All About Spike

A Crazy Gorram Story
By Herself

Sequel to Where They Have To Take You In; part of The Bittersweets Series

Summary:There's gorram eccentrics all over.
Rating: Call it hard R
Story Notes: Written for NWHepcat's 2004 Birthday Ficathon. Hippo birdies, sweetie.
Disclaimer: All hail Joss from whom all these characters flow
Completed: November 2004
Thanks: Wesleysgirl, Kalima, Thedeadlyhook and Dutchbuffy for betta-beta-inna-hurry

"I do like when we have passengers on Serenity," Kaylee said, licking her fingers. She was beaming, Inara noticed, at an even higher wattage than her usual. The girl was so charmingly transparent. Handsome men were to her so many gaudy Christmas presents beneath the tree. The pair they had on board now were certainly, as Kaylee liked to say, shiny. When they were around, she couldn't take her own shining eyes off them.

Their presence so enlivened Kaylee that Inara didn't have the heart to mention that she'd glimpsed them late last night, after they'd visited their luggage in the cargo bay. In the shadows beneath the stair, the tall one had pinned his friend against the bulkhead, surging against him, kissing him hard. Their groans, though they'd stifled them, had still been perfectly audible. Inara was a connoisseur of such groans.

"So do I," Mal said, stepping into the mess. "Because they pay."

"Not just that," Kaylee insisted. "They bring us things."

"Chocolate." River kept her eyes fixed on the saucepan Inara slowly stirred.

"Apples." Mal fished one from the crate the newcomers brought when they'd boarded three days ago.

"They bring us stories," Kaylee said.

"Stories? One of 'em we've barely seen, the other talks nearly not at all. It's a little creepy, I reckon. The third one boasts."

"They're not boasts, cap'n. They've had many colorful adventures. I could listen to him for hours. And it's not just the stories. They bring us excuses to celebrate, like we will tonight."

"That what you're burnin' up that chocolate for?" Mal said.

"It's not burning," Inara said. "I'm watching it very carefully."

"Birthday cake." Kaylee beamed. "They brought us all the fixin's, everythin' real, an' asked for it special. I love birthday cake. I don't even care whose it is—or even if I get a piece. I just like the whole idea."

"Those fellas asked you to bake 'em up a birthday cake?"

"They did, cap'n. Only it's for her."

Inara had been trying to figure out, since the passengers came aboard, what exactly they were to one another. They'd come, apparently, by a very round-about way, from one of the Inner Worlds, and were headed, in no direct fashion, for some vague homesteading opportunity on the Edge. She'd just about made up her mind—the sexing she'd witnessed didn't alter her supposition—that the shiny men were somehow indentured to the woman in bonds of servitude. She was silent and imperious and sour in the manner of someone used since birth to ruling her little domain, even if it was only the tiny cabin on Serenity from which she'd barely emerged since boarding. At the table, the men didn't talk about her—even the garrulous one, when asked about the lady, fell silent and looked rather slavish. They seemed, not exactly afraid of her, but elaborately cautious. Certainly beholden by some iron obligation. The two brought her meals on a tray—carefully assembled to look tempting—and the quiet one had even asked them for the loan of books she might like to read. The Shepard and Simon were most obliging, producing between them quite a stack of volumes.

"She gonna sing an' make the first cut all by her lonesome in her bunk, or you reckon she'll show her face in here with us peons?"

Inara couldn't help enjoying Mal's humorous mood, even if it was at the expense of their paying guest.

"'Course she'll show her face," Kaylee said. "I told you we're going to celebrate, didn't I?"

Inara set an extra place at the table that evening. The warm sugary smell of the cake still filled the mess, even though it was done baking. She and Kaylee had iced it (and licked the bowls) an hour ago. Now it sat on the counter, waiting to make its debut. It was the first thing each of them noticed as they filed in for dinner—Wash had to be yanked back bodily by his wife before he could dive into it face first. Jayne's habitual suspicious squint gave way to an unguarded gawp of boyish interest—until Zoe jerked him too out of temptation's way.

