All About Spike
Chapter: 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15

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The Blood Is the Life
By Nan Dibble

Sequel to Blood Kin

Description: Follows directly from the end of Blood Kin. Now AU. The Hellmouth is shut, the First defeated. Spike, Buffy, Dawn, and the remaining SITs must deal with new challenges--Buffy, about her role as Slayer and partnership with Spike; Spike, about the horrible (to him) prospect of becoming a champion of the PTB and about whether to claim the role of the active Master Vampire of Sunnydale; Dawn, about whether and how to grow up and handle an intense but angsty romance (sort of) with vampire Michael. S/B, Spike-Dawn friendship. Rating R, chiefly for violence and profanity.

Disclaimer: All canonical characters belong to Joss Whedon/Mutant Enemy, to which be all praise. No profit expected, only more Spikelove for everyone.



Chapter 1: Aftermath

“For heaven’s sake, Spike, come on!” Dawn whined, hopping at the bottom of the basement stairs, head turned away to look back over her shoulder to the hallway above. “You’re gonna miss them!”

It was a good opportunity to drop the locket chain over her head.

“What’s this?” Dawn demanded, grabbing his arm with one hand and lifting the locket with the other, grimacing and rearing her head back as if the trinket smelled.

“An amulet, sort of,” Spike responded, resisting being dragged. “Charm. Something Red made up. Got one of my own, see?” He fished the chain out of the neck of his black T-shirt and showed the corresponding locket to her. “You just keep that on, Bit. For protection.”

“Why? The First’s been shut out, the Hellmouth’s closed. What do I need-- Oh, never mind, just come on! They’re leaving!

“Then you’d best hurry and get back to wave them off, hadn’t you?”

She glared at him. He met her eyes calmly and didn’t budge.

Dawn demanded snarkily, “You gonna be tiresome about this?”

“S’daytime out.”

“Sure, like you never did a sprint with a blanket!”

“Not inclined to do that now. Got other business,” Spike said, turning away.

“What business?” Dawn challenged.

“Mine. You go wave to the children if you want, bid ‘em fucking bon voyage. Got nothing to do with me.”

“But it does, Spike. And you know it does. For once in your unlife, do the right thing.”

That stung somewhat, but not enough to make him change his mind. Nothing required that he present himself to let this final bunch of departing SITs go all weepy over each other, their leavetaking, him. Spike hated goodbyes and hated weeping girl children worse. Time for them to go. Let ‘em go.

Fucking human rules. Nobody gonna make him mind them anymore. Not even Bit.

Time, tide, and departing SUVs waited for no man. Dawn flapped her arms once in defeated exasperation and dashed away up the stairs. Absently rubbing the smooth metal of the locket, Spike wandered to the other end of the basement and flopped on one of the circle of couches there. He scooped up the current paperback from the floor, found his place, and started reading. The only light was two candles on a cabinet way off by the bed at the other end of the basement. Rather than light one nearer or turn on the track lighting he loathed, he subsided to game face, frowning yellow-eyed, trying to catch up the thread of the plot.

Generally, midafternoon, he’d be asleep. But even though he refused to see the SITs off, their departure was unsettling. Everything changing around him. He didn’t like it. “Stupid bints. Never asked ‘em to come. They want to go, no concern of mine. Nothing for them to be hanging about for anyway. Stupid damn bints.”

Slayer hadn’t told him yet what she figured to do, now that the Hellmouth was closed. Maybe nothing. Maybe just the two of them, patrolling, like it’d been before. That could be good…. Not like there weren’t still vamps in Sunnydale, after all, and considerable other strangeness to be sorted. Not many people left, that was true, but they’d drift back, need protecting. Only stood to reason. But she hasn’t said.

Maybe without all the teenaged Slayers in Training to feed and all, nobody but herself and Dawn to be seen to, maybe she’d want to start college again, the way the witch had. Council of Watchers all blown to hell, likely a ton of money sitting someplace in numbered accounts: maybe Rupert could come up with somewhat for that. Have to remember to ask, next time Rupert called to report progress and itinerary, escorting the foreign SITs in batches back to various wherevers….

If that was what she wanted, college girl, maybe he could help, find some sort of night work and chip in. Things were so slow with the town half depopulated, Anya always complaining about it. But Buffy hadn’t said. And Spike didn’t want to ask her, in case whatever she had in mind didn’t have any place or role for a pet vampire. Not as if he was some fucking American, work ethic, come all to pieces without a regular job, a set routine. None of that. Wasn’t as if he had nothing to do with himself if he didn’t have SITs to train, look after. Lots of things to do. Didn’t need much by way of money, just for himself, never had. Blood. Liquor. Smokes. Blood, that was gonna become a problem again, maybe, with the obliging children gone, willingly sharing with him in set rotation. Going back to that wretched foul dead pigs’ blood, that didn’t even bear considering. Like he was goddam Angel, which he wasn’t, nothing like at all, regardless of the soul.

