The Big Ten
Spike's eyes remained focused entirely on Buffy, and, in turn, her gaze never left his face. His mouth opened to say something, but he was unable to express even a simple "hello". All the easy conversations they had on the phone over the last two weeks had not prepared him for being in her presence once again. She also seemed at a loss for words.
Suddenly, Spike's arms were full of two bodies and four arms all trying to hug him. He realized that these bodies also had faces, and that voices were talking to him. He looked down to discover Dawn and Andrew, jockeying for his attention.
It was hard to tell just who was saying what, but he heard things like: "Spike, I've missed you so much. I've got so much I want to say to you. You look great. And you've been a big hero again -- two years in a row! I'm so glad to see you. I mean, I knew you were back, but it just wouldn't be real somehow until I could finally see you for myself. Someone should so make a movie about you!"
All these words were overlapping and confusing him a bit, but he knew that their joy in seeing him was heartfelt, so he patted their backs and hugged them, too. He lightly kissed Dawn's forehead then his eyes returned to Buffy. Suddenly, one of the two bodies was shoved aside.
"You've already seen him and even got a chance to hang out with him in L.A., Andrew, so move out of the way and give me a moment of my own," Dawn said very firmly.
"All right. Sheesh! You don't have to be so rough about it," whined Andrew.
"Hello, Niblet," Spike murmured into her hair as he hugged her tighter.
Dawn gave him one more big squeeze and then backed slightly away, although her hands remained on his upper arms, and Spike's hands still rested on her waist. They looked into each other's faces for a moment before Dawn spoke again. Her eyes were full to the brim with unshed tears.
"There's my friend, my big brother, my protector. I see him in your eyes. It's really you, isn't it?"
Two big tears slipped over the rims of both of her eyes and slid down her cheeks as she continued to gaze at him. Spike's emotions welled up within him. He had been aware that he had missed his former close relationship with Dawn, but he hadn't quite realized how big of a hole there had been in his heart until she began to fill it up again. Tears also shone in Buffy's eyes as she watched her sister and the vampire they both had mourned for the last year rekindle their deep friendship and love for each other.
Dawn had spoken quietly, but since everyone was still in the hallway outside of the elevator, they all heard her words. Although they were enjoying the emotional moment between Spike and Dawn, and several pairs of eyes grew misty, and throats began to swell, the others suddenly realized they should probably not be staring. They started to move en masse toward Faith and Robin's apartment, though Buffy lingered behind, tears slowly trickling down her face.
"Yeah, Bit, it's me. I'm so bloody glad to see you again, and it means so much that you're glad to see me."
"You big doofus, of course I'm glad. You're the big hero who saved us all, and you so deserved to be resurrected or whatever they did."
As Dawn noticed everyone passing them and walking down the hall, she stepped back out of his arms and took hold of his hand.
"I figured I'd better grab my chance while I could because I'm sure Buffy will monopolize you for the rest of the evening." Dawn looked over her shoulder at Buffy and said, "Come on, Buffy. You don't want to stay out here alone in the hallway, do you?"
Dawn started moving down the hall, pulling Spike along with her. He looked back over his shoulder at Buffy, and she began to follow them. The only words between them had been Buffy's "Hi, Spike," when he first stepped out of the elevator, but their eyes had already spoken volumes. Buffy reached the apartment door as Dawn bounded inside to join the chatter of the others.
"Hello, Buffy," said Spike as he stopped in the frame of the doorway, turning to let her in before him.
Buffy stepped up to him, lifted her arms around his neck and gave him a soft, warm hug. He immediately responded, and the hug strengthened and lengthened, until it appeared that neither would ever let go.
All the chatter in the room stopped short as one by one, everyone's attention shifted to the couple in the doorway. When they became aware of the silence, Buffy and Spike turned their heads to find that everyone was looking at them. They broke the embrace, entered the room, and Spike shut the door behind them. The chatter began again immediately.
Buffy said, "We'll talk later, okay, Spike? As soon as we can get some time alone."
"All right, pet."
"Good to see you again, Spike," called out Vi from the chair in the corner where she was seated. "Thanks for the big save in the Hellmouth. Rona and I still talk about it sometimes."
"Still got your unique fashion sense, eh, Vi? Tell Rona hello the next time you see her, and that I noticed the both of you step up your game in that final battle. Made your teachers proud."
"Thanks, Spike. I'll be sure to tell her that."
Spike caught Giles' appraising look, so he just tilted his head and raised an eyebrow, forcing Giles to speak first.
"Spike," Giles said and nodded his head slightly in acknowledgement.
"Rupert," Spike replied and gave an even smaller nod in return.
Both men realized that a serious conversation was destined to occur between them, maybe even later that night, if an appropriate moment presented itself. But for now, they were content to let things simmer.
Since all of the seats were already taken, Spike and Buffy began to sit on the floor.
"Oh, no," said Andrew. "The Vampyre Hero of Sunnydale and now also of the City of Angels deserves a comfy seat. Take mine. I'll go bring in a chair from the dining table."
Although Spike tried to offer the armchair to Buffy, she insisted that he take it, then sat on the arm of the chair to remain near him.
"So, anyway," said Xander, as Faith and Robin began passing out beers and cans of soft drinks to the group, "which one of you is the UPS guy with that big packet of information we've been expecting?"
"Well," said Giles, "I did bring written documents with me, but the consensus was that this information was worthy of personal delivery and warranted extensive elaboration."
"So we're all here together! Isn't that cool?" exclaimed Andrew.
"Er, quite," said Giles. "But since my presentation may be a bit lengthy and may elicit questions and some further discussion, why don't we begin with your verbal report of what's been happening here in Cleveland? Is the situation well in hand or do you need some assistance?"
"Everything's five by five, now, Chief," said Faith.
The Watchers, Xander and Robin, took turns describing the events since Spike, Mena and Xander had arrived in town, with the others chiming in now and then with a detail or comment. Once they were finished with their report, and everyone had complimented them on a job well done, Robin stood up.
"How about if we order some pizza, so that we can eat after you've finished your presentation, Giles?" he suggested. "Is everyone else as hungry as I am?"
There was a resounding chorus of assent, so Robin placed a huge order for pizza, and Giles insisted that the Council would cover the tab. Then he began his explanation of the new assignment which turned out to be much more involved than any of them would have guessed.
"This next assignment will prove to be very challenging and will necessitate the formation of two separate teams," began Giles. "I'm afraid that Faith and Robin will be needed here in Cleveland to continue guarding the Hellmouth, but this particular mission will require the involvement of everyone else in this room."
"Damn," said Faith. "I thought maybe we'd get a little vacation from this city for a while."
"Guess it's not in the cards, honey, but I promise we'll take a vacation at some point," assured Robin. "I'll take you somewhere exotic."
"Mmm. Sounds hot, babe. I'm going to hold you to that. Everyone heard that vacation promise, right? So, I've got witnesses!"
"Believe me," said Giles firmly, "this will be no vacation for any of us. And there may even come a time when we'll need your assistance, Faith. Should that occur, another Slayer/Watcher team will be sent to relieve you here in Cleveland."
"Okay, Giles. I get it," confirmed Faith. "So, who are the two teams?"
"Buffy, Vi and myself will be one team. And Spike, Xander and Mena will continue working together, since they have been doing so well these last few weeks. This way, we'll have two Slayers and a Watcher on one team and Spike, a Slayer and a Watcher on the other."
"Thought this was only a temporary arrangement," grumbled Xander.
"Didn't sign on for any extended tour, myself," said Spike.
"I think when you understand the seriousness of this mission, you'll both agree to help," said Buffy gravely. "This is one of those majorly, all-hands-on-deck kind of things."
"I'll hear Rupert out, then," replied Spike as he shifted in his seat and looked up into Buffy's very serious face.
"Me, too," agreed Xander, "but I thought you said everyone in this room would be involved except Faith and Robin. What's with the Dawnster and the Ubernerd?"
"Hey!" protested Andrew. "No, wait a minute. Ubernerd. That actually sounds kinda cool. Like a superhero."
"Dawn and Andrew are going to be couriers and liaisons between our two teams and the Council and also the Devon Coven of Witches," responded Buffy, "but we're getting ahead of Giles' explanation."
"Oh, my goodness," said Mena. "Sounds like a lot of people are working on this mission."
"Indeed," said Giles. "We're talking about something that has the potential to affect a lot of people and all of the supernatural creatures all over the world."
"Another apocalypse?" asked Xander. "How many does that make for us now?"
"It could certainly be considered an apocalypse, yes," confirmed Giles. "It concerns a ritual that we must perform by the Autumnal Equinox of this year, September 22, 2004, if we correctly understand the information on the scrolls."
"Not till September? That's good. It at least gives us a lot of time," said Xander.
"Not so much," said Buffy. "Not for what we have to accomplish by then."
"The scrolls are really fantastic," said Andrew. "Just like something out of every movie you've ever seen that involved scrolls. Very Indiana Jones. I'm thinking about getting myself a fedora and a whip."
"As if you'd look good in a fedora," snorted Dawn. "And you couldn't crack a whip like Harrison Ford if your life depended on it."
Giles threw Andrew and Dawn a glare that silenced them, although they each made one last face at each other. Then Giles began his explanation in earnest.
"The scrolls were discovered during a construction excavation in England in the vicinty of Salisbury. At first, we thought the scrolls were of Druid origin, but soon we realized that they were much, much older; perhaps as old as the British Isles themselves. And the story they tell is astonishing. They claim to be responsible for the presence of magic in our world."
"What do you know?" Spike muttered. "There's finally somebody to blame."
"It's much more involved than placing blame on anyone, Spike," Giles replied. "The men who desired the power of magic struck a bargain with the unnamed entity they sought it from. In exchange for the power to do magic, they were required to sacrifice every virgin - both male and female - in their land.
"The ritual slaughter was performed at a sacred location, and the fields ran red with blood. But that was not enough. They were also expected to make periodic Offerings to their benefactor."
"Wow," Xander quipped. "Makes it tough to be a virgin in England."
"The periodic Offerings were not to be more virgins," Giles continued, "but sacrifices featuring the fruits of their magic in order to keep the bargain in effect."
"And I take it," Spike asked, "they've been holding up their end of the bargain?"
"Yes," Giles answered, then added, "until now, that is."
"Why not now?" Robin asked.
"From what we could discern from the writings," Giles explained, "the amount of time between required Offerings was quite long. The last Offering was made ten thousand years ago."
"That is a long time, even in the demon and vampire world," Spike observed.
"Perhaps the unnamed entity resides in a different plane of existence than we do, so it has a different concept of time," Giles continued. "The problem is, the people who made the original bargain are long gone. No preparation has been made for the upcoming Offering because there is no one left to prepare it."
"Upcoming Offering?" Xander asked, "Just how upcoming is upcoming?"
"He already told, you, Xan," said Mena. "The Autumnal Equinox on September 22."
"This September? The ritual you mentioned earlier that we're supposed to perform is the same thing as this Offering you're talking about now?"
"I knew it!" Xander grumbled. "Once every ten thousand years, so, of course, that just has to be now."
"So what happens," Spike asked, "when it's September 22 and no Offering is made?"
Giles looked away for a second, then took a deep breath and looked directly at Spike.
"The text says," he spoke quietly, his voice nervous, "should they ever fail to deliver an Offering, the deal would be broken, and all the magic in this world, and that which issues from it, will expire."
"What do you mean by "expire"?" Spike demanded.
"We're not entirely sure what it means. It may mean only that magic would cease to work."
"Good," Spike said. "Magic is nothing but trouble. The world would be better off without it."
Giles sighed loudly. "What has us concerned," he spoke slowly, choosing his words with precision, "are the words 'that which issues from it'. We fear those words might indicate that those who have been touched by magic in some way will also 'expire' if the Offering is not made on time."