The dinner was steaming on the table and the whole complement assembled, gazing, hungry and curious, at the three empty places, before the passengers filed slowly in. The men came first, their Mistress after. She didn't glance towards the cake, nor did she seem aware of its aroma. Neither did she look at any of them. Her gaze was fixed on nothing, a nothing not quite at her feet, but perhaps at the level of everyone's knees. She was a small woman, almost starved-looking, eyes and lips peculiarly white-ringed, her long long plait of droopy light brown hair looped twice around her neck. Young, but with an air about her that got Inara's hackles up—she was like River, in the sense that there seemed to be something wrong with her, something undefined, denied. She strode as if she didn't like her boots, and held herself in general as if she didn't want to acknowledge where she was, or with whom.

The tall quiet man stepped ahead to draw back her chair. The smaller man, who'd regaled them with the funny improbable stories, and who talked a bit like Badger, took gentle hold of his Mistress's elbow to guide her to the table. For a moment she seemed to resist. He put his lips to her ear.

"C'mon, now. These good people are waitin' on you for their supper."

Still she balked. That's when Mal got to his feet, and to Inara's surprise, sketched a little bow from his place at the head of the table. "You're real welcome, ma'am. Do sit down."

She fixed her gaze on him, not quite startled or uncomprehending, but it was clearly the first time she'd taken any notice of the strangers who surrounded her.

"You're the captain?"

"Captain Malcolm Reynolds. As introduced when first you came aboard."

Her gaze dropped again, and Inara thought she blushed. "I ... I wasn't feeling well that day. I didn't take anything in. I'm sorry, Mr Reynolds."

"You feeling any less poorly now, ma'am?"

She looked at her servants—the hulking one, solemn and stolid, who still held the chair, and the smaller fair one, his hand still on her arm, who regarded her with a tenderness that Inara did not expect. When she turned back to Mal, she drew herself up. "Please don't call me ma'am. My name is Buffy."

Mr William Grieves, who had so entertained them at the table in the last few days, was nearly as silent now as his friend Mr Liam O'Connor. The woman—B. Summers on the ship's manifest—sat between them, stirring warm protein lumps around on her plate with a fork. Had it not been for the valiant efforts of Book and Simon and Wash, there would've been no conversation at all.

No one seemed much interested in the savory food. Awareness of the cake to follow—real, fresh—hung over the Serenity crew. When Inara slipped out of her chair, heads turned, smiles blossomed.

Grieves rose too, and followed her. "Hold up a minute there, I've got a bit of decoration for this fine thing."

Smiling, he drew a small suede sack from his pocket, from which he poured into his hand something that gleamed in the low light of the galley. A pearl necklace. beautifully graduated and matched, ending in a wink of a diamond clasp.

Inara strongly suspected it was real.

Where had a bondsman put his hands on such a thing? There were no oysters anymore, no real pearls, even cultured ones. All that had died out with Earth that was. Antiques were irreproachably costly, and rare.

"Think this'll fetch a smile," Grieves murmured, deftly arranging the necklace into the shape of a script B right on top of the sticky icing.

"Are you sure you want to do that?" Inara had to restrain herself from plucking the gorgeous thing out of the goo. It was too precious to cover in chocolate! Too precious to emerge from the rough pocket of an indentured servant. Something was wrong somewhere.

Mal would laugh at her for caring about it. Crime that didn't rob them wasn't crime worth fretting about.

"Oh, she won't mind. Just be happy to see it again."

See it again? Inara's mind spun as she struggled to make sense of this. Had the man stolen it from his Mistress? What sort of game was he playing?

"She will. You'll see. Got such a thing as a candle?"

"Only these." Inara stuck the thick taper into the center, and lit it. Together, she and Grieves carried the heavy plate towards the table. Kaylee, wreathed in glee, began the birthday song. The others joined in lustily, all except for Mr O'Connor, who kept a furtive, anxious eye on Summers.

