you hugged me too hard and I’m the wrong gender for Willow.” He stopped and smiled at her. “I don’t know if I’ll ever convince Anya of this, so you might want to drop in a good word for me.”

Buffy winced as she imagined that conversation. “I’m not sure that’s up there with the best idea you’ve ever had, Xander,” she pointed out tactfully.

“You think? I always thought you girls went in for all that heart to heart stuff. Whatever. Anyway, now we’ve got that out of the way, can I spit out what I’ve been trying to say for the past hour?”

“Go for it, best friend, Xander,” said Buffy solemnly.

“It’s the feeding deal. Buffy, there has to be another way. I can’t let you –” His voice broke off and he slammed his fist against the arm of the bench.

“Xander!” said Buffy in alarm, grabbing his hand as his fist raised again.

“Would it be unmanly of me to say, ‘oww’? Xander asked, cradling his hand gingerly.

“Would it be unladylike of me to ask what the hell you’re doing?”

Xander turned and stared at Buffy with fear in his eyes. “Feeding, Buffy. You’ll be drinking his blood as he feeds on you. Do you think Giles is the only one who has nightmares about you being turned? Especially now that Spike can hurt you?”

“Spike would never –“ Buffy stopped. “I understand why you’re upset, Xander. It won’t get to the point where I’m in danger of – that. I won’t ask you to trust Spike because I know you don’t, but trust me. I would never let that happen. But this is the only way to open the portal and I have to do this if I’m to stay Slayer.”

Xander looked at her helplessly. “I know you do, Buffy. It’s just – you’re doing this alone, we’re not going to be there to help. You might not be worried but I am.”

Buffy stared at the peaceful scene around her, people walking, talking, smiling, doing the mundane things that made up life for most, but not for her. “I can’t tell you not to worry. I won’t even ask you to believe that Spike’s part of the group now, so I’m not alone. What I will ask is that you look out for Dawn. If something happens, you might never know about it, I just – won’t come back. Look after her, Xander? I know all of you will, but she loves you.”

Xander nodded speechlessly, then set his jaw. “But you will come back, Buffy,” he said, certainty strengthening his voice. “I know you will.”

They stood and hugged, Buffy resting her head on Xander’s shoulder with relief. She hadn’t wanted to leave with any ill feelings between them. “See?” she said, raising her head and looking up at him, her eyes misted with tears. “Ribs all safe.”

“Thank you for being gentle with me,” he said dryly. “OK, after all that emotion, there’s got to be donuts as well as pizza. I need that sugar rush.”

***

Willow looked up from the book she was reading after a lunch that featured pizza, donuts and not much else, and saw Buffy sitting alone at the front of the shop, staring out of the window. She went over and sat beside her, glad of the chance to talk to her friend. “Hey,” she said softly.

Buffy turned and attempted a smile, “Hey, back at you,” she said.

“We’re going to be ready soon,” Willow went on, “and I just wanted to, well –”

“Say goodbye?” Buffy asked rubbing her hand across her eyes, as if they were full of grit.

“Are you feeling OK?” Willow asked, concern in her voice.

“Just tired. Didn’t get much sleep last night.” Buffy felt a quiver of apprehension. As the Slayer, she was used to getting by without much sleep. Last night she hadn’t even fought anything. Why was she feeling so exhausted?

“I don’t want to say goodbye,” Willow said, “I just wanted to ask if you were dealing with all that about being part vampire, because, you know, I’m going to be looking into that while you’re away. It’s just one ancient prophecy after all, and you know what they’re like. Doom, gloom and a side order of despair. Never any prophecies about happy endings and, oh, you’re going to live long, die happy and be super rich, oh, no, it’s all, you’re going to be miserable from day one and -”

“Willow. You’re ranting and possibly raving. It’s fine. I’m dealing. It does make sense in a way. Besides, it didn’t say I was part vampire exactly. It said part of my strength was drawn from theirs. I hunt them. The only way to do that and win is to know them. If the Slayer has part of their spirit inside her, it helps I guess. I’m not likely to sprout fangs and stop sunbathing.”

“Well, after my spell, you might be doing the fangs part. Think of it as an early Halloween costume.”