It took a second for the implications to sink in. Spike scowled, listening to an inner voice as it raced through possibilities. Then his eyes widened, his mouth fell open, and he stared at Giles.
Giles confirmed his unspoken conclusion with a silent nod.
"Buffy," Spike whispered, making it real.
"Yes," Giles replied. "She was brought back through magic, and if that magic expires, so may she."
"What?" Xander asked. "Buffy's in danger because of this Offering thing that isn't going to happen now?"
"Yes," Giles answered, "And not just her."
"All the other Slayers. Willow, of course," Spike was filling in the blanks already. "All vampires and demons, all witches and warlocks, anybody who's under a mystical spell, anybody who's ever been under a mystical spell---"
"Like you!" Xander finished for him.
"And you, too, Xander," Giles warned. "In fact, we may all be at risk because every one of us has been involved with magic in some way."
"What do you want us to do?" Spike asked.
"The text mentions a number of acceptable Offerings," Giles pulled out an envelope that appeared to be stuffed to capacity.
"Some we know to be mystical in origin; the others we're not so sure about. I've brought you a list - here - that indicates what some of the artifacts are and their last known locations. We want you to find them and obtain them by whatever means necessary."
Spike took the envelope, tore it open and removed the list. Xander stood up and walked behind Spike's armchair, so that he could read the list over Spike's shoulder.
"There is a considerable amount of territory to cover," Giles added, "which is why we've arranged for Andrew and Dawn to act as couriers. They will receive each artifact as it's gathered by each team and convey it to the Coven in Devon who will keep them all safe until we're ready to provide the Offering and perform the ritual. This will enable you to move immediately on to the next artifact on the list."
"About this Offering," said Xander. "It's just these mystical artifacts, right? I mean, we're not going to have to sacrifice any people or anything?"
"No. No people. But we're still working on deciphering what it is that we're supposed to do with all of these artifacts once we've obtained them. Both the Council and the Coven are collaborating on determining exactly how to use the artifacts."
"And we're sure that this is the right thing for the world?" asked Mena hesitantly. "I mean, I know it could be a big problem for all of us, and may actually mean our deaths, but wouldn't the world be better off without magic and witches and especially demons and vampires? I mean, even though I now know there are some good demons and vampires. No offense intended, Spike."
"None taken, pet."
"There was a contingent of our Council who proferred the same argument," said Giles, "but we soon realized that if all magic and all Slayers were suddenly gone from the world, what would happen the next time some demons made there way through a Hellmouth? Or found their way here from some other dimension? Because we all know that Evil never ends. Evil beings will always find a way to wreak their havoc. And our world would be defenseless against them if there were no white witches to counteract evil sorcery and no Slayers to slay the demons. Even if the evildoers didn't make their way back into our world for another thousand years."
"I see. That makes a lot of sense," said Mena.
"You can count on us. We'll do anything that is necessary," Spike replied. "We'll start right away."
"You can't," Giles replied. "We're still waiting for one more piece of information. In fact, I've forgotten to explain that you'll have one more member on your team. Another Watcher."
"Why do we need another Watcher?" asked Xander. "Are you saying you have no confidence in me?"
"That's not it at all, Xander. She simply has a lot more experience in dealing with mystical artifacts. It's been her area of expertise ever since she joined the Watchers' Council."
"She?" griped Xander. "Don't tell me we'll have to cart around some elderly librarian-type, who will be holding us back whenever something physical is required."
"Quite the contrary," Vi laughed. "Haley is only 30, and she used to be a Potential Slayer before she became a Watcher. If anything, Xander, you'll be scrambling to keep up with her. By the way, Spike, did you know that only Potentials who were 25-years-old or younger were turned into Slayers when Willow did that spell back in Sunnydale? The older ones, like Haley, who were over 25, didn't get the Slayer strength and powers."
"Quite right," said Giles. "However, Haley has always kept up with her physical training and is rather adept at one or two Martial Arts. She will be an asset to your fighting team as well as your resident mystical artifact expert."
"Oh, yes. I think I remember Haley from my training in London," said Mena. "She filled in for our Aikido instructor when he was ill one day. I liked her."
"So, where is this Wonder Watcher?" asked Xander.
"She's at the University of Michigan right now, working with a renowned archaeologist at the Kelsey Museum," Giles informed them. "In fact, we're all heading for Ann Arbor tomorrow."
"Hey, did you hear that Xander?" whooped Mena. "Now you can quit complaining about not getting a chance to see that stadium."
"What stadium?" asked Dawn.
"The U of M football stadium," enthused Xander. "The Wolverines are only one of the best college football teams ever! And they have this ginormous stadium -- the largest college-owned stadium in the country! But Spike refused to pull off of the expressway, so that I could take a quick look."
"Buffy told us that Faith needed us in Cleveland ASAP," argued Spike. "Didn't have time for you to play tourist."
"It wouldn't have taken long," retorted Xander. "The GPS said it was only a mile and a half from that one exit off I-94."
Everyone was watching the growing argument between Spike and Xander. They may have been able to accomplish their four assignments while working together, but it was obvious that they still knew how to push each other's buttons.
"Stop grousing, you big baby. You're going to see it now, anyway, right? And I told you it was nothing much to look at from the outside. Looks right boring from the street. Got to get inside to get the full effect of its size, 'cause it was dug down really deep into the ground. The stands aren't very high at all on the street level."
"Okay, okay. So you told me. Guess now I'll get to see for myself, though, won't I? I'll find a way inside, that's for sure. Not going to be in Ann Arbor without seeing the Wolverines' football stadium. And Crisler arena is right next door. They share the same parking lot."
"They've got an arena for cars?" wondered Andrew.
"No, it's where the basketball team plays," said Xander. "Crisler is pronounced the same but spelled differently than Chrysler cars."
"So, Spike, you were in Ann Arbor before?" asked Buffy.
"Yeah, pet. In the Fall of '69 and off and on during the early 70's."
"You'll have to tell me about that, sometime," said Buffy.
"Well," said Giles, "it will be useful to have someone with us who is familiar with the town."
The door buzzer sounded. It was the pizza delivery guy, so Robin pushed the button to allow his entry into the apartment building, and Giles reached for his wallet. Everyone looked very enthusiastic about the prospect of pizza.
Spike turned to Buffy and said, "Surprised Giles wants me involved in something as important as this. Didn't think he trusted me."
"Well, I certainly complained long and hard enough for him to know I'm very disappointed that you and I won't be on the same team for this mission, but I also made it very clear to Giles that you are the one that I trust to get it done."
Spike smiled broadly as he imagined how the crusty English Watcher must have taken that bit of prose.
The one that I trust. Bloody hell, that felt good.
Buffy observed him with a wry smile. As though reading his thoughts, she leaned closer to him and whispered, "Try not to rub that in." With a quirk of an eyebrow, she moved past him and into the fray of hungry humans to get her share of the pizza.
Spike remained on the outer edge of the crowd and surveyed the group with an amused expression. In his opinion, it didn't get more random than this. Old, young, Slayers, Watchers, tech geeks, language experts, and the last remaining vampire with a soul -- all on the verge of the next in an ever-growing number of missions to save the world and the Happy Meals that inhabited it.
Not truly in the mood for a spot of pizza, Spike decided he'd make do with a cold beer. He noted that the bottles Faith had brought out were already spoken for, so he headed to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. He chose a bottle of the few remaining amber beers and, once he'd twisted off the cap, took a long drink. Guinness, it wasn't, but it was a decent brew.
He listened for a few moments to the bits and pieces of conversations that drifted into the kitchen from the living room. He heard Buffy's laughter and suddenly felt an odd churning in his gut. Soon they'd be on a quest to save her life, and the lives of most in that room.
Hell, he'd be fighting for his own existence, being not only a vampire but also someone who'd been under a spell or two in his time. One way or the other, he was fair game for "extermination" if the ritual wasn't performed.
Bloody magic, he frowned. Always -- Always a price to be paid.
"Ah, Spike," Giles' voice interrupted his thoughts. "There you are."
Spike looked over and found the head Watcher observing him. He held up the bottle in acknowledgement.
After a few moments of awkward silence, Giles walked over to the refrigerator, opened it and surveyed what was inside. Seeing nothing enticing, he closed it again. Spying a basket of apples on the counter, he took one and briefly polished it on his shirt before taking a small bite.
Leaning against the countertop opposite Spike, he gave the vampire a long, hard look as he chewed and swallowed. Spike waited, expectantly.
"I was hoping we could have a word in...well, in relative private."
Spike smirked. A certain, choice word came to mind, out of habit, but he resisted the urge to voice it.
"What word would that be?" he asked instead.
Giles looked heavenward for a moment as though praying for patience.
"I wanted to say that I'm quite pleased with how things have worked out with you and Mena and Xander. As a team, you appear to work well together, and so, I decided it best to keep that intact. It seems you've shouldered a good share of heroics over the past year, what with your actions in the Hellmouth." He held Spike's gaze for a moment. "I imagine you quite enjoyed proving me wrong about your value to our team in Sunnydale."
Spike remained silent, watching Giles with a neutral expression. The silence continued just long enough to cause the Watcher some discomfort before Spike finally responded.
"What I did, I did because it was the right thing to do," Spike said. "Didn't give it much thought until now, but proving you wrong is just a perk." He smirked as another thought came to him.
"And you might want to consider just what kind of world you and the rest of humanity would be living in right now -- had your plan with Wood ended with me as a big pile of dust before that final battle."
Giles sighed deeply. "All right. I'll admit I had that coming. It was a mistake. But, Spike, if you can see it from an objective point of view, you'll see that my error was based on my desire to protect the others from someone who was under the influence of The First. You were not your own man at that point. Surely you can see how hard it would have been to trust someone under that circumstance. Your actions were highly unpredictable."
"That's why I made Buffy chain me up whenever she wasn't with me," Spike defended. "And why I suggested to her that I should leave Sunnydale, so that The First couldn't use me against her."
Giles blinked. "Buffy never told me about any of that."
"Yeah, well, the two of you weren't exactly doing the secret-sharing bit with each other at the time, were you?"
Giles' mouth thinned. "Apparently not. But, back to my original point, a similar situation arose when we dealt with Ben. As I recall, you agreed with my decision to kill him so that Glory would no longer be able to use him. In the same way, we were concerned about The First's control over you and made our decisions, right or wrong, based on that."
Spike inclined his chin a bit. "Reckon I understand your thinking, Rupert, but I also believe that, had it been any of the others rather than me, you'd have just continued with the safety precautions and waited longer to see if the trigger could be broken. In your mind, I was more expendable."
Giles opened his mouth to respond, then thought better of it. Denial would serve no purpose. Spike was right. He would have acted differently if it had been someone other than Spike. He exchanged a glance with the vampire that acknowledged that truth. Regardless, Giles forged ahead.
"Certainly the path you've chosen since your return has shown you in good stead. Although we were all initially quite thrown by Angel's decision to work with Wolfram & Hart, that also appears to have been a useful tactic.
"Destroying the entire Circle of the Black Thorn was an amazing piece of work. Taken altogether, from last May in Sunnydale to now, your actions have all been quite impressive. Quite impressive, indeed."
Spike looked down at the floor and wondered where Rupert was heading with this glowing speech of his. His suspicions were confirmed as Giles continued.
"However, that said, I don't think I need to reiterate just how serious this current situation is. All of us, in one way or another, have a very personal stake in the outcome of this mission." He took another bite of his apple before continuing.
"Given the uncertainty of the actual outcome, should we fail, I think it's imperative that each of us remain completely focused on our individual tasks. This is no time for diversions." There was a pregnant pause before he added, "Of any sort."
Spike felt a sting of resentment. After all he'd done, for Buffy, for the Scoobies, for the whole bloody world, the stodgy wanker still didn't seem capable of fully trusting him with his precious Slayer.
"Meaning the sort of diversion that would include Buffy?" he challenged in a deceptively casual tone.