She didn't react at all, even as the cake was set before her and the others cheered.

"See, there's a bit of a present for you, sweetness," Grieves said. "Blow out the candle now."

She stared at the cake, at the stubby candle, at the pearls glimmering hotly on the bed of frosting. Moments passed, the anticipation of the party for all that sugary yum ratcheting up by the second. Grieves and O'Connor leaned in close to her, as if she was a child needing guidance.

Inara waited for the smile.

Slowly, Summers rose from her chair. Her hands plunged into the cake like it was mud. Came up with two thick fistsful, the pearls nearly extinguished in brown glop. Thrust them—it wasn't exactly a punch—into Grieves' face.

"Oi, Slayer—leave off!"

The rest of the cake—with the heavy plate—flew across the room. Its shattering was drowned by the collective cry of dismay—oh, the beautiful cake—gone! O'Connor grabbed the woman's shoulders as she surged out again.

"How could you!" she shouted at Grieves. "How could you let this be! You're my husband!"

Husband! Inara's mind whirled to grasp this new scenario. She must know, then, about the kissing! That's what this was about!

Wiping cake from the angles of his face, the pearl necklace caught in one fist, Grieves shook his head. "Buffy—love—think. What else could we do—"

"I trusted you! To do the right thing for me, if—when—it was necessary! But you didn't! And now you're—what? Mocking me with this?" She held up her cake-smeared hands. "Spike. My birthday?"

"Buffy, we only wanted ... to give you something normal ... something nice. Nice for you." It was O'Connor who said this, his massive calm scalloped with pleading.

"Nice? I come to in a box—again—and find out its been hundreds of years and I've failed and my children are dead, my sister's children are dead, my friends' children are dead, our planet is gone. And yet you want things to be NICE?"

So, she didn't know about the kissing.

She was, instead, merely out of her mind.

"Let's have this talk later," Grieves interrupted. "Let's have it in private."

Summers laughed. Then, as if realizing for the first time that they weren't already in private, she glanced around at her audience, meeting the eyes of each astonished crewmember around the table before fixing on Mal. "You. Do you all realize how stupid you've been? You've invited vampires onto your spaceship. Bloodsuckers. Believe me, that's never good."

"What's she talkin' about?" Mal looked at Kaylee, and at Inara, as if they were responsible. "Now I got two crazy females on my boat!?"

"I'm talking about the undead. Demons." She was calm now, eerily calm. "These two are undead ... and I should be dead. If they'd done right by me, I would be. I'm not dead, or undead, or alive. What am I, anymore? What am I doing here?" Her sudden wail made them all jump. If not for O'Connor grabbing her in time, she'd have slid to the floor.

Simon was on his feet. "A sedative—carry her into the infirmary—"

"It won't help to drug her. She's only telling the truth." River swayed a little as she rose from her chair. "It's true. What she's saying. She's been immobilized too long ... and now she's waking up. It's horrible for her."

Summers glanced up. Her sobbing face was a crumpled knot. "Horrible! How can you know what's horrible! No one—no one knows ...."

"I know," River said. "Poor thing."

Recoiling from her, Summers shouted. "You guys have your own troubles! If these vampires run out of the blood they brought with them, they might go for you! Suck you dry. And don't look to me for help—I'm a failure—and I've never been able to slay those two ... " She grimaced, as if seeing things in memory too terrible to bear.

"You're not a failure," River said reasonably, nodding and smiling as if she was in complete possession of the situation. "You did your best, like always. What happened wasn't your fault. And there's no need to slay them. They're not going to hurt us."

Simon, mouth ajar, pinged his attention rapidly between the two women. "Mei Mei ... what are you talking about? What do you mean?"

"I mean just what I say. You're the one doesn't know sense when you hear it, Simon stupidhead." River's lip rolled back, a laugh flashing out. For one second, the atmosphere almost lightened. River was in charge.

Then Jayne sprang up. "Okay!" he barked. "Get both these raving looners out of my sight before I do somethin' rash!"

