The silence between them would strangle a lesser man. Thankfully, he wasn't the sort of bloke who depended on air.
So why was his throat so damnably tight? Why did his lungs ache with the need to breathe? His skin burned from where he’d held her. From the molten heat at her center to the ample softness of her breasts, the silky perfection of her mouth…it was too much for one vamp to handle. Too much for one with no moral ties to keep him grounded—none but the want of Buffy.
She was doing her best not to look him in the eye. Doing her best not to look at him at all.
Spike’s jaw clenched. Perfect.
Still, there was no way he was about to stand for silence. Not with everything that had already transpired between them, and especially not through dinner. From the way she was dressed Spike guessed their chosen locale to be somewhat formal—either that or she just wanted to impress him. Not that she was dressed to the nines, though he supposed he would have thought so no matter what she wore. Her hair was pulled back elegantly into a braid she'd hastily slapped together in the aftermath of their snogging session, and though stray strands of blonde could be seen here or there, there was nothing sloppy about the way she'd fashioned herself. Likewise, the red blouse she'd pulled over her luscious body accented her soft, pink lips in a way that made his insides twist. Her black slacks cut off at the heel of her practical shoes—strappy things made to seduce. Made to slay. Perhaps it was why she'd chosen them. Her life had to double on all fronts. Gone were the mini-skirts of her youth; the outfits so revealing he'd often execute certain attacks so she’d do one of those high-kicks that always flashed her knickers.
She looked glorious. So glorious.
“This place far from here?” Spike asked, then immediately kicked himself. Fuck. He'd sworn he wouldn't be the one to break the silence.
Buffy nodded. “Yeah,” she replied, her voice strained. “Ummm…we could walk if you'd rather…”
Walk? And drag out the torturous silence? No thanks.
She hummed in agreement and bolted for the passenger side of his beloved Desoto.
Right. This was going to be a fun night. Spike heaved a sigh and ducked behind the wheel. The burn to touch her wasn't getting any better. If anything, the closed confines of his vehicle only worsened the brewing sickness in his stomach. But he'd survive. He would. If she wanted him, she'd have to be the one to say something. He'd made it bloody clear how he felt—well, not the part where he was hers for eternity if she'd let him, but under the circumstances that was a matter of preserving what little pride he'd managed to not toss in the gutter. She knew enough—she knew he was hers if she wanted him.
He just wished he could tell the burn the same. It was bloody unbearable.
“Go out the front drive,” Buffy said softly. Did the stupid chit not realize how fucking sultry she sounded? Was she doing it on purpose?
It’d be like her to torment him just for kicks. She’d relish the sting.
No. The rational man inside warned against him. He was just irritated and suffering from the biggest case of blue balls he'd known in his life. He was also mad in love with his enemy, which could throw a wrench into anyone’s day. And the need to touch her blazed through him with all the fire of the devil's whimsy.
“Up Rankin,” she instructed, staring dead ahead as he maneuvered the car away from Maplewood. “I walked it earlier today…Jefferson's a one-way street, so we'll have to park and walk up a block or so.”
The Desoto rolled to a stop at Union. And then, for no reason he could pinpoint, the wheels aimed themselves right and took off before he could register he'd made a wrong turn.
What the bugger?
Spike’s eyes went wide and his hands clenched hard around the wheel. “Fuck me.”
Buffy sat up sharply. “What are you doing?”
“I don’t know.”
“What the crap, Spike?”
There was a Chevron station and a left turn ahead—one he very much intended to take. One his hands firmly ignored and his lead-heavy foot promptly scoffed at, zooming ahead with steadily-increasing momentum. The burn itching his insides exploded to full strength, and realization collided with sensation.
The burn hadn’t been a response to Buffy.
It had been the call of the Reaper.
He was such a dolt. How he’d meshed Buffy-lust for his demon’s insane desire to be a part of some wretched monster collection was beyond him, but with his eyes open everything became unmistakably clear. He remembered this feeling well—the confused tug propelling him from New Orleans to this hole-in-the-wall of a town. The blind need that had brought him here.
“Might wanna buckle up, sweetheart.”
No need to make the suggestion. Buffy had edged as far back into her seat as was physically possible. “Where are we going?”
Her voice hit a shrill. Understandable, under the circumstances. “What do you mean?”