Buffy looked thoughtful. “What?” said Willow curiously.

Buffy glanced around to make sure that no one was in earshot. Leaning close to her friend, she whispered, “I was just wondering; do you think Spike will get off on me being all vamped out?”

Willow gasped and then began to giggle. “That’s so naughty,” she said, trying to keep a straight face. “I tell you what; if he does, I can always cast the spell again when you get back.”

Xander called over to them, “Hey, lovely ladies, what’s so funny?”

They exchanged glances and chorused, “You really don’t want to know.”

Buffy stood up, feeling refreshed by her chat with Willow. “Think I’m going to go train a bit,” she said, resting her hand on Willow’s shoulder for an instant.

Giles watched her enter the training room with relief, having seen her pensive withdrawal deepen as the hours went by, and turned back to Carlton who was regaling him with some malicious but entertaining gossip about a mutual acquaintance. Gradually, his attention wandered as the rhythmic thudding of fists against punching bag began to falter.

“And after all that, they blackballed him anyway!” Carlton finished, laughing heartily.

Giles twitched his lips in a mechanical smile then said, “Excuse me for a moment,” and drifted casually toward the training room door. Spike watched him go and frowned, listening, like Giles, to the change in the rhythm of Buffy’s fists. He began to get out of his seat and then changed his mind. Giles knew Buffy better than he did in some ways. Best let him deal with her. Spike continued to flick over the pages of a book, with a disregard for its fragile condition that would have earned him a glare from the Watcher, and strained to hear what was being said in the room next to him.

Giles stood on the threshold, and then stepped into the room, closing the door behind him quietly. Buffy was throwing punches with all her strength, her breath hissing out as her fist connected with the coarse canvas of the punching bag.

It was swaying slightly, languidly drifting in a lazy arc. She was barely moving it. Giles felt his heart break as she collapsed against it, hammering it weakly with knuckles that were bleeding and raw. He crossed the room swiftly and gathered her into his arms.

“It’s going, Giles,” she said, her mouth working helplessly as she tried to hold back the tears. “I’ve lost it.”

He crooned words of comfort, patting her back awkwardly, lost in memories of the last time her Slayer strength had deserted her, shameful memories of his betrayal, as he followed the Council’s orders. As she began to sob, he frantically patted her harder, until he was rescued by a quiet voice and a hand on his arm.

“Easy there. She’s not a pet dog, you know.”

Buffy raised her head from Giles’ chest and stared at Spike through a haze of tears. “I can’t do anything, Spike,” she wailed. “I felt it go, felt it leave me. I’m not the Slayer anymore.”

“Don’t look any different to me, Buffy,” he said in a calm voice, resisting the urge to take over where Giles had left off. “We knew this was going to happen. It’s why I’m tagging along, remember?”

“I didn’t think it would happen before we even got there! I’ve got to fight this big bad vampire and –”

“You can bloody well leave him to me,” interrupted Spike, his voice hard. “I was never going to let you go up against him. I owe him a favour or two. I’m going to take him down myself. And less of the ‘big bad’. That’s my name.”

“How can I survive over there if I can’t fight?” she protested.

“I told you love, you didn’t stand a chance anyway. You can’t fight that many all at once. Now, maybe you can slip under their guard. Might work out for the best. And you know what? I’ve been thinking.” His voice dropped into a conversational tone and Giles watched her concentrate on Spike, her tears forgotten. “All this time you’ve been Slayer, you’ve been scraping the bottom of the barrel a thousand other Slayers drained nearly dry. Now, once we get that barrel full again, you’ll be able to dive right in. Shouldn’t wonder if you’ll notice the difference in your power. Might even – don’t get your hopes up though – might even be able to take me.”

Buffy wasn’t fooled by his attempt to cheer her up - but Spike really did seem sincere. “There hasn’t ever been a time when I couldn’t take you, Spike,” she said confidently, a little swagger in her step as she moved closer to him.

“Oh, yeah? How come you never managed to stake me, then? I’m undead proof that I’m the better fighter.”

Giles quietly edged out, a small smile on his lips as he listened to them bicker. He had planned to get Spike alone before they left, planned to let him know just what would happen if he failed to protect Buffy. Now he realised that it wasn’t going to be needed.