Much later, when the excitement was over and most had gone to their bunks for the night, Inara stole back to the galley with the idea of cleaning up. But all traces of the smashed cake were gone, the table was cleared, the kitchen tidy. William Grieves stood at the sink, gently washing the pearl necklace in a dish of soapy water.

"Really thought she'd be glad to have this again, but I guess it was too soon," he said as Inara approached. "Gave it to her when our second boy was born. She almost never took it off."

"So she is your wife." Inara watched him swirl the pearls through the water.

"Among many things, she's that." He looked thoughtful, and kept his eyes on the necklace.

Just when she thought he wouldn't speak again, Grieves said, "There's nothing wrong with her mind."

"I ... see."

"That little girl—doctor's sis—she knew all about it, sure enough. She knows all about everything. What's in all our thoughts, an' our hearts."

"It seems to be her affliction," Inara agreed.

"She's been tampered with."


"So's Buffy. Not in the same way, not by the same agency, or for the same reasons. But like the little girl, she's full of power that obligates her. Won't let her rest easy."

"If she's not ... not crazy ... then what was she talking about? Calling you and Mr O'Connor vampires, saying—" Inara paused. She'd called him Spike. That popped back into Inara's head suddenly, and distracted her for a moment. "Oh. Oh. She meant— Because you two, with each other—"

Grieves looked up, smiling. "No, that's not it. She's known me an' old Liam a long long time. Knows all our tricks an' our manners. She called us vampires because that's what we are. Usually no call to point it out, but she was exercisin' her feelings." He lifted the pearls from the brown water, turned on the tap and dangled them through the clean stream, then wrapped them gently in a dishtowel. "Slayer's ... disoriented. Not sure she wants to be here."

Slayer? "Here where?" In her confusion, Inara let the vampire thing lie where it was, though it ticked loudly. "Here on Serenity?" Were her husband and this other man transporting the woman against her will? She imagined bringing the case to Mal. Kidnapping. He might not care. Their money was good. He probably wouldn't choose to court trouble.

"Serenity. Any of this." He shrugged to indicate infinite space. "Buffy was born in 1981."


Taking the dry pearls from the towel, he fastened them around his own throat. The gleaming strand disappeared beneath his shirt collar.

Inara blinked.

"Like I said, she never took these baubles off, 'cept sometimes in bed, when we were naked, an' then she'd try them on my lily neck. Or twine 'em round my cock an' balls. Got her hot again after she'd come, to bedeck an' admire me. I'm good-looking in my skin." He was a handsome handsome man indeed, and not just that. He was possessed of the sort of charm that could exact almost anything from almost anybody, when he cared to work it. Still, Inara didn't feel he was working her. That kind of operation she could understand. This was just ... strange.

"When we retrieved her from the big battle—when they spit her back at us, more like, the way you'd spit out a cherry stone—she was locked into a magical stasis so tough an' foreign we couldn't none of us find a way through it. Enemy must've thought that would hurt us all more than just killin' her. They killed plenty enough of our band all the same, an' we were all in a disarray. My poor Slayer was battered an' broken, but she still had on her pearls. Took 'em off her an' kept 'em safe, against the day she'd put them on again with her own two pretty hands." He held them up to the light. "Kept 'em, but shortly after, managed to lose her. Had a hell of a time just gettin' off-world while there was still a world to get off of. Not so easy to keep a girl in a mystical coma in your back pocket when you've got to keep moving. We were separated from her in the midst of a confusing situation. Believed she was jettisoned somewhere, destroyed."

"When they spit her—what they? I don't understand what you're talking about." Magical stasis? He was pulling her leg. Yet he sounded so confidential, so matter-of-fact. Not like someone making up a story on the spot.

Seeing her incredulous look, he smiled again, a gentle indulgent smile. "Buffy, an' me, an' Angel—we're warriors, too. Like your Captain and his first officer."

"Warriors. Against the forces of darkness." Inara smiled back. She didn't quite know what else to do, except play along. Demons, the woman had said. Well, she certainly had them, and so, apparently, did Grieves.