“Remember how I got here?” Spike tossed her a glance, nodding when her eyes went wide. “Yeah. Reaper’s on the move, and I’m behind the wheel. Not stopping till he stops, I’d wager.”
A beat. “I left all my stuff at Maplewood.”
Spike slammed the breaks before he crashed into a semi. Bugger. He hoped the demon didn’t get so antsy it ignored traffic rules. Not that he was particularly partial to them himself, but the Slayer was soft and breakable…though perhaps not as breakable as other creatures possessing heartbeats, but he wanted her very much the way she was. “Your stuff’ll be there when we get back,” he told her.
“The last time you hopped in the car and drove after the Reaper, you ended up in a different state.”
“If we wind up in Missouri, I’ll buy you a new wardrobe.” He paused. “Well, knick you a new wardrobe.”
The Desoto veered left without warning, speeding toward the highway. “Seems we’re heading out on the road.” He flashed her a quick grin. “Hope you weren’t too hungry, kitten. Looks like we’re gonna miss that reservation.”
Buffy shrank further into her seat and crossed her arms, and things grew quiet again. In easy seconds they were cruising down 61 South, making a smooth beeline for Louisiana. And though he was mildly irritated at the Reaper’s intrusion, a very real part of Spike couldn’t help but be grateful at the distraction. The tension between them remained palpable but, in some small way, conquered. Thus as his black beauty cranked up to seventy-five, whined and fell back to sixty, Spike didn’t let the silence bother him. He wouldn’t. If Buffy wanted to address him, she would. She could say whatever her pretty little heart desired.
Didn’t necessarily mean he had to listen.
Didn’t necessarily mean anything. He was his own free vamp in the world and he didn’t owe her any favors.
It took him a few seconds to realize the voice wasn’t imagined. Spike blinked and tossed her a surprised glance. “Huss’at?”
She sat with her head bowed, gaze on the floorboard, her hands folded pristinely in her lap: a child awaiting punishment. How she could remain so oblivious to the power she held in the slightest gesture was beyond him. Buffy was the pounding in his head and the ache in his heart; he wanted to strangle and hold her all in one stroke. So infuriating. So confusing. So fucking beautiful.
“What happened back in the room,” she continued softly. A beat, then she inhaled and glanced up. “I’m sorry about that. My feelings are…well, kinda all over the place right now. It’s… This thing we’re doing is totally insane. You know that, right?”
“Snogging me, you mean?”
“Presuming my translation is correct, yes.” She wrinkled her nose. “Snogging is English for making out, right?”
Spike stifled a chuckle at her wording. “That’s right, pet.”
“If we…if I snog you—okay, that just sounds weird coming from me.” Buffy shook her head. “If we make out…if I kiss you… This thing is freaking me out.”
“You and me. I kissed you yesterday to save your undead ass and suddenly we’re all with the…kissing all the time and you staying in my room and…” She broke off, again tearing her eyes away. “I don’t get it. I don’t get how I went from just…distracting you yesterday with a quick kiss to—”
“There was nothing quick about that kiss, Slayer.”
“Well, it was supposed to be quick before your hands made with the grabby.”
Spike smirked. “Had a gorgeous, warm woman wiggling against me. Might not have a heartbeat, but I’m still a man, sweetness. My hands went where they wanted. Can’t be held accountable.”
There was a pause. “Gorgeous?” she repeated shyly, her cheeks pink.
“Come on. You know you’re gorgeous.”
Buffy smiled and met his eyes again. “Not really. I don’t know it…I have good days and bad.”
“Well, take it from me. I’ve been around a long time and I think I can identify beauty.” His grin grew wicked. “So you’re all in a mess about us, then.”
“I don’t get how you’re not. You were the one all up in Angel’s case for being in a relationship with me.”
His smirk faded immediately. Damned wanker was the parent of all killjoys. “Ever consider that had more to do with it being sodding Angel than you?” he retorted. “Stupid git had to be the best at everything, didn’t he? No matter which face he wore. I snuff slayers, he has to bloody…” He trailed off before the thought could reach fruition, and judging by the look on Buffy’s face, it wasn’t a beat too soon. “Yeah,” he allowed a second later. “Maybe a part of it was you. But it’s different now.”
He shrugged. “It’s me. That makes it different.”