If Buffy didn’t make it back, neither would Spike. Because the only way Buffy would die was if Spike was already dust.

The Realm. Afternoon.

Matthew watched, sickened and yet fascinated, as Grelin tore at the throat of a young woman, drinking greedily. The woman was pretty, but her neck and the crook of her elbow were thick with scar tissue. As Grelin pushed her away, wiping his mouth fastidiously with a napkin, Matthew gauged his mood and decided that he was mellow enough to answer some questions. The girl staggered out of the room, her hand pressing down on her wounded neck, tears streaming down her face. Grelin didn’t spare her a glance.

Matthew cleared his throat and Grelin’s head came around sharply. “Ah, so you’re feeling better, old friend?” he murmured, the sympathy in his voice as insincere as his smile.

“Feel – weak,” Matthew said, exaggerating the quaver in his voice a little.

Grelin nodded. “You need to eat,” he said cheerfully. “Shall I call her back?” He chuckled as Matthew frantically shook his head.

“I need to know what you’re going to do with me,” Matthew said, the words sticking in his throat.

“A good question, my friend. I was just going to kill you – I can’t send you back and I don’t think you’ll be happy here somehow – but you know, I’ve changed my mind.” He paused cruelly and Matthew closed his eyes, as a sick apprehension flooded him. He had thought himself resigned to death; why did he care? Gritting his teeth, he forced himself to return Grelin’s watchful gaze.

“From what I know of Slayers, they’re a sentimental lot. Devote their short lives to saving people. You know the type. It strikes me that you’ll make an interesting diversion for her. I’m not quite sure how I can use you, but it would be a pity to waste you, now wouldn’t it?”

Matthew swallowed. “When – that is, do you know when she will get here?”

Grelin frowned but answered readily enough, “I have no idea but it doesn’t matter. I have spies watching where the portal will open. It’s a matter of a few miles away. I will know of her arrival almost as soon as she sets foot in the Realm, she and her vampire companion.”

“She will be with a vampire?” blurted Matthew, surprise jolting him out of his pretence at weakness.

Grelin smiled slowly. “She will indeed. She will be with the only vampire pathetic enough to ally with a human, let alone a Slayer. She will be with Angelus, the vampire with a soul. I owe him and I have a special welcome waiting.” He stood, towering over Matthew. “And since you seem so much better, I see no reason why you should loll around all day. Get yourself down to the stables and tell Fellor that I sent you.” His smile broadened. “He’ll have plenty of work for someone like you.”

Buffy looked into the mirror, grimacing and poking at her face. “It feels just the same,” she marveled.

“It will do,” said Tara with a small shrug. “This is a glamour, a seeming. Your own face hasn’t altered at all. It’s keyed to this necklace. If it’s touching your skin, you’ll appear to be a vampire; take it off and you’re human. I wanted to make sure you could show your real face in case you met some humans with pointy sticks.” She smiled gently and Buffy smiled back. She’d come to appreciate Tara’s quiet humour and strength. “She’s like an anchor,” she thought, “keeping us all from drifting away in a sea of weird.”

Buffy stared again at her reflection, the thick brows, the sharp fangs and yellow eyes. “I look –”

“Good enough to eat,” said Spike, taking advantage of his lack of reflection to surprise Buffy. “In fact, I think I prefer you this way, love. Maybe Willow could let you keep this necklace and –”

Buffy frowned in quick suspicion and then pounced. “You! You were listening to me earlier!” she accused him, jabbing her finger into his chest.

“You mentioned my name. I couldn’t help it,” he countered, fending her off easily. “Besides, might have taught you a lesson.”

“What lesson?” she demanded, her cheeks hot with embarrassment.

“Vampires hear good. You want to say anything to me over there and there’s vampires around, be bloody careful it’s nothing secret.”

“Just how good is your hearing?” she asked, curiosity dousing the flames of indignation.

Spike tilted his head to one side, considering. “I can hear everything anyone’s saying in this shop if I focus on them,” he said finally.

She nodded soberly. “I’ll remember that.”

“Miss Summers? Buffy? I think we’re ready,” called Carlton from the shop.