There was an active Hellmouth in Cleveland, it seemed. Maybe she’d want to relocate there. Being the Slayer was real important to her. So maybe she’d want to take the show on the road, take the Scoobys or leave ‘em behind. Just the two of them again, doing whatever nasties showed their faces of an evening. Didn’t think he’d ever been in Cleveland nor she out of California. Bit of a change, maybe she’d like that. But she’d miss her friends. Miss the places and the ways she knew. Miss goddam Angel: back in L.A. again but only a couple hours’ drive away in case she felt like visiting and like that. Excellent argument in favor of Cleveland…. And of course they couldn’t leave Bit behind, went without saying. Maybe he shouldn’t have been so quick to piss Bit off, her wanting him to go play hugs and fond fucking goodbyes with the departing children being taken off and delivered to the bus station or the airport, a few more every day and this lot, now, about the last of them and Casa Spike so quiet, hardly any great galumphing girls pounding down the hallway overhead….

Maybe if Bit wasn’t too pissed off, she could sort of test the waters, like--see which way the wind was blowing, and he not have to ask anything directly at all. Only stood to reason, the Slayer’s sister and all, she’d want to know and have the right to ask. Not like him, with no connection beyond the loving her so hard, all knotted up and practically paralytic with it sometimes, hanging in endless suspense for her response, her consent, her shimmering, happy acceptance that he always felt a hungry space left open for, deep inside him. No rights at all according to how humans figured things or seemed to.

In the near darkness the words were hard to see, even with the greater acuity his vampire aspect granted. All the uncertainties spinning around in his head made it even harder to concentrate: he’d read the same page at least twice. Now he had the lockets in place, for himself and Bit, each containing and protecting a magicked clay wafer that Red had assured him would prevent anything whatever from messing with his head (or Bit’s), maybe it was safe to let go his stubborn vigilance. Maybe he could sleep without dreaming.

It had been two days since the last dream and therefore two days since he’d slept….

Presence woke him. Kim…and Kennedy, just seating themselves on the carpeted rim of the conversation pit more or less opposite. Chubby Kim put down a candle she’d brought from the bed area. Spike was pleased at how well the SITs knew their manners: knew enough to keep their distance and not make a noise about themselves in the presence of a sleeping Master Vampire. He sat up and rubbed his eyes, shifting back to human aspect, easy with them as they were with him because they’d learned each other’s ways well enough, even allowing for Kennedy’s unstated but apparent animosity. She didn’t like vamps. Or didn’t like him. And Spike didn’t care. All peaceable.

“So,” he said to Kim, “the bints get off all right, did they?”

Kim didn’t say anything. She looked nervous. Kennedy was staring at him, a grim, challenging look.

Kennedy said, “Spike, I want to make a deal with you.”

“That a fact. What kind of a deal, pet?” He knew she hated his putting nicknames to them: treasure, pet, love. Too fucking bad about what she hated. Kennedy wasn’t among his favorite people for a hundred miles roundabout. Yet they had an understanding. Spike had saved her life at least once and she’d come up with the plan that let him feed on the SITs by consent. So he waited, still all peaceable, to hear her out.

“It’s like this,” said Kennedy. “I don’t want to go. And Willow thinks I should. Or she’s convinced herself to say I should. Anyway.” She clasped her hands and then threw them apart. “The issue isn’t money. I have that. Quite a lot of it, and it’s mine. Doled out quarterly from a trust fund until I’m twenty-one, but still mine. Now that we’re all disbanded, I could get a place here myself and stay. That’s not the issue. I need a reason. Something besides Willow, that Willow would accept.”

“A pretext,” chipped in Kim, and then looked upset to have spoken and bent her head.

Spike frowned because Kim was among the bravest of the children and one of the most determined fighters. There was muscle under the baby fat and she never spared herself in the training. Never whined or complained. After the arrangement had been made, Kim was the one who’d come first, to let him feed from her, when no one else was willing. Spike didn’t like seeing her make little of herself. Didn’t like to see her frightened.

He thought that if he asked her, she’d just refer him back to Kennedy, nearly hiding behind the taller, more self-assured girl; so he didn’t let on he’d noticed. “So how do I come into this?”

“There’s two others that want to stay,” said Kennedy. “Amanda, she lives in Sunnydale anyway, that’s not a problem. Kim. And Rona.”

“Rona’s from…New Jersey,” Spike recollected. “And she was in today’s batch for the bus station.”

“No,” said Kennedy. “Well, she was, but she didn’t go.”

“She hid out,” Kim muttered in a way that gave Spike severe misgivings.

“Where?” he demanded.

Kennedy made a dismissive gesture. “Doesn’t matter, just listen to me here.”

“Where, Kim?”

Kim had her eyes shut, twisting her hands together. “It will be OK, really. Likely he’s just asleep anyway and we know him, Spike.”

Fucking hell: the chit had hidden out at Casa Mike--Michael’s lair. Hidden out with a vampire.

Spike said, “What time is it,” staring at the ceiling, trying to feel the angle of sun, which was absurd, he could tell it was still daylight out by the faint tingling of his skin that he was free of only underground with earth between, like the basement of his old crypt or in the sewers or tunnels.