Buffy’s eyes narrowed. “Spike—”
“You wanna know why Dru broke it off?” he demanded, unaware of the words until they tickled the air. As soon as they were free there was no taking them back. “Because of you. At first because of the deal we made, right? The one that saved the world from your honey? It was that…but then after I found her again, it was…because I kept seeing you. Everywhere. On the streets. In my dreams. Over and over. She kicked me out because I was already gone where it counted. Just didn’t realize till I saw you the other night. Till I stumbled across you in the cemetery and knew the truth of what she’d told me.”
The silence that settled between them was deafening. There was nothing for a full three minutes—nothing but her thundering heart and rocky breaths, and something that suspiciously smelled like tears.
At last, he couldn’t stand the quiet. “Buffy—”
“He left me.”
Something dark twisted in his stomach. “Angel.”
“So my…so I could have a normal life.”
His jaw fell slack. “You gotta be kidding me.”
Buffy said nothing. He took her silence as indicative that she thought the reasoning as ridiculous as he did.
“What did he think?” Spike erupted, hands tightening around the steering wheel. He swerved hard to the right and back again to avoid the idiot in the Toyota who was barely crawling the speed limit. “His highness bows out of the limelight and suddenly you’re not the Slayer anymore? No more apocalypses, no more demons, no more uglies to go bump in Buffy’s night?” He laughed harshly. “That’s right, the arrogant git. Thinks the whole fucking world revolves around his enormous forehead.”
“He thought he was holding me back from a real relationship.”
“Yeah. That year and a half you had with him had all the markings of a dry-run.”
A small sound erupted from her lips. When he glanced over she was grinning.
Spike smiled tightly to himself. Good.
“I tried dating a normal guy once,” Buffy confessed. Then frowned. “Well, twice. Both pre-Angel. Pike in LA—”
He arched a brow. “Pike?”
“I know, freaky huh?” Buffy leaned back speculatively. “Actually, like this…when you’re not fangy and lunging at my throat, you kinda remind me of him.”
“Only I’m better, right? Tell me I’m better.”
Her grin widened. “Oh, no contest. Pike was fun to hang around, but we weren’t… I didn’t ever feel…this.”
This was progress. Definite progress.
“Actually,” she continued, “after Acathla, I thought about looking him up. Not because I wanted to…or anything. Just…he was the only person in LA I thought I could trust. But I’d become someone else entirely and I decided against it. And…well, you only remind me a little of him. He also knew about my slaying, which made it easy and uncomplicated. And then my first year in Sunnydale, there was this guy. Owen. He was nice and normal and I couldn’t…because he was nice and normal. The Slayer and normal can’t coexist.”
Spike blew out a deep breath. “So you know it.”
“Yeah.” Buffy worried a lip between her teeth. “So I can’t do normal and I can’t be abnormal. I can’t have either.”
“Slayer…” Before he realized what he was doing, he’d reached over to seize her hand. He tensed for a second; so did she, but there was no point in letting her go. The warmth of her skin against his was enough to sustain him no matter how treacherous the upcoming storm.“These hands…your calling… You’re not made of the same stuff as the people you risk your life protectin’. Their normal isn’t yours. But this…” He squeezed her softly. “You can’t deny this.”
A pause. “But I’m still human.”
“How much?” Spike countered. “You’re like us in so many ways…you just fight for the other side, is all. Same mold with different faces. Who’s to say you won’t live forever like we do? No slayer’s ever gotten far enough to know the truth. Humans age and die, but you’re more than that.” He paused when he caught the look on her face. “Didn’t say that to scare you, pet.”
Buffy shook her head numbly. “No, I understand.”
“Just never thought of it like that.” Her voice trembled. “I don’t know how…this is all screwing with my head and I don’t know whether to be worried or confused or elated.”
“I like elated. Why don’t you stick with elated?”
“I just don’t understand how I got here from yesterday. From my god, Spike’s annoying to trying to not jump your sexy bones.” Buffy drew in a shaky breath. “This entire thing has me so…muddied. It scares me.”
“No. You. You scare me.” Buffy met his eyes and held until he had to look at the road again. “In ways I don’t think you want to. Not in a vampire way, more in…I’m not the kinda girl to rebound. At all. And if I let myself…with you…”
The ache in his chest was so potent he could have sworn his heart had started pounding. “Buffy…”
“I don’t rebound.” She settled back in her seat, crossing her arms. “And I don’t know what’s happening here.”