Giles sighed heavily, but before he could expand on his thoughts, the Slayer in question arrived at the doorway to the kitchen.
"If you want any more pizza, you'd better get back in there. It's doing a speedy disappearing act."
With a quick, side-long glance at Giles, Spike shoved himself away from the countertop. "I think I might be diverted to do just that, pet."
Buffy gave Giles a bemused look as Spike walked past her and back into the living room, then shrugged and followed him, leaving the Watcher alone with the remainder of his apple.
When Giles finally rejoined the group, he heard Xander explaining to Andrew about the meaning of "The Big Ten", the college sports conference that included the University of Michigan.
Clueless about anything sports-related, Andrew chuckled a bit. "Hey! It's kind of like us. Like our group searching for the artifacts," he clarified when that comment drew puzzled looks. Then he realized his error and amended, "Except we're like 'The Big Nine'." He squirmed a bit in his chair when even that fell short of amusing.
"Well, we'll be ten once Willow arrives to perform the ritual," Vi suggested, somewhat sympathetic to Andrew's discomfort. She shrugged at Mena who was giving her an amused look.
"How's Willow holding up, anyway?" Xander asked, knowing that his best friend must still be struggling from the sudden loss of Kennedy. At least Oz was down there now, helping to support her. "You guys know that Oz went to be with her when we left Chicago, right?"
"Willow called and told us when he arrived," Buffy replied. "I'm so glad he's there for her now. We felt awful having to desert her so soon after losing Kennedy."
"Oz got there just hours after our flight took off. From what Willow told me about their reunion, sounds like he's the same old, lovable, quirky Oz." She smiled as she recalled the liveliness in Willow's voice that had been understandably absent in the previous weeks. Buffy recognized it for what it was -- hope.
"That was really sweet of him to go all that way for her. She'd been unconsolable since Kennedy died, and then troubled by those visions she'd been having."
Then something clicked in her mind. With all the talk about tens, and nines, and Willow, she remembered something else her friend had said in that recent phone conversation.
"Wait a minute," she said, then repeated the command loudly enough to catch everyone's attention. "Willow mentioned something to me about the number '10' when she called. While she was doing the healing spells for Kennedy and then for herself immediately after Kennedy's death, she kept getting the number 10 in her head."
She looked around the room as she paused, then said, "She wasn't sure what the significance is, but she believes it may have something to do with the new mission." Her gaze ended on Giles. "With all the references we just made about '10', I think she's probably right."
"I'd have to agree," Giles replied, the various implications of the number already spinning wildly in his mind. "In point of fact, there are ten artifacts on our list of requirements pertaining to the offering as well."
After a couple of hours, when the pizza was just a scent left hovering in the air and they had all talked themselves out about every possible connection to the number 10 they could think of, Giles suggested that everyone, except Robin and Faith, should retire to the hotel rooms Giles had reserved for them. The two teams would depart for Ann Arbor in the morning.
While the others readily agreed, Buffy hestitated. She sat on the couch, thinking, until Dawn nudged her gently.
"Earth to Buffy," her sister teased. "Sleep time for the Slayer."
Buffy smiled distractedly at Dawn, then stood. Her eyes met Spike's across the room, and in that moment, she decided on a different plan of action from what Giles had in mind. It was past time she and Spike had some time alone to talk things over.
"Actually," she said, never breaking eye contact with Spike. "I think maybe Spike and I could head to Ann Arbor tonight. It's only a few hours at most," she continued when Giles began to voice an objection. "I slept on the plane, and I know that Spike is always revved up after a fight. So, we're bound to be wide awake for hours yet anyway."
Spike considered Buffy's expression for a moment. He knew a long conversation was overdue and suspected that Buffy wanted to use the drive to accomplish it. He silently agreed with a slight nod of his head.
"Let's go," Buffy said, moving around Dawn and a baffled Andrew. She headed toward the entryway to pick up her purse.
"Can I come?" Andrew asked pleadingly.
"No!" Spike and Buffy said simultaneously.
The young Watcher looked so hurt that Buffy softened the blow, and subsequently confirmed Spike's thoughts about her agenda, by saying, "Sorry, Andrew, but Spike and I have a lot to discuss. Alone."
Andrew nodded slowly, silently comforting himself by remembering that Spike and Buffy still needed their sweet reunion. All great romances included moments like that, and as much as he'd like to witness it, he respected their need for privacy. He could picture it clearly in his mind -- the amorous duo, side by side, gazing suggestively into each other's eyes. It was such a dramatic scene, he envied Buffy's shot gun position and sighed inwardly.
Giles, on the other hand, didn't seem to share as postive an outlook. The head Watcher stood, stone-faced and silent but radiating displeasure all the same, as Buffy picked up her purse. She gave him a significant frown then looked up at Spike as he neared her.
Spike couldn't have cared less that old Rupert's tighties were in a twist over Buffy's change of plans. The sooner he and The Slayer aired a few things out, the better.
"Don't worry about that," Robin told Xander and Mena as they began gathering stray bottles and pop cans. "You just go on to the hotel and get some rest." His gazed hestitated on Mena for a second. "You've more than earned it."
Mena smiled and blushed slightly. She knew that statement encompassed everyone, but she understood and appreciated the compliment he had just given her.
Xander grinned at Robin. "Thanks," he said. "But as long as I've got these in my hands," he continued, holding up the trash he held, "might as well finish the job. Besides, you did your fair share of the earning of rest, too."
He gestured at the kitchen with his upper body, indicating that Mena should follow with her own armful of trash. Mena smiled at Robin and then at Faith as she followed her Watcher into the kitchen.
"Well," Buffy said, more than ready to depart. She turned to face Spike once more. "Ready?"
"As always," he replied with a slinky grin.
Buffy smiled in return.
"We'll walk you out," Faith offered and Wood agreed. As it turned out, the entire group followed Buffy and Spike outside to say their goodbyes.
While Spike and Xander unhooked the Viper, Giles took the opportunity to pull Buffy aside.
"I don't think this is the right time," Giles began.
Buffy struggled not to roll her eyes, knowing that Giles' intention was grounded in her well-being even if it was misguided by his prejudice against Spike.
"It's way past time we did this, Giles," she said evenly. "We need to get some things settled between the two of us, and then we'll be more able to concentrate on the mission."
She looked up at him, silently asking him to bend just a little in his regard for what she still felt for the vampire.
As always, Buffy's expression succeeded, but only slightly. Giles nodded reluctantly and backed away as Spike stepped out of the Viper and approached them, ready to load the luggage.
As everyone stood around, trying very unsuccessfully to be nonchalant about how closely they were watching, Spike loaded one of Buffy's two suitcases and her carry-on bag into the Viper. Her second suitcase remained in Giles' SUV to be taken with the others when they drove to Ann Arbor the following day. Dawn assured Buffy that she would keep an eye on her suitcase and make certain that it was taken up to the Ann Arbor hotel room that the two of them would be sharing.
Giles explained that Mena and Vi would be sharing the adjoining room, and Haley was next door to them. Since Xander would be sharing with Spike, that left a none too pleased Giles with Andrew as a roommate.
"I'd rather room with Spike," said Andrew. "We're buddies, or I should say mates, since that's what you British say."
"If you don't mind, Giles, I'd like to second that suggestion," said Xander. "Spike and I could use a little break from each other, especially since we'll have to go back to sharing once we leave Ann Arbor."
"That sounds like a reasonable plan for our accommodations," agreed Giles, very pleased that he would not be sharing with Andrew. He also imagined that having Andrew in Spike's room would provide a very effective damper on anything of a romantic nature that Spike and Buffy might be hoping to share.
"Hate to throw a wrench in your plans," began Spike. "Well, no, actually I don't. Got other plans. That Campus Inn, where you've reserved rooms, really doesn't suit my needs. No parking garage. Rather stay at the Bell Tower Hotel by myself. It's also on campus -- even a bit more centrally located than your hotel, actually. And I won't have to worry about making it to the car in daylight hours without getting toasted."
"Spike, you know that we try to stick to a reasonable budget, which is why we share rooms," argued Xander.
"Got a little dosh of my own, set aside for just such an occasion," said Spike. "Like I said, I'll still be nearby, but I could use a little alone time. Going to be in Ann Arbor for only a few days, right?" He turned to Andrew, "Nothing against you, mate."
Andrew had clearly been frowning and feeling sorry for himself but perked up at Spike referring to him as "mate".
"That's all right, Spike. I understand. Besides, that'll give me some time to catch up on things with my old pal, Xander. We can share a room and leave our representative of the older, stuffy generation on his own."
Now it was Xander's turn to be dismayed, but before he could counter Andrew's offer, Giles jumped in quickly to make the most of an opportunity for some privacy.
"Yes, that would really be for the best. I have a great deal of reading that I must do before we set out on this quest and would very much prefer the privacy of my own room." Giles speedily added, "That's settled, then," before anyone had a chance to suggest something else.
"All right," said Buffy, "We'll see you in Ann Arbor some time tomorrow afternoon."
She gave Dawn a hug goodbye, who immediately moved over to get a hug from Spike, too, since she noticed that Mena was currently hugging Spike. Of course, Dawn had intended to hug Spike, anyway, but Mena doing so made it an absolute must for her.
Andrew couldn't let such an opportunity pass by. He hurried forward for hugs, and soon everyone was hugging everyone. Giles, Wood and Xander hugged only the women, of course. For Spike, there was nothing but a curt nod from Giles and Wood, although Xander added a manly slap on his back.
"Bye, Faith. Bye, Robin," called Buffy as she climbed into the Viper. "Good luck guarding your Hellmouth. I know it's in good hands." She turned to Spike, "Can we put the top down? I brought a jacket, and I've already got my hair tied back in a ponytail, so I'm all ready for the full Viper convertible experience."
As anxious as she was to get some time alone with Spike, Buffy also felt a bit nervous. It was kind of a good nervous feeling, but nervous, just the same. That surprised her. Suddenly, she wasn't all that sure how to begin their long-awaited conversation.
As Spike pulled away to a chorus of goodbyes from the group they were leaving behind, he, too, felt pangs of anxiety. He wondered what Buffy planned to say to him. For that matter, what would he say to her? Was this uncertainty one of the reasons he had been unable to leave L.A. to be with Buffy all this past year?
That is, until he and Angel had been forced to go to Rome on business. That had definitely stirred him to action. There had been no way thet he would have allowed Angel to see Buffy by himself, without being there to speak on his own behalf. And Angel had, apparently, felt the same way.
But now that the moment had finally arrived for him to speak with Buffy, what the bloody hell would he say?
They both looked over at each other and smiled. The silence was beginning to get to them even though it had been only a few moments. They both leaned forward to turn on the radio and bumped hands. It felt like a tiny electrical charge rushed through them, and they laughed quietly.
"I know you usually prefer punk music," said Buffy, "but I found a good station when we were driving from the airport over to Faith and Robin's. It seemed to play a wide variety of songs -- some hard rock, but also some ballads. Mind if I play that station?"
"Suit yourself. Listen to all kinds of music, actually. Not just punk, though it's probably still my favorite. I've lived a long time, Buffy, and have enjoyed music all my life. That means my tastes are definitely more eclectic than yours."
"Eclectic? That means you like a lot of different styles, right? Oh, here it is," she said as the sound of Rufus Wainwright filled the car, a short ways into his version of Hallelujah that had been released on the Shrek soundtrack.
"Oh, I love this song," said Buffy as she started singing along with the chorus of Hallelujahs, hoping that the image of being tied to her chair was not running through Spike's mind.
Spike nodded his head to the beat and agreed, "Yeah, it's a lovely song, and Rufus has a very mellow voice. Very poetic." Then the lyrics began again.