"Strange as it seems."

"I don't know what to say."

"No need to say anything."

Inara considered wishing him a good night and going back to her shuttle. She could, after all, just leave that word, that silly, absurd word, 'vampire,' to lie there and tick all it liked. Nothing obligated her to take it up and make a fool out of herself with it. She felt foolish enough, just listening to this tale without protesting. They were odd people, with outlandish beliefs, but they were paying passengers, and despite the earlier scene, nothing about them pinged her sense of danger—or, more to the point, Mal's either; he'd been irritated but unconcerned after the crisis was passed. Whatever they were, he said, was none of their business, long as they behaved themselves from now on, and that was that.

She could just imagine what he'd say if she related this conversation. There's gorram eccentrics all over. Not hurting us none.

Still, she couldn't quite leave it alone. "Just tell me ... she's traveling with you of her own free will, isn't she? She's not in any way a prisoner?"

Grieves looked surprised. "Slayer's free as a bird. We couldn't hold her even if we tried. You're quite welcome to ask her."

"I won't disturb her tonight."

"Probably best. But you talk to her tomorrow. 'Spect she'd be glad of a chat with a sympathetic lady." Again he showed her his delicious smile. "Thanks for your help earlier. You're a kind lot, here. S'not so usual, this end of the system." He shrugged. "Or any end, for that matter."

As she passed towards her shuttle, Inara saw lights in the infirmary. Simon sat curled over a tablet, flicking through data faster than her eye could follow. River perched on the counter, kicking it with her big boots and looking rather smug.

Inara put her head in. "Everything all right?"

Simon glanced up, telegraphing despair. "They don't have pulses."


"O'Connor and Grieves. I took readings, on the sly, while they were in here with the woman. They have no vital signs. At all."

River grinned, thumping her bootheels harder. "There's nothing mysterious about it. They're classic vampires."

"Mei Mei, there's no such thing!"

River's laugh was musical. She made eyes at the ceiling as if it was a friend she was colluding with. "It's true they won't hurt us. Neither of them has killed to feed in centuries. They have souls."

Was the passengers' delusion affecting River's delicate mind? "Sweetheart—" Inara moved towards her.

River slid off the counter. "Wouldn't it be good to know you had a soul? And to be guided by it?" She slipped past Inara and out the door.

Buffy's cabin was empty. Angel was alone in his, sleeping heavily, his face settled into a frown of weary resignation.

Spike found her in his bunk, folded onto the bed, playing with the end of her long plait. The hair that had grown and grown for centuries, while she lay, unsuspected, in a misplaced crate in a wares unit on an obscure long-term storage moon. She smelled now of tears, sweat, and a little of Angel. He experienced a kneejerk twinge of jealousy; set it aside. Her eyes were swollen from weeping, her expression shuttered.

He still couldn't quite fathom her presence. She'd been dead and gone for centuries, and with her the existence he'd grown used to: the solace of a wife, a settled home, a circle of friends, children who were his own flesh and hers. He'd lived on multiple lifetimes, known all sorts of people places and things, but never imagined having anything like that ever again.

He came slowly down the ladder. "Hello, pet."

"The whole earth was destroyed because I failed."

"No. Not so. Not by any stretch."

They'd skirted this subject up until now. Skirted most subjects. For the first ten days after they took her away, she hadn't spoken at all, though the people at the hospital said she could. He and Angel didn't say much to her—her presence made their memories careen in a way that skirted the sickening. Everything was so fucking precarious.

"How did everyone die? Our children?"

"I'll tell you, far as I ever knew it. But not now, yeah?"

Something in her cracked a little. A gleam of realization kindled in her eye, softened her. "You're tired, Spike?"

"A bit. Too tired to think that much of my darlings who're gone." He couldn't explain either, how very very out of practice he was about remembering them.

She hung her head. "I can't keep track."

"Track of what, pet?"