It took willpower beyond his reckoning to bite his tongue. There was nothing in the world he would have enjoyed more than wearing down the wall guarding her heart. But something stopped him—grabbed his reins and pulled. Pushing Buffy toward a decision wouldn’t help him, not in the long run. In the long run, it might end up destroying them both. So in the meantime, he remained silent.
At least he knew what she wanted.
The only remaining question was whether or not she’d trust him enough—trust herself enough—to go after it.
St. Francisville was a small town Spike had previously only associated with Travel Channel programs—the sort he was prone to watch when everything else on his telly had gone gray and fuzzy. He’d raced through it on the heated drive from New Orleans without giving it much thought, but as the unseen hand guiding the steering wheel cemented into a cold grip, realization likewise broke over the mental horizon.
“I know where we’re headed,” he announced suddenly, jarring Buffy awake. The Desoto veered right without warning, landing them in the drive of Myrtles Plantation—a joint known for hopping tourism and an active spiritual landscape. “Yeah…here we go.”
The Slayer blinked sleepily. “How long was I out?”
“’Bout twenty minutes.”
“Mmmm.” She stretched her arms over her head, a move which outlined her breasts against her blouse. Spike forced himself to keep from licking his lips. “Feels longer,” she concluded with a yawn.
“We’re not far from Natchez. Give or take an hour. My guess? Reaper’s collecting the spooks that escaped last night.”
“And he brought us…” Buffy winced and peered out the windshield as the car rolled to a halt in the gravel parking lot to the left of the entrance. The plantation wasn’t grandiose—wasn’t the sort of place to come to mind at the mention of the Old South, but there was a sort of haunting beauty about it. “Where are we?”
“Just over the Louisiana state-line.”
“We’re in Louisiana?”
“No, but I’d see why you’d think so.”
She smirked. “No need to get cheeky. I’m guessing this place isn’t known for its food?”
“There’s a restaurant ‘round back, actually.” Spike grinned at the look she tossed him. “From what I’ve heard, this is one of the more celebrated haunted joints in America.”
She furrowed her brow skeptically. “Really?”
“Doesn’t look haunted.”
“They never do,” Spike mused wisely.
“And you think the Reaper’s here to pick up all the pieces that fell out last night?”
“It’s the only thing that makes sense,” he reasoned with a shrug. “Either that or he missed it the first time…but I figure I was a good ways behind him on the drive, so yeah. If this dive really lives up to its reputation, then he’d’ve made a stop on the way.”
Buffy didn’t look convinced. “And these ghosts are important enough to make a special trip back?”
“Don’t see why else we’d be here.” Spike shrugged again and tossed open the driver’s side door. “Either way, need to stretch my legs. Gonna take a look around.” A pause. “Might need a pretty distraction if I run into a certain cape-wearin’ ponce. You comin’, Slayer?
She made a face to indicate disinterest but it didn’t take. Her eyes sparkled too much. “Yeah, yeah.”
The grounds were much larger than a first glance would betray. Two dependencies offset the main-house from the back: the restaurant Spike had mentioned—to which he was likewise only privy thanks to the telly—and the gift shop. A courtyard stretched along the back patio between the two smaller structures, and was, unsurprisingly, flooded with eager patrons likely waiting for the next tour. Further back along the lawn was a white wooden bridge which stretched over a small pond toward a gazebo. Large oak trees provided the illusion of isolation, and likely granted tourists with a more ethereal atmosphere than would have been granted were the highway visible.
Buffy sidled up to him as though seeking body heat. “What time is it?”
“Twenty till eight.”
No sign of the Reaper. Odd. And yet, the burn in his stomach had definitely led him here. There was no mistaking what he felt.
“Looks like something’s about to start,” she observed, nodding at the eager crowd gathering around the back patio.
“A tour, most likely.” Spike glanced from the main house to the gazebo. Something wasn’t right. It should be stronger. He should feel…something. “Right…come on, kitten.”
“Where are we going?”
He nodded to the gift shop. “On the tour.”
Bugger if I know.
But he didn’t say that. Not that the Slayer was the sort to spook easily, but he didn’t want to set off her warning alarm. Not just yet.