“About five,” said Kennedy, “but Spike--”

Pitching the book, Spike went fast toward the bed to grab a blanket, the two girls trailing along. “Settle this later,” he said, leveling a finger at Kennedy, “but for now, you mind. Get over there, quick as you can, make sure she’s all right, and get outside, into the light. Go.

Things might be falling apart, but his children still knew how to behave, how to take an order and move. The two of them ran and Spike on their heels as far as the front door, stopping there to locate the shadows of trees he could use for cover. Only two, and nearly a block’s distance to cross. He could wait, go to a window and see who came out. But no: Michael was his responsibility too and though Kim could be trusted to hold back and decide, he didn’t trust Kennedy’s judgment in that respect. And if anybody was gonna dust the lad, it should be him.

He gathered the blanket over his head and ran for the first pool of shadow.

The two SITs had had the sense to leave the front door ajar. Spike burst inside smoking and swearing, taking in the scene at a glance, then continued through the front room to the kitchen, pressing folds of blanket against his burned right arm until he could thrust it under cold water from the faucet. Then he ducked his head to ease the heat on his ear and the side of his face. Stood and turned and sighed, dripping and blinking, regarding the three guilty-looking embarrassed SITs and the tall, broad vampire rising from the couch where he’d obviously been sleeping.

“No harm,” said Mike, lifting open hands. “I told Rona she could stay if she wanted. Wouldn’t nobody look for her here. Except they did, of course.” Mike put on a medium smile, his wide-set, light eyes calm. “No need to fry yourself.”

Spike leveled a finger at Rona, and the tall black girl came forward, looking at once sullen, frightened, and defiant. Then she glanced at the blisters coming up on Spike’s arm and hung her head, saying, “Didn’t mean to bother nobody. Or for nobody to get hurt. Wasn’t no need.” Then, obeying the finger, she stood right in front of Spike, and he took her hands.

“Rona, you know better. Michael’s had his leavegeld and he’s free. Not beholden to you or me or anybody. He could take you in a flash if he had a mind to, and he wouldn’t think twice about it then or ever. Now isn’t that so.”

“But we been, like, friends--” Rona protested.

“Only like friends. T’isn’t the same, Rona. That’s done now.”

Rona drew her hands away and set them on her hips. “Sure: that’s why you caught yourself afire to make sure baby vamp wasn’t snacking on me! Cause you don’t care, we’re not your pack anymore, it’s nothing to do with you. Sure, and you’re the world’s terrible liar, Spike. Everybody knows that.”

Spike looked past the SITs to the other vampire, who’d been his minion and nearly his childe for awhile. “Michael, you have any reason not to eat Rona?”

“Not hungry just now,” Mike replied calmly.

“Give it another few hours: how about then?”

“Then, maybe. Wouldn’t say no. Save me the hunting. But mostly I like the hunting. So likely not. Dawn wouldn’t like it. Course, likely Dawn wouldn’t know. So I might. It would depend.”

The three SITs all stared at Mike, wide-eyed and indignant. He smiled.

“Just funning you a little. Mostly,” he said, good-natured and serene.

Spike said, “No, you’re not, Michael. Don’t tell them lies.”

Mike gave him a look. A quiet calculation. “Don’t exactly answer to you no more, Spike. Except if I want to. And I mostly want to. Want to stay friends with you and Dawn, as best I can. No need to get into power games, you and me.”

Spike dropped into a chair. “You’re all such fucking fools. Dunno what to do with any of you.” Morosely, he lit a cigarette and breathed smoke on a sigh.

Kennedy took that as a signal to launch back into her interrupted argument. As Mike and Kim settled companionably on the couch and Rona came to lean against the back of Spike’s chair, all close warm girlsmell, bloodsmell, Kennedy began pacing and declaiming in the middle of the floor. “Even with the Hellmouth shut, there will still be a need for sweeps, patrols. Something will come up. Something always comes up. Give me a reason to stay that Willow will accept.”

“And you’ll do what?” Spike inquired, trying to sound noncommittal, neutral.

Kennedy wheeled and folded her arms. “I’ll pay you. I’ll pay the keep of Kim and Rona and you can pretend it’s from you. Pretend anything you like.”

“Please, Spike,” said Kim softly. “I’m good at this. I’ve never been good at anything before. I don’t want to leave it.”

Behind him, Rona leaned and muttered, “Whatever, I ain’t goin’ back to what I came from. Not gonna whine about it, just telling you. I’d sooner be turned than go back.”

“Michael, did Rona say anything about you turning her?”

“Might have.”

“You ever do that and I’ll dust the both of you. Just putting you on notice here. Rona. Shut the door.”

As Rona went wordlessly to do as she’d been told, Spike returned to the kitchen and ran more cold water on his arm and the side of his face, then shook his head hard, trying to reconcile what was fit and proper for vampires, as against the spectacular self-centered urgencies of three teenaged girls. Four, if you counted Amanda--not yet heard from. And then Dawn of course: she’d want to stick her oar in, no question about it. That she hadn’t only meant Kennedy hadn’t confided this plot to her. Yet.