"For you it was a long time ago, but not so much for me. So I forgot that you might still be sad too. I'm so ... oh Spike—everything is so strange. How can you even know me anymore?" She trembled and began to sob. He crossed the small distance from the ladder to her side, gathered her into his arms. Holding her, he was moved by the strong beating of her heart. Five hundred thirty-six years old. He'd known the very moment the magic released it to beat anew. Angel did too, no need to question or compare notes. In awe and trepidation and wild hope, they'd just started off towards it, not talking about what they might find. It was six months before they could get to where she was.

He and Angel still hadn't talked about it. Their joy at reunion with her was beyond words to express, and so was their fear. Fear—for her and of her—that they tacitly declined to acknowledge by discussing. Admitting it, Spike felt, would enlarge it. In the centuries of his loose partnership and travels with Angel, she had become their cherished memory, fierce and sacred.

At last she raised her head. "I don't understand any of this new world. Worlds. I don't know how to live in this ...."

"We'll figure it out, together." He hoped this was true.

"You can't possibly be the same. I'm a burden to you. I know you can't have been waiting for me. Not this time. "

"Not waiting, pet, no. But you an' me, we're fused. 'Course I want you, same as ever."

She took this with a sly look. "What have you and Angel been doing?"

"For last four hundred years? How much time have you got?" He smiled, but Buffy's eyes went wide and haunted.

"Too much! Too much! I don't want—I never wanted—"

He waited. Wouldn't prompt her. Not to say she didn't want to live.

She breathed. He felt her gather her self-possession. "Are there still demons? Do you—"

"We do. Move from place to place, where we hear of bad things, try to make a difference. One thing's easier—these new planets, don't have the sunlight problem. We're not sure why, but it's a bonus. 'Course, it's a bonus for the bad vamps too."

"It never ends." She wouldn't look at him. "I was always afraid of this. More than anything else. Of it never being over. Never being finished. You were supposed to show me mercy."

Mercy. Funny way she had of putting things. In her rage before, over the cake and the pearls and his insistence on celebrating her life, she'd railed at him about trust. Trusting him to do the right thing—and by that she'd meant, putting her out of her misery. Letting her go into death when death came. Maybe she'd even meant sending her to it, if it wouldn't meet her so much as half way.

"Buffy, you weren't dead. We tried to break the spell, revive you, but we were on the run. Had no idea how long you'd be under, but world was ending, everything was chaos, we had to keep moving. No time to research, to get help ... An' then we were separated from you, an' ... we've never forgiven ourselves. How we bungled it." Someday he'd tell her about the decades lost to that post-debacle guilt and despair. Decades when he'd almost gone feral again. The sickness that came of being too free.

"Angel said it wasn't your fault."

"Did he? Well, it wasn't his either. Just events we couldn't control. Buffy, I'm sorry. Sorry how it turned out. I'm glad though that I'm still here for you—that we both are. And so pleased—beyond pleased—to see you again."

She got up. Went to the sink in the corner, stared at herself in the mirror. "How do you stand it?" she said, staring, staring, staring into her reflection. "You and Angel, how do you stand it? Never aging, changing, dying. It's inhuman."

Well, we're not human. And neither, anymore, are you. "What did he say when you asked him that?"

"He didn't. He kissed me."

Poof could be a bloody coward sometimes. Still, that would be the first she'd permitted either of them to touch her since they'd found her, a few weeks ago, in that fifth-rate nuthouse. Spike hoped that was a good sign.

"Buffy, what can I say? No easy answers. Takes some getting used to. Won't pretend I don't have some bad times. But you know me—I love life. Experience. All the little details an' dramas. I'm always curious, yeah? That's what keeps me goin'. That an' love."

"You love Angel now."

"We both love you."

"How can you? I'm ... ancient history."