Although they had remained quiet and listened to the song, Buffy began speaking during the final Hallelujahs. Song lyrics can sometimes mean too much and actually weigh too heavily on the mood when you're with someone you really need to be talking to. This was one of those times. She leaned forward and lowered the volume.
"Well, I guess one of us needs to start talking."
"After you, pet."
He smiled as he made the decision to let her take the lead, since it was obvious that she was having as much trouble as he was in getting the conversation started.
She sighed. "All right. We've had some lovely, rather emotionally revealing phone conversations, so I guess it's safe to say that we still care a great deal about each other. Right?"
"Reckon we can agree on that."
"So, I guess what I want to know first, Spike, is why you didn't let me know you were back? I remember what you said during our first phone call about feeling like a fool for having sacrificed yourself as a hero, only for it not to have been your actual last act ever. But I think we can dispense with that reason, since I already made it clear that it doesn't make you any less of a hero to have been rewarded with the gift of another chance at life. All right?"
"I admit that I struggled with that for a while, but guess I'm over it now."
"Good. So what's the real reason, Spike? Didn't you know that I'd be extremeIy glad to have you back in the world? That I was mourning your loss?"
"I -- I wasn't sure. Wanted to believe it, but just couldn't be sure. Guess maybe I was afraid to find out."
"So you weren't -- you weren't just trying to save my life by getting me to leave you in the Hellmouth that day? You're telling me that you really did not believe me when I--" Buffy took a deep breath and then mustered on. "--when I told you that I loved you? That 'No, you don't, but thanks for saying it' line was for real and not a cinematic moment? You honestly don't think I loved you? That I still love you?"
"Again, I wasn't sure. Seemed like the kind of thing you'd say to someone who was dying. Just to make a guy feel better. And it did, pet. It made me feel better. It was easier to face my end, knowing that you cared enough to say those words to me."
"They weren't just words, you dope. I meant it. I still mean it. Didn't you feel anything that moment when we clasped hands and things got all special effecty, with the non-burning flames and everything? I felt a total connection to you. I thought our souls were connected and that we both felt it. Didn't you? Didn't you feel it?"
"Talk about your cinematic moment. Very poetic and romantic. Thought maybe I was hallucinating. You saw it and felt it, too, eh?"
"Yeah, Spike. I did. I tried to convince myself that you said that only to get me to leave." Tears welled up in the corners of her eyes.
"Well, that was part of the reason I said it."
"But you really didn't believe me?"
"Wanted to believe you, Buffy, but--"
"I realize I should have told you I loved you long before that moment, Spike. I've kicked myself for a year and have been filled with regret that I didn't tell you sooner, so that you would already have known it for the truth and could have completely believed me in the Hellmouth -- which was so not my choice of romantic locations to share my innermost feelings."
"The walls and ceiling were falling down all around us, Buffy. You had to get out of there. My sacrifice wouldn't have meant as much if it hadn't been done to save your life along with everyone else's."
"But since you know how hard it was for me to say those words to you, why would I say it if I didn't mean it? I don't say those words easily or often. Why couldn't you believe me when I finally had the courage to tell you?" Buffy's eyes were very moist. She blinked a few times in an effort to hold back the tears and bit her lower lip.
Spike was torn between feeling badly for her hurt feelings and yet also feeling his own hurt and anger.
"Well, I had just caught you snogging Angel, hadn't I? Seemed obvious that he was the one you were still in love with." He couldn't hide the bitterness of his words, and his volume went up a notch.
"I told you that was more of a surprised, 'hello, where did you come from all of a sudden?' moment. If you'd stuck around instead of running off to beat up a paper caricature of Angel's face--"
"Saw all I could handle seeing. Hadn't kissed me like that in over a year, even though you had me living in your basement, right underfoot for months."
"You were crazy as a loon when you first came back and then under the control of The First for weeks after that. It would have been wrong to kiss you and lead you on while you weren't in control of yourself. You wouldn't have been able to handle it."
"What about later? When I was fighting by your side and you were taking comfort in my bed and in my arms every night? Could've chosen to kiss me then. But you didn't. You chose to kiss the man who'd left you behind in Sunnydale while he moved on to another life and other women in L.A. Someone you hadn't even seen in two years."
"Which is why it was a surprise and a hello kiss, like I already explained." Buffy's voice rose in volume and hurt and anger to match Spike's own.
"But the point is you still chose him over me. He was your first love. Your forever love." His hurt and disappointment were warring with his anger. He was becoming an emotional wreck, and he struggled to control himself.
"Yeah, well, I didn't choose him, though, did I? I sent him packing and came back home to you." Her voice softened as she added, "I told him you were in my heart."
"What? You told him what?"
"He was upset about you and asked me if you were my boyfriend."
"And you said--?"
"I was still having trouble admitting it to myself, but I did tell him in those exact words. I said that you were in my heart."
"That explains a lot about what happened between Angel and me this past year. And why he wasn't shocked when Andrew told us in Rome that you loved both of us."
"Andrew what?" Buffy exploded in disbelief and anger. "He told you that I loved you both? That annoying meddler had no right to--"
"Let's not make this about Andrew, Buffy. Gotta say it was hard for either Angel or me to believe you still loved us when we knew you were The Immortal's new paramour. Seriously, Buffy, The Immortal? Thought you had better taste than that. You being with him was a real blow to both Angel and me. If you only knew how many--"
"I thought you were dead, Spike!" Her volume level rose again to match and actually surpass his.
"So you jumped into the arms of that old--"
"Just forget about The Immortal, Spike. I sure did. I dated him for only a few weeks, anyway. He is of no importance at all."
"That's not what Andrew said."
"You know how Andrew builds romantic fantasies, Spike. And this time there was absolutely no basis for a fantasy. None at all. And I thought you said we shouldn't make this about Andrew, anyw-- Look out!" Buffy screamed as he strayed out of his lane.
Spike's eyes quickly turned back to the road. He jerked the wheel to avoid colliding with the huge semi-trailer truck he had been passing. Once they pulled past the truck, he moved over into the right lane and spotted a sign for a rest stop just one mile ahead.
"This conversation's right difficult to have while speeding down the interstate, Buffy. Let's table it till we get to that rest stop. Then we can get out of the car and talk it all out, where we can look each other in the eyes. All right by you?"
"Sounds good to me," said Buffy. "It'll give me a moment to calm down and get my thoughts together, too."
As they neared the exit ramp for the rest stop, Buffy thought to herself, It'll also give me an opportunity to use a little body language, something that always used to give me a distinct advantage with Spike. I hope that's still the case now.
Spike pulled the Viper to a stop, and they both took deep breaths, steeling themselves for the continuation of their very emotional conversation. Now that the car wasn't moving, Buffy felt overheated, probably due as much to the discussion as to the adrenaline that had raced through her when they had almost had an accident on the interstate freeway. She removed her jacket and left it on the seat as they climbed out of the car.
The rest stop area was clean and well-lit by typical parking lot lampposts. It was also nicely landscaped and included a few, white-painted picnic tables. Neither seemed ready to sit down, however, and they nervously looked into each other's faces to see who would begin the next phase of their discussion.
"Okay," ventured Buffy, "we've decided to keep Andrew's fantasies and musings out of our conversation. Are you willing to also dismiss The Immortal as a topic, because I assure you that he was just a blip on the Buffy radar. I ditched him a couple of months ago. In fact, it was just a day or two after the night you and Angel came all the way to Rome, but couldn't wait around just one more day to say 'Hello. Guess what? I'm not dead.' And instead, you left me totally in the dark."
"We left because we had to deal with the case we were working on, which, by the way, was just one more in a long line of examples of that sodding Italian wanker making life hell for Angel and me, just because he bloody well could." Spike's voice rose with every word as his anger about The Immortal resurfaced.
"What are you talking about? If you had met with him, he would have told me."
"Right. Because he was so forthcoming with information about his past kicking of our asses. Couldn't be bothered to dirty his own hands. Sent some of his flunkies to screw with us instead. But as far as our past history is concerned, did you even know that your lusty Latin lover knew all of us -- including both Darla and Drusilla, if you get my drift?"
"Eww. Are you implying what I think you're implying, because if that's true, I am so glad I never let him get beyond a little cuddling and making out. Yuck! Even that sounds disgusting, now that you've told me he was once with -- oh, my God. Both of them?"
"What? You mean--"
"Eww. And may I say that again? Eww."
Buffy paced away a few steps, shuddering a bit, and then shaking her shoulders as if shaking off her thoughts before turning back to look at Spike when he spoke again.
"Wait a minute, Buffy. Did you just say that you never slept with him?"
"I haven't been with anyone since you, Spike. Not that way."
She walked back to stand directly in front of Spike, whose features wore an expression of surprise mixed with gratitude. Noting that look on his face, she continued.
"Which brings me to a very important point that I let slip by a few minutes ago when you were complaining about me kissing Angel and not you. First of all, those last few nights when we held each other while we slept? Sometimes, I was awake while you were sleeping."
"Well, there were times when I was awake while you were sleeping. So what?"
"I kissed you then. Usually on your forehead or your cheek but occasionally light kisses on your lips, too, as long as I was sure you weren't awake. You do know that you sleep like the dead, right?"
Spike stared into her eyes and saw the truth within them. He smiled slightly and replied, "I kissed you while you slept, too."
"I know. I wasn't always sleeping," She smiled, with a distinct twinkle in her eyes. "But you kissed only my brow or my neck or my hair. I never felt you kiss my lips. Unless you did that while I was really deep in slumber land."
"No, I didn't think you'd want me to kiss your lips. Was also a bit afraid that if I started, I wouldn't be able to stop."
"That's why I kissed you only when I was sure you weren't awake. I didn't think we should complicate our lives when we were moving toward a battle that might bring the deaths of so many of my friends. And Dawn. And maybe our own deaths. I thought we needed to totally focus on the fight and then address our relationship afterwards. If there was an afterwards."
"Understood that, pet. Really, I did."
"But on that final night together, I lost my resolve. When we walked toward each other in the basement that night, I was so overcome with my love for you."
"And I responded because there was no way I could have resisted you that night. But you didn't tell me that you loved me, even then. How was I to know you loved me?"
Buffy dropped her eyes because she couldn't face his intense gaze. His deep blue eyes were reaching all the way inside her, where she kept her feelings most guarded. She turned and walked a few steps away.
"Come on, Spike. You know I've always been more of an action-Buffy than talk-Buffy. It's hard to share my feelings. I've never really been good with words."
"Perhaps that's something you need to work on, pet." He fought his desire to close the short gap between them and stood his ground.
"I know. I tried to tell you with my body and my eyes what I was feeling in my heart. I hoped that would be enough because I still couldn't get the words out." Buffy's eyes welled with tears, and her voice shook as she continued.
"I don't understand why those words were so hard for me to say. I felt so much love for you. Couldn't you sense it? Because that night was definitely about making love, Spike. It wasn't just sex, and you must have known that."
"See, Buffy. That's just it. For me, our times together were always about making love. Even when things got right playful or vigorous, it wasn't just about the physical stuff. Not for me. I've loved you for so long, pet. Even when I was angry with you and knew that you were just using me, I still loved you. It was always about loving you."
"And I think I always knew that, Spike. Deep down, I knew. That's really why I broke things off with you when I did, after that debacle with the Suvolte eggs and blowing up your crypt. I knew I wasn't being fair to you. I cared about you, but I couldn't let myself love you. Even back then, I knew that I did love you, in a way, but it didn't feel right to love you. I can't explain it."
"It hurt like hell, pet, but I understood it, even if it royally pissed me off. That's why I finally made that decision to get my soul. To become the kind of man who would never hurt you. And the kind of man that you would finally feel all right about loving. Of course, once I had my soul and all the guilt that came with it, I figured that you could never love me. That I wasn't worthy of your love."
"That wasn't true, Spike. You're more than worthy."
"Yeah, well, once I got a handle on living with my soul and all the guilt, I started yearning for your love again. Couldn't help myself. Just wanted and needed your love so much."