Buffy looked down at the floor, then flung her head back and walked out of the small bathroom into the shop. Dawn choked as she saw Buffy’s vampire face and looked away, her lips mutinous. Buffy had spoken to her alone, trying to prepare her for the fact that this might be one challenge she might not be able to overcome as it hadn’t seemed to sink in the night before. Dawn had gone from tearful to termagant in seconds and back again. As Buffy sighed and began to move towards the training room, which had been prepared for the opening of the portal, Dawn hurtled toward her and hugged her fiercely. “I didn’t mean it when I said you were an awful sister,” she whispered. “Only – come back, Buffy. I don’t want you to not come back.”

“Oh, well in that case –” said Buffy, with a rather wobbly grin.

Dawn let her go reluctantly and went to sit with Xander and Anya. It had been decided that the fewer people in the room when the ritual began, the better it would be. After some discussion, Willow and Giles were chosen as observers, partly to report on the success of the portal opening, partly because, as Xander had pointed out, ‘portals open both ways and we don’t want to lose Buffy and gain a ten foot tall demon with an unfriendly attitude.’ Giles was armed with a sword, Willow had memorised some useful attack spells.

“I just need to cast the translation spell and then I guess we’re ready,” Willow said. “We can do that out here. It’s a two way spell that means when you speak as normal, the person listening hears you in their language.” She paused. Something was bothering her, a sense of something overlooked. Dismissing it with a shrug, she concentrated on remembering the words of the spell. “Right, here goes –” She began to chant, walking round Buffy and Spike who stood, hands clasped, in front of her. “What ears shall hear, Minds will comprehend, From this the beginning, Till the spell is at an end,” she finished. “All done.”

Buffy looked at her. “Is it working?”

“Can you tell I’m talking to you in Italian?”

“No”

“Well, I am, so I’ll go out on a limb and say it’s working.”

Buffy smiled. “Then let’s go,” she said, moving towards the training room.

As the training room door closed behind them, cutting off the anxious faces of their friends, the four people moved to their places in silence. Buffy and Spike sank to the floor facing each other. Willow and Giles moved to flank them but remained standing. Giles cleared his throat. “I don’t believe anything needs to be done or said apart from the feed – well, it seems very simple.” He paused, unsure of what to say.

“Good luck,” Willow said softly. Buffy smiled at her and then turned to Spike, blocking out everything apart from him. They hadn’t planned this in detail. A knife had been placed on the floor and Spike hesitated and then reached for it, offering it to Buffy, hilt first. She took it from him and then paused. “No,” she said firmly, dropping it beside her. “Not that way.” She looked at Spike and said, “I want you to bite me.”

Giles surged forward, a protest bursting from him, all his Watcher’s instincts clamouring at him to intervene. He was stopped by Willow’s voice, relaxed and calm. “Back off, Giles,” she said. “They know what they’re doing. That’s the whole point of this. It’s the only way they can prove they’re the people in the prophecy. The Slayer has to trust a vampire enough to let him feed on her; he has to love her enough not to kill. She’ll be fine.”

Spike and Buffy were oblivious to the discussion above them. Moving slowly, Spike took Buffy’s left wrist in his right hand, bringing it up to his lips. He kissed it on the inside, where a faint tracery of veins patterned the golden skin, and then let it drop into his lap, still holding it. He changed into his vampire face and brought his free hand up to his fangs, biting down deeply, so that the blood welled up and began to drip down. Thrusting his bleeding wrist at Buffy, he pulled her left hand up and bit down so fast that she barely had time to register the pain. His hand was there, in front of her and she gripped it tightly and brought it to her mouth, her lips hovering for a moment before she began to taste him.