But something definitely wasn’t right. He should be able to feel more—or less, or something other than what he felt. The burn that had thrived in his chest over the past ninety minutes had dwindled to a mere itch, and there was none of the persistent need that had dragged him across the Edgeview lawn. There was something here, though…something unlike anything he’d felt before.
“We’re here to find the ghostnapper, right?” Spike said at last. “Where better to look?”
Buffy frowned, surveying the tourists. “Hey, check it out.”
Spike followed her eyes but didn’t see anything. No cloak. No tall, hooded figure. Nothing. “What?”
“Edith’s son and his fiancée are here.”
The Slayer narrowed her eyes at him. “The nice woman you were a jackass in front of this morning?” she explained. “Not the mumbly one.”
“Oh, right.” Now he saw them. Not particularly amorous for two people about to get hitched, but perhaps Spike was the only bloke around who wouldn’t go anywhere without letting the world know the tasty dish at his side was very much claimed. “The drive’s not a long one. Probably popped down for the tour.”
“Weird, though,” Buffy observed. “You’re not getting any vibes off them, are you?”
He smirked. “Sorry, sweetheart. If they were anything but human, I would’ve sniffed it out at breakfast.”
Damn all if she didn’t look disappointed. “Okay. Well, I got the cash I was gonna use at Royal Pub if we wanna tour.”
“Don’t think so, precious,” Spike replied, delving a hand into his duster pocket. “My idea. I’ll front the cash.”
She arched a brow as he brandished a couple of twenties. “Where’d you get that?”
Buffy didn’t look convinced.
“Well…” He shrugged carelessly, nodding at the man from Maplewood. “Legitimately lifted from Curly over there. Swiped it when he went back for seconds.”
“Eh, a second ago you thought they were demons.” Spike winked, surfing a renegade cigarette from his pocket and sticking it between his lips. “Be back in a flash, love. Hold tight.”
Ten minutes later, he found Buffy sitting at a small garden table with the couple from Maplewood, chatting animatedly with the blonde. Whatever reserve she’d exhibited had evidently been conquered. Perhaps on matters of the heart, she just needed female advice. He strolled up behind her and dropped her ticket into her lap. “Evening all,” he said.
“We got tickets?” Buffy asked, surprise coloring her voice. “Donna said she thought they were about sold out.”
The blonde waved a hand. “That would be me.”
“Ah. No, we got in all right.” Spike nodded and placed a small figure on the table. “Here, pidge. Thought you might want a souvenir.”
Buffy glanced up with a grin. “A voodoo doll?”
“What else?” He favored the others with a brief look. “So what brings you lovebirds down here?”
“Donna’s obsessed with ghosts,” the man said, bored.
Spike smirked appreciatively. “Yours, too, eh?”
The man’s brows perked. “I take it you two haven’t stopped…reconnecting?”
“And on that note,” Buffy said, collecting her things and rising from her seat, “we’ll leave you to it. Enjoy the tour.”
The blonde offered a friendly nod. “You, too. Drive back safe!”
“See you at breakfast tomorrow,” said her traveling companion with all the enthusiasm of a patient awaiting a root canal.
Buffy linked an arm through Spike’s and steered him a good distance away. “A voodoo doll?” she asked, holding up the doll in question. “You bought me a voodoo doll?”
“Bought’s such a strong word…”
“Evil, pet. Remember?” Spike tossed an arm over her shoulder before she could bat him away. “Besides, I fronted the cash for the tickets.”
“With Joshua’s money!”
“That why you were being so social?”
She shrugged and didn’t reply, but he could see the truth in her eyes. Buffy felt guilty on his behalf. His little slayer with a snow-white conscience…well, where it really counted. It was the sort of thing that shouldn’t make his demon soften with adoration, but he couldn’t help himself. She was so good. So innocent. So pure.
The tour began a few minutes later and went very much as expected. Hokey for the most part and filled with small moments and objects that had Buffy grinning brilliantly. Things like the cross-paned glass lining the windows on either side of the entryway doors. Things like the upside-down keyholes the tour guide said were designed to ward away evil spirits. Things like the cherubs and nuns on the chandeliers which allegedly guarded rooms against all things malevolent. Things like the mirror in the hall—the only place in the house where photography was encouraged. The mirror which received more attention that night due to Spike’s lack of a reflection.