"And we're back to that final night. Didn't you feel the difference in our lovemaking? Didn't you feel my love for you?"
"Thought I did. But I wasn't sure. Yes, that was the best, the sweetest sex that I've ever experienced, Buffy. It did seem like you were finally and completely there with me. But I'm just a man like any other man. And after all the dark times we'd been through, I needed to hear you tell me that you loved me."
"I'm sorry, Spike. I really wish I'd told you that night. I honestly tried to tell you with every kiss, every look, every caress. I wish you could have seen my love for you in my eyes. Of course, when I finally did tell you, with both of us gazing all the way into each other's souls, you still didn't believe me."
"Part of me believed you. And part of me believes you now. But you hurt me so often and so deeply, Buffy, that it's hard to trust your love."
The tears that had been hovering in Buffy's eyes for several minutes spilled over and streamed down her face. Spike felt her pain even more deeply than his own and hugged her to give her comfort as he had done so many times in the past.
"Spike, please trust me. I love you. I do. Please trust me." She had been crying into his chest, but now looked up into his face again.
"Don't know if I can, pet. I trust you with my life, but I don't think I can trust you with my heart."
"Oh, my God. It hurts so much to hear you say that." She faltered for the right words but couldn't think of them. "Then how can you still-- do you still love me, Spike?"
She leaned her head slightly away from his chest so that she could look more directly into his eyes, but kept a strong grip on his shoulders and was grateful to note that his arms remained around her waist.
"Yes, Buffy. I love you. I think I'll always love you."
"But you can't trust that I love you?"
"I believe that you think you love me, Buffy. Just not sure that you really do. At least, not the kind of complete, unconditional love that I need from you."
She moved her hands down from his shoulders and onto his chest, directly over his heart as she asked earnestly, "How can I prove myself to you?"
"Guess it'll take some time, love. Want to believe you. Want to trust you. But I'm not the same man I was a year ago. I once told you I was your willing slave. I'm not anymore. Found out this past year that I can live without you if I have to. I'm my own man, now. Not gonna be love's bitch again unless I'm convinced that you're ready to be love's bitch, too."
"I'm not sure I understand what you mean by being love's bitch, Spike. Are you calling me a bitch?!"
"No!" Spike sighed in frustration, then tilted his head to the right and looked deeply into her eyes. "Is that how you think of yourself, though? Because, to be honest, you have had some bitchy moments."
"Well, you had plenty of-- No. I'm not going to go there. That is so not what I wanted out of this conversation. I'm trying to prove to you that I've grown during this past year, so, yes. I had some bitchy moments. Some bitchy days. Hell, even some bitchy weeks! But we all make mistakes, don't we?"
"Yeah, love, we do. And I've made more than my share of them. But, again, I wasn't calling you a bitch. I was talking about being love's bitch."
"And that means what now?"
"It means being willing to be in a relationship where both parties completely commit themselves to trying to make it work. Not running off any time the going gets tough. Sticking to it, even during the bloody rough patches; because with you and me, pet, there are always going to be rough patches."
"I can do that, Spike. I can commit. I think that we can be great together. I'm sure of it. After all the soul-searching I've done this past year, I seriously believe that I can handle the kind of relationship you want. One where we're equal partners. I know what I want out of life now, Spike, and it's to be with you. It's not too late to make a fresh start. You and me -- as a real couple. I saw how happy Faith and Robin are. We can have that and more."
Now both of them had tears glistening in their eyes, threatening to spill over. Spike shut his eyes for a moment, swallowed and took a deep breath before looking into her eyes again and replying.
"Means so much to me, love, that you can say that to me now. Just not sure we're really ready for that kind of commitment yet."
Buffy was so shocked that she wasn't sure how to reply. This was not at all what she had expected to hear from Spike. Then it dawned on her, and she replied somewhat hesitantly.
"Oh, my God. You're going to give me my cookie dough speech, aren't you? Only you'll say it much better than I did. Guess I deserve it. Like karma or something. Oh, you don't know what I'm talking about, do you? I once made this really lame analogy--"
"I know, pet. Angel told me. Two of us actually did a little bonding during those last few months, believe it or not. And that's one of the reasons I don't think you're ready to commit yourself to me."
Buffy took note of how solemnly Spike was speaking, and it shook her to her core. So much so, that she began to shiver. Her mind reeling with the shock of his words, she responded slowly in profound disappointment.
"This isn't going at all like I imagined it in my head. I thought we'd be kissing by now." She was so deeply saddened and dismayed, that her lower lip unwittingly thrust forward and began quivering along with the rest of her body.
Spike sighed. It was always difficult for him to resist a Buffy pout, even though it was usually done when she was simply teasing. Normally, he found it cute and utterly endearing, but it floored him to recognize that this time it was serious. However, it was her overall shivering that had him really concerned.
"You're trembling, love. This late night air is cooler than you're used to. Even though it's June, nights in the northern part of the Midwest can still get a bit nippy sometimes. I'll grab your jacket out of the car."
While Spike went back to the Viper for her jacket, Buffy's mind raced. She couldn't lose him now. She just couldn't. Not when she was finally sure of her feelings for him. What could she do to salvage this? She wasn't going to give up; that was for sure. She'd do everything she could to convince Spike that she was serious about making their relationship a good and loving one. If he wanted commitment, she'd give him the fully committed Buffy. In spades. Whatever that meant. She'd never been quite sure.
"Here you go, love."
Spike held the jacket out for her, and she settled into it, grateful for the warmth, although the actual reason she was shivering had more to do with her deep realization that Spike was no longer a sure thing. That he really had changed during this past year, at least in his former, desperate need to be with her.
He still loved her, but he could live without her. Her comprehension of that fact devastated her, even though she knew that if she absolutely had to, she could live without him, too, because she'd gotten through the past year, believing him to be dead.
However, now that she knew he was alive and that there was still the possibility of being with him, she simply could not lose him again. It would break her heart. So, she resolved to win him over. She'd be totally honest and open herself up to him. No more hiding of her feelings. An unguarded Buffy. That would certainly be a new effort from her and might persuade him to trust her.
"Thanks for getting my jacket, Spike. I need to make one thing clear. When I gave that cookie dough speech to Angel, it was mostly a way to let him down easily. But it was also true that I needed some time to think about my life and what I wanted out of it. That's how I spent this past year. I want you to know that although I considered it, I decided that I did not want a life with Angel. Even though I still thought you were dead and not a choice for me any longer, I wasn't going to choose Angel, either."
"Thought he was your forever love."
"I believed that, when I was younger, and I kept saying it as I grew older because I felt like I needed to keep believing it, in order to make sense out of my life. People say you never completely forget your first love, and I guess that's true. But most people are able to move on. And so have I." As difficult as it was to be this open and honest, she continued to gaze sincerely into Spike's eyes and kept talking.
"I think I understood that when I shared that last kiss with Angel. It was even more of a goodbye than a hello kiss. I could tell that it was no longer the same for him, either, but it was hard for both of us to admit it and let go. We were still hanging on to the memory of the love we'd once shared -- a love that had once been a warm fire but was now only cooling embers. You know what I mean? Couldn't even roast a marshmallow on those embers. We were just never meant to be together forever. And I think that deep down, we both knew that."
"That still doesn't mean you're ready to commit yourself to me, pet. Not trying to suggest that I'm the one who entirely knows his own mind. Made a lot of strides in that regard the last several months, but have a ways to go, myself. And my own unsettled frame of mind is also part of the reason why I believe we should move slowly. It's not just about you, pet."
"You really have changed, haven't you? The Spike I knew in Sunnydale would be ready to jump in and throw caution to the wind."
"Yeah, that's true. But the point is, not only do you not know all there is to know about me right now, but you didn't even really know me back in Sunnydale."
"Yes, I did," argued Buffy.
"No, you knew only Spike the fighter and Spike the lover, because that's all you ever wanted to know. There's more to me than that, Buffy."
"I know that," Buffy bristled and then visibly struggled to calm herself. If she was going to show Spike that she had matured, then she needed to try harder to curb her natural hot temper.
"I also knew Spike the comforter. And Spike the insightful guy, who always seemed to know what everyone was thinking and feeling."
"Noticed that, did you?"
"Yeah, I did. And I noticed Spike the big brother to Dawn. And that you were better educated than you ever let on."
At Spike's raised eyebrow, Buffy continued, "I saw those books of poetry, lying around in your crypt. Who else was reading them, but you? I like poetry, too, you know, so we have that in common. It's just one of the many things that I like about you."
"Okay, you picked up on more of my character traits than I realized, but since you never wanted to have any real conversations with me, Dawn probably knows me better than you do."
"Dawn?! That's ridiculous! Now, you're making me angry, Spike. You honestly expect me to believe that Dawn knows you better than I do?"
"Yeah, she does, in some ways. Besides all the other times we hung out before that, spent 147 days with Dawn. Pretty much around the clock, during the summer months, and then, once school started, helped her with her homework and listened to her talk about her mates. Played a lot of cards. Watched a lot of Telly and movies. Had great conversations and listened to a lot of music. Dawn knows I listen to more than punk rock."
"Back to the music choice on the car radio, are we? Okay, so Dawn knows some things about you that I don't. That doesn't mean I can't learn them, does it? We've got a few days to be together in Ann Arbor before we have to go off in different directions on this big questy thing to gather the mystical artifacts. So, what would you say if we tried to make the most of our time. We could have long talks and get to know each other better."
"I'd enjoy that, pet."
"And can I ask you something?" Buffy asked tentatively.
"Ask away, love."
"Can I share your room at the hotel? That would give us more time to talk." She moved closer to Spike and placed her hands on his chest again.
"Buffy, I'm not sure that's wise."
"Why not?" She snuggled even closer and kissed his neck, right beside his Adam's apple, pressing her body against his.
"This is why. You think that if we share a room, you'll weave me right back into your web again, don't you?" Amused, he smirked as he tilted his head again, which only gave her more access.
Buffy continued to kiss his neck and pulled his arms around her waist, then moved her hands up to either side of his face, preparing to lean in for a kiss.
"Never thought I'd ever hear these words coming out of my mouth, but don't think we should have sex again, pet. Not yet, anyway. Not till we're more sure of ourselves and where we're heading."
Buffy paused for a moment, quite shocked by his last statement, but refused to be distracted from her goal. She had to help him realize that they were made for each other. That they truly belonged together.
"That doesn't mean we can't hold each other while we sleep and maybe kiss just a little, right?"
She kissed him gently on the lips, and he couldn't stop his response. The kiss deepened. Both of them needed this. At least for the moment. He lost himself in the heady warmth of her sweet lips and pulled her even closer. They broke for a second as Buffy gasped for a breath and then kissed again. Harder.
Soon, he noticed the inevitable reaction of their bodies, intent on melding as close together as possible. He pulled back a little and separated both his lips and his hips from hers.
"See, love. This is what would happen if we share a room. It'd be too difficult to keep our hands to ourselves."
"Don't need to keep our hands to ourselves to stick to your no sex rule. I'll respect your decision, but even if we're moving our relationship back to a pre-lovemaking stage, men and women who date usually allow themselves a little kissing and hugging. I can stop if you can. Don't you think you can control yourself around me?" She snagged another quick kiss.
"Oh, I can control myself, love. But what's this about dating? We've never been on a date."
"So, we could start dating, right? You said you've spent time in Ann Arbor. Know any nice places there to go on a date?"
"Yeah, I do, as a matter of fact. Would you like to go to a fancy restaurant?"
"Are you kidding? I'd love it."
"Did you bring a dress along with all your Slayer clothes?"
"Of course. I never go anywhere without at least a couple of dresses. We weren't sure how long it'd be before we could go back to Rome for more of our things, so we packed a variety. That's why I've got two suitcases. Where are you going to take me?" She smiled up at him.