He returned to the chair. “You’re all beforehand, children. You’re trying to join a team that doesn’t exist. It all depends on what the Slayer decides, and she’s not told me anything of what she’s got in mind to do. Dunno what she’ll want with me, much less you lot.”

“Oh, I think we can guess,” said Kennedy dourly, and Kim clasped hands over a smile.

“An arrangement, Spike,” said Rona earnestly, “like we had before. You take care of us, and we’ll--”

Spike shook his head, fast and emphatic. “None of that. Not no more. Not just the three of you, wouldn’t do. No. You talk to the Slayer about what you want. She goes for it, I’ll think about it.”

“No, Spike, you got it backward,” said Kennedy. “I need a done deal to take to her. Actually, for you to take to her. Because it can’t come from me. That’s the whole point here. You have to bring it up.”

“Oh, that’s just fine,” said Spike. “And me the world’s worst liar, as everybody’s agreed. Bloody marvelous. What happens if she doesn’t buy it? You all just go your ways, or what?”

“We’ll deal with that if and when we get to it,” Kennedy said coolly. “I think the best thing is if we take the usual patrol tonight. Like always. The three of us, and you. And ‘Manda, if she wants to come. Just behave as if it’s already in effect, the way we want it to be. Your cut is $ 500 a week. Cash. In advance. Beyond reasonable expenses for the three of us. So: do we have a deal?”

Spike cocked his head, regarding her with no great favor. “And for that princely sum, exactly what is it you figure you’d be buying, pet? Me?”

Kennedy’s folded arms gripped tighter. “Spike, you’ve never liked me, and I’m not too fond of you either. But you play fair and you keep your word, and that’s good enough for me. I’d be paying for the right to stay. That’s all. No strings. I don’t consider your accepting the money as equivalent to a submission. I don’t expect to buy anything except what I’m paying for. Anything except what you’ve been doing all along. On patrol, I’ll take orders and go to the mark on your word. Fight or not, on your word. On SIT business, you’re boss. And not the Slayer. I answer to you. All of us alike. Just like it’s been. My private life, that’s none of your concern, no more than it ever was. No more than your private life is any concern of mine.”

“You break up with Willow? Is that the problem?” Spike inquired bluntly.

“No. I swear. She just assumes I’m going back where I came from, and she won’t hear anything about my staying just for her. So I need some other reason, Spike. That’s all it is.”

Kim still had her hands folded across her mouth and her eyes focused on the floor, sitting round-shouldered and anxious. Begging by not begging. And Rona’s warmth behind him, leaning on the chair back, not quite touching. But close: making him aware of her presence, the smell that fear and determination sent from her flesh that he couldn’t help but notice, and she knew enough to know that and use it. Over the months, the children had learned something of conversing with vampires in ways other than speech, and Spike had to respect that. And then there was Michael just sitting there amused at Spike’s predicament, as though it mattered to him not at all, which wasn’t anything like the truth neither.

Freed now of any obligation and yet still lairing here, still willing to regard Rona as something other than food for the moment, still considering Dawn’s reaction and Spike’s to whatever he might do. Michael had his own agenda, and Spike didn’t know what that was or if it was anything he should be concerned about.

“It all depends,” Spike said finally, “on what the Slayer wants to do. And I don’t know that. Maybe you could ask, find out. Anyway, if she calls for a patrol tonight, I’ll call you in if that’s what you want. Not promising you nothing here. You were willing before, and if you’re willing now, I don’t see any reason to turn you away. But beyond that, it’s the Slayer’s say, not mine. If she doesn’t object, I’ll consider it. Not gonna go further than that until she’s declared. Got no Mission, myself. I just tag along on whatever Mission comes up and she decides to set her hand to. And that’s hers to say.”

“Good enough,” said Kennedy, and collected her co-conspirators and led them outside. Kim turned and shut the door tightly behind them, rattling the knob to make sure the lock had caught.

Spike stretched out long in the chair, ankles crossed, rubbing his eyes. Wasn’t such a fool as to sprint a block in the sunshine if he didn’t have to. Sun would be down soon enough. He tapped cigarette ash onto the rug. Not as if this lair was anything but an abandoned house, its protection as a personal dwelling gone. If he hadn’t picked it to lodge his last batch of minions handily nearby, the scavengers would have been through and raped the place long since.

Mike inquired, “You want to come hunt with me tonight?”

Eyes drowsily half-shut, Spike glanced over at the younger vampire and then away. “I suppose. Yeah. All right.”

If they hunted together, likely Mike would hold himself short of a kill in feeding, following Spike’s example. Spike had the Slayer to feed from, maybe once a week, and that was enough. Mike had no such arrangement and wouldn’t tolerate dead animal blood in bottles any more than any self-respecting vamp would, given a choice. Terrible swill. Spike had neither the authority nor the inclination to try to stop the lad from hunting. But if he went along, likely nobody would die. At least tonight. At least on that account. Because of course people died regardless. Every day, traffic accidents killed more people than vamps did but wasn’t nobody setting up to stake Ford Echoes with bobble-headed dogs on the dash. But that wasn’t how Buffy would look at it.

