The voice couldn't be real. A side effect of having one's head repeatedly smashed into a stone mausoleum, perhaps, but not real. Not in this universe. While absence made the heart grow fonder, Buffy was fairly certain her heart was rather stationary on the matter of Spike. And yet, there was no reason her mind would select his voice out of a thousand to penetrate the thick air. He was there—he was there when her eyes fought open. A familiar face in the midst of a drastically unfamiliar setting. It made her blood rush, made her homesick, filled her with gratitude and trepidation all at once.
However, in the end, there was little time to mull it over. Whatever retort she had met an abrupt death as her legs broke for the mossy earth, carrying her body five feet from the demon attached to the fists that had been so enthusiastically pounding the crap out of her.
“Same scene, different graveyard, eh, Slayer?”
Buffy rolled her eyes, hurling herself to her feet. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Reckon I oughta ask you the same thing,” Spike replied from where he sat rather comfortably on a nearby mausoleum, puffing lazily on a cigarette and watching the three demons she'd been battling follow her down the roll of land of the Natchez cemetery. “'Course that might be a tad redundant, yeah? You're very obviously getting your arse kicked.”
“You’re in Mississippi?” she groaned, ducking the fist of Demon One and aiming a kick at Demon Two. “This has to be a nightmare.”
“Ah, now now. No need for that.” Spike grinned and indulged in another puff. “Anythin' new?”
Buffy shrugged the best she could, grasping the arm of Demon Three and using its weight to leverage another well-aimed kick at Demon Two. “Oh, you know,” she replied, punches punctuating her words. “Same old. Same old.”
He chuckled appreciatively. “Just can't help makin' friends wherever you go. Who are these clowns?”
“Just some guys I met in a bar.” Her head flipped up under the swinging arm, securing a glare in the blond's direction. “Look, are you just gonna small-talk me to death or did you just want a good seat?”
Evidently distracted by the ongoing verbal exchange, Demon One finally stopped and held up his cloven hands. “Hey, are we keeping you from something? 'Cause we could totally reschedule the…you know, killing you.”
“Whoa! Do you two, like, know each other?” Demon Two asked, his voice accented in a California dialect she knew well.
Spike snickered and ignored them. “You sure do attract the thick ones,” he told her.
“You're one to talk,” Buffy spat.
“Look, vamp,” Demon One said in defeat. “You gonna help or not? We are kinda busy here.”
“Right,” he replied. “Three on one and not a single one've you has managed to slow her down a lick.” Spike rolled his eyes and took another drag before returning his attention to Buffy. “Wannabes.”
It was very obviously the wrong time to crack a grin, but for whatever reason, she couldn't help herself. In a million years she never would have thought herself capable of sharing a moment of private amusement with Spike—of all non-people—in the middle of a demon brawl. Perhaps he'd simply caught her on a weird night. Or perhaps any familiar face, even one she despised, was welcome in a town of strangers.
“Vamps are so fucking useless,” Demon One snarled.
Demon Three, the only one in the group not versed in English, gurgled something sounding like an agreement.
It happened fast—so fast Buffy nearly lost her footing. In all the time she'd known Spike, in all the battles they'd waged against each other, he'd never once transformed into a blur of motion. One second he was atop his tombstone, the bane of her existence, smoking his cigarette and watching her fight three uglies at once, and the next he was everywhere. Behind her. Beside her. Seizing her arm to act as her anchor as he helped her aim a particularly vicious kick. In easy seconds, the air split with the deafening crack of breaking bone, spiced with inhuman wails that shook the ground. Even after she witnessed Demon One and Demon Two collapse, their necks awkwardly bent, it didn't fully register what had occurred until the unintelligible third demon swiped a claw at her left side. Instinct had Buffy airborne in a blink, and before she could take another breath he joined his fallen brethren.
It wasn't until she was on the ground again that her brain finally caught up with her. It came in short bursts. Realization. Awareness.
What had just happened?
The answer wasn't so ambiguous. There was no question as to what had happened. Not really.
Spike saved my life.
Well, perhaps that was an overstatement. The situation hadn't really been out of control. Point of fact, she felt she had handled herself quite well considering she was far from home and facing demons she'd never before encountered. So Spike hadn't saved her life. He'd just…helped.
He'd helped her…not get her head bashed in.
The words rushed out before she could help herself. Feelings of gratitude and the image of Spike weren't things that went hand-in-hand. She'd barely been able to get over his longstanding campaign to kill her the last time they'd teamed up to defeat something evil; now, since she knew there was nothing in it for him, it was nearly impossible to stem her gut reaction. “What the hell was that?”
Apparently, Spike didn't realize hers was a natural curiosity rather than a hostile one. Perhaps it was the way she’d shouted the question. “Well,” he retorted dryly. “That gracious thank you makes my achin' side entirely worthwhile.”