"There's a lovely restaurant built into the old train depot. Amtrak has a more modern lobby at one end of the building, but the restaurant has the majority of the space in the old, rather majestic Michigan Central Depot. Right charming and a bit on the ritzy side. Dru always loved going there, although she rarely ate anything. She said she liked its ambiance."
"Dru," Buffy said and wrinkled her nose, frowning slightly.
"If you want to get to know me better, love, you're going to have to accept that most of my memories involve Drusilla in some way."
"I know. I can handle it," Buffy sighed. "I do want to know more about your past, Spike, but can you keep the killing of innocents to a bare minimum in your stories?"
"Yeah, I can do that, but speaking of the killing of innocents, I wager that slutty bint over there, sidling up to the truck driver, is not the usual rest stop whore. Are your Slayer senses telling you anything?"
Buffy turned to look, saying, "Now that you mention it, yes. I'll take her. Why don't you make sure she doesn't have any vamp friends with her?"
Spike walked over to the car he'd noticed the girl climb out of, and Buffy jogged over to the trucker and the toothsome tramp trying to seduce him. She was wearing a very skimpy halter top and a skirt so short that even a circa 1997 Buffy would have been embarrassed to wear it.
"Excuse me," Buffy called out. "Do you know if there's a map anywhere in this rest stop?"
As the trucker pointed toward the map, Buffy grabbed the girl's elbow and steered her away, saying, "This one wants more than your money, mister. You'd best be on your way."
When the trucker saw the girl's snarling face as it morphed into the face of a monster, he went running for his big rig. Buffy punched the vamp in the stomach and then the face and began looking for something she could use as a stake. She spied a piece of wood sticking out of a trash container and ran for it. Just before she turned around, the vampire jumped on her back.
They both tumbled to the ground, but Buffy was soon straddling the girl, punching her face several more times before finally lifting the ragged piece of pine and plunging it into her heart. As she stood and brushed the dust from her clothes, Buffy looked over to see how Spike was faring.
Spike had yanked the unsuspecting driver out of the car and enjoyed a few rounds of punching and kicking before pulling the stake from his jacket pocket and dusting the guy. The other vampire hadn't really been much of a fighter, so it wasn't as much fun as Spike would have liked. But a spot of violence was always appreciated, no matter how brief.
Spike and Buffy made their way back toward the Viper as Buffy said, "See, I told you we're still good together. That reminded me of one of our patrols in Sunnydale. I missed them almost as much as I missed you."
"Gotta admit, you're always my favorite slaying partner, Buffy. Let's head on to Ann Arbor, yeah?"
"Okay. What's the name of the restaurant you're taking me to tomorrow night?"
"Oh, it's tomorrow night, is it? Right anxious little minx, aren't you?" he teased.
"Why wait? We're going to be in Ann Arbor for only a few days. I'm ready to get started, aren't you?"
"All right, love. But keep in mind that a few days in Ann Arbor are not going to change my mind about making a full-time commitment. Need more time than that before agreeing to anything definite and long-lasting."
"Got it," said Buffy. "So, what's the name of the restaurant?"
"It's called The Gandy Dancer," he said as he opened the car door for her to climb in.
"What kind of dancing? Is that some old-fashioned ballroom dance like a fox trot or something?"
Spike chuckled. "No, pet, it's an old railroad term from the 1800's for the track workers. See, they used this tool made by the Gandy Tool Company. The length of the shovel was used to measure between the rails, and the head of the shovel was used to measure the width between the ties. It was strong enough to pry the tie up against the rail as the spike was driven home. They had work songs and chants and folklore about standing on the shovel and trying to balance, which made for a sorta wild looking dance."
Spike had jumped into the driver's seat by this time and was already driving out of the rest area.
"Wow, you really know a lot of weird stuff, don't you? But then you've been around for years and years, including way back when railroads were a major part of transportation," Buffy teased.
"That's right, love. Just ask old Spike here whenever you want to know about something from the Dark Ages."
As they pulled back onto the highway, another song began on the radio. As soon as Buffy heard the first words, she leaned over to turn the volume up.
"I'm sure that someone with your eclectic tastes must like Green Day," she said, smiling to herself at the stroke of luck for such an appropriate song to be playing.
Spike recognized it, too, and chuckled as he saw her smile. It was already a couple of lines into the song.
Buffy sang softly along with the chorus, stealing glances at Spike, who was grinning outright by the time the lyrics began again.
Buffy couldn't restrain herself any longer and joined the final chorus, singing at the top of her lungs.
They were both in a very good mood for the entire rest of the drive---
It was still late at night, or technically, very early in the morning when Spike and Buffy arrived in the University town of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Despite the time, the streets still endured a steady flow of traffic, both auto and pedestrian.
Like most college towns, the students were out in throngs, heading to various parties and bars. Despite the decreased number of students present during the summer months, there still seemed to be quite a population attending the shorter summer term of classes.
Spike smiled out the window at a bevvy of suggestively clad girls, laughing with and at each other as they crossed in front of them at a red light.
"See something you like?" Buffy asked innocently, but her eyes sparkled in jest.
"Just having a bit of recall, pet," he replied. "Been a long time since I visited this burg."
"When we were at Faith's, you said that you came here in 1969, right?"
"That's when I first arrived, yeah. The late summer of '69. And then I stayed in this general area off and on through the early 70's, with Dru," he added with a pointed look at his passenger.
"Ah," Buffy said knowingly. "So, mayhem and madness ran amuck at the U of M back then." She looked out the side window at some poor soul on the sidewalk already yakking up the contents of his stomach. "You two must have had a field day," she said, turning to face Spike again. "Easy pickings."
The vampire gave her a rueful look. "That they were."
He couldn't even guess at the number of inebriated college kids they'd feasted on during his last visit. Dru had said the blood tickled her nose, so effervescent it was. Spike shook his head at that. Both of them had enjoyed the buzz of the kill as well as the alcohol-laden and/or marijuana-laced plasma.
"Like shooting dogs in a cage," he added. "Never knew what hit them."
They turned into the parking garage next to the Bell Tower Hotel, found a spot to park the Viper, then went to sign in. Since the others would be staying at a different location, Buffy called the Campus Inn and left a message for Giles, letting him know their room number and the hotel's phone number. They'd contact the group later in the day.
After taking their bags to the room, Spike invited Buffy on a quick walking-tour of the part of Central Campus near their hotel. Still not ready to sleep, she quickly agreed.
The night was warm with just a hint of rain in the air as they walked down the sidewalk toward a large tower. Spike explained it was called the Burton Bell Tower.
"Dru loved it whenever anyone played the carillon," Spike said, gesturing up at the top of the structure. "She'd listen to it from the hotel during the day, but she'd dance to it outside, near the Tower after sunset."
He could picture it perfectly in his mind -- Dru in her flowing skirts, arms raised and twirling to the music of the bells. He'd called her his Dark Sprite when she danced for him.
Buffy felt a slight stab of something that was just a bit too close to jealousy for comfort. No way, she thought as she stomped down the feeling. I am not going to be jealous of Drusilla.
"Can't wait to hear them," she said casually. "Sounds nice."
They continued their walk into the fine arts area of the university, just a block from their hotel, which included the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, The Power Center and Hill Auditorium.
"This part of campus was always full of life at night, with people attending plays and concerts and such."
"Most of the buildings look old and ivy-covered and very traditional, like most campuses," observed Buffy, "but what's up with that one? It looks very modern."
"That's the Power Center. It was actually built and opened while Dru and I were here."
"I'm loving all that glass," said Buffy. "The whole front of the building is nothing but enormous windows. Very sleek with all the roundness and the huge, stone columns."
"Yeah, it was the talk of the town when it was being built. We went to the grand opening and heard them speak about how it was considered modern classical, in architectural terms, combining those massive concrete columns and mirrored glass with ancient forms. The theatre on the inside has seating modeled after the Greek Theatre at Epidarus. No seat is more than 80 feet from the stage even though it seats something like 13 or 1400 people. Can't remember exactly. And the stage was an experimental combination of proscenium arch and thrust. Very cool. We went to a lot of events there."
Again, Buffy felt a twinge of jealousy and, again, shot it down before it could fester. "Maybe there'll be something playing while we're here that you and I could go to."
"We'll check into that, if you like," he replied then nodded ahead of them. "And if you walk down to the end of the block, back towards State Street and turn right, you're at the Frieze Building, which has another smaller theatre, Trueblood Auditorium."
Buffy lifted a brow. "Trueblood? Bet you loved that name."
Spike shrugged but gave her a small, guilty smile. "We were a bit attached to that particular theater. Caught a few of the shows there and more than a few patrons afterward."
"You two really did a number on this town," Buffy commented.
"Usually the case when there's no Slayer to muck up the works," he replied. He held onto his grin when Buffy glared up at him. He finally released it and chuckled. Exasperated, Buffy shook her head and looked away.
They walked back the way they had come, but on the opposite side of the block. Before long, Spike and Buffy arrived at the entrance to "The Diag", a wide diagonal walkway connecting State Street and South University. The large grassy areas on either side of the concrete path were popular spots where students gathered to chat, play guitar, or throw a frisbee.
"Don't know if they still do this or not, but they used to hold a "Hash Bash" here every April 1st."
"I don't suppose you're talking about the corned beef variety, are you?" Buffy quipped.
"Nope," he grinned. "It was a flagrant display of rebellion; something I'm always right fond of, as well you know. Since it attracted thousands, including students from other nearby colleges and locals in addition to their own students, the University authorities and the local police just allowed it to take place. Of course, they were well in force, all but the younger officers watching with total disapproval, but as long as there was no violence, there were no arrests."
"So they all managed to remain very peaceful then?"
"Yeah. Very mellow. The whole bloody lot of them blatantly smoked grass and hashish right out in the open on the lawns and the sidewalk, played music, listened to speeches by campus radicals and all that sort of thing. It went on all day and all evening, so Dru and I joined them, too."
He shrugged. "Was fun for a night, but all that peacefulness could get right boring if it went on everyday. Always needed a spot of violence to keep me entertained."
When they reached the end of the Diag at South University, Spike began a new story.
"For one week every July, they cordon off the traffic on all these blocks of South U., from State Street on up to Washtenaw Avenue, and hold this gigantic Art Fair. Really good stuff, too, not like some sodding arts and crafts show at a flea market or mall somewhere. Artists have to be selected, in order to display their wares here."
"What kind of art?" asked Buffy, as they turned around to walk back to the hotel.
"All kinds, love. Paintings using different media; drawings in charcoal, pencil, or pen and ink; batiks; sculptures; weaving; ceramics; jewelry. Everything you can imagine."
"Sounds cool. I wish the timing for our visit had been about a month later, so that I could have seen it."
"It's a huge deal here. They cordon off some of the blocks of several other streets, too, all the way down to Main Street. And they have entertainment stages at several locations, with music playing all day and all evening. That was always my favorite part -- listening to the bands. The Diag usually had buskers. Do you know what they are?"
"That would be a no."
"Maybe that's an old term, specific to London. Street entertainers, who pass the hat for payment. There'd be jugglers, magicians, puppeteers, solo guitar or banjo players. That kind of thing. All up and down the Diag."
"Sounds like fun."
Their last stop, just round the corner from their hotel, was to show her Drake's, a small, old-fashioned tea shop that he and Dru had enjoyed.
"Bloody hell. Where is it?" muttered Spike as he walked back and forth along the block, looking for it. He finally stopped and looked back at Buffy.
"Must've finally closed the place. That's a shame, pet. It was a lovely little shop that reminded Dru and me of times gone by. We went there almost every evening, right after sunset. Earlier, if it was a very cloudy, rainy day."
"That's okay, Spike. You can still tell me about it. My imagination has been doing a great job of picturing all the things you've described for me."