Hard to know what to do, how to do. Didn’t want his tentative unspoken arrangement with the Slayer to turn into coercion for lack of another alternative. Take the joy right out of what felt like communion, like a free gift freely shared. Profound meanings entirely beyond words, deeply satisfying. As near as he could imagine to holy. Never wanted it to become a routine chore and obligation, something he required of her and she merely resigned to it. He’d give it up altogether rather than let that happen. Which meant hunting on a regular basis, now that the SITs were gone. Which both Buffy and the soul wouldn’t much like. Which he therefore was uneasy, contemplating.

He hadn’t thought this far ahead. Hadn’t thought there’d be this far ahead: he’d expected the Hellmouth to end him and been content enough with that. Never figured on having to sort the aftermath. Turned out, that’d been dumb, because here he still was, no worse than lightly singed around the edges. And the consequences just kept piling up.

Abstractedly he scratched his arm, healed enough to start itching as the burned skin tightened and drew.

Too many alternatives, too many choices to be thought through, made, and then continually reconsidered. Everything moving, shifting around him. So many of his own certainties conditional on the Slayer’s preferences and choices, that Spike wanted to leave completely free because her sense of duty left her so little freedom. He didn’t want to be more of a leech, and a problem, than he could help. Make his own way. Bring strength to their partnership, not depend on her except in the good ways.

Stretching out on the couch again, Mike commented lazily, “Be nice if Kim could stay. I’m used to Kim. And ‘Manda would miss her. They’re pretty well teamed up. Don’t care much either way about Rona nor Kennedy.”

“Yeah.”

***********

She didn’t like seeing him like this.

Returning in the SUV from delivering the SITs to their embarkation points, Buffy spotted Spike on the back porch. Asleep, his shoulder leaned into one of the posts, head bowed, chin on chest. The sleek, slicked-back cap of moonsilver hair. Exposed naked neck, always so absurdly fragile looking. She loved his neck…. He looked lost, collapsed there, undefended. Everything loose, exhausted, bent, bowed: in submission to sleep. From a distance, seeming a miniature figure she should be able to lift in a cupped palm, surround and gentle it, clasp hands warmly around like keeping safe a small treasure…. So deep asleep he didn’t wake or even twitch as she approached across the backyard’s mosaic of grass and patches the SITs had stamped bare as brick.

He’d been twitchy enough the past few days, though. Irritable, sure. That came with the package: probably hard-wired. Avoiding the SITs and the successive leavetakings like the plague. Grumping and refusing to join in conversations about them or the details and logistics of their dispersal. She understood: Spike didn’t do farewells, refused to admit to any attachments beyond herself and Dawn. But also withdrawn, mopy, elusive, unsure.

Since the Hellmouth had been closed. Since he’d done it. Since he’d been light.

She wondered if he missed it, if this was withdrawal from channeling, from being accepted into, that kind of huge bright energy. Had to leave a mark on a person, inwardly if not outwardly. According to Dawn, there’d been nothing to him but light: like an Elf Lord, she’d said, revealed in his wraith, a la Tolkien. Maybe this was what was left--the shadow cast by so much light. The ashes of such a blaze.

He hadn’t seemed quite right, quite here, since.

Settling on the step beside him, shoulder against shoulder, arm against arm, she said softly, “Hey,” expecting some reflexive protest that he hadn’t been asleep, had known she was there all along but hadn’t bothered rousing because after all it was only her, had only been resting his eyes.

Instead, he just woke, not greeting her, straightening and collecting himself close, blinking slowly at the dark. After a minute or so, he found his cigarettes and lit one. Still slow-moving, lethargic, drowsy.

Although her inclination was to push, provoke, she was learning to wait for him. Words, he’d bat back or dodge. Silence drew him.

Presently he said, “That Michael. Dunno what to do about him.”

“Do you have to do anything?”

“Well, he’s still here. Not cogged to anything about you lot. Just here.”

“And that’s a problem because…?”

A shrug. A sigh. “Don’t figure you want a vamp for a neighbor. Could run him off, if you want.”

Because his hand was occupied with the cigarette, Buffy slipped her arm under his. “If he’s anybody’s problem, he’s yours. I didn’t even know he was still around. No problem, as far as I’m concerned. Do you want to run him off?”

Another shrug. “Dunno why he stays.”

“Have you tried asking him, or would that be too simple?”

A long silence. “Best not to. Might not like the answer.” He drew on the cigarette, then let the hand fall to hang lax from the wrist, over his knee. “If Dawn doesn’t mind, I expect it’s best to let it alone.”

Buffy’s attention sharpened. “What’s Dawn got to do with it?”

Another long silence. “Nothing, likely. She hasn’t said. So likely there’s nothing.” He looked around at her. “You had your supper, love?”

“Tacos. That place by the airport. Think I’ll make some coffee, though,” Buffy remarked, rising. “You want some?”

“No,” he said, but pitched the cigarette and followed her into the kitchen anyway.

Preparing the coffee-maker, Buffy had a strong sense of his presence and the warmth of his attention on her in a way it hadn’t been, outside. Hitting the start button, she glanced around at him and gave him a smile he returned, as if her initiating it had given him permission. He shouldn’t need permission. He was waiting for something, some signal from her she hadn’t figured out yet.