As Slayer’s blood flowed down a vampire’s throat, as she in turn drank what lay within his veins, the world began to spin around them. The Slayer saw visions, images forming in the red darkness that swirled in front of her eyes. Desperately focusing on tiny details – the cool smoothness of his wrist within her grasp, the softness of his tongue on her flesh and the sharp scrape as he dug his fangs in deeper – she didn’t notice the transition as the portal opened and began to pull them to it. The images seemed to flash in front of her faster and faster – glimpses of her past, Spike’s face looming over her as he tied to bite her when Ethan’s Halloween spell had taken away her memories, again, in the hospital when she had been trying to save Riley and Spike had thought the chip had been removed. The violent images faded and she saw Spike bruised and bloody after enduring Glory’s tormenting, his face when she walked down the stairs towards him after Willow’s spell had brought her back She felt his hands grip her arms hard, as he halted her despairing, suicidal dance to Sweet’s tune. And, then, as the portal closed around her, all she felt was a kiss, laid gently on her lips like a blessing, the kiss Spike used to wake her when she fell asleep in his arms.

Spike was calling on all his willpower, all his strength as he felt Buffy’s blood trickle into his mouth, caressing it as her warm fingers caressed his body. The pull to drink deeper, take more, was overwhelming - not because he felt any desire to hurt Buffy but because the taste of her was so intoxicating that he didn’t want to stop drinking. It wasn’t just that – after so long – it was human blood, it was that it was her blood. He had wanted to taste it for years now.

In the beginning he wanted her blood because it would mean her death. His third Slayer, his third victory over his most dangerous adversary. Then, when the hatred had turned to obsession, he had craved it as he craved any scrap of her clothes, her time, even the pain she dealt out to him almost casually. Finally, now, when his sorrow over her death had burned away the layers of conceit and deceit and left him with a love that transfigured all he saw, all he was, he wanted her blood to seal their bond. He would never have forced it on her, never have given way to the desire to taste her as he thrust deep inside her arching body, slick with sweat, demanding and giving unstintingly. But now he had been given the chance not only to taste her but to have her feed on him, her face a match for his own, demonic, horrific but still, somehow, Buffy. Torture. It was torture but he endured it, clinging to the single thought that if he went too far, he would lose her and he could never bear to lose her again. The passage through the portal ended his ordeal and he felt the world drop away from him with unbearable slowness.

Giles and Willow saw the portal appear around the linked pair. It hovered over them, a slash of blue, widening to engulf them. There was a crack like a lightening bolt and the air sizzled with energy. The figures of the Slayer and the vampire began to shimmer and the blue light grew so bright that both watching closed their eyes automatically. When they opened them, they were alone in the room.

Giles collapsed onto the sofa in the corner of the room, his hands shaking as he fumbled for a handkerchief.

“So, they’re gone,” he said unnecessarily.

“Variable temporal flux!” Willow cried out.

“Most people say, ‘Bon voyage’,” Giles murmured absently, still a little shaken. Buffy and Spike feeding on each other, Buffy looking like that, the blood on her lips. It was the stuff of nightmares for a Watcher.

“No,” said Willow impatiently. “We never calculated how time runs in the Realm. They could get back after a day there and it’ll be like ten years here. We never checked – I knew there was something else, besides the translation spell and the disguise!”

The door was flung open and the others came rushing in. “D-did it work?” asked Dawn. “Did they get there safely?” She looked at their faces. “What’s gone wrong?” she demanded shrilly.

***

The Realm. Late afternoon.

The portal opened and Buffy and Spike found themselves in a grassy meadow, spangled with sunshine, dotted with wildflowers. Slowly, they let go of each other’s wrists and glanced around.

“Sun,” murmured Spike, trying to restrain the urge to cower. “I’m in the sun.”

Buffy had instinctively leaned towards him, trying to shield him with her body, but she relaxed as she saw that he was safe. “Guess that part of the stories is true. Oh, God, my wrist!” Moaning as the pain hit her, she anxiously examined the wound made by Spike’s fangs.

“It should close up soon,” he assured her, still lost in wonder as he gazed up at a blue sky and felt the warmth of the sun on his cool skin.

“I don’t have Slayer healing anymore, remember?” she snapped.

Spike looked at her sympathetically. “It’ll close because vampire spit acts as a coagulant,” he said bluntly.

“That’s so gross,” she said, studying it again. It had stopped bleeding but it hurt. A lot. She’d forgotten what that was like. Normally it took a major wound to make her wince.

Spike glanced around. “Looks peaceful enough. We’d better get under cover and scout around a bit.”

“No,” said Buffy, looking past his shoulder. “We’d better run.”

Book Three: The Demon Delivers

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