Spike sighed. "It's just another sign of the world's preference for the new and shiny rather than the older treasures of our past." He snorted as he realized, "Sound like some old ponce, don't I? Moaning about the loss of the past. Usually more of a modern-leaning bloke who enjoys contemporary life."
"I know that, Spike. But we can still mourn the loss of something we used to enjoy that is now gone," said Buffy, who then blushed. "And I so did not mean that as some ploy to get you to make love with me, if that's what you're thinking."
Spike quirked an eyebrow and checked another grin. "Never crossed my mind, pet."
Buffy cleared her throat. "Oh, well, then tell me about this tea shop that once was but is no more."
"Drake's stocked all types of tea and sold sandwiches and soups. Aged, wooden booths, painted apple-green lined the back walls, but the section that really reminded us of the past was opposite the front counter where you placed your order. There were rows of antique glass jars. Each jar was filled with different kinds of loose, unwrapped candy, and you could gather your choices with metal scoops, filling your own bag with the perfect combination that you desired."
"Now, that's something you don't find every day," Buffy commented. "Sounds just like the old general stores you see in western films or even movies with the dime stores of the '20s or '30s."
"Pretty unique place," Spike agreed. "Sorry you won't get the chance for the whole Drake's experience."
"So I could've had first-hand knowledge of what it feels like to be happy as a kid in a candy store, huh?" she joked.
"Something like that, yeah." He nodded his head in the direction of the hotel. "Ready to head back and get some sleep?" he asked. "Sunrise is not too far off."
Although part of her felt drained, Buffy experienced a sudden urge for a little physicality of a different sort. Her talk with Spike and his insightful tour of the campus had renewed her desire to be with him, to love him with her body as well as her heart. She wondered about his reaction and if he'd welcome the opportunity.
She decided it wouldn't hurt to try, so she responded in the affirmative, and soon they were back in Spike's room.
Spike was reclining against the headboard when she stepped out of the bathroom, freshly showered and ready for a little more action before she would let sleep take her. She wanted to be taken by something else or rather someone first.
The hair on Spike's nape rose, along with all his other senses and a certain traitorous appendage, as he gauged the expression on Buffy's face. She looked and smelled ready for a tumble, but he felt an uncommon pull not to follow her lead this time, even though his baser functions were already on Red Alert.
She gave him a long, slow smile as she climbed into bed. She hesitated for a moment and studied him. He looked a bit dumbstruck. She chuckled to herself.
"So," she drawled. "After all we've discussed tonight, do I at least get a goodnight kiss?" She leaned forward slightly, knowing it probably gave him a decent view down her loosely-fitted pajama top.
Spike tilted his head slightly to the side and considered her without responding for a few moments. "A goodnight kiss?" he finally asked.
"Yeah, you know, a meeting of the lips before people bed down for the night, or in our case, very early morning?" She didn't move as she watched him process that.
"Just a small one," she added when he didn't react. She gave him her most innocent expression. "It's not like I'm suggesting we make out or anything." Although that's exactly what she did want.
And Spike knew it.
"Yeah," he said slowly. "Buffy, what are you pulling here?"
She knew he'd probably be able to see straight through her. He understood her better than anyone. She now allowed herself to acknowledge that truth.
"What?" she asked, still trying to uphold the charade of innocence.
"Don't give me 'what?'" Spike scolded, although the sight of that gorgeous, protruding bottom lip of hers still made his insides clench. "I've got a good guess on what you're trying to do with that sexy pout of yours."
Buffy brightened instantly. "You think my pout is sexy?"
He narrowed his eyes accusingly. "Yes, I do, and you know it."
"Buffy," he said reasonably, placing his hands on her upper arms. "Let's just take it easy. It isn't that I don't want to," he said when she looked ready to object. "We've been down this road before, love, and we ended up hurting each other."
He was amazed at the words coming out of his mouth. Where did this iron resolve come from? he wondered. "I still think it's best that we take it slower this time. Keep our wits about us."
Buffy listened and knew that he was right. It was just so weird to be on the other side of this kind of conversation. It was giving her a clearer idea of just what he had endured in their earlier relationship and made her that much more determined to get it right this time around.
"Okay," she said finally, hanging her head for just a moment. Then, looking up at him through her eyelashes, she asked. "Can I still get a goodnight kiss?"
Spike grinned. If nothing else, he admired her persistence. "Sure thing, pet."
Buffy smiled slightly and shifted herself closer. With eyes wide open, she leaned down until her lips were just a whisper away from his. Staring into the blue depths of his eyes, she lingered, watching with satisfaction as the beginnings of desire leapt to life in them. She closed her eyes and brought her mouth to his.
Dry tinder would have sprung to life in flames in that moment. Reason dissolved as the kiss slowly deepened until tongues and teeth became involved. Spike's hands moved slowly down the tops of Buffy's arms as she leaned in even more. She moaned softly as his thumbs skimmed the sides of her breasts.
Hearing that sound brought him back from the brink of abandoning his resolve. With great effort, he eased her away from him.
"Buffy," he groaned.
"And you want to wait?" she asked, with just a touch of humor to the question. "Okay, okay," she said before he had a chance to answer.
Pulling back the covers, she manuevered herself beneath them and leaned her cheek against his shoulder, indicating her willingness to declare a truce and try to sleep.
Spike reached up and turned off the light. Shifting himself into a more comfortable position, he put his arm around her and willed his body to relax.
"Good night, Spike," she said as she nestled closer to his body.
He felt her smile against his chest. He turned his head and placed a kiss on her forehead and then on the tip of her nose when she angled her face upward.
"'Night, love." He tortured himself with one brief kiss on her upturned lips before settling back against his pillow.
Buffy snuggled deeper into his embrace and contented herself by gently caressing his chest with her thumb until sleep conquered desire.
Early the next afternoon, Giles and the rest of the team arrived at the Campus Inn and checked into their rooms. Giles frowned when he received the note from Buffy, stuffing it into his pocket as he returned to the SUV to unload the bags.
It had been a very long time since he'd considered himself her Watcher, but it never seemed possible to break himself of the need to protect her, especially, and apparently continuously, from Spike.
"What next, Chief?" Xander asked him as they waited with the others near the elevator.
"Once we're settled, I'll call Ms. Rayne to see if we can make an appointment to meet her in an hour or so. She's very curious and interested in obtaining as many details as possible about the ritual and the artifacts necessary to complete it."
Xander nodded and wondered for the fiftieth time just what Haley the Watcher would be like. He was sticking with the stuffy librarian type, in essence, a female Giles.
Once he'd seen to it that everyone was settled in their respective rooms, Giles phoned Haley.
"Giles! Hello!" Haley said happily, when he'd identified himself. "I was anticipating your call. How was the trip here? Uneventful, I hope."
Giles smiled into the receiver. "Yes, blessedly so. We're staying at the Campus Inn as I indicated earlier. Well, all but Spike, who insisted on staying at the Bell Tower Hotel."
"Spike," Haley said slowly until her memory caught up. "Ah, yes. Well, I suppose that does make a bit of sense. It's one of the only hotels in town with a parking garage. It should make getting in and out during the day a bit easier if a quick exit is needed."
"That was his thinking as well," Giles confirmed, amazed at the deduction she'd just made. It made him feel slightly better about the situation at hand. "Haley, I was hoping we could meet this afternoon to discuss this mission in more depth. Are you free?"
"Actually, I'm meeting with Dr. Ajay Fontajohn right now to gather a little more information about the artifacts. I was hoping perhaps we could all meet tomorrow and begin our collaborative work then. I'd like to get all of my information organized before I present it. Would that be all right?" she asked.
Giles, who understood the need for order and a clear presentation, agreed to postponing the group's first meeting until the following day.
"Oh, no," Haley corrected him. "I was still hoping to meet everyone for dinner this evening. I should be able to meet you at the Campus Inn around five. How does that sound?"
"That will work just fine, Haley," Giles replied. "We'll look over the information we have now and see you this evening. We'll meet you in the lobby."
"Wonderful," Haley smiled. "I'm looking forward to it. See you then."
Giles hung up the phone and called the other rooms, where the team members were busy unpacking, to share the schedule of events for the evening.
Buffy woke to the sound of a door slamming outside in the hallway. It seemed a group of young women were conferring loudly about their plans for the rest of the day. After they'd decided on where to go for a late lunch and departed, Buffy felt too awake to fall back asleep.
While they'd slept, she and Spike had shifted their positions. His arm was now draped over her mid-section, and his mouth was pressed against the back of her neck. Grinning, she rolled onto her back and waited as he slowly woke up.
"Good morning, or should I say, good afternoon," she said softly.
"Not much good about it," he muttered, still sleepy. "What time is it?"
She looked at the alarm clock and then back at him. "About two-thirty. Giles and the others are probably at the Campus Inn by now," she added but didn't suggest giving them a call. She was reluctant to end this time with Spike.
"I had a good time last night. The tour," she added quickly. "This is a cool place. And it was nice to just spend a little time together, wasn't it?"
Fully awake now, Spike smiled. "That it was, pet."
He propped himself up on an elbow. He'd thought a lot about that, himself, after Buffy had fallen asleep against him. He'd enjoyed showing her around his old haunts and had decided that maybe what they both needed, despite what Giles obviously believed, was a little more normalcy in their relationship, and to him, that included regular dates -- dinners, dancing, and the like.
"Still want to do that dinner tonight?" he asked.
Buffy blinked. "At that fancy place you told me about?" At Spike's nod, she smiled widely. "Absolutely!"
Placing his feet on the floor, he stood. "Right, then. I suppose it's about time we get you over to the Campus Inn," Spike said in a disgruntled tone. "Giles probably threw a wobbly about your having spent the night here."
Buffy lifted a questioning brow at the odd phrase but understood the general meaning. Shrugging, she said, "He'll get over it."
She got up and headed to the bathroom. "I'll be ready in fifteen."
Shortly before three, Buffy and Spike made the short drive to the Campus Inn and pulled under the hotel's drive-up overhang.
"I see the SUV's," Buffy said, pointing down the line of parked cars.
Spike gazed up through the top of the windshield at the sunny sky. "Uh, yeah," he said, leaning back in the driver's seat. "Why don't you go in and see if Xander will come out and park this for me."
"I can do it," she offered.
Spike merely stared at her for a moment. "This is a $90,000 car, love," he said finally, as though that explained his preference.
It took a moment for his comment to sink in. When it did, Buffy rolled her eyes, even though she knew her driving record was atrocious.
"Fine," she said. Picking one's fights carefully was one of the most important lessons a Slayer learned. She got out of the car and went inside to contact Xander.
Before long, Buffy returned with her friend in tow. Spike got out of the car and let Xander drive the Viper into a nearby parking spot.
"Thanks, mate," he said as Xander tossed him back the keys. Xander nodded, and they all headed inside to Giles' room where most of the team had gathered. When the Head Watcher related the dinner plans he'd made with Haley, Buffy interrupted.
"Oh, uh, Giles," Buffy began. "Spike and I actually have different plans for the evening. We're doing dinner on our own tonight, but we'll definitely be ready for the meeting tomorrow morning with Haley."
"A date?" Dawn asked, smiling eagerly at her sister.
"Sounds like it," she replied.
Giles and Xander wore matching frowns. If the reason behind those scowls weren't so annoying, she would have laughed at how Xander was morphing into a true Watcher.
"I'm sure Haley will understand, Giles," Buffy continued before he could respond.
Giles chose not to speak at the moment, but looked accusingly at the vampire. "She might," he decided to agree. "She might also see it as an insult. Buffy, we should all meet her as a team."
"I get the whole teamwork scenario, Giles," Buffy replied, then thought for a moment until she reached a reasonable solution.
"So, we compromise," she said finally. "Spike and I will be here when Haley meets us in the lobby, like you said she would. We'll do the hellos and how are yous, then you all can head to your dining location, and Spike and I will head to ours. Then we all begin together again in the morning."