She lifted her head, noticing the quiet. For months, it had impossible to be anywhere in the house except the bathroom or her bedroom without two or three SITs coming or going or standing and talking. Never alone like this. “Willow home?”

“Dunno. Haven’t seen her. Dawn’s gone over to Janice’s with algebra homework. Share the misery.”

“Just us chickens, then. I don’t know about you, but I’m too young for empty nest syndrome. For ages, I would have killed to have it this quiet. Now that I have it, I don’t know what to do with it.”

“Next catastrophe hasn’t upped and shown itself yet. When it comes, I expect you’ll know,” Spike responded casually, and Buffy considered that an odd thing for him to say.

“Is that what we’re doing? Waiting for the next apocalypse to erupt?”

As though that had been a challenge, except she hadn’t meant it that way, he retreated, withdrew. “Dunno what your priorities are, love. Expect I’ll find out.”

He left the kitchen. When the coffee was ready, Buffy poured herself a cup and followed. She found him in the front room, on the couch, flipping through the channels. Settling beside him, she reached to turn on a lamp, something he’d seldom think to do. The TV, yes; lights, no. Just another of the peculiar routines of life with a vampire, or…. “Ever think of taking up a career as a Jewish mother?”

He made an inattentive, inquiring noise.

“You know: Don’t mind me, I’ll just sit here in the dark?” She touched his arm and he flinched. She noticed then the reddened skin--there and the right side of his face. “Trying for a tan? Not a good idea.” She waited for him to explain what had prompted him to do a daylight dash, but he’d found something to hold his attention more than two seconds, a soccer game, and he turned up the volume. He didn’t need to, any more than he needed to turn the lights on, but he did anyway. He liked loud. Liked noise.

It must be achingly quiet now, over at Casa Spike. Even worse than here.

“Move back,” Buffy said suddenly. “Back here.”

Despite the play-by-play, despite the crowd noise, of course he’d heard her. He sat very still.

“No more magic whirlpool in the basement,” Buffy found herself arguing. “No more hot and cold running SITs. Not the basement, I mean. Upstairs. With me.”

He bent his head. “Yeah. All right. If you want.”

“What do you want, Spike?”

He hit the mute. Was still a minute. Then he turned toward her with his heart in his eyes. Reached and set his cool hands on her face and bent in to kiss her hard, jeopardizing the coffee until she could set it on the floor and concentrate on kissing him back, feeling the intensity and the need because he’d forgotten she had to breathe and finally had to break the kiss and turn her head aside to do so. He kept kissing her: her cheek and forehead and eyes and finally the tip of her nose as she turned back.

“Want to be with you. Want to be good for you, help you be happy. Make you happy. Dunno if I can, if I’m fit to do that. Want--”

Her mouth silenced him. She thought, So that was what he was waiting for. To be asked. Stupid insecure vampire!

Feet loudly bounced down the stairs. Spike started to pull back, but Buffy leaned into him, captured his mouth again, put her arms around him and pulled him close.

From the doorway arch behind, Kennedy’s flat voice asked, “So, are we going to do a patrol tonight?”

**********

Their patrolling muscles were stiff, Buffy thought. Two would have been nice. Six was both too many and too few. Kennedy kept claiming point, instead of either Amanda (who had to be phoned and then waited for) or Kim (who hung back and acted uncharacteristically nervous). Rona claimed rearguard, as if she didn’t want to be noticed. But since there were only four SITs, rearguard just meant that she and Kim became a de facto team, and Kennedy was paired with an irritated-looking Amanda, still officially the troop leader (though there was no longer a troop) normally with Kim as her second. Except for Buffy and Spike, nobody liked who they were with and as a result, all the SITs were in each other’s way. Their first encounter--with a Sh’narth demon, serpentine and about the length of a bus, apparently out for a stroll and a snack--was both ludicrous and dangerous. Both Kennedy and Amanda went in first and together instead of one engaging, one going for the kill. The Sh’narth bowled them both over, a tangle of limbs and weapons, and Spike had to fend it off with the two-handed axe, whereupon it turned on Kim, and Rona backed and dodged to get out of its way. Lunging, Buffy engaged with the broadsword until Spike could come in from behind the beastie and cleave through its crimson-tipped neck frill, dumping the wyrm in two unequal pieces, its stubby limbs scrabbling briefly before they stilled.

Spike set the axe-head on the ground and leaned on the haft. “Well, that certainly was nasty and incompetent.”

Kennedy and Amanda, disentangling and climbing to their feet, knew better than to say anything. Buffy, wiping her blade clean on the wyrm’s dorsal ridge, kept quiet too because the SITs, all or any of them, were Spike’s. He’d trained them, designed their moves and formations.

Amanda said bluntly, “Who’s lead here, Spike?”

Spike responded at once, “You are.”

“All right,” said Kennedy grudgingly. But then again, she always seemed to say things grudgingly, so maybe her ill grace was only her habitual sullenness.