“Seriously, Spike, what the hell?”
“Can't a bloke save the life of a bird he loathes without gettin' the sodding fifth degree?”
Buffy paused with a thoughtful frown. “What are degrees one-through-four?”
A blink. Spike shook his head. “No one knows. Point is, I just helped your ungrateful arse, puttin' myself…” He paused and slapped a hand across his nonbeating heart, his eyes wide with false sincerity. “…at great personal risk.”
Buffy couldn't help it; she snickered.
“Is it too much to hope for a bloody thank you?”
“I didn't ask you to do anything!”
“Well, fair game, Slayer. I suppose next time I'll just let them have your precious hide.”
This argument had the makings of one that could render her blue in the face, and Buffy had neither the patience nor the inclination to talk herself in circles, especially when anger was only a mask for curiosity. Thus, before her tongue could roll out another slew of words she didn't mean, she grounded herself with a long sigh, her eyes falling shut. “Okay,” she conceded. “Okay. What are you doing here?”
There was no response. When she forced her eyes open again, Spike was staring at her blankly. “Huss'at?”
“I don't want to fight. I don't… You did help, but…Spike…” She waved at the cemetery. “What are you doing here?”
“It’s my concern,” he replied indignantly. “What are you doin' here?”
“Demon. Some big nasty. Giles got a call from the Council a few days ago. It's here so I'm here.” Buffy's jaw tightened. “No one seems to give a crap that I quit the Council, but that's a different thing. This guy's big on the apocalyptic scale so here I be.”
“Don't tell me the whole sodding gang—”
“A world of no. I came alone.”
It was slow but inevitable—a pleased grin stretched across his face. “Well, well, well,” Spike drawled. “Aren't you the little girl in the big bad world?”
“It was my choice. I wanted to handle this myself.”
“Not feelin' warm tinglies for your mates, then?”
“I just needed…” Buffy sighed and crossed her arms. “Not that it's any of your business, but Angel and I—”
Spike held up a hand. “Heard about it. Big snake, right?”
“Can't keep news about the Ascension a secret, now can you? Whole bloody world heard about that one, love.” His brows perked. “The Enormous Forehead walked, did he? Could've seen that one comin' a mile away.”
Her mood darkened instantly. “And to that, goodbye.”
She didn't get far; she didn't expect or even want to get far. Despite her better senses, the larger part of her was oddly glad to see a familiar face. Leaving Sunnydale had seemed easy enough on paper; put some much-needed distance between herself and the tattered remains of her broken heart. Get her mind off Angel's dramatic fade into the mist and onto something tangible—something requiring violent action to resolve. An apocalypse was just what the doctor ordered…even if the apocalypse in question was in some Podunk town in the middle of nowhere.
It was easy, then, to grasp onto what was known. And Spike, like it or not, was very known.
In the sense that she hated his non-living guts but was willing to overlook it for the moment. Of something related to her real life but detached enough to keep her from thinking too much of the things that hurt the most.
As it was, Spike wasn’t about to let her go without at least attempting to talk her to death. There was no surprise when his voice again tickled the air, his footsteps not a hair behind hers. “Might not seem it, but you’re better off now,” he was saying. “Always knew you could do better than that ponce.”
“What?” she retorted, tossing him an irked glance. “Like a Chaos Demon?”
His expression faded into a scowl. “Sod off.”
“Trying. Stop following me.”
“I go where I please.”
“Fine.” Buffy smiled sweetly and pivoted on her heel. “Then let me ask…how is Dru?”
Spike didn’t say anything. Words were not required. His glare spoke volumes.
This naturally lent her the confidence to continue rubbing salt in the wound. It was a much more entertaining task when on this side of the mockery. “I guess that ‘tie her up and torture her’ plan didn’t work as well as you’d hoped,” she continued. “Or…she met a Panic Demon. Or an Anarchy Demon. Maybe a—”
Buffy stopped shortly. “What?”
Spike glanced down, shamed and wounded. There was no deceit to be found. Nothing to suggest he was pulling her leg. And had she not been agape that he was releasing this information at all, she might have felt a stab of sympathy.
“It was a Fungus Demon,” he confirmed.
“Wow.” She remained quiet as long as she could, which honestly wasn’t long at all. There was only so much one could take with a straight face; before she could help herself, her insides were clamoring with laughter. “Oh…wow.”
The warning in his voice only furthered her amusement. “My god,” she sputtered between giggles. “How pathetic do you have to be to get a loony bin to choose fungus over you?”
“Yeah. Laugh it up.”
She had no trouble fulfilling that request.
“Least I knew to expect it,” he continued. “Had it figured the second I found her. Wouldn’t last. Couldn’t last. Dru and me were finished the second we blasted outta Sunnyhell, thanks to you.”