"It won't feel like this always, pet. We'll look after you, an' you'll look after us. Find ourselves a new home base somewhere. Friends, who'll fight with us." As he spoke, the words formed shapes and flavors in his mouth; he couldn't decide if they were incredibly banal, even offensive, or if they were simple and real and true. This situation, her anguish, his own uncertainty, was enormous—too big to map yet. Eons since he'd been her husband. All the conversations he'd had with her in his mind while she was absent, and in his dreams ... they didn't count. Her very familiarity was eerie, almost off-putting. "Maybe Powers That Be'll even give us a new family eventually, once we're settled somewhere."

He winced at himself for saying these things. When she protested with a shudder, he was relieved. Too soon by far to contemplate it, though they'd never had any control anyway over the Powers' capricious life-bestowing gifts. Hard enough to recall the children—the grown ones with children and grandchildren of their own, and the one who was still small when the battle began. Every one of them, little stitches to bind him and Buffy to the human continuum.

None survived. He'd lost the habit of saying their names over to himself. Forgotten quite what they looked like. Certain details blurred, and he didn't resist the blurring. He had no mementos of any to sharpen his backward focus.

Following her, he smoothed her hair.

"I know you're afraid. But, turns out you're unsinkable, Buffy. I've got to say there's no bad there. Here you are again to make me glad."

She let him draw her around, kiss her bony white forehead. Her tears dropped onto his hands where he cupped her face. "Does this really make you glad?"

He gathered her closer. Forehead to forehead. Her breath faint against his face. "We never let you slip away from us, Buffy. Angel an' me, we talked about you, we kept you in our hearts. You inspired us, helped keep us on our paths."

"Oh God—I was really dead. You believed I was dead, and—"

"An' no one ever came to take your place for me. Not in my mind, or my heart. You know how I love. Know what's in me that always belongs to you."

"Spike ... it's too much. Time, it's too big ...."

"Sssh. Time's just time. Take it minute by minute."

"I can't ...."

"You made me a man, an' I am your man. Long as I exist. Don't leave me now, Buffy. My pretty wife."

She looked at him. It felt like the first time, since they'd tracked her down on Londinium, that she'd really let herself see him, let him see her. She searched him, breath held. Then her arms came up around his neck.

"I don't know whether I can do this, Spike. Even minute by minute. But right this minute, okay ... I'd like you to be glad."

She cracked a smile when he took off his shirt to reveal the pearls. The smile loosed two last tears to track down her ashen cheeks. He offered the necklace to her again, but she made him leave it where it was. He deliberately didn't ask himself whether this was a rejection or not. It was too hard to think of. He wouldn't speak the name of the son whose birth the pearls commemorated, the son who had been all the good things that their first son was not. Neither did she.

Her body was pale as his own, the ribs stark, the shadowy dips nearly green in their chalky whiteness. Seeing her breasts and belly, her pouting sex, so long untouched, unseen, nearly bloodless and dry, filled him with pity and despairing wonder. He said nothing of that. He'd always feared magic, its implacable cruelty, more than he even liked to admit. He didn't understand the magic that had ensnared her, or why it had at last given way.

Caressing her at first seemed awkward and too deliberate. Trepidation tamped down his desire. He hadn't touched a woman since her—when he strayed from Angel, as they both did, sometimes for years at a time, it was always with other men. Neither of them had ever questioned this.

Buffy was quiet, almost passive, so that he couldn't at first escape a sense that he was trying to possess an effigy. She seemed surprised to have a body, surprised at its sensations.

Later on, it got easier. She found her voice, her demand. When he filled her, she grunted and surged back. She was strong and insistent, as she'd always been. Whispered the old nasty words to him in the old way—of course they weren't old to her. The thrill of her breath against his ear, her little teeth nipping at him as she urged, set him alight. When he tasted her cunny again, its long-lost scent and flavor blossoming on his tongue, racing through his senses in a tidal wave of recollection, Spike wept. It was really Buffy. Parts of his lover's psyche, his humanity and manhood that had gone dormant at her loss, sprang back into force as she took him. She made him feel proud, the way no one else ever had.

They fucked for a long time, different ways. They tried a couple of times to settle to rest, but Buffy couldn't let him go.