Spike added, “And Kim’s your second. Move up, Kim.” He waited until the chunky girl trudged up and stood beside her tall, gangly partner. Kennedy, whose eyes had stayed on Spike the whole time, faded without command or comment back to rearguard, next to Rona, and waited. To Rona, Spike said, “You second Kennedy.”

Rona nodded.

Spike looked around at Buffy and started to say something, then stopped. Buffy quirked a small grin, knowing from his expression he’d been looking for Dawn, his usual adjutant. He and Buffy had rarely patrolled together, these past months, unless it was a joint sweep, combining both troops. So although they’d have been fine by themselves, with the SITs in the mix, all their habits were wrong.

Letting the axe haft tip against his shoulder, Spike expressed his frustration by pushing both hands through his hair. “Well, this is a right cock-up.”

Buffy said to Rona, curiously, “I thought you were leaving today.”

Spike cut in before the girl could say anything, which she clearly wasn’t eager to do. “Rona thought she might stay on for a bit. We’re still figuring that out. All right, different drill here. Got three teams here, all right? One, two, three.” His gestures paired himself and Buffy, Amanda and Kim, Kennedy and Rona. “Me and the Slayer, we take point. You lot flank, left and right. We don’t worry about rearguard. Think I’d hear anything coming up from behind. We come onto something, Slayer and me, we’ll engage if there’s just one. You lot, you stand clear and watch for company. Don’t get in the way, don’t leave yourselves exposed while we’re busy. All right?”

All four SITs immediately chorused, “Right, Spike.”

Spike continued, “We come onto a bunch, it’s the usual. Lead engages, second goes for the kill. We come onto something big, like we just done, Slayer and me will take it first, you lot come in behind like lead and second. Think we can acquit ourselves with something closer to competence, children?”

Instead of answering, Amanda pointed, and Spike looked around sharply. A vamp was standing by a tree. Seen, he moved a step nearer. Spike relaxed, bent his head, and sighed, and Buffy then recognized Mike by his Hellmouth souvenir T-shirt.

“What is it?” Spike asked, his tone at once irritated and resigned--not unlike the way he talked to Kennedy, when obliged to do so.

Seeing everyone standing down, Mike ambled casually up to them, surveying the wyrm with a pleased expression. “Ain’t seen one of them before. Where’d a thing like that come from, Spike?”

In a bored, lecturing voice, Spike replied, “They’re dimensional travelers. Likely making for the ocean, missed its target on the first try or got dumped short by the same dimensional instability that let it through in the first place. Would have snacked its way to the coast if we’d let it pass. Few cows, couple humans, would have done it for a snack, I expect. They mate in water. Since we’ve seen one, likely we’ll see more for awhile. That time of year, and apparently the auguries are auspicious or something the hell like that, so we get to be this year’s Acapulco, if you’re a Sh’narth.”

“Are they born like that, or do they turn into that from something else?” Mike enquired.

“They start somewhat smaller. A bit busy, now, Michael. Did you want something?”

“Maybe. Just thought I might tag along, see how you do.”

Spike looked at Buffy, and she tried to read his face to find out what answer he wanted. She read embarrassment and resignation. No hopefulness, no appeal that she could discern.

She’d never quite figured out why he felt responsible for Mike, what the connection was, except to see that it was plainly there. Spike hadn’t sired him: Angelus had. So they weren’t sire and childe. Spike had forced Mike’s submission on some point of vampire protocol, after pretty well beating his face in and breaking both his wrists and some ribs, but she understood that was all settled and done now. Spike was taking no minions and had dismissed the minions he’d had. But Mike remained, an awkwardness that Spike’s comments on the porch suggested he didn’t know how to resolve, or maybe didn’t know how he wanted to resolve. There was a clear undertone of Master Jedi and earnest padwan between them, and maybe that accounted for Spike’s embarrassment: he did not like admitting attachments, as his abrupt disengagement from the departing SITs demonstrated. But toward the ones who hadn’t left yet, the ones he still had to deal with, he was trying for something like normality, business as usual.

She gathered Spike was minimally willing to have Mike along, if Buffy didn’t object. So she shrugged, tipped the broad-bladed sword onto her shoulder, and led off.

Sunnydale’s population had been decimated during the First’s tenancy on the Hellmouth by eruptions of high weirdness and the roving Turok-han--more by leaving town than by actual predation, though there’d been quite a lot of that, too. And the local vamps were reportedly unsettled by the comparative scarcity of prey and the intrusion of the more powerful and rapacious Turok-han: divisions between claimed hunting territories lost; what passed for leadership slaughtered or prudently relocating elsewhere, or their pack structure destroyed because Turok-han hated vamps and would even turn aside from a kill to pursue and dust them; the number of fledges way down because prey was needed for feeding and not as potential competition. As Spike had put it, “The idiots leading the morons.”

In the current sweeps, Buffy was concentrating on disrupting surviving or reforming nests nearest the residential areas that remained most populous. On the weekend, she’d focus on the downtown, the areas around the bars and the theater, where stupid highschool and college students provided the easiest and most numerous prey for even the stupidest fledges.

“Might want to check Restfield,” commented Mike, joggling along to Spike’s left, naming a cemetery at least a mile back and in the other direction.