Sobriety chased laughter away. “Well, excuse me for accepting your offer,” Buffy snapped. “Next time—”
“I didn’t bloody well say I resented it, now did I?”
“The kidnapping of my best friend to get her to perform some dumbass love spell really doesn’t scream I’m moving on.”
“I’m a new man now.”
“Yeah. Funny how this new man manages to find me—again—”
“Not on bloody purpose, if that’s what you think,” Spike growled. “I was wastin’ away quite happily in a bottle of bourbon, some titty thing named Jenna wavin’ her parts in my face. I don’t really know how I ended up here.”
Buffy’s eyes narrowed. “Yeah,” she agreed dryly. “New man, all right.”
“Last time I got pissed and got in my head that givin’ your head to Dru would fix things,” he said. “This time, I just decided to get pissed. Runnin’ into you was one bloody big mistake.”
A quiet second fell between them during which Buffy put on a good show pretending to think. In the end, she offered little more than a sardonic grin and shook her head. “Sorry,” she said. “I don’t buy it. I live in the real world, Spike. The one where coincidences don’t exist and you exist solely to hand out migraines. Of all the towns, you end up in this one?”
“I don’t know why I’m here, either,” he barked. “I was supposed to be in the Big Easy, gettin’ so sloshed I couldn’t remember my own name, much less Dru’s. I don’t know what the bugger dragged me here, but somethin’ sure as fuck did. And soon as your scent hit the air, I reckoned you had somethin’ to do with it.”
“You thought I brought you here?”
“Well, nothin’ else makes a lick of sense!”
“And that does?”
He shrugged. “You said it yourself, didn’t you? No such thing as coincidences.”
Buffy stared at him. There had always been something slightly off about Spike, but this took off to new, unforeseen levels. He thought she had, what, wished him here out of some mad desire to keep company with his oh-so damnably annoying self?
“You’re twisted,” she decided. “And I don’t have time for this.”
“More mopin’, I’d wager.”
“No, Slayer, I understand.” His hands came up. “Been there, done that. Then again, Dru leavin’ me for keeps was just a matter of time. Weren’t you an’ the great git supposed to be forever?”
A dark, dangerous chill rushed through her body. “Get. Bent.”
“Oh, if looks could stake.”
“I don’t need looks. You want dust, Spike? Keep talking.”
It wouldn’t happen, of course. There seemed to be some moratorium on her ability to kill any vampire she’d known for a length of time. Especially Spike. Really, only Spike. She’d had her chance a few short months ago after fending off the mayor’s dispatch team. She’d had her chance numerous times during the months Angelus had terrorized Sunnydale. And she’d had her chance now.
For some reason, she kept walking away. Killing Spike seemed such a waste. He was…well, supremely annoying, but he kept life interesting.
Even if he annoyed the crap out of her to the point where previous convictions were forgotten in a blink. No matter that she was far from home with no one she knew to comfort her, there was no way in this world or the next that she was going to endure Angel-taunts from the bane of her existence. Thus with a well-earned huff, Buffy pivoted on her heel and began a furious storm-off.
Not that it did any good.
“He left you, right?” Spike prodded, still at her heels. Damn vampire. Wouldn’t even let her stomp away dramatically. “’Course he did. Little Buff’s too bloody loyal to muck up a mediocre—”
He ignored the warning in her voice. “—piss-poor romance, even if something better comes along.”
Buffy froze and whirled around. “Get lost before you’re someone’s hay fever.”
“Spike, I swear—”
“Swear all you like, I’m not goin’ anywhere.” He rocked on his heels with an unrepentant grin. “What’s this demon? The big nasty your watcher sent you to dispatch?”
He shrugged. “Why not? You’re here. I’m here. I’m bored. And things tend to work out when we pair up.”
“I was desperate the last time we paired up,” Buffy barked. “You said it yourself—all I had, remember?”
Spike perked his eyebrows. “Don’t see how much has changed,” he replied. “You’re all by your lonesome, aren’t you?”
“Yeah. The reason you haven’t staked me yet doesn’t at all have to do with the fact that you’re far from your home sweet home and I’m the only bloke you know.”
If anything, the truth in his diagnosis only furthered her irritation. “We can rectify that,” she suggested, reaching to collect the stake she kept wedged between the small of her back and the waistline of her sweats.
“Just trying to help.”
Spike gave her one of his knowing looks. She hated that she knew his looks, almost as much as she hated the feeling of her anger dissipating as though it had never existed. Or more truthfully, the wishful anger she’d purposefully summoned to feel some semblance of normality. It seemed these days it didn’t take long at all to get her to concede a disagreement.
Perhaps she was just lonely.
“It’s called the Reaper,” she heard herself say. “Some sort of…I dunno…collection demon. According to the Council and the research the gang did before I left, it’s hitting a bunch of hotspots.”