As reasonable as that solution seemed, it rankled Giles that Spike wasn't heeding him about his dealings with Buffy -- again.
Sensing there would be no good way of completely pacifying Giles, Spike figured he'd make himself scarce.
"Look, pet," he said to Buffy. "I think I'll head back to my room. I'll meet you here in the lobby before five."
He looked at Xander again and pulled out the keys to the Viper. "You mind?"
"Not if you start tipping," Xander said, half-serious. He wasn't quite as put out as Giles about Buffy and Spike's impending date, but he still felt uneasy about it. Despite knowing how those two felt about each other, he just couldn't bring himself fully on board yet, at least not to the point of actually approving of their relationship. Regardless, he took the keys and went back out to the parking lot to fetch the Viper.
To avoid further argument with Giles, Buffy asked Dawn which room was to be theirs. Dawn jumped up and led her sister down the hall where Buffy's other luggage was waiting for her.
"I can't believe it," Dawn said happily as she plopped down on her bed. "You and Spike finally on a real date." She sat up abruptly. "What happened in his hotel room last night?"
"Nothing like what you're thinking," Buffy answered truthfully.
"Did you kiss at least?" Dawn asked impatiently, knowing her sister was holding out on some type of juicy information.
Buffy laughed as she began unpacking her clothes, looking for the right items to wear that evening. "Just a few innocent kisses."
Buffy smiled secretively as she recalled the heat of that last "innocent" kiss. If she had any say in the matter, there'd be a repeat performance as well as an encore or two, or three. A small giggle slipped out before she could help it.
Dawn eyed her sister suspiciously. "Yeah, right. Just some kissing." She sighed when further attempts at gaining information from Buffy failed.
"Fine," Dawn said airily. "Keep your secrets about last night. But I want details on your date tonight, and you know how irritatingly persistent I can be until I get what I want," she threatened with a mischievous grin.
"Ain't that the truth," Buffy mumbled, good-naturedly. She met Dawn's grin with one of her own.
With that, Dawn rolled off the bed and headed to the bathroom. "I'll take my shower while you finish unpacking," she said. "Then you can spend the rest of the afternoon showering, shampooing, and perfuming yourself in preparation for your big date." Dawn grinned again as she shut the door behind her.
"Hey, I don't need all afternoon," Buffy replied loudly over the sound of running water from the shower.
"Yeah, yeah," Dawn called through the door. "But we both know you'll still use every possible minute you've got to primp until Spike arrives and the date officially begins. Besides, we've got only two hours until Haley gets here, so you'll need to get at least halfway through your date preparations before then."
Buffy heard the shower curtain being pulled closed and the sound of water falling off a human body, but her sister kept rambling.
"After we meet her, you can come back to the room to get all dressed up and spend another hour or so fine-tuning your hair and make-up."
Once she unfolded and hung up the dress she'd chosen for the evening, Buffy unpacked the rest of her things and waited impatiently for Dawn to finish her shower. Dawn was right, she decided. She'd need the time until Haley arrived just to shower and wash, blow-dry and style her hair. Then once the others left for their dinner, she'd anxiously primp, as Dawn had called it, until it was time to start their date.
She admitted to herself that was just the way she was wired, so she might as well admit it.
At five minutes to five, the freshly showered Summers sisters joined the others at the elevator to go down to the lobby and meet Haley.
The woman waiting for them was very different from what Xander had expected. There was nothing stereotypically librarian about her.
Haley Rayne had sparkling, intelligent eyes and lustrous, long brown hair that flowed in loose waves over her shoulders rather than the tight bun that he had imagined. She smiled brightly as they approached her.
"Haley," Giles said as he extended his hand.
She readily grasped it. "Giles, welcome to Ann Arbor."
Giles thanked her and then turned to introduce the rest of the team. When he came to Spike, Haley smiled even wider. The vampire stepped up and extended a hand.
"Welcome," she said, appreciatively. When he stepped back next to Buffy, she observed him from head to booted toe. "Vi and I are old friends, of course," she addressed the group then looked at Mena.
"And I believe you were in that Slayer Aikido class, weren't you?" Mena nodded. "Nice to see you again."
Mena smiled in appreciation at being remembered. "I thought you were an excellent substitute teacher, Ms. Rayne. I very much enjoyed class that day."
"Why, thank you," Haley replied. "And it's very nice to meet the rest of you," she added, although her gaze lingered just slightly longer on Spike.
Buffy frowned at that and crossed her arms over her chest. Spike saw it and placed a reassuring hand on the small of her back.
"My meeting with Dr. Fontajohn was very productive," Haley told Giles. "We've got a lot to look over tomorrow. But," she said pointedly, encompassing the group with a sweeping glance. "First, let's enjoy getting to know each other a little better, shall we? I was thinking either Italian or Indian food might be just the thing. Grazti's is an excellent Italian restaurant, and Raja Rani has superb Indian cuisine, if you'll trust my judgment."
"I'm sure that either will be a wonderful choice," Giles assured her and the others agreed.
"Gratzi's it is, then," said Haley.
"Actually," Buffy interjected. "Andrew, Dawn, and I did live in Rome for most of the past year." She knew the comment sounded petty, but she couldn't help making it. Haley's take-charge personality inexplicably scraped at her, and she had made the mistake of flirting with Spike. Okay, maybe it was just pre-flirting, but it had still been noticeable and irritating.
Haley took Buffy's statement in stride, though, saying, "Oh, of course. Italian food wouldn't be at all special for those who have lived in Rome."
She dismissed the idea with a wave of her hand. "That's just as well. I know Giles enjoys a good curry dish. We'll go to Raja Rani instead, and that is so close by that we can enjoy a lovely little walk rather than piling into vehicles."
When Buffy and Spike didn't follow the exiting crowd, Haley turned back. "Aren't you coming?"
"They've got other plans," Vi piped up, suggestively, before Giles had formulated a response.
If Haley thought it odd or felt insulted, her expression didn't divulge it. "Ah," she said simply, then favored them with a small smile. "Well, then, it was nice meeting you both. See you in the morning."
Giles resisted saying more, but gave Buffy and Spike a very pointed look before turning and following the others toward the front doors.
When the group had departed, Spike pulled Buffy aside. "We've got a bit of time before our dinner reservations," he said. "But I've got a few things I need to do before then. I'll be back to pick you up around seven."
"What things?" she asked.
"Well, for one, as you can see, I'm not dressed for the occasion," he pointed out, then smiled and headed toward the front doors. Buffy noticed he'd simply left the Viper under the overhang this time.
"Seven," he said again, then grinned. "Hope you'll be dressed to kill."
Buffy, getting the joke, rolled her eyes but laughed all the same.
"Aren't I always?" She gave him a little wave, then headed back to her room to finish getting herself ready.
Buffy stared at her reflection in the bathroom mirror with serious scrutiny. A year in a pristine Mediterranean climate had done her good. Her skin was tanned and flawless; her face was filled out and relaxed. She had always considered herself a pretty girl, at least her friends had always told her so. And Spike -- well, to Spike, she was always beautiful no matter what. So why was she so worried about her appearance tonight?
Maybe she was nervous because tonight, she and Spike were going out on a real date, and she wanted it to be perfect. She wanted to look as beautiful as possible for him. Or maybe, a lot of her tension had to do with that new female Watcher they had met today -- Holly, Hillary or whatever her name had been. Talk about beauty. That woman had more than her fair share of good looks, and Buffy hated the way that she had given Spike the approving once-over. To make matters worse, she would be joining Spike's team for the next few months.
"I am not jealous!" Buffy assured herself out loud, as she adjusted her hairstyle for the umpteenth time. Okay, maybe she was, but there was no need to be, right? Spike loves her. She was sure of that.
Now if I can just get him to believe how much I love him.
Sighing in frustration, she pulled the elaborate clip out of her hair and let it fall loose, reminding herself that Spike prefers it down. Now, she needed to find just the right shade of eye shadow.
Dawn had gone to dinner with the others about an hour ago, and Buffy was so glad she had. Now she could prepare for her evening with Spike without enduring her sister's constant smirk and inquiring glances. Ever since she had told Dawn that she and Spike were going on a 'date', she had been bombarded with questions.
"Where are you guys going? Someplace special? Someplace romantic? What are you going to do afterwards? Are you two back together again?"
Though Dawn's attitude was amusing at first, after a while, Buffy was annoyed by the girl's suggestive remarks about what she should do to charm her gorgeous vamp again. Buffy hated to think where her sixteen year-old sister got that kind of information, although she had always considered herself quite worldly at that age. Buffy blushed as she thought about some of her sister's ideas.
Dawn's excitement for them was obvious, and she made no attempt to hide it. She had always idolized Spike -- even before he had started regularly helping the Scoobies. She had frequently taken his side, and Buffy surmised that Dawn had always had a bit of a crush on him.
When Spike's feelings for Buffy became evident, Dawn had secretly hoped that he and Buffy would become a 'real' couple. But Buffy and Spike's tempestuous relationship took a dark turn one night when Spike's desperation for Buffy's love overwhelmed him. Dawn's perception of what had happened that night shook her belief in him. Her attitude towards Spike became hostile and distant. By the time Buffy finally confided in her about what had really happened, it was too late to make amends.
Spike's heroic sacrifice hit Dawn hard. She was ashamed of her behavior and regretted treating him so badly. Now that he was back, she was doing everything in her power to make it up to him. Unfortunately, that included badgering her big sister about the importance of her big date with Spike.
Buffy marveled at the notion of even using the words Spike and date in the same sentence.
Her thoughts wandered back to that night, over three years ago, when Spike had invited her to join him on a surveillance mission.
Flashback - Sunnydale, 2001
There was a time when the very thought of dating Spike seemed repulsive to her. Boy, how things had changed. Now, the only thing she could think about was how much she wanted a future with him.
Buffy stepped back from the mirror, adjusted her dress and took one more long look at herself. It had taken her over an hour to decide what to wear. Since this trip was a business one, she hadn't expected to go out anywhere special. Luckily, she had brought a few dresses when they hurriedly left Rome at Spike's concern for their safety, just in case. So her wardrobe was more limited than usual, but she and Dawn had selected the best of that meager supply.
Their ultimate choice was a sleeveless, knee-length, light gray dress with a daring neckline. She added a shimmering, long silver necklace, and the combination was both simple, yet elegant.
I just hope Spike will like it, she worried. She'd never really dressed up for him before.
She carefully dabbed perfume on her neck and wrists as she smiled coyly. After all, this would be the first time they'd ever really gone out together, and she wanted to make a great first impression.
Buffy had so much hope for the evening. Finally, they could spend some time together without the rest of the gang watching their every move.
I guess absence really does make the heart grow fonder, she thought.
She had done a lot of thinking and soul searching the year after she lost him, which had made her realize just how much Spike had meant to her. So she had finally admitted to herself and everyone else how much she loved and missed him. Now she needed him to believe it.
Spike had changed so much. He was sadder, perhaps, but she figured that after all he had endured, that was to be expected. What she hadn't expected though, was that he was stronger, more resolute and independent than she thought he would ever be. She was so proud of him, but at the same time, she was afraid he no longer needed her the way he once had.
Not only that, but just as Andrew had pointed out -- Spike was even more handsome than ever, and she was having a hard time resisting the urge to throw herself on him.
She had to admit she was a little hurt when he said that he wanted to take things slow where their relationship was concerned. Reluctantly, she agreed to hold back and take time to sort things out; but, secretly, she hoped she could make him long for more and change his mind about the 'getting to know each other again' period. As far as Buffy was concerned, she figured she and Spike knew each other pretty darn well already.
"Guess I'll just have to try harder to convince him," she said seductively, as her own eyes met the eyes of her reflection in the mirror. She could see them brightening with hope and anticipation.
Hurry, Spike. I can't wait for you to get here. (continued)
The Big Ten Page1, 2
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