Towards morning, Angel looked in for him, and seeing him spooned against Buffy at last asleep, made to withdraw. But she opened her eyes and gestured to him. After some nearly wordless negotiation, Spike watched her, in a kind of silent rapture, give herself to Angel. She was so small beneath him, her face and Angel's so solemn. His jealousy, he realized, wasn't there. He was only moved to see them become lovers again. This meant they were equal now, all three, equally bound to each other.

Afterwards, she rested on them both.

"I'm glad," she said, fingering the pearls around his neck, "that my wretched birthday is over."

Spike got up on one elbow, fumbled with the catch of the necklace. Angel reached across and got it open.

He held Buffy's hair up off her neck while Spike encircled it with the pearls. They admired them, and her, together.

"That's you all right again." Spike hoped he was saying something true.

"Ah, look at her," Angel said.

He kissed Buffy's nape, as Spike kissed her mouth. They settled down again, twined together around her slender warmth. Spike was relaxed at last, though the bed was nearly too small for three. They weren't out of the woods, far from it, but he dared to believe now that she wouldn't desert them.

Buffy was found, and wouldn't be lost anymore.

"What are you doing?" Inara whispered. She leaned over the catwalk rail to see where Simon, below, directed his bobbing flashlight beam. "You aren't opening that!"

"Sssh," Simon said. "I need to see what's in their crate. I need to know it isn't what River says. It can't be."

"But—" Inara glanced over her shoulder. What if they were caught? It was this time of night when the two men had come to the cargo bay before.

"If I can tell her that they aren't traveling with a big case full of blood—for God's sake—then she'll stop insisting they're vampires!" Simon pried the lid off the wooden box, to reveal the top of a large sealed cooler that fit neatly inside. This yielded, giving up a cold cloud of condensation. "I can't help what the Summers girl says, but River doesn't have to collude in her madness, just because she feels sorry—" The mist cleared. Simon played the light over stack upon stack of plastic packs of ruby liquid.

Inara broke the brief silence. "That ... doesn't prove anything. Synthetic blood probably fetches a top price on the outer worlds. They're smuggling it."

"They're smugglers." Simon stared.

"Must be."

"But—" He gestured mutely at the box.

Enough of this, Inara thought. This was getting ... weird. "Simon. You're a physician. What is it physicians say, when they're diagnosing? That when you hear the thunder of hoofbeats, you don't first assume zebras."

"Yes, only—"

"They're horses, Simon. Of course, they're only horses. Just like us. Trying to stay free in this difficult world."

"Horses that smuggle. Not ... not zebras that drink blood to stay ... animate."

Inara forced herself to laugh. "Doctor! Listen to yourself!"

Stories, Kaylee had said. Passengers brought stories. He'd certainly told her a story, that Mr Grieves.

But that's all it was, Inara thought. Some kind of a crazy gorram story.

Below, Simon sighed, and began to reseal the crate. "I know it seems absurd to you ... and it is ... but since River and I have been on Serenity ... I've encountered more zebras than I ever thought possible." He sat down hard on the wooden lid to shut it. "Living out here, it changes what you expect."

"It suppose it does," Inara said, still sympathetic in her confusion. "Good night, Doctor Tam."

"Good night, Miss Serra."

Author's Afterword: So, obviously, this is a BtVS story as well as a Firefly story. It fits into the Bittersweets continuum—which I didn't say above so as not to spoil the reveal. But let's call it a possibility for their future, rather than a certainty. I just wanted to try out a bunny here. If this is your first foray into my fic and you're not familiar with the Bittersweets saga, my series of S/B tales which veers off from canon after "Wrecked" in season 6, you're probably wondering how Buffy got to be 536 years old. I refer you to the tale What's It To Be? in which we learn that post-resurrection, Buffy did in fact "come back wrong," in the sense that she's now not entirely human, and is likely to be extremely long-lived, if not actually immortal. The series also explains how it is that Spike and Buffy became parents, and is, I'm told, a rollicking good read, so do try it.

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