“Like…demonic playgrounds or…places where there’s been energy that’s more para than normal.” Buffy sighed and crossed her arms. “It’s collecting energy.”
“World-endage—or something to that effect. Giles thinks it might be trying to overturn the natural order of things…make the world a demonic playground where humans are the fabled ones.” Buffy inclined her head toward him. “Your kind of party.”
Spike balked as though he’d tasted something foul. “Are you outta your bloody mind?”
“Do you have any idea how sodding loathed vamps are by other demons? Halfbreeds is what we are—saved only by our fangs and penchant for destruction.” He laughed harshly. “We’re only slightly above you, ducks. The soul is what does you in. If demons took over, we’d be bloody obsolete. At least now the game’s in our favor. This bloke means to turn over the world?”
Buffy blinked dumbly, though she felt slightly ridiculous in her surprise. It was nothing she hadn’t before heard—nothing Spike hadn’t before told her. This was a world he liked for its guilty pleasures. And its people. He wasn’t the sort of vampire to talk about the end of times with a wistful smile and a happy heart. He’d risked everything to preserve the world as he knew it—risked and lost everything, and now here they were. Far from home but in much the same boat. The world was in peril, and Spike was the only vampire she knew who didn’t get a happy at the prospect.
Perhaps this wasn’t a coincidence.
“Yeah,” she agreed after a long second. “Yeah. Ummm…he’s collecting everything from demons to ghosts in…well, Giles called it a Pandora’s Box for lack of a better term. And once the Reaper has enough to cause world-endage, he’ll do just that.”
“And wackiness ensues.”
“Something like that.”
Spike offered a thoughtful nod, again reaching for his cigarettes. “You got yourself a handful, Slayer,” he observed. “And you really wanted to handle this one on your own?”
She flexed her shoulders. “I figured it’d be cathartic.”
“Anythin’ else an inquiring mind oughta know about this git?”
A quiet beat. “The energies and whatnot, whatever it is the Reaper wants for his…thing…they don’t know it.”
“Giles has reason to believe the Reaper’s collection has thinned out a bit at least once. He thinks once a demon or whatever gets close to the Reaper, it automatically wants to get closer. So it might find itself wandering aimlessly trying to get closer to it without knowing what it is.” Buffy frowned. “That…actually might be why you’re here.”
Spike quirked his head. “Come again?”
“It was in New Orleans last we knew, but we think it got tipped off that I was coming to take care of business and broke northward in a big, big hurry.” Buffy paused, staring at Spike as though she’d never before seen him. “If you were in New Orleans, you might’ve gotten close enough to…get a whiff.”
“You’re sayin’ the beastie dragged me here?”
“I’m saying if you were compelled to come here without knowing why, it might be because you…” She broke off with a sigh, bit her lip, her brow furrowing. “Giles said there was no reason to think any of the demons or…whatever collected by the Reaper wanted to be collected, that they just couldn’t help it because they got caught in this…I dunno. That’s why the collection thins out—they find a way to escape.” A solemn beat passed. She met his eyes. “Just…watch out for yourself.”
“I could lend a hand, you know.”
“No. The second you got close to it, you’d—”
Spike jutted out his chin with barely concealed indignation. “I can control myself, Slayer. It’s not like—”
“I’m not saying you’d want to become a part of…whatever. I’m saying this thing gets a hold of demons and they can’t resist.”
“I’m not like other demons. Point of fact, I could help you sniff it out.”
Buffy shook her head decisively. Enemy or not, she wasn’t going to be responsible for getting someone in trouble. “No.”
“Why the hell not? If I’m a sodding homing-beacon for this git—”
“I’m going back to my room, Spike.”
“It’s not like you give a fuck, anyway! Come on, Slayer. Whaddya got to lose?” He sealed the argument by running his tongue over his teeth in a manner that should not have been sexy, yet couldn’t help but rattle her to the bone.
Since when was Spike sexy?
She had a feeling she didn’t want the answer.
“Worse comes to worst, I’m outta your hair forever,” he reasoned. “And if not…”
“No.” Another shake of her head, though this one didn’t feel any more final than the last. “No.”
She would not use Spike.
Especially with the wigsome revelation that some twisted part of her found him sexy.
It’s post-Angel blues.
Only it really wasn’t, and that thought was terrifying.
“No, Spike,” Buffy said again. “Just…no.”
Her feet were aimed at the small stone ledge separating the cemetery from the silent road, and before the vampire could utter another word, she was running. Past the tombstones. Past the bodies of the three fallen demons. Past monuments and memorials. Past everything.
She would feel normal when she got back to the room.
And maybe, just maybe, Spike would take the hint and get the hell out of Dodge.
A girl could hope, at least.