“Why is that, Michael?” Spike responded.

“Well, I was over around there last night, looking out your old crypt I heard the children speak of. Found it, too, though it’s somewhat trashed. Still could smell you on it, you been back not too long ago. Maybe you kept that area clear when you laired there, but seems there’s been nobody minding it for awhile now. Two nests, five or six vamps apiece. Scrapping a bit, haven’t yet sorted out the hunting, the two masters turning one or two a week each, trying to bulk up their numbers, get an edge. You know how it goes.”

Spike stopped, so they all stopped. “My patch,” Spike said eventually, eyes on his boots. “I can clean it out.”

He meant now. Just leaving the patrol and going. Buffy could tell by the way he stood, leaned in that direction, ready to move.

Again, he deferred to her, waiting for her ruling. This time, Buffy neither wanted to make the call nor to throw the decision back to him. Too many ramifications. Your basic can of worms and maybe some of them bus-length.

Blithely ignoring the silence and the unmade choice, Mike proposed cheerfully, “I’ll help.”

And Spike went at him, grabbing his throat and holding him at stiff-arm’s length, glaring, gone suddenly to game face, shouting, “You’ll do no such thing, Michael. No need for you to be a pariah, you’re not chipped and fucking helpless, go after your own, kill vamps on behalf of your bleeding food. My fucking patch, and you stay clear of it, you hear me?”

Frowning but unshifted, Mike croaked placatingly, “On your side--”

“I got no fucking side, mate! So you can’t be on it! Don’t need your help. Don’t want it. Don’t want you anyplace around me or what’s mine, you get that? Now fuck off and stay the hell out of my sight!”

Though Mike was taller, broader, heavier, Spike in a white-hot fury was nothing anybody sane would want to confront. When Spike pitched him away, actually throwing him airborne at least a dozen feet against a lamp post his head bonged against, Mike tipped forward and went down on a knee and one braced arm like a linebacker, as if the next second he’d launch himself back and the two vampires would go at it. Spike was readying himself for that, setting his stance and choking up on the axe haft. Although Buffy wasn’t sure what had set Spike off, she didn’t like the situation and took charge of it. She set herself between, taking her own stance side-on, sword angled low with the point nearly touching the ground, looking Mike straight in the eyes. Making the odds so ridiculously uneven, since Mike was bare-handed, that nobody but Spike would have gone against them and not even Spike unless he was in a blind, heedless rage. She could practically feel him blazing behind her and halfway expected he’d try to shove her aside, remove her from the standoff, remove any implication she was protecting him or had any business between.

Before still another layer of insanity could be added, Mike straightened with both hands raised, palm out, staring past her at Spike, his still-human face showing no emotion and nothing at all of whatever was going on in his head. He backed two steps, then turned and walked deliberately away, vanishing beyond the first building he came to, a freestanding garage, and gone.

Buffy relaxed from her stance and turned, hand on hip. Spike had already tipped the axe onto his shoulder, his back to her so she couldn’t tell if he’d dropped game face, and was starting away at a strutting, edgy gait. All the SITs looked from him to Buffy, gaping and unsure whether or not they were supposed to follow. They’d never seen Spike erupt like that, joylessly and for no apparent reason. Buffy had, but not for at least a year. Not since the soul. Not once.

Before Buffy was sure what Spike thought he was doing, what any of them were doing, or where he was headed, he whistled sharply, a single note through his teeth, and ended a full arm wave, back to front, with a pointing finger. Thus summoned, the SITs jogged after him, trading mutters and uneasy glances.

Seeing that he was continuing in the designated direction of the patrol, not doubling back toward his long-abandoned crypt, Buffy shouldered the sword and took longer strides, passing among the SITs until she and Spike were moving level. He glanced at her: just his normal face, with the least hint of a smirk: a perversely feral expression that showed no teeth; the scarred eyebrow briefly lifted. That smirk was another throwback. Although she’d seen that expression countless times, it went back years. To the beginning, even. It went with sardonic, opaque, cobalt eyes blocking everything behind. It was a wall. A shield.

She’d never gotten past it. He’d only been enticed out from behind it--initially, against his will and certainly against hers.

Refusing to give the appropriate reaction--punching him solidly in the nose--Buffy returned his look as blandly as she could, being Adult, Sensible Buffy. “So what’s gonna get done about Restfield?” Carefully, she didn’t specify by who.

“Oh, I expect it’ll get cleared out in its turn. Sometime.”

He hadn’t specified either. Hadn’t jealously claimed that chore as his, like he had with Mike. So maybe it hadn’t been about Restfield at all, between him and Mike. Buffy decided to store it all for later sorting. She certainly wasn’t gonna go after him about it in front of the SITs. But there was a hot button buried there somewhere--that, at least, she was sure of.

Changing topic, she proposed, “After we get back, we can get you moved,” and waited to find out if he’d slide off, evade committing himself this time.

The smirk only settled and became a little less defensive, a little more real. “Might as well. If that’s what you want. Got no other pressing plans.”


Continued in Chapter 2: Cat’s Cradle

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