Décor aside, there was little to the tour but stories and fables concerning the manor’s history. A few people speculated whether or not a fallen candle in the dining room could have supernatural energy behind it, but otherwise, the experience was tragically uneventful. The dull burn in his belly aside, Spike felt the entire trip had been a whopping mistake.
Didn’t rightly explain why he’d been led here in the first place.
Unless something larger was going down somewhere else.
Spike bit the inside of his cheek to keep his suspicions from surfacing as the tour group scurried into the final room. The crowd was large enough to drain the available space rather quickly, especially since a dining room table sat in the middle. Of all the rooms toured, this was easily the smallest—a smoke room or something with a wonky portrait of a dead child on the wall and hunter green wallpaper that made the chamber seem even smaller. He and Buffy ended up wedged into a far corner beside a mahogany buffet table.
His head pounded with the thunder of thirty heartbeats. The scent of fresh blood made his fangs and his stomach growl. It’d been too long since he’d eaten—really eaten. The pig’s blood Buffy had brought him satisfied the craving but not the hunger. Not for what he really wanted.
They were passing around a large portrait to investigate the alleged ghost the home’s owner had captured while snapping pictures. Well, at least it was almost over. In a few minutes, they would be on their way back to Natchez…without answers, granted, but at least with the return of his free-will.
“Bloody glad the tickets were on Curly’s tab,” Spike murmured, though admittedly only so he could lean in and get a lungful of Buffy’s delicious scent. “What a waste, yeah?”
A small smile cracked her lips, and her head fell back with what he thought was laughter. That was until he saw her eyes roll up—until her body fell slack. And then everything went slow. Buffy fell backward, her neck craned and her mouth ajar. All thought abandoned him. Everything abandoned him. He didn’t hear the excited squeals of the few kids on tour or the calls of Buffy’s pseudonym by their unlikely travel companions. Nor did the cries of the tour guide break through the hardened exterior guarding his mind. There was nothing. And though he didn’t remember reaching out for her, she was in his arms in a blink, her head a half inch away from cracking against the buffet.
It took a few seconds, but finally, he realized his was the voice shouting her name in a blind panic. And then he was moving. Mowing over and through a herd of people for the door that led to the patio. Cool night air touched his skin and the weight compressing his long-dead lungs lifted without warning. He carried her a good ten yards away from the house before collapsing to his knees, raking his gaze over her as he felt around to see if there was an obvious wound, even though his nose told him there wasn’t.
The time lapse between her blackout and the wonderful opening of her bright, emerald eyes was likely ten seconds, fifteen at most. However, by the time she was looking at him again, it seemed hours had passed. The longest quarter minute of his life. He didn’t know if he would ever stop gasping.
“Buffy,” Spike whispered urgently, suddenly mindful of their audience. “You’re all right, aren’t you? Tell me you’re all right.”
She blinked in confusion, then frowned and pressed a hand to her head. “When did we go outside? What happened?”
“You passed out.”
“In there. You passed out.” The relief flooding his veins was unlike anything he’d ever experienced. Not even after Prague. Spike gasped again, holding her head to his chest. “Christ, love, you can’t scare me like that.”
“My god, is she okay?”
He glanced up sharply. It was the blonde and her fiancé. He hadn’t felt them approach.
“Yeah,” he replied. “Just a little shaken.”
Buffy sat up without warning, which was no small feat considering how tightly he held her. She offered Donna a small smile. “I’m okay,” she assured them. “Just a…a pressure or something on my chest. I don’t…I don’t remember…” She turned back to Spike with a frown. “I really passed out?”
“Think you gave the ghost-hunters something to gab about,” Joshua observed.
“Quite a conclusion to the tour,” Donna agreed.
“Yeah, right.” Spike rose to his feet, taking Buffy with him. “We’re leaving. Now.”
There was no way he was going to sit around and chitchat—not with what had happened. It took a lot to bring a slayer down, and he’d never met one stronger than the girl at his side.
Let the tourists think it was spooks. He knew better.
The Reaper. The Reaper was here, or had been here. And he’d gone after Buffy.
The Reaper had gone after Buffy and he’d done it in the shadows. He’d done it quietly. He’d done it so no one would be any the wiser.
There was no doubt. No one could tell him differently. Slayers didn’t faint without reason.
And he wouldn’t be satisfied now until he tasted the Reaper’s blood.